The book got even better.
You see, the one problem with the first third of the book is that there are all these long, boring bits where it explains aspects of research into the atom and nuclear physics that I had a fair amount of trouble understanding.
But when the book got to the part where we were actually making the atomic bomb, I suddenly realized the point of all that physics stuff. The point is…they used that physics to make an atomic bomb! This book did something so sly and so amazing and so rare that I almost can’t believe it. The book successfully dramatized the science part of a scientific discovery.
Most books that are about scientific discoveries only talk about the ramifications of those discoveries: the world that will result from them. And this book does that. But it also does so much more than that. It allows you to actually understand why the Manhattan project was so large and why the bomb was so expensive and difficult to make (amongst other things).
Until reading this book, for instance, I’d never fully understood that there were actually two parallel atomic bomb making operations: the plutonium bomb and the uranium bomb. They both used nuclear fission, but aside from that, the different properties of the metals necessitated entirely different bomb design, fuse design, and purification methods.
I also finally understand the sheer magnitude of the challenge involved in separating U-235 from U-238 (as well as the reason why you could make a bomb with U-235 and not with U-238). The reason the Manhattan project was so huge (and the reason we succeeded in making the bomb in America while they failed in Japan and Germany) was that refining the uranium was a pretty brute force job that involved a large number of very massive and very expensive machines that all produced something on the order of miligrams of uranium a day. They literally describe how the speck of uranium that clung to a workman’s overalls was of such incomparable value.
And all of these things, these considerations, and these processes…were due to physical principles that were discovered by guys like Szilard and Fermi and (especially) Bohr in the beginning of the book!
More science-fictional than any science-fiction novel. These eggheads took some of the most abstract, pie-in-the-sky, cutting-edge physics in the world and used it to murder hundreds of thousands of people and change the face of the world.
For instance, at one point the book is like, “Roosevelt hadn’t yet realized that there would never again be another World War. The era of modern warfare was over.”
And that’s obvious and it’s something that we already know. But when you read something like that after reading about 600 pages of gee-whiz physics, it comes at you from a really different angle.