Saturday, March 18, 2006

BOOKS: Richard Rhodes, "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" and "Dark Sun"

Richard Rhodes: The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986, 1995. 0684813785. 886 pp.

Richard Rhodes: Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. New York: Touchstone / Simon and Schuster, 1995, 1996. 0684824140. 731 pp.

I'm not particularly keen on reading about the history of science and technology (or indeed about technology itself), but the atomic bomb is a sufficiently interesting subject that I decided I wanted to read something about it after all. I've seen a TV series about the development of the atomic bomb several years ago; later, I read Robert Jungk's Brighter than a Thousand Suns. That's a fine book, readable and interesting enough, and only around 400 pages long; it would have been just as well if I had stuck with that and not bothered reading more books on the subject.

But, of course, when I noticed that Rhodes wrote about the history of the atomic and the hydrogen bombs in two much more extensive books, I decided I'd read those two as well. I've found, however, that I'm not really interested in so much detail about this topic. Thus, when I started reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb about a year ago, it was all too easy to be tempted by some other book and lay TMOTAB aside for a few weeks or even months; this happened more than once; more than half a year passed before I finished it, and of course I had no clear conception of the whole story in my mind. I read Dark Sun at a more decent pace over the last month or two. Nevertheless, here I also find myself rather lost among all the events and details. To find my way I'd have to study the book rather than merely read it, and I'm not willing to spend so much effort on a topic that is really only of marginal interest to me.

I don't wish to appear too critical; these two books have many good qualities. They are perfectly decent, readable works of narrative history; the only problem is that keeping track of the wider context would require more concentration and effort from me than I was willing to expend at the time. There are quite a lot of plates, including photographs of several nuclear explosions as well as of a large number of people involved with the bombs: scientists, politicians, military leaders, etc. There's a lot of biographical information about the nuclear scientists. Along the way, Rhodes tells much of the story of the progress of nuclear physics in the first half of the twentieth century. He is also quite good at explaining bits of physics in an accessible way, so that even a reader such as me, with only a very rudimentary knowledge of secondary-school physics, can get a rough idea of how the various bomb designs and the underlying physical phenomena work. And, of course, he is aware that the development of nuclear weapons was only partly about science; the rest was politics, military strategy, and even diplomacy and espionage, and all these things play a prominent role in his two books.

Perhaps what I found particularly boring about Dark Sun is the large amount of information about the Soviet espionage efforts. The Soviet nuclear program was initially under the control of Beria, the somewhat notorious chief of police and the secret services. He wanted to make sure that the Soviet bomb would be designed as quickly as possible, without any blind alleys and failures during development. He knew that the American bomb had worked, but he couldn't be sure whether this or that original idea of the Soviet scientists would be promising, so he insisted that they follow the espionage-obtained information about the U.S. atomic bomb program as much as possible (Dark Sun p. 269). Of course, the Soviets would have eventually designed a working bomb anyway, but the use of espionage has probably speeded this up a bit (cf. p. 162). Nevertheless, the USSR was considerably weaker than the U.S. both in terms of the number of atomic bombs, their yield, and the availability of airplanes that could deliver the bombs to their targets.

Some of the Americans who provided nuclear information to the Soviets were awarded the Order of the Red Star, which among other things entitles the recipient to free rides on the street cars of Moscow. :-) (P. 144.)

One thing that always fills me with sadness when I read about the development of atomic bombs and the like is how nuclear physics, which was such a nice and pure branch of science in the first few decades of the 20th century, was then hijacked by the politicians and the generals, who brought into it all their ugly faults: distrustfulness and an obsession with secrecy, with efficiency and with practical applicability. An important contributing factor, I guess, was that atomic research became so costly that it was impossible to do it otherwise than under government patronage. Another reason was the outbreak of the WW2; I wonder in what ways the progress of nuclear physics and nuclear weapons would have been different if the WW2 had never taken place.

Many of the people mentioned in these books seem quite fascinating, some even admirable; but there are also a few very disagreeable characters. The two that I love to hate the most are undoubtedly Edward Teller and Curtis LeMay. Teller was obsessed with pushing for further development of the hydrogen bomb, and particularly his design of the hydrogen bomb, and generally wanted to have his way in everything. His role in the process that led to the removal of Oppenheimer's security clearance and his position as government consultant also seems fairly ugly (see Dark Sun, ch. 26, pp. 553, 556, 578–80).

LeMay was a general in the U.S. air force; he led the vicious carpet-bombing of Japanese cities during 1945, showing conspicuously little concern for the fate of their civillian inhabitants (Dark Sun, p. 347; TMOTAB, pp. 597–600). In fact the slaughter, though now much more rarely remembered, was fully comparable in scale to that of the atomic bombings: “In ten days and 1,600 sorties the Twentieth Air Force burned out 32 square miles of the centers of Japan's four largest cities and killed at least 150,000 people and almost certainly tens of thousands more.” (TMOTAB, p. 600). “Killing Japanese didn't bother me very much at that time. It was getting the war over that bothered me. So I wasn't worried particularly about how many people we killed in getting the job done. I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal. Fortunately, we were on the winning side.” (Dark Sun, p. 21.)

In fact LeMay was so efficient that he had to be told to refrain from bombing certain cities so that there would be something besides rubble left on which to throw the atomic bombs (TMOTAB pp. 627–8, 639). Later he seems to have done his best to try turning the cold war into a very hot one (Dark Sun pp. 346, 565–6, 574–6), e.g. advising Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis to attack the Soviet missile site on Cuba (which would have been terrible, for it later turned out that the Soviets already had some nuclear warheads on Cuba at the time). “SAC [Strategic Air Command, led by LeMay] airborne alert bombers deliberately flew past their turnaround points toward Soviet airspace, an unambiguous threat which Soviet radar operators would certainly have recognized and reported.” (P. 575.) If the Cuban crisis turned into a nuclear war, there would be hundreds of millions of casualties. “If John Kennedy had followed LeMay's advice, history would have forgotten the Nazis and their terrible Holocaust. Ours would have been the historic omnicide.” (P. 576.) “[I]n 1984, the World Health Organization estimated that a ten-thousand-megaton nuclear exchange would account for 1.15 billion dead and 1.1 billion injured.” (Ibid.)

The Dark Sun ends with a splendid epilogue chapter with many good observations on the role of nuclear weapons in the cold war. Much of the nuclear arms race was unnecessary; even just a small chance of an enemy atomic bomb falling on your country was a sufficient deterrent: “How many cities would a political leader be ready to lose? US leaders were prepared to lose not one, whatever patriotic gore their advisors gushed. If Soviet leaders were prepared to lose one or ten, as self-righeous cold warriors liked to allege, the least deterrent the US marhaled after 1949 never allowed them such a monstrous choice [i.e. as the Soviet Union would not lose one city or ten, but would be completely destroyed by the U.S. response].” (P. 585.)

On p. 588 Rhodes briefly considers the possibility that nuclear weapons might be acquired by terrorists, but thinks it unlikely: they aren't easy to build or obtain, and other weapons are just as suitable for terrorist purposes.

Another nice feature of the Dark Sun is the comprehensive index of names on pp. 671–87. It includes the names and roles of all sorts of people mentioned in the book, and it even includes pronunciation instructions for the Russian and other non-English names.

There are a few interesting remarks on the strength of thermonuclear bombs. Oppenheimer answered in an interview: “Q. Would you have supported the dropping of a thermonuclear bomb on Hiroshima?/ A. It would make no sense at all./ Q. Why?/ A. The target is too small.” (P. 403.) “During the war, Serber remembers, ‘on Edward Teller's blackboard at Los Alamos I once saw a list of weapons—ideas for weapons—with their abilities and properties displayed. For the last one on the list, the largest, the method of delivery was listed as “Backyard.” Since that particular design would probably kill everyone on earth, there was no use carting it elsewhere.’ ” (P. 253.) But later Teller realized there are limits to these bombs as well: “At somewhere around a hundred megatons, he estimates, ‘it would simply lift a chunk of atmosphere—ten miles in diameter, something of that kind—lift it into space. Then you make it a thousand times bigger still. You know what would happen? You lift the same chunk into space with thirty times the velocity.’ ” (P. 402.) See also plates 75–76, which show a Nagasaki-style bomb and a hydrogen bomb superimposed above the skyline of New York. The difference in size is quite impressive.

Ch. 19 of The Making of the Atomic Bomb contains a very fine and thorough description of the days leading up to the Hiroshima explosion and the effects of the bomb on the inhabitants of that city (pp. 714–34). Similarly, Dark Sun has a wonderfully detailed description of the explosion of the Mike device, the first hydrogen bomb, detonated in 1952 above the Eniwetok atoll (pp. 505–11).

At some point during the war, “[t]he United States was critically short of copper, the best common metal for winding the coils of electromagnets. For recoverable use the Treasure offered to make silver bullion available in copper's stead. [. . .] ‘At some point in the negotiations,’ writes Groves, ‘Nichols . . . said that they would need between five and ten thousand tons of silver. This led to the icy reply: “Colonel, in the Treasury we do not speak of tons of silver; our unit is the Troy ounce.” ’ ” (TMOTAB, p. 490.)

The physicist Otto Frisch recalled this anecdote about his friend Fritz Houtermans: “His father had been a Dutchman, but he was very proud of his mother's Jewish origin and liable to counter anti-semitic remarks by retorting ‘When your ancestors were still living in the trees mine were already forging cheques!’ ” (TMOTAB, p. 370.)

A wise observation by Bohr: “It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.” (TMOTAB, p. 77.)

In the index of TMOTAB, von Neumann appears under ‘N’, but in Dark Sun he appears under ‘V’. I suppose the latter is more correct than the former, but what really annoys me is the inconsistency.

At the end, let me stress once again: these are good books, but think very carefully if you really wish to read 1500 pages about the history of nuclear bombs. If not, try something else instead, such as Robert Jungk's Brighter than a Thousand Suns.


  • Russell Brines: Until They Eat Stones (1944). The author had been held in detention by the Japanese, and reports on their morale and determination. TMOTAB, p. 597.

  • Gil Elliot: Twentieth Century Book of the Dead (1972). TMOTAB, pp. 102, 778.

  • Robert Guillain: I Saw Tokyo Burning (1981). TMOTAB, p. 590.

  • Knut Haukelid: Skis Against the Atom (1954). Describes the efforts to sabotage the Norwegian hydroelectric plant where Germans might otherwise be able to obtain heavy water. TMOTAB, p. 514.

  • Oscar Jászi: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Hungary. P. S. King and Son, 1924. I'm not sure if it's quite objective, seeing that it was published so soon after the events. Anyway, several of the notable scientists involved in the atomic bomb programme were Hungarians: von Neumann, Teller, Szilard. See TMOTAB, pp. 105, 110–3; Dark Sun, p. 580.

  • Ivan Völgyes (ed.): Hungary in Revolution (1971). TMOTAB, pp. 110–3.

  • Milovan Djilas: Conversations with Stalin (1962). Cited in Dark Sun. Djilas seems to have written several books with interesting-sounding titles; I have to read some of them eventually.

  • Leo Szilard: The Voice of the Dolphins. Short fiction. Dark Sun, p. 582.

  • Stephen Walker: Shockwave: The Countdown to Hiroshima (2005). I bought it in the bookstore in July or August last year. Bizarrely, this UK trade paperback edition (ISBN 0719567734, RRP £12.99) doesn't seem to be mentioned anywhere on; they only mention a different paperback edition, ISBN 0719566266, which won't be published until May 2006 (RRP £8.99). The publisher's web site doesn't mention the 0719567734 edition either. It is, however, mentioned on

    Looking at the size of this book, I can't help wondering if they didn't simply decide, at some point, that the hardcover edition wasn't selling well enough and they would simply take some of the already-printed-but-not-yet-bound copies, bind them as trade paperbacks and offer them for sale at a lower price (but still higher than the later regular paperback edition, which will quite possibly be in a smaller format anyway). But that still doesn't quite explain why it wasn't entered into amazon's database.

    The copy of Jared Diamond's Collapse I bought last year was similarly curious (see my post about it).


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