Bomb by Steve Sheinkin
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan
Lynn: I know how long everyone’s “To Read” list is but here’s one that needs to jump the queue to the top of your lists! Bomb: The Race to Build – and Steal – The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon (Roaring Brook 2012) is my favorite nonfiction book this year. I frequently have several books going at one time but the minute I started this one I was held captive. This book reads like a heart-thumping thriller yet also does everything an outstanding nonfiction is supposed to do. It informs, explains and, for me anyway, reveals information and it does so without ever feeling instructive. Sheinkin handles complex scientific principals, complicated historical events, and the most convoluted secret spy networks with equal clarity, sweeping them all into a narrative impossible to put down. If this were fantasy, I would talk about the world-building but that is what it felt like for me – like stepping into this world, this time and having the events whirl urgently around me. I loved this book!
This is a time period that I have great interest in. My parents were born in 1920 and I was always fascinated by their stories of this pivotal time. My father, who was a thermodynamisist, was also doing weapons research during the war and I wish so much that I could talk to him about this book. Sadly he suffers from advanced dementia now so all I have are my memories of his earlier recollections. There is so much that is familiar to me from his stories in this book but there is SO much that was new to me too – especially the astonishing chronicle of the concerted Communist effort to steal the design secrets of the nuclear bombs.
Sheinkin doesn’t assume knowledge but neither does he underestimate his audience. The plot structure is complex as he alternates between the chronological accounts of the critical scientific discoveries, the unfolding events of the war, the soviet spy effort and an account of the complex organizational and scientific program to develop the bomb. The cast of characters is large and the events convoluted but I think Sheinkin does an outstanding job of keeping all the plates spinning – and the reader feeling like he/she is in control of them. The research here is painstaking and the source notes excellent. I found the photographs fascinating but I think my only criticism of this book is the placement of these all in a group at the beginning of chapters. I kept turning back to look at them again as people entered the story.
This is a book that offers a huge number of curriculum connections and discussion possibilities and it is also a book that shows just how gripping a nonfiction book can be.
Cindy: T-minus two minutes. Robert Oppenheimer is standing in a shelter in Los Alamos waiting to see if his years of work are going to pay off at the Trinity testing of his atomic bomb. “Lord, these affairs are hard on the heart,” he says. Reading books like this are almost as hard on the heart! I agree with Lynn that this is a page turner. I am always amazed by authors who can create such suspense in a history whose ending we already know…and who make us feel like we are there even when the event happened over half a century ago. But, while we know the outcome, there were so many details that were new to me. For instance, I held my breath as the Norwegians scaled an icy gorge and crawled through air ducts to sabotage the German’s heavy water production facility (a scenario worthy of a Mission Impossible movie). My emotions ranged far and wide with every tale of espionage, politics, scientific setback or achievement: fear, anger, disgust, dismay and, as with most books that include science, a sense of awe at the brilliant minds at work. (Notice that I didn’t include the politicians in that brilliant minds statement!) And I laughed when I read about these scientists slathering themselves with suntan lotion at the bomb test site to protect them from the flash they expected. (Probably as useful as our later school ”duck and cover” drills were to protect us.)
Years ago when Paul Zindel was writing his historical fiction novel set in Los Alamos he called me on my cell phone to get my vote on the title for this new book. Should it be “The Fourth Thunder,” an Indian term for our progress in destroying Mother Earth, or “The Gadget,” the code name for the atomic bomb project? When the call came I was cowering in a friend’s camper with my two young daughters, having given up our tent, as a tornado was speeding our way. In the midst of this horrible storm, I distractedly picked “The Fourth Thunder.” He of course ultimately selected The Gadget, a much better title to attract teen boys. In Sheinkin’s book I learn the crazy story behind that code name. I’ll let you read about it, but it involves a foot coming through a ceiling tile…and the need for discretion. It’s just one of the passages I found myself reading aloud to my husband.
I’d like to read Ed Sullivan’s earlier work about this topic, The Ultimate Weapon: The Race to Develop the Atomic Bomb (Holiday 2007) to compare it with this one and to get the details of the other sites where the uranium and plutonium were prepared for the bombs. Teachers might use the two books together to meet a Common Core standard: ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.6 Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.
The book closes with some even more sobering information about the current threat of nuclear war with North Korea, Pakistan, India and possibly Iran added into the fray. I was in college during the Reagan administration and joined a Peace organization on Western Michigan University’s campus. I still have my “No Nukes” button….I think I’ll go dig it out. It’s never too late to promote peace.
Common Core Connections:
ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
Give students copies of the sections on pages 171-185 about the first test at the Trinity site in New Mexico. Have them write about the experience from Robert Oppenheimer’s view first in the form of a formal report to his superior, Dr. Groves and then as a personal diary entry where he records his emotional response to the success of his years of work and the realization of what he has created. Cite text evidence for both where possible.
ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.1 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
While working in Los Alamos 19-yr.-old physicist Ted Hall decided to give USA’s atomic bomb secrets to the Soviets with the reasoning that he felt the weapon they were developing was so powerful that it should not be controlled by just one country. Do you agree that his traitorous actions were justified? Did sharing our scientific secrets keep our world safer? Supplement your opinion with textual support from Bomb, or from other research about the development of the atomic bomb or the ensuing arms race during the Cold War.