Six Impossible Things

A Blog About Fiction and Reading


FalloutFallout: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and the Political Science of the Atomic Bomb by Jim Ottaviani, et al.


Following up on Suspended in Language, I decided to tackle another book in the series, this one about the political and scientific journey that the US took to develop the atomic bomb. Fallout is published by the same publisher that released Suspended in Language (G.T. Labs), and I found this book to be much more accessible than the other.  It didn’t focus quite to much on the science of the development as it did the political journey the scientists had to take (which helped), but it also had an index of notes that clarified certain portions of the story.  These notes, I think, did more to help me understand some of the denser portions of the book than the graphic narrative itself, and I found myself wishing that the author had taken this same approach to Suspended in Language.

Most of what I know about the atomic bomb centers around the bombings in Japan, and the testing that took place in the New Mexican deserts.  Both are appalling chapters in US history (to me, at least), so it was interesting to read this book as a companion piece to what I already know.  The author succeeds in portraying the scientists as people, and giving us views into their lives and what drove them to decide to work on such a project.  Some scientists were reluctant to keep the information secret, because it was counter to how science should be shared; others felt a moral objection to what they were doing, but continued to work on the project because it was part of scientific progress; all scientists involved were hired as consultants, and none were considered military personnel.  There was one scene in the book that showed the living quarters of the scientists and their families, enclosed in high fences and barbed wire to keep them confined within the area.  Oppenheimer is then shown speaking to the generals, saying that many of the German-born scientists left their country for the United States to escape such living conditions.

What I didn’t realize from history is that Oppenheimer, the director of the project, later faced a military board to determine if he should continue having clearance to the project.  Once the atomic bomb was dropped in Japan, the focus of the research shifted toward developing a nuclear bomb, to which Oppenheimer objected.  This objection, along with a past association with Communists and a potential security breach which he waited a year or more to declare, lost him his clearance, though the board did determine that there was no doubt of his loyalty to and love of country.  Remember, this was during the Red Scare, when any liberal or anti-American thinking labelled someone as a potential traitor, thus someone on whom to keep a close eye.  Reading about that was timely, for me, in comparison to the current state of politics.

I found this book to be both entertaining and educational, and I look forward to reading more books from this publisher.  I think anyone with an interest in either graphic novels or science should check these books out.

July 17, 2006 Posted by | Graphic Novels, Reviews | Leave a comment

Suspended in Language

SuspendedSuspended in Language: Neils Bohr’s life, discoveries, and the century he shaped by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Purvis


On the back of this book, it’s classed as “Science / Biography / Graphic Novel.” I’m stuck on the classification of this book as a graphic novel, though, because a novel, by definition, is “a fictitious prose narrative of considerable length and complexity, portraying characters and usually presenting a sequential organization of action and scenes.” So, if this book is a biography of Neils Bohr, then shouldn’t it be classified as a graphic biography instead?

Sound pedantic? Maybe. But when you’ve read over 300 pages about a physicist whose life was devoted to clarity to the point of excess, then you tend to start thinking in those terms.

Neils Bohr was a critical figure in the development of quantum theory, that red-headed stepchild of the scientific world that refutes reproducible results, atomic structures, and classical science overall. I’ve always had an interest in science, even though I can’t understand it half the time (I’ve read through the portion of Suspended in Language about Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle three times, and still don’t think I get it), and this book was a unique gateway into that interest. Since the life of Bohr can’t be separated from quantum theory, the book is about half of one and half of the other, and educational in both respects.

One thing that surprised me from reading this book is that the classic model of an atom that we all learned about in high school — the electrons orbiting the nucleus, much in the same way that the Earth orbits the Sun — is wrong.  It has something to do with electrons descending toward the nucleus as they orbit it (they would lose energy as they continued orbiting the nucleus), so it’s impossible for that model to exist.  Oddly, the author suggests that the reason this model persists in textbooks is because it’s a real-world model that we can relate to and understand; if we were to look at a model of an atom based on its actual structure, we’d have a harder time grasping it.

I thought this was an interesting approach to a difficult subject, but it makes me wish I understood math and science better, so I could better understand some of the discussions within.  Bohr was a lengthy and technical author and speaker, and there were many times when I felt lost throughout the book.

July 17, 2006 Posted by | Graphic Novels, Reviews | Leave a comment