When Physicists Play God
“I would say that physicists have known power.”
In a groundbreaking essay titled “The End of Imagination,” the Indian Booker Prize winning novelist and anti-bomb activist, Arundhati Roy, wrote after India tested nuclear weapons in 1998, “If there is a nuclear war, our foes will not be China or America or even each other. Our foe will be the earth herself. The very elements - the sky, the air, the land, the wind and water—will all turn against us. Their wrath will be terrible.”
Such a description is a classic example of how a discussion on nuclear weapons becomes inevitably philosophical, reiterating the appalling power of Man to play God, or the Devil in this case, with the potential of completely obliterating life on earth, and perhaps the earth itself. The Armageddon-like consequences of nuclear weapons imbibe the politicians and scientists involved in the process with an almost Biblical significance. They are not mere scientists anymore, discovering the intricacies of life in dank laboratories; they are now visionaries, leading their generations to a nuclear powered heaven, or a nuclear-burnt hell. Either way, they are larger than life figures who determine their people’s destiny, and their demise.
Gregg Herken’s Brotherhood of the Bomb is the story of three scientists in the Second World War, Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller, who pioneered the making of the atomic bomb, and later worked on the more destructive thermo-nuclear weapons. Together, these scientists were responsible, either directly or indirectly for more than five trillion dollars in expenditure and a nuclear arms race that continues to plague nations with the threat of mutual annihilation. Herken’s book begins with the academic lives of these men, traces their descent into active military collaboration with the federal government, their mutual squabbles about continuing with nuclear and thermo-nuclear weapons, their petty animosities, and their egotisms. Casting a pall over their biographies is the federal investigation into the communist tendencies of one of these scientists, Oppenheimer, and his humiliation at the altar of McCarthyism.
Towards the end of the War, the Manhattan project was commissioned by the U.S. government, with the purpose of making the first atomic weapons, which were later christened “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” and used to annihilate the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oppenheimer, Lawrence, and Teller were the theoretical and operational inspirations behind the first generation of nuclear weapons. It was hard work, no doubt, but it brought riches and fame for the scientists, with some moral dilemmas as well. Later, when Teller proposed to build a “Super,” a far more destructive hydrogen bomb or the H-Bomb, the morality of raining further destruction on the world created fissures amongst the scientists. Oppenheimer, the scientist who had worked for the making of the biggest destructive weapon known to man, used his eminence to argue for a moratorium on further weapons testing. Teller was emphatically obsessed with his Super, and Lawrence did not support Oppenheimer because of a falling out with him. In the end, Lawrence too jumped on the weapons ban bandwagon but died before he could do anything decisive.
In a story that paralleled the making of the Bomb, and the debates thereafter, the FBI had been looking into whether Oppenheimer was a spy of the Soviet Union. Though Oppie (as he was called by his friends) was sympathetic to communist causes, it was never proved that he was a Soviet spy. Ultimately, in order to save his communist brother from FBI inquiry, Oppenheimer lied about some important but ultimately harmless security- related facts to the FBI. When Oppenheimer’s tirade against the Super made him enemies, his distracters used Oppenheimer’s past fabrications to deny him a security clearances and forced him away from his moderating presence vis-à-vis the Atomic Energy Commission in Washington.
Taken together, Herken’s book has different layers of analysis. First, there is the making of the Bomb itself, and the trials and tribulations of scientists working against time to complete the ultimate war weapon. Then there are the personal quirks and animosities of the scientists that shaped not only the direction of the nation’s atomic policy, but also both accelerated and limited the impact of the Cold War. Interspersed in the analysis is the constant surveillance (for the most part, illegal) of the FBI, which generated the kind of anti-communist hysteria that destroys innocent reputations in its wake.
The Brotherhood of the Bomb is like a whistle-stop train. When it is chugging along with its description of the actors involved, the intrigues, and the denouements, the ride is a joy to sit back and enjoy. But every so often, some issue whistles the train to stop and harms the flow of the narrative. It is either a highly technical discussion of the cyclotrons developed by Lawrence, or a detailed and really unnecessary description of all the efforts of Teller to develop the Super, or a cataloguing of every single actor in the nuclear drama. Herken is a curator by profession and his sound instincts of scholarship behoove him to include every small detail in the novel, making it altogether dense for anyone but the most ardent researcher of American nuclear policy. Towards the end, with Oppenheimer’s humiliation and the efforts to cap the nuclear race, the book gathers speed again, and the narrative is more relaxed and smooth. Finally, with the epilogue, we arrive at the end of the journey, experiencing a profound awakening of our perspective on the players and circumstances of this terrible weapon and our heads buzzing with the busy scholarship of a committed historian.
The Brotherhood of the Bomb is an engaging account of one of the milestones in human history. But it is also far more than that. We see in the arms races, displays of military might, and weapons inspections programs of today the same excitement, awe and moral dilemmas that confronted the atomic bomb establishment. The Bomb is history, but as is sickeningly apparent, history repeats itself. Thousands of Brotherhood of the Bomb stories lie shrouded in mystery and awaiting to be told.