Monday, April 22, 2013

Book review: Alsos

I just found and read a great book, Alsos, by Samuel Goudsmit. The Alsos mission was the Allied dual scientific/military intelligence gathering expedition following the Normandy Invasion, tasked with learning the status of the German atomic program and rounding up German nuclear scientists. Goudsmit, who with Uhlenbeck helped convince people like Pauli of the usefulness of the concept of spin (the intrinsic angular momentum of particles like the electron), was a Dutch Jew, and while he was in the States working on radar, his parents were sent to a concentration camp and killed. The book is fascinating. It's split between the story of the actual mission (which discovered relatively quickly and much to the relief of all involved that the Germans never even got a nuclear pile to go critical) and an indictment of science and industry in a totalitarian regime. It is quite the cautionary tale of the politicization of scientific research and the arrogance of some physicists (Heisenberg fares particularly poorly, to the surprise of no one), told with a wry sense of humor. Highly recommended.


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