From Marie Curie to Hiroshima, or what uranium isotopes have to do with moral philosophy.
When Robert Oppenheimer was charged with recruiting the best and the brightest for a top-secret project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, he was faced with a hard sell: convince some of the most well-respected physicists in America to leave their research, uproot their families, and travel across the country for reasons that he couldn’t explain. There was only one thing he could tell them for certain: that their work would help defeat the Germans.
The dense, complicated, and fascinating story of the making of the atomic bomb is not an easy one to tell. It contains novels within novels of scientific breakthroughs and collaborations, dangerous new discoveries, government cover-ups and conspiracies, of criss-crossing allegiances, entire cities destroyed, and of course, a basic understanding of particle physics. Richard Rhodes gave the story the vigorous historical treatment in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and composer John Adams rendered it elegiacally in his 2005 opera Dr. Atomic.
In Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb (public library), writer and illustrator Jonathan Fetter-Vorm suggests that the story of the atomic bomb is perhaps something told best not through thousands of government documents, but instead drawn on a chalkboard. The result is a concise and beautiful grasp on one of the most complex and essential events of the twentieth century — and a fine testament to the power of graphic storytelling in serious nonfiction.
From the discovery of radioactivity in the lab of Marie and Pierre Curie, to the letter that Albert Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt warning about the dangers of the newly discovered nuclear fission, the events leading up to the Manhattan Project are interspersed with exacting diagrams of crashing atoms and the disruptions at the heart of the nucleus that make up the fundamentals of fission, chain reactions, fragile isotopes of uranium, and their destructive potential.
While the scientists on the project were led by Oppenheimer, the entire Manhattan Project was sealed and compartmentalized by Lieutenant General Leslie Groves, who had the unenviable task of getting thousands of civilians and scientists to abide by military rule. From plumbers, to secretaries, to the military police, few knew what they were working towards. Not even the scientists knew what the other scientists were doing, a frustrating effect of government lockdown for Oppenheimer, who was stymied without scientific collaboration.
Eventually, the scientists were allowed to work together in a carefully restricted area, and the work continued. The separate elements of the project soon came together: fissioning a critical mass of uranium, setting off a chain reaction, and delivering the payload.
Fetter-Vorm explains that the destruction and after-effects of radioactivity on the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki left the scientists of the Manhattan project, who had for years wondered “Can it be done?” to finally question “Should it be done?” The single-minded world of Trinity was a bell jar of furiously-working scientists, for whom success was an explosion, but not its result.