Weekend Reading & Selected Links

5 min read

Happy weekend! Here are some links to things I've been reading or watching that you might also enjoy:

1. My new podcast, with Richard Rhodes. (At the bottom of this email, I've reprinted three of my favourite exchanges from the conversation, though there were many!)

2. 'The Wrath of Khan', a 2005 The Atlantic article by William Langewiesche, on how A. Q. Khan made Pakistan a nuclear power. Via James Warne.

3. Tim Snyder’s introductory course to Ukraine.

4. 'Internet search tips', a Gwern article.

5. 'Ezra Klein’s Formula for a Good Day Involves These Four Things', a recent GQ interview. And Tim Ferriss is de-optimizing.

6. Einstein and Szilard in colour. And Robert Oppenheimer in 1965 on if the bomb was necessary.

Have a great weekend,  


Exchanges from my podcast with Richard Rhodes

1. How the Russians realised the Americans were working on a bomb.

RHODES: In fact, the Soviet scientists, who had been kept in the dark about the possibility of a bomb, realised the United States must be working one when we started making these things secret and our physicists stopped publishing papers in scientific journals. One of the Russian scientists said, "Aha! All their nuclear physicists have stopped publishing. They must be working on a bomb. It's now a military secret." Which was right.

WALKER: It's funny [the Americans] didn't anticipate that and just put out some tokenistic articles anyway...

RHODES: Well, you know, it was a much less sophisticated world.

2. On General Leslie Groves being underrated.

WALKER: Well, let's talk about Groves then.


WALKER: Because I feel like he has become underrated compared to Oppenheimer in the decades since the Manhattan project. Without Oppenheimer, could the Manhattan Project have succeeded? And without Groves, could the Manhattan Project have succeeded?

RHODES: Without Oppenheimer, I don't know if the bombs would have been ready before the end of the war. Because the thing that triggered the final surrender of the Japanese was the Soviet forces entering the war on the Eastern Front, on what was supposed to be the 15th of August, 1945, invading Manchuria, where the Japanese still had about a million men on the ground with about a year's supply of ammunition. So if that had all fallen out, as it might have, as in fact it did, then maybe the bomb wouldn't have been ready without Oppenheimer.

But there's absolutely no question that without Groves, the whole thing wouldn't have happened. There was no one like Groves. Groves, when he was given the assignment in '41, I believe, by his superiors at the Corps of Engineers, interrupted the meeting and said, "I'm sorry, I have to get going," and walked out. The generals who told him what he was going to be doing thought, "Where the hell is he going?"

Where he was going was to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to buy up the land to start building the factories that were going to enrich the uranium. He didn't even wait, and he would lay out a factory floor before he even knew what was going to be operated in that factory. He'd have the concrete poured. He'd sort of estimate how big a factory he needed and get going.

He, unlike, I think, almost anyone else might have done, decided that if there were four ways to go at making these materials, plutonium and uranium, and we weren't certain which one would be the most successful, then let's build all four.

He went to the guy who ran the industrial part of the Second World War and threatened him with oblivion if he didn't give him the highest priority for materials of any operation during wartime.

I mean, if they needed a ball of solid gold, which at one point they did, it would arrive the next day, from wherever it was manufactured. They needed an enormous amount of copper to make the wires for the electromagnetic separation system that made quite a lot of the enriched uranium for the bomb. Well, copper was being used to make bullets. There wasn't enough copper. So he thought about it and thought, "Well, this operation is not going to last after the war. We're not going to be building any more bombs after the war." (He was wrong about that.) And he thought, "What can I use instead of copper?"

He thought, "Well, there's a lot of silver at Fort Knox. It's just sitting in a vault up there." So he ordered tons of pure, coin-grade silver from Fort Knox and used it to make the wires and the bus bars for his isotope separation systems. And at the end of the war, he had it all pulled out and weighed by the troy ounce and shipped back to Fort Knox. And they were missing, I don't know, a kilogram or two.

An American writer who I talked to once said something about people who know how to get the spam to the front lines. I've quoted that line many times, and young people no longer know what that means since spam to them is something you find digitally. They don't know it was cans of spiced ham that was used as a common food stuff and still is in Hawaii. But my friend said, "He was the kind of guy who knew how to get the spam to the front lines."

3. On whether we should resume above-ground testing, and the first hydrogen bomb tests.

RHODES: I've talked to scientists who worked on the bomb who said, "I know we're only testing underground now, but I wish every five years we'd take all the leaders of the world out to some island in the Pacific and blow one off for them so they'd know what they're playing with." And there is certainly that to be argued.

WALKER: Yeah, that's funny you mention that. I had a question about that. So I guess I'm a young millennial, and I have Gen X friends who tell me that they grew up with the fear hanging over them in the schoolyard of nuclear war, nuclear winter. And to me and my friends in our generation, there was literally none of that fear. It just seems like another world, a foreign concept. And it got me thinking maybe we should resume above ground testing just to remind people what's at stake. What do you think about that idea?

RHODES: I think a demonstration. I really agree with this particular scientist. A demonstration seems to me a very good idea. Once a year.

I've never seen a nuclear explosion except on film. One of the things about the Oppenheimer film that's going to be really interesting is that I think he's going to have some real ones. I know he didn't do digital reconstructions. So at least he's going to fake one with high explosives, which will be interesting in itself.

I heard stories when they tested the first hydrogen bombs. The fourth test, I think, yielded about twice or three times what they projected it was going to. They had missed one reaction with lithium, and the production of helium and hydrogen and lithium, that scared the hell out of everybody because it was so big. It was 15 megatons. It was supposed to be 5.


RHODES: And I've heard stories of one of the scientists literally panicking and crawling up the beach to get away from this giant thing because who knows, the cloud runs up into the stratosphere and higher. It just gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and it looks like it will never stop. And even though they were 20, 30 miles away, 15 megatons is enough for that to happen. It's a fireball several miles in diameter.

So I think it might be a good idea.

Your generation fascinates me because there are surveys that are probably still done in the United States every year asking people what frightens them most about anything connected with living in the world. And until the end of the Cold War, number one or number two was always nuclear war. After the end of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union collapsed, nuclear war dropped down to about number 25.