Excellently researched and argued; a useful adjunct to Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s broader-ranging American Prometheus.



Did a vast right-wing conspiracy bring down the peace wing of the American nuclear establishment?

Working with declassified American and Soviet documents, McMillan (Russian and Eurasian Studies/Harvard; Marina and Lee, 1977) writes that in the late 1940s, atomic scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer stood at the center of a debate about whether the U.S. should build a hydrogen bomb—and on an accelerated schedule at that. Oppenheimer adduced moral and logistical arguments against the bomb; the Atomic Energy Commission “had before it only one design for the weapon, and despite several years of research, it was not clear that it would ever work,” and Oppenheimer, like Einstein, Fermi and other physicists of the time, felt that this was a weapon not of warfare but of genocide. He was not the smartest of politicians, however; Oppenheimer, writes McMillan, was capable of “feline, almost involuntary, cruelty” toward opponents, and he made enemies all too easily. And so he did: Oppenheimer earned the wrath of higher-up Edward Teller, who, McMillan reveals, had “sat out ‘the main event’...the effort to build the A-bomb, and chosen instead to work on the hypothetical hydrogen bomb just when all hands were needed to work on a bomb that would end [WWII].” And not just Teller; a host of Air Force senior officers and anticommunist politicos found in Oppenheimer a poster boy for all that was wrong with a scientific community that would not pitch in to make the world safe from Stalin’s legions. Stalin was newly dead by the time Oppenheimer lost his security clearance, and soon the U.S., followed quickly by the USSR, was testing the H-bomb. Though inarguably aligned with leftist causes, Oppenheimer fell, McMillan writes, thanks to a conspiracy and to a newborn culture of governmental control of science, whereby “the scientist is less and less likely to speak out against government policies”—the condition, she adds, of subsidized science today.

Excellently researched and argued; a useful adjunct to Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s broader-ranging American Prometheus.

Pub Date: July 26, 2005

ISBN: 0-670-03422-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2005

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...


Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

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A collection of articulate, forceful speeches made from September 2018 to September 2019 by the Swedish climate activist who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Speaking in such venues as the European and British Parliaments, the French National Assembly, the Austrian World Summit, and the U.N. General Assembly, Thunberg has always been refreshingly—and necessarily—blunt in her demands for action from world leaders who refuse to address climate change. With clarity and unbridled passion, she presents her message that climate change is an emergency that must be addressed immediately, and she fills her speeches with punchy sound bites delivered in her characteristic pull-no-punches style: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” In speech after speech, to persuade her listeners, she cites uncomfortable, even alarming statistics about global temperature rise and carbon dioxide emissions. Although this inevitably makes the text rather repetitive, the repetition itself has an impact, driving home her point so that no one can fail to understand its importance. Thunberg varies her style for different audiences. Sometimes it is the rousing “our house is on fire” approach; other times she speaks more quietly about herself and her hopes and her dreams. When addressing the U.S. Congress, she knowingly calls to mind the words and deeds of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. The last speech in the book ends on a note that is both challenging and upbeat: “We are the change and change is coming.” The edition published in Britain earlier this year contained 11 speeches; this updated edition has 16, all worth reading.

A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

Pub Date: Nov. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-14-313356-8

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2019

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