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Atomic: the first war of physics – Jim Baggott *****

The best popular science book of the year to date by far (April 2009), this is an epic journey through the development of atomic power and the atom bomb during the second world war.
It’s a seriously chunky tome at nearly 500 pages, but for once this length is justified. It isn’t padded out by repetition and rhetoric, this really is such a big story that it needs this kind of length.
It might seem there really isn’t much of a story left to tell. What with Richard Feynman’s superb reminiscences of the Manhattan Project and many, many books on that first real example of big science, you might be inclined to say ‘what’s new?’ – but Jim Baggott more than pulls it off by covering not one, but four stories of the development of the terrifying power of the atom – in Germany, the US, the UK and the USSR.
He takes us back to the first concept that fission could produce a chain reaction and leads us through the gradually realization in the UK and then the US, that Germany could be building atomic weapons and this posed a huge threat. There’s the dramatic raids on the heavy water plant in Norway, and lying underneath all the developments the growing network of spies, feeding information from the West to Russia. It’s surprising how slow the US was to realize what was going on, and fascinating to see the political machinations across the Atlantic.
That’s not all. We see the two pictures of what was going on in Germany, never totally rationalized. Were Werner Heisenberg and his fellow scientists just not up to the job, but trying hard to give the fatherland a super weapon, or (as they later rationalized), were they intentionally going slow on the development of a bomb? What’s also amazing is how early the idea of deterrence came along – the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr suggesting the idea of the concept of atomic weapons being enough for deterrence well before they were built. Most remarkable of all, the way we nearly had a world organization giving everyone access to atomic power and with no one having nuclear weapons, an idea that came out of the US administration, but was scuppered by the more hawkish wing of the same group of people.
If the book has a weakness, it’s the sheer volume of people involved. I lost track of some of the names and couldn’t really care about many of them. As Baggott switches from location to location, I was sometimes a bit confused about where I was. One chapter, for instance, begins ‘The work of the MAUD committee had proceeded apace through the last few months of 1940.’ I was desperately trying to remember whose committee this was, in which country, and didn’t discover until a couple of paragraphs later. There just is a huge amount of detail, and sometimes you need to let this flow over you and not worry too much about total comprehension.
This is an unparalleled book that should be on the shelf of anyone with an interest in the development of nuclear power, or how the Second World War was won. It really brings home how much this was the war of science. Here we see the nuclear weapons, but there was also the code cracking, particularly the Bletchley Park work, radar and the development of operational research all coming from science and playing their part. I’m not an enthusiast for books on the Second World War, but this one had me enthralled. Highly recommended.

Review by Brian Clegg


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