Dorothy's List: Story Of Spies And Nuclear Secrets Told In 'Bomb'

Nov 3, 2013

Seventh graders at Camel’s Hump Middle School in Richmond are reading Bomb: The Race to Build – and Steal – The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon.  The non-fiction book by Steve Sheinkin is one of 30 nominated for this year's Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award.

The students are making a 1940s-style radio drama, based on the based on the book. Seventh grader Noah Chabot is the narrator and sets the scene like this: "We take you now to Woods Hole, where 22-year-old Harvard University student Donald Hornig was doing research in an explosives lab. His boss walked in. 'Come up to the attic with me.' They went to the attic and the door was locked..."

A discussion ensues with Raina Carfaro playing Donald Hornig, and Lucaiah Smith-Miodownik acting as her boss.

(Lucaiah) How would you like to leave this job?
(Raina) What’s the matter? Have I done something wrong?
(Lucaiah) No, you’ve been requested for another job.
(Raina) Oh, that’s interesting.

The other job Donald Hornig was asked to take on was interesting, indeed. It was none other than the Manhattan Project. The students’ old-school radio drama tells a piece of the story they learned in Steve Sheinkin’s book: the world’s best scientific minds working together to figure out how to build a nuclear bomb. Even as the science was being worked out, competing international spies were trying to steal the secrets for their own countries’ undercover nuclear programs.  Bomb reads more like a spy novel than a nonfiction book about scientific discovery. Sheinkin is a former text book writer, and he says text books always seem to leave out the best parts of the story.

VPR recorded questions from the students at Camel's Hump Middle School, and posed then Sheinkin for this story. Seventh grader Sonia Nussbaum wants to know why Sheinkin chose this story to bring alive. She asks the author,  "I was wondering, why did you want to write about this certain topic, and what inspired you to write about it?"

Steve Sheinkin says, "It all goes back to those days of being a textbook writer and thinking, 'Wow, we’re writing books that are going to convince kids that they hate history. That’s kind of a shame.' So from that point on, I’ve spent my life looking for stories that could do the opposite – that could make really exciting stories. ... And when I find a story that has spies, scientists, sabotage, action, that’s what I’m looking for. So, there aren’t that many stories that are as rich and incredibly thrilling as this race to build a bomb – or as important. So when I find a story like that, that’s what I’m looking for."

Even though he’s a writer, Steve Sheinkin says he spends far more of his time researching and outlining than actually writing. Seventh grader Raina Carfaro wonders about his research. She asks, "How did you get all the information? Like how was it all gathered and put into place?"

Sheinkin answered, "Aside from the primary sources, the research involved just tons of reading. Literally mounds of books that I would read, and when I do that I just take lots and lots of notes. And some kids say, when I describe my job, it sounds like I do homework for a living. Which I, I deny that, but it is kind of like that because you’re reading and taking notes. And then you end up with this pile and pile of notes and quotes and images and ideas for scenes. And then the next step is to work all that into some kind of exciting narrative."

Sometimes research involves traveling to the places where the history happened. Middle schooler Noah Chabot asks, "Did you go anywhere like Vemork or Los Alamos for research or something?"

"Yeah, that’s one of the best parts of the job – the travel I get to do to research some of my stories," says Sheinkin. "I did get to go to Los Alamos, I did not get to go to Norway.  Los Alamos was a great, and really unusual place to visit." Sheinkin describes it as, "a city totally isolated on top of a mountain. I definitely got a sense of how isolated the scientists must have felt, working away on top of this mountain."

Robert Oppenheimer is one of the people Steve Sheinkin researched for Bomb. He led the Manhattan Project’s secret weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, and he caught the interest of seventh grader Lucaiah Smith-Miodownik: "When I was reading about Robert Oppenheimer, it was interesting to me how fast his mind worked. Like, his brain was going a mile a minute. This sort-of reminded me about myself. So, I was wondering what it was like writing about Robert Oppenheimer."

"I like writing about people who are geniuses, even if I can’t understand exactly what’s going on in their mind," says Sheinkin. "As a kid, it can be a real problem. You know, in school he would say, 'Ask me a question in Latin and I’ll answer in Greek.' Things like that, which would of course annoy your fellow 10-year-olds. It got him beat up at summer camp, you know when he was writing poems and collecting rocks, and his mind was always moving and he was always learning. And it was only when he discovered science, physics, math that he realized what this gift was. It almost was like a super-power, I think, because sure there were other people who were stronger, but he could use his mind in ways that others couldn’t."

Another genius who has a cameo role in Bomb is Albert Einstein. He wrote a letter to the President of the United States alerting him to the German discovery that an atom could be split. Middle schooler Megan Lagrow asks about the importance of this scene in the book: "What do you think would have happened if Enstein’s letter didn’t get to Roosevelt?"

Sheinkin answers,"I don’t think that we never would have gotten into this race to build the bomb. I think that was inevitable. But it was a really important moment because it got this letter from Einstein into the hands of President Roosevelt which the scientists, the other scientists, had no idea how to do. So it was a really important moment because it alerted the President to this danger, which he had no idea about. And, from there, kick-started what became the Manhattan Project."

Seventh grader Belle Grimm wonders why Sheinkin chose to write about this one event during World War II. She asks, "Of all of the things that went on during that time period, why did he choose the building and stealing of the atomic bomb?"

Sheinkin answers, "Yeah, that’s a good question, there’s so much going on. But what attracted me to the story was the spy angle. That’s what got me into it."

Seventh grader LeAnn Graff is curious how the scientists felt about the morality of building the world’s most dangerous weapon: "I was just wondering, like, what he thought all the scientists in the Manhattan Project were feeling ... like during this process of building a bomb that potentially kills millions of people."

Sheinkin answers, "Yes, that’s fascinating because all these scientists – they’d never thought about building weapons of mass destruction. Nothing could have been further from their mind. They were working together as an international community on these beautiful ideas. And then once the war started, and this new possibility of this new kind of bomb existed, they found themselves working on this weapon. And for the duration of the war, I think, especially when you look at Robert Oppenheimer, who was really a pacifist in his own life. He just became obsessed with winning the race. And you can understand that because they were racing Adolph Hitler, in their minds, to build this bomb. And if Hitler had gotten it first, of course world history would have been incredibly different from that point on. And it was only after they succeeded that a lot of them really started to think about the moral implications of it. And struggled with it, a lot of them, for the rest of their lives."

Back at Camel’s Hump Middle School, the students rehearse a scene that hints at some of the weighty pressures faced by the scientists:

(Lucaiah) Well, I’ll tell you what, Don. You take your time and think it over very, very carefully. And let me know what you want to do tomorrow morning.
(Raina) On the basis of this information, no. I’m not interested unless you tell me that the war requires I do it, that it’s a matter of sufficient urgency…
(Lucaiah) Well, I can’t take that responsibility.

And responsibility is one of the lessons these seventh graders are learning as they grapple with ethical and historical questions in Bomb.