At the end of Steve Sheinkin's book BOMB: The Race to Build --- and Steal --- The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon is a copy of a letter to President Roosevelt from Albert Einstein. Dated August 2nd, 1939, the letter outlines the potential for Germany to weaponize uranium and the need for a coordinated response from the scientific community. This letter provides the theoretical framework for the Manhattan Project, an initiative involving some of the greatest minds of the century to create the world's first atom bomb.
Steve Sheinkin’s BOMB: The Race to Build --- and Steal --- The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon uses the lives of scientists, saboteurs, and spies to tell the story of the first atomic bomb. With material gleaned from archival materials and declassified government reports, Sheinkin includes tales of Norweigan saboteurs who helped destroy Hitler’s capability to create nuclear materials, as well as the stories of numerous spies who ferried scientific discoveries --- and sometimes the scientists themselves --- across international borders in a world at war. At first thrilling tales of adventure and intrigue, these seemingly separate threads eventually narrow down to the atomic bomb and the terrible consequences of creating a weapon of such overwhelmingly destructive powers.
"But perhaps the most striking aspect of BOMB is the way it subtly begs one central question: why?...Sheinkin does not answer these questions directly, but gives us many explanations, sometimes from the people who had to make the decisions for themselves."
Sheinkin includes key personalities and first-person accounts of the creation, deployment and aftermath of the atomic bomb. Among these, one of the most charismatic of the movement, J. Robert Oppenheimer emerges as a tragic figure. A physicist at University Berkeley, he was handpicked by General Leslie Grove to recruit scientists and coordinate scientific efforts. Oppenheimer goes from absent-minded professor to genius mastermind before he is broken by the weight of his conscience and a vote of no-confidence by his country. Oppenheimer’s outspoken opposition to using the powerful weapon he was instrumental in creating eventually led to congress stripping his security clearance and removing him from the role of researcher and advisor to the U.S. government forever.
BOMB is similarly filled with striking moments and images. Even readers familiar with the topic will be impressed by the breadth and depth of Sheinkin’s research and how much information he manages to condense into this small book. Simple diagrams help explain the nuclear fission process and the different methods the Manhattan Project came up with to weaponize the energy potential of the split atom. For the first time, with the aid of pictures of simple explanations, I was able to understand that they developed not one bomb, but two bombs utilizing different trigger methods and different core materials. Likewise, the outrageous communist hunts of the era seem saner in the context of how Soviets --- then allies in the war --- were able to access nuclear secrets.
But perhaps the most striking aspect of BOMB is the way it subtly begs one central question: why? Knowing the risks they took to create it, and the devastating destruction that would result, why did scientists do this research? Why did spies give away the secrets? How could someone choose to use such a terrible weapon? What is to be done now that the secret is unlocked and we must live with the consequences?
Sheinkin does not answer these questions directly, but gives us many explanations, sometimes from the people who had to make the decisions for themselves. Many of the scientists involved in the project were excited by the challenge of nuclear research, at the same time believing Hitler to be an imminent threat. Perhaps the most difficult decision was made by President Truman when he decided to use the bombs on Japan, effectively ending the war. Since that time, there has been a great deal of controversy about this decision; it is the only time when nuclear bombs have actually been used in war.
I believe the best non-fiction books are not merely educational, but instill something extra in their reader: the ability to start asking questions about what they’re reading and whether it has resonance in their own lives. Although a timeline and a ‘rogues gallery’ of key players would be helpful additions to BOMB, Sheinkin’s book achieves what other nonfiction titles do not. In writing a book about the development of the atomic bomb, Sheinkin takes on some of the biggest moral quandaries of our time.
In the epilogue, Sheinkin acknowledges the difficulties of addressing such a big topic. “In the end, this is a difficult story to sum up,” he writes. “The making of the atomic bomb is one of history’s most amazing examples of teamwork and genius and poise under pressure. But it’s also the story of how humans created a weapon capable of wiping our species off the planet. It’s a story with no end in sight… And like it or not you’re in it” (p236).
What awes me most in reading BOMB: The Race to Build --- and Steal --- The World's Most Powerful Weapon is not the terrible destruction wrought by the world’s most brilliant minds, but the fact that it has not been used in warfare again. Despite the conflict our world has seen since 1945, humanity has been united in its decision not to deploy nuclear weapons. It is my hope that the sights Sheinkin describes in his book --- whether the brilliant light and colors of a nuclear explosion or the horror and devastation that follows --- will never be seen again.