The First War Of Physics

The Secret History of the Atomic Bomb, 1939-1949

Jim Baggott, Central 355.82511909 B1448f 2010

I read books like this, trying to imagine what the protagonists could have done differently, for a better result.

The atomic bomb was not inevitable. The "hinge of fate" was Werner Heisenberg; had he been less patriotic and honest with Neils Bohr when they met in Copenhagen in 1941, the western allies might have been convinced that Germany wasn't building a nuclear bomb, and they might have forgone the Manhattan Project and devoted more resources to conventional firebombing.

The B-29s that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki cost twice as much to develop ( $3.4B ) as the Manhattan Project $and the first 4 atomic bombs ($1.8B), and the fleet of 3970 B-29 bombers that did far more destruction cost another $2.5B. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs killed between 130,000 and 220,000 soldiers and civilians. The "conventional" fire bombings killed 240,000 to 900,000 Japanese civilians and soldiers at the cost of 600 aircraft. While the atomic bombs did a fraction of the destruction, the threat of more bombings helped convince Hirohito to surrender.

Since World War 2, atomic bombs have been brandished but not used. Had they been used, I would not be writing this, and they may be used before anyone else reads this.

The book drags through the German attempt to build a plutonium-producing reactor without control rods. They seem to have been incompetent experimentalists. Weisacker's Lesart (German for "version") is the German physicists didn't succeed on principle.

The rest of the book describes the eventual exclusion of the British from the US effort, and the Soviet espionage that told them what worked. Beria headed the Soviet effort, which built a Fatman-style plutonium implosion bomb. Kapitza wanted a more independent effort and resigned from the project.

Yakov Zeldovich studied a half-sized twice-as-powerful plutonium implosion device, then a fusion weapon; Andre Sakharov designed it.

The book is interesting, but a bit of a slog. If the index was better, it would be a handy reference, but many terms are missing.

WarOfPhysics (last edited 2019-06-02 06:54:04 by KeithLofstrom)