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Of time and men and one chat with Richard Rhodes

I’d wandered down to Peter Miller Books—one of Seattle’s treasures—the legendary architecture and design bookshop in Pioneer Square. Miller carries a variety of household “special” items he finds mostly in Europe when he forages for the books that fill his floor-to-ceiling shelves while wandering the cities that house the major book fairs. Think Frankfurt. I'm addicted to his votives that light my nightly reading.

Pro tip: Don’t miss the Kerzon Dishwashing liquid, Fleurs de Romarin  - it’ll make you WANT to hand wash dishes again, an idea that ties neatly with Miller’s missive, How to Wash the Dishes.”

Photo credit Peter Miller Books


On this particular late Saturday afternoon, one of the last of 2023, Miller was extolling the virtues of a book he had recently discovered. Espousing to anyone who would listen—as he is want to do—on the “these men, who ran around with their sketch pencils like mad artists but," Miller exclaims with the wonder of a child, "They were scientists, physicists to be specific, inventing the bomb." I froze in mid-search for the aforementioned candles. The oddity of the moment sticks with me. Peter and I, though decades-long friends, had not spoken about my work-in-progress: the rare fictional work centered on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.


“What did you say you were reading?” I blinked, glimpsing a familiar off-white cover with matt gold lettering.


“The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” Miller offered. “What a tale.” Miller paused to ring up a purchase and another, and the moment slipped away. In my research for my debut novel, Tangles, I'd amassed a pile of extraordinary non-fiction volumes. Most were written after the release of the first classified documents on Hanford and the rest of the Manhattan Project in the late 90s and early 2000s. I'd set up interviews with many of the authors for the new year.


But long before those fine historians, researches and activists—many of whom blew their whistles at the turn of this century—Richard Rhodes was crafting what remains the quintessential work on the top secret project that catapulted America into the nuclear age: The Making of the Atomic Bomb.


On the walk home along Seattle’s historic waterfront, the gigantic Ferris wheel spun much like my thoughts.  Why had I hesitated to contact Rhodes?The plethora of other gifted academics who had crafted a dozen non-fiction books, providing much fodder for my debut novel (Tangles, coming November 2024) had been amazingly accessible. Was I intimidated by the Pulitzer Prize winner moniker? The oddity of Miller’s sudden obsession with the book felt like a sign. I’m big on signs.

What makes The Making of the Atomic Bomb (TMotAB) different? Rhodes wrote it in a time without the internet. Published a year before the classified documents release, his work would foreshadow a reckoning with the US Department of Energy (DOE), the former Atomic Energy Commission. TMotAB garnered a trifecta of prizes including the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.


In another extraordinary turn of circumstances, for me at least, when I garnered my courage—he could only say no, right?—and reached out to him for an interview, Rhodes wrote via email, “Why don’t you just come over to the house?” Rhodes and his equally impressive wife, Dr. Ginger Rhodes, had “moved to Washington State to be near our son,” an architect—another chill ran through me as I read—“a few years ago.” Had the son been in Peter’s shop and Miller hadn’t realized his one-degree of separation from greatness?


The “house,” was perched on one of Seattle’s lovely hillsides with a sweeping view of the Sound. Rhodes, sporting a snappy quilted off-white vest, pink oxford shirt, and blue corduroy trousers, proved a gracious host. Tall, and solidly built—his stature oddly reminiscent of Miller’s—his tuft of silver hair swept back from a high forehead, he led me into his home office, filled with intriguing artwork and memorabilia.


An author of over eighteen non-fiction works and a half dozen fictional ones, his latest WIP (work-in-progress) is historical non-fiction centered on a woman’s little-known public health work in the 1900s. I’ll leave the rest a mystery for now. Rhodes settled into his desk chair beside a rather large computer screen and I took the occasional chair.


We bantered about various pieces of artwork on his walls, the pros and cons of “teaching through fiction” and the responsibility of that but soon settled into a discussion of his process as a writer and the specific challenges associated with his award-winning work.


I indicated my fascination with his description of the typical physicist: lonely, possibly having lost a parent at a young age, relationships are secondary, and work is everything. I asked, “Do you find that applies (the obsession with work) to your work as a writer?


Rhodes nodded with a self-deprecating grin. “Don’t we all?”


I have to admit to a thrill of being included in his circle, but I gathered myself and asked him what drew him to this particular project and what his process was, curious about his initial approach and consequent execution.


The Making of Atomic Bomb was Rhodes’s first non-fiction book. “I’d written  articles of course…” recounting folks he’d interviewed…” Teller (Edward), Seaborg (Glenn), Bob Serber (Robert), I.I. Rabi (Rob)…I interviewed in person.” Many scientists, including Teller, converged on the U.S. after the passage of the first anti-Jewish ordinance in April of 1933. In TMotAB, Rhodes recounts Teller’s thoughts from his memoir, “We were newcomers in a bustling laboratory…and for days we were given no specific jobs.”

That, the lack of purpose, alone might account for Teller’s legendary mood swings. To a man, they fit the profile. Key player, Ernest Lawrence, was noted to be a manic depressive (TMotAB, page 151). Seaborg, who spent most of his career at UC Berkeley and won the Nobel Prize in 1951 was, according to his mother, a loner. Serber, who delivered the basic principles of the project to all incoming newcomers to Los Alamos, and created the code names for the three bomb types: Little Boy, (the uranium gun), Thin Man, (the plutonium gun), and Fat Boy, (the plutonium implosion), lost his mother at age eleven.


Rhodes and I take a moment to marvel at the amount of talent percolating at this special moment in small spaces throughout the U.S. In the late 1930s, Hans Bethe “defined the mechanism of carbon-cycle thermonuclear burning that fire the stars” and was subsequently awarded a Nobel Prize for his work. The men (and one woman, Francis Dunn) of Los Alamos worked feverishly to unleash that fire.


After several interviews with a variety of players, Rhodes looked up anything he could find in the literature. Most of the scientists had written memoirs and his TBR stack grew. Some had given oral histories which were stored in the Library of Congress. In the first of many research trips, Rhodes plowed through a plethora of material, scouring FBI files as well.


Photo credit Matthew Schwartz


The files on Martin Luther King and Oppenheimer were so voluminous that they were sequestered in a special room, proof of Hoover’s obsession with both men.

In the same decade—radio telescopes and X-ray satellites that could detect black holes and neutron stars had not yet been invented—“Oppenheimer looked into the subtleties of the invisible cosmic margins, modeled the imploding collapse of dying suns, and described theoretical stellar objects that would not be discovered for thirty and forty years.” Such are the gems in Richard Rhodes’ provocative Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative.


I asked, “As you studied these fascinating men and women—read their letters and other personal documents perhaps—did you encounter any hesitation on anyone’s part about unknown outcomes?”


I went to Berlin to see the letter—written by the two chemists who discovered nuclear fission in Nazi Germany at Christmastime 1938—to the exiled Jewish colleague Lise Meitner. She was a theoretical physicist, so she could interpret the discovery in physical terms. She happened to be visiting friends in a small village in western Sweden at the time, Kungälv, along with her nephew Otto Frisch, also a theoretician.

Rhodes went on to describe the famous walk the scientists took in the snow, working out what had happened. "The chemists were bombarding a solution of uranium nitrate with neutrons. When they analyzed the resulting solution chemically they found barium in it. What was barium doing there? It’s element 56 on the Periodic Table, uranium is element 92. A piddling little squad of neutrons shouldn’t be able to break uranium almost in half. That was the question they had asked Meitner to answer.”

Rhodes continued, "She and her nephew realized quickly that the uranium must have split into two parts—the other part would be krypton, element 36, 36 plus 56 equals 92—then they applied Einstein’s famous formula E = mc2 and realized that the splitting would release an enormous amount of energy—enough energy from each individual fission, someone calculated later, to make a visible grain of sand visibly jump. And there it was. A few days later Frisch named it: nuclear fission. And Nazi Germany had it first."

“I visited Kungälv. I’d read about it in other accounts of the discovery. What no one had noticed, because they hadn’t visited the place, was that on the outskirts of the little village was an enormous 14th-century fortress, stone walls fifteen feet thick, built in the days when Norway and Sweden were at war." He smiles at the memory, adding, "And certainly symbolic of what Meitner and Frisch worked out there.”

Photo credit Wikipedia

 Rhodes leaned back in his chair, fast-forwarding through the story. “But Air Force General LeMay who ran the firebombing of Japan came home terrified of what a nuclear war would do to his country.”


I reeled, thinking how close to reality that was today. The threats coming from North Korea in recent news, and the critical advantage of having a dominant air game as was playing out in Ukraine and Gaza. (The strike by Iran only last month made LeMay seem prophetic.)


Rhodes went on. “Later, LeMay became head of the strategic air command. He wanted to have to have everything ready for the 3-day war of the future. His point of view: the only way to win a nuclear war was to get there first. LeMay wanted a fleet of airplanes that could fly in from every direction…take out all of Eastern Europe…then the Soviets…and then China.”


Photo credit Wikipedia


“And how would he do that?” I asked, thinking this sounded so like Patton, the movie, and the man.


“With the biggest bombs possible.” Rhodes steepled his fingers in thought. “LeMay wanted the most destructive bombs so that if some of his strategic bombers got shot down, the rest would still be carrying enough to cause utter destruction.

"But Oppie didn’t want the hydrogen bomb at all. He advised the AEC not to build it. Teller wanted hydrogen bombs too. So the Air Force was behind the scheme to declare Oppenheimer a security risk and lift his security clearance. That effectively prevented him from advising the government.”

This of course is the tale told in Oppenheimer the movie, proof that no "good" deed is without consequence.


A side note: After a lengthy career, including running the strategic air command during Vietnam, LeMay signed on as George Wallace’s pro-segregation running mate in the 1968 Presidential election.


Getting to the core of the matter, I asked, “As you researched, did you see any evidence of others’ uncertainty? Especially at Los Alamos. Any concern that this unleashed genie might overwhelm the world, or the notion of putting their genie back in the box before something catastrophic occurred?”


Rhodes recounts the moment as if it were yesterday. “The guys at Los Alamos were busy trying to win the war" and the thought was that the Japanese “would resist an invasion with everything they had.” As the US worked their way up the Pacific Islands “the worst battle was Okinawa.” This indicated what a serious challenge a land battle would be on the home islands.

“Luis Alvarez, one of the physicists who accompanied the Hiroshima bomb out to the B-29 base on Tinian Island and helped assemble it, told me about visiting the harbor at nearby Guam, seeing a fleet of ships anchored there. Going aboard to find out what they were hauling and discovering they were filled with coffins for the invasion of Japan. Everyone hoped that the bombs would shock the Japanese into surrender. Prevent a massive loss of life, both American and Japanese.”


When Rhodes plotted out his non-fiction narrative in 1982, he had come across the cards that a grad student had created. He filled hundreds of cards with his notes, indexed them, notched open the appropriate holes around the edge of the cards and sorted them with a knitting needle. That was sorting before the computer came along. Today he builds a chronology using a two-column Word file, date on the left and any relevant notes or quotes on the right. "That makes it searchable," he explains. "And sometimes simply juxtaposing notes by chronology brings out connections that weren’t obvious before.”

Every time he typed out a chapter—he rewrote it—fifteen times and built a 500-page chronology. He developed the system he uses today. Each work in progress begins with a simple Word file with two columns. The chronology appears on the left side and the text is on the right.


These days he doesn’t build the whole chronology at first,  but for the TMotAB he did, making it simple to add or subtract from the narrative as various facts or anecdotes presented themselves in his research.


LeMay’s obsession with preemption led to a discussion of other disagreements within the team. The debate on the necessity of total death in total war included the inevitable suspicion of conspiracy.


Rhodes segued into the politics of the matter. “The Air Force moved the high-explosive components of nine atomic bombs to Guam during the Korean War. They never used them because they thought the mountainous Korean terrain might limit their destructiveness. But “the other reason…..What would the world think if the second use of nuclear weapons was again on an Asian population?”


I asked, “What do you think of the idea that even a small nation with a nuclear arsenal could hold off a nuclear enemy—nuclear deterrence? Isn’t there a level of naivety in Oppenheimer’s statement that ignores the natural progression of other nations developing the bomb?"


Rhodes nodded. “But deterrence did work, just barely, through the years of the Cold War. Tragically, Russia and North Korea have found a way to threaten nuclear use to protect their fighting conventional wars. That’s a dangerous new development. I call it ‘malignant deterrence.’”


Rhodes went on. “In 1999, Madeleine Albright (then Secretary of State) went to North Korea to set up a meeting between President Clinton and Kim. The North Koreans were ready to settle the outstanding disagreements between them and the US. But Clinton realized at the last minute that he couldn’t leave the country because of the disputed election between Al Gore and George Bush."


Rhodes continued, “And Bush’s first announcement was that North Korea was part of an axis of evil.  So North Korea goes nuclear…and now, according to Sig Hecker, Kim Jong Un is ready to use his arsenal.”


Rhodes paused and I considered the gravity of that prediction. The world is an uncertain place, especially in light of the stark political divides that appear to be growing every day.  

Hecker viewing North Korea's arsenal. Photo credit Wikipedia


Only days after our interview, I’m listening to NPR on my car radio, and a podcast interview with Sig Hecker airs. Hecker reiterates his analysis of Kim’s present state of mind, sending a chill through me. I race home and send Rhodes an email saying Hecker is on NPR predicting Korea’s possible attack.



Rhodes replied, “I’ll try to find it. Thanks.”


Toward the end of our chat, I asked, “What evidence did you find of them (the physicists) considering the side effects to human health or the possible dangers of chemical elements that became waste. Any evidence of them being aware that it would have to be dealt with in some way?”


Rhodes replied, “I asked Sig Hecker why Hanford was so sloppy. He said that during the Cold War, they all felt we were still at war. They concluded that anything that stayed within the fence was okay. During WWII, all the young men felt privileged to work on this. They were protected from the front lines, but very aware that others,  folks they knew,  were taking risks for their freedom.”


Rhodes gave an example. “Wheeler, the theoretical physicist who coined the phrase black hole, had a brother fighting in Italy. He was intensely aware of the threat to his brother, so if he had to take some risks so be it.”


I ask, “Did you get a sense of any symptoms (to radiation exposure) they might have had?”


Rhodes replied, “Sometimes the exposed felt fatigued. But you have to reconstruct what the war felt like. I was eight in 1945 in Kansas City. We collected newspapers, foil, and bacon grease. We peeled the foil off of cigarette packages. Horse-drawn carriages instead of trucks (that used fuel) made deliveries. Boy Scouts collected half a million tons of milkweed fiber that was used for life jackets.”


I nod, considering the time and circumstances, oddly reflective of the first early days of discovery. Everyone rallied around the cause or in the scientists’ case, the proposed theory.


I told Rhodes that I had recently reread the end of Part One of TMotAB. It shows how multiple scientists seemed to be within days or even moments of Bohr discovering fission. Almost simultaneously, Frisch left an unfinished experiment at Columbia. The Joliot-Curies were within days of the same discovery. Alvarez and Abelson at Berkeley were equally close and Roberts and Hafstad were realizing the energy prospects as if the entire universe had coalesced around one idea.


I say,  “This kind of coincidence feels a bit magical and at the same time fateful. I read that the first thing Oppenheimer did (when they were assembled at Los Alamos) was to draw a bomb on the chalkboard. It struck me as sad, that this would be the first thing they used the knowledge for. What about you?”


Photo credit Wikipedia


Rhodes replied, “The reason (for that) was fairly simple. The theory everyone had was that the nucleus was rigid, hard to break, that is until the neutron came along. So they developed large machines to harness a lot of energy to “probe or break” it.  


“And then what the fission showed—uranium was the last element on the table because it barely holds together—a strong force holds the nucleus together. Holds the particles together, but it doesn’t work at any distance. When a neutron penetrates the nucleus it’s like the moon struck the earth.”


Rhodes continued. “The timing is the (scientific process of) moving forward. Science works by gift exchange. You discover and publish. Then someone else takes it and goes farther. If you read Michael Polanyi, his book on the philosophy of science, he writes of tacit knowledge. Everyone is working and then someone connects it.”


In 1945, Szilard drafted a petition, one that demanded the US explain the terms of surrender to Japan before dropping the bomb. Seventy scientists signed it, but it never reached Truman.


Rhodes reiterates, “Szilard was opposed to using the bomb without a previous demonstration. He and Fermi had invented the nuclear reactor, so he owned the patent. He tried to use that to force the military to include the scientists in their decision-making.  General Groves, who ran the Project, wanted him jailed. Oppie wanted the demonstration (to show other countries the power of the bomb). But Lawrence doubted that there was a demonstration that would scare our enemies. He said if he were a general in Japan, he would say fight on brother.”


In the end, the American leadership was convinced a ground war in Japan would take hundreds of thousands of lives and that story spun out across the globe in the days after the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.


The time that Rhodes tells of in The Making of the Atomic Bomb rests in the annals of history left to the interpretation of today’s thinkers. Motivations tempered by second guesses and political maneuvers complicate the way forward.


As I drove down the hillside after our chat, I couldn’t help but wonder if there might be another gathering, one of writers. “Workers in the vineyard” (as Rhodes had written in my copy of TMotAB) might find the way. But probably it will be the gamers-for-good ( ) who'll use Rhodes' work as source material, a legacy yet to come.








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