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.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Let's Hear It For Cleveland

Saturday evening we had the great pleasure and privilege of watching and listening as conductor Kurt Masur whipped the Cleveland Orchestra into as spirited a rendition of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony as I have ever heard.

The Cleveland is in the midst of its winter residency in Miami, an annual treat that gives us some consolation over our loss of the Florida Philharmonic, which did not survive long enough to move into the new home we built for them. Sitting through this all-Beethoven program I could not help recalling the summer Beethoven festivals that director James Judd used to lavish on us. I'll certainly never forget the finale of that performance of the Ninth that caused the audience to leap to its feet and utter a sound like the crowd at a basketball game whose team had just come from behind to win with a three-point shot at the buzzer.

But that was then. Now we have to be content with a few performances per year of a world class orchestra appearing with a variety of guest conductors. The German-born Masur, now past 80, may have been among the most elderly people in the room, but he was the only one of us who stood on his feet though the whole performance, and showed himself still full of energy and the ability to convey it to us through the orchestra.

First for a warmup was the Leonore Overture No. 3, which demonstrated old Ludwig's marvelous blending of orchestral textures and the Cleveland's stellar ability to bring them out -- including the use of an off-stage trumpet as a special effect for the fanfare that appears in a couple of places.

Then Canadian pianist Louis Lortie turned in a slick performance of the First Piano Concerto, full of liquid arpeggios and clear percussion. This first foray into a keyboard concerto by Beethoven is interesting because the first two movements -- especially the gentle and lyrical second -- could easily be mistaken for Mozart. But then the third begins and there's no doubt we're in the hands of someone new. There is even a playful jazzy figure perhaps not heard again until the time of Gershwin or Latin American dance music.

And finally the Seventh Symphony. What can I say? It's only the second time I've heard it live (the first was by the still-existing Miami Symphony, which did a fine job and really brought out the strong bass lines), but I've heard many other recorded performances. My recent favorite was by the Minnesota Orchestra with Osmo Vanska conducting, and they are said to be doing some of the best Beethoven right now. What I liked about Vanska's interpretation was the way they got the rhythm and tempo right in the final movement, which can easily turn stodgy if taken too slowly.

Well, slowness was no problem for Masur and the Cleveland. From the downbeat they were off to the races, running lickety split for the finish line. The effect was electric, and reminded me that one contemporary critic of Beethoven complained that his music "exceeded the range of the human nervous system." Well of course it did -- they'd never heard anything like that before.

Lucky for us, two hundred years later we can hear it still.