A well considered portrait of the scientists who made the atomic bomb and then repented ever after.
Although thousands of scientists and support staff contributed to the development of the Trinity bomb and its cousins, writes VanDeMark (History/US Naval Academy), nine “contributed centrally to the bomb’s creation” and just as quickly raised objections, on a variety of grounds, to its employment. These scientists, VanDeMark suggests, can be forgiven—if forgiveness is desired—for their initial enthusiasm for the work: after all, caught up in “the frenzy of creation,” they were just doing what scientists do, pursuing knowledge for its own sake; one of them, Edward Teller, argued, “As a scientist, it is my responsibility to make things that will work. How they’re used is not my responsibility.” However, many of Teller’s colleagues disagreed even before the bomb was deployed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some, like Leo Szilard, argued that it should not be used at all, for to do so would “open the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale”; others, like Robert Oppenheimer, maintained that it should be used only at night, when it would light up the night sky and force an immediate surrender in its awful glow. (VanDeMark reveals that the military elected a daylight raid to protect the bomber crews from danger, even if it removed the shock-and-awe element.) Though less well written than Richard Rhodes’s Making of the Atomic Bomb, VanDeMark’s study does a good job of exploring the culture of science, especially the science involved in making weapons and the moral dilemmas such work occasions. As if to validate its subjects’ fears, this closes with a dark warning that the continuing spread of nuclear weapons today puts the lie to previous assurances that the doctrine of deterrence “can work everywhere and forever.”
A welcome addition to the literature of the atomic age.