Churchill’s Bomb, by Graham Farmelo

How Britain lost its leadership in nuclear physics

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Churchill’s Bomb: A Hidden History of Science, War and Politics, by Graham Farmelo, Faber and Faber, RRP£25/Basic Books, RRP$29.99, 554 pages

In 1931 Winston Churchill wrote a spirited article about the impact of science for The Strand Magazine, entitled “Fifty Years Hence”. Among other prescient observations, he predicted that recent advances in nuclear physics would lead to weapons of unimaginable power: “There is no question among scientists that this gigantic source of energy exists. What is lacking is the match to set the bonfire alight, or it may be the detonator to cause the dynamite to explode.”

By the 1930s, Churchill already knew quite a lot about quantum theory. It had been the topic of a number of conversations and written exchanges with physicist Frederick Lindemann (later head of the Clarendon Laboratory in Oxford and scientific adviser to Churchill as prime minister). As for scenarios involving “atomic bombs” capable of destruction beyond anything seen hitherto, Churchill had taken those on board from another friend’s writing – HG Wells’s 1914 novel The World Set Free.

In fact, as Graham Farmelo makes clear in Churchill’s Bomb, no other national leader in the second world war had as much knowledge and understanding of modern physics in general, and the bomb in particular. As Churchill put it himself in a speech to the House of Commons in 1955: “I do not pretend to be an expert or to have technical knowledge of this prodigious sphere of nuclear science. But I have tried to follow and even predict the evolution of events.”

So how, under Churchill’s leadership, did Britain, which at the outbreak of war was a world leader in nuclear physics, come to lose its advantage and emerge at the end as second fiddle to the US, forced to play catch-up to acquire its own nuclear deterrent during the cold war?

To answer the question, Farmelo assembles a glittering cast of scientists, politicians and military men – Leó Szilárd, Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls; Wallace Akers, Henry Tizard and Patrick Blackett; J Robert Oppenheimer, Mark Oliphant, James Chadwick and John Anderson; General Leslie Groves and Lindemann. The result is a story as gripping as it is elegantly argued and precise.

In October 1941, for example, when President Franklin D Roosevelt proposed a joint US-UK initiative to develop an atomic bomb, Churchill simply failed to respond, thereby missing a not-to-be-repeated opportunity. He may have believed that British progress with its own bomb development – the project codenamed “Tube Alloys” – was sufficiently promising that collaboration was not needed. He may have been misinformed about the Americans’ progress. He may simply have been distracted by other, more immediate decisions pressed upon him in his capacity as wartime commander-in-chief.

Farmelo, the author of a prizewinning biography of physicist Paul Dirac entitled The Strangest Man (2009), is far too subtle a historian to allocate blame. Instead, he shows the process without pressing interpretations on us. It is a story of purposeful behaviour on the part of each actor, advanced or thwarted by the twists and turns of events.

Churchill’s Bomb is also a narrative that makes a wonderful companion piece to one of the most authoritative books on this subject, Richard Rhodes’s epic The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1987). Whereas Rhodes traces a story in which all the strands are neatly interwoven, Farmelo tracks the collisions and misunderstandings that constantly impeded “progress”.

Two weeks after the dropping of the atomic bombs that ended the war with Japan, Britain’s prime minister, Clement Attlee, circulated a top-secret memorandum to an inner circle of ministers. In it he issued a bleak warning that the genie of nuclear weapons could not be put back into the bottle: “The only course which seems to me to be feasible and to offer a reasonable hope of staving off imminent disaster for the world is joint action by the USA, UK and Russia based upon stark reality. We should declare that this invention has made it essential to end wars. The New World Order must start now.”

But already, the achievements of Britain’s Tube Alloys project were being talked down, while Stalin’s scientists were making progress towards the 1949 tests that would make the Soviet Union the second nation to detonate a nuclear device. The rest, as they say, is history.

Lisa Jardine is professor of Renaissance Studies and director of the Centre for Humanities Interdisciplinary Research Projects at University College London

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