On Re-Reading a Modern Classic

The Making of the Atomic Bomb”, by Richard Rhodes, ISBN 978-1-4516-7761-4, 838 pages (1986).

It was interesting to see Civil Westman’s recent comment that he is reading this book. I first read it shortly after it was published in 1986. It made a sufficiently deep impression on me that I made a pilgrimage to Los Alamos to see where the bomb was built and later to the Trinity Site in the Jornada del Muerto where the first nuclear explosion took place. When a few weeks ago I belatedly came across a copy of the “25th Anniversary Edition” (time flies!), it seemed like a good opportunity to re-read it.

It is a hefty dense well-written 800+ page tome. Rhodes’ exhaustive tale begins back in the 1890s and dwells at length on the academic infighting, the politics, and the bureaucracies associated with the slow advance of atomic science and the eventual development of nuclear weapons. The part of the book which had made a lasting impression on me on first reading was Rhodes’ description of this fumbling progress towards the understanding of atomic and nuclear physics, culminating in his awesome description of the Trinity test.

Rhodes’ account goes deeply into the mechanics of the atomic bomb. For example, he described how it was not possible to rely on Mother Nature to provide a neutron at the right time to initiate a nuclear chain reaction. If a random neutron from radioactive decay did not show up at exactly the right microsecond, the nuclear bomb material would simply melt and fizzle instead of exploding. An initiator was required in the center of the bomb assembly which would reliably produce neutrons when compressed.

By great chance, some months after reading the book, I happened to have dinner with an older English scientist who had been part of the British team seconded to Los Alamos during WWII. He was astonished that Rhodes mentioned matters like the initiator – things which he thought were still confidential after all these years.

This long book contains many interesting elements beyond atomic physics, such as the tale of the Norwegian commando who almost single-handedly dealt a heavy blow to the German nuclear program by sinking the ferry carrying most of the European supplies of heavy water … and causing the collateral drownings of about 20 Norwegian citizens. And the tale of the request from the Manhattan Project to the US Treasury for up to 10 tons of silver for the wiring at the Oak Ridge plants – the Treasury Department’s sniffy response was “our unit is the Troy ounce”.

The isolated Los Alamos laboratory hired a legion of young women with the job title of “computers” to do all the necessary tedious arithmetic calculations. Some of these young women recognized a business opportunity in their off-time through providing services of a personal nature to the army of young bachelor scientists who were confined along with them in Los Alamos. When the US Army realized what was happening, their first response was that those young women should be fired. But cooler heads prevailed, and it was recognized there were benefits in letting young scientists play with computers.

Rhodes’ book is packed with details about scientific Big Names – Curie, Einstein, Fermi, Oppenheimer, and many more. But the book also conveys the reality that those giants were supported by vast communities of inventive hard-working people, such as the chemists who worked in the dark developing micro-analytical procedures to isolate, purify, and characterize the trace amounts of nuclear elements that were available in the early days of the Manhattan Project. As someone once said, it takes a lot of people on the ground to keep a high-flyer in the air.

One of the elements emerging from the book is there was essentially no secret about the potential for nuclear weapons. Indeed, the hydrogen bomb was first conceptualized by a scientist in Japan. About the only person who was kept in the dark about nuclear weapons seems to have been Vice President Truman. The real issue about building an atomic bomb was not secret scientific knowledge; rather it was the physical capability to marshal immense industrial and human resources.

The Manhattan Project was successful because of the vast industrial infrastructure which the US had in the early 1940s. When Rhodes was researching this book in the early 1980s, the US was still the leading industrial nation with world class academic institutions. Now, four decades further on, academia has pitifully degenerated and much of that industrial capacity has gone. Companies that played vital roles in supporting the Manhattan Project may still have corporate offices and shock troops of attorneys in the US, but their design & manufacturing capabilities are now in places like China.

Rhodes book is still well worth reading. But my re-reading left me with a sense of sadness that today’s US could not match what the 1940s US achieved. The excitement from my initial reading is gone. Now, on re-reading, the book conveys a tragic sense of former greatness having slipped from our hands. The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.

4 Likes

Love it. Good to see witty prose.

1 Like