Monday, August 20, 2012

Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb (Review)

On July 16, 1945, a fireball 600 feet wide exploded in the sky above a top-secret site in New Mexico bearing the code-name Trinity. Years later, the chief architect behind the experiment recalled, "We knew the world would not be the same."

In "Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb" (Hill and Wang, 2012), Jonathan Fetter-Vorm has written and illustrated in vivid detail the race to build, test, and drop the first atomic bombs.

The effort began in 1939, with the discovery that subatomic particles called neutrons could be used to break uranium atoms into pieces, a process called nuclear fission. Scientists around the world soon realized that nuclear fission, which releases seventy million times more energy than a chemical reaction, could be used to create an enormously powerful bomb.

American scientists--many of whom came from Europe--were concerned that the Nazis might be developing an atomic bomb. They convinced Roosevelt that it was essential for the U.S. to build the weapon before Hitler did so. The U.S. resolve to build the bomb--one of the most expensive undertakings that humans had ever attempted--was solidified when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. The man they recruited to lead the effort, which came to be known as the Manhattan Project, was a brilliant physicist named J. Robert Oppenheimer. For many, he would become the face of the atomic age, even as he came to have grave doubts about developing nuclear weapons.

Fetter-Vorm's explanations and illustrations of the fundamental science of nuclear reactions and the making of the bomb are among the clearest I have ever read. The historical details are equally compelling, and Fetter-Vorm does not flinch from the political and moral consequences of the atomic bomb that have shaped our lives even to this day.

Readers who want to dig a little deeper into the history of physics will enjoy another graphic book, "Feynman" (First Second Books, 2011), written by Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by Leland Myrick. This biography captures the colorful life and scientific achievements of Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman, who also worked on the Manhattan Project.

The science in "Feynman" can be a challenge for some readers, but Ottaviani and Myrick manage to channel Feynman's gift for explaining difficult concepts to non-scientists. And it is no challenge at all to appreciate Feynman as the wise-cracking, safe-cracking, bongo playing genius who lived life to its fullest.

This review originally appeared in the Sunday, August 19, 2012 edition of The News-Gazette.