Sunday, September 28, 2014

Bomb: The Race to Build - And Steal- The World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin

Bomb is Steve Sheinkin's fascinating account of the three way race between America, Germany and the Soviet Union to build the first atomic bomb. Whoever won this race would likely win World War II and America was determined it would not be Germany.

When fission was discovered and it's possibilities realized, the development of an atomic weapon became a massive project that involved hundreds of brilliant scientists drawn from Europe, Britain and America. It also became a multi-pronged tactical exercise that involved hindering German atomic research as much as possible, keeping American research secret from both Germany and the Soviets, co-ordinating the production of material required to make the bomb, and developing a team to deliver and drop it.

Sheinkin opens the story of "the creation and theft of the deadliest weapon ever invented" with the arrest of Harry Gold, an American who the FBI finally caught up to in 1950.

The story then backtracks to the early life of Robert Oppenheimer, a strange but brilliant character whose peers often considered him "as being sort of nuts". Oppenheimer had a tendency to illness so his parents kept him inside, allowing Robert to develop his interest in languages and science. In high school he loved chemistry and physics. He graduated from Harvard University in 1925 and then went overseas to Britain and Germany where he completed advanced degrees. Oppie, as he was nicknamed, eventually returned to the United States and was hired by the University of California at Berkley where he developed a theoretical physics program. At this time theoretical physics was focused on attempting to figure out how the inner parts of atoms behaved. As he got a bit older, Oppenheimer become more aware of current events taking place in the world at large and was alarmed at Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933. Oppenheimer had Jewish relatives and friends in Germany and he was concerned about their safety.

In 1938, an astounding discovery was made by a German scientist, Otto Hahn. By the late 1930's scientists understood more about the nature of matter than ever before. They knew that atoms were the small particles that made up all things and they knew a little bit about the structure of atoms, that they had a nucleus made up of protons and neutrons with electrons whizzing around the nucleus in a sort of orbit. They also knew that some atoms were unstable or radioactive, giving off energy in the form of particles which broke away from the nucleus. Scientists like Hahn used radioactive atoms to make an amazing discovery. When Hahn placed uranium beside a radioactive element, he discovered that the uranium atom appeared to be split into two atoms - something considered impossible at this time.

He was so surprised by this result that at first he didn't believe it and Hahn contacted a friend, Lise Meitner, a Jewish physicist who had fled Germany. Meitner in turn showed her nephew who was also a physicist. Otto Frisch and Lise Meitner concluded that it was possible and that if it did occur, a great deal of energy would be released. This discovery was so incredible that Frisch raced to Copenhagen, Denmark where he told Neils Bohr. This process of splitting a uranium atom in two would be called fission and it was to have a profound effect on world history and the nature of war. When Robert Oppenheimer learned about fission , he knew that it had the potential to create the most powerful bomb the world had ever seen.

No one knew exactly what Germany was doing with this new found knowledge. During peace, normally scientists would share discoveries but with countries now falling into what appeared to be another global conflict, no one could be certain of anything. Two concerned physicists solicited the help of  the renowned Albert Einstein who wrote a letter to President Roosevelt telling him about the German discovery of fission and its potential ramifications. If Germany developed the first fission bomb, they would be in a position of world dominance, capable of inflicting deadly damage on any country they were at war with. When Roosevelt understood the message conveyed by Einstein he decided to act.

First atomic bomb named "Gadget" tested at Trinity
This is where Harry Gold returns to the story. Like many American's during the depression, Gold ended up losing his job. He got a chance at employment in a soap factory where he met Tom Black, a committed communist. When Gold went back to work for his former employer, the Pennsylvania Sugar Company, Black recruited Gold to steal the chemical processes for the Soviet Union. This was how Gold became involved in "the greatest crime of the century" as described by J. Edgar Hoover.

With the bombing of Pearl Harbour in the early morning hours of December 7, 1941, the United States entered the Second World War. Reasearch into nuclear fission would now be of paramount importance.

The Soviets too heard about Hahn's remarkable discovery. Georgi Flerov a Soviet physicist noted that academic journals were suddenly devoid of papers on uranium fission, meaning that work was going ahead to build a bomb. The Soviets recognized that despite being allies against Germany with the Americans, they too needed to build their own atomic bomb. With their country in a death fight against the advancing Nazi army, they did not have the capability to do their own research. This mean they were going to have to steal the information necessary to make one. And the KGB set about to do just that. In order to steal the information the Soviets needed a "reliable source inside the American bomb project."

Leslie Groves, an engineer who had overseen the project to build the Pentagon was placed in charge of the American project to build an atom bomb, known as Manhattan Project. He eventually chose Robert Oppenheimer, who felt that a laboratory which was focused exclusively on building an atom bomb, was needed. This would allow scientists from different research labs to be in one centralized location and able to share insights. This despite reservations from the FBI who felt Oppenheimer's past interest in Communism made him unacceptable. Groves won and Oppenheimer was placed in charge of Manhattan Project.

From this point on Bomb details three storylines; the setting up of the Manhattan Project to build the world's first atomic bomb under the direction of Robert Oppenheimer, the destruction of the German's heavy water plant at Vemork near Rjukan, Norway and the cultivation of spies in America to steal vital information to make a bomb and pass it to the Soviets.

Each of these stories on their own, make fascinating reading, building to the climax of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945. Sheinkin provides much interesting information on the actual development of the atomic bomb gathered from many sources. The entire Manhattan Project from beginning to end involved a great deal of planning, from recruiting the best and brightest scientists in the fields of physics, chemistry and mathematics, securing enough uranium, working out a bomb design, testing the bomb to ensure it worked, to hand picking the pilots and the crews to fly the missions. All of the problems encountered, the many characters involved in the Manhattan Project and the mixed reactions after the dropping of the first bomb are well described.

The story of the Vemork heavy water plant is also one that many readers will learn about. Its destruction by Knut Haukelid and his team was a significant setback to German scientists in the development of their own atom bomb and came with a heavy price to the people of Norway. We should all be grateful for their sacrifice and for the outstanding effort of the team sent into Vemork. It is quite possible that Germany would have won the race to build an atomic bomb were it not for the destruction of their heavy water plant.

Equally amazing is the story of  Soviet espionage and betrayal by two scientists working on the Manhattan Project supported by a colourful cast of international agents. The information stolen and passed onto the Soviets saved them from wasting valuable time in developing a bomb design and in the end resulted in an arms race that did not cease until the late 1980's. One can only speculate on how different the history of Eastern Europe might be today had the Soviets not had atomic and nuclear weapons.

Sheinkin has written a remarkably well researched book and told the story of the development of the atomic bomb and the theft of classified information in a way that is both engaging and informative. The book has four parts; Part 1: The Three Way Race, Part 2: Chain Reaction, Part 3: How To Build An Atomic Bomb and Part 4: Final Assembly. There is a Prologue and an Epilogue, the latter detailing the consequences that the major players in the espionage faced as well as how the arms race played out in the mid-20th century. A reproduction of the letter Albert Einstein sent to President Roosevelt as well a some pictures of the explosion at Trinity are also included.

Bomb is high recommended for those who have an interest in science and World War II history. Not surprisingly, Bomb was the winner of the 2013 Robert F. Sibert Medal for excellence in informational books. It also won the YALSA Award for Excellence in Young Adult NonFiction for 2013.

Book Details:
Bomb: The Race To Build - And Steal- The World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin
New York: Roaring Book Press     2012
266 pp.

No comments: