July 5, 2013
Bomb by Steve Sheinkin
The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon
by Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook Press
It all began with a simple, but amazing discovery.
In December of 1938, a German chemist split a Uranium atom, releasing a small amount of energy. It wasn’t much but it was from only one atom. How much energy would be produced if a mass of atom were split at one time? Soon scientists in Europe and the U. S. began to experiment and while they experimented, they theorized. What could be done with this amazing energy?
It wasn’t long before they realized the military implications and by then the world was at war. Who ever figured out how to use this science to build a bomb would certainly win the war and the race was on. Could the Americans build it before the Germans? And if they couldn’t do it in a straight fight, what would it take to bring the German advances to a halt.
This is an amazingly complex story.
- It involves scientists like Robert Oppenheimer who worked long hours trying to split atoms but also do it in a controlled manner. Unbelievably, one of the early reactions was created in the middle of a Chicago with scientists nervously monitoring radiation levels while life went on, unaware, around them.
- It involves Norwegian commandos given the job of halting production of heavy water at a plant in German held Norway. They scaled cliffs, waded rivers and hiked mountain passes, all in freezing weather, to complete a mission that had seen the death of every British soldier assigned to the task.
- It involves American soldiers and spies, given the task of removing scientists from German control if the German’s seemed likely to complete a bomb. Kidnapping might work but assassination is a much more permanent solution.
As I read this story, I was continually amazed at how many things worked out without unstoppable chain reactions or other disasters in spite of the fact that scientists were struggling with something they were only coming to understand.
Sheinkin doesn’t ignore the ethical or moral implications of this work, covering the reactions of the scientists themselves when they realized how powerful were their creations. He also discusses Truman’s decision to use the bombs on civilian targets as well as the following nuclear proliferation and contemporary dismantling of some of the weapons that have been stockpiled.
As Sheinkin notes, this is an amazing story of cooperation and discovery as well as responsibility. And it is a story that is not yet finished.
Although this isn’t light reading, it is a compelling book, both by topic and through Sheinkin’s amazing story telling skills. I don’t know that I would consider it a beach read but it is something that science geeks and history buffs alike could use to while away a summer afternoon.