Unholy Trinity

Shadows created by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima
Two memories:
Some years ago I played for the funeral of an elderly lady. Many years before she had been a secretary at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. At her funeral her daughter revealed one of her mother's favourite anecdotes : One day at the Cavendish an excited postgrad burst into the office, and informed her that an experiment to split the atom was about to take place in the room next door. The postgrad anticipated that there would be no problems, but that if the secretary was anxious she could go outside until the experiment was completed. She remained calmly typing while history was made in the room next door.

A few years before this I went with my father to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., one of my very favourite museums. The museum was full of excited cries as children and parents raced from one legendary aircraft to another. Could this really be the frail aircraft that skimmed the sands of Kitty Hawk? There was the joy of seeing the real Spirit of St. Louis, and the wonder of the capsule that brought the Apollo 11 astronauts back to earth. For my father who had lived through an age in which air-travel had moved from bi-planes to the moon it was an amazing experience - for me, too, whose first clear memory of an historic moment was the moon landing. But there was one room in the museum where everything went quiet, where there were no happy cries of discovery. It was the room in which two rockets were displayed - these weren't intended to take man to the moon (although their history would be bound up in the space race), the Soviet SS-20 and the US Pershing II were intended to be fitted with warheads - they were part of the Cold War nuclear arms race. And, as much as any inanimate object can be called this, they felt evil.

Gregg Herken's Brotherhood of the bomb follows the lives of the three scientists whose work was inextricably bound up in the creation of the atom bomb : Ernest Lawrence, Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller. And a complicated story it is. Lawrence's early work on atomic energy was mainly investigating the potential positive uses - early work resulted in various cancer related therapies and diagnostic tools - some of which are still being used or further developed today. Other work would result in archaeologists and others being able to use carbon-dating as a reliable means of dating materials. But as the world moved towards war, and then as (false) rumours started to spread that Germany was on the brink of creating an atom bomb, a group of scientists headed by Oppenheimer were brought together on the Manhattan Project, which would lead to the world's first atomic bomb (the test was called Trinity - hence the title of this current post).

Brotherhood of the bomb is partly about the science of what was done at Los Alamos, and consequently at the Livermore Laboratory. Some of the science writing can be a little dense sometimes, but it's certainly not obscure enough to discourage your average non-scientific reader from reading it. But a large part of the book is actually not about the science at all, but rather is about the politics of the Cold War. A Cold War, that after reading this, could have been seen coming even before the Second World War started. It was perhaps inevitable that with the US/USSR's political antipathies they would be ranged against each other at some point; the creation of the atom bomb just upped the ante.

And yet the bomb initially had seemed so easy - not the science of creating it, but the puzzles involved in creating it were clearly enjoyable to the scientists working on the project; and the morality was not in question - this was for their country in a time of war, and the destructiveness of the bomb was not truly appreciated. Following the Trinity test when the full awesomeness of the weapon was revealed, some of the scientists started to have doubts about their creation. While others, such as Teller, as Cold War beckoned, became more and more obsessed with building larger and larger weapons.

I found most of the post-Manhattan project very difficult reading. I have doubts about the use of the bomb on Hiroshima (some scientists at the time had suggested that a demonstration rather than a deployment might be a better use of the weapon), I have even graver doubts about Nagasaki. But I cannot understand or find any justification at all for the work that went on post-World-War-II in which bigger and bigger bombs were designed ostensibly to knock out armies on the move, but (because of their size) could actually only target cities; and in which attempts to find a "clean" bomb (i.e. with a low radioactive fall-out) resulted in bombs being created that could vaporise the inhabitants of a city while leaving the buildings unscathed - cheekily nicknamed the "Capitalist bomb".

I also found the political background distressing. Unbeknown to the scientists of Los Alamos, many of their secrets had been handed over to the Russians by Klaus Fuchs - the Soviets were aware of progress on the bomb from a very early stage. And although the Americans could congratulate themselves that the chief atom spies appeared to be British, there was always the suspicion (almost certainly true) that there were further American spies working for Russia. As paranoia started to take over, many an innocent scientist, who may indeed have had left-wing, or even far-left, views was dragged into a McCarthy type witch-hunt, in which little evidence was needed, and in which guilt by association was frequent. Talented graduates such as those that had been mentored by Oppenheimer found themselves having to re-train in menial jobs as they found themselves unable to get work because of their associations. We're not necessarily talking here about being unable to get jobs in an area that would require security clearance, but they would be rejected, for example, for college posts owing to their political background. And although it is very likely that some of Oppenheimer's friends were possibly working for the Soviets, most were not, but were treated as though they were simply because they stayed friends with the people they loved.

Some of the revelations in this book also made me very angry - in the 1950s the FBI were wire-tapping conversations between Oppenheimer and his lawyer in order, partly, to potentially get material to use against him in a hearing - how is that constitutional? And those who had moral issues about the H-bomb, who were calling for a moratorium were treated as though they were probably, heck no almost certainly, "reds" - so taking a stand on morality with no recourse to politics became impossible - you were dubbed left-wing whether or not that was what you actually were. Reading the sections through the 1950s as Teller became so eager to create a super-bomb and as non-communists were branded communists made me feel as though I was in an Alice-in-Wonderland world, a world that was rapidly turning upside down.

Although the moratorium was eventually brought in, we're still left with the fall-out from the arms race. Iraq is a case in point, Teller, by now very elderly, was quick to point out to the US government that Iraq might have a nuclear weapon, although this seems to have been based on very little evidence (as has indeed been proved since). For all we know the current posturing about Iran may be based on as little evidence too...

Herken's book is well worth a read. It may start out with events that took place 70 years ago, but its lessons are salutary, and the issues are still with us today. It's not a comfortable read, it may make you very angry. And, I guess, you will take different things from it depending on where you stand politically. For me this has been a rather more political post than usual - but then it's impossible not to talk politics because this goes to the heart of Brotherhood of the bomb. One thing that it makes very clear is that science is rarely simple, and often not that pure either. And where military and national requirements are concerned it can get very dirty indeed.


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