Scientists who met madness with reason

Doomsday Men
July 20, 2007

Stanley Kubrick should have sought copyright on the Dr Strangelove name when he directed his 1964 film. That, at least, might have stopped cynical publishers from cashing in on that evocative moniker. P. D. Smith's Doomsday Men is perhaps the most cynical of the lot, given that he never quite manages to identify who the "real Dr Strangelove" actually is.

A number of possibilities are presented. The physicists Robert Oppenheimer and Leo Szilard figure prominently on the jacket, but, given their eventual disillusionment with nuclear weaponry, they hardly fit the bill. Other candidates are discussed inside, with Edward Teller and John von Neumann looming large.

By the end of the book, however, the mystery remains unsolved. Smith never explains the conundrum raised by the title's plurality and the subtitle's singularity.

In truth, Kubrick's character is too superficial and ridiculous to shed light on the complex individuals who made the Bomb. Since these men were not mad scientists, it is misleading to portray them as such.

Teller built devastating weapons, but also advocated world government. Oppenheimer felt ambition and guilt. Szilard, a pacifist, was the driving force behind the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. The terrible beauty of the bomb story lies in the baffling complexity of these men. That complexity is sorely lacking from this book.

Doomsday Men is supposed to be about the cobalt bomb, the much-fantasised doomsday device, which, by showering the world with deadly radioactive particles, would bring an end to life on earth.

The idea was first mooted in a radio broadcast by Szilard in 1950, and, for 15 years thereafter, provided inspiration for science-fiction writers and mild concern for everyone else.

The cobalt bomb would make a good subject for a short article in a historical magazine or scholarly journal. Smith manages to stretch the story to more than 500 pages, mainly by starting with the splitting of the atom and retracing the development of the atom bomb. As a history of the bomb, however, it adds nothing to the excellent accounts already in print.

Smith's research is impressive, but his new material provides mere detail, not insight. He bombards the reader with evidence of bizarre behaviour, to the extent that he frequently loses control of the narrative. Like a crazed bumblebee, he moves erratically from subject to subject, era to era. Perhaps as a result, he fails to notice how often he repeats himself. Good points grow tiresome on second and third repetition.

Doomsday Men reveals the danger of trying to tell the story of the Bomb from the vantage point of the US. Smith's mad scientists seem insane villains precisely because they are presented in isolation, dangerously detached from reality. He fails utterly to explain how the weapons developed and strategies proposed were reactions to genuine threats - first from the Germans and then from the Soviets. When the Danish physicist Niels Bohr first visited Los Alamos in 1943, he asked Oppenheimer: "Is it big enough?" Although he hated the Bomb, he still wanted one big enough to vaporise war itself.

At various times, Szilard, Teller, Oppenheimer and the German Werner Heisenberg dreamed of a weapon so devastating that it would make war impossible. The Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov had the same idea: he developed the biggest hydrogen bomb ever exploded in order to alert the world to the illogicality of war.

These aims might have been naive, at times even dangerous. But it seems simplistic to dismiss them as the fantasies of mad scientists and real-life Strangeloves. The atomic physicists, contrary to what Smith suggests, were fully aware of the implications of their actions.

They understood something that Smith fails to comprehend - namely that, after 1945, the world faced two inevitabilities: war and nuclear technology. War could not be miraculously made to disappear, and the bomb could not be uninvented. The physicists, recognising inevitability, desperately sought ways to prevent two calamities from coming together.

Doomsday Men is a book about something that does not exist. The cobalt bomb, it seems, was never developed. Therein lies the point: reason prevailed. Given that there has not been a nuclear war, the striking feature of the atomic age seems its rationality, not its madness.

As Smith fails to appreciate, terrible weapons forced emotion to give way to reason.

Gerard DeGroot is professor of modern history at St Andrews University.

Doomsday Men: The Real Dr Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon

Author - P. D. Smith
Publisher - Allen Lane
Pages - 553
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 9780713998153

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