Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

The Making of the Atomic Bomb provides the background of scientific progress and WWII thinking that lead to nuclear weapons.

The 1986 edition that I read has a nice epilogue (40 pages long) which is missing in 2012. That's a huge loss in content because the epilogue has interesting content.

The book is
  • Fun: Example: comparing Chadwick's temperament with the properties of the neutron he discovered.
  • Informative: How much thought and hard work is invested into and how many small and large difficulties have to be surmounted before a scientific discovery, how good theory is needed to both design a proper experiment and correctly interpret its results (How the Curies were not able to discover the neutron even though they did the experiment first). How scientific openness in the early 1900s led to rapid progress.
  • Inspiring: Kindled my interest in Chemistry (Otto Hahn, discoverer of nuclear fission was a chemist). How scientific openness could be a model for government of humanity (Niels Bohr's hope). For me, the book shows what good science and engineering is, with nuclear weapon development as a case study. Any technically inclined person would enjoy this book a lot and be motivated to do some science (hopefully for peaceful purposes).
  • Horrifying: Effects of a nuclear weapon on its victims is described in graphic detail. The risk of an accidental or terrorist nuclear war is unacceptably large and the results of a wide scale war would be the end of intelligent life on Earth.
Highlights:
The Germans sometimes chose to disguise mustard with xylyl bromide, a tear gas that smells like lilac, and so it came to pass in the wartime spring that men ran in terror from a breeze scented with blossoming lilac shrubs.

By 1918 a typical artillery barrage locomoting east or west over the front lines counted nearly as many gas shells as high-explosive...The chemists, like bargain hunters, imagined they were spending a pittance of tens of thousands of lives to save a purseful more. Britain reacted with moral outrage but capitulated in the name of parity.

Barrage balloons raised aprons of steel cable that girdled London's airspace; enormous white arrows mounted on the ground on pivots guided the radio-less defenders in their Sopwith Camels and Pups toward the invading German bombers. The completed defense system around London was primitive but effective and it needed only technological improvement to ready it for the next war.

Out of the prospering but vulnerable Hungarian Jewish middle class came no fewer than seven of the twentieth century's most exceptional scientists: in order of birth, Theodor von Karman, George de Hevesy, Michael Polanyi, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann and Edward Teller. All seven left Hungary as young men; all seven proved unusually versatile as well as talented and made major contributions to science
and technology...

Chaim Weizmann gives some measure of that totality in the harsher world of the Russian Pale when he writes that "the acquisition of knowledge was not for us so much a normal process of education as the storing up of weapons in an arsenal by means of which we hoped later to be able to hold our own in a hostile world." He remembers painfully that "every division of one's life was a watershed."

...there are not many horrors as efficient for the generation of deep anger and terrible lifelong insecurity as the inability of a father to protect his child.

...[Chadwick's] temperament matched the challenge of discovering a particle that might leave little trace of itself in its passage through matter; he was a shy, quiet, conscientious, reliable man, something of a neutron himself.

The bomb in its ultimate manifestation, nuclear holocaust, would eliminate that inequality by  destroying rich and poor, democratic and totalitarian alike in one final apocalypse.

Nuclear fission and thermonuclear fusion are not acts of Parliament; they are levers embedded deeply in the physical world, discovered because it was possible to discover them, beyond the power of men to patent or to hoard.

EPILOGUE (Missing from 2012 edition):

Thomas Jefferson, secure in his understanding of the core principles of democracy, professed a similar conviction: "I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves." he wrote later in life; "and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise that control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion."

Less efficient machines required two-thirds of a century to assemble a nation of the dead; the nuclear death machine could manage it in half an hour.

...once mechanisms could be devised with which to attack civilian populations, civilian populations would be attacked. The enemy was the enemy nation, which was no more than the corporate body of all enemy citizens, each of whom, in uniform or not, regardless of age or sex, was individually the enemy.

Nuclear war would abolish the nation-state as certainly as negotiation but instead of a living, open world would replace it with a world of the dead, a world completely closed.

...commoners in every country slowly come to understand that in a nuclear world their national leaders cannot, no matter how much tribute and control they exact, protect even their citizens' bare lives, the minimum demand the commons have made in exchange for the political authority that is ultimately theirs alone to award.

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