The Lunar Society
Richard Rhodes - Making of Atomic Bomb, AI, WW2, Oppenheimer, & Abolishing Nukes
Tue May 23 2023
The Development of the Atomic Bomb
- The development of the atomic bomb may have been inevitable even without World War II due to the discovery of nuclear fission in Nazi Germany.
- Physicists realized that a small amount of energy could lead to a massive response through nuclear fusion, which led to the development of the bomb.
- Scientists did not have to invent anything new to discover nuclear fission, and Niels Bohr had the right model for understanding the uranium atom.
- The nucleus of an atom is like a wobbly balloon of water held together by strong force and electrical charge, and when a neutron falls into the nucleus, it sets it to wobbling around and may take a dumbbell configuration, resulting in two separate nuclei releasing energy.
- The physics behind the atomic bomb was pretty obvious, but whether it would actually happen depended on other factors.
The Making of the Atomic Bomb
- Building a factory to pull natural metal wouldn't cost more than building a battleship.
- Every country with the technological infrastructure started working on nuclear weapons as soon as nuclear fusion was announced to the world.
- The Germans had miscalculated the critical mass needed for a bomb.
- Different countries found out about the American's work on the bomb in different ways, such as noticing top scientists going offline.
- Many scientists wanted to work on the bomb because they were worried about Hitler getting it first.
The Manhattan Project
- The Los Alamos team did not see any reason to hide or protect themselves, which led to many people being killed.
- The bomb was designed to be as much like ordinary bombing as possible, with the goal of starting mass fires.
- Hiroshima and Nagasaki were set aside from the target list because General Groves wanted to study the damage effects of the atomic bomb.
- The military calculated that a high-level nuclear explosion can be created with two subcritical pieces of uranium, and secret designs are not necessary.
- The second bomb tested by the US was a new design with twice the yield and half the weight of the first bomb.
Nuclear Weapons and Global Security
- Nuclear weapons continue to pose a threat to global security.
- The scale of weaponry was the missing piece for the Air Force, which pushed for bigger bombs, but Oppenheimer opposed it.
- The arms race with the Soviets was fermented due to misleading perspectives on how many weapons were needed.
- The Soviet Union had been sending espionage agents to collect industrial technology since the 1930s.
- Scientists who worked on the atomic bomb felt a responsibility to prevent any one country from having a monopoly on nuclear weapons.
Nuclear Weapons and International Relations
- The Atchison-Lilliamthal plan is the only plan that makes sense for international control without a world government.
- Elaborate surveillance systems are in place today to detect nuclear weapons.
- Non-proliferation efforts have been successful as the number of countries and nuclear weapons has not gone up for decades.
- The United States did not protect Taiwan with their nuclear umbrella as promised, which could lead to them aligning with China.
- Nuclear deterrence has worked in the past for the US in wars on the periphery where major nuclear powers were involved.
The Impact of Nuclear Weapons
- The use of nuclear warheads has become more complicated and dangerous over time.
- In the past, it was a matter of retaliation for an attack on one's own country, but now there is a need to backstop conventional power with nuclear weapons.
- The balance of forces was disrupted when the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb in 1949.
- The possibility of preventing communism in the aftermath of World War II by knocking out the Soviet Union was a big bluff as we only had a few partly assembled handmade bombs at that time.
The Legacy of the Atomic Bomb
- Oppenheimer was a great lab director but had a divided and insecure self.
- Oppenheimer was knowledgeable and had a broad understanding of physics.
- The introduction of how to control nuclear energy changed the nature of nation states.
- The possibility of using nuclear weapons in a conventional war has changed the game.
- The development of the atomic bomb was a vast engineering program that involved Nobel Laureate level physicists as engineers.
The Future of Nuclear Weapons
- AI is expected to be as transformative as nuclear weapons and energy, but people have no idea what's coming.
- The odds of a non-test nuclear explosion happening in the next 50 years is higher than 10%.
- Even a small nuclear war would engage the whole world, and we are still in a precarious place as long as any country has nuclear weapons.