Review Of Brotherhood Of The Bomb

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/16/07


  In the world of historians, Daniel J. Boorstin stands head and shoulders above all lesser writers in that nonfiction genre, much as Loren Eiseley and, to a lesser extent, Stephen Jay Gould, reign supreme as literary craftsmen in the sciences. This thought was inescapable to me as I read yet another in a prolix series of books about the historic import of scientists. Since the two disciplines- science and history- often intertwine when reading books about the Manhattan Project comparisons of the writers of such books with the aforementioned trinity is inevitable, as well as very productive in the art of criticism. Thus, when I read the 2002 book, Brotherhood Of The Bomb, by Gregg Herken- an atomic bomb junky whose prior works (such as The Winning Weapons: The Atomic Bomb In The Cold War) were soaked in the topic, I had to groan, for Herken has absolutely no grasp of what makes for compelling nor imaginative writing.

  When one reads the classics of Boorstin- such as The Discoverers, The Creators, or The Americans, one is engrossed by his novelistic techniques which can make the most well known tales of historical figures and cast them in a patina of freshness. When one reads the essays of Eiseley, gathered in classics like The Night Country or The Immense Journey, one is blown away by the elegant poesy and profundity of his sentences. When one reads the essays of Gould- from books like The Mismeasure Of Man or Bully For Brontosaurus, one is dazzled by his ability to thread together the most seemingly disparate things into a coherent idea. But, in Brotherhood Of The Bomb one is merely bored to nihility by Herken’s turgidity and utter lack of insight into his subject matter, as well as the pointless epigraphs for the book’s five parts.

  The book follows the three nuclear scientists’ lives named in the subtitle- Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller, including their careers and rivalries, mostly between the 1930s and 1960s. There is not only nothing new in this book, but even the rehashes have been explicated better. Who does not know of Oppenheimer’s Left Wing delusions, harassment by the FBI, and associations with Communist sympathizers, despite never being a party member? And when Teller- the H Bomb fanatic, betrayed their friendship by testifying against Oppenheimer- thus getting Oppenheimer’s security clearance stripped during the McCarthy era, well- again, there is nothing not known before revealed. The best books in this field are probably Richard Rhodes’ The Making Of The Atomic Bomb and Dark Star; far better works than this forgettable book. That Teller was vilified while Oppenheimer’s stature rose with his opposition to the Cold War arms race is also a well-trod path. Thus, the obvious area to explore in this dynamic was the middleman, Lawrence- a Nobel Prize winner, and his relationship with the two other poles. Instead, despite a brief bio, Lawrence’s life remains largely unexamined- save for his seeming closer to Teller than Oppenheimer, as the book descends into an almost People magazine level recitation of known facts, with little illumination, petty gossip, and less gusto. The latter fact- gusto, is at least present in most People magazine profiles. Herken’s book, by comparison, is arid, even mummified.

  This is never more so than in the parts of the book that have to do with science. Herken has no ability to translate ideas and scientific curiosity into words that convey such to uninterested readers. In short, his work is the classic book that preaches to the choir. No wonder that critics with an interest in history and science have praised and awarded the book, because they know all the facts and are merely giggly over another work on a topic they see as neglected. As for the writing, though, much was needed to be done to improve its literary qualities. In a sense, it feels like a well written high school essay or a mediocre review in a law journal that was bloated to book length just to increase salability. The technical descriptions of the bomb and cyclotrons are-if not unnecessary, certainly far too distracting, as are the large cast of mostly irrelevant second and third tier characters whose digressions grind the book’s narrative velocity to nil. Herken, who by day job is a curator at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Air And Space Museum, shows why career catalogers do not make good writers. Like many bad prose fictionists, he errs in overdescribing things- thinking that the look on a face or the minutia of a theory adds to the drama of the tale. At 334 pages, with 94 pages of largely showoffy and useless notes, the book could have been cut in half with better editing, and still been an engaging read. The first hundred pages, which focuses a bit more on the three men, is the best part of the book- even if oft-told and mediocre. The rest of the book is a sheer waste of pulp.

  Herken too often veers from the making of the bomb- the only reason anyone would care of these three intellectual bores, to try to exculpate Oppenheimer, so that the first atomic test is written of only in a few pages. This is like writing of Newton’s theory of gravity and focusing on the worm in the legendary apple that was to fall onto the scientist’s head. Yet, this is the state most writing- fictive or not, has devolved to in this day and age. The book won many literary awards upon its release, and Herken himself was awarded a hefty MacArthur Genius Grant to write the book. Yet nothing speaks more highly of the absolute lack of depth and insight the book displays than how Herken ends it, by reciting the well known dueling apothegms of Oppenheimer and Teller, where the former declares that ‘Physicists have known sin,’ only to have his rival retort, ‘I would say that physicists have known power.’

  Such summative words show that Herken, far from being an objective researcher, was more a kid in a- groan, please- candy shop, who tossed off this banal book to fulfill a childish obsession. There are no larger ideas nor any penetrating revelations that only this book dared to print. Perhaps such needless space consumption is ok as fodder for the Lowest Common Denominator blogs that choke the internet, but valuable publishing resources should not be wasted on such pap. If you agree, then click over to Herken’s book’s website Brotherhood Of The Bomb, or shoot him and email at gherken@brotherhoodofthebomb.com, and let him know that the waste of pulp is also a sin that his hero, Oppenheimer, would disavow, and to stay cyber. Do not do it for me, do it for Boorstin, Eiseley, and Gould. Better yet, do it for yourself….or the trees.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Midwest Book Review website.]

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