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Doomsday Men – P. D. Smith ***

Subtitled ‘The Real Doctor Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon’, there’s an interesting mix here of history, science and fiction in tracing the origins and reality of the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb and the like. It’s hard to pin down what it does cover – for example it has relatively little on the Manhattan Project. Science probably takes third place of these, in a book that sometimes is hung around a biography of Leo Szilard, one of the pioneers of atomic bomb theory, and sometimes heads off in totally different directions.
There’s a lot to interest in this story of an obsession with weapons of mass destruction, neatly underlined by one of the diversions into the gas attacks of the first world war. The science is there, but fairly quickly skimmed over – this is much more a history/biography than a popular science book.
Smith’s style is sometimes a little grating – he tend to throw in lots of little quotes that can leave the reader reeling a little. Something that didn’t really appeal to me as much as the rest of the book was the way that he often made long references to fiction. Sometimes it wasn’t at all clear whether what was being described was fiction or fact, and though it was interesting to have some bits of fiction referenced – a lot of the paranoia about these weapons seems to have come from the fictional side – there was far too much here, unless you are a sci-fi buff.
Oddly, with this title, it wasn’t really clear who Smith sees as ‘the real Dr Strangelove’ – or rather, there isn’t one individual, though inevitably Teller and von Neumann come into the equation.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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