The Making of the Atomic Bomb Summary


The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes, was first published in 1987. For this detailed documentation of the development of the most destructive war weapon ever to be created, Rhodes received widespread recognition, winning the 1987 National Book Award, the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, and the 1988 National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction.

Rhodes provides extensive information on the biographical background and scientific accomplishments of the international collaboration of scientists that culminated in the creation of the first atomic bomb. In 1939, several scientists became aware of the theoretical possibility of creating an atomic bomb, a weapon of mass destruction vastly exceeding the potential of existing military arsenals. But it was not until the United States entered World War II, late in 1941, that priority was given to funding and organizing research into the creation of such a weapon in a secret operation referred to as the Manhattan Project.

The first test atomic bomb, called Trinity, was exploded in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945. On August 6, an atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later, another atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. On August 14, 1945, Japan agreed to an unconditional surrender to the Allies, thus ending World War II.

Rhodes addresses the difficult moral and ethical dilemmas faced by the scientists of the Manhattan Project, particularly the implications of creating such a weapon of mass destruction. Originally concerned with ‘‘pure’’ scientific research, those who worked on the Manhattan Project were forced to consider the ultimate effect of their research efforts on the future of the human race.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb Summary

The Scientists
Rhodes describes extensively, up to World War II, the lives and work of an international community of scientists, mostly physicists and chemists, whose work eventually culminated in the making of the first atomic bomb. Theories of the existence of atomic particles date back to Greek philosophy in the fifth century B.C., and, by the seventeenth century A.D. most scientists assumed the existence of the atom. However, no actual proof of the existence of the atom had been formulated until J. J. Thomson discovered the electron in 1897. In 1884, Thomson was chair of the distinguished Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge where he exerted tremendous influence on a generation of scientists. Einstein’s revolutionary theory of relativity was announced in 1915. Leo Szilard, a Hungarian-born Jewish theoretical physicist, entered the University of Berlin in 1921, where he collaborated with Einstein. Ernest Rutherford was a New Zealand born British physicist credited with inventing nuclear physics (also called atomic physics). Rutherford studied under Thomson at the Cavendish Laboratory, replacing Thomson as head of the lab in 1919. Rutherford’s most significant accomplishment was the development of a theory of atomic structure called the Rutherford atomic model.

Niels Bohr, a Danish physicist, made significant advances with his formulation of the Bohr atomic model. In 1921, Bohr became director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen, which, under his direction, soon gained an international reputation as a leading center for research on quantum theory and atomic physics. Bohr broke new ground in the application of quantum theory to the study of atomic and molecular particles. Robert J. Oppenheimer, an American theoretical physicist, studied atomic physics under Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory. In 1927, Oppenheimer took a post in physics at The University of California at Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology. In 1932, James Chadwick, an English physicist who worked with Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory, discovered the neutron. Otto Hahn, a German chemist who was working with Fritz Strassmann, discovered nuclear fission. The Italian physicist Enrico Fermi conducted important research on nuclear fission at the University of Rome.

When Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, many of Europe’s greatest physicists emigrated in order to flee Nazi persecution, several of them settling in the United States. Szilard emigrated to London, where he first conceived of the possibility of creating an atomic bomb, and later settled...

(The entire section is 1061 words.)