A scholarly filling-in of the chronological record shows how Churchill dropped the ball on nuclear weapons leadership in World War II.
Farmelo (The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom, 2009) constructs a nicely detailed and balanced record of the British ambivalence toward building an atom bomb in favor of the American effort, since Churchill’s infatuation with H.G. Wells and early acquaintance with scientist Frederick Lindemann in 1921. The author tracks the working friendship between Churchill and Lindemann, the Oxford professor who directed the Clarendon Laboratory (as counterpoint to Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, run by Ernest Rutherford, “the Christopher Columbus of the atomic nucleus”) and largely helped cultivate Churchill’s education in quantum theory, however faulty. While the 1930s-era Cambridge physics department had been instrumental in discovering the neutron and in artificially splitting atomic nuclei, Lindemann also helped entice many refugee scientists from Nazi Germany—e.g., Hungarian Leó Szilárd, who developed the harnessing of nuclear energy, among others. As adviser to Churchill, Lindemann helped guide Churchill’s theories of creating a weapon of mass destruction to counter what he saw early on as a terrifying Nazi menace. Although many refugee scientists were developing feasible theories about the making of an actual bomb, Churchill got distracted with waging the Battle of Britain, and Lindemann’s ideas were often questioned by his scientific colleagues. Meanwhile, other refugees, such as Neils Bohr and Enrico Fermi, discoverers of nuclear fission, had migrated to American universities and were working hard on a weapon. Merging the two efforts would prove prickly and problematic, as delineated step by step by the author.
A tremendously useful soup-to-nuts study of how Britain and the U.S. embraced a frightening atomic age.