Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steve Sheinkin, is part spy thriller, part war story, part character study, and part Scientific American. It’s about scientific discovery, heroism, ingenuity, responsibility, secrecy, treason, and irrevocable decisions. Most sobering of all, it is completely true and it is still relevant today.
The bomb in question is the atomic bomb. Whoever wields it controls the outcome of both World War II and the post-atomic future. Germany has the advantage from the start; fission, the concept behind unleashing the atom’s power, was discovered in Berlin in 1938, and after Germany’s invasion of most of Europe, the Nazis controlled production of crucial bomb making materials such as uranium and heavy water. US strategy involved secretly inviting the world’s best scientists to the remote location of Los Alamos, where they worked under the leadership of theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union is so far behind both countries in their nuclear research that it would be faster to develop a bomb through espionage. And that’s precisely what the KGB does.
Also worth mentioning is Sheinkin’s accessible science writing. Not only were the physics and chemistry basic enough to understand, but the pacing was just right. Readers were never inundated with too much information at once. Instead, Sheinkin builds each scientific fact and engineering hurdle as logically as he builds up the events in the arms race. Bomb is also sound as a history textbook. The conversations, events, and quotes are all cited in the source notes, and for the most part, Sheinkin adopts a neutral tone, choosing to let readers judge the characters and their motives (especially the spies and President Truman) based on their own words.
Thus, as much as the story of the atomic bomb is about science, engineering, and major world players, it’s also about individuals and how the atomic bomb changed their lives. Like a human chain reaction, Sheinkin connects a huge cast of characters from all over the world: Albert Einstein, who sounded the alarm, to scientists on both sides of the war, to Norwegian resistance fighters tasked with destroying Nazi-controlled facilities, to President Truman, who authorised the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to the spies themselves, who have vastly different reasons for revealing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. To that end, Sheinkin incorporates plenty of quotes into the narrative, allowing us to better understand the situation and the individuals.
“I feel as if I had caught an elephant by its tail without meaning to.” -physicist Otto Frisch, upon realizing the practical application of fission towards a new type of bomb
“In starting and waging a war, it is not right that matters, but victory. Close your hearts to pity! Act brutally! The stronger man is right!” -Adolf Hitler, on the invasion of Poland
“Whatever the enemy may be planning, American science will be equal to the challenge.” -President Roosevelt
“I did what I consider to be the worst I have done. Namely, to give information about the principle design of the plutonium bomb.” -Klaus Fuchs, Los Alamos scientist
“It worked….’Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.’” -Robert Oppenheimer’s thoughts after the successful atomic bomb test at Trinity
“I heard children crying, buildings collapsing, men and women screaming. I saw the bright red of blood and people with dazed expressions on their faces trying to get away. Where should I go?” -Yohko Kuwabara, eye-witness at Hiroshima, August 6, 1945
“My God, what have we done.” -Robert Lewis, copilot of the Enola Gay
“He hasn’t half as much blood on his hands as I have. You just don’t go around bellyaching about it.” -President Truman, after his meeting with Dr. Oppenheimer on October 25, 1945
“We keep saying, ‘We have no other course.’ What we should be saying is, ‘We are not bright enough to see any other course.’” -David Lilienthal, advisor to President Truman, on the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union
“In the end, this is a difficult story to sum up. The making of the atomic bomb is one of history’s most amazing examples of teamwork and genius and poise under pressure. But it’s also the story of how humans created a weapon capable of wiping our species off the planet. It’s a story with no end in sight. And like it or not, you’re in it.” -Steve Sheinkin, author of Bomb: the Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon
100 Scope Notes has the roundup of today’s Nonfiction Monday reviews.