Recommend a Manhattan Project book, Fat Man / Little Boy!
December 31, 2010 3:05 PM   Subscribe

Recommend your favorite book detailing the history of the Manhattan Project. I'm most interested in the technical hurdles overcome, but I'd also like it to encompass the political aspects of the venture.

I just saw Fat Man & Little Boy on Netflix streaming. Minor movie spoilers inside, I guess, but it is history. Maybe.

I already had vague knowledge of the period, but since the movie went in to so much detail on the interpersonal relationships, as well as the engineering feats involved, I'm curious how much of the content was factual, how much was anecdotal, and how much was completely fictional.

I have an engineering background, so I'm interested in things like gun-barrel versus implosion mechanisms, plutonium vs uranium, what was going on at Oak Ridge, as well as the preliminary experiments they were doing. (What was the experiment that John Cusack was performing with the two half-spheres, or the falling uranium? What did it mean that the piece of metal wasn't straight after the detonation?) Of course, I'm no physicist, so any nuclear physics beyond radioactive decay would be lost on me.

I'm also interested in the political side of the story, though. From the movie, it seemed like the Army general in charge had anti-Soviet motivations, in addition to winning the war. Was that true? How about Oppenheimer's communist sympathies? Did the Army really use that to blackmail him into completing the project?

I know I could probably scan Wikipedia articles to find the answers to my specific questions, but I'd sure like to fill in the gaps in the story as well.

posted by supercres to Technology (26 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This biography on Robert Oppenheimer might interest you. I haven't read it yet, so I can't really say how much it emphasizes the technical aspects of the project, but I know it definitely talks a lot about the politics of the time, and the Cold War following.
posted by backwards compatible at 3:15 PM on December 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb is the classic treatment, and highly readable.
posted by palliser at 3:19 PM on December 31, 2010 [8 favorites]

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes might be wider in its scope but is an excellent, excellent read.
posted by absquatulate at 3:19 PM on December 31, 2010

Ah, palliser, great minds think alike.
posted by absquatulate at 3:19 PM on December 31, 2010

Best answer: You really shouldn't miss Feynman's memoirs on the subject, although it's not strictly what you're asking for.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 3:25 PM on December 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

I liked James Gleick's book on Feynman, which has a nice, very readable chunk on the physics leading up to the Manhattan Project and Feynman's time at Los Alamos.
posted by jng at 3:36 PM on December 31, 2010

Good stuff about the politics and lots of original material in The Manhattan Project: The birth of the atomic bomb in the eyes of its creators, eyewitnesses, and historians.
posted by beagle at 3:39 PM on December 31, 2010

Not strictly but good overview: The Bomb: a Life covers the Manhattan Project and what happened after.

(Also, there is an interesting opera about the Manhattan Project, Dr. Atomic (if you like this sort of thing)).
posted by ovvl at 3:39 PM on December 31, 2010

If you have NetFlix, they have the Modern Marvels episode on the Manhattan Project. Interesting enough that I asked for the Rhodes book for Christmas.
posted by smackfu at 3:47 PM on December 31, 2010

The Oppenheimer bio mentioned above will address your political questions quite thoroughly. For example, Op didn't need to blackmailed as he had pretty much abandoned his communist leanings while on the project.
posted by canoehead at 3:49 PM on December 31, 2010

Heisenbergs War is, as you'd guess, mainly focused on the German bomb but has a very good overiew of the scientific politics of the time and covers the American team well.
posted by Artw at 3:54 PM on December 31, 2010

A novelization of the social life of Los Alamos is available in Frank Waters' The Woman at Otowi Crossing.
posted by pickypicky at 4:11 PM on December 31, 2010

Best answer: Two of my favorite non-fiction books focus on the Manhattan project. Both were mentioned above, but they're worth mentioning again: The Making of the Atomic Bomb and American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The Oppenheimer biography is the best biography I have ever read. You won't be disappointed.

You might also want to read Hiroshima afterwards. Published in 1946, it describes---with great detail---what happened after the bomb was dropped. Since it was originally published in the New Yorker (it was the only thing in the issue), you may be able to find a copy online.
posted by eisenkr at 4:55 PM on December 31, 2010 [3 favorites]

Nthing Richard Rhodes
posted by Confess, Fletch at 5:01 PM on December 31, 2010

"Atom Bombs: The Top Secret Inside Story of Little Boy and Fat Man" is a fantastic book by a truly detail obsessed man. You can read about John Coster-Mullen and his book in this New Yorker article.
posted by Marky at 7:08 PM on December 31, 2010

If you really want politics and international relations as they relate to the atomic arms race, you should also read Rhodes' follow-up Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:40 PM on December 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

In case you're curious, John Cusack's character was based on this real-life scientist who died due to the criticality accident involving the two half-spheres of beryllium.
posted by derogatorysphinx at 9:28 PM on December 31, 2010

I've probably read a couple dozen books on the Manhattan Project but Rhodes' is still the best general overview. (If you enjoy his approach, the followups Dark Sun and Arsenals of Folly are excellent as well.) If you're looking for something a little more manageable, Lansing Lamont's Day of Trinity is also quite good.

I also enjoyed Jim Ottaviani's Fallout (a nonfiction graphic-novelish take on the material) and Rachel Fermi/Esther Samra's Picturing The Bomb (a fantastic collection of contemporary photographs that gives you a real feel for what the hands-on work at Los Alamos was like).
posted by Lazlo at 10:18 PM on December 31, 2010

Oh yeah, and how could I forget—the BBC/PBS miniseries Oppenheimer, with Sam Waterston in the title role, was quietly snuck out on DVD a couple of years ago—I had been waiting almost 25 years to see it again and it holds up beautifully. Absolutely top-notch.
posted by Lazlo at 10:31 PM on December 31, 2010

As other have mentioned, both of Richard Rhodes' books (The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb) cannot be recommended highly enough.

In addition to the American Prometheus bio on Oppenheimer, I can also highly recommend J. Robert Oppenheimer: Shatterer of Worlds.

Few movies on the subject have worked all that well for me - although from what I remember of the PBS biography with Sam Waterson was pretty positive.
posted by Relay at 11:09 PM on December 31, 2010

Response by poster: Oh man. So much good stuff here. Sounds like I'll start with the Rhodes followed by American Prometheus. The rest gets wish-listed for later.

Thanks all!
posted by supercres at 11:18 PM on December 31, 2010

Response by poster: And I do love me some Feynman- I'll have to find that bit as well. Anyone know which of his books it's in? I don't remember it in Surely You're Joking...! but I haven't read it in years.
posted by supercres at 11:21 PM on December 31, 2010

Hiroshima in America: 50 Years of Denial has some interesting takes on the geopolitical aspects of using the bombs, as well as the decisions behind their development. I believe it even specifically addresses some of the inaccuracies of Fatman and Little Boy.
posted by activitystory at 6:07 AM on January 1, 2011

A good read on the subject but not directly dealing with the Manhattan Project is McPhee's The Curve Of Binding Energy.
posted by bz at 12:43 PM on January 1, 2011

Best answer: Feynman's Los Alamos stuff is indeed in "Surely You're Joking".

Somewhere out there are audio recordings of him doing public speeches about the war years. I torrented them a while ago. That might be a good thing to break up all the reading you're going to be doing...
posted by AmbroseChapel at 11:03 PM on January 2, 2011

FYI, the Rhodes book really starts from basic nuclear physics history and so it goes pretty slow. I'm 100 pages in and I think it is still in the 1920s.

(It also has a blurb page where every one is from a Noble Laureate, which is pretty cool.)
posted by smackfu at 6:48 AM on January 18, 2011

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