7. The War Science Won? Building the bomb, ingenuity, and politics with Richard Rhodes (Pt. 3)

7. The War Science Won? Building the bomb, ingenuity, and politics with Richard Rhodes (Pt. 3)

Shelly Lesher

Welcome to Season 2 of the My Nuclear Life podcast!  In this episode, host Shelly Lesher welcomes listeners to Part 3 of her conversation with Richard Rhodes, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb.  The conversation picks up the historical narrative of the WWII development and deployment of the atomic bomb right where it left off: with the US engaged in the conflict and scientists gathered in Los Alamos, NM to build the bomb.  As the story moves toward its conclusion, listeners hear about the process of building the bomb and the end of the war. 

Richard sets the scene in Los Alamos, where top scientists had assembled to build a new, powerful bomb - a weapon that could be used to finally bring the long and terrible war to an end.  From Edward Teller, to Joseph Rotblat, to J Robert Oppenheimer, to George Kistiakowsky, Richard weaves together the stories of individual men involved in the project, drawing on insight from both historical research and personal interviews.  One major component of the story is the functionality of the bomb, itself.  Building it took a lot of time and effort, and the effective model eventually crafted used shaped charges around plutonium in order to direct the weapon’s shock waves.

In addition to the details of bomb construction and operation, Richard wants listeners to understand that, far before the use of atomic bombs, there was already an acceptance of the fact that civilians would be killed.  Non-target-specific methods, such as area bombing, demonstrated that the atomic bombs were one part of a broader strategy to do what had to be done to win and end the war.  Further, collective memory surrounding the use of the atomic bombs against Japan tends to be faulty.  It at times misidentifies motivation.  It does not always take into account the context of weariness with the war, which led to a mixed response of horror and celebration over the use of the bombs. 

Collective memory also tends to believe that the bombs brought the war to an immediate end.  However, as he details the final days of the war, Richard shows that while the bomb had a role, it was not itself decisive.  After first being bombed, in fact, Japan was not ready to surrender, but was connecting with Russia in an effort to regain its footing.  And of course, after the war, weapons development continued and gave way to an arms race between the US and the Soviet Union; but that is another story entirely! Part 3 of 3.

Cover art - Studies on Twilight Phenomena, after Krakatoa (1888) 

Links: Learn more about Richard Rhodes and read his book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb and The Los Alamos Primer by Robert Serber

Over his career, Richard Rhodes has authored 26 books exploring topics such as violent behavior, mad cow disease, the people and technologies of the Spanish Civil War, and most recently, 400 years of energy development. He is most well-known for his book "The Making of the Atomic Bomb” which weaves together world events, people, and scientific discoveries which allows the reader to experience the excitement of early 20th century physics. It has been hailed as THE book on the history of the atomic bomb by historians and physicists alike including Nobel Laureates who worked on the project. Additional honors for this work include the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, the National Book Award for Nonfiction, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Special thanks: Lexie Weghorn
Production costs for this episode provided though National Science Foundation Grant PHY-1713816.