A short audio book review: The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes

I often get nearly an hour and a half of commute time in my car each day, so I have lots of time. Rather than just waste it, I like to listen to podcasts or audio books. Recently I decided to subscribe to Audible, and started getting some interesting books.

I had read The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes years ago, but decided to listen to it again. I was particularly interested in it from a scientific viewpoint: how a nearly complete lack of knowledge about the internal structure of the atom at the start of the 20th century had in the span of just a few decades progressed to the unleashing of an atomic weapon at Trinity, and then used in war just a month later at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Rhodes won the Pulitzer Prize for this book when it was first published, and listening to it again, it’s not hard to see why. It carefully spans the development of the science of physics with a balanced mix of personal, political and scientific information. It is the kind of book that I really like: dense and full of detail. Ultimately, it tells the broad arc of how physicists began to unravel the internals of the atom, and how the growing realization of the possibilities of nuclear energy were sculpted by both their internal philosophy and the political climate of the time. Men with deeply pacifistic beliefs ultimately joined a huge effort to create a weapon of unimaginable power, sometimes entertaining the notion that such a weapon was so horrible that it might end warfare entirely, and others just pragmatically trying to ensure that the Nazis and the Japanese didn’t get their first.

I think this is where the book is perhaps most interesting. If Rhodes has a view on the ultimate morality of dropping Little Boy and Fat Man on Japan, he doesn’t really let the reader know what it might be. I think in a way that might be the only really satisfactory way of dealing with the deep moral questions that atomic weapons brought into the world. Rhodes reports what happens without the editorializing that plagues other works, and that leaves the reader space to develop his own opinions.

Ultimately, that is the source of my worst but still mild criticism of the work. It is 27 chapters long, and the last two deal with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The aftermath of Hiroshima is described in a way that is different than the other events. It consists mostly of the eyewitness testimony of anonymous survivors. It’s tough stuff, and as you can imagine, more visceral and emotional than the rather academic tone that most of the rest of the book takes. Nagasaki treated rather briefly, mostly with just the observation that damage and deaths in Nagasaki were more limited because of the more rugged and varied terrain.

And then… the book is over. I don’t have my original copy, but I’m told that the original had a chapter dealing with the run up to the thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb, which Rhodes talks about in his book Dark Sun (which I have not read.) But it’s kind of an abrupt ending. I suspect that after I recover from the emotional gut punch of reading about Hiroshima, I’ll eventually get around to listening to Dark Sun.

Addendum: I should also put in a plug for James Mahaffey’s book Atomic Adventures. It was actually this book that reminded me of Rhodes’ book. It was on sale on Audible a while ago for something like $5, and I really enjoyed it. It tells a bunch of tales surrounding nuclear physics, including the development of nuclear rocket engines, nuclear aircraft, and the author’s onw flirtation with cold fusion. It is mostly a collection of disjoint stories, but told well and giving me an insight into many developments around nuclear physics that I heard before. Still scary and dire at times, but more manageable than The Making of the Atomic Bomb.