Neil J. Sullivan


On his book The Prometheus Bomb: The Manhattan Project and Government in the Dark

Cover Interview of January 25, 2017

A close-up

A fairly standard practice – a look at the introduction and the last chapter – should give the reader a sense of the book. The introduction provides an overview of the book including its essential question: How can we control experts in a democracy when we don’t know what they’re talking about? The introduction includes a brief discussion of the theme of the book and also its implications.

The last chapter develops the title, what Prometheus has to do with the Manhattan Project. It also reviews some of the points of the book. It examines the environmental damage caused by the development of nuclear weapons. It looks at the American policy on assassination which sent an armed American agent to a lecture in Zurich by Werner Heisenberg, head of the German nuclear program. Had Heisenberg referred to progress on a Nazi bomb, he would have been shot dead on the spot. Secrecy is another consequence of the Manhattan Project. It developed as a result of specialization. People knew their own part of the overall effort, but the need to know was a guiding principle of the endeavor. It is ironic that this concern may have facilitated the penetration of the Project by Soviet spies. Few people had a sufficiently broad perspective to realize that spies roamed Los Alamos.

Otherwise, a curious reader might simply flip some pages, look at the first page of several chapters, check out the photographs, review the index and the references, and look at the handsome fellow on the back flap of the book jacket. I wrote the book with the purpose of making a complex scientific and political project accessible to interested people. Likely the reader would be no less familiar with the physics of the atomic bomb than I was, and I have tried to make the intricate bureaucratic maneuvers clear as well. The reader will have to decide how successful I might have been, but I’m satisfied that this breezy approach will indicate if tackling the book is worthwhile.