History of science

Book Review: The Making of the Atomic Bomb

The Making of the Atomic Bomb
by Richard Rhodes
Simon & Schuster, 1986.

Five years in the writing, Richard Rhodes' history of the atomic bomb has become a landmark in the field of science popularization. At over 900 pages long, the book is very comprehensive in its recounting of the events that led to the most terrible weapon ever devised by man. It is really several different books in one, shifting in tone and emphasis as it follows the concept from start to finish: from scientific discovery to military-industrial project to the study of political decision-making in war.

Scientific discovery

The first third of the book is largely an account of scientific discovery, as experimenters worked to uncover the structure of the atom at the turn of the 20th century. Even in this foundational period, it was easy to see that nuclear bombardment involved energies that were orders of magnitude greater than the chemical reactions already familiar to science. It was natural to speculate about how to unlock those energies someday, and thus the dream of nuclear energy developed right alongside the earliest experiments. Frederick Soddy described the possibility of nuclear energy in his book The Interpretation of Radium (1909), based on his work alongside Ernst Rutherford. H. G. Wells then picked up on the idea in his famous novel The World Set Free (1914).

But the early nuclear bombardments could only play with atomic forces at a small scale. With the discovery of nuclear fission, it became obvious that a chain reaction was possible and could be used to multiply the energies released. But it would not be worked out in a time of peace on earth and brotherhood among men. With the expulsion of Jewish academics from German universities and the looming onset of World War II, the leading lights of atomic science left Europe for America. In just a few years, the center of gravity in the physics world had shifted across the Atlantic.


Book Review: The Emperor of All Maladies

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Scribner, 2010.

In The Emperor of All Maladies, oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee has written what surely will be the definitive popular history of cancer medicine. The author credits Richard Rhodes’ monumental account of the Manhattan Project, The Making of the Atomic Bomb [read my review], for inspiring the writing of this book. In subject matter, though, this book is more along the lines of Horace Judson’s The Eighth Day of Creation. Indeed, the history of cancer is also the history of medicine. As other human diseases were conquered by vaccination (18th century), antisepsis (19th century), and modern pharmaceuticals (20th century), cancer remained resistant to the primitive onslaughts of early medicine. The ancients knew just enough about cancer to pronounce it incurable, and only recently have we discovered enough about cancer biology to mount a direct attack against it.


Dr. Mukherjee has written a remarkable book about a remarkable disease. One may quibble with the philosophical direction that the book takes, but the magnitude of his narrative achievement is undeniable. He has managed to capture the excitement of scientific discovery alongside the clash of medical egos, tracking the progress of human understanding of this most difficult of diseases. At times, the chronological narrative bogs down a bit in the mass of details and clash of competing models. But for the most part, the author produces some of the clearest and most vivid popular scientific writing that I’ve read.

The story of cancer is the story of a disease that has altered our expectations of medicine, frustrated our technological skills, and challenged our brightest minds. Our successes have been hard-won, and our failures have turned out to be paradigm-changing. That is why cancer is, truly, the emperor of all maladies.

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