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Churchill's Bomb: A Hidden History of Science, War and Politics [Hardcover]

Graham Farmelo
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
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Book Description

3 Oct 2013

The author of the Costa award-winning biography The Strangest Man offers us a strikingly fresh view of Winston Churchill's long political career.

Churchill was the only prominent politician to foresee the nuclear age and he played a leading role in the development of the Bomb during World War II. He became the first British Prime Minister with access to these weapons, and left office following desperate attempts during the Cold War to end the arms race.

Graham Farmelo traces the beginnings of Churchill's association with nuclear weapons to his unlikely friendship with H. G. Wells, who coined the term 'atomic bombs'. In the 1930s, when Ernest Rutherford and his brilliant followers, such as Chadwick and Cockcroft, gave Britain the lead in nuclear research, Churchill wrote several widely read newspaper articles on the huge implications of their work.

British physicists, in 1940, first showed that the Bomb was a practical possibility. But Churchill, closely advised by his favourite scientist, the controversial Frederick Lindemann, allowed leadership to pass to the US, where the Manhattan Project made the Bomb a terrible reality. British physicists played only a minor role in this vast enterprise, while Churchill ignored warnings from the scientist Niels Bohr that the Anglo-American policy would lead to a post-war arms race. After the war, the Americans reneged on personal agreements between Roosevelt and Churchill to share research. Clement Attlee, in a fateful decision, ordered the building of a British Bomb to maintain the country's place among the great powers. Churchill inherited it and ended his political career obsessed with the threat of thermonuclear war.

Churchill's Bomb is an original and controversial book, full of political and scientific personalities and intrigues, which reveals a little-known side of Britain's great war-leader.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber (3 Oct 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571249787
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571249787
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 16 x 5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 139,003 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Graham Farmelo is a By-Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge, and an Adjunct Professor of Physics at Northeastern University, Boston, USA. He edited the best-selling It Must be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science in 2002. His biography of Paul Dirac, The Strangest Man, won the 2009 Costa Biography Award and the 2010 Los Angeles Times Science Book Prize.

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Product Description


A story as gripping as it is elegantly argued ... a wonderful companion piece to one of the most authoritative books on this subject, Richard Rhodes's epic 'The Making of the Atomic Bomb'. (Lisa Jardine Financial Times)

An excellent book ... Farmelo is a splendid word-portraitist, and his book charts the odysseys, geographical as well as scientific, of the men who played a key role in developing the bomb ... authoritative and superbly readable. (Max Hastings Sunday Times)

Graham Farmelo's very fine book ... illuminates the nexus between science, politics, war, and even literature better than anything I have read for some time. The issues it raises are both eternal and especially pressing now. It is not yet Book of the Year time but this has to be a contender. (Peter Forbes Independent)

Dazzling ... Farmelo, prize-winning biographer of the physicist Paul Dirac, recounts this important story with skill and erudition. (Piers Brendon Guardian)

Splendid and original ... in interweaving the political and scientific, Farmelo succeeds in making the latter beautifully clear even to readers with scant background in the subject. (Times Higher Education A W Purdue)

Scrupulously researched and superbly written ... Churchill's Bomb is a powerful and moving contribution to literature about the 20th century and to biographical and historical writing. (Vin Arthey Scotsman)

Graham Farmelo is the author of an outstanding biography of Paul Dirac, the most eccentric of the 20th-century geniuses to whom we owe our understanding of the atom.Churchill's Bomb tells an even more dramatic story, and tells it brilliantly ... Farmelo ingeniously interweaves the narratives of the nuclear scientists, many of them Jewish refugees from Germany, with that of Churchill in war and peace (Daniel Johnson The Times)

Absorbing ... Farmelo's account of Churchill's atomic dreams perfectly captures the essence of the man and the science of the day. (Robin McKie Observer)

Book Description

The author of the Costa award-winning biography The Strangest Man offers us a strikingly fresh view of Winston Churchill's long political career.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Britain's bomb 17 Nov 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Winston Churchill had an early interest in science and its potential for military applications. He had read the prophetic novels of H. G. Wells and his prediction of `atomic' bombs, and took a keen interest in developments in nuclear physics. He even wrote a extensive note on the subject for his own education and had it checked by Frederick Lindemann (later the Head of Oxford University Physics Department). In 1931 he felt confident enough to write an influential article about the impact of science for The Strand Magazine. Among other observations, he predicted that advances in nuclear physics would lead to weapons of unimaginable power. He wrote: "There is no question among scientists that this gigantic source of energy exists. What is lacking is the match to set the bonfire alight, ...." At the start of WWII, no other national leader knew as much about the potential of nuclear physics as Churchill. The question then is, given this, how did Britain, the leader in the field, come within a few years to be playing second fiddle to America, and be forced to acquire its own nuclear weapons in the subsequent cold war of the 1950s?

This is the central question addressed by Graham Farmelo. Along the way we are introduced to a large cast of leading British and American politicians, military men, and scientists, including refugees from Nazi Germany, such as the physicists Rudolf Peierls and Otto Frisch, whose theoretical work first showed that a nuclear fission weapon would be possible using only modest amounts of uranium. Lindemann, universally referred to simply as `Prof', was one of the scientists. He `worshipped' Churchill and became his most important advisor on scientific matters, particularly as applied to war.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mixed bag 29 Jan 2014
By Gloop
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
An interesting book but I felt about shortchanged that there wasn't enough on the actual building of the British bomb.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great New Angle on a Familiar Story 12 Oct 2014
I was most fascinated by the description of popular perception of atomic weapons before the second world war. The discovery that a major west-end play in the summer of 1939 turned on the conceit of nuclear weapons was a revelation to me.

The coverage of the Manhattan project covers familiar ground from a new angle - the political wrangling on the British side to join a project which they nearly missed the boat on.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good with Caveats... 21 July 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I had greatly enjoyed "The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac" by the same author, so was looking forward to this book as well. In many ways it covers the same type of period, however instead of documenting the golden age of quantum physics through the eyes of one talented scientist, it looks at the staggering progress in atomic physics from the 1st probings of the atomic nucleus to the development and use of the atomic bomb and the ramifications of that use after the 2nd world war.

Calling it Churchill's bomb however is a bit of a misnomer. While Churchill does figure prominently throughout the book, the real story is about the scientists like James Chadwick who made the advances toward the use of fission energy. In fact sometimes I felt the books title had been hoisted on to it to ensare those with little interest in physics, but were fans of Churchill. Certainly, it is not till the book moves on to post-war atomic politics that Churchill plays a more prominent role.

I was also a bit wary of the authors portrayal of Churchill's scientific adviser, Professor Lindemann. Often he comes out as a like a cartoon villain, forever hindering those around him who did not agree with his views. I also think the author is a little harsh on his abilities as a scientist. While not an Einstein or a Bohr, was certainly no intellectual dullard and a 1st class physicist.

I must admit that I had already met Professor Lindemann in another book, the excellent " Winston Churchill's Toyshop" by Stuart Macrae. In this 1st hand account of the activities one of Britain's most prolific wartime development lab, he explains that without Lindemann and his direct access to Churchill, the organisation would of been continually curtailed by the Ministry of Supply.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent 10 Aug 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Excellent account of a difficult and complex story. Filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars an important book 16 April 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This excellent book, sourced impeccably, views WSC from a different point of view. Churchill's attempt to stimulate engineering and science, possibly his greatest legacy , was lost in the post war austerity and pandering of politicians for votes by ever more raiding the coffers for gimmicks rather than investing in science and innovation.
Reading this book counters the warmonger slur often aimed at Churchill, emphasises his patriotism and unveils his unflagging belief in the importance of science and innovation to keep the Great in Britain.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Several serious errors and omissions 1 Oct 2014
The first edition of the hardback (and the forthcoming UK paperback) contains several serious errors and omissions regarding: (William) Lawrence Bragg and Charles Galton Darwin, as well as the omission of some material - to be found easily on Wikipedia - regarding: the 1951 Festival of Britain, the Festival Ship 'Campania', and "Operation Hurricane"; these spoil what is otherwise a well-written, interesting book.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Three Stars
lots of intersting history about all the players, but a bit slow
Published 1 month ago by Mr. Mark C. Lewis
5.0 out of 5 stars WORTH THE EFFORT
Full of much new material,making this a great read. Very pleased I attended Words by the Water in Keswick to listen to the author giving a taster of the book's contents.
Published 6 months ago by NEIL FORKER
5.0 out of 5 stars Churchill's Bomb
Farmelo is a good scientific writer; his treatment of Paul Dirac is excellent and well-organised.

"Churchill's Bomb" is more of the same. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Geoffrey
5.0 out of 5 stars A thoroughly absorbing read.
Well researched and an excellent historical coverage of nuclear scientists and engineers and their interactions with Churchill before, during and after the 2nd World War.
Published 8 months ago by PhilC
4.0 out of 5 stars interesting
A well-researched piece of post-war history. A bit academic and I would have preferred references at the end in an appendix
Published 9 months ago by Dicky one
4.0 out of 5 stars a considered study of the collision of politics and science
Well researched but with a penchant for obscure words, this book leads the reader through the interactions of politics in the figure of Britain's leading wartime statesman and the... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Cumbrian Shopper
4.0 out of 5 stars Churchill's Bomb
A most impressive piece of work which is only marred by its opening chapters touching on the period Churchill dubbed as the Gathering Storm in his history of WWII. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Maynard Gilmore
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