Book Review: “Brighter Than A Thousand Suns” – by Robert Jungk

Book-Jungk“Brighter than a Thousand Suns”, A Personal  History of the Atomic Scientists, by Robert Jungk,  was first published in 1956.

“Why are we interested only in what scientists do, and not in what they are?” This opening question informs Jungk’s entire book.  Jungk conversed with many of the scientists of the early days of atomic research, and through until 1954.  With the earliest conversations, Jungk was struck by “the arbitrary and unnatural separation of scientific research from the reality of the individual personality”. To Jungk, it was this division that“allowed the creation of such monstrosities as the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb”.

 To this day, many nuclear scientists think of their work as purely mathematical and technical.  The human results of nuclear weapons are none of their business.  Others, especially after Hiroshima, suffered “their great crisis of conscience”.

 To today’s readers, Jungk’s detailed personal histories of so many scientists might prove tedious.  Yet these form the source, the explanation, of the differing attitudes they held towards the projects that culminated in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The earliest scientists in Germany were deeply affected by the traumas of World War 1, and the developing horror of the Nazi regime. Many were Jewish, and emigrated.  The fear of Hitler acquiring and using the atomic bomb was in their minds. Those who stayed in Germany concentrated on uranium  energy research, and were in fact relieved that Hitler dismissed the idea of developing the bomb.

Atomic research , along with the scientists, moved to Norway, France, Russia, Italy.  It became an international collaboration then, in England. At Cambridge there was an atmosphere of youthful enthusiasm, as “Rutherford’s boys” (and girls) worked on the technical complexity of atom, discovering the neutron in 1932. Jungk attributes the discovery of atomic fission to Enrico Fermi, in Italy 1934. Those were what Jungk calls “the beautiful years” – 1932 – 39.

In 1939 with the clouds of war hanging over them, the international scientists  now faced the reality of what could be done with their research.  Their colleagues in Germany were known to be on bad terms with Hitler – but no discussions could now be held between the two groups.

This was a turning point, a time when the scientists could have turned away from developing the bomb.  Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein, who both later fought against the bomb project, called on the USA to forward it, believing that USA would never actually use the bomb.

It was also a turning point in that the more light-hearted, youthful co-operation of scientists,  gradually changed, in America, under the secretive and authoritarian regime  of Manhattan Project in 1942

.From here, Jungk’s book becomes something of a suspense thriller. The military authorities“erected invisible walls round every branch of research, so that no department ever knew what any other was doing.” 150,000 were employed on the Manhattan Project, but only a few knew that they were working on a bomb at all. In the secret cities at Oak Ridge, Hanford and Los Alamos, scientists worked under rigid surveillance, and were encouraged to spy on each other. Colonel Leslie Groves was given the rank of General and put in charge of the project.

Most revealing is Yungk’s study of the charismatic but flawed character of Robert Oppenheimer, Director at Los Alamos.. He was later most unfairly treated by USA, but Jungk outlines his behaviour as driven by ambition, and a willingness to kow tow to the military establishment.

General Groves’ zeal for using the bomb in war was a factor in the schism that now developed among the scientists. From 1943 – 44, the scientists advised  a demonstration bomb test, on unpopulated land.  Szilard and Einstein now  wrote to President Roosevelt urging against the atomic bombing of Japanese cities. But Roosevelt died suddenly.  The new President Truman wasn’t interested – setting up scientific panels, and an ”Interim Committee” who would “play ball” with the military.

The scientific panel was not called upon to decide whether the bomb should be used, but only how it should be used.

In spite of seven of the scientists writing to the Secretary of War, opposing  use of the bomb, the Interim Committee (Oppenheimer, Fermi, Compton and Lawrence) recommended the bombing.

From then on, it was a rush to test the bomb, and then use it, before the Japanese surrendered.  Three atomic bombs were built. The first – tested: if the test was a failure – it would be reported as a “girl” – if successful a “boy”.

For the second and third bombs, 67 Scientists petitioned the government to warn the Japanese first – a petition that was prevented by General Groves from reaching the White House.  Enrico Fermi commented “Don’t bother me with your conscientious scruples! After all, the thing is superb physics!”

 The $2 billion Manhattan Project would be seen as a senseless waste of money, if Japan surrendered. Truman authorised the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oppenheimer explained later that his  Interim Committee’s  recommendation was “a technical opinion”.

 The reactions of the scientists were conflicted. “Shouts of joy” at the success of the bombing.  Simultaneous pride and shame.  As the radiation effects were learned, General Groves reassured a Congressional hearing that he’d heard that death from radiation was “very pleasant”.

 Oppenheimer knew that the bombing was not the end of the nuclear project, but the start of a nuclear arms race between USA and Russia.  Now nuclear science came fully under military influence,   Edward Teller now came into the picture , and the race for the hydrogen bomb was on. Still there were some that rebelled , but by 1947, these had lost out.  They set up the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to awaken the world to the danger.  Einsten said:“In the end, there beckons, more and more clearly, general annihilation”

 Robert Jungk’s account of the men, and some women, too, who developed atomic weapons , is set against the background of the big events of the time, with a sympathetic attitude to the pressures and problems that surrounded these people.

From 1951 to 1955 the general attitude of atomic scientists was one of enthusiasm for the hydrogen bomb (1000 times more powerful than the first atomic bomb).  Jungk muses on this: “How is one to explain such macabre enthusiasm which had swept away all the earlier scruples and objections to the Super monster?”

 He finds his answer in a statement by Oppenheimer: – “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it”  Jungk comments that Oppenheimer here reveals a dangerous tendency in the modern research scientist.

Robert Jungk wrote that in 1955.  Nearly 60 years later – has anything changed?


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