The Prometheus Bomb (Review)

How can the most incredible secret project be kept under wraps in a democratic republic?  How can the President oversee that project if he doesn’t fully understand nuclear physics?  The precarious path to the development of the first atomic bombs was littered with pitfalls, espionage, ignorance, and extreme danger.

Author Neil J. Sullivan lays out the history of the atomic bomb in a way that keeps the reader’s interest in an entertaining, yet factual manner. His book, The Prometheus Bomb: The Manhattan Project and Government in the Dark, is a non-fiction work with many subplots.

The tale begins with Albert Einstein’s letter to President Franklin Roosevelt telling about the urgent need to develop a nuclear weapon before Nazi Germany does so. Mr. Roosevelt understands this necessity and goes on to order the research and development for the bomb on a “need to know” basis.

Not only were the leaders in government unknowledgeable about the science behind the bomb, there was a great deal of uncertainty among the scientists, as well.  Nobody really knew if nuclear fission could actually work beyond theory, and if so, could it work in a bomb small enough to be carried on the aircraft of the day. Not only that, but the technicians didn’t even know what sort of material would be most effective.

There was much trial and error at the beginning. I was shocked to learn that some of the first experiments took place at the University of Chicago. In what appears to me as totally irresponsible, Enrico Fermi and Arthur Compton had to run a very risky series of tests in the second largest city of the US.  Millions of Americans were unknowingly in danger.

The two ran a chain reaction experiment on the squash court of the school.  The scientists believed they could abort a full reaction just as it was beginning its runaway.

Neil J. Sullivan

Thankfully they did, apparently in the nick of time. Still, nobody really knew what could ultimately happen if the fuel pile would have gone out of control. The fact is that it could have gone terribly wrong in an instant.

That wasn’t the first time that fissionable materials were brought to supercritical states.  Some subsequent experiments did go bad in that they released radioactive flashes. As a result, there were deaths from exposure to high radiation in the laboratory.

In the background were the political leaders who not only had to manage the project, but needed to convince Congress to provide the funding needed to finance it. At first, none of the lawmakers were allowed to know anything about the Manhattan Project.

Also, President Roosevelt had to determine how much information to share with Winston Churchill and how much, if any, to share with Joseph Stalin. This decision making was at the heart of political friction, intrigue, and espionage.  This, in itself, makes for great reading.

The book’s author, Neil J. Sullivan, is a professor at the Austin W. Marxe School of Public and International Affairs of Baruch College at the City University of New York. His other works include: The Diamond in the Bronx: Yankee Stadium and the Politics of New York and The Dodgers Move West. His books are real page turners.

Meantime, The Prometheus Bomb should be of interest to readers who enjoy studying world history, the history of the Second World War, nuclear weaponry, and  international relations.

{ The Prometheus Bomb: The Manhattan Project and Government in the Dark by Neil J. Sullivan; 296 pages, published December 2016 by The University of Nebraska Press; ISBN: 978-1-61234-815-5 }

The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes Nobel Prize winning physicist Luis W. Alvarez. “There is no democracy in physics.  We can’t say that some second-rate guy has as much right to opinion as Fermi.”


About swabby429

An eclectic guy who likes to observe the world around him and comment about those observations.
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3 Responses to The Prometheus Bomb (Review)

  1. GP Cox says:

    The only president we’ve had that could possibly understand physics was Carter, who helped in the design of the nuclear submarine during his Navy career.

  2. Doug says:

    Another project the government won’t acknowledge, yet Einstein convinced the government to fund the project was on the USS Eldridge. They wanted our Naval fleet to be invisible to radar. The experiment went terribly wrong. Many sailors died.

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