CITY OF FIRE: Los Alamos and the Birth of the Atomic Age 1943-1945 by James W. Kunetka

CITY OF FIRE: Los Alamos and the Birth of the Atomic Age 1943-1945

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Reading through this earnest, punctilious account of the Manhattan Project, one yearns for the graceful pause to catch one's breath, the witty or even acrimonious anecdote found in other, more personal memoirs of those portentous years. To be sure, the author is only a step removed: the son of an AEC geologist in Albuquerque, he obviously knows the terrain well. He has read the archives and the declassified papers, and interviewed participants. So there is a lot of interesting material. In particular, Kunetka explains the technical problems that attended the construction of the first atomic bombs, going into detail about initiators, detonators, cores, tampers, explosive lenses. But interlaced with these details is such a burden of names, acronyms, committees, personnel hierarchies, civilian-army relations that, before long, the exhausted reader wants a skeleton key, a few simple diagrams, even (shuddering thought) an organizational chart of the kind given new government employees. Still, the events are intrinsically spectacular and the buildup to Trinity--code name for the first Fat Man implosion bomb test site--is very effective. Here the author's chapter-and-verse style pays off in the suspense of the movement of bomb parts, their assembly, the infernal weather delays, and finally the moments of countdown and successful climax. There is an attempt to flesh out some of the main actors in the drama. Oppenheimer, in particular, emerges as a poignant hero, brilliant and charming but also arrogant. For the most part, however, the writing is arid and at times downright peculiar. What, for example, can be meant by ""Oppenheimer was hedging on new scopes of work""? So, add this to the shelf of works shedding new light on a turning point in history, but don't expect that light to be brilliant.

Pub Date: April 26th, 1978
Publisher: Prentice-Hall