"I cannot live without books." -- Thomas Jefferson

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Jim Baggott's secret history of The First War of Physics

An epic story of science and technology at the very limits of human understanding: the monumental race to build the first atomic weapons...

But does Baggott's book live up to the "epic" claim? In a word, yes.

Those years are perhaps the darkest in the history of mankind. Everything that physicists had been working toward since the time of the Greeks, Persians and Newton was taken out of the lecture halls and laboratories and used to create weapons of such awesome power that whole cities could be leveled--completely obliterated in less than a minute. The power of the universe inside a device controlled by politicians; men who would bring humanity to its knees all in the name of either nationalism, democracy, communism or fascism.

Baggott begins his book with a prologue entitled "Letter from Berlin," by telling the story of Austrian Jewish physicist Otto Frisch and his aunt Lise Meitner (a chemist), who lost his job at the University of Hamburg with Hitler's ascendancy and ultimately ended up working for Neils Bohr (one of the critical founders of quantum mechanics). Baggott relates how Meitner (who had converted to Christianity) was denounced by a colleague, refused a passport by Himmler, but ultimately reunited with her nephew Otto in Copenhagen through Bohr's efforts.

Meitner's partner Otto Hahn, meanwhile, had finished the work that he and Meitner had started, by building on Enrico Fermi's research into nuclei bombardment with neutrons (from the lightest known elements all the way through the periodic table we all know so well). Fermi and his team believed that by bombarding nuclei with neutrons, they had created unnaturally occurring, heavy elements called "transuranic" elements. Hawn and Meitner attempted to repeat Fermi's experiments, but with much more attention to chemistry. But, as Baggott writes, Meitner had to leave the Germany, and Hahn finished the experiment himself... And he found that instead of creating radium by bombarding uranium with neutrons, they had in fact created Barium atoms. This was significant because most scientists at the time thought bombardment would move the bombarded nucleai one or two places down the periodic table. What Hahn had done was move it down 36 places. Which was rather unbelievable but not impossible. Meitner shared her partner's results with Frisch, and this narrative sort of launches the larger narrative of the book.

Naturally, Baggot moves readers through a ten-year history of scientific research from 1939 to 1949, with American, British, Soviet and German efforts to build the most destructive weapons of all time. There is really so much to this book that I cannot possibly summarize it.

A truly haunting and thrilling read.

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