Nuclear Weapons: What You Need to Know

Article excerpt

Nuclear Weapons: What You Need to Know Jeremy Bernstein. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Written by Jeremy Bernstein, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the Stevens Institute of Technology, and the author of several books about modern physics and physicists, Nuclear Weapons: What You Need to Know is an informal history of the discovery of the atom, and the development of the atomic bomb and subsequent nuclear weapons, emphasizing the irregular and serendipitous path that led a number of curious and determined physicists, chemists, and mathematicians to discover the unusual qualities of radioactive elements that enabled humans to disassemble or assemble these elements to create the largest and most dangerous weapons ever developed. Bernstein has written a quirky but ultimately fascinating book about key individuals, key processes, and key events in the history of atomic weaponry.

Bernstein begins with the discovery of the atomic nucleus in the years before World War I, and then describes the developing scientific awareness of the three main forms of radioactive emissions, the alpha, beta, and gamma rays. Enrico Fermi developed the idea of the possibility of the annihilation (fission) and creation (fusion) of atomic particles. Just prior to World War II, two German physicists, Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch, identified the theoretical possibility of fission while on a walking and skiing outing near the coast of Sweden. This method-of interspersing personal anecdotes about the scientists with fairly intensive scientific explanations-contributes to the appeal and, occasionally, confusion of Bernstein's narrative style. Although it occasionally causes disruptions in the flow of his explanations, it works very well to make these individuals take on some kind of human personality in a narrative that covers so many individuals so quickly.

Leo Szilard, a Hungarian physicist, realized that the energy that could be liberated from an atom had been grossly underestimated. When the discovery of fission was announced, Szilard, who was in the United States, realized how this energy might be liberated, and the clear military application of such a liberation process; he visited Albert Einstein, who was also living in the United States by this time, and together they wrote a letter (which Einstein signed) to President Roosevelt. …