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This is a sad, good, and important book. It begins lyrically with Lawrence crossing the country in 1928 in a Reo Flying Cloud coupe to take a job at Berkeley, to be followed shortly by Oppenheimer in a gray Cadillac to take jobs both at Berkeley and Cal Tech. The one, an Episcopalian arch-conservative from South Dakota, became the dean of experimental physicists. The other, the theoretician par excellence, was already considered a catch for any campus, though tainted by being Eastern, rich, and Jewish. The story hums merrily through the early years of happy discovery and mutual respect and friendship that marked the coming of age of American physics. Gradually the mood changes. The author, basing his account on documents and interviews, is a scrupulous reporter. His point of view is clear. Letting his characters speak and often indict themselves, he creates vivid images of how it was in the New Mexico desert, and how it was in the Truman and Eisenhower days of HUAC and hysteria when the country seemed hell-bent on self-destruction in the crash program to produce the H-bomb. The characters: Groves, Strauss, Teller, Chevalier, Fermi, Bethe, Bush, Lilienthal--are familiar. Davis' revelations of blunders, propaganda stunts (the first H-bomb test was not a bomb at all, and the Russians had every reason to know it) may not be so. But the book is a sobering social, political, and scientific history written by a man who understands physics, and, more important, physicists. While his sympathies are with Oppenheimer, he is compassionate in his treatment of Lawrence, who for all his ego and political naivete suffered shattering defeats in his later years.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1968
Publisher: Simon & Schuster