The making of the atomic bomb

by Richard Rhodes

Paper Book, 1986




New York : Simon & Schuster, c1986.


Describes in human, political, and scientific detail the complete story of how the bomb was developed, from the turn-of-the-century discovery of the power of the atom, to the first bombs dropped on Japan.

User reviews

LibraryThing member stellarexplorer
This is a powerful, deeply affecting book. Its 800 pages are dense, and require much of the reader. But in return is a comprehensive account of the development of the atomic bomb: the nuclear physics of the first decades of 20th century that made the effort possible; the historical context that led to its construction; the scientific collaboration at Los Alamos and how the feat was accomplished. Throughout and in a forceful closing, Rhodes offers a thoughtful examination of the results, implications and challenges the bomb brought to the world.

Many books fail to stand the test of time; but the three decades since its publication have only affirmed its centrality in telling the story of the atomic bomb. Rhodes had access to some of the key figures in the making of the bomb who were then still alive, which supplemented his exceptional talent for writing history and the history of science. And to the reader’s good fortune, Rhodes happens to be an impeccable prose stylist. The book justly received the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award.

As a reader of the history of science, I was firmly in the grip of Rhodes’ delivery of the familiar but ever thrilling story of nuclear physics from the early discovery of xrays and radioactivity (Röntgen, Becquerel, Curie) at the end of the 19th century through its culmination here in Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner’s discovery of nuclear fission. While told in meticulous detail, this long section reads like a scientific thriller.

Any serious account of the making of the atomic bomb must contend with the responses of the scientists to the consequences of their work. Three figures cast giant moral shadows over this story, all of them central to the intellectual underpinnings of the Manhattan Project. Leo Szilard is well known for his letter with Einstein to FDR informing him of the feasibility of a bomb, and warning of the possibility of a German nuclear effort. He was also the man who developed the idea that connected nuclear fission to a bomb: the nuclear chain reaction. And yet as the bomb neared completion, Szilard exhausted himself in trying to encourage the United States not to use it. Robert Oppenheimer, brilliant director of the Manhattan Project, is seen after his greatest success to labor under the impossible burden of having brought such destructive power into the world. Finally, Neils Bohr, among the greatest and most influential of scientists, is shown as the conscience of his peers. Bohr used his authority to present to the Allied leaders his concept of the complementarity represented by the bomb. In this he meant that the destructiveness of the weapon contained an inherent opposite – that the power of the bomb necessitated fundamental changes in political arrangements, and in fact required us to put an end to war. The alternative was an arms race leading to the unthinkable.

Rhodes ultimately puts the atomic bomb into its most important human context: with Bohr’s notion of its complementarity, comes the imperative to face the fundamental changes wrought by nuclear technology. He argues that the modern nation-state has appropriated the power of science and fashioned out of it a death machine. He sees citizens “slowly come to understand that in a nuclear world their national leaders cannot, no matter how much tribute and control they exact, protect even their citizens’ bare lives, the minimum demand the commons have made in exchange for the political authority that is ultimately theirs alone to award.” Our minimal protection is the mere hope of the restraint of others similarly armed. Seventy years after Hiroshima, thirty years after the publication of this book, are we any closer to addressing the imperatives thrust upon us?

In 1946, Einstein famously warned “The splitting of the atom changed everything save man’s mode of thinking, thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe.” Einstein was right about so many things. Let us hope that ultimately this too will not prove to be one of them.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
Richard Rhodes describes the theoretical origins of the bomb, the lab experiments, the building of the prototype, the test at Alamagordo, the training of the B-29 crews assigned to deliver the first two combat bombs and the missions themselves. There's much more. Rhodes, gifted with sharp psychological insight and a novelist's ability to convey character, reveals the personalities and emotional dynamics among the scientists and others responsible for conceiving, engineering, testing and ultimately dropping the apocalyptic devices on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In addition he describes the struggle in Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan to make the first bomb, as well as the political and military events that led inexorably to the destruction of the Japanese cities. This is a beautifully written book (Rhodes has written a separate book on the craft of writing) that anyone interested in science or history would enjoy.… (more)
LibraryThing member yapete
Excellent review of the conception, making and aftermath of the creation of the atomic bomb. Extremely well written, develops the characters well and gives a thorough beckground of the physics and politics.
LibraryThing member readermom
The pace of development of nuclear physics and the atomic bomb was amazing. It was as if Benjamin Franklin experimented with electricity and then 50 years later the entire US power grid was built.
Not only did this book tell an amazing story of discovery, but he told about the scientists who developed all this new stuff. You have to have a very different turn of mind to come up with the innovations they did. The ability to think in mathematics and not want to visualize things that really can't be. I also think a lot of these men( and a few women) were like my oldest son. They had social quirks, mental obsessions and felt most at home in the lab. But again, they had to work out the energies and mechanics of the nucleus of an atom using SLIDE RULES! If you don't know what a slide rule is, ask someone who used a lot of math, like an engineer, older than 55. Imagine life before calculators. Imagine doing calculus before calculators. Imagine dealing with numbers like the charge of an electron and the weight of a proton before calculators. I am in awe of just the calculations needed to accomplish what these people did.
Then there is the beauty and simplicity of physics. When it is right, you can tell. Most of physics is simple and plain: E=MC2, Three Laws of Thermodynamics, gravity's inverse square rule. It makes me think that all the complicated particle physics that is going on now is missing something. It is like the weird epicycles people invented to explain the motion of the skies before they would admit it was the Earth moving and not the Sun. There are a lot of weird theories around right now that don't have the harmony and simplicity of Einstein or Newton. They probably aren't right. I think in the next 50 years there will be another jump, because too much doesn't work as physics should when it is truly describing the universe.
On a related, but separate note, physicists who claim to be atheists are liars. A lot of physics just is. It doesn't have a reason that has been found yet. If they don't believe in God, they aren't looking at ultimate causes enough.
The second half of the book, when they were actively making a bomb, not just exploring the properties of uranium had a completely different tone. The bomb was inherent in uranium, like electricity is inherent in lightening and magnets. It was only a matter of time. But it was still difficult. The author is also conflicted. The book was written in the eighties; before Communist Russia collapsed. During the time when all liberals thought Reagan was driving the world to destruction and everyone expected a nuclear holocaust to end the world before 2000. So now, 20 years later, the Cold War isn't quite the awful terror filled period some thought it was. I completely disagree with the author's thoughts, echoing ideas of Robert Oppenheimer and Niels Bohr, that sharing nuclear technology with the Russians would have eliminated an arms race. We see now in a more open time, some countries will be secretive and try for the weapon. As long as secrecy could be seen possibly develop an advantage some country would try it. The open science and world government some scientists thought would be the only way to avoid an arms race was a pipe dream. The arms race would have happened without US paranoia. Mostly because Russia had enough paranoia for any other ten nations.
It is interesting how these historical books are affected by the current political climate. I think this would be a different book if it had been written now. The basic facts are the same, but the interpretation of what is important is different.
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LibraryThing member thorold
There are essentially three stories here. The process of scientific investigation of the atom that brought about the discovery that nuclear fission had potential as a means for the controlled and uncontrolled release of large amounts of energy; the political and ethical discussion that led to the decision to develop and exploit this, and the engineering effort needed to realise it in practice. Rhodes does a good job of balancing these three elements - I was reasonably familiar with both the science and the politics from other sources, but I still found his account interesting and occasionally it even told me something I'd overlooked before. About the engineering side of things I knew essentially nothing, and there I found this account absolutely fascinating. When you understand the sheer scale of the effort required to produce useful quantities of enriched uranium or plutonium, it makes you see the whole thing in quite a different way. It wasn't a matter of a few élite scientists tinkering on a mesa in New Mexico: as Rhodes describes it there were vast factory complexes in several different regions of the USA employing tens of thousands of workers to produce a few kilos of bomb material. And presumably not having the least idea what they were making.

Whilst he is very good as a descriptive writer, with only the occasional irritating mannerism (e.g. a tendency to be a bit patronising when mentioning the wives of the male scientists), what I missed in this book was analysis. Except when his characters stop to reflect themselves, Rhodes never really steps away from the flow of the action, and he doesn't get into discussions of why something happened, how to resolve conflicting reports of something, or what might have happened had a different decision been taken. It's all very much "it happened, therefore it happened".

Rhodes never directly expresses a moral judgement on the people who took the decision to build the bomb and to use it. His technique is to present us with the evidence (as he sees it) and let us make up our own minds. Which is probably sensible, if he wants to sell his book to generals as well as to liberals, and gets him off the hook of judging with hindsight. But the way the evidence is presented does seem to be designed to remind us that the worst atrocities of World War II were carried out with "conventional" weapons, and to guide us into agreeing that it would have been dangerous not to work on atomic weapons whilst there was a risk that Hitler might be doing the same, and foolish of Truman not to use the atom bomb to end the war with Japan. Which of course skips over a few problematic areas...

Rhodes tells us surprisingly little about how much the various participants in the nuclear arms race knew about each other's work during the war. Even if security and espionage fall a little outside the framework of the book, these are very relevant questions for the decision-making process (at the moment when you discover that Hitler has no realistic chance of building a bomb, your main justification for developing a US bomb falls away, for instance). I wonder if some of his vagueness here is deliberate, or whether it is simply a matter of not having been granted access to the relevant records? The argument he mentions, that the project was so secret it would have been unacceptably risky even to tell a field agent what questions to ask, doesn't seem terribly convincing.
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LibraryThing member jorgearanda
I found this to be a completely disappointing history of the development of the atomic bomb. It's clear that Rhodes aims for a monumental, epic masterpiece, something on par with the horrible power and technical beauty of its topic. But in his efforts Rhodes throws us everything he's got, from the time of day when some scientist performed an experiment (and the number of grams of barium he used) to speculation on whether Roosevelt might have laughed at some observation or not. So a work of synthesis this isn't. Which would not be too bad, except for the stylistic nightmare of Rhodes writing, corny and melodramatic, all over the 800 pages of the text. Which, again, would be salvageable if only the book offered insightful analysis on the major players, on their impulses, decisions, and consequences, on war and peace, on science and curiosity, on hubris and nature. But it doesn't. Rhodes' analysis is superficial, simplistic, fluff. The total sum is a rambling mess that does its subject and the reader a disservice.… (more)
LibraryThing member piefuchs
This book is considered the classic on the bomb - I even recently saw it listed as one of the top science books of all time - an assessment I do no agree with. Considering its substantial girth, it is a highly readable account of the Manhattan project. Substantial in its scope, it provides equal detail on the scientific, political, and "human interest" aspects of the bomb project. However, Rhodes is a writer - a Hallmark card writer even- rather than a historian or a scientist, and it shows, particularly in the lack of a critical assessment on many key decisions.… (more)
LibraryThing member SortaSavageLike
The Making of the Atomic Bomb is perhaps the finest history book I’ve ever read. It's more than just a treatise on Hiroshima, Oppenheimer, and the Manhattan Project. It’s a richly detailed epic, exploring in in-depth detail the history of atomic physics, the personalities of the scientists behind the bomb, the complex political and military issues surrounding its development and use, and the historic and social events that shaped its creation.

At it’s center is a complex human story, told without sermonizing and sensationalism. The research undertaken by Rhodes is incredible, and the bibliography lists hundreds of sources. While Rhodes prose might be excessively detailed in places, it’s still a stunning work that needs to be read by anyone seriously interested in history.
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LibraryThing member neurodrew
The Making of the Atomic Bomb
Richard Rhodes
Oct 2, 2010 8:03 PM

This is a comprehensive narrative history of the development of nuclear physics in the 20th century, culminating in the realization that a chain reaction could lead to an explosive device, and then the history of the incredible efforts needed to isolate the fissionable material, and build the devices. It is fast paced, extremely interesting, filled with anecdote and strong characters. I read it compulsively, and I think it is the best contemporary history book I have read. The prose is polished: “Nuclear fission and thermonuclear fusion are not acts of Parliament, they are levers embedded deeply in the physical world, discovered because it was possible to discover them, beyond the power of men to patent or hold” The pace, and the excitement, at the ground zero of the Trinity test, are compelling, and the stories of Hiroshima victims are pitiful. I admired Niels Bohr, and more so Henry Stimson (Secretary of War in FDR’s cabinet) as the most honorable and insightful men of the story. Leo Szilard was the anti-hero, and Robert Oppenheimer the hero of the final efforts to make the bomb. Was it the right thing to do, and the right thing to bomb Japan, are issues that remain unresolved.… (more)
LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
The Making of the Atomic Bomb won a Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In other words, people liked it. A lot. I can also tell you it is a thick read. Over 800 pages long (and the pictures don't count). I got through the first 50 and called it quits. No regrets.

If I had been able to devote more time to The Making of an Atomic Bomb I would have found it to be a portrait of personalities ranging from scientists (Einstein) to political leaders (Roosevelt). I would have found it to be a commentary on the state of world economics (The Great Depression) and warfare (World War II). I would have found it to be scientific and philosophical, psychological and historical. All those things.… (more)
LibraryThing member utbw42
It took me almost 2 years to read this, but that was by design. I would read about 10 pages a week and just study and try to absorb all I could from it. What a fantastic book....this major work of history takes the reader from the very beginnings of the journey of the theoretical insight of the people who first conceived of splitting the atom all the way through design, experiments, more design, tests, fabrication, more tests, Trinity (which is by far the most readable and intense part of the book), and ultimately the decision and action of dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It even covers the political fall out and lead in to the Cold War with Russia through the ultimate path to the hydrogen bomb as well. This book leaves out covers the horror that the Japanese experienced on August 6th and 9th, delves into the feelings these brilliant men and women experienced before, during, and after those fateful explains where the brainchildren of this concept came from and the political troubles they faced in Europe on their way to Los Alamos, Washington (state), and Oak Ridge. The most hair-raising part, as I mentioned, was Trinity, the first atomic explosion test in New Mexico. Rhodes brilliantly portrays the people and events as it led up to that test and his descriptions of that test are just mind blowing. History buffs....if you also like long books, this is a must read.… (more)
LibraryThing member jcvogan1
The definitive account.
LibraryThing member aemurray
This is so intense. I recently started reading this and I can tell that it will take me awhile to work my way through it, but the level that the author takes in setting the background for the bomb is pretty incredible. I grew up with a father who taught organic chemistry and took many science courses in college before majoring in English. Bohr and Rutherford were historical names in my textbooks and they were names carved on the buildings at the college I attended. The advances that scientists made in the last 150 years were truly amazing. Where are we going?

Finished it, terrific book, epilogue seemed all over the place, but liked reading it anyway.
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LibraryThing member Smiley
Rightly deserved to be listed as one of the greatest nonfiction works, in English, of the 20th century. Compelling and thoughtful. Reads like a novel.
LibraryThing member berthirsch
A long history worth reading. Richard Rhodes introduces us to dozens of physicists, generals, politicians and business leaders. All corroborate in what could be one of the greatest monumental scientific and engineering feats ever accomplished.

Neils Bohr is a key figure as he early on sees that the power unleashed will change the course of mankind and pushes for the secrets of atomic power to be openly shared worldwide.

for anyone interested in history, science and WW II this is a masterpiece.
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LibraryThing member Whiskey3pa
An excellent job of combining science writing, history and biography. Well written and engrossing. Highly recommended reading.
LibraryThing member JonathanCrites
Absolute page turner and a fantastic read. Highly recommended.
LibraryThing member ogroft
This is a very important point in scientific history, and students would de well to know the story behind it. I would probably use this as supplementary material for the chemistry lesson on nuclear reactions.
LibraryThing member breic
Amazing story. I had expected just a story of the development of the atomic bomb itself, but the first half covers the development of the necessary atomic physics (very well explained). Full of incredible details, I learned a lot. It concludes with a powerful description of the Hiroshima bombing.
LibraryThing member gregorybrown
A marvelous epic, told from the very beginning of atomic science all the way to the horrors unleashed on Japan. To give you a sense of the pacing in this book, it's over 250 pages before scientists even realize they can split the atom—and Rhodes manages to churn that process of discovery into great non-fiction storytelling.

For all the physicists involved, the Manhattan Project's accomplishments were mostly in engineering and scale. Outside of innovative work done modeling the high-speed dynamics of explosives (to create the lenses that symmetrically compressed the core of Fat Man), most of the science underpinning atomic bombs was in place years before the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some of the project physicists were even beginning work on the hydrogen bomb.

But while Rhodes begins with an amazing spate of scientific explanation and exposition, his strongest storytelling may be the last forty pages of the book, dedicated to the aftermath in Hiroshima. Large chunks are the vivid and horrifying testimony of survivors, and Rhodes paces them so well that they become not deadening but newly scary with every revelation. I made the mistake of finishing the book right before I went to bed, and awoke at 7am with nightmares, which hasn't happened from a book in.. at least a decade?
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LibraryThing member Bruce_Deming
Scary and thorough story of the Atom bomb and the characters and lies and stupidity
that occurred in it's development. Frightening real life drama. Non-fiction
LibraryThing member JohnMunsch
Not just about the atomic bomb, but partially a history of early twentieth century science, a little bit of politics, a little bit of the horrific aftermath of dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and post World War II developments.

I learned a lot and enjoyed doing it. I can see why he won the Pulitzer for this.… (more)
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
The grand, encyclopedic, epic story of the atomic bomb program. Starts from WWI and continues until after the end of WWII. Includes short biographies of all of the major figures of the program, as well as a firm outline of the political situation which surrounded them. Harrowing detail of when the bomb itself was dropped, and what the creators thought during the while ordeal. Brilliant blend of history and science.… (more)
LibraryThing member Tracy_Tomkowiak
Phenomenal. The writing is absolutely superb. The combination of science writing, biography, war and history is a remarkable achievement.
LibraryThing member nmele
Rhodes' tome (788 pages of narrative) is impressive, comprehensive and thought provoking. He begins with Leo Szilard conceiving of a chain reaction, then traces the history of nuclear physics, providing thoughtful character studies of major players like Szilard, Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller and others. Rhodes also covers the politics of the republic of science and the politics of the nation-states moving toward war and then at war in the late 1930s and 1940s. I was fascinated by his detailed accounts of the selection and construction of the industrial plants at Hanford and Oak Ridge necessary to produce the bombs and also by his coverage of the German and Japanese efforts to produce a fission bomb. All this and more, and all of it gripping, inter-related and essential to understand the world we dwell in today, more than 70 years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which Rhodes does not neglect, either.… (more)


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