Though the book’s title and sub-title would seem to focus on the development of “Big Science”, the book is also a look at the scientific career of Ernest Lawrence.
Having spent a third of my life in the shadow of Berkeley, Stanford, Livermore, etc., I was well aware of many of the places in which the book is set - including having spent various amounts of time during High School and College at some of the locals mentioned in the 30+ years covered by the book. I remember looking across a field that lay near my house, seeing a huge water tower that, to my 7 or 8 year old mind, looked much like the nuclear bombs that were being exploded as tests on isolated islands or in the nearby Nevada desert.
The sites mentioned, included not only California, but such diverse locations known for housing various portions of the Manhattan Project: Los Alamos, the University of Chicago, Oak Ridge, Hanford, Argonne, etc. Each played a role in producing the first atomic bombs, the first hydrogen bombs, and, eventually, the first thermonuclear bombs. Along with places, we meet the people (Lawerence, Teller, Oppenheimer, etc.) who fashioned these implements of destruction - whether they come from the sciences, engineering, or politics. We see how relationships played a key role in the development of these new weapons. We also get a glimpse of the technology and the path it took toward using atomic energy - both as a weapon and as a tool to assist mankind in its own growth. The book’s science is not overwhelming, but provides enough details for the layman to appreciate the journey much of science took in the midst of the 20th century.
There is also, as hinted at in the sub-title, a strong emphasis on the growth of the merging of the military, industrial, political, and academic research to accomplish projects which were larger than could be understood by a single person. At times the pieces coming together were so big and so diverse that it was difficult for the reader to track the players in the game at any given time.
Though physics was the least interesting of the sciences to this reader, Hiltzik manages to present a story that held this reader’s attention. The book is recommended for anyone seeking to understand the nuclear politics that defined many of the years preceding the 21st century.
This review is based on a free electronic copy provided by the publisher for the purpose of creating this review. The opinions expressed are my own.