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The Making of the Atomic Bomb

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Here for the first time, in rich, human, political, and scientific detail, is the complete story of how the bomb was developed, from the turn-of-the-century discovery of the vast energy locked inside the atom to the dropping of the first bombs on Japan.

Few great discoveries have evolved so swiftly -- or have been so misunderstood. From the theoretical discussions of nuclear energy to the bright glare of Trinity there was a span of hardly more than twenty-five years. What began as merely an interesting speculative problem in physics grew into the Manhattan Project, and then into the Bomb with frightening rapidity, while scientists known only to their peers -- Szilard, Teller, Oppenheimer, Bohr, Meitner, Fermi, Lawrence, and yon Neumann -- stepped from their ivory towers into the limelight.

Richard Rhodes takes us on that journey step by step, minute by minute, and gives us the definitive story of man's most awesome discovery and invention.

886 pages, Paperback

First published September 18, 1986

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About the author

Richard Rhodes

122 books455 followers
Richard Lee Rhodes is an American journalist, historian, and author of both fiction and non-fiction (which he prefers to call "verity"), including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986), and most recently, Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race (2007). He has been awarded grants from the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation among others.

He is an affiliate of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. He also frequently gives lectures and talks on a broad range of subjects to various audiences, including testifying before the U.S. Senate on nuclear energy.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,268 reviews
Profile Image for Jason.
114 reviews584 followers
February 21, 2016
This is the most comprehensive non-fiction book you will NEVER read. What, why? Because it takes 30 hours to complete!! Look, I’m no speed reader, but neither am I a dullard. This book is so chock-full of compounding facts, so dense, that interpreting it takes devastating attention. This book must be paced like a thoroughbred. There’s not a picayune fact in 886 pages—and these pages are 7 x 9, small-bordered, 10 font, single-spaced, with substantial primary source quotation in 8 font. 60 pages of pictures are unnumbered.

I don’t use these words often (on Goodreads, maybe 3 times in toto), but here they are, and all together at once. The Making of the Atomic Bomb is a tour de force, a magnum opus, a bible, a masterpiece, a work sui generis. Richard Rhodes has conducted a crusade to chronicle all things Atomic Bomb. In scope and scale this is Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and David McCullough’s Truman.

For his effort, especially during the Cold War when archives were classified, Rhodes received:
1. The Pulitzer
2. The National Book Award
3. The National Book Critics Circle Award
4. Jason’s 5 Star

I can’t summarize this book. Doing so would be equal to reviewing the history of the papacy from Christ to present.

But I’ll try. For you.

The People. Rhodes introduces about 500 characters, but follows in essential detail the 50-70 scientists and military brass and politicians whose names are forever linked to the history of the atomic bomb. The construction of the A-bomb is as much the ultimate conflagration of personal fear and desire of Jewish and expat German scientists, as it is a story about physics. This overlay of humanity perfectly balances what would otherwise be a tough scientific read.

The Science. Rhodes requires you not only to recognize your high school physics, but to remember it and manipulate it. The book is written well above the 10th grade level. To some this requirement will be a drawback and you’ll be lost on page 5. But for those of us comfortable with the basics of quantum mechanics, the book is a sweet payoff (and makes up for those missed parties in college studying Calculus III). Rhodes adroitly presents the physics, beginning in the late 19th century, that is fundamental to understanding the process that led scientists to discover and control spontaneous nuclear fission. This is where I mercifully abstain from enumerating key points of quantum mechanics.

The Complex. You will learn that production of the atomic bomb was not merely resigned to the labs and acreage at Los Alamos. No. In fact, to produce Little Boy and Fat Man, US industry built unique facilities that, by war’s end, would equal the footprint, the employment, and the cost of the entire North American auto industry in 1945, and far exceed its complexity. It’s a wonder that secrecy was maintained across so many facilities and university labs, and with so many participating scientists around the world. Nuclear fission was first demonstrated in 1939, yet by 1945, culminating with Trinity, man had harnessed the power to break apart the atom.

The War. Rhodes reveals the operations and battlefield maneuver of all three levels of warfare critical to the production of fissile nuclear material, and provides a bright interpretation of well known battles, that, if slightly different, would have drastically changed the timeline of production for components of the A-bomb, for Allies and Axis. He dovetails the history of WW II and the lock-step production of U235 and Pu239. He also respectfully underscores the ethical considerations of US policy toward the use of fission weapon on civilians. There is a great chapter about Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the Japanese civilian perspective, and, again, perfectly balances what would otherwise be a tough scientific read.

Rhodes finely combines these topics in a galloping, well-rounded, and seamless story of the wonder of man’s intellect, the exigencies of fighting world domination, and the revelation of a new science pulled from the face of God.
Profile Image for Matt.
917 reviews28.2k followers
January 21, 2023
“Turning, diving, circling back to watch, the crew of the Enola Gay missed the early fireball; when they looked again, Hiroshima smothered under a pall…Jacob Beser, the electronic countermeasures officer, an engineering student at Johns Hopkins before he enlisted, found an image from the seashore for the turmoil he saw. ‘That city was burning for all she was worth. It looked like…well, did you ever go to the beach and stir up the sand in shallow water and see it all billow up? That’s what it looked like to me…’ Little Boy exploded at 8:16:02 Hiroshima time, 43 seconds after it left the Enola Gay, 1,900 feet above the courtyard of Shima Hospital, 550 feet southeast of Thomas Ferebee’s aiming point, Aioi Bridge, with a yield equivalent to 12,500 tons of TNT… ‘It was all impersonal,’ [Pilot] Paul Tibbets would come to say. It was not impersonal for [Copilot] Robert Lewis. ‘If I live a hundred years,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘I’ll never quite get these few minutes out of my mind.’ Nor would the people of Hiroshima…”
- Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb

In a book filled with thousands of deaths, many of them coming in the violent double-clap of light and heat from the world’s first atomic attacks, one of the most poignant is that of a young woman named Amelia Frank.

Amelia was the wife of the Austrian physicist Eugene Wigner. Wigner had emigrated to the United States and eventually found a teaching job at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He and Amelia met, and shortly thereafter, were married. Then she got ill. As told to Richard Rhodes, author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Wigner recalled:

I tried to conceal it from her that she had cancer and that there was no hope for her surviving. She was in a hospital in Madison and then she went to see her parents and I went with her but I didn't want to stay with her parents, of course, because I was, after all, a stranger to her parents. I went for a little while away to Michigan...and then I came back and saw her in her bed at her parents'. And she told me essentially that she knows that she is close to death. She said, 'Should I tell you where the suitcases are?' So she knew when she talked to me. I tried to conceal it from her because I felt that it would be better if a reasonably young person does not realize that she is doomed. Of course, we are all doomed.

To me, this excerpt nicely encapsulates Rhodes' Pulitzer Prize-winning opus. It is a testament to Rhodes’s willingness to find the human dimensions of this tale of scientific discovery, to step away from plutonium cores, lithium-6 deuteride blankets, and boosted fission primaries, and acknowledge that the heart of the story is people, not just super-complex equations written on a chalkboard. In many ways, The Making of the Atomic Bomb is the most humanistic physics textbook you’ll ever read.

Moreover, Wigner’s remark – “we are all doomed” – is thematically appropriate, because this is not simply a book about a scientific achievement, but about the terrible consequences of those achievements.


The fruits of the Manhattan Project, brilliantly covered in this tome, were two enormously powerful – though differently designed – nuclear bombs. Dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, they killed tens of thousands of people, and sickened many thousands more with radiation. The bombs ended the Second World War, but also pushed the world to a different kind of brink, where a series of cascading mistakes could potentially have ended in the human race turning earth into a charred and glowing wasteland.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb is a history book rare in its excellence, marvelously combining the elements of narrative history, rigorous scholarship (including author interviews), and technical writing. Even if you were terrible in physics – and I was beyond terrible, as my high school physics teacher would mournfully agree – you will be able to understand the science behind this most controversial of all inventions.

Beyond that, you will delve deep into the lives of the (mostly) men who dreamed it, designed it, built it, guarded it, dropped it, were saved by it, and were turned to dust by it. Rhodes allows them all their say: Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Enrico Fermi, Ernest Lawrence, General Leslie Groves, Colonel Tibbets, and a grocer from Hiroshima who remembered the survivors: “I can still picture them in my mind - like walking ghosts...They didn't look like people of this world...They had a very special way of walking - very slowly...I myself was one of them.”


The two towering characters of this story are Niels Bohr and J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Bohr is featured heavily in the first third of this book, which traces a clear and clean history of physics, that somehow not only avoids being soporific, but is actually quite fascinating. Bohr's contributions to atomic research included the Bohr model of the atom, the liquid-drop model of the nucleus, and identification of Uranium 235, which are all things I now vaguely understand thanks to Rhodes’s explanatory abilities.

The latter portions of the book are dominated – unsurprisingly – by the “American Prometheus” himself, Oppenheimer. He was a brilliant man in his own right, but his main contribution to the Manhattan Project was to manage the greatest collection of scientific minds perhaps ever gathered in one place.

Oppenheimer was also a gift to future historians: a man acutely aware of his place in time, his position at the juncture of events; a man who understood what the scientists had done before anyone else. He was also, because of his classical education, always ready with a printable line. When the Trinity test took place at Alamogordo, it was Oppenheimer who famously quoted the ancient Hindu text of the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”


The subject matter of The Making of the Atomic Bomb is daunting, and its unfortunate title makes it sound like a how-to guide. Nonetheless, it is eminently readable, fast-paced, and well-structured. It's divided into three parts: part one covers the history of physics; part two takes care of the construction of the bomb, including General Leslie Groves’s efforts to keep the thing a secret (a task that ended in monumental failure); and part three tells of the woe unleashed upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It is this last part that will stick with you the longest. In telling of the bombings, Rhodes makes an effective stylistic decision: he steps almost completely out of the picture. He lets Tibbets and his crew talk about dropping Little Boy, and excerpts their impressions as the Enola Gay sped from the scene. Then he quotes the Manhattan Project Study on the bombing, observations that are no less chilling for their unaffected, technocratic presentation (“Because the heat in the flash comes in such a short time, there is not time for any cooling to take place and the temperature of a person's skin can be raised 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the first millisecond at a distance of 2.3 miles”). Finally, Rhodes lets the survivors speak in their own words, descriptions of grotesqueries that seem plucked from Stradano’s depiction of Dante's hell. For an author who knows how to handle prose, it was a bold choice, to let those who were there become the sole narrators.

Every so often, one book or another appears to debate whether or not the bombs should have been dropped. Richard Frank’s Downfall, for instance, does a commendable job making a case for the bombings.

Smartly, Rhodes doesn't make any judgments. Such a debate would not have fit well within these pages. Instead, he lets the Japanese survivors have their say, forcing you to acknowledge that in making utilitarian arguments about the greater good, we are not dealing with chess pieces on a board, but the lives of men and women and children. Yet Rhodes also tells the story of the American troops preparing for the potential invasion of Japan. He quotes one young American officer's remembrance: “We were going to live!”


The destruction they'd wrought led many of the scientists involved to back away from their invention. Rhodes gives a taste of this in the epilogue, though you'll have to read his sequel Dark Sun to hear the moral debate that soon sprang up. It is Oppenheimer, always crafting sentences in his head, who sums it up, and provides this book its epitaph:

Taken as a story of human achievement, and human blindness, the discoveries in the sciences are among the great epics.

Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb is more than equal to the task of capturing this sweeping, complex, and consequential event, attempting to do justice to all who were involved.
Profile Image for Infinite Jen.
83 reviews286 followers
March 26, 2023
When I was a young, I was obsessed with nuclear annihilation.

Let me start over:

Have you ever, while freshly disentangled from the gelatinous mass of your clutch, seized the opportunity to ensure increased parental investment in your livelihood by devouring your quiescent brood mates before the spark of consciousness can Hotwire their motor neurons to execute escape clauses conditional on murderous sisters balkanizing the fitness landscape through cannibalistic muck banging, and leap, with strained urgency in a manner perpendicular to the plane of your cakehole? Was your scrumptious feast then interrupted by a dizzying flash and the appearance, upon the distant horizon, of a great plume of ash and smoke rising from the ground like a blighted cauliflower, causing you to croak to your mother, “I always thought the naïve techno-optimist conception of history was missing some crucial ingredient, and here we see the term which was lacking from the equation.” Your mother, having now been roused from her morphean passivity by the liberation of energy from matter in accordance with Einstein’s famous equation, and witnessing her newborn daughter pontificating on the ineffable nature of man’s continued folly while committing obligate siblicide, finds it all too much. “Fool daughter, had this passionate self interest, which your current crime so grotesquely espouses, been subordinated to cooperative ends, things could’ve been very different.” She says. And, moments before the blast wave hits, with mucosal skin shimmering and a soup of partially developed embryos cascading down your chin, a eureka moment detonates inside your amphibian brain. “It was potential energy. That’s what was missing. Mother, suppose for a moment that all life in the universe, after having crossed the Rubicon of abiogenesis, must continue to evolve and proliferate through Darwinian means of selection which inherently biases agents towards some level of competition and cooperation which finds a kind of equilibrium in an environment with no gross asymmetries. However, suppose further that some of these genetic landscapes produce highly intelligent species who are able to rapidly innovate technologies which allow them to displace and outcompete all rivals. Will this inertia cause them to inevitably converge upon civilization destabilizing weaponry? What means of governance could curtail their avarice? What social policies promote the best incentives for altruism?” To which your mother replies, “Please wipe your mouth. I can’t take you seriously like -“ [End transmission]

That’s not it.

Have you ever, after staggering from your mother’s womb, fully formed, with a cowl of placenta pulled low for dramatic purposes, found yourself so enthused by the de facto metric of modern eschatology (i.e. Megatonnage), that you clutched a history of humanity’s most existential innovation to your chest like the Holy Bible, and, upon being inquiried (?) by an elderly relative about the nature of the distended repository of phonetic scribblings (i.e. “What’s that book you have there, young lady?”) concealing your still flexible and diminutive xiphoid process from view like a riot shield emblazoned with a photorealistic decal of a mushroom cloud, replied by holding the tomb aloft with trembling arms and squealed, “Pickle! Hehehehe!” Eliciting coos from your assembled family in the way that only neotenous specimens designed to prey upon the sympathies of care givers can, (i.e. children, bestest good boy doggos, and moe animation) and quips such as, “She’s definitely your daughter Björn! An engineer through and through!” To which your towering, unbelievably lanky father, being more loquacious during the long disquisition on your perspicacity than he would ever be again, says, “She took apart a chair in the kitchen with her barehands. It must’ve taken days of hiding the screws. If you balance this against the fact that she can’t tie her shoes, and continually hides spiders in her mouth, I think there is still room for hope.” Causing raucous laughter which conceals your retreat into the shade of a big tree in the front yard, wherein you page through the book and muse, “Mustn’t arouse suspicion, Jen. No one has any clue how those screws were repurposed. But if they found it, your cuteness could no longer be relied upon to render your complex motives opaque. And if they found your notes on Mr. Rhodes magisterial account… perish the thought. It was bad enough when you had to eat the paper you wrote on Husserl, yet still your father found the scathing conclusion clinging to your lips like a pithy dissertation vomited from a fortune cookie, “Phenomenology has tested to the extreme my ability to believe that so much intelligence could have gone to serve so futile an undertaking.” He read aloud, squinting at the shred of paper. Surmising that this must’ve came from a textbook in his personal study. Yes, your daughter has an appetite for angry diatribes. It is your good fortune that he takes this literally and does not suspect your aptitude for doling out hot takes. What would he make of your interest in fission reactions? A child who reads The Making of The Atomic Bomb must be contemplating subversion, must have sold her soul to that devil, Uranium 234. That she might simply be reading The Making of The Atomic Bomb to elevate her mind is so incongruous a conceit that no member of the adult class could ever entertain it - oh look, a spider!” ?

Wait, here we are.

This is a complete and authoritative exploration of mankind’s most glorious repository of latent violence. The potential energy in the equation. That which has dissolved, (like any physical tool or concept that becomes ubiquitous enough in use or exchange,) into a soporific realm where colloquialisms senesce but continue to deform the beings they inhabit in ways we do not readily perceive. When the measurements of the car are so clearly etched in your autonomic nervous system that you can sense if you will fit through a space while driving it, where you is a term which captures the unconscious synthesis of you and the mechanical chassis whose dimensions you’ve expanded into. When you cease to regard the hammer as a separate entity and see only your ability to pulverize nails. No idea is without consequence. No technology is created that does not modify those who use it. When the object has so thoroughly penetrated consciousness, it renders banal what is meta-cognitively shocking: “We, as a species, have constructed a technology capable of annihilating all life on earth and rendering it uninhabitable to all but the most hardy extremophiles.” How lifeless (no pun intended) this hypothetical must be for us. How many wake from an agitated half sleep in a littered bed, with the radiant heat of their own imaginings burning their brains to ashes, and shouting, “The earth riven by a big tongue of ice in an epochal period of geological cunnilingus induced by nuclear winter in a diffracted modernity that those damnable physicists helped inaugurate!”? Mutually assured destruction becomes a “doctrine of military strategy”. Suffering an abstract. Collateral damage a surreptitious locution. War as historical, as that which happens to other people. Thermonuclear explosion, how tiresome. The sword of Damocles is invisible and we continue to exult in our civilizing progress. What of this book? No detail is spared in examining the conceptual birth, invention, and execution of this thanatopic undertaking. All the dramatis personae receive thorough treatment, the technical details are explored right up to the limit of their inclusion becoming prohibitive to scientifically educated lay persons, and our subsequent deployment of this technology (bombs which would seem positively quaint in light of the hydrogen weapons we now posses) to incinerate two Japanese cities, including the historical context under which this grave decision was made, is examined with all the horrible minutiae one could ask for. Is it enough to infuse somnolent semantics with real life? Perhaps briefly. But, with time, they all - we all - go back to sleep.
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
804 reviews2,536 followers
December 30, 2018
It was with some trepidation that I started to read this book. It is such a lengthy book, and I didn't anticipate enjoying it very much. I thought that it would be emphasize mundane details about the Manhattan Project. But, I was happily surprised by the scope of the book. The Manhattan Project actually takes up less than a third of its pages.

The first third of the book is about the discovery of modern physics, and the lives of scientists who played a major part in the discovery. The book examines the peeling back of the onion of modern physics, much in the way of a detective story. Modern physics involves the structure of the atom, quantum mechanics, and relativity. Both the physics and the personal lives of the revolutionary scientists are described, in great detail. Richard Rhodes has a talent for weaving together the threads of a complex story. These threads follow lines of reasoning, experiments and theoretical work.

The second third of the book describes how scientists came to the realization that fission is possible, using a chain reaction with neutrons. This portion of the book also describes the darkening of Europe due to the rise of the Nazis. Some of the book was devoted to the rise of Antisemitism in Germany, and the resultant flight of Jewish scientists out of the continent. This phase of the book is important, as it helps explain the number of Jewish scientists who worked on the atomic bomb.

The last third of the book described the Manhattan Project; not so much the project itself, but the realization in Great Britain and the United States, that it was necessary to develop an atomic bomb. It was known that Germany and Japan were working on the bomb, and if either country beat the Allies to its development, that would spell out a very bad ending to the war.

I learned a tremendous amount from this book, and there were several aspects of the book that truly stick in my mind. The role of serendipity played a part in the discovery of Enrico Fermi and his colleagues. The found that slow neutrons increase radioactivity more than fast ones, while doing an experiment on a wooden table. Then the repeated the experiment on a marble table and noticed a marked reduction in radioactivity! This led to a greater understanding that neutron speeds, inhibited by the presence of hydrogen in the wooden table, were an important factor in creating chain reactions.

Several characters played a very central part in the book; of course, General Leslie Groves, Leo Szilard and Robert Oppenheimer played central roles in the story. But, the most interesting character was the Danish scientist Niels Bohr. He won the Nobel Prize for his work in understanding the strucutre of the atom and quantum mechanics. Besides this, he was politically active. He went to President Roosevelt and to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, to try to convince them to share the atomic bomb with the Soviet Union. He was concerned about the political balance of power after World War II. His ideas were dismissed by both leaders. He also played a key role in saving thousands of Jews in Denmark, by persuading the King of Sweden to allow them to escape into Sweden, to avoid capture by the Nazis.

Some readers question why this book needs to be so long, so detailed, and sometimes describing events that appear to be so tangential to the main story. But this epic book brings the various threads together, and in retrospect these threads all seem vital to the story line. He weaves together the personalities of the scientists, their experiments and discoveries, and the politics on national and international scales, that were so important at the time. Richard Rhodes explains why both the United States and Great Britain found it necessary to develop, and finally to drop the atomic bombs on Japan.

The book brings so many anecdotes with important messages to the main story line. The making of the atomic bomb did not occur in a single place at a single time. It evolved over continents and half a century. The technical problems were formidable, and the political issues perhaps equally difficult.

Profile Image for Brett C(urrently overseas again).
784 reviews165 followers
June 6, 2021
This was a highly detailed account of the creation of the atomic bomb. Richard Rhodes set the standard for this subject in my opinion. The story was told from multiple angles with scientific, historical, and biographical but it all connects to deliver an epic story. The science behind nuclear physics, quantum mechanics, and radiochemistry were discussed to great length. Explained in detail was the history and weaponization of uranium (isotopes U235 and U238, uranium enrichment and uranium hexafluoride, uranium oxide, etc.). History was explained to include 19-20th century Europe and the scientific community, the rise of Hitler and antisemitism, WW1 and the escalation to WW2, and various other related topics.

Biographies of many important people and their accomplishments were discussed at great length: Ernest Rutherford (early atomic model), Marie Curie (radioactivity), Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg (quantum mechanics and electrons), Enrico Fermi (neutron bombardment, nuclear chain reactions, and atomic fission), J. Robert Oppenheimer (the theoretical physicist who put it all together at Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico and the Manhattan Project), and many others who all contributed to the field of nuclear energy, theoretical physics, and quantum theory. Even the psychological profiles of these individuals was discussed:
Were this thinking not in the framework of scientific work, it would be considered paranoid. In scientific work, creative thinking demands seeing things not previously seen, or in ways not previously imagined...the difference between the thinking of the paranoid patient and the scientist comes from the latter's ability and willingness to test out his fantasies or grandiose conceptualizations through the systems of checks and balances science has established. pg. 151

Overall this was a time consuming read but worth it in the end. There were lots of moderately advanced theories and concepts given but with careful attention and focus I think anyone can grasp them. I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in this subject and also would recommend American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. That is an outstanding biography of the man. Thanks!
Profile Image for Stefania Dzhanamova.
525 reviews306 followers
May 1, 2021
Physicists had pondered the possibilities of atomic liberation since the turn of the 20th century. As early as 1904, during a lecture to the British Corps of Royal Engineers, the physicist Frederick Soddy noted the atom's potential: "The man who puts his hand on the lever by which a parsimonious nature regulates so jealously the output of this store of energy would possess a weapon by which he could destroy the world if he chose." Soddy is known to have later inspired H. G. Wells' novel in which the major cities of the world are destroyed by atom bombs the size of a cannonball.
But it wasn't only scientists and sci-fi writers who envisioned a nuclear future. Since the First World War, Prime Minister Winston Churchill had dreamt of a weapon that could be created in a laboratory, and that would somehow contain hitherto unfathomable destructive forces. He imagined something "the size of an orange" which would be inconceivably more powerful than any existing technology. Such a weapon would be used by a decisive air power that, simply by threatening innumerable lives, would paradoxically serve to save many others.
This controversial political sentiment foreshadowed the weak beginnings of the relationship between scientists and the US Federal Government. During WWII years, physicists found they could exert little influence on the formation of atomic policy. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki surprised and horrified Hungarian refugee physicist Leo Szilard, who as one of the developers of this terrible weapon of war felt a full measure of guilt. In the petition to the President that he had circulated among the atomic scientists in July 1945, Szilard argued that large moral responsibilities devolved upon the United States in consequence of its possession of the bomb. Remarkably, Robert Oppenheimer, the wartime head of Los Lamos, the bomb design laboratory in New Mexico, refused to sign the petition, writing Szilard he felt "that I should do the wrong thing if I tried to say how to tie the little toe of the ghost to the bottle from which we just helped it to escape."
In 1940, a British Government report hinted at a what would later be known as "nuclear deterrence" – an international restraint based on the threat of mutual annihilation. "It must be realised that no shelter are available that would be effective and could be used on a larger scale," noted the report in weighing responses to a Nazi bomb. "The most effective reply would be a counter-threat with a similar weapon." As Rhodes reveals, however, the United States, prodded at every step by its British allies, strove relentlessly for nuclear superiority even when Germany's defeat seemed inevitable. The ghost had indeed escaped from the bottle and there was no way to recapture him anymore. Now, it wasn't about restraining the Nazi – it was about the intoxication caused by ultimate power, about the possession of a formidable new weapon of destruction.

To quote Isaac Asimov, "The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom." If thousands, tens of thousands, of wolves wage a fight among themselves – with growls and bloodshed, and a myriad of stinking corpses – we would laugh at them for annihilating their own kind and ridicule their stupidity. Yet, we, the "rational animals", who are above such weapons as claws and fangs, devise arrows, spears, bullets, bombs to do the very same! The development of the atomic bomb provided the nations with just another, even more innovative, form of destruction of our own kind. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is as horrific a crime as the Nazi crimes against peace and humanity; it is a crime against morality and wisdom.
The safety of a nation – as opposed to its ability to inflict appalling damage on the enemy power – cannot lie primarily in its scientific and technological capability. It can be based only on making future war impossible. But does the atomic bomb eliminate the possibilities of total wars in the future?
Once, the Great War, with its two dozen varieties of poison gas and other terrible innovations, was "the war to end all wars" because a more horrible conflict could not be imagined. Yet, the Second World War, the "war to start them all again", broke out only twenty years later. In 1944, the book's most enduring figure, the Danish Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr, warned Roosevelt and Churchill that only an international cooperation on the bomb project could eventually grow into a negotiated peace that would tolerate nuclear weapons; the alternative was an arms race in which many nations would participate because there was no way to monopolize the atom's secrets. Yet, both statesmen had already agreed, in Quebec in August 1943, to keep the atomic secret to themselves, with the implicit goal of a Western atomic monopoly. What they haven't anticipated is their ally Stalin's spies pervading Los Lamos, and informing the Soviet dictator of the bomb's creation. Thus, FDR and Churchill's unwise policy led to even more distrustful attitude on the Soviet part and contributed to the subsequent Cold War. Just as Bohr had predicted, the nations' rush for atomic security would paradoxically make them even less secure, even closer to the brink of annihilation.
"It did not take atomic weapons to make men want peace," justified his nightmarish creation Oppenheimer. "But the atomic bomb was the turn of the screw. It made the prospect of future war unendurable." Yet, the moral drawn from the atomic "saga" and its legacy of arms development is that science can lead to evil and its temptations can hardly be resisted. Modern nations do not hinder their scientists because they put inordinate power in the hands of the government. But where will this steady march of technology onward bring us? How soon will the atomic bomb, just like the medieval torture devices, the sabres and the rifles, become an obsolete entity, a museum exhibit? And when it becomes, what is that power that will replace and overshadow it?

Richard Rhodes gives one plenty food for thought. His richly detailed, thoroughly researched work provides unique insight into the dawn of nuclear age. It is more than a recount of the Los Lamos project and the razing of two Japanese cities; it is a study that intertwines early history of atomic physics with the complex political, military, and moral issues surrounding the development of the atomic bomb.
Profile Image for W.
1,185 reviews4 followers
December 17, 2020
Finishing this Pulitzer Prize winning book turned out to be quite a slog.There is way too much detail about theoretical physics and technicalities involved in making the atomic bomb.It is almost a technical manual.

In addition,there are details about the lives of the scientists who worked on the project,but those are not particularly compelling either.

The liveliest portion of the book deals with the actual attack on Hiroshima.The tales of the victims are harrowing,but this portion is all too brief.

The pilot who commanded the mission was Colonel Paul W.Tibbets,a name I remember with distaste.For him,the mission was "impersonal." He proudly named the plane,"The Enola Gay" after his mother.

A crew member of his wrote,however,that he could not get those few minutes of horror out of his mind,if he lived a hundred years.

The attack on Nagasaki is dealt with even more quickly.The description of the fighting on the Pacific islands,prior to the dropping of the bombs is fairly interesting,however.

Also,the part about the fire bombing of Tokyo and Dresden.Tokyo was already burnt out,otherwise it could have been a target for the atomic bomb.

By and large,however,this felt like a theoretical physics textbook and I had to skim a great deal.

And finally,the unease felt by some of the scientists including Oppenheimer,about what they had unleashed on the world."I am become death,the destroyer of worlds." Too little remorse,too late.

This book could have done with a great deal of trimming and less tecnicalities to make it more interesting.

I was also reminded of anxious days in February last year when the prospect of nuclear war between India and Pakistan seemed like a real possibility,once more.Not that it would be the last time.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,686 followers
May 18, 2016
“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”
― Oppenheimer's translation from Bhagavad-Gita in Richard Rhodes, Making of the Atomic Bomb


“Now we are all sons of bitches.”
― Richard Bainbridge, quoted in Richard Rhodes, Making of the Atomic Bomb

I use the world masterpiece with a certain reservation. It is overused. Abused even. It is a word that can easily lose its power if diffused into too many works by too many authors. However, I can say unabashedly that this book, this history, is a masterpiece of narrative history. It is powerful, inspirational, sad, detailed, thrilling, chilling. It has hundreds of characters. Some like the early physicists almost seem like lucky gods born at the right time. How can you not love Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Ernest Rutherford, Marie Curie? These giants seemed to fall into the right spot in history with all the brain cells needed. But on top of this, they were amazing men and women; kind and nobel. They seem to possess not just the smarts to deal with post-Newtonian physics, but a certain amount of poetry and philosophy. They seem like the Founding Fathers (and mothers) of the 20th century and the modern age.

There are also the smaller gods. The gods of war. Oppenheimer, Fermi, Teller, etc. Richard Rhodes covers them all. He explores the development of nuclear physics without losing the reader, he follows the development of the bomb and the enrichment of uranium and production of plutonium. He details the work and the failures in Japan and German. He provides a fair assessment of the environment and the horror of World War 2. He literally leaves few stones unturned. The bombs when they come seem both anticipated and surprising. I felt a pressure in my shoulders and neck as I read about the Trinity tests and the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But Rhodes doesn't let the reader off the hook. He spend almost 20 pages detailing the oral histories of those who saw the effects of the bombs first hand in Hiroshima. Those who lived to tell the horrible tale.


If there are heroes in this tale, they are always heroes with a dark asterisk, or Quixotic heroes. Bohr trying to convince politicians to take risks with peace, to convince war leaders to think beyond the dropping of a bomb. Szilard trying desperately to convince scientists to remain quiet in the beginning to avoid Germany finding out, and later working to convince England and the US to include the Soviet Union to avoid an arms race. There is Oppenheimer and his struggles with the fate that his gifts provided for him to midwifing this rough beast into existence.

It is a noble and a sad and a horrific and a beautiful book all at once and it deserved all of the awards (Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award) it won.

I have read hundreds of nonfiction books and thousand of books, and only a dozen may be better.

...And I'm still not done. I want to add more...
Profile Image for Clinton.
65 reviews4 followers
July 17, 2007
If you want to impress women, read French poetry.

If you want to impress my dad, read something with a title like A Hero Will Rise: A World War II POW's Introspection About the War in the Pacific, the Bataan Death March, General McArthur, Iwo Jima, and P-38s. Oh, and John Wayne.

If you want to impress a geeky engineer, read The Making of the Atomic Bomb. I can't imagine a more complete and authoritative work about one of mankind's most important inventions. When people speak of great human accomplishments in the 20th century, they invariably reference von Braun and the race to the moon. This book shows that the development of the atomic bomb was, while morally questionable, arguably just as amazing in its engineering and scientific prowess.

Rhodes does not ignore any aspect of the process. This book is a scientific history, a political history, a biography, and a technical manual. He begins in the 19th century at the advent of nuclear physics, and walks through the lives of its significant contributors. He goes into (often excrutiating) details about the development of the first nuclear reactors, the early life of Oppenheimer, and the development of the amazing military-industrial complex required to create the small amount of material needed for the three atom bombs detonated during World War II (one test unit and the two used over Japan). Rhodes makes the people involved seem human and manages to mostly avoid social commentary, merely presenting the facts as they were.

This is truly an amazing book. If you read it, I suggest keeping a running list of names: there are a LOT of people referenced. I plan on reading this book again sometime, although it did take me three months to get through it the first time.
Profile Image for Laura Noggle.
676 reviews387 followers
December 19, 2019
A calamity of coincidences.

This book is heavy, laden with intricate detail and the minutiae that had to coalesce to create, and detonate the first atomic bombs.

It took me 3 months to read this weighty tome, the last chapter was especially nauseating.

It’s difficult to give a book like this on the mass murder of thousands of civilians a five star rating, but Rhodes did an impeccable job tying together all the threads that wove this dark tapestry in world history. From the men who discovered, and decided to build the atomic bomb—once set in motion the end was almost inescapable.

Could the Allies have won WWII without it? Were the justifications sound?

All we have is conjecture and opinion, the deed was done.

This book lays out the entire surrounding history in a dry, matter of fact way devoid of judgement.

Rhodes is an exceptional historian and the details are important lest we ever forget and repeat such atrocities.

~ Full RTC ~
Profile Image for Andrej Karpathy.
110 reviews3,468 followers
December 13, 2016
For thousands of years man's capacity to destroy was limited to spears, arrows and fire. 120 years ago we learned to release chemical energy (e.g. TNT), and 70 years ago we learned to be 100 million times+ more efficient by harnessing the nuclear strong force energy with atomic weapons, first through fission and then fusion. We've also miniaturized these brilliant inventions and learned to mount them on ICBMs traveling at Mach 20. Unfortunately, we live in a universe where the laws of physics feature a strong asymmetry in how difficult it is to create and to destroy. This observation is also not reserved to nuclear weapons - more generally, technology monotonically increases the possible destructive damage per person per dollar. This is my favorite resolution to the Fermi paradox.

But I digress. Rhodes' "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" is a wonderful and exhaustingly detailed case study of the development of a transformative technology - the atomic bomb. The book is very thorough and covers the initial discoveries in nuclear physics, the early experiments, the government's intervention, the massive Manhattan project and its parallels in 4 other world powers, the associated secrecy, diplomacy, sabotage and espionage, and finally culminates with death and destruction at Hiroshima/Nagasaki and the associated political and ethical dilemmas.

I'll summarize the book to give an idea of what it's about and highlight some parts I found interesting.

The story of the bomb begins circa 1938 against the backdrop of an imminent second world war with a series of rapid discoveries that showed that if you shoot a neutron into a Uranium 235 isotope atom, the atom rapidly becomes unstable, breaks up and gives off 1) a lot of energy and 2) an average of 2.5 more neutrons. A number of scientists immediately realized that if you "chain" this effect you'd make a bomb. Making an atomic bomb therefore amounts to 1) isolating the U-235 isotope from natural Uranium (which is mostly (99.3%) an un-fissionable U-238), and 2) shooting one handful of U-235 into another at a high speed with some conventional explosive. Alternatively, a completely separate path was discovered: you could transform Uranium to Plutonium (which is much easier to separate) and create a bomb using a more complex implosion mechanism. Not knowing which path to take, the US ended up pursuing both a U-235 bomb ("Little Boy") and a Plutonium bomb ("Fat Man") with their entirely separate industrial processes. Amusingly, both paths converged within 3 days of each other in the summer of 1945, and the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima/Nagasaki respectively. This terrifying display of technological superiority forced Japan to accept an unconditional surrender and ended the second world war.

It was quite interesting to follow the political commitment of each world power in response to the scientific developments. The US established a committee in 1939 to investigate the potential of building a nuclear bomb but it crawled at a snail's speed for 3 years until almost half of the second world war was over, mostly due to the incompetence of key individuals (e.g. Lyman Briggs, who sat on the UK's MAUD report, or possibly Enrico Fermi who in an early meeting with Admiral Hopper cited the necessary critical mass as possibly being on the order of a small sun when he knew better). However, with the intervention of Oliphant et al. the US finally stirred in 1942 and started the Manhattan project. As for the other countries, paraphrasing, the UK was like: "Here US, we did a lot of the theory work but we're kind of busy dealing with Germany over here.", Germany was like: "This isn't going to be ready in 3-5 year time horizon and we're kind of in a lot of trouble, so we're going to poke at it a bit at most. Also, our anti-semitism cost us half of all nuclear physicists so that wasn't ideal.", Japan was like: "We can try our best but we don't really have the resources", and the Soviet Union was like: "We're kind of behind here so we're going to go all out on espionage."

The Manhattan project was a spectacular display of national technical achievement. Niels Bohr has said that "[building the bomb] can never be done unless you turn the United States into one huge factory". Luckily, it wasn't nearly as bad. In a few years, The Manhattan Project took ~$50B 2016 dollars, which was about 0.4% of the US GDP in its peak or only about 9 days of the total war spending. In its peak it employed about 125,000 people (about 0.1% of all workforce) and grew to be about as large as the 1945 US automobile industry. Most of its complexity went into the laborious process of isolating U-235/Plutonium from natural Uranium. Once the infrastructure was in place it was possible to produce several atomic bombs per month.

The bombs were not ready in time for the defeat of Germany in 1945, but Truman decided to use the bombs on Japan to 1) prevent further loss of American lives in face of Japan that was deeply dug in and clearly unwilling to surrender and, as is hinted at, 2) to justify the costs of the project. The Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima and killed an estimated 70K people (eventually 200K by 5 years). The Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki a few days later and caused 60% of that. What I did not realize was that these casualties were large but not astronomical. For example, a single day of bombing Tokyo with conventional explosives killed 100K people and injured 1M. What I also didn't know is that Liutenant General Leslie Groves (who was in charge of the Manhattan Project) was strongly in favor of dropping one of the bombs on Kyoto, the serene "Rome of Japan" established back in 793. Luckily, his plan was vetoed by the Secretary of War Stimson who refused to bomb the city due to its cultural significance. What the hell, Leslie? Unbelievable.

As I am a scientist myself, I was particularly curious about the extent to which the nuclear scientists who conceived and designed the bomb influenced the ethical/political discussions. Unfortunately, it is clearly the case that the scientists were quickly marginalized and, in effect, told to shut up and just help build the bomb. From the very start, Roosevelt explicitly wanted policy considerations restricted to a small group that excluded any scientists. As some of the more prominent examples of scientists trying to influence policy, Bohr advocated for establishing an "Open World Consortium" and sharing information about the bomb with the Soviet Union, but this idea was promptly shut down by Churchill. In this case it's not clear what effect it would have had and, in any case, the Soviets already knew a lot through espionage. Bohr also held the seemingly naive notion that scientists should continue publishing all nuclear research during the second world war as he felt that science should be completely open and rise above national disputes. Szilard strongly opposed this openness internationally, but advocated for more openness within the Manhattan project for sake of efficiency. This outraged Groves who was obsessed with secrecy. In fact, Szilard was almost arrested, suspected to be a spy, and placed under a comical surveillance that mostly uncovered his frequent visits to a chocolate store.

As a last curious historical note, World War 2 came at exactly the time when the very last conventional war could be fought. Given the advances in nuclear physics, starting a conflict a few years after 1939 would have been impossible due to the danger of all-out nuclear war in which everyone loses. I had also often thought about what would have happened if Germany did not execute Operation Barbarossa and open the Eastern front with the Soviet Union, which could have bought it extra time and resources to cause more havoc elsewhere in Europe/North Africa. This book provides the answer - the US nuclear weapon program was so far ahead of the German program that even if the war dragged on longer, Germany would have been reduced to irradiated ash.

It is almost impossible to do justice to this tome, so let me conclude by saying that the story includes awesome nuclear physics, science superheros, fanatical supervillans, massive factories appearing in the desert, political intrigue, British commandos on secret missions, explosions, oh and - it all actually happened. Great read, 5/5.

Additional Reading:

- Operation Epsilon, Captured Nazi Scientists at Farm Hall learning about the US dropping the Atomic Bomb: transcripts http://germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/p... . Very interesting reading that features Heisenberg, Hahn et al. confronting the fact that US built and used nuclear weapons.
Profile Image for Max.
343 reviews308 followers
January 18, 2014
Richard Rhodes’ big dense book is detailed, focused and all-encompassing much like the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb it describes. Rhodes’ history is a blend of physics, politics, war, diplomacy and personal relationships. It challenges both one’s intellect and moral judgment. It raises as many questions as it answers and some of the most important still remain after almost 70 years.

Why did the U.S. get the atomic bomb ahead of Germany and other nations? The U. S. had the quantity and quality of scientists and the massive industrial and material resources required. Just as important was the signature American can-do and will-do attitude.

Hitler’s 1933 expulsion of Jewish scientists from Germany’s universities and Mussolini’s anti-Semitic policies led to key talented nuclear physicists coming to the U. S. Driven by their personal experience and overwhelming fear of Hitler’s getting the bomb first, these scientists convinced the American government to take the bomb seriously. When their expertise was combined with existing U.S. scientific talent, a “critical mass” of ideas rebounded through this emergent physics community resulting in the atomic bomb. Germany’s remaining scientists, while talented, were too few, too isolated and had too few resources. Other nations had even less capability.

The processes required to make a bomb required huge investments to construct the plants necessary to purify and enrich the uranium and create the isotopes and plutonium needed. No other nation’s economy could support this huge expenditure of resources while also fighting a war. Last but not least, once the decision was made America’s commitment was unwavering both from the military and scientific communities. The making of the atom bomb was a truly remarkable achievement of organization, leadership, persistence and cooperation.

Unfortunately the discovery of the immense power of the atom leaves us in a much more dangerous world. The mechanization and application of science to war in WWI and WWII had already significantly increased war’s reach and destructiveness. Furthermore, these wars had already led to the acceptance of mass killing of civilians as standard policy before the bomb was developed. The atom bomb was merely the next step. Huge incendiary attacks that created firestorms killing tens of thousands at a time were regularly employed. Now a bomb could kill hundreds of thousands in a flash.

But the atomic bomb is also an equalizer. We see it today. A small terrorist nation with atomic bombs is a power to be reckoned with. No longer can America confronting such countries go unscathed due to its overwhelming economic and industrial might. The calculus of war is forever changed.

Rhodes book begs the question: How many nations or groups will ultimately get the bomb and when will it be used again. The genie is out of the bottle and even though it’s been a while since his power was unleashed, nothing indicates the genie will ever go back. The imbroglio over Iran’s bomb project is a current example, but probably far from the last, even if it is resolved short of war. Starting before the first bomb was detonated; international agreements aimed to control the bomb have been formulated. Sadly as Rhodes history of war and science recounts, effective controls of such a powerful weapon do not seem to be within the bounds of human nature.

“The Making of the Atomic Bomb” is very highly recommended for so many reasons: Captivating history, fascinating science, great writing full of suspense and adventure (even though you know the end), but most of all as a reminder of the high stakes grim world of seventy years ago and the legacy it left to haunt us.
Profile Image for Lorna.
678 reviews367 followers
July 24, 2018
Making of the Atomic Bomb, Pulitzer Prize winner in 1988, was a well-researched and comprehensive history exploring the making of the atomic bomb, beginning with World War I, the genesis of the Manhattan Project and continuing through the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing an end to World War II. Rhodes divides the book into three parts; the first section exploring the history of nuclear physics from the discovery of radioactivity at the end of the nineteenth century. It also explores the background of the scientists, including Bohr, Fermi, Teller, Oppenheimer, Lawrence, and Szilard, who would later come to be an integral part of the Manhattan Project. The second section concentrated on the actual making of the atomic bomb as well as the scope of the Manhattan Project featuring Oppenheimer's unique talent directing the lab at Los Alamos. The third section explores the final steps in preparing the atomic bomb for delivery as well as exploring the fears of many of the scientists. This book ends with the devastation and utter destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in excruciating detail as well as in vivid photographs. This is an important book for all of us.

"Robert Oppenheimer oversaw all this activity with self-evident competence and an outward composure that almost everyone came to depend on. 'Oppenheimer was probably the best lab director I have ever seen,' Teller repeats, 'because of the great mobility of his mind, because of 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.'"

"'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another."
Profile Image for Michael Perkins.
Author 6 books354 followers
October 23, 2021
The book is very TMI about everything and everybody. The other factor is that the events he covers have largely faded from memory. I think it’s safe to say that it would not get published today.

Nevertheless, I learned a great deal from this book. And will read more about it from shorter tomes.

At this point, the book likely best serves as a very well-documented reference book.


J. Robert Oppenheimer was, perhaps, the smartest, best educated, and most literary of the whole bunch and did a brilliant job of managing The Manhattan Project.

Oppenheimer was also way ahead of the other scientists with his investigations of the subtleties of the invisible cosmic margins, where he modeled the imploding collapse of dying suns and described theoretical stellar objects that would not be discovered for thirty and forty years—neutron stars, black holes—because the instruments required to detect them, radio telescopes and X-ray satellites, had not been invented yet. Unfortunately, he died before he could pursue this further

Back in the news...



This more recent book about the Bomb actually has some material that "Making" lacks and is written in a very accessible way.

Profile Image for Boy Blue.
444 reviews66 followers
July 28, 2022
Magisterial is a word that I don't often find cause to use with the books I read. Here it is completely apt but then so is the word exhausting.

This book was both my most fascinating and tortuous read in recent memory, it's like trying to take a drink from a firehose.

Rhodes' research is beyond comprehensive but his writing is for the most part quite dry. He's interested in accuracy and facts, not so much artistry and feeling. Towards the end his prose gets a lot more florid as all the fallout from the bombs charges both the time in history and the prose with poignancy. It's where we cut from the decades of scientific work to the eventual victims of those great leaps that the prose naturally becomes heavy with that unforgettable and immense, personal cost.

The book's weakest element is its occasional staccato rhythm. At times we jump from place to place, person to person, making discovery after discovery, and decision after decision with the only link being a temporal one. As if the research of Fermi in his lab in Rome and the decisions of Churchill at 10 Downing St can be juxtaposed simply because they happened on the same day.

Rhodes also has an enormous run-up. There are at least 200 pages of scientific history leading into the First World War. Rhodes starts way back at the birth of nuclear physics, with Rutherford and his coterie (Interesting side note Rutherford directly mentored 11 Nobel prize winners) and their counterparts on the continent; Bohr, the Joliot-Curies, the Germans and Hungarians shaping science. Rhodes does a great job of outlining the old system of mentor driven science, where one would chose a great man or woman to essentially apprentice themselves to. It made me nostalgic for a type of education that is largely absent in today's business of universities. While it's a big run-up, you could do much worse for a primer on turn of the century physics.

The period of discovery from Rutherford discovering the atomic nucleus to the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki could certainly be put forward as the greatest scientific period in human history. The community and fraternity of scientists across the globe preceding the Great Wars is also heartening and certainly a golden era I imagine all scientists wish we could return to.

As for the main event there is no stone, pebble, or grain of sand that remains unturned in the examination of this history altering moment. For me it's the interesting little side notes that provide such rich texture to a history that everyone around the world at least knows the basics of. Things like when they were making the dozens of enormous cyclotrons for production of Uranium there was a copper shortage and they had to contact the US Mint to ask if they could borrow some silver and form it into wire as a copper replacement. The Mint asked how much Silver they needed and the scientists responded with a tonnage amount to which the Mint replied "We measure things here in Troy Ounces please send us the correct amount using the right measurements." The little peccadilloes of bureaucracy taking centre stage when a race to save the world is on can't help but make me laugh.

There's some fantastic profiles of truly great scientists in this book and it's not one of those pop science or psuedo science books where every person is some quirky character described by a few flippant physical characteristics. I probably learned the most about Fermi from this book he is an absolute giant. I came across Robert Wilson's take on Fermi in another book.

"Wilson left Princeton when J. Robert Oppenheimer invited him to join the then-fledgling Manhattan Project. Despite initial reluctance, he wound up being the youngest group leader in the experimental division when Enrico Fermi persuaded him to head the Cyclotron Group—by promising to meet with Wilson every week to talk about physics. "Sure, I sold out," Wilson later said. "Everyone has his price, and mine was a few moments each week with Fermi."

I did notice Rhodes really had a fetish with Szilard and that seemingly translated into his next book Dark Sun about the Hydrogen bomb. There's no doubt Szilard was also a giant in this period but he was slightly more auxiliary when it came to these atomic bombs. I wonder if maybe the attention lathered on Szilard would have been better focused on some of the other dozen scientists who had such big contributions but perhaps Szilard's ego demands the attention.

This is such a minor complaint with what is the best science book I've ever read, I've been cautiously recommending it to people, mainly ones who I know are either deeply passionate about this area or have an abundance of time on their hands. Rhodes' work definitely has a place in the pantheon of great history and science books
Profile Image for Kogiopsis.
763 reviews1,476 followers
December 5, 2011
This was the textbook for my freshman seminar at college. The class was titled 'The Manhattan Project: Studies in Science and Lessons for Mankind' and while it was not what I expected going in, it was generally pretty good; I liked my professor and my classmates and we had good discussions, so it was a positive experience. I was not, however, crazy about this as a textbook, at least for the class: Rhodes focuses a lot on the technical aspects of the bomb and only deals with the tremendous ethical issue it presents in the last one or two chapters, plus an epilogue. Similarly, the class spent more time than I wanted on technical physics, particularly in the beginning, and only had two conversations that even touched on the ethics of Truman's final decision.
The text is also rather poorly organized: it starts at one period in time and then abruptly jumps backwards, working its way slowly forwards again - so slowly that when it reaches its original stopping point and becomes briefly entangled in Rhodes' struggling to highlight how this is The Moment all over again (even though it was the entire first chapter) it's honestly hard to tell what's going on. Add to this the vast number of names, some of them very similar to each other, and what you get is a book which often verges into the realm of 'unreadably esoteric'.
Eventually, though, it got more readable. I still could have done with less technical physics bits, but... apparently that can't be helped. Oh well.
Bottom line: not recommended for pleasure reading, unless you really like physics, but not a horrible textbook.

One of the themes of this book, and one of the things which came up repeatedly in my class, was the idea that over time the definition of 'military target' grew and grew and grew until now anyone - you, me, the kids in that elementary school across the street - is an acceptable military target. I hadn't been thinking about this much until just yesterday, when this speech came up in my podcast feed. It chilled and depressed me, and what it made me think is this: we often say that we learned from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that we wouldn't do something so horrible again, and maybe we wouldn't - in a single moment like that, at least. We wouldn't make a decision to kill hundreds of thousands of people and leave others in pure agony as the result of a single explosion, but we would and we do make decisions to allow bombing of noncombattants or to invade countries in order to "get our way in the world". We're still doing horrible things. We're still killing innocents for no reason at all other than flagrant disrespect for human life. We didn't really learn - if anything, we've gotten worse, because we're not really talking about it anymore. We live in a world where people argue that showing pictures of the victims at Hiroshima in a Smithsonian is 'treason', where the news doesn't cover American atrocities, where 'American lives' matter more than the lives of women and children and old people and innocent human beings going about their daily lives in other countries.
I don't hate my country. I don't even really hate the people who let it become this way, or those who encouraged it. But I am very, very sad for all of us and to be honest, especially them. I'm sad for people who think that the value of a human life changes depending on where it is in relation to an arbitrary border. They've lost something valuable and I'm not sure if they can ever get it back. It is the responsibility of all Americans to ensure that our country doesn't lose that same thing: respect for people.

EDIT: I almost forgot - there are a couple of quotes from the epilogue that I wanted to add.

"The fireball," writes Leona Marshall Libby, "expanded to three miles in diameter. Observers, all evacuated to 40 miles or more away, saw millions of gallons of [atoll] lagoon water, turned to steam, appear as a giant bubble. When the steam had evaporated, they saw that the island of Elugelab, where the bomb [building] had been, had vanished, vaporized also. In its place, a crater 1/2 mile deep and 2 miles wide had been torn in the reef."
(Describing the first H-bomb test)

And, from notes taken on a talk about the future of atomic weapons:
"If we are sure to get a Third World War, the later it ocmes the worse for us.
Victor of next war will
make a world government, even if that victor should be the United States, having lost 25 million dead."
Profile Image for George Kaslov.
99 reviews132 followers
February 18, 2017
Incredibly thorough. This book features everything, the science, history of every single discovery and person related to nuclear physics, the politics, the Manhattan project, the dropping of the bomb, testimonies of the people it was dropped on (I compliment the author for adding this in, it makes sure to make the point that this is not just a bigger bomb), and polices after the A-bomb was dropped to the first test of the H-bomb. I have to say this book tested my capacity for retaining so much information, but I somehow succeeded and learned a great deal, but I admit I will have to reread the part about discovery and creation of plutonium... I see what the book Crystal Fire was inspired by, and the same warning I gave in that review still applies (even more so in this book).
Profile Image for Evan.
1,072 reviews739 followers
February 13, 2020
Like most of you, I've heard and mulled over the arguments about whether America should or shouldn't have dropped the atomic bombs on Japan to hasten the end of World War II. Historians, scholars, philosophers, armchair know-it-alls, etc., have all had a go at it. It's not so easy a question to answer definitively, despite what would seem to be an open-and-shut case on the side of the moral and right thing to do.

Consider you were a soldier, or the family of a soldier wondering if, at that moment, your son or daughter was alive and well, alive and suffering, or dead.

Consider what had happened earlier, at Monte Cassino in Italy, when Allied commanders made one of the most controversial military decisions of the war and bombed a monastery perched resolutely like a fortress astride an impregnable mountain pass. There are good arguments that that historic monastery never had to be bombed; that, in fact, the whole pass could have been gotten around at a juncture to the east, thus avoiding the head-pounding frustration of trying to take the mountain. Whatever the case, day after day -- to the grunt on the ground -- that monastery was like an evil thing that tied them down, that glowered at them like a death stare. It symbolized a kind of fatal inertia and stasis, a frustrating and threatening obstacle that seemed never-ending. When the place was bombed, it was an instant morale booster to the soldier under siege. If it was the wrong thing to do, it was something to worry about later. At least now you might have a chance to get home alive.

I thought about this when Richard Rhodes writes about the men who dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima. One is quoted, and I paraphrase: "At least this will get this thing over with and we can get home alive." If I had been that man, or any of those men, would I not think the same thing and sigh with incredible relief? What was happening on the ground was just more of what had been suffered for the past half decade worldwide. There would be more pain before the relief could come; that is just the way of it.

In 1987 , Richard Rhodes published this intricate, thoroughly impressive epic account of what happened when theoretical physics supercollided with the expediencies of war, politics and survival. Despite the ultimate horror of the implications of it all, there is an odd comfort in finding after reading this that there is one book that is the definitive history of its subject. Rhodes' account pretty much hits everything you would need to know about this epochal event in human history, and one of the good things about it is that it expects the reader to bring a little bit to the table. Some esoteric science is hashed out often in this, and it only a fraction of it makes sense, that's OK. This is a book about the process of scientific collaboration as much as it is about the particulars of problem-solving. The amount of information in it is staggering; the narrative pace is beautifully modulated and the feeling of being there in the labs, the dens, the homes, and the environs of the participants is vivid as hell. The book does a fine job of parsing out the ethical issues of what this episode has meant to the world, and explains beautifully the checks and balances of the scientific community and method of verification and discovery. Science deniers would do well to read it. Ultimately, if our government is misusing science, it's not necessarily the faults of scientists, but the ignorant malevolence of a large segment of the compliant, willfully ignorant or easily duped citizenry.

This is one of the truly essential books, and nobody has an excuse for not reading it.

kr/eg '20
Profile Image for Porter Broyles.
423 reviews40 followers
June 30, 2020
There are thousands of books on the Atomic Bomb, but only one has earned a Pulitzer Prize in History.

That Pulitzer is well deserved.

The challenge in writing a book on the bomb is not a dearth of material, but the volumes of books already on the subject. There are biographies on many of the key figures involved in making the bomb. There are histories that talk about specific stories or events that occurred during the story. Scientific manuals talking about the technical aspect of making the bomb alone could fill a small library. This does not include the studies discussing the affects after the bomb was dropped.

The challenge in writing a book on the bomb is trying to find the perfect match between the story and the details.

Richard Rhodes book is a comprehensive book.

The book is not about the Chicago Labs, or Los Alamos, or even Manhattan project. The book is about the global efforts to crack the secret of the atom. It does not begin with America's entry into WWII, but rather discusses the early study into the atom. It even delves into the discussion of other weapons of mass destruction---machine guns, chemical and biological weapons, and bombs.

Did I mention that this is a comprehensive book?

But therein lies the mastering of the English Language. A 900 page book on an Atomic Bomb could have become cumbersome and buried under the mass of information available and shared. But it does not.

Over the past few months, in preparation for the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the bomb, I have read several books on the subject. This book is easily the best. It covers everything in an interesting and education way.
Profile Image for Paula.
428 reviews36 followers
November 21, 2020
I feel both guilty and generous for giving the book 3 stars, becasue it is a full and complete authoritative, did I say complete- in every single detail- history of the making of Atomic bomb and therein lies the rub.

Its too complete. The lead up is never ending. Its every detail of 50 years of geopolitical developments in America, Europe and USSR, every discovery (and many failed theories) in applied and theoretical physics post 1900, by whom, when, and how other people felt about it, every detail of the entire lives of everyone involved (their interests in literature, their formative years, etc).

You have to have a lot of time on your hands and A LOT more interest than I did to get through this.

A fabulous easy to read and factually dense (hard to do both) is the hugely underrated book by James Mahaffey- "Atonic Accidents"- if you didn't love or couldn't finish this one- Ive read Mahffey's twice and I highly reommend it
Profile Image for Henry.
635 reviews28 followers
October 7, 2020
A monumental epic. This incredible book is a very readable history of physics and physicists in the first half of the twentieth century. It tells the story and personalities of these great scientists, as well as the political figures involved, which culminated in the atomic bomb, and shortly thereafter thermonuclear weapons. Do not be daunted by fact that it is close to 900 pages long. A history this complex and significant is deserving of a complete treatment. Although this book was published in 1986, it is, in my opinion, the definitive work on the subject readable to the general public--a college level course in physics and chemistry would be of assistance but not absolutely necessary.
Profile Image for Joel.
110 reviews50 followers
July 18, 2019
Science history at this level of breadth and depth does more than just add to the details; it changes your fundamental understanding of science and history. Most science history tends to give the impression that science advances with giant leaps of inspiration by rare geniuses, but this book shows that science is a cumulative accretion of countless incremental insights. This book illustrates other profundities of science history, for example, that the role of the experimentalists, like Rutherford and Fermi, are often as crucial as that of the theorist. Another: that the familiar hypothetico-deductive method isn't exactly how science works in real life - often, experiments are done on a hunch, without a hypothesis to falsify, and often hunches persist long after they've been falsified. These points are only appreciated by delving into the details at the level this book does.

With such profound insights into the philosophy of science available, it is a shame that the author chose instead to grasp at lofty sentiments about the nature of war and weapons of mass destruction. Of course, in a book about the atom bomb, such discussions are obligatory, and it's logical for this to be the focus of the philosophical discussions in the book. But the position that the author chose to argue - specifically, Bohr's conviction that the surest guarantee of peace in a post-nuclear world would have been for the USA to share its knowledge with Russia - is frankly nonsensical, and in historical hindsight, mistaken.

The author is clearly deeply interested in the philosophy and psychology of the characters, and he's not afraid to take an opinionated position on such matters. The background about Bohr's existentialism was interesting but somewhat puzzling, and I found the parts about "complementarity" and the descriptions of the endless policy meetings, especially in the later chapters quite boring. He should have focused more on the science because that's where he excels. He is a master at explaining technical details of the science and technology, and I was able to follow the technical discussions and learn an enormous amount about nuclear physics and chemical processes.

Another weakness of Rhodes is that his style unnecessarily difficult to follow. He gives quotes without attribution. He uses acronyms without defining them (I was sometimes able to deduce them from context, like HE - High Explosives). His sentence structure is often confusing - he likes to interrupt them with pairs of dashes. He'll use non-chronological narrative, and then specify dates without the year. He'll introduce a character briefly, and then not mention him until much later (lots of turning to the index to remind myself "who was that person?"). All this makes for slow and difficult reading.

Overall, the book works better as a history of science than a history of war and politics. It's exciting at times, but boring or confusing at others. A flawed masterpiece, but a classic, nonetheless.
Profile Image for Czarny Pies.
2,484 reviews1 follower
October 4, 2020
"The Making of the Atomic Bomb" qui a gagné tous les grand prix américains l'année de sa sortie mérite bien ses cinq étoiles. Le livre sera difficile sinon impossible à lire pour le lecteur qui n'a pas étudié la physique au niveau collégiale. Pour le lecteur qui a suivi un cours de physique au niveau universitaire, il sera une joie extraordinaire à lire.
"The Making of the Atomic Bomb" poursuit plusieurs pistes. D'abord il présente l'histoire de la mécanique quantique de ses débuts jusqu'à la veille de la deuxième grande mondiale. Il décrit les découvertes d'Einstein, de Rutherford, de Bohr, du clan Joliot-Curie, de Schrödinger, d'Heisenberg, etc. pendant la première moitié du vingtième siècle. Ensuite il raconte l'histoire du Manhattan Project du gouvernement américain ou une deuxième génération de physiciens (Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Ferme, Isidor Rabi, etc.) a fabrique une bombe atomique qui ont livré à l'air force américaine qui l'a laissé tombé sur Hiroshima. Rhodes discute aussi le contexte politique et la discussion entre les politiciens sur la question de déployer ou non la bombe atomique. Sa description de la culture de la communauté scientifique et ses petites biographies des grands scientifiques sont superbes.
La plus grand force de livre est la façon complète et rigoureuse dont Rhodes décrit chaque étape et les défis que l'on a du surmonté. Il n'y a rien de très surprenant dans les conclusions de Rhodes. Un des objectifs de la décision de lancer la bombe a été prévenir des pertes de vies de militaires américaines dans le cas d'un invasion conventionnelle du Japon. Ce qui était peut-être plus important était le désir de justifier à l'électorat américain la dépense énorme ($2 milliards) occasionnée par la fabrication de la bombe.
Rhodes parle longuement, trop à mon avis, sur les souffrances des gens de Hiroshima qui ont survécus à l'explosion. Pourtant, sa plus grande reproche aux Américains est pour la décision de ne pas donner un préavis au Russes avant de lancer la bombe. Aux yeux de Rhodes, c'est cette décision qui a déclenché la course aux armements qui a suivi la fin de la deuxième grande mondiale. Une opportunité d'inaugurer une ère de coopération internationale pour le maintien de la paix a été ainsi raté. Cette thèse de Rhodes qui est peu probable à mon avis est basée sur le fait que le grand physicien Nils Bohr a plaidé à plusieurs reprises avec le gouvernement américain de ne pas garder les Russes dans le noir mais de les consulter avant de faire un premier déploiement d'une bombe atomique.
"The Making of the Atomic Bomb" est un très grand livre sur un sujet qui demeure très important. C'est regrettable qu'une traduction française n'existe pas.
Profile Image for Marta.
996 reviews100 followers
September 18, 2020
A great story of science, war, history, politics, a story that uniquely blends humanity’s greatest talents with its gravest errors. A triumphant scientific and industrial effort of the greatest minds racing to invent the way of humankind’s self-destruction.

As soon as nuclear fission was discovered - only in December of 1938 - nuclear scientists all started frantic research projects, discovering a vast source of energy, new elements, and more potent radioactive sources. With this, the thought of an atomic bomb occurred to everyone - and Leo Szilard convinced the US to launch a secret program to get the bomb before Hitler did. The scientists new that the bomb was inevitable - but thought that governments would use it to end all wars, because they would realize that this could destroy the world.

But no one knew just how terrible this new weapon was. Some scientists had an idea (particularly Bohr and Szilard) but preventing the use of it after completion was too late - politically, the US had to use it; and only after using it, and only after some time, did everyone understand what vast terror they unleashed.

The book evolves: it starts with the nuclear research history from the late 1800s, through Rutherford, Einstein, Marie Curie, to Nils Bohr and Leo Szilard. It paints the background of antisemitic laws driving the best scientists of Germany, Eastern Europe and Italy to the United States. A frantic scientific surge is followed by the great Manhattan project, a marvel in itself - an entire industry built within three years that surpassed the size of the entire American auto industry. The challenges they overcame such a short time are fascinating.

And then we come to the dropping of the bomb - humanity’s darkest hour. The suffering it created is beyond imaginable. The total destruction was instantanious, destroyed lives, buildings, and every remnant of social structure that would enable rebirth. The book devotes a large section to eyewitness reports, which are horrifying. It was just death, even months later.

It is a fascinating book which necessarily ends on a horrible note. The bomb was dropped. At the same time, I wonder, that if it was not dropped, would we have learned how dangerous it was? Bohr was right: having the bomb created an escalating nuclear arms race. But it also has stopped large-scale wars and bids for world domination via military means. We still have wars - but the nuclear arsenal is a deterrent of large wars. But how dangerous is it, achieving peace while sitting on a pile of destruction?

Highly educational, fascinating, and a book to ponder for a long time.
Profile Image for Abby.
10 reviews7 followers
April 12, 2018
OK EVERYONE. The moment we've all been waiting for. I have FINISHED this book.
Considering how much I complained about this book, you're probably surprised I gave it 3 stars. So let me break it down:
First off, I would have never EVER read this entire book without it being assigned reading for a class. So I don't think that justifies a poor rating. But I seriously cannot imagine reading this book for pleasure. It is SO dense, complex, detailed, and LONG. Also, had it not been for explanations in class, especially concerning the physics material, I highly doubt I would have fully understood what was going on. BUT I would like to acknowledge the detail, research, and precision this book holds. There is so much information - this must have taken forever to write. But unless you LOVE WWII/nuclear history/strategy/discussions AND nuclear physics, this book is going to be absolutely painful. But this would make a great book to use for a research paper or something. If you're along for the ride, get ready for a thousand different names of scientists.
Also I actually enjoyed the last two chapters!
Profile Image for Graeme Newell.
200 reviews50 followers
February 20, 2022
Oh my goodness, what a wonderful book this was.

This isn’t just a story of the atomic bomb, but really is the entire amazing journey of the development of quantum mechanics during the tumultuous years between World War I and World War II. It is set in the backdrop of war and has some of the most amazingly memorable characters of the 20th century at its heart.

I'm blown away by Richard Rhodes and his ability to effortlessly master three incredibly difficult disciplines: science writing, history writing, and character writing. Rarely will you find a book that masters any one of these. Rhodes managed to master all three simultaneously.

I've read a lot of books on quantum mechanics over the years, but this book did an amazing job of taking such a perplexing topic and turning it into something approachable and meaningful. I come away from this book with a much more comprehensive understanding of how the geniuses of this industry stumbled their way into an entirely new way of looking at the universe.

This book read like a wonderful novel with nail-biting cliffhangers and spellbinding plots. At its heart is the wonderful energy and passion of inventing an entirely new science. But what makes it so poignant is that it is set in a time of horrible desperation in the heart of World War II.

The book ends with a poignant look at the mind-boggling world changes their work caused and the heart-rending choices that had to be made, choices that led to the cruel death of hundreds of thousands of people.

I savored this book over the course of a couple of months, and was sad when it came to an end. Rhodes is definitely going on my list of favorite authors.
Profile Image for adrianna.
54 reviews19 followers
October 6, 2021
to opracowanie jest gigantyczne. liczba detali aż przytłaczająca. niesamowite, jak ogromna praca musiała w to wejść. i tylko nie wiem po co, skoro na grupie płaskoziemców na fejsbuku dowiedziałam się, że broń jądrowa nie istnieje :/
Profile Image for Christopher Saunders.
895 reviews846 followers
December 24, 2020
Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb is the classic history of the Manhattan Project, from its inception through Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Rhodes ably traces the early developments in atomic theory, through a coterie of fascinating scientists: Leo Szilard, the Hungarian physicist who spearheaded the development of the first atomic reactor and the cyclotron; Albert Einstein, whose Theory of Relativity became a lynchpin for development of atomic physics; Enrico Fermi, whose circle at the University of Milan created the first nuclear chain reaction; Niels Bohr, the Danish scientist who explicated the form and structure of atomic particles; the dour German physicist Werner Heisenberg, pioneer of quantum physics. Most of these men were driven to exile by the rise of Fascism, as they were Jewish, socialists or otherwise unwilling to accommodate the New Order of Hitler and Mussolini; some traveled to the UK, others to America, where they helped the Allies develop the atomic bomb in competition with Nazi Germany’s nuclear ambitions (in which Heisenberg played a principal role) and a parallel program in Japan (which, Rhodes argues, advanced farther than anyone realized at the time). Rhodes ably renders an inscrutable field of science reasonably understandable, mixing pop science with richly detailed personal and political portraits. Unsurprisingly, the scientists were interested in practical advancements while their governments viewed nuclear energy almost purely in military terms; during World War II, their interests coincided, even as many scientists (particularly Szilard, who immediately regretted his role in persuading Roosevelt to adopt an atomic weapons program; and J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant but irascible American physicist whose pacifism clashed with wartime exigencies). Rhodes gives the reader an impression not only of the moral debates of using but the sheer scale and logistical difficulty of the Manhattan Project, a synthesis of military and scientific development that became the World’s Biggest Secret, and its most successful project. Rhodes ends the book in August 1945, with the inferno at Hiroshima related in horrifying detail and all concerned awed and terrified by the power they unleashed - the consequences of which are still being felt today. A masterful synthesis of history, politics and science, much like the Manhattan Project itself.
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