While I can never hope to compete with the likes of Lex – who reads even while cooking – or Ginny, who can glean the subtlest moral from any tale and nimbly connect it to her own life’s experience; I did, for me, a lot of reading last year. Of all that I read two books stand out like flares amongst candles and I recommend them to you heartily.
No. 1: The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes.
I cannot, literally, praise this book highly enough. Published in 1986, it has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and if you read it, you’ll understand why.
In the first half of the book Rhodes tackles the scientific discoveries leading to the bomb with rare articulateness, speaking with clarity and insight about the science but also about the scientists themselves. Their excitement, confusion, personalities and lives. They become living, breathing characters, not icons on a pedestal. One gets a rare sense of how science builds upon itself with each new discovery fueling insights across the globe. How it inspires new experiments designed to further unravel the mystery; the professional rivalries, the personal and nationalist ambitions to be the first to achieve a key breakthrough and earn the coveted Nobel, forever framing your name in lights among the immortals. The icons become human again with frailties, ideals, naivitees, families, political beliefs, fears, frustrations and bursts of amazing genious. It’s fun getting to know these people. They’re an interesting and very human lot.
In part two, Rhodes begins with the political, social and economic unravelling of the world and the unleashing of the immense and barbaric levels of warfare that we call WWII. He covers the frustrating efforts of scientists to get the attention of the US government bueauracracy regarding the danger of Germany’s developing atomic weapons and the critical need of the Allies to not only derail Germany’s efforts, but to develop these weapons themselves, for they were absolutely convinced that whoever achieved this weapon would win the war and dominate the world for the forseeable future. Rhodes unveils the truly immense scope that was the Manhattan District project, the vast resources that were funneled into it, and the long, frustrating, effort to figure out how to make the weapon work or even to determine if it ever could be made to work.
The climax of the book, the explosion of the history’s first atomic detonation at the Trinty Site in Alamogordo, New Mexico, the subsequent droppng of the bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the long detailed descriptions of the effects the bomb are both profound and deeply disturbing.
Highly recommended. Five stars.
The Atomic Cannon
Hiroshima yield weapon fired from an artillery piece.
No. 2: Krakatoa : The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 by Simon Winchester
This is a masterful retelling of a time and an event. Set in the Dutch Colony of what was then known as the Spice Islands and what today we call Indonesia, Winchester brings to life the colonial period of Europeans in far flung, exotic and sometimes grueling and dangerous corners of the Earth. The event in the title, the explosion and absolute destruction of the island volcano of Krakatoa was a catastrophe on par, perhaps exceeding, the tsunami that recently ravaged virtually the same geographic region two years ago. Winchester discusses the geologic causes, the aftereffects, the social impact and historical ramifications of that far off event. Beautifully written and highly engaging.
Recommended. Four stars.