Books: Cultural Amnesia — Richard Rhodes |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]


An American journalist with showbiz status, Richard Rhodes has a diva-like shyness about revealing his precise age, but the records show that he graduated from Yale in 1959, which probably means that he was born somewhere around 1938. Like many of us who were children during World War II and found out while we were growing up that the world we inherited had been shaped by technology to an unprecedented degree, Rhodes pursued a fascination with machines and systems. Most of the eighteen books published under his name are about technical matters at a high level of complexity, which he can talk about with professional expertise. At various times he has been a visiting scholar at both Harvard and MIT. On subjects other than science and technology he can fall prey to catch-all sociological theories—for the machine buff, there is always the temptation to think that society is a machine too—but on purely technical matters he has a rare knack for putting difficult topics in clear, and even self-effacing, prose. He is also a novelist. With his work in that area I won’t pretend to be familiar, but at least two of his non-fiction works are compulsory reading, and one of those is a book that every student of liberal democracy should know in detail. The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986) depends on a thoroughness of research that would scarcely have been possible without the author’s being supported for five years by the Ford Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. (The availability of aid on such a scale is probably the chief reason that the United States produces so many more of this type of writer than say, Britain: it isn’t just their unabashed can-do attitude, it’s the depth of their back-up.) Rhodes deserves personal credit, however, for having done an unusually judicious job in tying the story together.

In a still rarer feat, he has managed to dramatize a technical story without fudging the science. The spectacular nature of some of the human material on display might have helped in this dramatization. The minds assembled at Los Alamos were often histrionic characters even when they shrank from human contact, and the way Robert Oppenheimer marshalled their talented and sometimes temperamental efforts was a theatrical event. But finally the object they were all after depended on physics and engineering, and Rhodes’s real triumph is to make a drama out of those things too. The narrative catches the reader up in an excitement that is unlikely to suit his proclivities, unless he believes in advance that it was necessary not only to build the bomb, but to drop it on a city.

On the latter issue, Rhodes lays out the case without fudging the arguments on either side. Those who think there is only one side, against the bomb’s use, will discover that Oppenheimer was never among their number. Even though the war against Germany was over, he thought there was a case for using the bomb to bring about a quick and certain end to the war against Japan, and he presented the case with logic hard to fault. Oppenhimer’s sensitivities about the nuclear weapons he had been instrumental in bringing into existence were concentrated not against the uranium bomb but against its successor, the hydrogen bomb. Rhodes, again with the aid of a couple of large foundations, tells the story of the hydrogen bomb too, in Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (1995). The second book is as uncompromisingly thorough as the first but necessarily less fascinating, because the moral problem remained notional. The hydrogen bomb was too destructive to be used in war, and the fact was plain to any given government, which would rein in its own military leaders if they thought it could. As it happened, it was in the United States, during the Cuban missile crisis, that the military got closest to starting a global thermonuclear war on its own account, when the air force, and especially its Strategic Air Command, tried to provoke the Soviet Union into action, against John F. Kennedy’s clear orders as commander in chief. The Constitution held, but only just. Since the end of the world came that close, it is easy to argue that the development of nuclear weapons was evil in itself: even those ready to contemplate that the nuclear strike against Japan might have been an acceptable price for shortening the war are usually less ready to concede that the threat of a fried planet might have been the price of freedom. But liberals should face two uncomfortable possibilities; first, that it was a necessary evil; second, that nothing else, in the Cold War years, could have stopped the two major powers from fighting. The left is always at its weakest when it argues for an alternative past, administered by better men. They can only mean men like them. (This assumption of personal superiority is where the perennial left comes closest to the classic right.) But the past was administered by men as clever as they were at the very least. The chief virtue of Rhodes’s book about Los Alamos it to give you the feeling of how a group of the cleverest men on Earth combined their best efforts in the belief that building a bomb to kill a hundred thousand people at a time was the only thing to do. There can be moral discussions of the modern world that don’t take that fact in, but they won’t be serious.

* * *
Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller were not, however, the first to conceive of using a nuclear chain reaction to initiate a thermonuclear reaction in hydrogen.

IN HIS The War Against Cliché, Martin Amis hilariously demolishes—nukes, to use one of his favourite verbs—a book about sex written by this same Richard Rhodes. On the evidence of the quotations adduced by his reviewer, Rhodes’s sex treatise must indeed be a disaster. I can’t bring myself to read it, but partly because I would like to retain my respect for the author of two of the best books I have ever read about science and technology, The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun. Though it might not apply to sex, where some of the secrets are buried deep, Rhodes has a nose for the enriching detail. The immediate consequence of reading the above quotation is to find out who was the first to conceive of a thermonuclear reaction in hydrogen, and thus of the device that we later came to know as the hydrogen bomb. Guess forever and you will never guess.

It was the Japanese physicist Tokutaro Hagiwara. He gave a lecture on the subject in Kyoto in May 1941, seven months before the Pearl Harbor attack. Hagiwara was also very early in the field on the subject of uranium isotope separation, with particular emphasis on plutonium (Dark Sun, p. 77). Later on, the plutonium option was to become the biggest single Allied secret of the war, outranking even the secret of the code-breaking operations. Though Rhodes doesn’t say so—he doesn’t need to say so—Hagiwara’s precocity raises interesting questions about what Japanese physics might conceivably have achieved if the initial strategic plan of Japan’s armed forces had worked out and America had been quickly brought to terms. We can tell ourselves that the strategic plan would never have worked out. We can also tell ourselves that Japan would never have been able to match its physics with a concerted technological effort comparable in its vastness to the one with which the Americans were able to back up the brain-work in Los Alamos: but we can’t tell ourselves the second thing with quite the same confidence that we can tell ourselves the first. Post-war, after a defeat amounting to total destruction, Japanese technology got itself together again well enough. If there had been an early truce, leaving time to get organized, there is no telling what might not have been accomplished, although even the Japanese now commonly say that there would have been no fully modern reform of their science and industry if it had not been for the defeat and the occupation. Rhodes is probably right, however, to stay off those paths. His best gift is to present the facts and let the reader do the awed speculating. (The disqualification of justly forgotten techno best-sellers like Robert Jungk’s Brighter than a Thousand Suns is that their authors, short of information but long on excitable prose, stifled the reader’s reaction by trying to echo it in advance.) Rhodes, aware that he is dealing with genuinely high drama, goes easy on the theatrical effects. We learn that when Niels Bohr was in Cambridge he brushed up his English by reading David Copperfield. When Fermi was building the first reactor in Chicago, the graphite slabs were hefted into position by the college football team in mufti. (Captain Future, block that kick!) At Bikini on March 1, 1954, the Castle Bravo H-bomb shot was a fifteen-megaton runaway. The merit of Rhodes’s books is that he withholds moral judgement long enough to bring out the creative atmosphere generated by brilliant people working together on vast, novel projects. In The Making of the Atomic Bomb he can even make you see how an ugly customer like General Leslie Groves might be just the man to have around if you are trying to build an atomic bomb that will work. The awkward implication is that if you want to do without the company of General Groves, you must organize a world free of conflict. Such a world is hard to imagine, but perhaps Rhodes thought that establishing the principles of stress-free sex was the way to start.