Making It

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

by Richard Rhodes
Simon and Schuster, 886 pp., $22.95

Many books have been written about the history of nuclear weapons, and they have become more detailed as more information, previously inaccessible, is made available. But Richard Rhodes’s book seems unique, not only for its length of 886 pages (788 without the notes), but for his unusually broad interpretation of what is relevant background material. No person is mentioned without a paragraph or so about his physical appearance and the essentials of his biography. These characterizations, though terse, give a lively picture of the person, and for all those whom I have known, an accurate one, with very few lapses (Heisenberg did not have red hair). For the leading actors in the story there are more detailed profiles. The one of Niels Bohr goes back to his grandfather.

An introductory chapter is devoted mainly to Leo Szilard’s realization in 1933 that the existence of the neutron, just discovered, might make a chain reaction possible. He expected that there might be nuclei which, on being hit by a neutron, would give up further neutrons, and that energy would be released in this process. These neutrons would hit other nuclei, and the result would be a chain reaction, which would continue until the number of suitable nuclei was reduced below a critical amount, or the material was dispersed. Szilard expected that the nucleus of beryllium might serve for this purpose, but this was a misguided idea. Such a result, Szilard felt, would justify the speculations by H.G. Wells and others about the liberation of atomic energy on a large scale for industrial and military purposes, although Lord Rutherford—who had discovered the atomic nucleus—had called such speculations “moonshine.” Szilard was, in fact, not the only one to see this point; others did so, including the Soviet theoretical physicist Lev Davydovich Landau. But in the early Thirties nobody knew by what nuclear process such a chain reaction could be implemented.

The full story involves the elements of nuclear physics, and Rhodes takes us through this subject, starting with the discovery of radioactivity by Henri Bequerel in 1896, to the discovery of fission and of the secondary neutrons from fission. The story necessarily involves technicalities not easily accessible to the non-scientist. Rhodes manages to explain the relevant points briefly in simple language, so as to give the reader a feeling for the nature and relevance of the argument. He often explains the nature of an experiment or a device by a happily chosen analogy.

So we are taken through the development of nuclear physics. Some of the explanations contain minor errors, which show that the writer is not a physicist, but they will not prejudice the understanding of the nonphysicist reader. Since the narrative is more or less in chronological order, the history of nuclear physics is interspersed with the relevant political history—including the air raids and gas warfare of the First World War, and the Gallipoli adventure in which Harry Moseley, a brilliant physicist who provided experimental confirmation …

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Getting Out of a Spin March 3, 1988