In the author’s note to The Bastard Brigade, Sam Kean responds to the question, why has he never written a book about physics before? His previous books (which are all fabulous and highly recommended by me) focus on genetics, chemistry, neuroscience, and the atmosphere, even though the author studied physics in college. He explains, “What I really love doing is telling stories, and when I’m planning a book, I look for rip-roarin’ stories first and foremost. I want heroes and villains, conflict and drama, plot twists and redemption.” He finally found the right story in the quest to stop the Nazis from developing the atomic bomb. He goes on to profess that characters are what make a story great: “Science drives this story, no question, but the heart of it is the extraordinary men and women who took on this duty and who were willing to use any means necessary–espionage, sabotage, subterfuge, even murder–to achieve it.”
That’s quite the intro. The stakes in this race can’t be overstated–the Nazis had a two-year head-start over the Allies in terms of scientific research dedicated to building an atomic weapon, and the outcome of World War II would likely have been very different had they succeeded. Yet the story that Kean tells is not just one of heroics, but also humor. We meet real-life characters in all their quirkiness, from a polyglot baseball player to an Earl-turned-bomb defuser known as Mad Jack. In the spirit of this “character first” approach, I’d like to introduce you to a few of the personalities you’ll meet.
This Major League baseball catcher graduated from Princeton University and spoke up to a dozen languages. His career in the big leagues was lackluster, and his father always thought he was wasting his time on such a frivolous endeavor. Unfortunately, his father died before Berg began his second career as a spy for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). During the war, he used his considerable charm to convince European scientists to come to the U.S. and split atoms for Uncle Sam. In 1944 he attended a lecture in Zurich by Werner Heisenberg, at which he was to use his own judgment about whether or not to assassinate the German scientist (depending on how close he thought the Germans were to achieving the bomb). Werner survived the speech, but can you imagine if Moe had pulled the trigger? And all this from a guy whose last words were, allegedly, “How did the Mets do today?”
“Meh” baseball player. Not a bad spy.
Born in the Netherlands of Jewish parents, Goudsmit left Europe for the United States in 1927 and worked at MIT during the war years. Sadly, his parents did not leave the Netherlands and were deported to a concentration camp in 1943, where they eventually died. Goudsmit spent much of the war trying to find them, soliciting help from anyone who might have influence with German officials. Once friends with Werner Heisenberg, he could never understand Heisenberg’s reluctance to abandon his country. He later learned of a deeper betrayal by his old friend: a common acquaintance had solicited Heisenberg’s help on Goudsmit’s behalf to try to influence German authorities in aiding Goudsmit’s parents. Heisenberg had done nothing with the information. It was probably too late at that point, but learning that his old friend could not even be bothered to inquire to German authorities to save his parents’ lives broke Goudsmit’s heart.
Perhaps Goudsmit was too idealistic for the times. Upon realizing how far behind Germany was in developing an atomic bomb, he observed to a colleague, “Isn’t it wonderful that the Germans have no atom bomb? Now we won’t have to use ours.” A month later, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Samuel Goudsmit, a glass half-full of heavy water kind of guy
“Germany needs me,” Werner Heisenberg would insist, no matter how bad the war got nor how despicable the Nazi regime became. He wasn’t a fan of the Nazis; in fact, he attended a weekly meeting of German diplomats, finance ministers, and prominent professionals (named the “Wednesday Club”) where members regularly mocked Hitler and the regime. Heisenberg thought of this group as “reasonable people, people who loved Germany and despised Hitler just like he did–people who understood that simultaneously wanting Germany to win the war and yet the Nazis to somehow lose the war wasn’t muddleheaded nonsense, but the only sensible way to think.” Shockingly, when an assassination plot against Hitler was uncovered (code-named Valkyrie), it was traced back to members of the Wednesday Club. Only by luck, it seemed, did Heisenberg escape suspicion.
After the war, Heisenberg didn’t mind so much that people criticized him for doing research for the Third Reich, but he took serious umbrage at a claim by Goudsmit that the Germans hadn’t succeeded in building the bomb because they didn’t understand the physics. That insult was too much for him.
Heisenberg did not wear a pork pie hat nor cook meth, but he was still kind of a dick.
Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie
The odd couple of the physics world. Irène was the daughter of Marie Curie, and was always somewhat in the shadow of her more famous mother, in spite of winning her own Nobel Prize (jointly with husband Frédéric) in 1935. Frédéric was more dashing and personable, so it surprised Marie when the pair announced they were getting married. They combined their last names upon the union, which may seem uber-feminist of Frédéric until you consider how much more cachet the name “Curie” had at the time. Scientifically equal, they had an odd but fruitful working relationship. They were vehemently anti-Nazi and were active in the resistance.
The Joliot-Curies in the lab
Both Joseph Sr. and Jr. figure prominently in this story (and Jack makes a short, swaggering appearance as well). Joseph Kennedy, Sr. served as the Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1938 to 1940, and by all accounts Franklin D. Roosevelt couldn’t stand him. Not that Kennedy was terribly popular with anyone else at that time. He believed the U.S. must avoid conflict with Germany at all costs, and he earned the reputation of being defeatist and a coward. As one historian noted, “he moved from neutrality, to appeasement, to defeatism, to surrender, to the exchange of democracy for fascism–and all before a single shot had been fired.”
It’s hard to know what exactly Joseph Kennedy, Jr. believed, except perhaps that he was destined for glory. From the moment of his birth people started predicting he would be President, so one can understand how that might go to one’s head. The fraternal competition between Joseph and his brother John drove the elder to volunteer for any mission that would turn him into a war hero. As a pilot, he scoffed at missions that aimed at sinking German submarines because “hunting subs offered no chance for personal glory. Crews succeeded or failed en masse. . . . Unlike his kid brother, Joe never had a chance to distinguish himself as a hero.”
Joseph eventually got his chance at glory with an insanely dangerous mission where planes filled with explosives would be targeted at atomic bunkers in France. Kennedy’s plane exploded in mid-air before reaching its target and before Kennedy or his co-pilot could parachute out. Days prior to the mission, engineers warned the teams of a possible design flaw that could trigger an explosion, but they were ignored. So while Kennedy never got to be President, his death washed away any question of the family’s commitment to fighting Hitler.
And thus, a dynasty was born.
This book boasts so many more fascinating characters: scientists Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, Robert Oppenheimer, and Neils Bohr; head of the OSS “Wild Bill” Donovan; soldier and former Hollywood High School coach Boris Pash. The list goes on and on. On top of the wonderfully drawn characters and thrilling tales in this book, Kean also includes 24 pages of historical photos (with many more that didn’t make the cut included on his website) and some friendly drawings to help his less science-minded readers understand concepts like nuclear fission and the most efficient design for a reactor. Sam Kean is such a joy to read; not only do you get 400+ pages of quality writing, you get scads and scads of extras on his site. I recommend this book heartily to anyone interested in World War II, the atom bomb, physics, or just good rip-roarin’ stories.
Side note: While perusing Kean’s site I learned that he came out with a new book last July: The Icepick Surgeon. And. . . now I’m behind again.