Friday, December 17, 2010

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

[This review originally appeared on]

The Making of the Atomic BombThe Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The title of Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb is inadequate. He doesn't just cover the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb; he gives the reader a history of the discovery of the atom, the early studies of radioactivity and radiation, the discovery of nuclear fission, and the politics behind the decision to develop the bomb. Once the reader finally gets to the Manhattan Project, Rhodes' presents a detailed account of uranium enrichment, plutonium breeding, the development of the implosion principle, the fission initiator at the heart of the bomb, etc.

If The Making of the Atomic Bomb has any flaw, it may be the sheer amount of information and history that Rhodes provides. The actual atomic bomb doesn't make an appearance until well after the halfway mark, reflecting the decades of study, discovery, and effort needed to eventually produce the weapon. By the time Rhodes gets to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki they almost seem like an epilogue after the vast amount of effort preceding them. Despite this, I think most readers who are willing to wade through the amount of detail found in this book will find Rhodes' writing to be engaging.

Although he fills the narrative with technical details, Rhodes doesn't forget the human aspects of the bomb's creation. The author spends a significant amount of time with the people that made controlled nuclear fission and nuclear weapons possible. Fascinating characters such as J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, and Enrico Fermi are given a generous amount of attention. The personalities, conflicts, and motivations of these brilliant scientists give life to what could have otherwise been a thorough but dry review of atomic physics.

It should be noted that, although the author discusses several complex topics, he simplifies his explanations enough so that non-specialists can understand them. Despite these simplification, I don't think I would recommend this book to someone who doesn't have at least a passing interest in science. Rhodes' discussion of concepts such as neutron moderation or neutron cross-section is liable to confuse or frustrate those who aren't at least somewhat physics-minded. For those who work in the nuclear field or who are interested in it, The Making of the Atomic Bomb is a must-read.

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