Top critical review
What Rough Beast Slouches Towards Los Alamos?
on 12 November 2016
Rather than just the development of the atom-bomb, this encyclopaedic work covers all of nuclear physics from Rutherford in the 1890s, beyond Hiroshima, to the explosion of the first Hydrogen bomb in 1952. It also covers the complex political process behind the US bomb programme, plus related developments in the wider world: poison gas, anti-semitism, area bombing....
Rhodes provides an enormous amount of technical detail, but what he does best is humanise the science. He provides biographies of the many key scientists and does well bringing them to life. He also shows the flashes of imagination by which science is advanced, and the prejudices by which it is sometimes hindered.
However, when I say this is an encyclopaedic book, I mean it's a baggy, digressive monster which often proceeds at a crawl. Rhodes is also slightly erratic in the information he includes. For example, he makes no real attempt to explain Heisenberg's matrix mechanics. Such omissions are minor, but also very curious, given that he can spare eight pages for a history of the Jews in Europe since 500 BC.
A bigger problem is Rhodes' clumsy English. Every few pages he produces a sentence so badly constructed as to be confusing. There are sentences without objects, misplaced predicates.... Admittedly, things did seem better later on. Either he improved with practice, or I learned to appreciate his statements on an impressionistic level.
These faults are a shame, because with better editing, this could have been an unequivocally great book.