Richard Rhodes’ “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”: Book Review, Notes + Analysis

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Book Reviews > History / Biography

The Making of the Atomic Bomb - Richard RhodesOverall Rating: ★★★★★★ (6/7) (standout for its category)

Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★★★★★ (7/7)

Readability: ★★★★★ (5/7)

Challenge Level: 4/5 (High) | ~750 pages ex-notes (896 officially)

Blurb/Description: Richard Rhodes deftly follows the thread of nuclear physics research,  from the late 1800s all the way through the Manhattan Project’s feats of engineering, contextualizing the science with the military, political, and human backdrop of two world wars.

Summary: Frequent readers know that I’m usually pretty hard on overly lengthy/detailed books, but this one stands out as totally worth it: this masterful book is chock-full of learning opportunities, from the underlying experimental processes used by world-famous scientists to discover nuclear physics to the engineering challenges faced in scaling up this research from microscopic laboratory quantities and matching it with other technologies to deliver the finished product: the world’s first atomic bomb.  

Meanwhile, the human element goes well beyond standard “turf wars,” providing a look not only into the personalities of the scientists, but also of the policy-makers and military leaders who inevitably became involved, as well as providing important historical context on issues ranging from anti-Semitism to military practices like firebombing which (arguably) were nearly as horrific as atomic warfare.  

I read The Making Of The Atomic Bomb because I wanted to build my knowledge of science and history, and also because I wanted to go deeper into the Manhattan Project than Richard Feynman’s brief anecdotes – it struck me as one of the occasions on which the U.S. government did something spectacular, and I wanted to figure out what all went into that effort.  The book wildly exceeded my expectations: it manages to do justice to the science and the scientists and the war and the politics of the time all at once.

Highlights: The book provides extremely helpful (but not boring) context on the military and political context driving atomic research; in my view, it’s much broader than just the history of the atomic bomb – it’s more something like the history of the world from 1900 – 1945, told from the perspective of the atomic bomb.  

Additionally, the ending of the book is extraordinarily powerful in an extremely surprising/unexpected way; I don’t want to spoil it for you here, but it gained as utility star that I wasn’t expecting to give it until the last little bit, because the last pages are truly paradigm-altering, particularly in context of the occasional current headline.  

Although the book is extremely long and detailed (it will take you a while to get through), I found it relatively easy to skim or skip over sections that dealt with topics I was less interested in, and never felt like most of the details provided were totally trivial or irrelevant (as I did, for example, with the Isaacson biography of Benjamin Franklin).  Rhodes also does a really good job of driving the key points home effectively with exactly the right language and amount of detail.

Lowlights: One of my friends called this book “the hardest to get through of [his] life” – which was not my experience – and conversely, perhaps demonstrating the subjectivity of such things, he somehow managed to read and enjoy Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which was the hardest (and least worthwhile) book I’ve ever read all the way to the end.  

My science background (particularly a couple semesters of “physical chemistry,” i.e. quantum-mechanics hell at some ungodly early-morning hour) may have helped me parse the underlying science a bit better; nonetheless, from my perspective, there are certainly a ton of details here as well as a lot of “characters,” and I at least found it impossible to keep up with all the science, all the scientists, and all of the politics.  So I decided early on that I was going to not make any effort to remember names and dates, and simply come away with a high level view of the science and the military context, while watching out for important and transferable lessons, and I might have to get more of the lessons out on an eventual second/third reread.  

Rhodes’ choice of certain “protagonists” such as Leo Szilard is curious – after finishing the book, I still don’t really have a clear conception of why Szilard mattered any more than any of the other scientists involved – and I think he could’ve done a better job with this angle; it’s not immediately clear who you’re supposed to care about and why, which can make the first 100 – 200 pages a bit confusing and overwhelming.  This is eventually solved by the bomb itself becoming the protagonist and the whole world (of the book, and perhaps more broadly) orienting itself to revolve around it.  While Rhodes does a very good job of not bringing it up too often, he also seems to have an anti-proliferation stance that occasionally shines through.  

Mental Model / ART Thinking Points: fairnessn-order impactsarms races / zero-sum games,schemaempathysleep / restscientific thinkinginversionconfirmation biasprobabilistic thinking,multicausalitybottlenecktrait adaptivity, marginal utilitymargin of safetyincentivesconsistency biasnonlinearity ( critical thresholds), path-dependency / dependent events, fundamental attribution errorculturehyperbolic discounting

You should buy a copy of The Making of The Atomic Bomb if: you are willing to dedicate a non-trivial amount of time and thought to learning a lot of science and history and pondering some big lessons.

Reading Tips: consider rapidly skimming the first 200 pages, pausing only to read about the actual experiments that led to the discovery of the neutron, the chain reaction, etc.  Consider skimming any sections that provide biographical background about any of the individual scientists (other than the women – Curie and Meitner – due to their rarity), because it ends up not mattering very much in the grand scheme of things and you’re going to forget it anyway.  Consider skimming a lot of the political sections other than the sections about anti-Semitism (which I found fascinating/interesting) and the ones that lead to easy notes about the obvious human-nature dynamics.  Keep your phone handy because there are a lot of technical words and concepts that you may end up forgetting 500 pages in (“wait, what’s a cyclotron again?  What’s the difference between an alpha particle and a beta particle?”)  

Pairs Well With:

useful read-along is the “Los Alamos From Below” chapter in Richard Feynman’s The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (PFTO review + notes). I think The Disappearing Spoon might help set the scientific stage for readers who haven’t taken a chemistry class in a while.

That said, from a time/enjoyment standpoint, there’s no getting around the fact that The Making of the Atomic Bomb is challenging reading, and it’s likely best to sandwich it between some nice, easy, readable, non-earth-shattering books.  Try Jonathan Waldman’s engaging “ Rust” (Rust review + notes) or Jennifer Ackerman’s delightful “ The Genius of Birds” (Bird review + notes)

Reread Value: 5/5 (Extreme)

More Detailed Notes + Analysis (SPOILERS BELOW):

IMPORTANT: the below commentary DOES NOT SUBSTITUTE for READING THE BOOK.  Full stop. This commentary is NOT a comprehensive summary of the lessons of the book, or intended to be comprehensive.  It was primarily created for my own personal reference.

Much of the below will be utterly incomprehensible if you have not read the book, or if you do not have the book on hand to reference.  Even if it was comprehensive, you would be depriving yourself of the vast majority of the learning opportunity by only reading the “Cliff Notes.”  Do so at your own peril.

I provide these notes and analysis for five use cases.  First, they may help you decide which books you should put on your shelf, based on a quick review of some of the ideas discussed.  

Second, as I discuss in the memory mental model, time-delayed re-encoding strengthens memory, and notes can also serve as a “cue” to enhance recall.  However, taking notes is a time consuming process that many busy students and professionals opt out of, so hopefully these notes can serve as a starting point to which you can append your own thoughts, marginalia, insights, etc.

Third, perhaps most importantly of all, I contextualize authors’ points with points from other books that either serve to strengthen, or weaken, the arguments made.  I also point out how specific examples tie in to specific mental models, which you are encouraged to read, thereby enriching your understanding and accelerating your learning.  Combining two and three, I recommend that you read these notes while the book’s still fresh in your mind – after a few days, perhaps.

Fourth, they will hopefully serve as a “discovery mechanism” for further related reading.

Fifth and finally, they will hopefully serve as an index for you to return to at a future point in time, to identify sections of the book worth rereading to help you better address current challenges and opportunities in your life – or to reinterpret and reimagine elements of the book in a light you didn’t see previously because you weren’t familiar with all the other models or books discussed in the third use case.

Page 7-8 – good example of fairness mixed with n-order impacts:

“the axiom of proliferation asserts… As long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will seek to acquire them…”  

Rhodes goes on to quote an Australian ambassador, Richard Butler:

“the basic reason for this assertion is that justice, which most human beings interpret essentially as fairness, is demonstrably a concept of the deepest importance to people all over the world.  Relating this to the axiom of proliferation, it is manifestly the case that the attempts over the years of those who own nuclear weapons to assert that their security justifies having those nuclear weapons while the security of others does not, has been an abject failure.”  

Continues on Page 8, Butler talking about what he views as double-standards insofar as U.S./U.K. paranoia over foreign WMDs… Butler:

“manifest unfairness, double standards, no matter what power would appear at a given moment to support them, produces a situation that is deeply, inherently unstable.”

I am definitely one of the Americans who, later on the page, Butler alleges “totally fail to understand that [American nukes] are as much of a problem as [potential WMDs in Iraq; Rhodes adds Iran and North Korea]” – and after carefully considering his point of view, I’m honestly okay with that.   I think that the argument is ultimately facetious and unconvincing.  It’s a pipe dream to assume that if we disarm, everyone else will as well, and the “bad guys” will magically stop trying to get where they want to go.  

I also think it’s overly simplistic to state that WMDs in the hands of a (usually) responsible country with respect for human rights is the same as WMDs in the hands of North Korea.  But it’s, at least, a good exercise in stepping outside one’s own schema and (at least for me) taking a non-Amerocentric point of view; this foreshadows the end of the book, which forces anybody with a shred of empathy to take a very non-Amerocentric point of view….

Page 16 – interesting note about how different education was back then:

“physics students at that time wandered Europe in search of exceptional masters much as their forebears in scholarship and craft had done since medieval days […] science grew out of the craft tradition.”  

Reminds me of finance today, where a mentor/apprentice type relationship is the way people actually learn vs. mostly-useless formal education.

Pages 19-20 – Szilard spends three weeks of his life going on walks and thinking, and it was “the most creative period of his life.”  See sleep / rest.

Here and elsewhere, I found it interesting that some of the greatest minds in history, who discovered (without the benefit of modern techniques) something so unintuitive as nuclear physics, often weren’t working around the clock.

There were often intense hours in the lab for experiments, yes – particularly during “crunch time” at Los Alamos (way later on) when building the bomb was viewed as a race against the clock – but time and time again in this book, I come across examples of scientists going the opposite way of Taylorism.  

Pages 102 – 103 – reminded me of Dan Carlin podcasts on WWI…

Page 137 – Ernest Rutherford discovering nuclear splitting – nice little example of using scientific thinking / inversion to avoid confirmation bias and search out potentially conflicting / alternative causalities ( probabilistic thinking and  multicausality) – before assuming that the scintillations were hydrogen atoms, he eliminated the possibility of water vapor, dust, and pure nitrogen…

Pages 139 – 141 – birth of the mass spectrometer and fascinating tying together of available evidence to discover nuclear binding energy and, consequently, the theoretical ability to generate massive amounts of energy by splitting the atom.  The “mass defect” represents the mass that you give up; e = mc2…

Pages 141 – 144 – a couple interesting notes – first, there were fewer than 1,000 physicists in the U.S. in 1919… kind of explains why anyone who was anyone in some way touched this project – there just weren’t that many people doing research period! –

second, a foreshadowing of the Manhattan Project – U.S. mechanical competency, moreso than physics competency (most of the physicists at this point appeared to be foreign), was what allowed them to progress…

“no one knew how to confine in one place for any useful length of time, without electrical breakdown from sparking or overheating, the million volts that seemed to be necessary to penetrate the electrical barrier of the heavier nuclei.  

The problem was essentially mechanical and experimental; not surprisingly, it attracted the young generation of American experimental physicists who had grown up in small towns and on farms experimenting with radio.”

Interesting example of a  bottleneck.

Page 145 – using alternating negative and positive current to solve the problem of accelerating ions without a ridiculous amount of energy.  (the science quickly loses me)

Page 151 – interesting psychological evaluation of scientists as having: 

“heightened sensitivity […] accompanied in thinking by overalertness to relatively unimportant or tangential aspects of problems.”  

not sure how credible this is, but it discusses Ernest Lawrence’s depression and numerous other scientists appeared to similarly find respite in science.

Pages 157 -158 – nice example of confirmation bias –

“because [the technicians] understood what was expected of the experiments[,] they produced the expected results, unconsciously counting nonexistent scintillations.  To test the technicians he gave them, without explanation, an unfamiliar experiment; this time their counts matched his own.”  

Pages 164-165 – nice example of cultural change –

“Kapitza… noticed what he considered to be an excessive and unproductive deference of British physics students to their seniors.  He therefore founded a club devoted to open and unhierarchical discussion.  […] Kapitza frequently opened discussions with deliberate howlers so that even the youngest would speak up to correct him, loosening the grip of tradition on their necks.”

Pages 187 – 188 – it’s kind of interesting that (among other factors), n-order impacts of anti-Semitism directly cost Germany the war, and helped establish the dominance of countries like the U.K. and the U.S. that took them in as their own.  Esteemed physicist Eugene Wigner:

“There was no question in the mind of any person that the days of foreigners [in Germany], particularly with Jewish ancestry, were numbered… it was so obvious that you didn’t have to be perceptive… it was like, ‘well, it will be colder in December.’”  

There’s a bit of a trait adaptivity angle here: by selecting against one trait (Jewishness), the Nazis were concomitantly and unavoidably selecting against other traits.

Rhodes goes on to note that the University of Berlin and the University of Frankfurt each lost a third of their faculty; this was especially concentrated in what we now call STEM… Jews were typically excluded from the humanities to begin with… so they basically got rid of their scientific brain trust.  Later on page 196, notes how many of them ended up in the U.S. (many, eventually, in Los Alamos…)

Page 201 – nothing specific other than it was fascinating, while reading, to realize that fairly shortly before WWII, many of the concepts that could be explained by a reasonably bright middle-schooler circa-2018 (neutrons, half-lives of radioactive decay, etc) were completely unknown and in some cases, unbelievable ground for leading scientists of the era.   hindsight bias in a sense, though not quite.

Page 203 – back to the page 19-20 note earlier – Szilard says there’s no better place to think than a bathtub.   page 257, Frisch and Meitner take a walk while puzzling over the barium conundrum.

Page 204 – you start to get a sense for how big of an endeavor this was… not only did you first have to figure out if chain reactions (one neutrons hits, two are expelled, thereby creating exponential growth) were even possible with any of the elements… we’re already 200 pages into the book and to my recollection, uranium hasn’t even been a significant topic of discussion yet.  (I may be wrong; don’t quote me on that.)

Pages 205 – 207… intriguing background on Enrico Fermi.  Among other things, he was one of the prototypical “brilliant” scientists/mathematicians who just saw things without being taught, and came to teach his teachers in fairly short order… he also had a passion for quantification.  

“Fermi’s thumb was his always ready yardstick.  By placing it near his left eye and closing his right, he would measure the distance of a range of mountains, the height of a tree, even the speed at which a bird was flying.”  

Possibly a useful life skill!

Page 212 – for anyone who thinks science is always buttoned-down, kind of an amusing anecdote about how the geiger counters were located at the end of a long hall, so distinguished scientists like Enrico Fermi were reduced to conducting experiments and then running down the hallway with their (radioactive!) decay products to see just how radioactive they were…

Page 213 – another good example of the scientific process and scientific thinking; trying to figure out which element it was by eliminating other possibilities (although this doesn’t always work – IIRC, scientists were for a while focused on “transuranics” because they viewed it as impossible to believe that uranium could split into two much smaller atoms until they started adopting the “liquid-drop” model of the nucleus.”  ( schema bottleneck)

Pages 217 – 220 – an example of science-by-accident; experiments that took place on wooden tables and marble tables yielded different results because the hydrogen in the wood was slowing down neutrons, which led to the discovery of slow-neutron radioactivity, which ended up being critical…

Page 228 – In the mid-1930s, Einstein, Rutherford, and Bohr all thought harnessing nuclear energy was impossible…

Page 252 – here and elsewhere, I found the discussion of fractionation/purification interesting (inversion) but more importantly, they first begin to conceptualize that the atom could be splitting into much smaller components… because there’s no other explanation that seems reasonable

Pages 258-260 – I think the discussion of the liquid-drop model was fascinating and was one of the science bits that stood out to me the most.  It turns out that a lot of science is similar (Feynman, for example, later talking about sub-atomic quarks working similarly in some ways to bigger stuff).  

So Frisch thinking about electric charge and surface tension and their relation helped him visualize and understand the nucleus.  And then of course the energy bit is fun.  

Also bear in mind in terms of speed that this is 1938: it’s less than a decade from the time scientists start conceiving that the atom could be split and release energy to the time that this was converted, at engineering scale, into an actionable weapon of war, without the benefit of modern computing or communications power…

Page 280 – Fermi being too conservative; thinking that the nuclear chain reaction isn’t really worth worrying about because it’s unlikely (10%) in his estimation.  Rabi on marginal utility and  margin of safety:

“Ten per cent is not a remote possibility if it means that we may die of it.  If I have pneumonia and the doctor tells me that there is a remote possibility that I might die, and it’s ten percent, I get excited about it.”

Page 281 – margin of safety, the right way and wrong way… Leo Szilard:


“Fermi thought that the conservative thing was to play down the possibility that [a chain reaction] may happen, and I thought the conservative thing was to assume that it would happen and take all the necessary precautions.”

Page 284 – 287 – the science here (on U235/U238) is elegant – I want to read this again when I have more mental bandwidth…

Page 305 – on  incentives:“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.”

Pages 322-323 – I like the “matrix” approach that Bohr takes to thinking about chain reactions… it seems simple but helps categorize the problem neatly.

Page 340 – the diffusion was again an interesting scientific principle – and the “hammer to a wire strainer” was another amusing example of “science doesn’t have to be fancy”

Page 342 – perhaps only interesting to me because I’m not a history buff and therefore it was “new news,” but I thought that the devolution to “total war” (in the context of civilians, in addition to military, being acceptable targets) was interesting (and in some senses interestingly quick).  

Rhodes notes that the German luftwaffe was taking heavy losses; night bombing would reduce those losses, but “cities and their civilian populations thus fell victim partly by default” because radar technology wasn’t up to snuff yet.  

Of course, there’s also an arms race of retaliation… Germany did X, Britain did X plus some, Hitler promised to do orders of magnitude of X…

Pages 344 – 345 – kind of interesting that one mistaken experimental result (on the absorption properties of graphite) led to the Germans going the wrong direction in their nuclear research… the “secrecy” (i.e. agreement not to publish stuff).   schema bottleneck

Page 347 – interesting, need to reread

Page 355 – plutonium discovered

Pages 367 -369 – not sure what to call this, but goes in the competition bucket as well as the “luck” bucket:

“whenever the U.S. program bogged down in bureaucratic doubt[,] Hitler and his war machine rescued it.”  

The American program, writes Rhodes, was “in danger for its life that summer [1941],” but Britain saw things that the U.S. (at that time) apparently did not:

“it will be possible to make an effective uranium bomb which, containing some 25 lb of active material, would be equivalent as regards destructive effect to 1,800 tons T.N.T. and would also release large quantities of radioactive substances.  […] the committee considers that the scheme for a uranium bomb is practicable and likely to lead to decisive results in the war […] it recommends that this work continue on the highest priority and on the increasing scale necessary to obtain the weapon in the shortest possible time.”  

So, thanks, Great Britain!

Page 372 – follow-up –

“If Congress knew the true history of the atomic energy project, I have no doubt that it would create a special medal to be given to meddling foreigners for distinguished services.”  

– Leo Szilard.  

Also some more “ margin of safety on bad odds” on this page… I guess the analogy is sort of, you should be willing to give up your entire net worth to pull one bullet out of a Russian Roulette gun…

Page 379 – a particularly powerful paragraph:

Patriotism contributed to many decisions, but a deeper motive among the physicists, by the measure of their statements, was fear […] of a thousand-year Reich made invulnerable with atomic bombs.  And deeper even than fear was fatalism.  The bomb was latent in nature as a genome is latent in flesh [..] the race was therefore not merely against Germany.  As Roosevelt apparently sensed, the race was against time.”  

Astonishingly, as of this point, the U.S. was still not going full-bore after building the bomb.

Page 392 – so, something interesting is that Pearl Harbor has never had emotional resonance for me, and that’s understandable in some way because not only was it before my time (obviously), but it was more or less before my parents’ time and I’ve never had a lot of interaction with anyone for whom Pearl Harbor was something that happened on their watch.  

And I don’t beat myself up about the phenomenon because I’m just barely old enough that 9/11 affects me deeply every year because I was old enough for my parents to call me to the TV as the towers fell (and it’s hard for me to even think about it without feeling the tightness in my chest and pressure behind my eyes that manifests in a big way toward the end of this book.)  Kids I talk to who are even a little bit younger than me – say, today’s older high schoolers or younger college students – don’t even have close to the same conception of 9/11.

So, the point of that ramble is that apparently none of the history classes I ever took ever made me “feel” anything when it came to Pearl Harbor.  But reading Rhodes’ narrative on the bottom half of page 391 and the top half of page 392 (too good to excerpt here – one of those things for which you need to pull out the book again and reread it for yourself) was enough to make me feel quasi-9/11-level emotion about something that previously had no more meaning to me than any other tragic day in history.  For all the details he provides in certain parts of the book on the science and the people, when it comes time to make a point, he cuts out all but the most important details, and in some sense follows the “one death is a tragedy, a thousand is a statistic” approach.  Other examples that stand out to me include firebombing, and of course what happens at the end…

Page 393 – the last bit of this was just beautiful foreshadowing.  Just wanted to point that out from a literary perspective.

Pages 396-397: on “playing your game” – amusing little anecdote about how scientists don’t have biceps: “We were faced with a lot of hard and dirty work,” said Herbert Anderson, […] [we] looked at the heavy task before us with little enthusiasm.”  

Then, Fermi: Dean Pegram [said…] [the football team] contains a dozen or so very husky boys […] why don’t you hire them?” It’s much more amusing in Rhodes’ telling.  Ahem  trait adaptivity.

Page 402: a good example of knowledge-about and knowledge-of, or whatever the name for this is: Churchill: “Hitler now discovered what Russian winter meant.”  

Also, later on the page, a point about the cost of uranium research (Manhattan Project eventually employed 130,000 people and cost $23 billion in modern terms… how’s that for a capital expenditure) and Germany had neither the budget nor industrial capacity to engage in that kind of work.

Pages 405 – 407 – in 1942 things finally start to heat up, it’s amazing how quickly it actually happened once people stopped futzing around.  They didn’t know which route would work best, but some of the logic ended up being that given the criticality (pun) of the bomb to the war effort, then all potential routes should be investigated simultaneously.

Page 426 – nice introductory bio to Leslie Groves – this is one of the parts of the book that, at the time, I just didn’t have the capacity to digest and will pay a lot more attention to on the reread… he was the military director of the project; Robert Oppenheimer was the head of Los Alamos (which was an important part and gets the most airtime, but wasn’t the whole manhattan project.)

Page 436 – the first nuclear chain reaction occurred.Obviously a great example of  nonlinearity.  Per a government photo, it looked like this (I regret not, at the time I was reading, actively looking up photos like this… would’ve helped.)

Page 447 – Oppenheimer enters the picture at this point; it is repeatedly referenced that he was not big in stature physically (see below image of him and Leslie Groves), but he had a major impact.  Oppenheimer was not a great experimental scientist in his own right, but he had other strengths.  First, Hans Bethe described his “exquisite taste.  He always knew what were the important problems […] He was interested in everything.”  

(We’ll get to others momentarily.)

Leslie Groves (left) and Robert Oppenheimer (right)
Leslie Groves (left) and Robert Oppenheimer (right)

Page 456 – 457 nice daring commando raid to take down the only source of heavy water at scale in Europe… crippled German research

Page 464 – among other things, the Japanese “overestimated the difficulty of isotope separation and underestimated U.S. industrial capacity.  It also […] underestimated American dedication.”

 Nationalism in reverse – I thought Rhodes’ contrast elsewhere between American “heroism” and Japanese “fanaticism” (which were really the same thing) were interesting.  But both sides underestimated the other.

A combination, possibly, of  fundamental attribution error or something akin to it.

Pages 466 – 467 – fascinating engineering problem in terms of how to actually create the bomb

Page 469 – earlier, I mentioned the vicious cycle and the surprisingly easy justification for total war.  Here again Churchill: “I see… only one sure path [to win the war]… absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers […] upon the Nazi homeland.  

Here we have the same justification, essentially, used by Germany when their Luftwaffe was taking too many losses: Britain couldn’t precision-bomb at night and they didn’t want to lose planes.  

Eventually, “morale” was used as a euphemism for massacring civilians.  Indeed detrimental to enemy morale, but geeze.  (I don’t think I’d be cut out to be the guy making that call – I think it’s easy, from either side, to reduce it to something that looks really simple… but I think it would be hard, in the situation.  Think the two ferries in Dark Knight.)

Pages 472 – 475 – okay, this is what I was talking about with regards to firebombing; this is a section I should reread a few times (independent of whether or not I read the rest of the book).  It’s fascinating, in a terrible and horrifying way… Rhodes:

“One way the belligerents could escalate was to improve their death technologies […] The other way that belligerents could escalate was to enlarge the range of permissible victims their death technologies might destroy.  

Civilians had the misfortune to be the only victims left available.  […] War begot psychic numbing in combatants and civilians alike; psychic numbing prepared the way for increasing escalation.” 

Rhodes does a really good job here and elsewhere of hitting thought-provoking punchlines amidst all the detail.  The contextualization of the war situation is perhaps one of the most unexpected (and useful) parts of the book.

Page 480 – back to the technical challenges – what if we imploded it?  Apparently high explosives had not previously been seen as a valid/interesting scientific endeavor; all of a sudden that technology has to catch up to the nuclear physics…  bottlenecks.

Page 487 – meanwhile in Tennessee, they’re building four-lane highways to nowhere (actually, to a uranium enrichment facility, but shhh it’s a secret.)  More to the point, Rhodes here and elsewhere discusses the woefully sad and unimaginative attempts at architecture from engineering firm Stone & Webster.  I’m not sure that these asides were whatsoever relevant but they were a much-needed bit of comic relief in a very heavy and detailed book… so good job Rhodes for making me laugh a little in between all the deep thought.  Humor accelerates learning.

Page 500 – nonlinearity, specifically scaling problems – for context, the CP-1 pile (picture above) generated like a watt or something; the Hanford piles were going to generate 250,000 kilowatts… you couldn’t just do the same thing over again, so a different design was needed.

Page 501 – nice example of inversion –

“Soviet physicists realized in 1940 that the U.S. must also be pursuing a [nuclear fission] program when the names of prominent physicists, chemists, metallurgists[,] and mathematicians disappeared from international journals: secrecy itself gave the secret away.”

Page 510 – 511 – war does funny things to people – Enrico Fermi briefly entertained the idea of poisoning the German food supply with radioactive fission products, and Bhagavad Gita enthusiast Robert Oppenheimer even entertained the thought of it…

Page 517 – and one more time we get a Navy SEAL-esque commando story about blowing up the heavy water!  Deuterium found itself unexpectedly attractive.

Page 520 – does culture matter?  Well:

“The proportion of captured to dead Japanese[…] was 1:120 when a truism among Western nations is that the loss of one-fourth to one-third of an army – 4:1 – usually bodes surrender.”  

There’s lots of qualitative color and anecdotes about the Japanese refusal to surrender, but it shows up in a major way later when (incredibly) they almost don’t surrender even after the bomb…

Page 521 – apparently Roosevelt ad libbed “unconditional” and thereby unconditional surrender became Allied policy, per Rhodes.  

Page 524 – 525 – I sort of lost track of what “complementarity” is and what Bohr and Rhodes are raving about.  World government?  There is some thread here that I need to go back and revisit.  But in the meanwhile, also an interesting discussion of motivation and so on.

Page 532 – 535 – people (here, Bohr) start to grasp that nuclear weapons aren’t just escalation – they’re changing the rules of the game.  Rhodes:

“when nuclear weapons spread to other countries […] no one would be able any longer to win.”

n-order impactszero-sum games, but also inevitability.  And more on the “complementarity” thing that completely went over my head.

Page 546 – 547 – one of the interesting things is that Oppenheimer seems pretty good at management for a scientist; he is described as a very empathetic listener, etc.  He intervenes to keep Teller working on something useful when he threatens to leave.  Bottom of page 546 good examples of the human factor.

Page 548 – 549 – thanks to plutonium having an unfortunate other isotope which doesn’t work well, implosion becomes important again…

Page 550 – 553 – a good example of schema bottlenecks; basically (to summarize) the automated thermal-diffusion process didn’t work for enriching of U238 → U235 BY a lot, but it did help by enriching a LOT of uranium A LITTLE BIT, and that could go a long way if it were then plugged into another process.  But nobody thought of this beforehand; Oppenheimer, per Rhodes:

had considered only those processes that enriched natural uranium all the way up to bomb grade.”  

Leslie Groves:

“Dr. Oppenheimer… suddenly told me that we had [made] a terrible scientific blunder […] it is one of the things that I regret the most.  

Rhodes goes on to note that they had: 

“thought of the several enrichment and separation processes as competing horses in a race.  That had blinded them to the possibility of harnessing the processes together.”

Page 557 – again, it’s amazing how much technology they didn’t have in terms of things we think of as kind of basic.  Like, packaging – apparently, “two years of trial-and-error” failed to yield a suitable can for the uranium slugs, so they literally had to dip the slugs in molten solder and can the slugs with that molten solder on there.  Just be careful not to melt the can… luckily the melting point was a bit higher!  Cross-reference chapter 4, about canning, in Jonathan Waldman’s “ Rust: The Longest War – Rust review + notes . 

Page 570 – more Oppenheimer praise from the scientists via Rhodes – Teller sums it up nicely:

“his successful effort to know about practically everything important invented in the laboratory, and also because of his unusual psychological insight into other people, which, in the company of physicists, was very much the exception.”  

Nice block quote below this describing Oppenheimer’s almost Covey or Dale Carnegie style empathy (again, one of those things worth rereading the section and related ones, not just the cliff notes.)

Page 580 – not terribly relevant but sort of interesting and scary: apparently polonium does funny things like migrating upstream against air currents.  It also happens to be absurdly toxic.  Don’t freak out or anything!

Page 594 – 595 – also a nice concise explanation of Iwo Jima – apparently the U.S. considered using chemical weapons but decided not to

Page 598 – 600 – firebombing is pretty scary… the water in canals boiled.  The Japanese got a reprieve because the Americans ran out of bombs.  (Seems important to also note the context; invading Japan would inflict fairly heavy casualties, so this was the alternative… and unlike in Europe, the Japanese war machine was distributed, so, at least apparently, there wasn’t a clear delineation between residential and industrial neighborhoods in all cases.]

Page 610 – 612 – critical masses literally go critical at a specific point – nonlinearity – anecdote about Otto Frisch accidentally leaning too close to one and the hydrogen in his body starting a chain reaction… anyway, he wants to figure out exactly how much uranium the bomb will need.  There is a Richard Feynman sighting!  He names that experiment “tickling the dragon.”

Page 618 – apparently Andover students used to cut their own firewood.

Page 650.  So, a few things.  First, hyperbolic discounting: “from a political point of view, seven years was a millennium.”  Second, they start figuring out what to do with the bomb now that they have it (or almost have it)…

Page 657 – sent the block quote to a few friends as I was reading.  Again one that I don’t want to excerpt, but the summary is that the scientists were staring up into the sky, concerned that a bright object (Venus) was a Russian plane or something… turns out that high IQ doesn’t inoculate you from irrationality

Page 662 – everyone’s worried the bomb won’t work

Page 670 – 678 – the bomb works (Trinity test.)  Norris Bradbury: “Most experiences in life can be comprehended by prior experiences, but the atom bomb did not fit into any preconceptions possessed by anybody.”

Page 687 – 689, 696 – 699 – so this is one of the parts that I probably need to think through more deeply on a second reread.  More or less this is where they’re justifying dropping the bomb on Japan notwithstanding that they’ve already burned half the country to the ground and the Nazis have given up and the Russians are sort of maybe thinking about invading Japan.  

Feynman, not in this book but elsewhere (The Pleasure of Finding Things Out), talks about how nobody really acknowledged that situations had changed… they built the bomb to blow it up to stop Hitler and whether or not blowing it up still made sense, they were on that path.  and there was political pressure too, per Rhodes:

“the bomb was also to be used to pay for itself, to justify to Congress the investment of $2 billion, to keep Groves and Stimson out of prison.  

Feynman, not in this book but elsewhere (The Pleasure of Finding Things Out), talks about how nobody really acknowledged that situations had changed… they built the bomb to blow it up to stop Hitler and whether or not blowing it up still made sense, they were on that path.  and there was political pressure too, per Rhodes:

Page 714 – so, the whole chapter where the bomb is dropped is obviously one that bears close, word-for-word reading.  But for me, this is where the book changed.

I mentioned that Rhodes has a fairly noticeable anti-nuclear-proliferation tone, although I don’t feel like it ever gets in the way of the book, except perhaps his sort of quasi advocating for world government.  But at the same time, it was easy for me (at least as an American) to get into a little bit of a ‘MURRICA mindset… yes, I had trouble with the ethics of firebombing, which was clearly horrible, but at the same time, we’ve just completed this scientific and engineering marvel and the book is building up to this climax and…

Rhodes does the only thing that’s appropriate: he doesn’t insult the situation with statistics.  He goes with stories and  salience / vividness.  He provides a few helpful scientific facts about the heat and explosive power of the bomb, in a reference frame that’s understandable (tiles bubbled 1,300 yards away, etc).  But then he spends another 20 pages relaying gruesome first-hand horror stories.  I’m not going to insult them with excerpts; you need page after page after page of it to get the impact.

And it made me stop and think about a lot of things.  First, it ripped me out of the Amerocentric perspective from which I’d read most of the book (and, in general, do most things.)  I had on-and-off been messaging one of my best friends Clayton (who is half-Japanese and grew up in Okinawa) about the Japanese perspective on Hiroshima/Nagasaki and whether it’s still part of their cultural consciousness today.  Second, it was honestly incomprehensible to me as I was reading this part of the book how Trump could not be sobered by the nuclear briefcase and, in fact, tweet out nuclear threats casually… especially considering that modern thermonuclear weapons make Little Boy and Fat Man look like children’s toys.  

I’ve never undergone a paradigm shift that dramatically, that rapidly… in some sense I’ll never see the world the same way as I did before turning to page 714 (and reading to page 734.)

The only thing remotely comparable to this that I’e encountered is Christopher Browning’s “ Ordinary Men ( OrdM review + notes).).

Page 735-736 – and then we go back to the Amerocentric perspective, and it’s hard to feel all that heroic, even though people are jumping with glee at Los Alamos.  To Rhodes’ credit, though, he brings back a sense of balance and points out that this wasn’t as one-sided as reading 20 pages of children and families reporting on utter destruction will make you feel (if you have a heart): Army veteran and writer Paul Fussell and his cohorts…

for all the fake manliness of our facades, we cried with relief and joy.  We were going to live.  We were going to grow up to adulthood after all.”  

Incredibly, Japan doesn’t surrender yet, and Fat Man gets dropped, and Rhodes sums it up pretty quickly from there.

Because, really, where else is there to go?

Even coming back briefly the second time for the review, the ending still hurts as much as it did the first time.


Last Read: January 2018

Number of Times Read: 1


Review Date: January 2018

Notes Date: January 2018