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In the last days of 1938 when Otto Hahn accidentally discovers atomic fission during an experiment in his lab, he sets off a chain of events that forever change the world.
As word of his revelation spreads amongst the scientific community, it quickly becomes evident that splitting uranium atoms could be used to create a bomb with massive destruction capabilities. They aren't all mad scientists, but they are in the midst of World War II, a conflict everyone is ready to see resolved in a quick and definitive manner.
So, as Hitler escalates the war he is waging in Europe, President Roosevelt (at the behest of Albert Einstein) puts together a group of physicists known as the Uranium Committee to start looking into the possibility of building a nuclear weapon—especially before Germany can do so. One of the scientists recruited is Robert Oppenheimer, a genius physicist and chemist with antisocial tendencies but an incredible brain.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union catches wind of these developments and immediately decides that their best course of action is to steal all the work the Americans and Germans are doing in order to further their own nuclear arsenal. Why toil away in the lab when you can have a team of spies getting what you need instead? Harry Gold, a pretty average guy who works in a chemical plant, finds himself getting more and more deeply embroiled in this act of espionage after he agrees to give the Communists some seemingly harmless information in gratitude for a favor from a friend.
Japan bombs Pearl Harbor, officially giving the United States a reason to enter the war in earnest. And as the war ramps up, so does the drive to create the world's first atomic bomb. On one end is Col. Groves and Robert Oppenheimer, now leading America's top scientists at the Los Alamos operation in the desert of New Mexico. On the other hand, we have Soviet spies like Harry Gold, Klaus Fuchs, and Ted Hall handing over top-secret plans for the science and engineering of the first U-235 bomb. And on a third hand (wait…who has three hands?) there are the Norwegians: Jason Bourne-esque dudes doing amazing things in the name of sabotaging Germany's heavy-water production (which is a key element to their nuclear program).
By 1945, though, the war in Europe is all but over, and the Americans have built and tested their first uranium bomb at the Trinity test site. Now they are ready to use it to end the war with Japan. After much deliberation, President Truman (who assumed the position upon the sudden death of FDR) gives the order for Capt. Paul Tibbets and his crew of the Enola Gay to drop the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. When that fails to elicit unconditional surrender from Japan, the city of Nagasaki is bombed three days later. The world is stunned by the ferocity of the new weapon, and Japan surrenders, ending World War II.
The problems are just beginning, though, for those who betrayed their country during the war. An atmosphere of distrust begins to pervade the government upon the revelation of some decoded KGB communiqués, which ultimately result in trials that expose Harry Gold and Klaus Fuchs for their treachery.
Unfortunately, this results in collateral damage when Oppenheimer gets roped into the accusations as well. Upon seeing the devastation of what his weapon can do, Oppenheimer begins to actively argue against nuclear proliferation, making him unpopular among those in power who think atomic bombs are their best way to stay on top.
This leads to poor Oppie losing his government clearance after a trial in which his opponents use illegal methods to insinuate that he's been a Soviet spy all along. This new era of communist witch hunts, a.k.a. the Red Scare, and the beginning of the Cold War is ushered in, all thanks to the intrigues carried out by the KGB spies and the government officials determined to bring them down.
Sheinkin ends the book by hammering home the fact that this is our history and it still has huge ramifications today. Nuclear proliferation, and contrarily the movement to de-proliferate, is still hotly debated in governments across the world. The weapon that Oppenheimer and his team of brainiacs created might have helped end a devastating war—but it began a new epoch of terrible possibilities. Dun dun dun…