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. To depend so much on the advice a single person is unwise and if that person was Lindemann, doubly so, because although very skilled at writing concise summaries of new developments, he was not of the highest calibre as a scientist and did not always have the necessary full understanding. He was also heartily disliked by many other better scientists because of his dictatorial manner, and apparent delight in pursuing vicious professional vendettas. Isaiah Berlin described him as "a genuinely horrible figure", and wrote, "He is the only person, I think, whom I have ardently wished to murder." As a teetotal, non-smoking vegetarian snob, habitually wearing a suit and with his trademark bowler-hat, he was a strange friend for Churchill, who also in general distrusted specialists, as his disastrous meeting in 1943 with Neils Bohr testifies. He brushed aside Bohr's worries about a nuclear weapon, saying that it was just a bigger bomb and "made no difference to the principles of war".
As the British were ahead of the Americans at the start of the war, a joint effect would have been natural, particularly as Britain's own fledgling project - code-named Tube Alloys - had produced the so-called Maud Report, following a memorandum from Peierls and Frisch on their work, and this had been taken to America by a physicist, Marcus Oliphant, with instructions to urge this route on the authorities there. The opportunity came in 1941, when President Roosevelt proposed a joint US-British initiative to develop an atomic bomb, but inexplicably Churchill failed to respond for several months. We will probably never know why this happened, but whatever the reason, Lindemann does not appear to have appreciated the importance of the President's offer, and did not advise Churchill to respond promptly. It was an error, because shortly afterwards the Americans launched a huge solo effort based on a new laboratory at Los Alamos. Churchill partially recouped the position when at the Quebec conference in 1943 he persuaded Roosevelt to sign a secret agreement whereby the two countries would co-operate over production of the bomb and have a mutual veto on its use. But after the first successful deployment of the bombs, Roosevelt's successor, President Truman, essentially tore up the agreement. British scientists were denied access to secret information and eventually the small British contingent at Los Alamos was asked to leave. It was not helped by the discovery that an important member of the British team, Klaus Fuchs, was a spy and had passed a huge amount of information to the Russians. Farmelo believes that Churchill made a major error, but had he responded quicker, would it have made a difference in the long term? I suspect not. Only America had the resources to make the bomb, and once it had produced home-grown talent, it no longer needed the co-operation of British scientists. Churchill probably did the best he could from an inherently weak position.
Ousted in 1945, Churchill did not return to power until 1951, when he first learned that Atlee had authorised the extensive manufacture of nuclear weapons. But the world had moved on, leaving Churchill stuck with the mindset of an earlier era. He spent much time seeking détente with the Soviet Union, as if Britain was still a great power, with an intact Empire. His last significant act was to get approval for the British hydrogen-bomb program. His interaction with Lindemann (now Lord Cherwell) continued, although not with the intensity and total agreement as before. Nevertheless, when Lindemann died in 1957, Churchill insisted on attending the funeral, even though weak and in very poor health. He said: "He is gone and I am left to linger on."
Much has been written about the production of the first nuclear weapons in America, but far less about the work in Britain. Farmelo has told this fascinating and important story with great skill, deftly blending the factual history with portraits of the major players, so that the reader can understand their actions better as they grappled with the enormous responsibilities thrust upon them. Even Lindemann had some things in his favour. Although somewhat anti Semitic, he created jobs in Oxford for Jewish refugee scientists. He also encouraged Churchill to lend his name and support to the creation of a Cambridge college primarily devoted to promoting British science and engineering, his pet obsession. Farmelo received nothing but praise for his previous biography of the theoretical physicist Dirac, and this present book will enhance his reputation still further. It is the product of several years of meticulous research and is beautifully written. It is a superb book.
on 3 October 2013
Lisa Jardine, in her magnificent and wholly favourable review of this book, describes it accurately as "The result is a story as gripping as it is elegantly argued and precise."
This book is all these things! And as the Director of the Science Museum asked people who read it on the train to do so ostentatiously because it is so wonderful a book, I was more than happy to read it so that everyone could see me on the recent train journey that I took.
It is, as the specialist and other reviewers have said, a masterwork, or, perhaps to use a Farmelonian construct, a true "gold standard" work. It gives fascinating and unique insights into Churchill, the creation of the Atomic Bomb, and as the publishers say, truthfully, gives us enthralling new insights into Winston Churchill, his personality, his friendship with HG Wells, and the perhaps unique way in which he, as a humanities trained layman, was able to grasp the importance of science and do so well before the advent of nuclear research itself.
And of course how he dropped the ball during World War II and unwittingly gave the lead on nuclear development to the USA....
All this is told as grippingly and elegantly as Lisa Jardine suggests!
But while other reviewers can concentrate on the details, I think that a more important thing has happened with this book. Graham Farmelo is a leading scientist, writing some of this book at the same Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton where Einstein once studied before him and where some of the world's greatest scientific minds still work today.
This is however also a magnificent work of history - it is very much an interdisciplinary book, a superb piece of historical analysis by a physicist!
I read it on the train to Cambridge, the place where CP Snow coined the phrase the "two cultures", the humanities and the sciences, where never the twain should meet.
Yet in this book they meet and do so with all the effortlessness and gripping prose to which Lisa Jardine refers.
I think that this is an historical landmark book, the nail in the coffin of Snow's division of humanities and scientists, since Farmelo can be understood and enjoyed as much by those with history degrees as those with qualifications in the sciences. The Irish writer Neil Belton has rightly praised Farmelo for the latter's interest in the arts, in poetry, in prose fiction and in using the arts and music to come together with science to create a new synthesis in which Snow's division becomes a thing of the past.
So you don't need a degree in either history or physics to enjoy this book (and as someone has joked, even chemists can understand this book too!)
It is a book to read on the train, at home or on holiday, a work of brilliant prose, historical detection and scientific insight.
And once you have read it buy a copy to give to a friend!
on 21 July 2014
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. In fact if there were any villains of the piece it would be the petty bureaucrats at the MoS who also managed to curtail post war bomb development. It is also amazing to see, that even during a time of national crisis, that peoples personalities would often override the nations need.
But my biggest criticism is that the book falls in a familiar trap of such books of relying on hindsight when judging history. One of the authors criticisms of Professor Lindemann and Churchill was that they failed to foresee the successful realisation of the development of an atomic bomb and did not put enough priority on it. Today, looking over the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this seems foolish. However at the time they were not alone and it is fortunate that scientists in both Germany, Russia and Japan lacked the same foresight. In fact it could be argued that only America, with its vast industrial resources, largely untouched by war could afford to take the huge gamble and attempt to develop the devices since only they could afford the economic cost of failure. Once developed the weapon, it is unlikely that the USA would of been any more willing to share control and information with their allies.
In it's defence, the book does gallop along nicely, effortlessly flipping from character to character. I also learned a lot about the post war British atomic politics. For example I was unaware that Churchill to the last was attempting to get both Russia and the USA to agree to nuclear disarmament talks, something that would have to wait until the McCarthyism and the Cold War tensions reduced.
However I just feel that I would of liked to know more about some of the roles of the British Nuclear scientists and less of the petty bickering within governments.