The Making of the Atomic Bomb

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9780671441333: The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Book by Rhodes Richard

Les informations fournies dans la section « Synopsis » peuvent faire référence à une autre édition de ce titre.

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Chapter 1

Moonshine

In London, where Southampton Row passes Russell Square, across from the British Museum in Bloomsbury, Leo Szilard waited irritably one gray Depression morning for the stoplight to change. A trace of rain had fallen during the night; Tuesday, September 12, 1933, dawned cool, humid and dull. Drizzling rain would begin again in early afternoon. When Szilard told the story later he never mentioned his destination that morning. He may have had none; he often walked to think. In any case another destination intervened. The stoplight changed to green. Szilard stepped off the curb. As he crossed the street time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future, death into the world and all our woe, the shape of things to come.

Leo Szilard, the Hungarian theoretical physicist, born of Jewish heritage in Budapest on February 11, 1898, was thirty-five years old in 1933. At five feet, six inches he was not tall even for the day. Nor was he yet the "short fat man," round-faced and potbellied, "his eyes shining with intelligence and wit" and "as generous with his ideas as a Maori chief with his wives," that the French biologist Jacques Monod met in a later year. Midway between trim youth and portly middle age, Szilard had thick, curly, dark hair and an animated face with full lips, flat cheekbones and dark brown eyes. In photographs he still chose to look soulful. He had reason. His deepest ambition, more profound even than his commitment to science, was somehow to save the world.

The Shape of Things to Come was H. G. Wells' new novel, just published, reviewed with avuncular warmth in The Times on September 1. "Mr. Wells' newest 'dream of the future' is its own brilliant justification," The Times praised, obscurely. The visionary English novelist was one among Szilard's network of influential acquaintances, a network he assembled by plating his articulate intelligence with the purest brass.

In 1928, in Berlin, where he was a Privatdozent at the University of Berlin and a confidant and partner in practical invention of Albert Einstein, Szilard had read Wells' tract The Open Conspiracy. The Open Conspiracy was to be a public collusion of science-minded industrialists and financiers to establish a world republic. Thus to save the world. Szilard appropriated Wells' term and used it off and on for the rest of his life. More to the point, he traveled to London in 1929 to meet Wells and bid for the Central European rights to his books. Given Szilard's ambition he would certainly have discussed much more than publishing rights. But the meeting prompted no immediate further connection. He had not yet encountered the most appealing orphan among Wells' Dickensian crowd of tales.

Szilard's past prepared him for his revelation on Southampton Row. He was the son of a civil engineer. His mother was loving and he was well provided for. "I knew languages because we had governesses at home, first in order to learn German and second in order to learn French." He was "sort of a mascot" to classmates at his Gymnasium, the University of Budapest's famous Minta. "When I was young," he told an audience once, "I had two great interests in life; one was physics and the other politics." He remembers informing his awed classmates, at the beginning of the Great War, when he was sixteen, how the fortunes of nations should go, based on his precocious weighing of the belligerents' relative political strength:

I said to them at the time that I did of course not know who would win the war, but I did know how the war ought to end. It ought to end by the defeat of the central powers, that is the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and Germany, and also end by the defeat of Russia. I said I couldn't quite see how this could happen, since they were fighting on opposite sides, but I said that this was really what ought to happen. In retrospect I find it difficult to understand how at the age of sixteen and without any direct knowledge of countries other than Hungary, I was able to make this statement.

He seems to have assembled his essential identity by sixteen. He believed his clarity of judgment peaked then, never to increase further; it "perhaps even declined."

His sixteenth year was the first year of a war that would shatter the political and legal agreements of an age. That coincidence -- or catalyst -- by itself could turn a young man messianic. To the end of his life he made dull men uncomfortable and vain men mad.

He graduated from the Minta in 1916, taking the Eötvös Prize, the Hungarian national prize in mathematics, and considered his further education. He was interested in physics but "there was no career in physics in Hungary." If he studied physics he could become at best a high school teacher. He thought of studying chemistry, which might be useful later when he picked up physics, but that wasn't likely either to be a living. He settled on electrical engineering. Economic justifications may not tell all. A friend of his studying in Berlin noticed as late as 1922 that Szilard, despite his Eötvös Prize, "felt that his skill in mathematical operations could not compete with that of his colleagues." On the other hand, he was not alone among Hungarians of future prominence in physics in avoiding the backwater science taught in Hungarian universities at the time.

He began engineering studies in Budapest at the King Joseph Institute of Technology, then was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army. Because he had a Gymnasium education he was sent directly to officers' school to train for the cavalry. A leave of absence almost certainly saved his life. He asked for leave ostensibly to give his parents moral support while his brother had a serious operation. In fact, he was ill. He thought he had pneumonia. He wanted to be treated in Budapest, near his parents, rather than in a frontier Army hospital. He waited standing at attention for his commanding officer to appear to hear his request while his fever burned at 102 degrees. The captain was reluctant; Szilard characteristically insisted on his leave and got it, found friends to support him to the train, arrived in Vienna with a lower temperature but a bad cough and reached Budapest and a decent hospital. His illness was diagnosed as Spanish influenza, one of the first cases on the Austro-Hungarian side. The war was winding down. Using "family connections" he arranged some weeks later to be mustered out. "Not long afterward, I heard that my own regiment," sent to the front, "had been under severe attack and that all of my comrades had disappeared."

In the summer of 1919, when Lenin's Hungarian protégé Bela Kun and his Communist and Social Democratic followers established a short-lived Soviet republic in Hungary in the disordered aftermath of Austro-Hungarian defeat, Szilard decided it was time to study abroad. He was twenty-one years old. Just as he arranged for a passport, at the beginning of August, the Kun regime collapsed; he managed another passport from the right-wing regime of Admiral Nicholas Horthy that succeeded it and left Hungary around Christmastime.

Still reluctantly committed to engineering, Szilard enrolled in the Technische Hochschule, the technology institute, in Berlin. But what had seemed necessary in Hungary seemed merely practical in Germany. The physics faculty of the University of Berlin included Nobel laureates Albert Einstein, Max Planck and Max von Laue, theoreticians of the first rank. Fritz Haber, whose method for fixing nitrogen from the air to make nitrates for gunpowder saved Germany from early defeat in the Great War, was only one among many chemists and physicists of distinction at the several government- and industry-sponsored Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes in the elegant Berlin suburb of Dahlem. The difference in scientific opportunity between Budapest and Berlin left Szilard physically unable to listen to engineering lectures. "In the end, as always, the subconscious proved stronger than the conscious and made it impossible for me to make any progress in my studies of engineering. Finally the ego gave in, and I left the Technische Hochschule to complete my studies at the University, some time around the middle of '21."

Physics students at that time wandered Europe in search of exceptional masters much as their forebears in scholarship and craft had done since medieval days. Universities in Germany were institutions of the state; a professor was a salaried civil servant who also collected fees directly from his students for the courses he chose to give (a Privatdozent, by contrast, was a visiting scholar with teaching privileges who received no salary but might collect fees). If someone whose specialty you wished to learn taught at Munich, you went to Munich; if at Göttingen, you went to Göttingen. Science grew out of the craft tradition in any case; in the first third of the twentieth century it retained -- and to some extent still retains -- an informal system of mastery and apprenticeship over which was laid the more recent system of the European graduate school. This informal collegiality partly explains the feeling among scientists of Szilard's generation of membership in an exclusive group, almost a guild, of international scope and values.

Szilard's good friend and fellow Hungarian, the theoretical physicist Eugene Wigner, who was studying chemical engineering at the Technische Hochschule at the time of Szilard's conversion, watched him take the University of Berlin by storm. "As soon as it became clear to Szilard that physics was his real interest, he introduced himself, with characteristic directness, to Albert Einstein." Einstein was a man who lived apart -- preferring originality to repetition, he taught few courses -- but Wigner remembers that Szilard convinced him to give them a seminar on statistical mechanics. Max Planck was a gaunt, bald elder statesman whose study of radiation emitted by a uniformly heated surface (such as the interior of a kiln) had led him to discover a universal constant of nature. He followed the canny tradition among leading scientists of accepting only the most promising students for tutelage; Szilard won his attention. Max von Laue, the handsome director of the university's Institute for Theoretical Physics, who founded the science of X-ray crystallography and created a popular sensation by thus making the atomic lattices of crystals visible for the first time, accepted Szilard into his brilliant course in relativity theory and eventually sponsored his Ph.D. dissertation.

The postwar German infection of despair, cynicism and rage at defeat ran a course close to febrile hallucination in Berlin. The university, centrally located between Dorotheenstrasse and Unter den Linden due east of the Brandenburg Gate, was well positioned to observe the bizarre effects. Szilard missed the November 1918 revolution that began among mutinous sailors at Kiel, quickly spread to Berlin and led to the retreat of the Kaiser to Holland, to armistice and eventually to the founding, after bloody riots, of the insecure Weimar Republic. By the time he arrived in Berlin at the end of 1919 more than eight months of martial law had been lifted, leaving a city at first starving and bleak but soon restored to intoxicating life.

"There was snow on the ground," an Englishman recalls of his first look at postwar Berlin in the middle of the night, "and the blend of snow, neon and huge hulking buildings was unearthly. You felt you had arrived somewhere totally strange." To a German involved in the Berlin theater of the 1920s "the air was always bright, as if it were peppered, like New York late in autumn: you needed little sleep and never seemed tired. Nowhere else did you fail in such good form, nowhere else could you be knocked on the chin time and again without being counted out." The German aristocracy retreated from view, and intellectuals, film stars and journalists took its place; the major annual social event in the city where an imperial palace stood empty was the Press Ball, sponsored by the Berlin Press Club, which drew as many as six thousand guests.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed his first glass-walled skyscraper in postwar Berlin. Yehudi Menuhin made his precocious debut, with Einstein in the audience to applaud him. George Grosz sorted among his years of savage observation on Berlin's wide boulevards and published Ecce Homo. Vladimir Nabokov was there, observing "an elderly, rosy-faced beggar woman with legs cut off at the pelvis...set down like a bust at the foot of a wall and...selling paradoxical shoelaces." Fyodor Vinberg, one of the Czar's departed officers, was there, publishing a shoddy newspaper, promoting The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which he had personally introduced into Germany from Russia -- a new German edition of that pseudo-Machiavellian, patently fraudulent fantasy of world conquest sold more than 100,000 copies -- and openly advocating the violent destruction of the Jews. Hitler was not there until the end, because he was barred from northern Germany after his release from prison in 1924, but he sent rumpelstiltskin Joseph Goebbels to stand in for him; Goebbels learned to break heads and spin propaganda in an open, lusty, jazz-drunk city he slandered in his diary as "a dark and mysterious enigma."

In the summer of 1922 the rate of exchange in Germany sank to 400 marks to the dollar. It fell to 7,000 to the dollar at the beginning of January 1923, the truly terrible year. One hundred sixty thousand in July. One million in August. And 4.2 trillion marks to the dollar on November 23, 1923, when adjustment finally began. Banks advertised for bookkeepers good with zeros and paid out cash withdrawals by weight. Antique stores filled to the ceiling with the pawned treasures of the bankrupt middle class. A theater seat sold for an egg. Only those with hard currency -- mostly foreigners -- thrived at a time when it was possible to cross Germany by first-class railroad carriage for pennies, but they also earned the enmity of starving Germans. "No, one did not feel guilty," the visiting Englishman crows, "one felt it was perfectly normal, a gift from the gods."

The German physicist Walter Elsasser, who later emigrated to the United States, worked in Berlin in 1923 during an interlude in his student years; his father had agreed to pay his personal expenses. He was no foreigner, but with foreign help he was able to live like one:

In order to make me independent of [inflation], my father had appealed to his friend, Kaufmann, the banker from Basle, who had established for me an account in American dollars at a large bank....Once a week I took half a day off to go downtown by subway and withdrew my allowance in marks; and it was more each time, of course. Returning to my rented room, I at once bought enough food...

Présentation de l'éditeur :

With a brand new introduction from the author, this is the complete story of how the bomb was developed. It is told in rich, human, political, and scientific detail, from the turn-of-the-century discovery of the vast energy locked inside the atom to the dropping of the first bombs on Japan. Few great discoveries have evolved so swiftly -- or have been so misunderstood. From the theoretical discussions of nuclear energy to the bright glare of Trinity there was a span of hardly more than twenty-five years. What began as merely an interesting speculative problem in physics grew into the Manhattan Project, and then into the Bomb with frightening rapidity, while scientists known only to their peers -- Szilard, Teller, Oppenheimer, Bohr, Meitner, Fermi, Lawrence, and yon Neumann -- stepped from their ivory towers into the limelight. Richard Rhodes takes us on that journey step by step, minute by minute, and gives us the definitive story of man's most awesome discovery and invention. The Making of the Atomic Bomb has been compared in its sweep and importance to William L. Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It is at once a narrative tour de force and a document as powerful as its subject.

Les informations fournies dans la section « A propos du livre » peuvent faire référence à une autre édition de ce titre.

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