Tuesday, April 9, 2013

137: Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Rhodes is a novelist, and The Making of the Atomic Bomb is, as most reviewers have noted, a readable, and at times engrossing, epic (or as Hacker calls it, an “Atomiad.”)  It traces the development of the atomic bomb from the early 1900s, when physicists were just beginning to suspect the existence of an atom (though he locates belief in the “atom” as “an invisible layer of eternal, elemental substance” in ancient Greeks Leucippus and Democritus) through Los Alamos and WWII, and on to the development and testing of the “Super” or hydrogen bomb in the 1950s.  Various reviewers put their own political slants on Rhodes’ thesis, but Broad, I think, captures it most fairly: since 1945, when the United States dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, science has for the first time become powerful enough to challenge the state.  Critically, unlike technological determinists, Rhodes sees that though atomic technology has changed the way politics is enacted, the relationship between politics and technology is a two-way street – which means, following Bohr, that a peaceful, unified, global system is just as possible in the Nuclear Age as the current system of warring states.

It’s hard to summarize some 800+ pages in a single paragraph, but here are a few highlights.  The book is divided into three sections: Part 1, the development of nuclear physics from the early 1900s to WWII; Part 2, the wartime work on nuclear energy by both the Allies and the Axis powers; and Part 3, discussions of the explosions at the end of WWII – one at Trinity and the others in Japan.  The Epilogue traces the in-group politics at Los Alamos that led to the development of the “Super” hydrogen bomb, and moralizes against technological determinism and toward a “world system” precipitated by the desire to avoid the war to end all wars.  Actors include Szilard, Rutherford, Oppenheimer, and Edward Teller, who was apparently the only one interested in making more weapons – everyone else lobbied congress to get more political power for scientists (as the only people who really knew what the bomb was).  Espionage and politics abound.  (The reviews above are better for color than I would be.)

The book does make use of archival work as well as interviews with those participants still alive in the 1980s, and both academic and popular fact-checkers find the research to be sound (if over well-trod territory and a bit sweeping.)  Most reviewers refer to the narrative/ epic character of the book, and popular reviewer Broad very much liked Rhodes’ personal take on history.  But if Broad liked the attention to personality and the ‘network’ approach to technological development, Badash found the ‘psychological’ detail thinly researched and sometimes unnecessary.  Hacker echoed my criticism – that the attention to individual actors obscures the larger cultural context, and makes it look like a few charismatic scientists were entirely responsible for the development of the bomb.  In other words, by focusing so much on the motives and ideas of individuals, Rhodes falls victim to the ‘great man’ syndrome that plagues so many histories of technology.  In walking the line between networks and great men, Rhodes is in the company of folks like Langdon Winner and especially Thomas Hughes, who focused on great men (like Thomas Edison) to show that invention is more hard work and trial and error than a flash of genius.  But I do agree with Hacker – strong research aside, the novelistic flourishes and attention to character development that make The Making of the Atomic Bomb accessible to a non-technical audience tend to obscure the larger, more complex picture.


originally published 6.29.12.

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