The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon
by Steve Sheinkin
First sentence: “He had a few more minutes to destroy seventeen years of evidence.”
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I picked this one up in an effort to catch up on the books that are getting Newbery buzz. And because “everyone” has been raving about it. And because it was a National Book Award finalist. And because I sold it the other day to a mom looking for a non-fiction book for her 4th grade son by saying “it’s brilliant” and figured I really ought to read it before I say things like that. (Truth in advertising and all that, you know.)
The short review: it really is all that. In fact, I think I need to pick up Sheinkin’s other book, “The Notorious Benedict Arnold,” because I thoroughly admire the way he tells a story.
This one is about the development of the nuclear bomb in the early 1940s. Which, to a non-scientist like myself, is admittedly a pretty dry subject. Yet, in Shienkin’s hands he turns it into a tale of science and spies, of duty and responsibility, of anxiety and choice.
There are three threads running through this story. The first is the American’s race to develop the atomic bomb. I’m going to get into details here (which would probably be wrong, and my phsyics-professor brother will get on my case for), but essentially, Germans figured out how to split atoms, and then everyone (well, Einstein and a couple others brought it to the attention of Roosevelt) panicked because a nuclear weapon in the hands of Hitler would have been a bad thing. Robert Oppenheimer plays a big role in this thread (he’s a fascinating character), but also some other scientists as well.
Thread number two is the effort by the OSS to stop the Germans from developing the bomb. The Germans were using heavy water (argh, more science-y stuff!) from a plant in Norway to keep the uranium from reacting (I think that’s how you put it), and the British sent a team of Norwegians in to destroy the plant. It was all pretty exciting.
The third thread involved Stalin and the Soviets, and was the most fascinating to me. (Well, not entirely true: I did like learning about how the bomb was developed. I had no idea it was a huge round thing. Or that it went off over the city of Hiroshima. I think I always thought it hit the ground before exploding.) Anyway, the Soviets got wind of the American’s development of the bomb, and realized they couldn’t be left out. But because they were fighting the Nazis, they didn’t have the resources to do the research on their own. So, they set out to steal the American’s design. Which they succeeded in doing with the help of Harry Gold (a courier, who got caught in the end), Klaus Fuchs (a scientist who was the first to confess), and Ted Hall (a prodigy who got off; no one knew of his involvement until 1995.) I found it fascinating mostly because of those men’s reasons for getting involved with the Soviets. Especially Hall’s, who said that something this destructive shouldn’t be in one country’s hands.
That said, I did like how Sheinkin pressed upon us the enormity of the whole thing. Oppenheimer’s refusal to build something bigger and “better”. The scientists throwing up once they realized what they’d unleashed upon the world. And the final sentences: “The making of the atomic bomb is one of history’s most amazing examples of teamwork and genius and poise under pressure. But it’s also teh story of how humans created a weapon capable of wiping our species off the planet. It’s a story with no end in sight. And like it or not, you’re in it.”