Review: The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes

The Making of the Atomic BombRichard Rhodes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb has been on my to-read list for a long time. After reading this exquisitely detailed history, I believe the development of the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project was the pivotal event of the 20th century. The bomb was, simultaneously, a tremendous culmination of a half-century of scientific achievement, a deplorable instrument of war that indiscriminately killed hundreds of thousands, a shortcut to end a war that saved millions of lives, a threat that instigated the Cold War, and perhaps even a marker in geologic history.

The first half of the book dives deeply into the scientific work of physicists, chemists, and engineers from the 1911 discovery of the atomic nucleus through the 1938 discovery of nuclear fission. The story follows Niels Bohr, Leo Szilard, Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Rutherford, Enrico Fermi, and dozens of other researchers in biographic detail across these decades. The importance of international collaboration is repeatedly emphasized: such rapid scientific progress would have been impossible without timely publication of results for replication and further study. In many cases, multiple laboratories made key discoveries (e.g. the existence of the neutron) within days or weeks of one another, racing be the first to mail their revelations to journals. Anchored by Niels Bohr, this close-knit community shepherded Jewish scientists to safety as anti-Semitism arose in 1930s Germany, many of whom would later work in the Manhattan Project.

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Seven-Week GRE Study Plan

After successfully completing the GRE last year, I posted my seven-week GRE study plan on the /r/GREhelp subreddit. Since that post is now locked, I’ve reproduced it here, along with a few other tips sent in direct messages.

I started studying about seven weeks before my test date, and studied in two phases. In the first phase (weeks 1-4), I mostly followed the Magoosh 1-month study plan and completed all of the associated lesson videos and practice problems, as well as 13/20 vocab flashcards decks. In the second phase (weeks 5-7), I did ETS/Manhattan/Magoosh practice problems, reviewed vocab flash cards, and took five practice tests. You can follow along with in the studying tracking spreadsheet; just enter your test date in cell D52.
GRE study plan tracking spreadsheet

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Review: The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson

The Mars Trilogy

Science fiction is a difficult genre to get right. Bad scifi frequently fills bookshelves and movie theaters: predictable dystopian stories with a “chosen one” protagonist (e.g. Divergent, The Maze Runner, Jupiter Ascending), or scifi premises shoehorned into action/horror movies with unsatisfactory endings and better special effects than acting (e.g. Sunshine, In Time). Since the in-universe science drives their plots, these stories can rapidly feel dated as real-life technological progress obviates the speculative inventions of yesteryear.

One approach to avoiding these issues is brevity. Timeless short stories like The Last Question and Nightfall by Isaac Asmiov, The Ten Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke, Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut, and We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (on which Total Recall is based) by Philip K. Dick explore how individual scientific advances affect society and the characters. Other technologies play unimportant parts in the overall story, avoiding the deus ex machina tropes of more expansive speculative futures.

Hard science fiction adopts a different approach. Instead of relying on brevity, hard science stands on realism. Gone are unexplained warp drives and magic laser blasters; hard science fiction limits itself to technologies that could have believably evolved from present day, and explains how they work. The Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson represents a tremendous achievement in this subgenre, exploring the speculative terraforming and colonization of the fourth planet by the “First Hundred” human colonists and their descendants.

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