Fallout: Conspiracy, Cover-Up, and the Deceitful Case for the Atom Bomb by Peter Watson | Book Review

I was an engineering student without much of a scientific background unless you count being accidentally shocked as a child when I touched my tongue to a battery terminal to “see whether it still has power”. My undergrad and graduate college years were spent poring through every science book I could find, trying to catch up by learning the curriculum as well as all the extra-curricular stuff I could. I read biographies about scientists and wrote articles about what I learned. Working in the field wasn’t nearly as exciting as reading about it and after college, I took a break from the world of science and research. But Peter Watson’s new exploration of the project to construct the world’s first atomic bomb, and the compilation of biographies of the scientists involved in the discovery and construction of one of the most explosive devices ever built, has brought me all back to the fervent desire I had to learn not just about how science works but the impact it has on our daily lives.
Fallout is subtitled Conspiracy, Cover-Up, and the Deceitful Case for the Atom Bomb and Watson gets right into the coverup, citing Albert Einstein’s famous realization that matter and energy are essentially different aspects of the same phenomenon, and within a generation after his 1905 publication, his colleagues were working to harness that energy to make explosive matter to decimate cities and kill civilians. The author spends a fair amount of time exploring the science behind the discovery but ultimately also shows the conflict of interest faced by scientists, many of them persecuted Jews, proving their loyalty to the countries that offered them exile, by building powerful weapons without much say on what they would be used to do.

Watson compiles personal stories from some of the key players including Nobel Prize winning Physicist Neils Bohr and his son Agage who entered the US with British passports naming them as Nicolas and James Baker so their nuclear fission research could remain under the radar – Bohr won the prize in 1922 for explaining how electrons were arranged around an atom’s nucleus.  Bohr was Danish but had visited Germany to recruit scientists just after Hitler’s rise to power. He was responsible for helping Otto Frisch and his aunt Lise Meitner, both Austrian Jewish scientists, escape Germany and essentially the holocaust. Over a Christmas holiday, Lise and her nephew were instrumental in calculating how a uranium isotope acquires neutrons and become radioactive. Neils Bohr and his family assisted the Italian Physicist Enrico Fermi and his family immigrate to the US. Fermi had studied beta decay which is how an element can acquire protons that essentially changes its chemical identity so it becomes a new element. This was important in  understanding how uranium isotopes can decay to form plutonium and again to form radium (first studied by Marie and Pierre Curie, but in the early 1900s, this knowledge ignited the incredibly explosive bomb.

While Fallout does include a lot of science and non-science nerds might not be as interested in what physicists do on their vacation and what they talk about when they go to cocktail parties, I found this a thrilling book.  If you have even a basic understanding of chemistry, you will have no problem navigating through the footnotes of the text and the conspiratorial tone that Watson adopts when highlighting the dual interests of many of his subjects, make it ideal for those interested in American history in whatever form.

I recommend you buy this book for the science nerd in your life, even if that geeky book-lover is you!

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