“The Making of Atomic Bomb” and “Dark Sun” — Richard Rhodes

Both books are still excellent, too excellent to really describe in detail, and they’re good in part because they combine so many facets: studies of human character; histories of science; general histories; explorations of where good ideas come from; descriptions of how an individual is only as strong as the network in which he’s embedded.

atomic_bombRhodes has many excellent sentences of his own and picks out many excellent sentences from others, like this, from Stanislaw Ulam: “I used to say that any two points in Los Angeles were at least an hour’s drive apart.” Something about LA generates pithy derision; I think Joan Didion called it 84 suburbs in search of a city. There are, today, finally some cities, like downtown and Santa Monica. There is finally some underground rail, since the city long ago reach the car apocalypse. The number of cars makes traffic worse is some super-linear sense, just as the number of free neutrons around fissile material changes energetic reactions in a super-linear sense, and L.A.’s traffic nightmare will likely never get better. It’s a city that explains what not to do.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb begins with a strange man whose name has largely been lost to history stepping off a curb (or, in British, “kerb”) in London during the 1930s, when the next World War had become obvious to those wise enough to keep their heads from the sand of appeasement. The chapter is smartly structured: the bit I’ve just given occurs at the very start. Then we get background on the man, Leo Szilard. Then we come back to the moment, when, in Szilard’s quoted words:

As the light changed to green and I crossed the street. . . it . . . suddenly occurred to me that if we could find an element which is split by neutrons and which would emit two neutrons when it absorbs one neutron, such an element, if assembled in sufficiently large mass, could sustain a nuclear chain reaction.

As we now know, Szilard, in conjunction with many others, found not just one element but many. Understanding the drama takes 800 pages. But the extraordinary scale of the thing occurs through numerous individuals. Perhaps most surprising is the humanity of the scientists, virtually all of whom were very much aware of the horror of what they were doing. But the enactment of the bomb occurred during a war whose horror still cannot be comprehended. Hence the books that continue to pour forth on it.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun overlap to some extent, as they must: the hydrogen bomb, or “Super,” as it was known, was conceived in earnest around 1942, and the theoretical physicist Edward Teller spent the last years of World War II pursing it, especially as the fission bomb moved away from theoretical physics and towards engineering. He’s a prominent but not overwhelming presence in The Making of the Atomic Bomb but the presence in Dark Sun. But his justifiable hatred of Communism may have led him to realize that fighting against Communism could destroy humanity as a whole. “Better dead than red” is wrong.

Rhodes has moments of poetry or madness: “But from the pre-anthropic darkness where ideas abide in nonexistence until minds imagine them into light, the new bomb emerged already chased with the technocratic euphemism of Art Deco slang: the Super, they named it” goes one sentence (it helps that Rhodes’ scientists are themselves often highly literate). Perhaps the description is overly florid and grandiose, but somehow it fits with the darkness of the project and is probably as good a description of an impossible task: describing where ideas come from and how scientists and artists work, or how human creativity works more generally.

Taken together the books are in many respects epics: they explain the nature and structure of society to the society’s members; they explain how and why things came to be; they are enormous in scope yet psychologically attuned to individuals (especially Teller); they concern the fate of the world itself. They are also histories of the 20th Century, histories of science, “how-tos” for science, and much more. The genre-bending is part of what makes them great.

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