Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The nuclear arms race as a thriller

This is an Amazon Vine review of: “Atomic” by Jim Baggott.

Most people have opinions about the world’s first atomic war. Was it really necessary to atom-bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Did the Nazis really have a credible A-bomb programme? Could the Soviets really have built their A- and H-bombs without spying on the Americans?

Relying on newly opened archives, recently declassified material and compendious research, science-writer Jim Baggott addresses all these questions and more. Covering the ten year period from 1939 to 1949, Baggott introduces us to a cast of more than 300 characters: Americans, Canadians, British, Germans, Russians; scientists, politicians, spies, military men and assassins.

In lesser hands this could have ended up as 492 pages of hyper-detailed indigestible stodge: instead Baggott has made it into a thriller. He deftly cuts between the opposing camps as the race to achieve detonation moves from crisis to crisis. The result is a real page turner.

Here’s another thing I liked about this book. It’s conventional to portray the Los Alamos scientists under Oppenheimer as saintly, far-sighted humanists fighting an unwinnable war against the evil representatives of the US military-industrial complex. Baggott carries a refreshingly small amount of such ‘bleeding-heart liberal baggage’, pointing out the naivety of such positions and the disasters which would have occurred had the US administration actually bought into the scientists’ proposals. There is an extended epilogue which brings the story right up to 2008.

Readable it may be but the level of detail makes this book of interest chiefly to those with a special interest in the political struggles and organisational challenges attendant upon the transition to the atomic age. Such readers will be richly rewarded.