Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

This was an incredible book. It seemed to go well with all the WWII stuff I was reading, but I kept putting it off because it is a large book and pretty dense. When I started I really got into it. I studied physics in college, enough to know what they were talking about. The pace of development of nuclear physics and the atomic bomb was amazing. It was as if Benjamin Franklin experimented with electricity and then 50 years later the entire US power grid was built.
Not only did this book tell an amazing story of discovery, but he told about the scientists who developed all this new stuff. You have to have a very different turn of mind to come up with the innovations they did. The ability to think in mathematics and not want to visualize things that really can't be. I also think a lot of these men( and a few women) were like my oldest son. They had social quirks, mental obsessions and felt most at home in the lab. But again, they had to work out the energies and mechanics of the nucleus of an atom using SLIDE RULES! If you don't know what a slide rule is, ask someone who used a lot of math, like an engineer, older than 55. Imagine life before calculators. Imagine doing calculus before calculators. Imagine dealing with numbers like the charge of an electron and the weight of a proton before calculators. I am in awe of just the calculations needed to accomplish what these people did.
Then there is the beauty and simplicity of physics. When it is right, you can tell. Most of physics is simple and plain: E=MC2, Three Laws of Thermodynamics, gravity's inverse square rule. It makes me think that all the complicated particle physics that is going on now is missing something. It is like the weird epicycles people invented to explain the motion of the skies before they would admit it was the Earth moving and not the Sun. There are a lot of weird theories around right now that don't have the harmony and simplicity of Einstein or Newton. They probably aren't right. I think in the next 50 years there will be another jump, because too much doesn't work as physics should when it is truly describing the universe.
On a related, but separate note, physicists who claim to be atheists are liars. A lot of physics just is. It doesn't have a reason that has been found yet. If they don't believe in God, they aren't looking at ultimate causes enough.
The second half of the book, when they were actively making a bomb, not just exploring the properties of uranium had a completely different tone. The bomb was inherent in uranium, like electricity is inherent in lightening and magnets. It was only a matter of time. But it was still difficult. The author is also conflicted. The book was written in the eighties; before Communist Russia collapsed. During the time when all liberals thought Reagan was driving the world to destruction and everyone expected a nuclear holocaust to end the world before 2000. So now, 20 years later, the Cold War isn't quite the awful terror filled period some thought it was. I completely disagree with the author's thoughts, echoing ideas of Robert Oppenheimer and Niels Bohr, that sharing nuclear technology with the Russians would have eliminated an arms race. We see now in a more open time, some countries will be secretive and try for the weapon. As long as secrecy could be seen possibly develop an advantage some country would try it. The open science and world government some scientists thought would be the only way to avoid an arms race was a pipe dream. The arms race would have happened without US paranoia. Mostly because Russia had enough paranoia for any other ten nations.
It is interesting how these historical books are affected by the current political climate. I think this would be a different book if it had been written now. The basic facts are the same, but the interpretation of what is important is different.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Richard Rhodes. Simon & Schuster. 1986

1 comment:

jendoop said...

Great review, thanks for sharing your brain. These thoughts will be rolling around in my head for a while.