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Posted May 28, 2005
Ethics and science.
Don't get distracted by the title! When I noticed it while browsing in the book store in an airport, I was at first worried that this would another one of these overly opinionated books, more interested in imposing a view on me the poor reader than in good writing, and in letting me make up my own mind. I started reading in the plane, and was pleased to find that the author manages to paint a captivating portrait of a group of German scientists who were faced with a Faustian choice; Fritz Haber (poison gas), Werner von Braun (rockets), Werner Heisenberg (atomic bomb), Otto Hahn (fission), Max von Laue (nuclear physics) to mention only a few. For the most part, the book reads like a novel, and with his superb writing, the author Cornwell brings the characters to life. Many of the German scientists in the 1930ties were Jewish, or partly Jewish, and they were dismissed by Hitler in 1933, or the years up to the war. Many of them emigrated, and others ended up in concentration camps. Some ( Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, Hans Bethe, and more) went to the USA, and became the core of the team, the Manhattan Project who built the first atomic bomb, the one used by the US government against Japan in 1945. The bigger picture in Cornwell's book is the role of ethics in science. By weaving together the individuals, their thoughts, their ambitions, and their flawed judgments, Cornwell is not excusing anyone, but rather, he is helping us understand that we all must take responsibility for our actions. We can perhaps understand how present day scientists, and in fact all of us are faced with Faustian choices of our own. I liked this one of Cornwell's books a lot better than his perhaps better known one, `Hitler's Pope'. It had me hooked from the start, and I couldn't put it down. Cornwell is not just relying on old historical sources. Since Michael Frayn's play `Copenhagen' a few years ago about the meeting in Copenhagen in the fall of 1941 between Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, new documents have been made available from Bohr's archives which help us understand Heisenberg's motives better. Cornwell displays a remarkable judgment in making use of them My reading of Heisenberg: If you accept a dinner invitation with the Devil, it is best to eat with a tea spoon. While Heisenberg, a humanist at heart may have understood this, at least initially, he soon found himself, perhaps as a result of blind ambition, eating at the trough with both hands deep into the stew, all the way up to his elbows. It is perhaps ironic that the theme of the Faustian choice has a prominent place in German literature, from the medieval 'Faustus' tale to Goethe, Weber's Freischuetz, to Martin Luther's Protestantism, and to Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus (Mann's moral despair over his country's complacent embrace of Nazism). In fact the theme of Cornwell's novel is universal, and it is as timely now as it was 60 years ago, and even 300 years ago. Review by Palle Jorgensen, May 2005.
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Posted March 24, 2009
At first I thought this was going to be another very prejudiced war book. With the cover of the book looking like something out of a horror movie and the title having a reference to a pact with the devil, this book looked like a very one sided argument. The first few pages were very dry and pretty boring, but as you get into it you get sucked in. I think it's more of a fact book, written as a story. It's engaging and talks about not only the American side, but of the trials the scientists had to endure. It would be a great book to read because of its unbiased position. Throughout the book it talks about the hardships the scientists had to face. Most of them didn't volunteer, and were simply told that if they didn't work for the Nazis, then they would be killed. I loved the details and the truth of it, and didn't really have any complaints other than how long this book was. Overall I would give it 8.3 out of 10.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 20, 2009
This was the kind of book that you had to read it like you were watching a documentary. Personally it took me awhile to get through it. Good for cold and dreary days. I am pleased to have it in my library. There was plenty to learn from this book.
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