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134 Canadian Review of American Studies Lillian Hoddeson, Paul W. Henriksen, Roger A. Meade, and Catherine Westfall. Critical Assembly: A Technical History of Los Alamos During the Oppenheimer Years, 1943-194 5. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1993. On 6 August 1945, the B-29 bomber "Enola Gay" dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, a second bomb devastated Nagasaki. The production of these new and unprecedentedly powerful weapons had engaged a vast industrial and scientific enterprise. At its heart was the place where the bombs were designed, the special weapons laboratory at Los Alamos headed by J.Robert Oppenheimer. In the United States, the general opinion in 1945, as well as later, was that, as a Los Alamos veteran was to put it, the laboratory was "an example of how a scientific-technological miracle can be performed." Despite a few short sections devoted to issues such as living conditions, Critical Assembly-the result of a team of historians led by the weli-know historian of physics Lillian Hoddeson-is principally a technical history of wartime Los Alamos. Its twin foci are the sets of technical choices involved in the design and construction of the two sorts of fission bomb, one type fuelled by uranium and the other by plutonium. The book's main thesis is that the particular style of the work performed at Los Alamos was the product of a blending of scientific, industrial, and military practices. This resulted in a new sort of enterprise. The authors argue that "the factors operating in wartime Los Alamos-the pragmatic mission of the laboratory, its ample financial support, strict time pressure, and the imposed risk-averse policy-in combination gave rise to an empirical problem-solving methodology based on systematic trial and error rather than thorough analysis" (9). These factors also created the conditions for the emergence of what would later be termed "Big Science," a science typified by armies of technicians, scientists, and engineers working in hierarchically ordered teams. Although a technical history, perhaps the book's most interesting section is one where the technical and social are tightly linked. This section concerns how the discovery of ,.spontaneous fission" in plutonium radically changed the thinking at the laboratory about the design of the plutonium bomb and so drove a reorganization of Los Alamos that was intended to strengthen the laboratory's program directed towards the so-called implosion design. The authors thereby demonstrate that trying to erect hard divisions between the technical and social dimensions of their story is not always fruitful. BookReviews 135 In the book's preface, the authors note that apart from a security review and the removal of a small amount of technically sensitive material, there was no direct interference from the Los Alamos laboratory or the book's sponsors, the Department of Energy, and so, they contend, this is not a "company history." But Critical Assenibly does not manage to shake off all of the usual limits (often self-imposed) of official histories. One example comes from the final section of the book, where we learn of various estimates of the TNT equivalents of the blasts of the bombs and are told that many of the scientists were depressed by the bombings, but the authors dance around the issue of casualties. Hoddeson and her colleagues have, nevertheless, written a notable and richlydetailed work. A number of books have already dealt extensively with wartime Los Alamos. These include, for example, David Hawkins's Project Y: The Los Alamos Story, originally prepared as an official history in 194647 ,but not published until years later, and James W. Kunetka's 1978 City ofFire: Los Alamos and the Aton1ic Age, 1943-1945. Although the prose of Critical Assembly is sometimes murky, its authors go far beyond Hawkins and Kunetka in terms of the depth of their archival research, the historical sophistication of their account, and the quality of the scholarly apparatus they offer. Critical Assembly sets a new standard for writings on wartime Los Alamos. Robert W. Smith Srnithsonian Institution Peter Way. Common Labour: Workers and the Diggingof North American Canals, 1780-1860. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.Pp. xvii +304. In 1815, New...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 134-135
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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