Two substantial biographies shed new light on the scientific breakthroughs that led to nuclear weapons and the massive organizational effort required to get the bombs ready to use in time during World War II. The Italian American physicist Enrico Fermi, one of the greatest scientists of his generation, was the master of the nuclear chain reaction, theorizing how it could come about and then presiding over the construction of the first nuclear reactor, in Chicago in 1942. James Conant was one of the most talented chemists of his generation but, at the age of 40, left the laboratory to become a reform-minded president of Harvard University. Having contributed to the development of chemical weapons during World War I, Conant saw before most others the likelihood of a war with Nazi Germany and recognized the vital part that science would play in it. As head of the National Defense Research Committee, he became the most important figure overseeing the U.S. atomic bomb program. Like Fermi, he was animated by the fear that the Germans would get the bomb first. After the war, both men opposed the progression from fission weapons to massively more destructive thermonuclear ones; both also lamented the humiliation of Robert Oppenheimer, the American scientist who headed the Los Alamos National Laboratory (where the Manhattan Project was mainly carried out) and who was treated cruelly when the U.S. government revoked his security clearance in 1954 over inflated concerns about his loyalty. Fermi returned to science after the war but was cut down by cancer at age 53. Conant became a public figure, regularly on call in Washington, and concluded his career by serving as U.S. ambassador to West Germany.
Of the two biographers, Schwartz has the more difficult task, since Fermi left no diaries or papers. The author is left to piece together Fermi’s story from whatever material he could find and is occasionally forced to speculate. But he does an admirable job of explaining the science and provides careful assessments of Fermi’s influence. Jennet Conant has the advantage of writing about her own grandfather’s very full life without any shortage of primary sources. She delves into Conant’s personal life with great candor, including his marriage to an anxious woman and his strained relations with both his sons. Both books illuminate the human effects of a project that was so urgent yet so terrible in its long-term implications.
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