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In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist

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Overview

In the Shadow of the Bomb narrates how two charismatic, exceptionally talented physicists--J. Robert Oppenheimer and Hans A. Bethe--came to terms with the nuclear weapons they helped to create. In 1945, the United States dropped the bomb, and physicists were forced to contemplate disquieting questions about their roles and responsibilities. When the Cold War followed, they were confronted with political demands for their loyalty and McCarthyism's threats to academic freedom. By examining how Oppenheimer and Bethe--two men with similar backgrounds but divergent aspirations and characters--struggled with these moral dilemmas, one of our foremost historians of physics tells the story of modern physics, the development of atomic weapons, and the Cold War.

Oppenheimer and Bethe led parallel lives. Both received liberal educations that emphasized moral as well as intellectual growth. Both were outstanding theoreticians who worked on the atom bomb at Los Alamos. Both advised the government on nuclear issues, and both resisted the development of the hydrogen bomb. Both were, in their youth, sympathetic to liberal causes, and both were later called to defend the United States against Soviet communism and colleagues against anti-Communist crusaders. Finally, both prized scientific community as a salve to the apparent failure of Enlightenment values.

Yet, their responses to the use of the atom bomb, the testing of the hydrogen bomb, and the treachery of domestic politics differed markedly. Bethe, who drew confidence from scientific achievement and integration into the physics community, preserved a deep integrity. By accepting a modest role, he continued to influence policy and contributed to the nuclear test ban treaty of 1963. In contrast, Oppenheimer first embodied a new scientific persona--the scientist who creates knowledge and technology affecting all humanity and boldly addresses their impact--and then could not carry its burden. His desire to retain insider status, combined with his isolation from creative work and collegial scientific community, led him to compromise principles and, ironically, to lose prestige and fall victim to other insiders.

Schweber draws on his vast knowledge of science and its history--in addition to his unique access to the personalities involved--to tell a tale of two men that will enthrall readers interested in science, history, and the lives and minds of great thinkers.

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Editorial Reviews

American Scientist - Gregg Herken
There is merit to Schweber's contrasting portraits of Oppenheimer and Bethe. . . . Trained as a physicist, Schweber is the first biographer to explain the significance of the scientific work that Oppenheimer and Bethe did—a fascinating topic in itself. . . .
The Historian - John M. Staudenmaier
The author of this book studied physics with J. Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe. His remarkably clear account of their rise to intellectual leadership in the 1930's pulses with an insider's love. Mostly, however, S. S. Schweber writes as a historian and philosopher of science, elegantly exploring the morally fractured stories of American physicists transformed by the Cold War.
Technology & Culture - Russell Olwell
In the Shadow of the Bomb is a rare example of a successful hybrid work. . . . Schweber entwines issues of science, technology, ethics, and politics in a relatively seamless manner, bringing in each lens of analysis at the appropriate time. . . . [He] presents a model of how to write respectfully of individuals while portraying them as fallible human beings in a complex cultural, political, intellectual, and scientific context.
Physics Today - Sidney D. Drell
Schweber is to be commended for pulling together, with comprehensive referencing, many of the relevant events in the interlocking sagas of Oppenheimer and Bethe. . . . Bethe is the dominant figure in this volume, and Schweber knows and describes him well.
London Review of Books - Steven Shapin
Silvan Schweber [worries] about the gap between moral ideals and moral realities among scientists who brought the Atomic Age into being and who lived with its postwar consequences. . . . In the Shadow of the Bomb . . .contrasts Bethe's exemplary conduct with Oppenheimer's moral ambiguity.
The Globe and Mail - Nicole Johnston
[A] fascinating account. . . . [It offers] gripping accounts that capture the essence of an era through panoramic detail.
The Guardian Unlimited - PD Smith
Schweber's book . . . offers intriguing insights into the creativity of [Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe] and the shaping of their moral outlooks in the atomic age. How they balanced the ethical equation between uncovering truths about nature and inventing the most terrible weapons of mass destruction makes for fascinating reading.
The Guardian Unlimited - P.D. Smith
Schweber's book . . . offers intriguing insights into the creativity of [Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe] and the shaping of their moral outlooks in the atomic age. How they balanced the ethical equation between uncovering truths about nature and inventing the most terrible weapons of mass destruction makes for fascinating reading.
From the Publisher
"An absorbing investigation of how the two physicists, each formidable in his own way, attempted to shoulder responsibility for their creation."The New Yorker

"There is merit to Schweber's contrasting portraits of Oppenheimer and Bethe. . . . Trained as a physicist, Schweber is the first biographer to explain the significance of the scientific work that Oppenheimer and Bethe did—a fascinating topic in itself. . . ."—Gregg Herken, American Scientist

"The author of this book studied physics with J. Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe. His remarkably clear account of their rise to intellectual leadership in the 1930's pulses with an insider's love. Mostly, however, S. S. Schweber writes as a historian and philosopher of science, elegantly exploring the morally fractured stories of American physicists transformed by the Cold War."—John M. Staudenmaier, The Historian

"In the Shadow of the Bomb is a rare example of a successful hybrid work. . . . Schweber entwines issues of science, technology, ethics, and politics in a relatively seamless manner, bringing in each lens of analysis at the appropriate time. . . . [He] presents a model of how to write respectfully of individuals while portraying them as fallible human beings in a complex cultural, political, intellectual, and scientific context."—Russell Olwell, Technology & Culture

"For a world in which scientific power must be checked by visionary words linked to prudent politics, Schweber has written a book of compelling insight."Booklist

"Schweber is to be commended for pulling together, with comprehensive referencing, many of the relevant events in the interlocking sagas of Oppenheimer and Bethe. . . . Bethe is the dominant figure in this volume, and Schweber knows and describes him well."—Sidney D. Drell, Physics Today

"Silvan Schweber [worries] about the gap between moral ideals and moral realities among scientists who brought the Atomic Age into being and who lived with its postwar consequences. . . . In the Shadow of the Bomb . . .contrasts Bethe's exemplary conduct with Oppenheimer's moral ambiguity."—Steven Shapin, London Review of Books

"[A] fascinating account. . . . [It offers] gripping accounts that capture the essence of an era through panoramic detail."—Nicole Johnston, The Globe and Mail

"[A] book, well footnoted and scholarly, that poses fundamental moral and ethical questions and seeks their answers through examination of the lives of Oppenheimer and Bethe. This is very much a book for current times. . ."Choice

"Schweber's book . . . offers intriguing insights into the creativity of [Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe] and the shaping of their moral outlooks in the atomic age. How they balanced the ethical equation between uncovering truths about nature and inventing the most terrible weapons of mass destruction makes for fascinating reading."—PD Smith, The Guardian Unlimited

American Scientist
There is merit to Schweber's contrasting portraits of Oppenheimer and Bethe. . . . Trained as a physicist, Schweber is the first biographer to explain the significance of the scientific work that Oppenheimer and Bethe did—a fascinating topic in itself. . . .
— Gregg Herken
Technology & Culture
In the Shadow of the Bomb is a rare example of a successful hybrid work. . . . Schweber entwines issues of science, technology, ethics, and politics in a relatively seamless manner, bringing in each lens of analysis at the appropriate time. . . . [He] presents a model of how to write respectfully of individuals while portraying them as fallible human beings in a complex cultural, political, intellectual, and scientific context.
— Russell Olwell
Booklist
For a world in which scientific power must be checked by visionary words linked to prudent politics, Schweber has written a book of compelling insight.
Physics Today
Schweber is to be commended for pulling together, with comprehensive referencing, many of the relevant events in the interlocking sagas of Oppenheimer and Bethe. . . . Bethe is the dominant figure in this volume, and Schweber knows and describes him well.
— Sidney D. Drell
London Review of Books
Silvan Schweber [worries] about the gap between moral ideals and moral realities among scientists who brought the Atomic Age into being and who lived with its postwar consequences. . . . In the Shadow of the Bomb . . .contrasts Bethe's exemplary conduct with Oppenheimer's moral ambiguity.
— Steven Shapin
Choice
[A] book, well footnoted and scholarly, that poses fundamental moral and ethical questions and seeks their answers through examination of the lives of Oppenheimer and Bethe. This is very much a book for current times. . .
The New Yorker
An absorbing investigation of how the two physicists, each formidable in his own way, attempted to shoulder responsibility for their creation.
The Historian
The author of this book studied physics with J. Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe. His remarkably clear account of their rise to intellectual leadership in the 1930's pulses with an insider's love. Mostly, however, S. S. Schweber writes as a historian and philosopher of science, elegantly exploring the morally fractured stories of American physicists transformed by the Cold War.
— John M. Staudenmaier
The Globe and Mail
[A] fascinating account. . . . [It offers] gripping accounts that capture the essence of an era through panoramic detail.
— Nicole Johnston
The Guardian Unlimited
Schweber's book . . . offers intriguing insights into the creativity of [Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe] and the shaping of their moral outlooks in the atomic age. How they balanced the ethical equation between uncovering truths about nature and inventing the most terrible weapons of mass destruction makes for fascinating reading.
— PD Smith
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691127859
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 12/18/2006
  • Series: Princeton Series in Physics Series
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 1,251,337
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 2.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Silvan S. Schweber is Professor Emeritus of Physics and Richard Koret Professor in the History of Ideas at Brandeis University and an Associate in Harvard's Department of the History of Science. He obtained a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Princeton in 1952, and later became a historian of science. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and author of "Introduction to Relativistic Quantum Field Theory" and "QED and the Men Who Made It" (Princeton).
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Read an Excerpt

In the Shadow of the Bomb

Bethe, Oppenheimer, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist
By S. S. Schweber

Princeton University Press

Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-691-12785-9


Chapter One

WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT?

Enlightenment is man's leaving his self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one's intelligence without the guidance of another. Such immaturity is self-caused if it is not caused by lack of intelligence, but by lack of determination and courage to use one's intelligence without being guided by another. Sapere Aude! Have the courage to use your own intelligence! is therefore the [heraldic] motto [Wahlspruch] of the enlightenment. -Immanuel Kant (1949, 132)

In November 1784, the Berlinische Monatschrifte published Kant's response to the question, "What is Enlightenment?" which the magazine had posed earlier that year. Kant's now well-known answer was given in the epigraph above. Some two hundred years later, Michel Foucault took Kant's essay as the point of departure for his reexamination of this same question: Was ist Aufklärung? The importance of Kant's essay for Foucault stemmed from the fact that he saw it as a watershed: "modern" philosophy could be characterized as the philosophy that is attempting to answer the same question as the Berlinische Monatschrifte had raised. Foucault suggested that forKant the importance of his "little text" derived from the fact that it gave him the opportunity to assess the contemporary status of both his own philosophic enterprise and his reflections on history, and to examine how these two activities intersected. And by looking at Kant's essay in this way, Foucault proposed to connect Kant's Aufklärung, the leaving of immaturity, with what he called the "attitude of modernity" with its consciousness of contemporaneity, "a modernity which sees itself condemned to creating its self-awareness and its norms out of itself." Creating the norms that were to guide them as moral agents in and out of the new world they had helped create were central problems Bethe and Oppenheimer addressed after the war; and they addressed them as children of the Enlightenment.

This chapter draws on Foucault's incisive article, so it may be helpful to summarize it briefly. Foucault stressed that Kant had defined immaturity. The first is that the realm of obedience and the realm of reason must be clearly distinguished. Humanity will reach maturity when it is no longer required to obey any authority that demands "Don't think, just follow orders" and when men are told, "Obey, and you will be able to reason as you like." But Kant distinguished between the public and the private uses of reason: "Reason must be free in its public use, and must be submissive in its private use. Which is ... the opposite of what is ordinarily called freedom of conscience." Man makes private use of reason when he is "a cog in a machine," that is, when he has a role to play in society and jobs to do. To be a soldier, to have taxes to pay, to be a civil servant were the examples that Kant had given. Under those circumstances, man finds himself placed in a circumscribed situation, where he has to apply particular rules and pursue particular ends. In these situations his reason must be subjected to the particular ends in view, so that there cannot be any free use of reason. But when one is reasoning only to use one's reason, when one is reasoning as a reasonable human being as a member of reasonable humanity (which is the meaning of the German word räsonieren as Kant used it), then the use of reason must be free and public. "There is Enlightenment when the universal, the free and the public uses of freedom are superimposed on one another." Enlightenment must thus not be conceived simply as a general process affecting all humanity, nor as an obligation prescribed to individuals. It also poses a political problem: How can the use of reason take the public form that it requires? How can Sapere Aude! be exercised publicly, while individuals are obeying scrupulously privately? (This, incidentally, was precisely the problem Bethe and Oppenheimer faced in connection with the H-bomb!) The solution for Kant was to propose a sort of contract to Frederick II-the contract of rational despotism with free reason: "The public and free use of autonomous reason will be the best guarantee of obedience, on condition, however, that the political principle that must be obeyed itself be in conformity with universal reason."

At this point Foucault left Kant's "brief article" and turned to its connection to Kant's three Critiques and to the linkage of Aufklärung to modernity. Foucault conceived modernity as an "attitude," "a mode of relating to contemporary reality; a voluntary choice made by certain people; in the end, a way of thinking and feeling; a way, too, of acting and behaving that at one and the same time marks a relation of belonging and presents itself as a task. A bit, no doubt, like what the Greeks called an ethos." By stressing choices and behavior, Foucault again made clear that the task at hand was principally a moral one.

To make his conception of modernity more concise, Foucault pointed to its characterization as a consciousness of the discontinuity of time: "a break with tradition, a feeling of novelty, or vertigo in the face of the passing moment," and he quoted Baudelaire's definition of modernity: "the ephemeral, the fleeting, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable." Foucault commented that, for Baudelaire,

being modern does not lie in accepting this perpetual movement; on the contrary, it lies in adopting a certain attitude with respect to this movement; and this deliberate, difficult attitude consists in recapturing something eternal that is not beyond the present instant, nor behind it, but within it ..; modernity is the attitude that makes it possible to grasp the "heroic" aspect of the present moment. Modernity is not a phenomenon of sensitivity to the fleeting present; it is the will to "heroize" the present.

For Baudelaire, modernity was a mode of relationship that has to be established with oneself. Modern man dedicates himself to asceticism and commits himself to a discipline whereby he does not go off to discover himself, but instead tries to invent himself. "Modernity does not 'liberate man in his own being'; it compels him to face the task of producing himself ... But Baudelaire did not imagine that this heroization of the present and ascetic elaboration of the self had any place in society itself, or in the body politic. They can only be produced in another, a different place, which Baudelaire calls art."

Toward the end of his article, Foucault stressed that it was not important whether he had summarized successfully the complex historical event that was the Enlightenment, or depicted effectively the attitude of modernity in the various guises it may have taken during the last two centuries. Nor is it important for me whether his exposition and interpretation of the Kantian canon meet the approval of Kant scholars. I find attractive his suggestion that the thread that may connect us with the Enlightenment is not a faithfulness to doctrinal elements, but rather a permanent reactivation of an attitude-that is, of a philosophical ethos that could be described as a permanent critique of our historical era whose aim "will be oriented toward the 'contemporary limits of the necessary,' that is, toward what is not or no longer indispensable for the constitution of ourselves as autonomous subjects." And here Foucault clearly rejected Kant's claims of essentialistic a priori limitations intrinsic to our very constitution as thinking and willing subjects and Kant's view of ethics as fixed and transcendent in some way.

In concluding his article, Foucault indicated that what is at stake stake are the answers to the following question: "How can the growth of the capabilities of individuals with respect to one another be severed from the intensifications of power relations that are conveyed by various technologies (for example, institutions whose goal is social regulation, or productions with economic aims, or techniques of communication)." To answer the question would lead to the study of what Foucault called "practical systems," by which he meant

what [people] do and the way they do it. That is, the form of rationality that organizes their ways of doing things (this might be called the technological aspect) and the freedom with which they act within these practical systems, reacting to what others do, modifying the rules of the game, up to a certain point [The study of these practical systems] will have to address the questions systematized as follows: How are we constituted as subjects of our own knowledge? How are we constituted as subjects who exercise or submit to power relations?

How are we constituted as moral subjects of our own actions?

This is Foucault's translation of Kant's famous threefold question: What can I know? What should I will? and, What may I reasonably hope for? And the central question is a moral one.

Rejecting Kant's universalistic response, Foucault believes the legacy of Kant's reflection is that Aufklärung has to be considered not "as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them." I would like to suggest that it is in this Foucaultian sense that both Bethe and Oppenheimer are children of the Enlightenment. Both had been raised on Kant's universalist maxims on morality-Bethe in the Gymnasium, Oppenheimer in the Ethical Culture School where Felix Adler's emendation of them were guiding tenets. Both Bethe and Oppenheimer had sought certain universal values. Both became very much concerned with the self-shaping, volitional aspect of ethical conduct; both came to include contextual factors and culture-specific values and motives in making sense of themselves as moral agents. Thus, in a lecture delivered at the University of North Carolina in 1960, Oppenheimer asserted: "It was one thing to say, along the banks of the Sea of Galilee, 'Love thy neighbor.' It is a different thing to say it in today's world. Not that it is less 'true'; but it has a different meaning in terms of practice and in terms of what men can manage."

Oppenheimer could be called a relativist, for he was not sure that one could recognize a detached or valid perspective from which to judge the morality of other societies. In a letter in 1951 to George Kennan, who found it dificult to understand his sense of morality, Oppenheimer explained:

It is not in our judgment of ourselves or our own actions that I would reject moralism: it is rather in our attitude toward the behavior of other peoples. What I question is our ability to put ourselves, as a nation, in the place of these other peoples and decide what is right or wrong in the light of their standards and traditions, as they see them, or even in the eyes of the Almighty. I regard the behavior of other societies as something the morality of which I would prefer not to have to determine. I think it is our business to study that behavior attentively, to measure the intensity of the emotional forces behind it, and to take careful account of the potency of its influence on international affairs; but I feel we would do better not to attempt to classify it as "right" or "wrong", praiseworthy or reprehensible. We Americans have enough, it seems to me, with our consciences and with the necessity, now upon us, to reconcile an individualistic tradition with the centralizing pressures of advanced technology. It is for this that we are accountable as a body politic, not for the decisions and solutions arrived by others. Let us conduct our policies in such a way that they are in keeping with our own character and tradition. This means, of course, that the moral element, as we feel it, must be present.

Both men came to lead a life of personal inquiry in which the examination of who and what they were was at the same time an analysis of the limits that were imposed on them and an experiment to determine the possibility of going beyond them.

Both Bethe and Oppenheimer were conscious of the strong, moral influence of the social dimension of their scientific activities. They staunchly believed that, as scientists engaged in fundamental physics, they had assumed a privileged role-and a special responsibility-as members of a community can be described as committed to the Peircian vision; that is, a community committed to rationality-but not instrumental rationality-for which communication inheres in its very being, whose members believe in a basic ontology of the world and affirm that it is possible to decipher and ascribe order to the physical universe.

On Foucault's analysis, Bethe has remained more Kantian than Oppenheimer: intellectual and moral maturity is still to be achieved through the exercise of criticism in its various modes, but the a priori has become historicized. Bethe's world is still premised on Enlightenment ideas of knowledge, reason, truth, progress, and he harbors strong hopes of universality for them.

Oppenheimer was more "modern" than Bethe, if we interpret being "modern" as referring to sensibility and style. Throughout his life, Oppenheimer was always sensitive to and conscious of style. Modern literature, as a sign of its modernity, at times makes itself exacting. Similarly, Oppenheimer, at times almost willfully, made himself dificult. He also resonated with modernism's "sympathy for the abyss." Irving Howe noted that

[modernist culture] strips man of his system of beliefs and his ideal claims, and then proposes the one uniquely modern style of salvation: a salvation by, of, and for the self. In the modernist culture, the object perceived seems always on the verge of being swallowed up by the perceiving agent, and the act of perception in danger of being exalted to the substance of reality. I see, therefore I am.

The seeing extends to the mind's eye. I see, therefore I am is applicable to Oppenheimer, with an emphasis on both I, that is, the self, and on see, that is, on comprehending and grasping. For much of his life, I am did follow from the I see thus understood. Oppenheimer also fits being characterized as "modern" if we accept that what distinguishes modern sensibility from earlier sensibilities is that the modern thrives on moral problems and the former on metaphysical problems. Moral problems were always at the center of Oppenheimer's concerns-a legacy of his Jewish and Ethical Culture background.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from In the Shadow of the Bomb by S. S. Schweber Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface ix
Acknowledgments xvii
INTRODUCTION 3
1. WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT? 28
2. J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER 42
Oppenheimer and the Ethical Culture Movement 42
The Agenda of the Ethical Culture Society 46
The Teaching of Ethics at the School 50
The Maturation of Oppenheimer 53
Becoming a Physicist: Oppenheimer and His School 61
3. HANS BETHE 76
Becoming a Bildungstrager 76
Becoming a Physicist: Arnold Sommerfeld 87
Wholeness and Stability 91
Los Alamos 104
Bethe and Oppenheimer: Their Entanglement 107
4.THE CHALLENGE OF McCARTHYISM 115
The Bernard Peters Case 115
The Philip Morrison Case 130
Some Concluding Comments 146
5.NUCLEAR WEAPONS 149
Atomic Bombs 149
Hydrogen Bombs 156
PSAC and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty 168
6.ON SCIENCE AND SOCIETY 178
EPILOGUE 183
Notes to the Chapters 187
Bibliography 239
Index 257

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