There Were Nine of Them: men with the names Oppenheimer, Teller, Fermi, Bohr, Lawrence, Bethe, Rabi, Szilard, and Compton-brilliant men who believed in science and who saw before anyone else did the awesome workings of an invisible world. They came from many places, some fleeing Nazism in Europe, others quietly slipping out of university teaching jobs, all gathering in secret wartime laboratories to create the world's first atomic bomb. At one such place hidden away in the mountains of northern New Mexico-Los Alamos-they would crack the secret of the nuclear chain reaction and construct a device that incinerated a city and melted its victims so thoroughly that the only thing left was their scorched outlines on the sidewalks. During the war, few of the atomic scientists questioned the wisdom of their desperate endeavor. But afterward, they were forced to deal with the sobering legacy of their creation. Some were haunted by the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and would become anti-nuclear weapons activists; others would go on to build bigger and even deadlier bombs. Some would remain friends; others would become bitter rivals and enemies. In explaining their lives and their struggles, Brian VanDeMark superbly illuminates the ways in which these brilliant and sensitive men came to terms with their horrific creation. The result is spectacular history and a moral investigation of the highest order.
Many books have tried to shed light on why the greatest minds of 20th century physics designed the most horrific weapon in history. Brian VanDeMark tries a new tack in Pandora's Keepers: the group biography. Instead of focusing on just Oppenheimer, or Bohr, or Teller, this book encompasses the nine men at the core of the United States' effort to build an atomic bomb. By avoiding individual stories, he reveals that these men collectively were more than the sum of their brilliant parts.
It was no secret that Hitler was attempting to achieve nuclear fission, and many of the nine were Europeans who had seen the horrors of the Third Reich up close. Beyond any care for ethics or morals, they wanted to beat Hitler to the Bomb. But though they functioned as a scientific juggernaut together, some of the men suffered pangs of anxiety when alone. Leo Szilard, for instance, feared the results of his early experiments.
Szilard flipped the switch, saw the dreaded pulses, and watched them for several minutes with mounting horror.... "That night," Szilard later recalled, "there was very little doubt in my mind that the world was headed for grief."
Readers of Richard Rhodes' classic Making of the Atomic Bomb will find some new insights here as VanDeMark casts a wide net for relevant details. Pandora's Keepers tells this familiar story with new energy and immediacy, bringing to life the difficult drama of science in wartime. --Therese Littleton
From Publishers Weekly
As the subtitle suggests, this is a biography of a scientific generation, treating the nine men who built the atom bomb and how each of them grappled with the implications of their awesome creation. The story of the Manhattan Project is famous, and so are the complicated, remarkable men behind it, whom VanDeMark, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and coauthor of Robert S. McNamara's bestseller, In Retrospect, brings engrossingly to life: men like Oppenheimer, Bethe, Bohr, Teller, Fermi and Szilard. But VanDeMark says he is interested in the human rather than the scientific story: a tale of moral ambiguity in "an imperfect world that sometimes forges good from evil and evil from good." The author tackles his subject in two parts. The first treats the "frenzy of creation" that took on a life of its own, and how, when their work was done, the scientists involved "came to fear the very thing they had built to end fear." The book's second part addresses the rude awakening of the atomic scientists, who had previously lived in the detached, rarefied world of academia, to the moral implications of their contribution for world politics. VanDeMark does not overlook its implications in today's world, questioning the viability of deterrence when "fanatics, driven by zealotry that knows no ethical constraints" may gain access to nuclear weapons. He concludes that "there is hope," but not all readers will find hope in his statement that we must rely on good sense to avoid disaster. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW.
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