Rhodes’s Pulitzer-winning book has been having a renaissance among people grappling with the potential destructive force of other new technologies. Writing in The Atlantic, Charlie Warzel called it “a kind of holy text for a certain type of A.I. researcher — namely, the type who believes their creations might have the power to kill us all.”
Long before “Oppenheimer,” a different portrayal of atomic science captured my imagination. “Copenhagen,” a play by Michael Frayn, dramatizes the mysterious 1941 visit by Werner Heisenberg, the German physicist who ran the Nazis’ atomic research program, to the Danish scientist Nils Bohr at his home in Copenhagen.
In the play, Heisenberg, Bohr and Bohr’s wife Margrethe — long after their deaths — argue about the real purpose of Heisenberg’s visit, and whether he was trying to hasten the dawn of the nuclear age or delay it. (I think it works best as a live play, but if you’re looking for streaming options, the BBC did make a television version starring Daniel Craig in 2002 and a radio version starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Simon Russell Beale in 2013.)
From the outside cover, the Aug. 31, 1946, edition of The New Yorker looked like an ordinary summer issue. But inside, readers found that the entire thing was devoted to one single article: “Hiroshima,” by John Hersey. Through the stories of six survivors, Hersey documented in detail the consequences of the bomb for innocent civilians:
“A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition — a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next — that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time, none of them knew anything.”
Reader responses: Books that you recommend
It’s always nice to find moments of connection with Interpreter subscribers, so I was pleased to see that Suzanne Batchelor, a reader in Central Texas, seconded my recommendation of “Hiroshima” by John Hersey:
Thanks to a high school summer reading list, I read Hersey’s straightforward account of the aftermath of the atomic bomb explosion: the horrific injuries, the city’s devastation. His report made it clear this bomb was far more than a new weapon, it was a massive horror that should never be repeated.