This is a highly compelling, and in places positively gripping, account of the discovery of radioactivity and nuclear physics and its subsequent use in the first atomic bomb. The physics involved is described in a very clear and readable manner, but what really makes this book a page-turner is the fact that we get the human story behind the narrative of the scientific discoveries made.
Preston does an excellent job of relating the biographical details of the key scientists such as the Curies and Ernest Rutherford in the early days of the science of radioactivity. The work of Otto Hans and Lise Mietner, their struggles in Nazi Germany, their subsequent escape and gradual realization of the potential of nuclear energy are also vividly described.
As you might expect a fair proportion of the book is devoted to the Manhattan Project and the tension between Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller. Preston also does an excellent job of portraying everyday life at Los Alamos for the scientists and their families.
We also discover the thrilling details of how the German nuclear bomb programme was stopped in its tracks by a daring operation carried out by British forces to destroy a Norwegian heavy water plant. Preston also delves in to the ambiguity of how much Heisenberg actually knew about the manufacturing of nuclear weapons, and in her epilogue speculates as to what might have happened if the Nazi programme had succeeded.
Probably the most moving sections of the book concern the inhabitants of Hiroshima and the crew of the Enola Gay – Preston’s handling of this is particularly superb and she balances the two viewpoints on the dropping of the nuclear bomb supremely well. What makes this book a worthy addition to anyone’s library is not the details of the science as such, but the fact that we get the stories of the individuals involved in one of the most significant historical events of the twentieth century.