The First War of Physics

BOOK: The First War of Physics
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For Jini,
My soulmate


List of illustrations


Prologue: Letter from Berlin


Chapter 1   The Uranverein

Chapter 2   Element 94

Chapter 3   Critical Mass

Chapter 4   A Visit to Copenhagen

Chapter 5   Tube Alloys


Chapter 6   A Modest Request

Chapter 7   The Italian Navigator

Chapter 8   Los Alamos Ranch School

Chapter 9   

Chapter 10  Escape from Copenhagen


Chapter 11  Uncle Nick

Chapter 12  Mortal Crimes

Chapter 13  Alsos and AZUSA

Chapter 14  The Final Push

Chapter 15  Trinity

Chapter 16  Hypocentre

Chapter 17  Operation Epsilon


Chapter 18  

Chapter 19  Iron Curtain

Chapter 20  Crossroads

Chapter 21  Arzamas-16

Chapter 22  Joe-1

Epilogue: Mutual Assured Destruction


List of Key Characters

Notes and Sources




1.    Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn

2.    Otto Frisch

3.    Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg

4.    Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard

5.    The faculty of the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory

6.    Rudolf Peierls and his wife Genia

7.    James Chadwick

8.    Ernest Lawrence, Arthur Compton, Vannevar Bush, James Bryant Conant, Karl Compton and Alfred Loomis

9.    J. Robert Oppenheimer

10.  Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi

11.  The world’s first nuclear reactor

12.  Leslie Groves

13.  Leif Tronstad

14.  Damage to the heavy water concentration cells at Vemork

15.  The Norsk Hydro Vemork facility

16.  The Los Alamos laboratory

17.  Klaus Fuchs

18.  Theodore Hall

19.  David Greenglass

20.  Igor Kurchatov

21.  The second Alsos mission ‘council of war’

22.  A spherical reactor captured by the Alsos mission

23.  The last German experimental nuclear reactor, B-VIII

24.  The first ‘Fat Man’ plutonium bomb

25.  Oppenheimer and Groves inspect the damage following the Trinity test explosion

26.  The mushroom cloud above the ruins of Nagasaki

27.  Alan Nunn May

28.  Andrei Sakharov

About the author

Jim Baggott
is an award-winning science writer. A former academic scientist, he now works as an independent business consultant but maintains a broad interest in science, philosophy and history, and continues to write on these subjects in his spare time. His previous books have been widely acclaimed and include
A Beginner’s Guide to Reality
(Penguin, 2005),
Beyond Measure: Modern Physics, Philosophy and the Meaning of Quantum Theory
(Oxford University Press, 2004) and
Perfect Symmetry: The Accidental Discovery of Buckminsterfullerene
(Oxford University Press, 1994).


rom the very moment of their conception, atomic weapons have been synonymous with fear. Fear that Hitler’s Nazi Germany might be first to build an atomic bomb drove Anglo-American efforts during the Second World War. Fear that America might threaten a first nuclear strike drove the Soviet Union’s own bomb programme during the Cold War that followed.

I was born in 1957, and grew up in the shadow of the fear inspired by Cold War rhetoric and the concept of mutual assured destruction. I was just five years old when, during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, the US Strategic Air Command carried aloft thermonuclear weapons with a total explosive potential of more than half a million Hiroshimas. As Air Force chief of staff Curtis LeMay urged President John F. Kennedy to hit the Soviet Union with everything in the US nuclear arsenal, the world held its breath.

Just how did this happen? How did this dreadful instrument of fear come to be created? Of course, the bomb was created by some of the world’s greatest physicists, many of them Nobel laureates – physicists who, only a few years before, had been leading a series of revolutions in theoretical science and shaking the very foundations of our understanding of physical reality. But how did these men become such profoundly important
resources in a war that was to redefine the very meaning of barbarity, a war that was to recalibrate what it means to be inhuman? How did these other-worldly ‘eggheads’ find themselves centre-stage in such a drama of heroic endeavour, sabotage, espionage, counter-espionage, assassination and terrible destruction that it now seems barely credible as fiction? How did they come, in the words of J. Robert Oppenheimer, to know sin?

These were men such as Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, Richard Feynman, Otto Frisch, Klaus Fuchs, Werner Heisenberg, Yuli Khariton, Igor Kurchatov, Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, and many, many more. Diverted from their academic preoccupations by the biggest military
conflict in human history, they became deeply embroiled in the biggest of human dramas. They found themselves drawn inexorably into a project to build the world’s most awful weapon of war, a weapon judged to be ‘practically irresistible’ at a time when the world was threatened by the darkest evil.

Confronted with bare historical facts, our questions tumble out. The devastation that could be wrought with atomic weapons was obvious to the physicists right from the start, so why did they persist in developing these weapons, without hesitation? Why, despite having a clear lead in nuclear physics at the beginning of the Second World War, did German physicists fail to develop an atomic bomb? Did the Allies really plot to have Heisenberg kidnapped or assassinated? Why, when it became clear that there was no threat of a Nazi weapon, did the Allies use the atomic bomb, without warning, against Japan? To what extent did the Soviet atomic programme rely on intelligence gathered by spies such as Klaus Fuchs, Theodore Hall, David Greenglass and the Rosenbergs? Could the Soviets have developed the bomb without them? What was the full extent of Soviet penetration of the Manhattan Project?

Were the physicists merely instruments in a political game-plan to establish supremacy in a post-war world? Or did they knowingly inspire the arms race? What, if any, lessons can be drawn from this history to inform our perspective on nuclear energy and the proliferation of weapons technology today?

This book is my attempt to answer these and many other questions through a popular, accessible account of the race to build the first atomic bombs, centred on the individual stories of the physicists directly involved. The book spans ten historic years, beginning with the discovery of nuclear fission in early 1939 and closing shortly after ‘Joe-1’, the first Soviet atomic bomb test in August 1949.

Now, parts of this story have already been told, and told very well. But there are important strands of the story that have emerged only within the last decade or so, relating specifically to aspects of the German and Soviet atomic programmes and penetration of the Manhattan Project by Soviet spies. These new materials allow a single-volume popular history of the
Anglo-American, German and Soviet programmes to be assembled for the first time.

The book is organised in four parts. Part I covers the mobilisation of nuclear physicists around the world following the outbreak of war in September 1939 and early work on atom bomb and reactor physics. Part II recounts the early frustrations and progress in weapon design, the development of bomb and reactor materials in Germany, Britain and America, the spectacular sabotage of the heavy water plant at Vemork by Norwegian commandos, and the establishment of the Soviet espionage operation codenamed ENORMOZ.

BOOK: The First War of Physics
6.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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