The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The making of the atom bomb at Los Alamos and its use over Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a moral milestone in the history of the 20th century. This was true not only in a collective sense but also for the individual physicists involved in the project. This book looks at the lives of nine most important scientists who made the bomb possible and made man “become Death, the conqueror of worlds”. The words within quotation marks are from the Bhagavad Gita and were recited by Robert Oppenheimer, the head of Los Alamos, as he watched the first bomb explode in the New Mexico desert.

The nine scientists chosen by VanDeMark are Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr, Hans Bethe, Arthur Compton, Enrico Fermi, Ernest Lawrence, I.I. Rabi, Leo Szilard and Edward Teller. There can be very little dispute about these names. Much of the ground covered in this book is known from Brighter than a Thousand Suns by Robert Jungk and The Making of the Atomic Bomb, but that does not take away from the value and the readability of this book. The narrative is enriched by interviews with people who had first-hand knowledge and by research into manuscript collection. The remarkable achievement of this book is its deft intermeshing of the lives and the views of these scientists and the demonstration of how these crisscrossed and overlapped. There is also the added attraction of their personal relationships, the changes in their views and in their relationships.

It all began, of course, when the German chemist discovered uranium fission, and Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch worked out the implications of this discovery. Using Einstein’s famous equation for the conversion of mass into energy, Meitner and Frisch calculated the energy that would be released with the splitting of a uranium atom. The figure they arrived at was 200 million electron volts of energy. This is not a great amount of energy — enough only to move a speck of dust. But consider this with the fact that one gram of uranium has about 2,500,000, 000,000,000,000,000 atoms. Meitner and Frisch’s findings bothered Szilard, who in a moment of epiphany while walking in London, came upon the idea of chain reaction. It was Szilard again who persuaded Einstein of the danger of Hitler possessing a bomb that could be built on the basis of fission and chain reaction. Pushed by Szilard, Einstein wrote to Roosevelt about the urgent need to build a similar bomb to defeat Hitler. These were the beginnings of the Los Alamos project which Oppenheimer headed.

The scientists were drawn to bomb physics because it was a new branch of the subject which seemed to offer unlimited scope for the harnessing of nature. Added to this was the deep-seated desire to defeat Hitler and the Japanese. But once the effects of the bomb was clear to the scientists, they turned against using it. Szilard and Bohr tried to stop the bomb from being used. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, all the scientists save Teller and Lawrence, moved away from weapons research. Teller went along to make the super — fusion — bomb but late in life regretted this and his testimony against Oppenheimer.

This book captures the drama and the heartbreak of scientists who came to fear what they had built to end fear.

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