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Editorial Reviews

Jim Baggott’s compelling examination of the atom stretches from 1939 and the discovery of nuclear fission to 1949, the first Soviet nuclear bomb test. While discussing military tactics, intrigue, and the international arms race, the audiobook centers on the physics and physicists who built the bomb; Baggott poses the question, "how did these otherworldly eggheads find themselves center stage in such a drama of heroic endeavor, sabotage, espionage, counterespionage, assassination, and terrible destruction that it now seems barely credible as fiction." With a matter-of-fact, journalistic, delivery Mark Ashby performs this accessible account that you don’t have to be a quantum physicist to enjoy.

Publisher's Summary

An epic story of science and technology at the very limits of human understanding: the monumental race to build the first atomic weapons.

Rich in personality, action, confrontation, and deception, The First War of Physics is the first fully realized popular account of the race to build humankind's most destructive weapon. The book draws on declassified material, such as MI6's Farm Hall transcripts, coded Soviet messages cracked by American cryptographers in the Venona project, and interpretations by Russian scholars of documents from the Soviet archives.

Jim Baggott weaves these threads into a dramatic narrative that spans 10 historic years, from the discovery of nuclear fission in 1939 to the aftermath of "Joe-1", August 1949's first Soviet atomic bomb test. Why did physicists persist in developing the atomic bomb, despite the devastation that it could bring? Why, despite having a clear head start, did Hitler's physicists fail? Could the Soviets have developed the bomb without spies like Klaus Fuchs or Donald Maclean? Did the allies really plot to assassinate a key member of the German bomb program? Did the physicists knowingly inspire the arms race? The First War of Physics is a grand and frightening story of scientific ambition, intrigue, and genius: a tale barely believable as fiction, which just happens to be historical fact.

©2010 Jim Baggott (P)2013 Audible, Inc.

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Very good account

"First War of Physics" is relatively dry, compared to a writer like Richard Rhodes, and it doesn't add much original research. But it is thorough and well written, and, personally, I find it a virtue that Jim Baggott does present the facts without a great deal of interpretation.

What does Baggott does have to offer is that he's a science writer with a strong background on physics (and one who has written some excellent semi-popular books on the subject). He is much more direct with technical details than someone outside the field would be, which I find a relief. And his perspective brings out human aspects of atom bomb development in a lived in way. Any researcher knows the feeling of going a little feral when working on a problem, of simply being on the hunt, at the risk of ignoring consequences. This was an area in which the consequences were enormous. Fermi worked on the bomb because he felt it was necessary to, but he was dismayed at finding that some physicists (certainly not all) simply wanted to develop a bomb.

Baggott is also very good at discussing the Nazi bomb efforts, Soviet espionage, Allied efforts to destroy German heavy water production, and so on. He brings wonderful clarity to the longstanding puzzle of Heisenberg's involvement.

Quibbles: The first half of the book is tough going, since it's largely a detailed account of how decisions got made. This is unavoidable in any serious history, however. Baggott's view of Stalin is a little naive, though it doesn't affect the book very much.

I confess to preferring British readers for British writers, but Mark Ashby does an excellent job, and he's a good fit for this material (and a much better choice than most other readers of non-fiction). He makes an effort to find out how to pronounce non-English words correctly, which is greatly appreciated. Inevitably when you have to speak words in a language you haven't lived with they won't always come out quite right. For example, Ashby gets the individual sounds of "Malmoe" basically right, but doesn't quite get the intonation pattern. But full points for taking the trouble to learn what Scandinavian languages sound like.

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Well Worth Listening

Even if you're very familiar with the history of atomic weapons, you will probably find this book fills in spaces in your knowledge that you didn't even know you had.

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    5 out of 5 stars

History, science, espionage, great read!

What did you love best about First War of Physics?

Very well written accounts of the events surrounding WWII and the Cold War.

What did you like best about this story?

The story would focus on the minor interactions and activities within the laboratory, then pan out into the political strife that would stir as a result. Leading with well known historic events, then detailing personal stories of the people involved was truly fascinating.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

This book took a very long time to listen through. It was great for my long commutes to work and weekend travels. This sort of read has taught me to value my traffic time, no joke.

Any additional comments?

As expected, this book is more world/political history than science history, but still a very lean mix of the two. I would recommend this book to anyone of any field, professional or academic.

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    4 out of 5 stars

Very enlightening!

This book really shines a bright light on a history that was previously unavailable. Baggot has provided a very concise history of the scientific discoveries that set the stage for the Manhattan Project, and documents American, British German and Russian efforts to harness nuclear power. My background as a nuclear engineer allowed me to easily follow the technical discussion, which might be difficult for the general reader.

The main thrust of the book is to try and understand why the great nuclear arms race started, and to discuss the role of the scientists in this. Baggot has done a good job of presenting the issues and personalities of the participants. He gives a good detailed presentations of why German scientists, despite a significant head start on understanding nuclear fission, were not able to make an atomic bomb, and how the Soviet Union successfully infiltrated the Manhattan Project, getting valuable information that allowed them to avoid technical pit falls.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, and Mark Ashby gave an excellent narration. I gave the story 4 stars largely because, as I sighted above, the technical discussion may be difficult for the general reader.