The Bomb: The Weapon That Changed the World
"A visually stunning, dramatic story of the development of the atomic bomb."
The authors and illustrator of The Bomb: The Weapon that Changed the World have presented a visually stunning, dramatic story of the development of the atomic bomb. They display adroit storytelling and the interweaving of several narratives, but stumble in some factual areas.
The book opens compellingly enough with uranium appearing as a forceful character, boasting "The world's greatest scientists are interested in me and my attributes. My day is dawning." That day, of course, will be its use to create the most powerful weapon known to humanity.
The human part of the story starts with Leo Szilard, a Hungarian Jewish physicist teaching in Berlin in 1933. Szilard recognizes early on the danger Hitler poses and leaves Germany, but his story continues six years later in New York where he warns that: "Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman just demonstrated what I have suspected for a long time: that nuclear fission resulting from atomic collisions would generate incredible energy."
While it's true that Szilard mentioned only Hahn and Strassman in his conversation with Fermi, in fact the two German chemists demonstrated no such thing, though they won a Nobel Prize in 1944 for their experiments. Rather, Hahn and Strassman published papers in late 1939 describing a series of experiments that to their minds led to an unexplainable consequence. They noted what they observed but couldn't explain what had happened, leaving it to physicists to clarify the muddled mystery.
It was Lise Meitner, Hahn's long-time partner, now a Jewish refugee in Sweden, and her nephew Otto Robert Frisch, who explained Hahn's experiments as showing the atom being split, writing it up in early 1940. This news was revealed by Niels Bohr at a physicists’ conference in Washington, DC, setting the' world of physics ablaze with the news. Meitner's role was widely known at the time and later, after the detonation of the bomb, she was interviewed as "The Mother of the Bomb." When Hahn won the Nobel Prize for her work, other physicists joked that the crowning achievement of Meitner's life was to win a Nobel Prize for Hahn.
Admittedly choices have to be made in telling any story and perhaps the authors considered this too much detail, too many names, but in repeating a story that has been repeatedly shown to be false (though it's sadly still all too present online), they themselves contribute to the history of wrongly snubbing Meitner.
Szilard, who was a colleague of Meitner, would have seen his quote here as partial, not a full explanation of the discovery. Fermi, after all, already knew from Niels Bohr, about Meitner's role.
But Szilard was indeed the impetus for the entire Manhattan Project, and he rightly has a major role in this story. He warned all Allied scientists to stop sharing information with their German colleagues. This was before the possibility of a chain reaction had been proven. And this was Szilard's true important role, his prescience in warning scientists to stop the free sharing of information, a common way of doing science before Hitler.
The chain reaction is presented as something Szilard himself discovers: "It was like a vision! If we could find a fission element that emitted two neutrons when it's penetrated by one, this element could fuel a chain reaction."
In actuality, it was Otto Robert Frisch and another Jewish refugee physicist in England, Rudolph Peierls, who made this discovery, writing it up in a famous "memorandum." Both of them went on to work on the Manhattan Project.
There are bigger issues, however, including the descriptions of Nazi research on building a bomb which didn't happen at all. In fact, there are clear records of how little was spent on such atomic work, with all the attention and money going to Werner von Braun's rockets. Heisenberg's uranium group was working on a "nuclear engine," nuclear power, not a weapon, which they didn't think was even possible.
Here are the transcripts from The Farm Hall Report, the book of the secret recordings made of the German physicists after they were picked up by the Alsos mission (accurately mentioned in the book) and brought to seclusion at Farm Hall near Cambridge in England.
After the scientists heard the news of the atomic bomb on the radio, this is what they were caught saying:
"HAHN: If the Americans have a uranium bomb then you're all second-raters. Poor old Heisenberg.
LAUE: The innocent!
HEISENBERG: Did they use the word uranium in connection with this atomic bomb?
HEISENBERG: Then it's got nothing to do with atoms, but the equivalent of 20,000 tons of high explosive is terrific . . . All I can suggest is that some dilettante in America who knows very little about it has bluffed them in saying 'If you drop this it has the equivalent of 20,000 tons of high explosive' and in reality doesn't work at all.
HAHN: At any rate, Heisenberg, you're just second-raters and you may as well pack up.
HEISENBERG: I quite agree.
HAHN: They are fifty years further advanced than we.
HEISENBERG: I don't believe a word of the whole thing. They must have spent the whole of their 500,000,000 pounds in separating isotopes, and then it's possible. . . . I am willing to believe that it is a high-pressure bomb and I don't believe that it has anything to do with uranium but that it is a chemical thing where they have enormously increased the speed of the reaction and enormously increased the whole explosion.
[More discussion about how it could be physically possible, how? How the Americans must have worked on separating isotopes "which we neglected completely partly knowingly and partly unknowingly, apart from the centrifuges."]
HEISENBERG: The point is that the whole structure of the relationship between the scientist and the state in Germany was such that although we were not 100% anxious to do it, on the other hand we were so little trusted by the state that even if we had wanted to do it would not have been easy to get it through.
[More discussion about how they could have done it.]
HEISENBERG: Well that's not quite right. I would say that I was absolutely convinced of the possibility of our making a uranium engine [nuclear power plant] but I never thought that we would make a bomb. . . . About a year ago, I heard from Segner from the Foreign Office that the Americans had threatened to drop a uranium bomb on Dresden if we didn't surrender soon. At that time I was asked whether I thought it was possible, and, with complete conviction, I replied, 'No.'"
Heisenberg wasn't worried about an American nuclear program. He thought it simply wasn't possible. The revisionist history presented here is what the American military used to justify using the bomb, not accurate history about the state of German research. It's also the story the German physicists themselves put out in public, trying to show how noble and moral they were. They could have made this terrible weapon but chose not to because they were so much more humane than the brutal Americans. This is properly called "spin," not history.
The Bomb offers a good story. It juggles well many different and complicated storylines, but it's not an entirely accurate history.