Nuclear Weapons: What You Need to Know


Nuclear Weapons is a history of nuclear weapons. From their initial theoretical development at the start of the twentieth century to the recent tests in North Korea, the author seeks to, at each point in the narrative, describe the basic science of nuclear weaponry. At the same time, he offers accounts and anecdotes of the personalities involved, many of whom he has known firsthand. Dr. Bernstein writes in response to what he sees as a widespread misunderstanding throughout the media of the basic workings and ...
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Nuclear Weapons is a history of nuclear weapons. From their initial theoretical development at the start of the twentieth century to the recent tests in North Korea, the author seeks to, at each point in the narrative, describe the basic science of nuclear weaponry. At the same time, he offers accounts and anecdotes of the personalities involved, many of whom he has known firsthand. Dr. Bernstein writes in response to what he sees as a widespread misunderstanding throughout the media of the basic workings and potential impact of nuclear weaponry.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"There's no better person to analyze this crucial and fascinating topic. Jeremy Bernstein is a delightful writer and accomplished physicist who worked at Los Alamos as a young scholar and has since written on such subjects as Hitler's nuclear scientists, Einstein, and plutonium. He combines colorful personal tales with wonderfully clear explanations. He's the teacher we all wish we had."
-Walter Isaacson, President of the Aspen Institute and author of Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007)

"Jeremy Bernstein's Nuclear Weapons: What You Need to Know is an important addition to the scientific literature." -David Hafemeister, Physics Today

" important addition to the scientic literature." -David Hafemeister, Physics Today

"Jeremy Bernstein's Nuclear Weapons: What You Need to Know delivers as advertised, arming the reader with sufficent historical and technical background to engage contemporary journalism on nuclear weapons or to begin more in-depth study of the histories of science, the Cold War, and related topics." -Edward H. Jeter, World History Bulletin

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521884082
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 10/31/2007
  • Pages: 312
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.91 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeremy Bernstein is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. He was a staff writer for the New Yorker from 1961 to 1995. He has written some fifty technical papers, three monographs, and twelve books, including Albert Einstein, which was nominated for a National Book Award; Hitler's Uranium Club; a biography of Robert Oppenheimer entitled Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma; and most recently Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element.
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Table of Contents

1. The nucleus; 2. Neutrons; 3. Fissions; 4. Chain reactions; 5. MAUD; 6. Eka-Osmium; 7. Serber's primer; 8. The 'gadget'; 9. Smoky and the need to know; 10. Fusion; 11. Spies; 12. Proliferation.
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First Chapter

Cambridge University Press
978-0-521-88408-2 - Nuclear Weapons - What You Need To Know - by Jeremy Bernstein


Image not available in HTML version

Figure 1. Stanley Kubrick on the set of Dr. Strangelove. Courtesy the estate of Stanley Kubrick.

In the early 1960s i spent parts of a year interviewing Stanley Kubrick for what eventually became a New Yorker profile that was published in December 1966.1 During my interviews he was in the process of making 2001 but, inevitably, we talked about Dr. Strangelove and the general subject of nuclear weapons. The Cuban missile crisis had very recently occurred. Kubrick told me an anecdote that I did not put in the profile. At the time of the crisis he decided that he and his family would move to somewhere he deter-mined would have the least fallout in case Washington or New York was atom-bombed. He decided that Australia would do. Since he did not fly – he thought that the odds against crashing were not small enough – he had booked passage on a boat. He had also ordered 140-odd Boy Scout camp trunks, which he was going to number and load with the family goods. He then discovered that the bathroom of the cabin that he was going to occupy with his wife was to be shared with an adjoining cabin containing people he did not know. He canceled the trip and decided to take his chances with the bomb.

   What struck Kubrick, when we talked a few years after this incident, was how little interest there was among the general public about nuclear weapons. He thought that people had even less interest in them than they did in city government. He attributed this to the fact that, to most people, nuclear weapons are an abstraction. Almost no one had ever seen a nuclear explosion. The United States and Russia had stopped testing aboveground in 1962, so even the professionals who worked on the design of nuclear weapons in these countries no longer actually saw them explode. He said that people seemed to look on the absence of a nuclear conflict as they would money growing in a savings account. The longer there was no nuclear event, the safer we were. The whole premise of Dr. Strangelove was to show just how fragile all of this is.

   The last aboveground test was conducted by the Chinese in 1980. So it has been close to thirty years since anyone has actually seen an atomic explosion. On the one hand we should be grateful and, on the other, concerned because people have so little understanding of what these weapons can do, or how they work. Most people seem to think that we are discussing explosions that are just a somewhat larger version of the car bombs in Baghdad. To put the matter in perspective, the Ryder truck that Timothy McVeigh used on April 17, 1995, to blow up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City contained about five thousand pounds of high explosives. It killed 168 people. The one bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima on August, 6, 1945, had an explosive yield equivalent to about thirty-two million pounds of TNT. By comparison, on March 9 and 10, 1945, 334 B-29 bombers dropped two million pounds of incendiary bombs on Tokyo, killing perhaps 100,000 people. By December 15, 1945, it was estimated that 90,0002 people had died in Hiroshima because of the effects of one atomic bomb. The Oklahoma City bomb partially destroyed one building. The Hiroshima bomb destroyed 90 percent of the infrastructure of the entire city, and totally destroyed everything within a radius of one mile of where the bomb exploded. It may not be generally realized – I will explain more fully later – that this bomb was of a rather primitive design. Its design was considered to be so rudimentary that it had never been tested. The Hiroshima bombing was the test. The design resembled one that a country, or a group, that had acquired the explosive materials but had a limited technology would adopt. The bombs that make up our “portfolio” now typically have the equivalent explosive power of one billion pounds of TNT, and we have tested bombs that are a hundred times more powerful. As I will explain, their design requires a good deal of very sophisticated work. Some of these designs have been stolen and sold. This too I will discuss later.

   For a while I thought that Kubrick might have been too pessimistic. In 1957, the United Nations established the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and, in 1968, a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was drawn up. It was eventually signed by 190 countries. Israel, India, and Pakistan did not sign, and each of them constitutes a special case. For many years Israel maintained the fiction that it did not have nuclear weapons. But in 1985, a Moroccan-born Jew named Mordechai Vanunu, who had been fired from his job working at the plutonium-producing reactor in the Negev, defected and sold his story, with photographs, to the London Sunday Times. He was captured by the Mossad in Rome and, after serving seventeen years in prison, is living under tight security in Israel. We have gotten used to the idea that the Israelis have the bomb, and I doubt that many people in this country are kept up at night worrying about it. In 1974, the Indians tested their first nuclear weapon and, in 1998, the Pakistanis did the same. For a time it looked as if there might be a nuclear war over Kashmir. As horrible as this was to contemplate, considering the teeming cities of both countries and their limited capacity to respond to emergencies, it was to most of us very far away. I think most people in our country naïvely thought of such a nuclear exchange as their problem – they being the Indians and Pakistanis. In January 2003, North Korea withdrew from the non-proliferation treaty. Things began to look as if they were our problem. We had fought a war with North Korea and had troops stationed in the south. Furthermore, North Korea had a missile program that had as its goal the construction of inter-continental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States. It seemed very likely that the North Koreans had made at least some nuclear weapons and, indeed, on October 9, 2006, the North Koreans made an underground test of a low-yield nuclear device. Then there was Iran. Now things were getting uncomfortably close to home. Here was a country whose leaders not only appeared to be implacable enemies of ours, but who were also advocating the destruction of Israel. This was also a country that sponsored terrorism. That these people might build an atomic bomb was for many of us impossible to accept. Indeed, the media became replete with discussions of nuclear weapons. Terms like “fission,” “enrichment,” “centrifuge cascades,” and “uranium isotopes” appeared on a daily basis.

   What struck me about this was the appalling lack of understanding of any of it that manifested itself in most of these reports. One example, among very many, comes to mind. I was listening one Saturday morning to National Public Radio. An “expert” was being interviewed about the Iranian enrichment program. He referred to it as “distilling.” The image came to mind of a large vat in which unenriched uranium was being boiled. The undesirable bits of uranium would emerge as a vapor, leaving behind just what you needed to make a bomb. The interviewer had absolutely no clue as to the total nonsense of this conception. It stood there unchallenged, adding to the growing budget of misinformation. Here is a more recent example. It comes from an article in the December 2006 Atlantic entitled “How to Get a Nuclear Bomb,” written by William Lange-wiesche.3 The article discusses the very important question of how terrorists might obtain nuclear weapons. Mr. Langewiesche who, whatever his virtues, is not a nuclear physicist, feels obligated to explain how a nuclear weapon works. He focuses on the Hiroshima bomb. He attempts to describe a “critical mass.” Here is what he writes: “In relation to its surface area that mass was more than enough to achieve ‘criticality’ and allow for an uncontrollable chain of fission reactions, releasing further neutrons in a blossoming process of self-destruction.” The late Wolfgang Pauli, who was both a great physicist and a scathing critic of nonsense, had a category of physics propositions that he said were not “even” wrong. They were so confused that they were all but devoid of meaning. This sentence is an example.

   After having encountered a number of these it occurred to me that I could perform a service. Whereas I do not regard myself as a professional expert on nuclear weapons as compared to people like Freeman Dyson, Richard Garwin, Carey Sublette, Herbert York, or Pete Zimmerman, I have been interested in the subject for many years. I have taught nuclear physics and spent some time assisting Dyson when he was trying to design a nuclear bomb–powered spaceship. I am also one of the vanishing number of people still around who have actually seen the explosion of an atomic bomb – two, in fact. This occurred in the summer of 1957, when I was an intern at Los Alamos and went to observe two aboveground nuclear tests in Nevada. I will give my impressions of this experience later. In short, I decided to write a kind of nuclear weapons primer that would explain the basics and prepare people both to understand the news and to read the more complete accounts that can be found, for example, on the websites of Carey Sublette.

   Here is how I have set about this task. I first give a history of the basic scientific discoveries, beginning with the discovery of the atomic nucleus just before the First World War and the discovery of the fission of uranium and plutonium just before the Second. I then describe how this science went to war. I also describe how this technology was stolen and the path that led from one country to the next. In the course of this I explain what enrichment is, why it is necessary, how it is done, and what a “critical mass” is. I also describe the hydrogen bomb and its history and how nuclear weapons work. I try to do this with an absolute minimum of technical jargon. I also mix the science with descriptions of the people who did it, something that I have always found fascinating. I hope the reader will be entertained – if this is a word that can be applied to a primer on nuclear weapons – and that, at the end, he or she will come away with a new understanding of the subject.

   Let me make a remark in defense of my attempt to write about a subject about which so much has been written, including the two monumental books by Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, published in 1986,4 and Dark Sun, published in 1995.5 Whereas these books are extraordinary in their canvas, there are things that have been left out or have come to light since their publication. For example, nowhere in the books does Rhodes discuss the very bizarre chemistry of plutonium and the work of Cyril Smith, the British-born metallurgist who discovered how to make a workable alloy that could be used in making a weapon. Since these books were written the Russians have released some extraordinary new material that casts more light on the role of Klaus Fuchs and the hydrogen bomb. All of this is to say that this is a living subject about which the potential for discussion and discovery seems inexhaustible.

© Cambridge University Press
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  • Posted September 5, 2009

    Everything you need to know about nuclear weapon science but were not afraid to ask.

    This is a much better atomic bomb history book that the Rhodes books. It is also up to date. The price of the book is on the expensive side but it is completely worth it. About the only thing that was not detailed was physics behind the rumored change from the classic little boy design to the teardrop design and the details of the rumored Chinese uranium implosion design. Unfortunately this book could be a bomb primer for Dear Leader types.

    I was glad to see credit in the book given to Lise Meitner and Leo Szilard who never received any Nobel recognition for their huge contribution to nuclear fission science.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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