The life and work of “an expert in technology” who is largely forgotten outside the world of physics.
Richard Garwin (b. 1928) was Enrico Fermi’s favorite student, and he worked with theoretical physicist Edward Teller and played a central role in developing the hydrogen bomb at Los Alamos. A brilliant experimenter and inventor, he made important contributions to physics but never won a Nobel Prize or created controversy, so few beyond the scientific community have honored him. Science writer Shurkin (Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age, 2006, etc.) will probably not change matters, but readers will enjoy his compelling biography of an extraordinarily talented scientist. A prodigy from childhood, Garwin was a 23-year-old with a doctorate when, assigned by Teller, he designed the first workable model for a fusion device. Teller spent his life in a successful battle to take credit for the H-bomb; consequently, except among colleagues, Garwin’s work was unknown. In his definitive account of the H-bomb, Dark Sun (1995), Richard Rhodes “missed it because no one told him about it.” Even Shurkin, a skilled writer, strains to explain Garwin’s promotion of the mathematical algorithm called the Fast Fourier Transform, now “a common tool in virtually every aspect of science and technology.” Readers will have no trouble recognizing the laser printer, GPS, touch screen, and virtual reality helmet, developed during Garwin’s long career at IBM (the latter two were rejected by superiors but smash hits for rival companies a generation later). By the 1960s, he was a valued science consultant to presidents, regularly telling them what they didn’t want to hear and, despite his H-bomb history, working to promote disarmament.
A fine biography of a man who played an essential role in post–World War II American science and deserves to be better known.