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The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Fifty years and what feels like ten times as many people crammed into a story of physics, engineering, politics, psychology, diplomacy, and war. An awesome book about an awesome topic, and yes that’s how awesome was meant to be used.

  • I enjoyed the first half of the book, about the physics of it all, much more than the second. It has fewer characters, all of them characters, and has fewer parallel stories to tell. A whole chapter is devoted to a manuscript authorship dilemma: kudos to Rhodes for making it interesting.

  • Niels Bohr and Ernest Rutherford were some of those characters. So was Marie Curie: “How does it feel to be married to a genius, Mdm. Curie?” “I don’t know, ask my husband”. Indeed.

  • If there’s anything that I got from the second half, about engineering and deploying the thing, it’s that large projects are messy, costly, and never completely satisfying. But that’s kind of a given.

  • With all the firebombing (Dresden et al), and two atomic bombs top it off, how much worse must have the Allies behaved for their atrocities to be equal to those of the Nazis? Note that Stalin was an Ally.

  • I knew little of Oppenheimer before reading this except that he got into political trouble after Los Alamos. The book doesn’t go there, but every mention of him foreshadows his troubles to come. Which would be very confusing if I knew absolutely nothing about him, and was still kind of confusing with the little knowledge I had.

  • Soldiers were much more interesting to read about than politicians, and came out on top in almost every confrontation.

  • I know what I wrote about the second half of the book, but the last three chapters are easily the best, and the way Rhodes covered the actual bombing of Hiroshima was masterful.

This will probably be the best book I read this year.

Written by Richard Rhodes, 1986

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