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As a young professor at MIT in the 1920s, Vannevar Bush (1890-1974) did seminal work on analog computing and was a cofounder of Raytheon, whose initial success was based on long-lasting radio tubes. But he is best known for his role in Washington during World War II: as President
Roosevelt's advisor, he organized the Manhattan Project and oversaw the work of 6,000 civilian scientists designing new weapons. His 1945 report "Science -- The Endless Frontier" spurred the creation of a system of public support for university research that endures to this day.Although he helped to give rise to the military-industrial complex, Bush was a skeptical observer of the interplay between science and politics. He warned against the dangers of an arms race and led a failed effort to halt testing of the hydrogen bomb. This balanced and gracefully written biography brings to life an American original and his times.
The MIT Press
Zachary relies heavily on Bush's writings as well as on interviews with coworkers and family to construct a portrait of the genius who helped create the military-industrial complex when he served as director of the Office of Scientific research and Development during the war. From Tufts University, where as a student Bush registered his first patent, to Los Alamos and the explosion of the first atomic bomb—a project with which he was intimately involved—Zachary offers a vivid portrait of his subject, warts and all. Given that Bush was arrogantly technocratic (he even questioned whether a postWW II America could still function as a democracy), Zachary wisely takes a coldly objective point of view. This is not to say that Zachary's portrait of Bush dehumanizes the man. Such details as his apparently chronic nightmares as a result of having engineered the carpet bombings of Germany and Japan, his struggles with failing health and loneliness late in life, and his growing belief that the Allies had won the war but lost the peace, are all noted here. Clearly, Zachary sees Bush's defense of Robert Oppenheimer during the McCarthy-era investigation of the Manhattan Project's principal scientist as his most noble moment. Even under the liberal administrations of Kennedy and Johnson, Bush was revered as an American institution but kept at a safe distance from the White House in a not-always- successful attempt to avoid the controversy that inevitably followed the iconoclastic scientist. Of particular interest to today's technocrat will be Zachary's discussion of how Bush's memex and rapid selector inventions prefigured today's Internet.
Bush remains, as this biography demonstrates, a complex, deeply controversial, and profoundly influential figure.