What great writing looks like: “Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb”

In Richard Rhodes’s Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, Rhodes quotes nuclear physicist Rudolf Peierls as saying that “[Traitor and spy Klaus Fuchs] was courteous and even-tempered. He was rather silent, unless one asked him a question, when he would give a full and articulate answer; for this Genia called ‘Penny-in-the-slot.'” That’s on page 57.

On page 175, Rhodes describes the famous Trinity atomic bomb test at Alamagordo, New Mexico, and quotes I. I. Rabi, another physicist, at length. Then Rhodes writes, “Fuchs was there to see the new thing he had caused to proliferate, the new control, but no one put a penny in his slot, so he left no record of how the unique experience affected him.” “No one put a penny in his slot:” the phrase does a lot of deft work in that sentence, pointing to the seeming incuriosity of everyone around Fuchs; to Fuchs’s character itself; to the way he responds rather than initiating (despite him working on atomic weapon initiator design). Rhodes takes what could have been an evocative-but-throwaway line and reconfigures it, connecting the two sections of the book through unusual but suddenly gorgeous language.

Another point about this pairing: it can’t really be generalized to a rule. Few if any writing books advise good writers to call back to an evocative description a hundred pages later, and to do so with an unexpected twist. Rhodes does it. He hits the high note here.

The book itself is about history, technology, politics, human motivation, human character, institutions, industrial organization, and many other topics. He writes, for example, about what made communism attractive to western communists, despite the fact that it doesn’t work. He writes, “Communism in any case was intensely fashionable at English universities between the World Wars.” It seems strange that anyone could have been attracted to Communism; as Stalin’s Great Terror unfolds through the 1930s, it becomes even stranger. Then again, socialism is having a strange vogue today, among people who seem not to quite understand what it entails (one definition, from Apple’s included Oxford American Diction: “a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.”) It’s possible of course for a “community” to own a company today, as with coops, or for individuals to own companies; they just tend to be outcompeted by publicly-owned companies, which ought to tell us something useful.

Still, Communism as a topic remains of interest not so much because of the fact that it fails, but because it could inspire people to betray their own, functional countries in favor of a dystopian hellscape like Soviet Russia. What makes a person do that? What does the motivation of a person doing that tell us about people as a whole, personality as a whole? What makes people choose and advocate for the clearly inferior choice? These are questions without final answers, which makes them interesting.

“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.

One definition of brilliance: willingness to appear to be the fool

From The Making of the Atomic Bomb:

[In 1939] Szilard told Einstein about the Columbia secondary-neutron experiments and his calculations toward a chain reaction in uranium and graphite. Long afterward he would recall his surprised that Einstein had not yet heard of the possibility of a chain reaction. When he mentioned it Einstein interjected, “Daran habe ich gar nicht gedacht!“—”I never thought of that!” He was nevertheless, says Szilard, “very quick to see the implications and perfectly willing to do anything that needed to be done. He was willing to assume responsibility for sounding the alarm even though it was quite possible that the alarm might prove to be a false alarm. The one thing most scientists are really afraid of is to make fools of themselves. Einstein was free from such a fear and this above all is what made his position unique on this occasion.

“Einstein was free from such a fear:” are you?

(Incidentally, as Eric R. Weinstein points out, “Over the past two decades I have been involved with the war on excellence:”

In the past, many scientists lived on or even over the edge of respectability with reputations as skirt chasing, hard drinking, bigoted, misogynistic, childish, slutty, lazy, politically treacherous, incompetent, murderous, meddlesome, monstrous and mentally unstable individuals such as von Neumann, Gamow, Shockley, Watson, Einstein, Curie, Smale, Oppenheimer, Crick, Ehrenfest, Lang, Teller and Grothendieck (respectively) who fueled such epithets with behaviors that indicated they appeared to care little for what even other scientists thought of their choices.

But such disregard, bordering on deviance and delinquency, was often outweighed by feats of genius and heroism. We have spent the last decades inhibiting such socially marginal individuals or chasing them to drop out of our research enterprise and into startups and hedge funds. As a result our universities are increasingly populated by the over-vetted specialist to become the dreaded centers of excellence that infantilize and uniformize the promising minds of greatest agency.

Are you part of that war? I suspect Einstein cared little for respectability except when it came to being right.)

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