Sunday, November 29, 2020

Bomb: The Race to Build - and Steal - The World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin

Source of book: Audiobook from the library


For the last 7+ years, since I started traveling and camping throughout the western United States with the kids - trying to see as many of the national parks as we can before the kids grow up and move away - we have also been using audiobooks to make the miles pass faster and keep me awake. As part of this, we have been listening to many of the Newbery Award winners and honor books, not in any systematic order, but as they seem interesting and as they become available in our library system. 



Bomb: The Race to Build - and Steal - the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon was an honor book in 2013, losing out to The One and Only Ivan, which we listened to last year. Unlike that book, which was kind of based on a real story, Bomb is straight-up nonfiction, very real and based throughout on primary sources. 


The story is the development of the atom bomb, but also the cloak and dagger stuff surrounding the attempts to keep Nazi Germany from building a bomb first, the work by the Soviets to steal the technology, and and the spy versus spy games surrounding all of that. Sheinkin built the book on hundreds of pages of now-declassified interviews with the various persons involved, court transcripts, investigatory records, and other official documents. In fact, one could say that the book consists in large part of the actual words of the people involved, tied together by the author’s narrative to create a story that is compelling and flows surprisingly well. And all told at a level that tweens and teens can readily understand. (True story: my youngest turned 10 the day after we finished this book, and she loved it. My older kids, particularly the 14 year old science nerd, appreciated the high level of scientific detail, and expectation that kids can grasp advanced concepts. 


The book starts with the last moments before the capture of Harry Gold, a chemist who turned spy for the Soviets, and was the contact for Klaus Fuchs, the British physicist who passed much of the crucial atomic bomb information to the Soviets. (As the book brings out, the Soviet Union was an ally of the United States at the time, so it wasn’t - at least under British law - as serious of an offense as selling secrets to the enemy.) 


From there, the book goes back in time to the first discovery of nuclear fission, the attempts to create a chain reaction, and so on. Obviously, the Manhattan Project and the Los Alamos program feature prominently in the book. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leslie Groves, and Niels Bohr get a lot of quotes, particularly Oppenheimer, whose ambivalence about nuclear weapons, his Communist acquaintances, and the suspicion that led to his repeated vetting before, during, and after the project led to the most extensive documentation of personal statements of anyone involved. The testimony of Gold and Fuchs are also used throughout the book, giving an alternate perspective. Plenty of other secondary characters are quoted as well, though, and the result is a strikingly multifaceted picture of the events.


At the same time the atomic bomb was being developed, the Nazis were trying to do the same. Crucial to their effort was the production of “heavy water” to use as a moderator for the production of plutonium. The plant that produced this was located in occupied Norway, and the series of commando raids  that eventually crippled the Nazi atomic program are also featured in this book, and are surprisingly exciting stories. (Particularly since the official reports are quoted so much - Sheinkin does a great job of building suspense out of dry narratives.) The two successful operations first temporarily crippled the plant (which, combined with less effective but repeated bombing, convinced the Nazis to abandon the plant), then led to the sinking of a ferry carrying nearly all of the remaining heavy water. Although in retrospect, it seems the Nazis were further off from a successful bomb than believed, these operations pretty much killed the possibility. (Also, now I want to go read Knut Haukelid’s memoir of the campaign - he was a total badass, surviving on lichens and participating in all of the operations.)


The spy versus spy episodes are pretty fun too, reminding me in a few ways of the old Mad Magazine comic, which I enjoyed as a kid. 


Along with the adventure, though, the book really brings out the central problem with nuclear weapons. By now, we can destroy all higher life forms on our planet in a few minutes, which is clearly not an optimal outcome. As it is, the United States killed a few hundred thousand civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Whatever one thinks about the unfortunate options where a country was determined to sacrifice millions for the sake of “honor,” the tragedy, even if one considers in necessary, was still a tragedy. Sheinkin quotes a few of the victims interviewed by John Hersey in Hiroshima, which I think should be mandatory reading. I love that Sheinkin takes the time to write the book, not as a mere paen to American technological triumph, but with the realism that the ability to destroy ourselves isn’t an unmitigated blessing. On the one hand, as Raymond Aron (another author everyone should read) put it in The Last Years of the Century, “In the course of the last forty years, the only part of the world that has enjoyed peace is the continent divided between two zones of political civilization both of them armed with atomic bombs.” But on the other, it is only that cooler heads have prevailed both in the United States and the Soviet Union (and its successors.) The worry now is that a nuke might be obtained by a group that believes in an apocalypse and thus doesn’t view the annihilation of humankind as a bad result. And this goes not just for Islamic Wahabbist groups, but for Dispensationalist Fundies here at home, to say nothing of erratic narcissists around the globe. Obviously, it is way too late to turn back the clock to swords and daggers, but mankind’s ability to destroy itself isn’t a particularly comforting thought. One homes that Aron’s observation continues to hold. 


In summary, this is an excellent book, both well written and full of primary sources. It has a delightfully mature nuance and ethical depth, which never condescends to its young intended audience. Honestly, I’d recommend this book to adults without reservation. 


The audiobook was read by Roy Samuelson, who I am not familiar with, although he apparently has a bunch of television narration credits. I give him high points for the narration, particularly the careful work on the pronunciation of names, using the original (not Anglicised) versions of foreign names, including Adolf Hitler - with the short “a.” (Also, amusing moment when Sheinken explained diplomatically the correct way to say “Fuchs,” as well as the fact that it got pronounced in a non-family-friendly way by many in England….) I will also note with approval that Listening Library did a good job on the compression for this volume, which is a common complaint I have when listening to audiobooks while driving - keep the overall sound level consistent, and I don’t have to fiddle with the volume knob while propelling 12,000 pounds of truck and trailer over curvy mountain roads. 



Personal note: Back in the day, when I worked for Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance doing basic legal stuff for senior citizens, I had a client who told me his story of loading a really funny looking giant bomb into an aircraft named the Enola Gay. 


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