Book Review by Sapphire Ng
Copyright December 2016
The Prometheus Bomb is a mostly well-written book on the Manhattan Project. Examination of the nuclear undertaking was aptly set against the political backdrop of the Roosevelt administration, and investigated in reference to and in the context of the international and political climate of the Great War, World War II, and Adolph Hitler as the chancellor of Germany. The book is also dedicated considerably to documenting the bureaucratic lethargy and inefficiencies which befell the fission research, and to chronicling the various figures put in leadership roles of the project.
Challenging to read at certain occasions, the book nonetheless consists mostly of painstaking details, and would make a perfect read for nuclear enthusiasts who crave for an incredible amount of, and even the seemingly minutest of, details. The author personally made a decent case for one to pick up and devour the book, highlighting that today “we live with the legacy of the Manhattan Project;” the shrewd reader might find the trade-off of additional knowledge to be well worth the time invested in the book.
It is rather thought-provoking to be confronted with tough questions that the American nuclear team had to contend with. Surely it is fascinating to learn of for example, the challenge of determining the “military importance of the uranium problem” and subsequently recommending an appropriate and sound “level of expenditure at which the problem should be investigated.”
The reader possesses the opportunity to stand in the shoes of the experts involved in the nuclear project, for example in pondering and evaluating the risk of the diversion of resources should “a crash program” be instituted to “build an atomic bomb” especially in the midst of WWII. In the earliest phase, the scientists had to tackle and determine the actual “feasibility” of an atomic bomb; as the project matured, on the other hand, the various factions of the nuclear team instead contended over issues such as the way to split the atomic nucleus, or to channel resources towards “a bomb or nuclear energy for this war or the future.”
Though am a non-scientist and non-science major, the scientific details included in the book proved to be distinctly dazzling and intriguing. It was profound to learn of the ironic situation for example, of “the limitations of the abundant” uranium-238 isotope versus the “promising” but unfortunately “extremely rare” uranium-235. It was also interesting to read about the discovery of plutonium—a transuranic element—noted to possibly be “as fissionable as U-235 and would be far easier to acquire.”
It was certainly refreshing to be acquainted with certain fundamental knowledge pivotal to the atomic project and research—the methods of isotope separation of gaseous diffusion, liquid thermal diffusion, electromagnetism, or a centrifuge; the distinction between subcritical, critical and supercritical in the context of atomic fission; or even to be reminded of a crucial concept—the oft mentioned “chain reaction” of fission, or of atom splitting.
The Manhattan Project, instituted by President Franklin Roosevelt, and instigated by the Einstein letter, was repeatedly emphasized in the book to be an endeavor to counter the “terrifying prospect of a German bomb;” the German prospect was “always the ultimate drive” to the American bomb. The author further pointed out curious details including the insulation of the clandestine project from the Madisonian “remedy of separated powers and checks and balances” through FDR's “cunning;” or funding for the bomb through the “first 'black,' or secret, weapons budget in the nation's history” due to the supposed impracticability of heeding the normal budgetary process.
For a book which title supposedly betrays a predominant focus on the nuclear discussion, the author furnished a particularly lengthy account of Franklin Roosevelt's career prior to succeeding the incumbent President Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression to become the 32nd U.S. President. Certain details provided on Roosevelt's presidency was also unmistakably more interesting than others. A singularly invigorating, and even unique, notion was FDR's supposed vision of a Hamiltonian adjustment in a Madisonian system, and his use of the executive order—an “important instrument” to secure control of the research and development of the atomic bomb—which bypasses the Madisonian structure. The reader is sure to appreciate certain additional engaging morsels of information, for example the infamous sanction of the internment of American citizens of Japanese heritage as a consequence of FDR's Executive Order 9066.
The book contains references to certain historical events and treaties that are undoubtedly absorbing. The brief mention of the Nazi-Soviet Non-aggression Pact serves to augment the reader's bank of historical knowledge, whilst allusions to “Somme,” “Verdun”—the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Verdun—, and even the Phoney War could potentially spur the reader to scour the internet for more information, and thus overall enrich one's learning experience.
The book contains the occasional dense and formidable paragraph packed with unexplained references that potentially require basic external research and re-reading in order to fully appreciate and understand the relevance of the material within the context of the subject matter.
An example of such a paragraph went, “...Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation as well as his extremely controversial suspension of habeas corpus. The latter move was challenged in the case Ex parte Merryman, and Chief Justice Taney, author of the execrable Dred Scot decision, excoriated Lincoln for what Taney claimed was an abuse of power.” The inclusion of the legal jargon “habeas corpus,” immediately followed by a legal case titled yet again in legal idiom, and trailed by the reference to Chief Justice Taney's “Dred Scot decision” might potentially overwhelm the reader.
In certain parts of the book, the painstaking and meticulous details, though relevant to the narrative in one way or another, sporadically came across as monotonous. Paradoxically, the tediousness of the reading experience in such portions of the book gave the impression of actually mirroring the discussion of bureaucratic sluggishness manifested within the Uranium Section, or the S-1 Section, of the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), and which thereafter transferred to the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD).
Certain parts of the book also distinctly strike one as being repetitive. Acknowledging that skillful reiteration of concepts are an effective tool to foster cohesion within the book, and helpful as signposts for the reader, sometimes the mere rephrasing without an injection of a fresh slant or perspective, however, compounded with previous multiple mentions, might turn the reader off.
An example pertains to the opposing nuclear factions of the Do more now versus the Wait for the results of serious experiments on atomic fission or Wait for more research. Especially with the abundant coverage of the major themes in the lead-up, the nature of the rephrasing of the same concept seemed rather redundant—“The American experience with transforming atomic theory into a bomb included elaborated tensions between factions that believed in a deliberate and thorough approach to complex questions of science and those that were frantic to build a bomb to drop on the Germans and win the war.”
Disclaimer: I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley for this review.