Thursday, December 26, 2013

Book Review: The First War of Physics--The Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1939-1949

Been a bit since I've posted anything--holiday season and all so we'll start off slow.

The above titled book by Jim Baggot is no lightweight coming in at nearly 600 pages. Baggot has generally kept the scope of his writing to Physics related topics such as the Higgs Boson, Quantum Theory and other modern topics.  TFWOP reaches back some 70+ years to cover the creation of the first atomic and hydrogen bombs.

The scientists that take part in this story read like a laundry list of Nobel Prize winners including Einstein, Fermi, Bohr, Teller, Heisenberg, Feynman, Oppenheimer, etc., etc. and the book covers them all in one respect or another.  If you are looking for an in depth examination of the Manhattan Project or of the Russian intelligence program that stole many of the US developed "secrets" or of the military history behind the use of these weapons, or a detailed scientific treatise on the physics behind the bombs--that's not what this work is.

What Baggot achieves here is a broad overview of the worldwide effort towards the development and use of atomic weapons during this period.  You get the Germans who were off to an early start but fell behind for numerous (and readily debatable) reasons, you get the Russians playing catch-up with the Americans via their communist sympathizers in the States and England, you get England who had a well developed program but without the necessary resources and you get the US who is the beneficiary of massive industrial scale, and a combination of its own scientists and the flight of brilliant European theoreticians due to Hitler's policies.

In essence you get a primer on all four of the major atomic efforts at this time and a look at why each one succeeded or failed and their influence, either direct or indirect on one another.  There is enough here to satisfy the "spy enthusiast" involving secret missions of sabotage and assassination as well as the amateur physics buff with "lensing" discussions, stories behind the discovery of the various elements and their isotopes and the trial and error development of how to achieve a supercritical mass.

I feel vastly more knowledgeable about the events that went on to largely shape our modern world over the following half century or more than I was before reading this book.  Most impressive to me is that all of the work attributed to these scientists was done wholly without the benefit of modern computing power.  All theories, formulas, calculations, experiments, monitoring, and measurements were done with what we would view as archaic devices and methods, doing things by hand that we would task to an electronic device today.  That they were able to develop these devices in such an environment is astonishing--and this book should leave the reader with the appropriate sense of awe over just what the force of the human mind can accomplish.

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