Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward TellerBrotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller by Gregg Herken
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Physicists have known sin."
(J. Robert Oppenheimer)

Gregg Herken's "Brotherhood of the Bomb" (2002) is the story of three preeminent American physicists, Ernest Lawrence, J Robert Oppenheimer, and Edward Teller, whose work was crucial for the American nuclear program in the 1940s and 1950s, which led to the development of atomic and thermonuclear weapons. This extremely well researched and documented book is based on many thousands of pages of declassified U.S. government documents, including FBI's "dead files". Even some decrypted secret cables send by Soviet spies were used as sources.

We read about Lawrence's pioneering work with cyclotrons, and we learn about solving the difficult problem of uranium separation ("enrichment"). Then we follow the Manhattan Project, which culminates with the first man-made nuclear explosion on the Trinity site in July 1945 and the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Next, the author recounts the protracted and intense political struggle that surrounded the development of thermonuclear weapons, the struggle that cast Oppenheimer - who was opposed to these weapons on moral grounds - against Teller, who had been their steadfast proponent since the early 1940s.

Fascinating "side stories" offered by the author include the account of long-term harassment of Dr. Oppenheimer by many in the government and the military. The persecution, motivated by the physicist's left-wing leanings and contacts, eventually led to the infamous hearings that resulted in stripping Oppenheimer's security clearance. Another side story recounts tenacious, long-term, and skillful spying activities by Soviet agents, including the transmission of ultra-secret documents, which sped up the Soviet development of the bomb by many years. The book ends - somewhat optimistically - with an account of the nuclear test-ban negotiations in 1958.

The subtitle of the book, "The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller", succinctly conveys the author's intentions. Mr. Herken aims at showing some of the famed physicists' human side: Dr. Oppenheimer's moral struggles with the concepts of good and evil, the irrepressible enthusiasm of Dr. Lawrence, and Dr. Teller's unwavering persistence in trying to develop the ultimate superweapon - the thermonuclear bomb. While the documents reflect facts, it seems to me that the author tries to explain the motives of the characters through stereotyping of a kind: we see Oppenheimer as a serious thinker, Lawrence as an accomplished doer, and Teller - despite his undeniable greatness in physics - as a resentful man. How much of this is true, we have no way of telling, but the device makes quite a good story with Oppenheimer in the role of a hero and Teller as a villain driven by "Oppenheimer envy". Anyway, that's how the story reads to me, between the lines.

My rather serious complaint about "Brotherhood" is that the book is overly detailed: it bursts with minutiae. The author writes about too many actions of too many people and includes too many events. I commend the author for looking up all this extremely rich information, but higher selectivity would convey a more focused message and greatly improve the book. The author's obsession with detail is an obstacle in reading: in many places I had to let my eyes just glide over the page. Good book, but one that could be much better.

Three stars.

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