The First War of Physics: The Secret History of the Atom Bomb, 1939-1949

Pegasus Books
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An epic story of science and technology at the very limits of human understanding: the monumental race to build the first atomic weapons. Rich in personality, action, confrontation, and deception, The First War of Physics is the first fully realized popular account of the race to build humankind's most destructive weapon. The book draws on declassified material, such as MI6's Farm Hall transcripts, coded soviet messages cracked by American cryptographers in the Venona project, and interpretations by Russian scholars of documents from the soviet archives.

Jim Baggott weaves these threads into a dramatic narrative that spans ten historic years, from the discovery of nuclear fission in 1939 to the aftermath of 'Joe-1,’ August 1949's first Soviet atomic bomb test. Why did physicists persist in developing the atomic bomb, despite the devastation that it could bring? Why, despite having a clear head start, did Hitler's physicists fail? Could the soviets have developed the bomb without spies like Klaus Fuchs or Donald Maclean? Did the allies really plot to assassinate a key member of the German bomb program? Did the physicists knowingly inspire the arms race? The First War of Physics is a grand and frightening story of scientific ambition, intrigue, and genius: a tale barely believable as fiction, which just happens to be historical fact.
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About the author

Jim Baggott is an award-winning science writer. A former academic chemist, he maintains a broad interest in science, philosophy, and history, and writes on these subjects for New Scientist and other journals. His books have been widely acclaimed and include A Beginner's Guide to Reality (Pegasus, 2006), The First War of Physics (Pegasus, 2010), The Meaning of Quantum Physics (Oxford, 1992), and Beyond Measure Modern Physics, Philosophy, and the Meaning of Quantum Theory (Oxford, 2004). He lives in England.

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Additional Information

Publisher
Pegasus Books
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Published on
Aug 15, 2011
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Pages
584
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ISBN
9781605987699
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Language
English
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Genres
History / Military / Nuclear Warfare
Science / Physics / Nuclear
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Available on Android devices
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Eligible for Family Library

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In the Shadow of the Bomb narrates how two charismatic, exceptionally talented physicists--J. Robert Oppenheimer and Hans A. Bethe--came to terms with the nuclear weapons they helped to create. In 1945, the United States dropped the bomb, and physicists were forced to contemplate disquieting questions about their roles and responsibilities. When the Cold War followed, they were confronted with political demands for their loyalty and McCarthyism's threats to academic freedom. By examining how Oppenheimer and Bethe--two men with similar backgrounds but divergent aspirations and characters--struggled with these moral dilemmas, one of our foremost historians of physics tells the story of modern physics, the development of atomic weapons, and the Cold War.

Oppenheimer and Bethe led parallel lives. Both received liberal educations that emphasized moral as well as intellectual growth. Both were outstanding theoreticians who worked on the atom bomb at Los Alamos. Both advised the government on nuclear issues, and both resisted the development of the hydrogen bomb. Both were, in their youth, sympathetic to liberal causes, and both were later called to defend the United States against Soviet communism and colleagues against anti-Communist crusaders. Finally, both prized scientific community as a salve to the apparent failure of Enlightenment values.


Yet, their responses to the use of the atom bomb, the testing of the hydrogen bomb, and the treachery of domestic politics differed markedly. Bethe, who drew confidence from scientific achievement and integration into the physics community, preserved a deep integrity. By accepting a modest role, he continued to influence policy and contributed to the nuclear test ban treaty of 1963. In contrast, Oppenheimer first embodied a new scientific persona--the scientist who creates knowledge and technology affecting all humanity and boldly addresses their impact--and then could not carry its burden. His desire to retain insider status, combined with his isolation from creative work and collegial scientific community, led him to compromise principles and, ironically, to lose prestige and fall victim to other insiders.


Schweber draws on his vast knowledge of science and its history--in addition to his unique access to the personalities involved--to tell a tale of two men that will enthrall readers interested in science, history, and the lives and minds of great thinkers.

Before the Manhattan Project, before nuclear warfare and the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was the twentieth century's great scientific quest to fathom the secrets of the atom. It was through that search for the inner workings of matter that a unique friendship was forged, a partnership that defied academic orthodoxy and altered the course of history.

Centred on the inter-war years - within the ivy clad walls of Cambridge University's famed Cavendish Laboratory, amid the windswept valleys of north Wales, and in the industrial heartland of Birmingham - The Basis of Everything is the story of the coming of the atomic bomb, and how the unlikely union of two scientists - Ernest Rutherford, the son of a New Zealand farmer, and Mark Oliphant, a peace-loving vegetarian from a tiny Australian hills village - would change the world.

The story that bonds Ernest Rutherford and Mark Oliphant is as extraordinary as it is unlikely. They were kindred souls, schooled and steeped in the furthest frontiers of Britain's empire, whose restless intellect and tireless conviction fused in the crucible of discovery at Cambridge University's celebrated Cavendish Laboratory, at a time when nature's deepest secrets were being revealed. Their brilliance illuminated the sub-atomic recesses of the natural world and, as a direct result, set loose the power of nuclear fusion.

It was a heartfelt, enduring partnership, born at the University of Adelaide's modest physics department and then flourishing further in the confines of the Cavendish before ultimately driving the famed Manhattan Project, which produced the world's first nuclear weapons, unleashed to such devastating effect on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Rutherford and Oliphant were men with a shared devotion to pure science, who, through circumstance and necessity, found themselves betrayed as instruments of wars they detested but were duty-bound to prosecute. Consequently, their influence was pivotal in the last great global conflict the world witnessed and in engendering the thermonuclear threat that has held the planet hostage ever since. Yet their pioneering work also lives on in a vast array of innovations seeded by nuclear physics, from radiocarbon dating and TV screens to life-saving diagnostic-imaging devices.

PRAISE FOR THE BASIS OF EVERYTHING

In The Basis of Everything, journalist Andrew Ramsey has succeeded in telling a story so detailed and compelling that even knowing where it leads does not distract from the journey. The Sydney Morning Herald

Today we are blessed with two extraordinarily successful theories of physics. The first is Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, which describes the large-scale behaviour of matter in a curved spacetime. This theory is the basis for the standard model of big bang cosmology. The discovery of gravitational waves at the LIGO observatory in the US (and then Virgo, in Italy) is only the most recent of this theory's many triumphs. The second is quantum mechanics. This theory describes the properties and behaviour of matter and radiation at their smallest scales. It is the basis for the standard model of particle physics, which builds up all the visible constituents of the universe out of collections of quarks, electrons and force-carrying particles such as photons. The discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN in Geneva is only the most recent of this theory's many triumphs. But, while they are both highly successful, these two structures leave a lot of important questions unanswered. They are also based on two different interpretations of space and time, and are therefore fundamentally incompatible. We have two descriptions but, as far as we know, we've only ever had one universe. What we need is a quantum theory of gravity. Approaches to formulating such a theory have primarily followed two paths. One leads to String Theory, which has for long been fashionable, and about which much has been written. But String Theory has become mired in problems. In this book, Jim Baggott describes ": an approach which takes relativity as its starting point, and leads to a structure called Loop Quantum Gravity. Baggott tells the story through the careers and pioneering work of two of the theory's most prominent contributors, Lee Smolin and Carlo Rovelli. Combining clear discussions of both quantum theory and general relativity, this book offers one of the first efforts to explain the new quantum theory of space and time.
2020 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence Finalist

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

Journalist Adam Higginbotham’s definitive, years-in-the-making account of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster—and a powerful investigation into how propaganda, secrecy, and myth have obscured the true story of one of the twentieth century’s greatest disasters.

Early in the morning of April 26, 1986, Reactor Number Four of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station exploded, triggering history’s worst nuclear disaster. In the thirty years since then, Chernobyl has become lodged in the collective nightmares of the world: shorthand for the spectral horrors of radiation poisoning, for a dangerous technology slipping its leash, for ecological fragility, and for what can happen when a dishonest and careless state endangers its citizens and the entire world. But the real story of the accident, clouded from the beginning by secrecy, propaganda, and misinformation, has long remained in dispute.

Drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews conducted over the course of more than ten years, as well as letters, unpublished memoirs, and documents from recently-declassified archives, Adam Higginbotham has written a harrowing and compelling narrative which brings the disaster to life through the eyes of the men and women who witnessed it firsthand. The result is a masterful nonfiction thriller, and the definitive account of an event that changed history: a story that is more complex, more human, and more terrifying than the Soviet myth.

Midnight in Chernobyl is an indelible portrait of one of the great disasters of the twentieth century, of human resilience and ingenuity, and the lessons learned when mankind seeks to bend the natural world to his will—lessons which, in the face of climate change and other threats, remain not just vital but necessary.
The Oscar-shortlisted documentary Command and Control, directed by Robert Kenner, finds its origins in Eric Schlosser's book and continues to explore the little-known history of the management and safety concerns of America's nuclear aresenal.

A myth-shattering exposé of America’s nuclear weapons

Famed investigative journalist Eric Schlosser digs deep to uncover secrets about the management of America’s nuclear arsenal. A groundbreaking account of accidents, near misses, extraordinary heroism, and technological breakthroughs, Command and Control explores the dilemma that has existed since the dawn of the nuclear age: How do you deploy weapons of mass destruction without being destroyed by them? That question has never been resolved—and Schlosser reveals how the combination of human fallibility and technological complexity still poses a grave risk to mankind. While the harms of global warming increasingly dominate the news, the equally dangerous yet more immediate threat of nuclear weapons has been largely forgotten.

Written with the vibrancy of a first-rate thriller, Command and Control interweaves the minute-by-minute story of an accident at a nuclear missile silo in rural Arkansas with a historical narrative that spans more than fifty years. It depicts the urgent effort by American scientists, policy makers, and military officers to ensure that nuclear weapons can’t be stolen, sabotaged, used without permission, or detonated inadvertently. Schlosser also looks at the Cold War from a new perspective, offering history from the ground up, telling the stories of bomber pilots, missile commanders, maintenance crews, and other ordinary servicemen who risked their lives to avert a nuclear holocaust. At the heart of the book lies the struggle, amid the rolling hills and small farms of Damascus, Arkansas, to prevent the explosion of a ballistic missile carrying the most powerful nuclear warhead ever built by the United States.

Drawing on recently declassified documents and interviews with people who designed and routinely handled nuclear weapons, Command and Control takes readers into a terrifying but fascinating world that, until now, has been largely hidden from view. Through the details of a single accident, Schlosser illustrates how an unlikely event can become unavoidable, how small risks can have terrible consequences, and how the most brilliant minds in the nation can only provide us with an illusion of control. Audacious, gripping, and unforgettable, Command and Control is a tour de force of investigative journalism, an eye-opening look at the dangers of America’s nuclear age.
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