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Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon

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Perfect for middle grade readers and history enthusiasts, New York Times bestselling author Steve Sheinkin presents the fascinating and frightening true story of the creation behind the most destructive force that birthed the arms race and the Cold War in Bomb: The Race to Buildand Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon.

A Newbery Honor book
A National Book Awards finalist for Young People's Literature
A Washington Post Best Kids Books of the Year title

In December of 1938, a chemist in a German laboratory made a shocking discovery: When placed next to radioactive material, a Uranium atom split in two. That simple discovery launched a scientific race that spanned three continents.

In Great Britain and the United States, Soviet spies worked their way into the scientific community; in Norway, a commando force slipped behind enemy lines to attack German heavy-water manufacturing; and deep in the desert, one brilliant group of scientists was hidden away at a remote site at Los Alamos. This is the story of the plotting, the risk-taking, the deceit, and genius that created the world's most formidable weapon. This is the story of the atomic bomb.

“This superb and exciting work of nonfiction would be a fine tonic for any jaded adolescent who thinks history is 'boring.' It's also an excellent primer for adult readers who may have forgotten, or never learned, the remarkable story of how nuclear weaponry was first imagined, invented and deployed—and of how an international arms race began well before there was such a thing as an atomic bomb.” —The Wall Street Journal

“This is edge-of-the seat material that will resonate with YAs who clamor for true spy stories, and it will undoubtedly engross a cross-market audience of adults who dozed through the World War II unit in high school.” —The Bulletin (starred review)

Also by Steve Sheinkin:

The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery
The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights
Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team
Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War
Which Way to the Wild West?: Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn't Tell You About Westward Expansion
King George: What Was His Problem?: Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn't Tell You About the American Revolution
Two Miserable Presidents: Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn't Tell You About the Civil War
Born to Fly: The First Women's Air Race Across America

ISBN-13: 9781596434875

Media Type: Hardcover

Publisher: Roaring Brook Press

Publication Date: 09-04-2012

Pages: 272

Product Dimensions: 9.20(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.00(d)

Age Range: 10 - 14 Years

Steve Sheinkin is the award-winning author of several fascinating books on American history, including The Notorious Benedict Arnold, which won the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults and the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for nonfiction. His recent book Bomb was a Newbery Honor Book, National Book Award finalist, and winner of the Sibert Award as well as theYALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults. He lives in Saratoga Springs, NY.

Read an Excerpt


HARRY GOLD WAS RIGHT: This is a big story. It’s the story of the creation—and theft—of the deadliest weapon ever invented. The scenes speed around the world, from secret labs to commando raids to street-corner spy meetings. But like most big stories, this one starts small. Let’s pick up the action sixteen years before FBI agents cornered Harry Gold in Philadelphia. Let’s start 3,000 miles to the west, in Berkeley, California, on a chilly night in February 1934.

On a hill high above town, a man and woman sat in a parked car. In the driver’s seat was a very thin young physics professor named Robert Oppenheimer. Beside him sat his date, a graduate student named Melba Phillips. The two looked out at the view of San Francisco Bay.

It was a fine view, but Oppenheimer couldn’t seem to stay focused on the date. He turned to Phillips and asked, “Are you comfortable?”

She said she was.

“Mind if I get out and walk for a few minutes?”

She didn’t mind.

Oppenheimer got out and strolled into the darkness. Phillips wrapped a coat around her legs and waited. She waited a long time. At some point, she fell asleep.

She woke up in the middle of the night—the seat beside her was still empty. Worried, she stepped onto the road and waved down a passing police car.

“My escort went for a walk hours ago and he hasn’t returned,” she told the cop.

The police searched the park, but found nothing. They notified headquarters, and a wider search was begun. An officer drove to Oppenheimer’s apartment to look for useful clues.

He found the professor in bed, sound asleep.

The cop shook Oppenheimer awake and demanded an explanation. Oppenheimer said he’d gotten out of the car to think about physics. “I just walked and walked,” he said, “and I was home and I went to bed. I’m so sorry.”

A reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle got hold of the story and wrote an article with the headline: “Forgetful Prof Parks Girl, Takes Self Home.”

No one who knew Robert Oppenheimer was the least bit surprised.

* * *

HE’D ALWAYS BEEN DIFFERENT. A girl who knew Robert as a child in New York City described him as “very frail, very pink-cheeked, very shy, and very brilliant.”

Oppenheimer was a tougher critic. “A repulsively good little boy,” he said of himself. “My life as a child did not prepare me for the fact that the world is full of cruel and bitter things.”

He was constantly getting sick, so his nervous parents tried to protect him by keeping him inside. While other boys played in the street, Robert sat alone in his room studying languages, devouring books of literature and science, and filling notebooks with poetry. Around kids his age he was awkward and quiet, never knowing what to say unless he could bring the conversation around to books. Then he would let loose annoying bursts of learning.

“Ask me a question in Latin,” he’d say, “and I’ll answer you in Greek.”

Hoping to toughen up their stick-skinny fourteen-year-old, Robert’s parents sent him to a sports summer camp. But he was an awful athlete and simply refused to participate. Then the other campers found out he wrote home every day, and that he liked poetry and looking for minerals. That’s when they started calling him “Cutie.”

Robert never fought back. He never even responded. That made his tormentors even angrier.

One night, after dinner, Robert went for a walk. A group of boys waited for him in the woods. They grabbed him, dragged him to the icehouse, and tossed him on the rough wood floor. They ripped off his shirt and pants, dipped a brush in green paint, and slapped the dripping bristles against his bony body.

Robert never said a word about the attack to camp counselors. “I don’t know how Robert stuck out those remaining weeks,” his only friend at camp later said. “Not many boys would have—or could have—but Robert did. It must have been hell for him.”

Science saved him. Robert dove deep into chemistry and physics in high school, graduated from Harvard University in 1925, then earned advanced degrees at top universities in Britain and Germany. Even in classes with some of the brightest students in the world, “Oppie,” as friends called him, never lost his know-it-all style. He interrupted physics lectures with his own theories, sometimes charging to the chalkboard, grabbing the chalk and declaring. “This can be done much better in the following manner.” Classmates got so annoyed they actually signed a petition asking him to allow others to speak in class. After that, Oppenheimer calmed down. A little bit. “The trouble,” a friend said, “is that Oppie is so quick on the trigger intellectually, that he puts the other guy at a disadvantage.”

He’d lucked into a thrilling time in theoretical physics. Physicists were just beginning to figure out what atoms look like, and how the tiny particles inside them move and affect each other. Theoretical physicists were the explorers of their day, using imagination and mind-bending math to dig deeper and deeper into the surprising inner workings of atoms. Oppenheimer knew he’d found his calling.

When he returned to the States, schools all over the country tried to hire him. He picked the University of California, in Berkeley, where he quickly built the country’s best theoretical physics program. Students who came to study with Oppenheimer quickly realized they were in for a wild ride. “When you took a question to him,” one student remembered, “he would spend hours—until midnight perhaps—exploring every angle with you.”

“He generally would answer patiently,” another student agreed, “unless the question was manifestly stupid, in which event his response was likely to be quite caustic.”

While sitting in on other professors’ lectures, Oppenheimer was known to squirm impatiently. “Oh, come now!” he’d call out. “We all know that. Let’s get on with it!”

Oppenheimer’s own lectures, according to a student named Edward Gerjuoy, were lightning bursts of ideas, theories, and math on the blackboard. “He spoke quite rapidly, and puffed equally rapidly,” Gerjuoy said. “When one cigarette burned down to a fragment he no longer could hold, he lit another.” Oppenheimer paced as he lectured, his wiry black hair sticking straight up, his large blue eyes flashing, as he furiously wrote, erased, wrote more, talked, puffed, and bobbed in and out of a cloud of white smoke.

During one lecture, he told students to think about a formula he’d written. There were dozens scrawled all over the board, and a student cut in to ask which formula he was talking about.

“Not that one,” Oppenheimer said, pointing to the blackboard, “the one underneath.”

There was no formula below that one, the student pointed out.

“Not below, underneath,” snapped Oppenheimer. “I have written over it.”

As one of Oppenheimer’s students put it: “Everyone sort of regarded him, very affectionately, as being sort of nuts.”

* * *

“I NEED PHYSICS MORE THAN FRIENDS,” Oppenheimer once told his younger brother. Lost in his studies, Oppenheimer paid little attention to the outside world. He didn’t hear about the stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression until six months after it happened. He first voted in a presidential election in 1936, at the age of thirty-two.

“Beginning in late 1936, my interests began to change,” he later said. There were a few reasons.

For one thing, the country’s ongoing economic troubles began to hit home. “I saw what the Depression was doing to my students. Often they could get no jobs,” he said. “And through them, I began to understand how deeply political and economic events could affect men’s lives. I began to feel the need to participate more fully in the life of the community.” Oppenheimer started going to political meetings and discussion groups. He began giving money to support causes like labor unions and striking farm workers.

But it wasn’t only events in the United States that caught Oppenheimer’s attention—he was also alarmed by the violent rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party in Germany. Hitler took over as chancellor of Germany in 1933 and started arresting political opponents and tossing them into concentration camps. With complete control of the country in his hands, Hitler began persecuting German Jews, stripping them of their legal rights, kicking them out of universities and government jobs. Oppenheimer, who was Jewish, still had family in Germany, as well as Jewish friends from his student days. When he heard that Hitler was harassing Jewish physicists, Oppenheimer dedicated a portion of his salary to help them escape Nazi Germany.

At the same time, the German dictator built up a huge military and started hacking out what he called a “Greater Germany,” a massive European empire that Hitler insisted rightfully belonged to Germans. He annexed neighboring Austria in 1938, then demanded a huge region of Czechoslovakia. Britain and France were strong enough to stand in Hitler’s way—but they caved in to his threats, hoping to preserve peace in Europe.

“This is my last territorial demand in Europe,” Hitler promised.

A few months later, he sent German troops into the rest of Czechoslovakia. Just twenty years after the end of World War I, it looked like a second world war was about to explode.

Oppenheimer followed these terrifying events from his home in California, burning with what he described as “a continuing, smoldering fury” toward Adolf Hitler.

But how was a theoretical physicist supposed to save the world?

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Sheinkin

Reading Group Guide

In December of 1938, a chemist in a German laboratory made a shocking discovery: When placed next to radioactive material, a Uranium atom split in two. That simple discovery launched a scientific race that spanned 3 continents. In Great Britain and the United States, Soviet spies worked their way into the scientific community; in Norway, a commando force slipped behind enemy lines to attack German heavy-water manufacturing; and deep in the desert, one brilliant group of scientists was hidden away at a remote site at Los Alamos. This is the story of the plotting, the risk-taking, the deceit, and genius that created the world's most formidable weapon. This is the story of the atomic bomb.

Bomb is a 2012 National Book Awards finalist for Young People's Literature.

Steve Sheinkin is the award winning author of several fascinating books on American history. He lives in Saratoga Springs, NY. Visit Steve at his website

This guide was created in alignment with the Common Core State Standards. Questions and activities develop skills outlined in Reading Standards for Informational Text and Literacy in History/Social
Studies, Writing, and Speaking and Listening. In an effort to support educators, reference is made to specific anchor standards where appropriate.


Science/Technical Writing: Read aloud with your students, chapters: The U Business (p. 13-17), The Gadget (p.97-102), and Epilogue (p. 231-232). If you're using this in an English class, you may wish to share with students supplemental materials that explain fission and fusion (ex: has materials or your school science texts). Tell your students that they are now spies and it is their job to write a one page report summarizing the key steps to the workings of an atom bomb and hydrogen bomb, including a sketched diagram of the process with accurate labeling. Let students know they will be assessed on their use of technical vocabulary, consistent formal tone, and organization of the report. RI.4, W.4, W.2, WHST.2, WHST.4, RST.4, RST.7

History: Assign students to read and analyze primary sources. Discuss with students the impact the reading of these primary sources has on their understanding of the situations as related by Sheinkin. Example sources and sample questions to consider are provided below.

    Edward Teller's Testimony in Oppenheimer Hearings (coincides with p. 231-235) What is the purpose of this testimony? In what ways does Mr. Gray succeed at proving his point? How does the reading of this primary source affect your understanding and opinion of the
    Oppenheimer hearings? Having read this transcript, do you feel that Sheinekin's telling about Oppenheimer's hearings is sympathetic in one way or another and why? Truman Announcing the Bombing of Hiroshima (coincides with p.199) What is the date of the announcement? What is the purpose of it? What is the tone? What lines or passages most effectively accomplish the purpose of the announcement? After reading the entire announcement, do you feel Sheinkin's extracts best represent the whole? How might different extracts affect the reader differently? RI.2, RI.4, RI.6, RI.7, RI.9, RH.1, RH.2, RH.5, RH.8, RH.9, SL.1, SL.4

Language Arts/Theater: Before reading, assign students a key historical figure from the book. A list of people you might consider: Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein, Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, Eugene Wigner, Leo Szilard, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Knut Haukelid, Leslie Groves, Enrico Fermi, Jens Poulsson, Robert Serber, Harry Truman, Dorothy McKibben, Richard Feynman, Moe Berg, Paul Tibbets. After reading the book, students will write and perform a monologue as their assigned historical figure. Every monologue will begin with the same first sentence, "The United States wouldn't have succeeded without me!" Instruct students to keep notes throughout their reading of key details, phrases, and situations they can use in their monologue to show how that person was instrumental and his/her emotional reaction to the success. The tone should be persuasive, but also reflect the mood of the person at the end of the war. RI.1, RI.2, W.1, W.4, SL.4, SL.6, L.6

History/Language Arts: Sheinkin quotes Robert Oppenheimer, "The safety of this nation," he insisted, "cannot lie wholly or even primarily in its scientific or technical prowess. It can be based only on making future wars impossible" (214). Sheinkin writes, "He believed the nation should stop building bombs" (214). Assign students to write an essay agreeing or disagreeing with Oppenheimer. They should support their argument in part by referencing their knowledge of atomic warfare, quoting people from the book, and the primary sources read in class or found during their own research. W.1, W.4, W.7, W.8, W.9, WHST.1, WHST.4, WHST.7, WHST.8, WHST.9

Debate: Sheinkin explores several reasons American scientists and citizens felt justified in spying for the KGB. Have students use the text and outside resources to list reasons for and against spying in this situation. Set up a fishbowl debate where students can tag each other in so many students can partake. SL.1, SL.3, SL.4, RI.1, RI.3, RH.1

Writing/Film: In the acknowledgments section of the book, Sheinkin writes of a conversation with his editor, "We were discussing an article we'd both read about an obscure World War II spy, and gradually that grew into the idea of doing an ambitious global thriller about the birth of the bomb" (260). Which elements and techniques used by Sheinkin in this book develop the thriller pacing and tone he set out to achieve? Compare the novel to the movie, Fat Man and Little Boy. Discuss the techniques the movie uses to engage the viewer. Discuss the differences between the two interpretations and your expectations of them. RI.3, RI.4, RI.5, RH.5, RH.6, SL.1, SL.2

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Part 1: Three-Way Race,
Part 2: Chain Reactions,
Part 3: How To Build An Atomic Bomb,
Part 4: Final Assembly,
Race to Trinity,
Source Notes,
Quotation Notes,
Photo Credits,