Skip to main content

Trinity - Frank Close ****

Physicist Frank Close has a kind of dual writing life - which is ideal given he's here writing about the dual life of a German nuclear physicist who was also a Russian spy. Many of Close's books give plenty of detail on a specific aspect of physics - my favourite is his compact title Neutrino, a great introduction to this fascinating particle. However, Close also has a penchant for spy history. He's already given us the story of Bruno Pontecorvo in Half Life, and now we get a biography of the Klaus Fuchs.

A communist from his youth, Fuchs fled Nazi Germany for the UK, where the outbreak of war saw him first treated as a suspicious enemy alien, but his expertise in the suddenly desperately important field of nuclear physics saw him brought into the fold, working on theory for nuclear reactors and atomic bombs, both in the UK and in the US, where he made important contributions to the Manhattan Project. Shockingly, when it all came out in 1950, it was also discovered that most of the time between 1941 and 1949, he was passing nuclear secrets to Russia - and without doubt made it possible for Russia to catch up with the West in its development of nuclear weapons.

This isn't a heavy science book - Close only gives high level details of the physics involved - but instead it features a very detailed history of Fuchs' spying activity and the (frankly bumbling) process by which he was eventually caught. Rather than paint Fuchs in black and white as an evil betrayer of his adopted country, Close gives us a balanced picture that helps understand why Fuchs felt it was important to balance up what could have been total American nuclear world dominance after the Second World War and why his conscience seemed to force him to confess, when he had proved excellent at covering his tracks and dissembling in the past.

I have slightly mixed feelings about the level of detail Close goes into. We certainly get to experience the reality of spying in all its sometimes clever, sometimes pathetic detail - not to mention the goings on at the Harwell nuclear research establishment in the UK, which seemed to have enough bed-swapping to make it an ideal topic for a modern drama series. It is also really interesting to see how MI5 developed from practically nothing to a professional(ish) intelligence agency. However, it did almost feel that Close was too, erm, close to his subject, giving us so much detailed description of conversations, journeys and so forth that at times it could become a touch tedious if not being considered as an academic title.

Another small moan - perhaps because the focus isn't the science, there were a number of scientific typos. For example, chemical formulae are written incorrectly with the number of atoms shown as a straight number rather than a subscript, we're told 100 degrees Fahrenheit is the same temperature as 100 degrees Celsius, and uranium hexafluoride is described as a 'mixture of uranium and fluorine' rather than a compound. All trivial editing errors, but suggesting that the focus was elsewhere.

There is no doubt that Close - who personally knew some of those involved - is ideally placed to tell this story, and does so with immense care. This was a crucial period in the development of the modern world, and whether or not Fuchs deserves the cover epithet of being 'the most dangerous spy in history', it's a story that is still important today. 

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Tim Woollings - Four Way Interview

Tim Woollings is an Associate Professor in Physical Climate Science at the University of Oxford, leading a team of researchers in the Atmospheric Dynamics group. He obtained his PhD in Meteorology in 2005 and since then has worked on a variety of topics spanning weather prediction, atmospheric dynamics and circulation, and the effects of climate change. He has studied how the jet stream varies over weeks, years, and decades, and how we can better predict these changes. He was a contributing author on three chapters of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. Tim worked at the University of Reading as a postdoc, research fellow and then lecturer before moving to the University of Oxford in 2013. He is now the Oxford Joint Chair of the Met Office Academic Partnership. His new book is Jet Stream.

Why climate?

It has never been more important to learn about how our climate system works, and how we are affecting it. You certainly get a lot of satisfaction when your work touches on hugely important …

The Apollo Chronicles - Brandon Brown *****

There were two reasons I wasn't expecting much from this book. Firstly, there have been so many titles on the Apollo programme and the space race. And secondly, a book that focusses on the engineering involved would surely be far too much at the nut and bolt level (literally), missing out on the overarching drama that makes the story live. Also there were so many people involved - 400,000 is mentioned - that we couldn't have much human interest because we would be bombarded with lists of names.

Instead, I was charmed by Brandon Brown's account. His father was one of the engineers, but he isn't given undue prominence - Brown picks out a handful of characters and follows them through, bringing in others as necessary, but never overwhelming us with names. And while it's true that there is a lot of nitty gritty engineering detail, it rarely becomes dull. Somehow, Brown pulls off the feat of making the day-to-day, hectic engineering work engaging.

I think in part this …

Saturn – William Sheehan ****

This book marks something of a milestone in my reviewing career: it’s the first time I’ve seen an excerpt from one of my reviews printed on the back cover. It comes from my review of Sheehan’s previous book, on Mercury, which I said ‘easily convinced me the Solar System’s 'least interesting' planet is still a pretty fascinating place.’ That wasn’t an easy task for the author, given Mercury’s unspectacular appearance and reputation – but Saturn is a different matter. With its iconic rings, easily visible through a small telescope, it’s the favourite planet of many amateur astronomers. For space scientists, too, it’s a prime target – given that two of its moons, Titan and Enceladus, look like the kind of places we might find alien life. So Sheehan’s challenge this time wasn’t to find enough material to fill 200 pages, but to distil a potentially huge subject down to that size.

He meets this challenge just as successfully as the previous one – but not quite in the way I was expect…