August 6 marks the 65th anniversary of the atom bomb’s use against the Japanese at Hiroshima and August 9 at Nagasaki. To date, there has not been another military use of this terrible and powerful weapon. Our lives in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have been marked in many ways by the presence and potential of atomic weapons. As Robert Oppenheimer observed, “We knew the world would not be the same … We have made a thing, a most terrible weapon that has altered abruptly and profoundly the nature of the world … a thing that by all the standards of the world we grew up in is an evil thing.” Since August 6, 1945, many people have tried to come to terms with that thing. Here are a few library offerings to help in that process:
The First War of Physics : the Secret History of the Atom Bomb, 1939-1949 by Jim Baggott is an absorbing account of the international competition to develop atomic energy and places each of the players in his or her context, from Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn, to Ernst Lawrence and Robert Oppenheimer. Some of the dismaying nature of the weapon is conveyed here. Were the Germans developing a bomb? What should pacifists, like Albert Einstein, do? It is interesting that, once its potency was demonstrated, many of the developers of the weapon distanced themselves from it.
The Fly in the Cathedral by Brian Cathcart describes the mounting excitement around experiments to split the atom in the 1920’s and ‘30’s. Right away, the odd sense of competing for a prize that marked the development of atomic weapons was present. The international community of physicists were pacing each other in the race to understand how an atom worked, and what forces held it together. The blue ribbon went to the researchers at Cambridge University in England. The seeds were sown for the splitting of atoms to produce energy.
The term ‘Manhattan project’ covers several historical developments leading up to the bomb. The Manhattan Project: the Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians starts with an extract from an amazing 1914 H.G. Wells novel that predicted the atomic bomb. Many of the pieces are reminiscences from major players, or sketches of them. Here are eyewitness accounts of the first bomb explosion, named Trinity by Robert Oppenheimer, and of the devastation wrought by the bomb to Hiroshima.
It’s to be expected that the scientific director of the Los Alamos project would have been a complex person, and Oppenheimer certainly was. American Prometheus: the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin details Oppenheimer’s tremendously full life leading the creation of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oppenheimer also dealt with the American security infrastructure after WWII, and lost his security clearance in the experience after trustingly having exposed himself to communist agents in the 1930’s. He believed that his work on bomb development was essential for ending the war and saving lives, but from the beginning he knew the dreadful nature of the weapon, and spent the rest of his life speaking against its use as a tool of foreign policy.