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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.