Monday, March 23, 2009

The Birth of the Bomb

A history of horror and hope ...

If a blues is ever written for the entire 20th century it might go something like this:

An emigree physicist walking the streets of London suddenly sees that atoms can be split. More than that, he immediately sees that the result will be a bomb of unprecedented force. But rather than imagining the end of the world, he dares to dream that humanity will let scientists lead the way to a new world order in which lasting peace is finally achieved.

But what happens instead is that Adolf Hitler comes to power and starts the worst war in history; a race begins to see which side will build the bomb first; and even though the good guys win they have to do it by becoming bad guys, after which the existence of the bomb itself begins a new arms race that threatens to destroy the world after all.

My friend, you got the Nuclear Holocost Blues.

Such is the subtext of Richard Rhodes' definitive Pulitzer Prize-winning history, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Beginning with Leo Szilard's insight and dream of future peace (inspired by an H.G. Wells novel), he traces the whole process from the earliest theories and experiments with radiation, through the transmutation of elements and the first laboratory fission of a nucleus, to the crash projects of not only the United States but Great Britain, Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union, as they struggled toward apocalypse.

The book informed me of some surprising facts, such as that the first atom to be split was not uranium or plutonium but humble nitrogen, the inert gas that makes up most of the earth's atmosphere. He even explains why: because of the small number of electrons in the atoms of this light element, it was easier for the protons they were bombarding it with to find their way through to hit the nucleus. Heavier elements, surrounded by more powerful fields of negative force, repelled protons and had to wait their turn to become fission targets until neutrons were discovered, which were immune to electromagnetic forces, and replaced protons as tools to hit the nucleus.

Another surprise was the relatively small role played in this saga by J. Robert Oppenheimer, who is popularly credited as the father of the bomb. It is a measure of the depth of the cast of characters and the vast sweep of the story that "Oppie" makes only a small cameo appearance in the first several hundred pages, as a student temporarily in pre-war Europe. While giving this pivotal figure his due, Rhodes wisely leaves the bulk of the Oppenheimer story to biographers, who have done a thorough job of it elsewhere (including an opera called Doctor Atomic). He does not even dwell on Oppenheimer's crucifixion later on, when he became a martyr to the McCarthy-era witch hunts.

Besides Szilard, who continued to make contributions both to the creation of the bomb and the movement to peacefully contain it, the story makes clear what a powerful role Danish physicist Niels Bohr played as visionary theoretician and persistent diplomat for the cause of peace.

Bohr himself has been featured in a play called Copenhagen, by Michael Frayne, based on his mysterious wartime meeting with Werner Heisenberg, originator of the uncertainty principle in quantum physics. The play poses, but does not answer, the question about what transpired during this meeting. Did Heisenberg reveal that he was working on a bomb? Did Bohr reveal that he knew the British and Americans were doing so? Did Bohr give misinformation that led Heisenberg up a blind alley? Or did Heisenberg deliberately sabotage the German effort so as to deny the bomb to Hitler? Talk about uncertainty!

As we know, things worked out for the best. Between kicking most of their best (Jewish) minds out of the country and suffering the effects of Allied sabotage of their heavy-water program, the Germans came up empty handed. The Russians, devastated by the German invasion, had to put their program on hold while trying to survive. And the Japanese, though on the right track, lacked the industrial capacity to refine the necessary materials, especially as the close of the war brought their production to a standstill.

Yet it is still disturbing to experience the shift in perception that happens as the project grows from theory to physics experiment, and finally to military ordnance and the horror of the bomb. It is easy to understand how the Manhattan Project scientists felt when they saw the huge firecracker they had created turned loose on human flesh in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To read about the horrific injuries inflicted on the populations of those cities, and then to remember that the fission bombs were quickly replaced by fusion bombs a thousand times more powerful, is to fully grasp the nightmare of oblivion that obsessed the world through the decades of the Cold War.

Rhodes was writing in the early 1980's as the concept of "nuclear winter" was being publicized to urge popular pressure to end the threat of all out nuclear war. His closing chapter is a contribution to that cause, a meditation on the relative stability brought about by nuclear weapons, and a hope that because war had finally become non-survivable the human race could find a way to live in a permanent state of peace.

Since then the Soviet Union has collapsed, a united Germany leads the economic powerhouse of the European Union, and the threat of terrorism has replaced the threat of nuclear Armageddon. While "peace" sounds like irony while we are in the midst of two military interventions in the Middle East, it remains true that the wholesale slaughter of populations that led to over 100 million deaths in the first half of that remarkable century was drastically curtailed through the second half.

The bombs are still there, most of them, sleeping in their silos and storage facilities, ever ready to wake and destroy us all. But maybe we can learn to live with that, like having a snake under the house. Maybe we can just let them lie, and go about the business of living.

1 comment:

  1. Only now do I realize where "Dr. Emilio Lizardo" got his name from, in one of my favorite films _Buckaroo Banzai_ see

    I think you should have this link here to encourage fans of the movie to find this book review. And thank you for the excellent work you've put into this review--it is a good read, indeed.