A MOST AWESOME INVENTION: The Making of the Atomic Bomb (10 weeks)
F 2017


     Twenty-five years after its initial publication, The Making of the Atomic Bomb remains the seminal and complete story of how the bomb was developed, from the turn-of-the-century discovery of the vast energy locked inside the atom to the dropping of the first bombs on Japan.

     Few great discoveries have evolved so swiftly – or have been so misunderstood.  From the theoretical discussion of nuclear energy to the bright glare of Trinity, there was a span of hardly more than twenty-five years.  What began as merely an interesting speculative problem in physics grew into the Manhattan Project, and then into the bomb, with frightening rapidity, while scientists known only to their peers – Szilard, Oppenheimer, Bohr, Meitner, Fermi, Lawrence, von Neumann and others --  stepped from their ivory towers into the limelight.

     Richard Rhodes gives the definitive story of man’s most awesome discovery and invention, within the context of evolving world events.  Told in rich human, political and scientific detail, the core book is a narrative tour de force and a document with literary power commensurate with its subject.


Weekly Topics

[In brackets, men mentioned in the chapter, their personal stories and contributions.]


(1)     Chapters 1:  Moonshine - Liberation of atomic energy on an industrial scale [Leo Szilard]

                      & 2:  Atoms & Void - The concept & structure of the atom [Ernest Rutherford]

                      & 3:  Tvi (Danish word for two or doubling) - The significance of “two” [Niels Bohr]

(2)     Chapters 4:  The Long Grave Already Dug - In WW I poison gas, the machine gun, aerial                                                                                        bombardment were deadly, the trenches were dug.  [Otto Hahn, Chaim Weizmann]

                      & 5:  Men from Mars - Seven exceptional Hungarian Jews [Theodor von Karman, George de                                                                                Hevesy, Michael Polanyi, Szilard, Eugene Wigner, John Neumann, Edward Teller]

(3)     Chapters 6:  Machines - Lab equipment of the experimentalists [Rutherford, Francis Aston, Ernest                                                                                 Lawrence, James Chadwick]

                      & 7:  Exodus - Jewish physicists, academic victims of Nazism, stripped of their positions and                                                                                   forced to emigrate to survive [Einstein, von Karman, Wigner, Szilard, Hans Bethe, Teller, and others]

(4)     Chapters 8:  Stirring & Digging - Pursuit of a chain reaction; search for elements that emit 2 or more

                                  neutrons for each one captured [Enrico Fermi, Bohr, Szilard, Frederick Lindemann]

                      & 9:  An Extensive Burst - Discovery of fission, splitting the atom, releasing a burst of energy

                                  [Lise Meitner, Otto Frisch, Hahn, Fritz Strassmann]

(5)     Chapters 10:  Neutrons - Of different energy levels used to bombard and fission the uranium atom                                                                                [Szilard, Bohr, Alexander Sachs, Wigner]

                      & 11:  Cross Sections - Measurements of the probability that particular nuclear reactions will or

                                   will not happen [Otto Frisch, Rudolf Peierls]

(6)     Chapters 12:  A Communication from Britain - Construction of a bomb made of uranium 235 was entirely

                                   feasible [Mark Oliphant, Lawrence, Arthur Compton]

                      & 13:  The New World - The end of the beginning or the beginning of the end?  [various]

(7)     Chapters 14:  Physics & Desert Country - The Los Alamos laboratory [Oppenheimer, Leslie Groves]

                      & 15:  Different Animals - Construction of Oak Ridge & Hanford facilities amid conflict [Groves, Szilard]

(8)     Chapters 16:  Revelations - Revealing scientific discoveries to political leaders [Bohr, Churchill, FDR & others]

                      & 17:  The Evils of This Time - Acquiring a critical mass of uranium [Robert Oppenheimer]

(9)      Chapter 18:  Trinity - The first bomb test [James F. Byrnes, Truman]

(10)    Chapter 19:  Tongues of Fire - The raid on Hiroshima and its aftermath [Paul Tibbets, B-29 pilot]


Rhodes, Richard; The Making of the Atomic Bomb, The 25th Anniversary Edition; Simon & Schuster Paperbacks; 2012.  [This book was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.  There is much nuclear physics (descriptive, almost no equations), history and biography, i.e., something for everyone, but no science background is required.]