Brighter Than a Thousand Suns: A Review

[Cross posted on my Spaces blog]

I have often wondered what makes accomplished people participate in something that would hammer their conscience for the rest of their lives, and I have found myself unable to come up with an acceptable answer. How does a lawyer defend somebody who murdered somebody in cold blood? How does a soldier kill a helpless victim? How does a scientist invent a weapon of mass destruction?

All the answers to the third question are in this book. The byline reads ‘A personal history of the atomic scientists’. I was recommended the book by a colleague and even though its not a thriller, I could hardly keep the book down until I had finished it!

The story of the atomic scientists is so intriguing that I would doubt if any other real story would come even close to it in terms of their truth and sincerity, their single-minded devotion to the science, and their shock at the results of their discovery. The book paints these scientists as real human beings, with greed and compassion and dedication and ruthlessness, rather than a human-computer many others would.

The story itself is fascinating — it begins in idyllic surroundings in Europe, where students all over the world learn from the Gurus about the new emerging field, the great friendship and competition amongst the scientists, the carefree concentration in their research (they would routinely switch their shoes!). It shows how science can bring the world together, cut across state boundaries and get people with extremely diverse backgrounds to work together amicably and solve problems for a larger cause.

Great progress was made in the labs in Europe at the time. However, as the clouds of the second world war gathered, and Hitler started rounding up the scientists, this utopia soon started crumbling. Many had to move to other countries because of their Jewish backgrounds — and became extremely paranoid about Hitler’s plans. At the same time, many threw open the doors to their friends and collaborators — welcomed them with open arms sometimes even putting themselves in the line of fire. The paranoia, however, grew and it was some of those scientists who approached their governments with suggestions of developing new materials to halt Hitler’s stride. They wanted a deterred strong enough such that Hitler would not even think about trying to expand his power base. They were also worried that the dictatorship in Germany might be forcing its scientists to develop an atomic armoury and the race began.

Thus was the Manhattan Project started and the Los Alamos National Laboratory set up. Oppenheimer assumed leadership, and the scientists worked day and night, living in an uninhabitable place, disconnected from the rest of humanity. However, very soon, they were going to be shocked. They had never anticipated that once a weapon is in the hands of the government, it would be obliged to use it. Despite their protests, and their initial baby-steps towards a third-party controlled nuclear certification policy, the worst annihilation of the century was perpetrated by their government.

What we see now of the IAEA and other such bodies was germinated by the scientists. However, some of the scientists in their greed, promoted the idea of the Hydrogen bomb — the world has never recovered as yet! It was also quite topical because all the Indo-US nuclear negotiations were still going on while I was reading it.

The book is almost like the fall of Adam and Eve — an idyllic world interrupted by evil forces and disintegrated into the morass that now remains.


[Unfortunately, I found it extremely difficult to find the book. Had to read from an almost tattered second-hand book which I bought at Blossoms]

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