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They’re the Bomb: 16 Books About the Atomic Age

With all eyes on the new 'Oppenheimer' movie, our reading list showcases some of the little-known stories behind the Manhattan Project / BY Nathalie Atkinson / July 25th, 2023

Christopher Nolan’s new drama about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist known as ‘the father of the atomic bomb’, is told largely from Oppenheimer’s point of view. The film is based on Martin J. Sherwin and Kai Bird’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Prometheusa book 25 years in the making — and follows the events leading up to and following the first detonation of the atomic bomb at the U.S. military’s top-secret Manhattan Project Trinity Test site in 1945. 

With a sprawling ensemble cast, lead by Cillian Murphy, Nolan explores Oppenheimer’s life as a young scientist, his wartime work on the Manhattan Project and the subsequent political fallout after he began using his fame to advocate for nuclear non-proliferation. Oppenheimer would become a household name — as big a celebrity as the movie stars of the day, even gracing the cover of LIFE magazine, and Time. Oppenheimer remains a galvanizing figure and, as the movie depicts, his fame would cost him.

The historical epic plays out with dozens of figures across several decades. Points of reference for the actors in researching their characters might, for example, have included the biography of Admiral Lewis Strauss (the politician — played by Robert Downey Jr. — who dominated U.S. atomic policy until his non-confirmation hearing later that decade) or the new revelations (like those in Fallout) that Germany wasn’t even developing atomic weapons at the time, and perhaps even Brotherhood of the Bomb, with its study of Oppenheimer’s complex relationship with fellow scientists Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett) and Edward Teller (Benny Safdie).

For those who find their interest piqued about figures and events involved around the creation of the most destructive weapon in the world, here’s our reading list.

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1Now It Can be Told by Leslie R. Groves

As the American engineer and general tasked with assembling the Manhattan Project, Groves (played in the movie by Matt Damon) hired Oppenheimer in spite of, or as the movie suggests, perhaps because of his left-leaning views and early adjacency to the Communist Party. This 1962 account of the ambitious and expensive engineering is a good starting point.

2Trinity by Louisa Hall

The science and politics that animated J. Robert Oppenheimer are imagined through seven fictional characters who came in contact with him at different times, ranging from a young member of the Women’s Army Corps stationed at Los Alamos to the spy who tailed the physicist on his illicit 1943 visit with lover Jean Tatlock in San Francisco. Hall’s acclaimed 2018 historical novel asks questions about the secrets we keep from the world and ourselves as it follows Oppenheimer’s life from student to director of the Manhattan Project and through his persecution during the McCarthy era, his refuge on the small Caribbean island of St. John and death in 1966.

3The Manhattan Project Edited by Cynthia C. Kelly

This first-person historical record of the creation of the atomic bomb and events leading up to it is a comprehensive (some say definitive) anthology shaped by the words, documents, letters and essays of its creators, all of whom were eyewitnesses to the secret project. It’s both the dark and lighter side of the intense work and the revised edition contains more recent material and incorporates hibakusha (survivors) and reflections from the latter-day mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

4Einstein and Oppenheimer by Silvan S. Schweber

Belonging to different scientific generations, Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) knew one another for nearly three decades and in the last, were actually close colleagues; their interactions in the movie are brief but poignant. (There’s a fleeting but crucial 1947 meeting between the two on the pastoral grounds of Princeton, for example, prior to Oppenheimer taking over The Institute for Advanced Study.) Subtitled ‘the meaning of genius,’ the science historian compares and contrasts the personalities, philosophies and ethical positions of these two critical figures of physics.

5Atomic Spy by Nancy Thorndike Greenspan

Klaus Fuchs (Christopher Denham) was a German theoretical physicist (and militant Communist) turned undercover spy for the Soviets. He confessed to these deeds under interrogation in 1950, but not before years giving Moscow detailed data of everything he worked on at the Manhattan Project. This thorough retelling includes his lengthy interrogation and is “a classic Cold War biography of intrigue and torn loyalties,” according to American Prometheus co-author Kai Bird.

6Rabi by John S. Rigden

Although it isn’t depicted in the movie, in 1944 while Oppenheimer was working at Los Alamos his close friend Isidor Rabi (played by David Krumholtz) won the Nobel Prize in Physics for work on magnetic resonance related to atomic nuclei. Rabi — one of the most influential physicists of the 20th century — had reservations about working on a weapon of mass destruction, as this 1988 biography by noted American physicist and science historian Rigden details, but still acted as an occasional consultant on the Manhattan Project.

7The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes

Nearly two decades before American Prometheus, this rich history of early nuclear weapons (as well as the development of modern physics in the first half of the 20th century) was awarded a Pulitzer Prize among many other awards. Nobel Laureate Rabi himself called the compelling and elegantly written biographical portrait of the era, “an epic worthy of Milton.” And as The Atlantic recently reported, a new generation of AI scientists treat the 86-year-old’s book like a Bible (and cautionary tale) of technological progress.

8Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse

The Japanese author began serializing this dramatic historical novel in 1965, now considered one of the most powerful works (in any language) dealing with the aftermath of nuclear catastrophe. The story is based on the diaries, testimonies and interviews with real-life bombing victims, and follows the lives of family members poisoned by radiation sickness after being caught in the radioactive ‘black rain’ that fell after the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima; going to great lengths to reveal the magnitude of human suffering it caused. It stands alongside novelist Kenzaburo Oe’s seminal Hiroshima Notes and John Hersey’s 1946 early new journalism reportage Hiroshima as a compelling classic text.

9An Atomic Love Story by Shirley Streshinsky and Patricia Klaus

They’re only fleeting moments in the film, but there was another important trinity in Oppenheimer’s life: the three formidable women who were his great loves. There’s the tumultuous relationship with psychiatrist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) during his years at UC Berkeley, his partnership with eventual wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) and longtime affair with Ruth Sherman Tolman (wife of a close friend and colleague, played by Louise Lombard). Published in 2013 by two California-based historians and using firsthand accounts, each woman’s circle of influence is thoroughly explored.

10The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan

Throughout Nolan’s movie, two glass bowls at the front of the main Los Alamos lab gradually fill with uranium marbles, denoting the progress in enriching enough uranium for ‘the Gadget.’ The orbs came from Oak Ridge, a small Tennessee town established circa-1942 as the S-50 Project, a production site where the gaseous diffusion plant codename K-25 (the Manhattan Project’s uranium separation program) covered 44 acres and consumed more electricity than New York City. The population of 75,000 workers was constituted largely of women recruited from across the United States. North Carolina journalist Kiernan’s seven years of research into these unsung chemists, statisticians and equipment inspectors who lived and worked in the secret city restores them to their rightful place in history.

11The Highway of the Atom by Peter C. van Wyck

Precluded from a complete history of Canada’s involvement in the Manhattan Project due to classified document restrictions, the Concordia professor shapes an unconventional and poetic history. The atomic bomb’s full ethical horror begins at the source: the subarctic mine at Great Bear Lake, N.W.T., that provided it with uranium, at the expense of the Dene people. The book assembles narrative fragments of the heavy metal’s route from mine to even use in weapons, to share the missing pieces of its effects.

12The Halifax Explosion by Ken Cuthbertson

Prior to the 1945 dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Canada’s worst disaster was the largest human-made blast and gets a mention in one of the movie’s early science scenes. The physicists use the tragic 1917 fire and apocalyptic explosion caused by the collision of a French munitions ship and a Norwegian war relief vessel in Halifax Harbour as a jumping-off point for brainstorming possible effects and experiments that lead to the creation of the atomic bomb. Veteran Canadian journalist Cuthbertson’s account (published on the disaster’s centenary) is gripping.

13109 East Palace by Jennet Conant

The story of the Los Alamos laboratory community — the thousands of men women and children who spent the war years sequestered in the top secret New Mexico desert military facility, cut off from friends and family — is recounted through the eyes of Dorothy McKibbin. As one of Oppenheimer’s first recruits, McKibbin, known as the ‘first lady of Los Alamos’, ran the Sante Fe office (a nondescript storefront at the street address of the title) and was first point of contact for incoming staff that eventually swelled to 600,000 people.

14The Orphaned Land by V.B. Price

It’s worth remembering that despite the continued false narrative, the Los Alamos desert was not uninhabited. Oppenheimer has revived attention to the Los Alamos Laboratory’s impact on the people of New Mexico (mainly poor Hispanic ranchers and Indigenous people) who inhabited the area; including forced eviction and the negative health effects of radiation exposure for generations of those who lived downwind of the Trinity Test sites. The veteran New Mexico journalist’s 2011 book was among the first to assemble reports and studies about more than fifty years of environmental degradation.

15Universe of Two by Stephen P. Kiernan

The lead character’s name is Charlie Fish in this 2020 historical novel by the award-winning, Vermont-based medical journalist, and it’s loosely based on the life of Charles Fisk, a young Harvard mathematician conscripted to the Manhattan Project who later designed modern pipe organs. Exploring the morality of the atomic bomb, it’s set against the backdrop of Los Alamos, told in alternating chapters following Charlie’s work at the time and from the point of view of his widow, Brenda, in the 1980s after his death. (For more insight into the complications of married life on the compound, pick up TaraShea Nesbit’s historical The Wives of Los Alamos.)

16Let It Destroy You by Harriet Alida Lye

This tale of idealism, creation and impossible love, published in June, is inspired by the life (and letters) of Leó Szilárd, the physicist who discovered the nuclear chain reaction and became the other reluctant father of the atomic bomb. In alternating husband-and-wife points of view, Toronto writer Lye looks at the broken family life of a man who lived both sides of the arms race — first, inventing technology in an attempt to cure his daughter’s cancer, then working to prevent, hasten and finally, outlaw nuclear weapons. It’s the philosophical debate at the heart of Oppenheimer.


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