Monday, February 25, 2013
Writing to Lise Meitner, his former collaborator, Hahn explained what he'd found. Meitner and her nephew, Otto Frisch, were physicists, and though both were amazed by Hahn's news, Meitner was also aware that "We have experienced so many surprises in nuclear physics that one cannot say without hesitation about anything: 'It's impossible.'" (p. 14) Sketching a diagram and doing some math, Meitner and Frisch realized it was, in fact, possible to split an atom. Not only that, but the energy released by splitting an atom is immense. And if you had enough uranium and figured out how to split all those uranium atoms at the same time, you would have the most powerful bomb ever.
The only question was, who would get the bomb first?
Remember, this happened in late 1938. Germany, with its long tradition of scientific achievement—particularly in physics—was led by Adolf Hitler and had already occupied and annexed Austria. Czechoslovakia is in its sights, and World War II will begin not much later, in 1939.
As World War II rages, England and the United States are determined to figure out how to build an atomic bomb, while also preventing Germany from creating one. Norwegian men are trained to infiltrate their homeland, now occupied by Germany, to destroy what authorities believe are facilities key to the Nazi bomb effort. Scientists from all over the U.S. are quietly disappearing, slipping away to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where a brilliant physicist named Robert Oppenheimer is in charge of what was given the code name the Manhattan Project. Although England and the U.S. are allied with the USSR, both are determined to keep the Soviets in the dark about the bomb. But the Soviets have informants and spies extremely close to the Manhattan Project—some of them even working on the bomb itself.
Steve Sheinkin's Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World's Most Dangerous Weapon was one of the most acclaimed books of 2012, and it's easy to see why. He smoothly weaves together the different strands with impeccable pacing and lively characterizations. While scientific and technical background of the bomb is lucidly explained, this is ultimately a book about the people invovled, many of whom I hadn't heard of: not only the men and women (but mostly men) who conducted the experiments, worked out the theories, and built the bomb, but also those who spied and carried out top secret missions.
Back matter includes source notes, limited quotation notes, and an index.
Book details: Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin
Published by Roaring Brook/Macmillan in 2012
Book source: public library.
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