April 3, 2020

Review: True Genius by Joel Shurkin

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Chances are, you’ve never heard of one of the great minds of the 20th century. Physicist Richard Garwin was behind some of the major turning points of the past half century, though we’ll have to admit, we’d never heard of him, either. 88 years old now, Garwin was not only at the inception of the hydrogen bomb, but technology used in Vietnam, the Star Wars missile defense initiative, and lots more.


We just finished reading True Genius: The Life of Richard Garwin The Most Influential Scientist You’ve Never Heard of by Joel Shurkin from Prometheus Books. True Genius not only takes you back to the early days of Las Alamos and the good old bad old days of the early Cold War, but shows science at its best, as researchers race to solve problems in the name of national security.

True Genius gets you right down into the nuts and bolts of some of the problems faced by post-Manhattan Project-era scientists, the few remaining of which won’t be with us very much longer. While the creation of the first atomic bomb during World War II is well documented, the later struggle to complete the first hydrogen bomb — utilizing a fission weapon to create a brief but powerful fusion reaction — has been largely untold. And this story is applicable with today’s news as well, as the first hydrogen bomb detonation by the United States marked the closest the Bulletin of Atomic scientists has ever moved the Doomsday Clock at 2 minutes to midnight, an asymptote we’re know just half a minute away from this year.

The book also uncovers some fascinating strange but true stories of intrigue, such as plans to use nukes in Vietnam and some of the the other crazy ideas of the Cold War (James Van Allen’s biography, The First 8 Billion Miles also talks about ideas such as a continuous ‘nuke shield’ over the U.S. which was, thankfully, never implemented.) We won the siege of Khe Sanh during the Tet offensive largely because of technology and microphones dropped around the base that allowed Marines to snoop on Viet Cong encroaching on the surrounding hills, all tech that Garwin had a hand in.

Garwin was also a member of the JASON Defense Advisory Group, a think tank group composed of some of the greatest minds of our time that has advised presidents on technical and scientific issues since 1966 right up through the recent Obama administration.

Garwin was the real deal, a truly curious mind always eager to discover just how things work. Personal anecdotes dot the narrative of the book, such as the time he disassembled and repaired a photocopier, on the spot. Garwin laments of the proliferation of so-called modern day “experts” who often suffer from the Dunning-Kruger Effect, commentary on how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Like many scientists who worked on the bomb, Garwin was also a key advocate for nuclear non-proliferation in later years, a cause he’s still active in today.

Be sure to check out True Genius for a look at a fascinating lifetime journey through 20th century science, and a look at the life of a man who guided America’s path through troubling times.

Next week: we finish up our science fiction duology review with Brenda Khan’s Spear of Light, the sequel to The Edge of Dark.

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