Friday, March 9, 2012

Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb

A book review

     We've all seen the famous pictures of nuclear explosions.  That first one over Hiroshima, with the mushroom rising through a layer of clouds.  Or one of the early hydrogen bomb tests, with the central pillar of cloud and fire, and around it the perfect ring (caused by the invisible heat wave), rapidly expanding like a receding halo.

     If you looked at those pictures only with the eyes of a mathematician or a theoretical physicist, you could imagine you were seeing some kind of grandeur, some great triumph of science -- the symmetry of it; the awe-inspiring revelation of E equals m c squared.

     But there are also the eyes of the biologist and the chemist, who see a vast community of living creatures destroyed or crippled, instantly erased from the world, or dying quickly of radiation sickness or slowly of cancers, the soil sterilized and the land wasted, the thousands of tons of toxic dust and compounds instantly created ex nihilo to do their dirty work, then to be carried on the wind around the world, silent killers entering the food chain, latent poisons working ghastly deformities upon unborn babies.  Some of these new-formed chemicals will last for many thousands of years.

     And there are the eyes of the seasoned soldier, who sees hidden under the mushroom one more battlefield, and knows from indelible experience what all battlefields are like, and what they all mean.

     And there are the eyes of the terrified children and their confused mothers, trying to escape from whatever just happened.

     Just my thoughts.

     In Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb, Richard Rhodes has written a masterful history of the development of nuclear weapons, not only from the point of view of the western powers' Manhattan Project, but also of the Soviet program, and the vital factor that forever linked them -- the licit and illicit transfers of technology from West to East by politicians, scientists and military men, and the espionage activities that accompanied them.

     The book is thorough and detailed:  one can follow the technical and moral history through the experiences of dozens of the participants.  I was particularly interested in the stories about Harry Truman, Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, and Curtis LeMay.  One can see their moral development -- or lack of it -- as the story unfolds.

     Truman, of course, "made the decision" to drop the bombs.  Interestingly he also, later, resisted pressure to drop them in Korea, or indeed to use them anywhere else.  He did not like the thought of killing thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of innocents.

     Oppenheimer also had his doubts.  And he also had outright moral convictions, which some of his associates understood and shared.  But some of them, including Edward Teller, did not; they had other ambitions.

     The stories of the famous spies, Klaus Fuchs and Julius Rosenberg, are told in considerable detail, allowing one to ponder intelligently their technical and moral consequences.

     Mr. Rhodes' careful and diagrammatic explanation of the techniques necessary to bend and concentrate the enormous nuclear energies in upon themselves -- an implosion, the indispensable pre-requisite of a hydrogen bomb -- cause one to realize how much focused intention, how much determination, how much sustained human effort was necessary to produce a phenomenon so artificial and so destructive.

     The book does not much discuss the subject of who was really behind the efforts to build the bomb.  I will, likewise, leave it alone.  If you can read between the lines, it is probably as clear as it needs to be.

    But I do want to say that I was strangely affected by seeing two photographs that are included in the book.

     The first one is a photo of the Soviet test, in Khazakstan in 1949, of "Joe 1,"  the Russian copy of the American "Fat Man" bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.  When I look at that chaotic, streaky, filthy, fiery-black cloud, I can almost smell it.  It just reeks with poisonous death.

     The second photo is worse.  It is a picture of a nuclear test in Nevada, presumably in the 1950s.  There are a handful of Joshua trees, tiny in the foreground, and behind them looms hugely the beginning of the fireball.   It is already perhaps a thousand feet or more in diameter, and it will extinguish the trees in another split-second.

     It has only been a few milliseconds since the detonation.  The thing is almost a perfect sphere, an enormous bubble.  You can see a kind of wavy shimmering skin, like some kind of unnatural borealis.  Hundreds of spots of light, small and smaller, are visible within it.  And unexpectedly, starkly visible on the left side, at its equator, is some sort of disfigured vacuole with a pair of white puffy gloms that look like nothing so much as they look like protoplasmic tissue.  The effect is like seeing the hatching of some horrible Cosmic Egg, the emergence of some Growing Death.   Or maybe just seeing a Giant Blind Eyeball.

     I know that it is illusion.  Apparently some bit of mechanism on one side of the test device has been more resistant to the forces of disintegration, and the process of vaporization is not quite complete.  It is nothing living, just the consequential resolution of enormous energies.  It has no mind, no awareness that it kills.

     Nevertheless, the strange, creepy, sickening impression remains in my mind.  Is it the visual equivalent of fingernails scratched heavily across a chalkboard?

     I wonder if the whole idea of exploding nuclear bombs on this earth is creepy in its unnaturalness.  Or is it just me?

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     Comments are always most welcome.

1 comment:

  1. All this business about colliding, fissuring, fusing, and whatever else They do to "mine" atoms, it bears a remarkable similarity in mind to the insertion of "intellectual property" by Monsanto (et. al.) into the genome of soy beans (et. al.).

    And the common thread all runs back to Genesis 6.

    What do you think?