Bomb: the Race to Build – and Steal – the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steve Sheinkin
This book is shelved in our Teen department and the book on CD is in our Children’s department (there are downloadable and Playaway versions too), but don’t let that deter you – it’s a great book for adults who enjoy science, spies, history, and of course, explosions. It’s chock full of fun facts.
- Once, while on a date, Robert Oppenheimer wandered off to think about physics and left his companion behind (page 8).
- A super-polite team of Norwegian resistance fighters sent to destroy a German heavy water plant delayed their mission long enough for one of the plant’s workers (a fellow Norwegian) to find his glasses (page 85).
- Santa Fe’s drugstore owners found so many lost scientists wandering their streets that they eventually started calling the local Los Alamos office for advice (page 93).
- Chemist Donald Horning spent the night before the Trinity test babysitting the bomb. He sat beside it in a metal shack atop a wooden tower, with a paperback book and a 60-watt bulb to get him through the night (page 176).
- American-born Soviet spy Lona Cohen smuggled the plans for the atomic bomb out of New Mexico by cramming them into the bottom of a box of tissues. At one point an FBI agent held the box for her as she looked for her train ticket – he passed it back to her just as her train left the station (page 211).
The spy stuff in particular is really neat, mainly because it seems so low-tech today. Who knew that you could confirm your contact’s identity by matching up the torn cardboard flaps of a Jello box? Well, now you do.
This book unfolds in the popular dramatic nonfiction style of “let’s bounce back and forth between an exciting crisis (the Damascus Accident) and the somewhat less exciting history of our subject (nuclear weapons).” It’s available in multiple formats, though the print version does have a very handy diagram of a Titan II silo on its endpapers. Here are some more fun facts for you.
- A dropped socket (the cause of the 1980 Damascus Accident) can put a hole in the fuel tank of a Titan II missile. Oops (page 7).
- In 1961, a B-52 bomber carrying two hydrogen bombs crashed in North Carolina. Neither bomb detonated – one was found in a tree, and the other, which landed in a swamp, was never found at all (page 246).
- In the late 1970s the United States placed both real and fake MX missiles on 200 foot long trucks and drove them constantly between concrete bunkers to keep the Soviet Union from finding them (page 364).
- In 1980, a faulty computer chip almost caused WWIII by putting twos in the wrong places in test messages – so instead of zero incoming missiles, there were suddenly 2,200. Cost to replace the chip? Forty-six cents (page 368).
- In 1983, a Soviet early warning system detected five incoming Minuteman missiles. The commander on duty, puzzled by the small number (who starts a war with five missiles?), decided that it was a false alarm (whew). The “launches” were later revealed to be rays of sunlight reflected off nearby clouds (page 447).
And that’s just a few of the more memorable incidents listed in this book – it’s packed with countless fires, plane crashes, computer malfunctions, safety shortcomings, and just plain bad ideas. It’s honestly a wonder that any of us made it through the Cold War.
– Amy, whose elementary school was built on the site of a former Nike antiaircraft missile base, and who played on the silo covers at recess