"The First War of Physics" by Jim Baggott (brief review)

I was not intending to read, much less finish, this book — but I couldn’t help it. I’d made up a list of about 50 books (fiction and non) I’ve been wanting to read and would like to finish in 2012. It’s already July and suffice to say, I’m got a ways to go. But having slogged my way through some Thomistic philosophy of late, I really wanted something lighter. “Just a little bit of history,” I thought . . . and so I picked up Baggot’s The First War of Physics: The Secret History of the Atomic Bomb, 1939-1949

You might have heard about The Manhattan Project and Los Alamos in high school; groaned at the horribly overwrought Hollywood version of “Fat Man and Little Boy” — and if you’re a fellow blogger, drowned in the flood of comments that accompanies the annual moral debate over the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Baggot’s popular scientific history, however, offers something different: global coverage of the race to build the atomic bomb between America, Germany and Russia spanning a decade, from the discovery of nuclear fission in 1939 to Russia’s first atomic test in 1949. Striving for a comprehensive perspective, the author engages such questions as:

  • Why did physicists persist in developing the atomic bomb, despite the devastation that it could bring?
  • Why, despite having a clear head start, did Hitler’s physicists fail?
  • Could the soviets have developed the bomb without spies like Klaus Fuchs or Donald Maclean?
  • Did the allies really plot to assassinate a key member of the German bomb program? Did the physicists knowingly inspire the arms race?

It’s all here, the science, the history, the politics, the espionage. On one page you’ll find some fairly-abstract discussion of nuclear physics (not to such a degree that it would overwhelm a laymen, but just enough detail for the reader to comprehend what they were doing) — on another a “James-Bond”-esque sabotage mission deep into Norway to bomb a heavy water facilities in Norway.

The First War of Physics is an account of physicists engaged in what is on one level a thrilling, scientific and intellectual pursuit, coupled with the awareness of how said scientific venture was rendered subservient to U.S. military objectives. Academic and largely theoretical discussions give way to the growing realization of what they are in fact building, juggling moral reservations about their complicity in such with the simultaneous and compelling awareness that the Germans were in all probability engaged in the same pursuit of a weapon.

Also fascinating is the manner in which the news of the atomic bombings provoked within the German scientists an agonizing of
how they had fallen so far behind in the race — rather than face the prospect of academic embarassment (how could the Americans have achieved it first?) Heisenberg and others would instead fashion a revisionist history of the German nuclear program (the “Lesart”), whitewashing complicity and academic failure alike with a self-serving apologetic. In the words of Carl von Weizsäcker: “I believe the reason we didn’t do it was because all the physicists didn’t want to do it, on principle. If we had all wanted Germany to win the war we would have succeeded.”

Or, how some Red-leaning physicists who betrayed nuclear secrets to the Soviets — concerned about an American “monopoly” over nuclear energy and a desire to help our “allies” at the time — subsequently repented of their actions during the Cold War, when “Papa Joe” Stalin’s true totalitarian colors revealed themselves. (Such was the case of German-British spy Klaus Fuchs).

Of great benefit to the reader is Baggot’s timeline of notable events (organized by country in parallel), a helpful “cast of characters” (and there are many!), and an extensive bibliography. I have since added American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

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