Rick's Ramblings

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Monday, August 05, 2002
I just finished reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

Coincidentally, August 6, 2002, is the 57th anniversary of the day the United States dropped "Little Boy" on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, we dropped "Fat Man" on Nagasaki, and five days later, the Japanese surrendered.

The "Bomb Book" as I've come to call it is a comprehensive, sweeping history of the making of the atomic bomb, from the earliest discoveries of the nature of the atom, to the effort made by the United States to harness this power into a weapon of mass destruction (the Manhattan Project), to the delivery of the bombs on Japan, and the forces that led the United States to this fateful decision.

Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears led me to the Bomb Book. He spent a whole chapter describing the explosion of a nuclear bomb. It was fascinating, and it kindled an interest to learn more. Discussing this at work, a colleague mentioned that I would probably want to tackle The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

This book is a monument. The author, Richard Rhodes, must be commended. His bibliography lists 556 sources. He has distilled these plus what was obviously many many interviews into a 788-page book that must be considered the definitive history of the atomic bomb. This book was published in 1986, and it won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.

This is the hardest book I've read in a long time. Big novels don't scare me. I've read A Man in Full (700+ pages), An American Tragedy (800+), The Sum of All Fears (900+), and Executioner's Song (1000+ pages). But as someone recently characterized, the Bomb Book is very dense.

I started reading the book on July 13. I spent every evening (I only skipped two nights) reading one chapter. It took me up to two hours to read the 40-70 pages that make up a chapter. Towards the end of the book, I was able to digest a few pages into the next chapter. I didn't watch TV or DVDs. My wife often saw me reading this book at the dining room table, my pen in hand.

Despite the density of the material, Rhodes' terrific writing made it very bearable. His long historical and scientific passages are necessary, but he also turned out some dramatic and suspenseful paragraphs. Mostly, I found myself engrossed and amazed. This really happened, I kept telling myself. Even though I didn't understand all of the physics involved (and there's a lot; a periodic table is presented early in the book, I often referred to it), I felt awe at each discovery that made the bomb possible (fission, the neutron, U235, plutonium). The bold men and women who made these discoveries (Ernest Rutherford, Lise Meitner, Neils Bohr), and the men and women who engineered these terrible weapons (Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, Leslie Groves) are captured clearly in this work.

Rhodes has a thesis that I'm still trying to digest: the bomb as the "entity" or strong force that will dissolve the nation-state. The discovery of the bomb will force nations to deal with one another openly or with ever-widening suspicion. This duality, its complementarity, was proposed by Neils Bohr, and Rhodes adopts it as the key proposal of the book. The bomb is supposed to end wars, but of course it hasn't. Will we as a country (with other countires) learn the other lessons of the bomb?

Thanks to this book those lessons are at least written down.

Thursday of last week, the company where I work had an off-site meeting in downtown Boston, and I decided to leave my car at home, and take the bus and T to the venue. Since early 1997, I have been a regular automobile commuter. So the day trip into Boston was a very pleasant change from driving my car.

I have to walk through a lightly wooded dirt path and then down a steep hill to get to the bus stop. I met two nice gentlemen, who cordially introduced themselves to me. It was a marked difference to being alone in my car! There was a nice pace to the morning as we each exchanged pleasantries.

The bus trip was filled with chatting, and people watching. The crowd of people increased as we neared the Alewife T Station, where we would pick up the train. There, I felt the rhythm of people rushing to get tokens, newspapers, iced coffees, before boarding.

On the train, people were in their own "space", listening to music, reading books, magazines, or newspapers. I spoke with my bus-riding colleague until he reached his stop, then sat alone, feeling wonderfully at ease.

My meeting didn't start until 10AM, so when I got to my stop, Park Avenue, I leisurely strode down Tremont Street, and picked up breakfast at McDonalds. Park Avenue is a crowded stop, at the intersection of the Boston Common, the State House, and the start of the Freedom Trail. People going to work were walking briskly, with high purpose. Tourists walked like zombies, looking everywhere except ahead of them, as they drank in the surroundings. I was in between: I was touring a familiar place, on my way to "work".

Some of my colleagues and I compared notes on our various commutes into Boston. Some drove in ($15 to park!). Most took public transportation. Our company chartered seven buses for those who wanted to go the office first. We all acknowledged that our routines would have to be different if we worked in Boston.

What I enjoyed the most last Thursday was just the ability to walk in a vibrant city. In my first year in Boston, I lived in the Back Bay with three other guys (the only way I could afford it). From the apartment, a few of us would often walk to work. We cut through the Public Garden, up Charles Street, then over the Longfellow Bridge to get to our office in Kendall Square (near MIT). People from the world over come to Boston to see these sights, and it was for me an ordinary and mundane walk to work.

And that's the kicker: if I had to commute into Boston by public transportation, it would eventually become mundane, would become ordinary.

When the Red Line train leaves Kendall Square, it rises out of a tunnel, then lumbers over the Charles River, offering a postcard view of the Boston skyline. It's a gorgeous view, and I gawked out at it, while my fellow commuters remained unmoved. I had been away so long it was all new to me again.