A Letter to Richard Rhodes

Dear Richard Rhodes,

Thank you for writing The Making of the Atomic Bomb.  It was beautiful, and terrible, in the way I imagine a nuclear detonation might be.  It deeply changed the way I think and feel about history, about technology, and about the role and limitations of human volition and foresight in the making and potential unmaking of our world.  Somehow you made these people human, and independent of the roles they played.  You made the science beautiful, and the history engaging.  Given that books like yours exist, I am appalled that I was not required to read them in the course of my scientific education, and instead have had to stumble across them on my own.  I think science and engineering students deserve to have some understanding of the potential scope and consequence of our work, for better or for worse, before we are turned loose on the world.  Too often the ethical and philosophical impacts of technology are left completely unaddressed, or even shunned as irrelevant by scientists, until after the effects are widespread.  I doubt this kind of education would have much substantive impact on the overall course of history, or technological development, but I once attended a talk at Caltech by Hans Bethe on the Manhattan Project, and even after half a century he broke down into tears on stage.  He said he didn’t regret having helped create the bomb — that it had to be done — but that he felt guilty for having enjoyed it.  I would prefer that we were better prepared for the possibility of bearing that kind of responsibility, and for taking it on knowingly, as I think Oppenheimer and Rabi did, instead of only realizing our roles after the fact.

I’ve often recommended your book to others as the best I’ve ever read, describing it as equal parts history, science, and biography, but reading it is a large commitment which unfortunately many people will never make.  I’m sure you’ve already considered this, and probably been approached about it, but I think that the book could — and should — be adapted into a compelling dramatic serial, on the same scale as (for instance) the BBC production of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius or the HBO series Rome.  It could easily consume 12 hours of film conveying the physics, the events, and the characters to a much wider audience.  The only organization I can imagine doing it right is the BBC, but maybe there are others.

Wishing you the best of luck in your continuing endeavors,

Zane Selvans

3 thoughts on “A Letter to Richard Rhodes”

  1. Richard Rhodes actually had the time and courtesy to write me back. He said HBO currently has the option on the series, and if they follow through with it, will probably make it into something about 4 hours long, with Paul Giamatti (of Sideways?) as the producer. Which seems a little odd.

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