A note to Wes about my summer reading
What’s eight hundred pages long, twenty-five years old and alternates between in-depth discussions of nuclear physics and eyewitness accounts of world war II atrocities? Need another hint? It won a Pulitzer, National book award and a National Book Critics Circle Award (that’s one PEN award short of a Philip Roth, if you’re scoring at home). It’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes! Would like to learn more? No? Too heavy for summer, you say? I’ll tell you about it anyway!
Let’s start with the title: it’s not a famous quotation put to surprisingly good use, it’s not from Shakespeare. There’s no subtitle. No attempt to sound scholarly or clever whatsoever. Just a picture of a mushroom cloud. This book is probably as intimidating and depressing as it claims to be. You can’t claim you were misled. There’s something very refreshing about that.
But as you know, I have a secret weakness for books with titles in capital letters four inches tall, books that might as well scream “Father’s Day gift” when you open them, and movies with characters who speak with clipped British accents. If you’re like me, or even if you just enjoy black-and-white photographs of men in labcoats with terrible haircuts, this is the book for you. And it is fucking great. There’s espionage and drama. Rivals are forced to work together, friends become enemies, great stuff all around. Norwegian special forces endeavor to destroy the Nazi supply of heavy water before Hitler’s scientists can initiate a nuclear chain reaction. Niels Bohr – Danish physicist, Nobel Laureate, outspoken enemy of the Nazis – is visited by a former student — now the head of the Third Reich’s nuclear physics program. Bohr, facing Nazi arrest, is later smuggled out of the country. Enrico Fermi surreptitiously spends his life savings so the Gestapo won’t notice that he’s planning on fleeing the country. I don’t know about you, but I consider events like these to be the bones of a compelling narrative.
In most popular physics books, the historical context usually gets left by the side of the road, a necessary casualty of the need to explain all the relevant concepts clearly and quickly. And most of the time, this is a very good decision. Popular readers have never clamored to to read the minutia of scientific experimentation in real time; even Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe — otherwise a perfectly readable popular science book – started to drag as soon he put himself back in the laboratory. But the nuclear bomb was much, much more than a scientific or military discovery, it changed the global political landscape irreparably, it fueled the Cold War for decades and our current age of terrorism is still running on its fumes. And the scientists involved understood that atomic bombs would probably change their world for the worse, from the first ideas of atomic bombs in H.G. Wells’ The World Set Free (life imitating art again) and the desire to set up a global initiative to control nuclear energy, to the penultimate tests in Los Alamos. Franklin Roosevelt made nuclear policy the sole province of the president, an incredible judgment call, considering that Hitler and Stalin were dismissive of nuclear research at the same time. Rhodes takes stock of the scientists just before the final nuclear tests: the most philosophical researchers are drinking heavily and playing poker, Fermi is clinical scientific, Oppenheimer is underweight and reading the Bhagavad-Gita. The nuclear tests are successful, the scientists have just created the most destructive device in human history. The component parts of Fat Man and Little Boy are being sent to the Pacific theater. And Rhodes has a couple of chapters left.
At the risk of stating the obvious, this an incredibly heavy read, literally as well as figuratively. That might be an understatement: it’s a lead balloon of a book. Rhodes doesn’t pull any punches either, especially when he discusses the bombings and their aftermath. But it’s the right way to tell a story as important and as influential as this one. Discussing the World War II bombings in the German city of Dresden, Rhodes goes right to a young American POW and eyewitness named Kurt Vonnegut. Thirty years later, Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle would be informed by fears of nuclear holocaust, describing the end of the world from a seemingly incidental scientific discovery. His narrator? A writer who set out to write a history of the atomic bomb. Life imitating art again.