Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1939-49 Hardcover – 5 Mar 2009
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I never read such a good, comprehensive account as Jim Baggott's... Highly recommended.' -- A.N. Wilson in the Reader's Digest
The best popular science book of the year to date by far (April 2009), this is an epic journey through the development of atomic power and the atom bomb during the second world war.
-- Brian Clegg, www.popularscience.co.uk
About the Author
Jim Baggott is an award-winning science writer. A former academic chemist,he runs an independent management consultancy practice but maintains a broad interest in science, philosophy and history and continues to write on these subjects in his spare time, for, amongother publications, New Scientist magazine. His previous bookshave been widely acclaimed and include A Beginner's Guide to Reality (Penguin, 2005) and Beyond Measure: Modern Physics,Philosophy and the Meaning of Quantum Theory (OUP, 2004).
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He also fills in the activities of the various "atomic spies" who gave the Russian research programme a flying start, and laments the failure of early attempts to place atomic weapons and energy under international control (Churchill emerges briefly as a villain here).
Overall, the saddest aspect of the book - and the most ironic - is that the drive for development of the American weapon was based on fear of a potential German one - something which, for whatever reasons, seems never to have been a real possibility. A conundrum if ever there was one.
Relying on newly opened archives, recently declassified material and compendious research, science-writer Jim Baggott addresses all these questions and more. Covering the ten year period from 1939 to 1949, Baggott introduces us to a cast of more than 300 characters: Americans, Canadians, British, Germans, Russians; scientists, politicians, spies, military men and assassins.
In lesser hands this could have ended up as 492 pages of hyper-detailed indigestible stodge: instead Baggott has made it into a thriller. He deftly cuts between the opposing camps as the race to achieve detonation moves from crisis to crisis. The result is a real page turner.
Here's another thing I liked about this book. It's conventional to portray the Los Alamos scientists under Oppenheimer as saintly, far-sighted humanists fighting an unwinnable war against the evil representatives of the US military-industrial complex. Baggott carries a refreshingly small amount of such `bleeding-heart liberal baggage', pointing out the naivety of such positions and the disasters which would have occurred had the US administration actually bought into the scientists' proposals. There is an extended epilogue which brings the story right up to 2008.
Readable it may be but the level of detail makes this book of interest chiefly to those with a special interest in the political struggles and organisational challenges attendant upon the transition to the atomic age. Such readers will be richly rewarded.
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