on 4 April 2005
Hard to add to the best reviews of this astonishing book. I'd normally struggle with an 800 page tome, but this had me riveted from beginning to end. Somehow, Richard Rhodes interweaves science, politics and the good old human ego in this tale of discovery, dedication, achievement and madness.
The sheer scale of the author's research is admirable enough, but the scale of that which he describes is vast. This is, in essence, how hard-won discoveries, often by brilliant individuals, gradually reveal the process of fission chain reaction, and how this knowledge is inevitably usurped by the military in a desperate, superhuman mobilisation of resources to create the first atomic bomb.
The book is more than the sum of its parts, which are grand enough. It touches on the human condition and how powerful we can be both as individuals and as dynamic, dedicated groups working towards a common goal. The goal here, terribly, is one of destruction, but the raw power of the bomb is mirrored in the controlled power of the writing and the hope that the author and contributors hold out for the wiser use of their terrifying 'gadget'.
Read it and be awed.
on 15 February 2005
There aren't many books that can claim to tell a story as important as the story related here, in Richard Rhodes' astounding history of an astounding sequence of scientific discoveries. His book, as attested to by the praise, lives up to the epic reality.
The first two thirds are the most interesting - the tale of the science, still new and very mysterious, becoming clearer gradually, often in tiny increments; and the tale of the scientists, who were moving civilisation towards something both magnificence and terrible. The final third is riveting, but can't match the thrilling story of the maturing of atomic theory and experiment.
Rhodes pulls everything into the book - conversations and recollections on the streets of London; commando missions to destroy heavy-water plants in Norway; descriptions of hikes up hills during which scientists discussed the next set of scientific possibilities; and intimate character portraits of not only the key players, but of anyone who in some way impacted upon the development of the bomb. Some may find the style so exhaustive as to be exhausting; but if you are patient, Rhodes will effortlessly show you whole worlds you would never otherwise have seen.
I can't recommend it highly enough.
on 17 June 1999
I must admit to rarely coming across a better book. History, physics, human nature all wrapped into an engrossing and fundamentally disturbing tome.
Not only that, it's reasonably well written to be entertaining in it's own right. I bought it after reading it at the library, how convinced can you get?
on 5 January 2006
This stunning piece of writing is a must for anyone with even passing interest in science and technology. It pulls together - so vividly and excitingly - the history of the science, the people, the politics, the war, and ultimately the aftermath of a weapon that barely 50 years previously no-one would have dreamt possible. This is the best book of its type that you will find.
on 7 April 2014
I confess to being initially intimidated by the sheer size of the thing, but once I got going, it was hard to stop. This is a veritable tour-de-force, which starts with the work of prising the secrets out of the atom at the turn of the 20th century, with the Cavendish Laboratory and intellectual giants such as Lord Rutherford and the Curies in Paris. It continues with the notion of the chain reaction (envisaged by Leo Szilard crossing the street in pre-WW2 London), the realisation of the implications and then the realisation of the weapon itself. As nuclear physics is universal, and German scientists played a notable role in it, it also addresses the German and Japanese attempts at a bomb. However, it was the sheer industrial might of the USA that made it possible, mainly as a response to the possibility of the Germans getting such a weapon.
Mr. Rhodes tells a great story grippingly, with much detail about the main players, both as scientists and as people, plus all the science that one can handle, nicely explained. The moral feelings of the participants are also covered, as they scientists realised before Hiroshima the nature of the horror their work was about to unleash on the world, and how it was about to change the world forever.
70 years on, Thin Man and Fat Man remain the only two nuclear weapons ever used in anger. May this ever be so, and may we have learned our lesson from the horrors of August 1945. We owe Mr. Rhodes a lot for this marvellous work.
on 28 July 2003
The very best book I've ever read on the subject, that simple. The author well and truly deserved his Pulitzer Prize and the raft of other accolades he received for this book. The book is simply encyclopaedic, you will learn at what stage atomic physics was in the late 30s, who were the protagonists in getting the A-Bomb project started and once under way how this collosal undertaking was managed and organised. There is no stone left unturned and no detail too small, he paints a vivid picture of what surely was the greatest scientific collaboration in human history. I simply can't find the superlatives to do this book justice, read it and be amazed.
on 12 November 2012
When this book was published 25 years ago it was immediately recognized as a true classic, a history that was unlikely to be ever surpassed for the sheer amount of detail in it, the amazing breadth of the narrative and the spellbinding language and almost epic style that Rhodes brought in describing an earth-shattering event in human history. 25 years later this fact still rings true and it is inconceivable that anything of this caliber can ever be written. The new anniversary edition has a poignant foreword by Rhodes in which he traces the history of the book, examines our nuclear world and makes a heartfelt and yet commonsense plea for the ultimate abolition of these weapons of mass destruction.
There are three things about the book which make it a timeless classic. The first is the sheer, staggering amount of meticulous research and attention to detail that Rhodes brings to his narrative. One simply marvels at the wealth of sources he must have plumbed and the time he must have spent in making sense of them, the mountains of material he must have assimilated and sorted and the number of people he must have interviewed. This book stands as a model of exhaustive research on any topic. A related aspect is the immense breadth and sweep of events, people and places that Rhodes covers. He paints on a canvas that's expansive enough to accommodate everything from quantum mechanics to the human psyche. In this book he doesn't just give us the details of the first atomic bombs but also holds forth on, among other things, the fascinating scientific and political personalities that made it happen, a history of physics in the first half of the twentieth century, ruminations on war and peace including accounts and interpretations of key events during both World Wars, the history of the Jewish people, the beginnings of "Big Science" in the United States, the psychological aspects of conflict and of scientific personalities, the moral calculus of bombing, the political history of Europe between the wars and the detailed science and engineering behind nuclear weapons. There are sections on each of these and more, and even the digressions are deep and riveting enough to temporarily immerse the reader into an alternative topic (for instance, a six page account on Jewish history and persecution transports the reader). Long paragraphs of direct quotation allow the characters to speak in their own words. What is remarkable is that Rhodes makes the material utterly gripping in spite of the extraordinarily broad coverage and the level of detail and holds the reader's attention from beginning to end through an 800 page work. This is an achievement in itself.
The second aspect of this book that makes it such a fantastic read is the elegant, clear explanation of the science. It is no easy feat to describe the work of Heisenberg and Oppenheimer on quantum electrodynamics while at the same time dissecting the political manipulations of Churchill and Roosevelt. Yet Rhodes accomplishes a beautifully simplified (but not oversimplified) version of the momentous scientific ideas developed during the early twentieth century. He seems to have read the original papers on the neutron, radioactive transformations and nuclear fission and these sources are thoroughly documented in the extensive bibliography; key experiments and theories unravel into clear explanations supported by quotes from the original participants. In fact the first half of the book would be a first-rate introduction to quantum mechanics and nuclear physics and the life and times of brilliant scientists like Fermi, Heisenberg, Rutherford, Bohr, Chadwick, Einstein and the Curies who contributed to these disciplines. These remarkable scientists are really at the center of Rhodes's account and their personalities and work come alive under his pen. This was physics during its most glorious age of discovery and nobody knew just how enormously it would impact politics and society; indeed, one of Rhodes's goals is to demonstrate how even the purest of science can have the most far-reaching practical and social ramifications. The work of all these scientists is set in revealing detail against the backdrop of growing anti-Semitism and political turmoil in Europe, and their subsequent emigration to the United States and England constitutes a very important chapter in this story. But the introduction of nuclear energy was primarily an act of science, and Rhodes excels in describing this science in patient and marvelous detail.
Finally, what ensures this book's place in history is Rhodes's mesmerizing prose, of the kind employed by the select few historians and novelists like Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Herodotus who opened our eyes to world-changing historical events and to the human condition. In Rhodes's hands the making of the atomic bomb turns into an epic tale of triumph and tragedy akin to the Greek tragedies or the Mahabharata. He brings a novelist's eye to his characters and portrays them as actors in a heroic drama of victory and woe; a great example is the unforgettable opening paragraph of the book in which the physicist Leo Szilard first thinks of a chain reaction while waiting for a traffic light in London. The leading lights of the narrative are Niels Bohr and Robert Oppenheimer, brilliant men who also saw deep into the future. And there are many others, human beings laid bare in all their glorious folly, frailty and greatness, struggling to comprehend both natural and human forces. There are no saints and sinners here, only complex humans struggling to understand and control forces that are sometimes beyond their immediate comprehension, often with unintended consequences. Rhodes relentlessly drives home the point that man's greatest gifts can also be the cause of his greatest evils. He makes it clear that science, politics and human nature are inextricably linked and you cannot perturb one without perturbing the other. Taming this combustible mix will be a struggle that we will always grapple with.
I first read "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" about fifteen years ago and consider it the most influential book I have ever come across. I am a scientist and the book completely changed my understanding of the inextricable relationship between science and society. Since then at any given moment I have about three copies of the book on my shelf, ready to be lent or gifted to anyone I feel might be interested. I consider it one of the best chronicles ever written about what human beings are capable of, both as creators and destroyers. In the making of the atomic bomb are lessons for all of humanity.
on 27 December 2002
This is such a fantastic book. Certainly in my top 10 books ever. Rhodes does an amazing job of keeping the pace going while pulling together a maze of personalities, politics, science and social context. An amazingly feat.
The observations of Rhodes and of the men who made the scientific discoveries catalogued here are extremely thought provoking. And the race against the spectre of a Nazi bomb is a fascinating one to follow – real page turning stuff.
The science is a little heavy going for the uninitiated, and this isn’t helped a great deal by the index which focuses on the individuals rather than their discoveries. So don’t go to the index to look up fusion when you forget exactly how it works, unless you can remember one of the main discoverers.
I would recommend this to anyone.
on 25 September 2015
Amazing story, with many twists. With hindsight, it seems inevitable that US would be the first, but in fact Germany or even Japan could have go there first. Lots about the difficulty of deciding on the right technology and much about the contribution of the many great individuals. Also, a very fair analysis about whether using the bomb in Japan was a good thing or a bad thing and the ethical dilemmas of the scientists, military leaders and politicians involved.
on 6 December 2002
A very readable account of the first realisation that a sustainable nuclear chain reaction was possible through to the use of nuclear bombs in the 2nd World War. This account was an eye opener that showed the fear felt by the allies that Hitler might beat them to the bomb. Before reading this book I had no idea why America had felt the need to use the bomb but the book reveals how the political momentum forced it's use.
I fascinating read which I found so intriguing that I went on to Rhodes next book "Dark Sun".