Between now and the announcement of the winner on January 28, we’re taking a closer look at the five finalists for the 2013 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction. I’m going to discuss Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin. (For some great fiction readalikes for Bomb, see our earlier post).
“We were sobered by the knowledge that the world would never be the same,” he said. “War, the scourge of the human race since time began, now held terrors beyond belief.”
— Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets
I know I’m going to sound like the biggest geek when I admit that my favorite nonfiction book of all time is The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. It reads like a great big fictional novel full of lots of conflict and many characters, each with their own complicated stories — but it’s nonfiction. I was very happy to read Bomb because not only does it acknowledge Rhodes’s book as the Bible on the subject, but it, too, also reads like a John le Carre novel and presents a fascinating subject in a very accessible and appealing way.
This book has everything: a secret, government-sanctioned scientific project being built in a number of secret locations; scientists not sure how to make the “gadget” work; spies from the project trying to smuggle out the plans for the bombs to sell to the Soviets; the Germans trying to make their own bomb using heavy water; and military and non-military people from many countries all doing what they can in secret to stop Hitler and the Japanese from taking over the entire world.
There’s a lot covered in this book, from the discovery by Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner of nuclear fission; to why this discovery was so important to the countries involved in WWII; to the scientists, both traitorous and true, and other people involved in the project, both in the US and abroad; to the horrifying aftermath of the bombs being dropped; to the key players’ lives after the war. Sheinkin supports his facts with source notes and quotation notes, although he doesn’t include the page numbers from his sources, making verification a little difficult.
He also does an admirable job of trying to get into the heads of all of those involved to let readers know why they believed what they were doing was right. Even if they were working as double agents, he presents their rationale in an unbiased way, letting their actions speak for themselves. Spy Klaus Fuchs is particularly interesting in how he was able to play the role of industrious scientist all the while spying for the Soviets. Sheinkin doesn’t judge, and he does make it clear that other countries having the capability to build atomic bombs has acted as a deterrent for any country to use them.
There are a lot of little bits of personal information about the key players included here, particularly about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the real hero of the book, a man who was trusted to create a bomb that would save the world yet not expected to have any moral uncertainties about what he was asked to do. That’s what makes this book so appealing. The scientists were torn between elation over the scientific feat they had accomplished and the horror of what they had unleashed. A telling tidbit from the beginning of the book shows readers just how brilliant but absentminded Oppenheimer was when he left his date in a parked car and wandered home. A newspaper account of the incident was headlined, “Forgetful Prof Parks Girl, Takes Self Home.”
I’ve always been a huge fan of physicist Richard Feynman. His concise and easy to understand explanation for why the Challenger explosion occurred in 1986 made a complex scientific concept understandable to a layperson like me. His curiosity about learning new things and his irrepressible personality really comes through in Sheinkin’s book. Feynman drove the army censors who screened the mail crazy because he and his family corresponded by using secret codes. Sheinkin says in Bomb that, “[Feynman] enjoyed cracking the codes. Army censors did not.” Feynman also made a hobby of learning to become a safecracker and picking the locks on the filing cabinets and removing top-secret documents. This led to General Leslie Groves, in charge of the atomic bomb project to say that, “the government has assembled the world’s largest collection of crackpots.” (For several great graphic novels about Oppenheimer and Feynman and the making of the atomic bomb, read Jim Ottaviani’s Feynman and Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb).
I’ve been to Norway and loved the part in the book about the Norwegians’ daredevil plan to destroy the heavy water plant in Vemork. Sheinkin’s story closely follows what I was told and saw for myself when I visited it and Lake Tinn where the Hydro was sunk.
It’s ironic that the world’s most brilliant scientists didn’t know just how dangerous the effects of the atomic blast could be. They were all supposed to look away from the blast when they tested it at the Trinity site, but no one did. No one even wore protective goggles; they were just supposed to watch the blast through a thick piece of dark glass. Feynman refused that and just looked through the car’s windshield, figuring it would filter out the harmful ultraviolet light, and give him a better view.
This book is so very readable because, as the book’s cover states, “This is the story of the plotting, the risk-taking, the deceit, and genius that created the world’s most formidable weapon. This is the story of the atomic bomb.”
— Sharon Rawlins, currently reading A Certain October by Angela Johnson