The Bastard Brigade, The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb, by Sam Kean, 2019, 433 pages, hardcover, ISBN 978 0 316-38166-6 $39.00 CAD
The Bastard Brigade is Kean's first book involving physics. By his own admission, even though physics was his minor in University, his previous books1-4 dealt with stories concerning chemistry and biology. As an English literature major, he prefers to tell a "rip roaring" story with science as a backdrop and he has picked a bombshell, literally, to launch his foray into physics. The Bastard Brigade, as the title suggests, is set in World War II. Kean has organized the book into 59 chapters collected into six parts: Prewar to 1939, 1940-41, 1942, 1943, 1944, and 1945. He adds a Summer of 1944 prologue, an epilogue covering 1946 and beyond, a cast of characters and a list of sources. As the actual book reviewed was an advanced read copy, it did not include the 24 pages of colour inserts.
Kean's writing is easy, mesmerizing, and peppered with dry humour. He is a consummate story teller allowing the reader to live and feel the history he is presenting. While this may be Kean’s first venture into physics, The Bastard Brigade is primarily a history novel with science as an undertone. As such the book is readable by a very wide audience and whatever science he delves into, is simplified with diagrams. Kean makes history totally engaging and thrilling to read.
While the organization of the book is chronological, Kean introduces the players at different times, much like a puzzle, where the characters slowly begin to fit together and a picture emerges. The section on the cast of characters is helpful to remind the reader of someone we met a number of chapters ago. Many of the players are scientists, some of whom we include in our classes, Heisenberg, Curie, Joliot-Curie, Hahn, Fermi, Meitner, Oppenheimer to name a few; some are politicians, some armed forces and one was a Major League catcher. All are depicted honestly, with their strengths as well as their flaws. As he has done in the past,5 Kean takes Nazi scientists to task for their involvement in the war effort, painting even Nobel Laureates with an unflattering brush.
The Prologue cleverly sets the stage and reasoning for the Allied all out attempt to thwart Hitler in obtaining nuclear weapons. The prewar section introduces many of the main players both in science and in the Brigade. We are introduced to our catcher, Moe Berg, the army man Boris Pash and our physicist Samuel Goudsmit. These are the chief players in the Bastard Brigade and their missions, with their successes and failures, are electrifying to read. Just as thrilling and perhaps more apropos to the science teacher is the race to turn atomic fission into a nuclear weapon. When teaching atomic theory, we tend to briefly mention Becquerel and Curie and get right to Rutherford. Much more science was occurring and the stories of those in the thick of it — Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn, Enrico Fermi, Frédéric and Irene Joliot-Curie are riveting, especially given the backdrop of wartime Germany. Indeed, the spiriting of Niels Bohr out of Europe and eventually to the US is fraught with intrigue and humour and Kean's descriptions of Bohr are hilarious.
In the subsequent parts, from 1940 to 1945, the pace of science, the worry over a Nazi bomb, and the mission to thwart it, build and grow. The issue of the Nazi production of the nuclear moderator, heavy water, and how to sabotage it is particularly fascinating. Kean gives the reader a front row seat with enthralling stories from failed to successful attempts to sabotage the heavy water plant, to the attempted sinking of the heavy water enroute to Germany. In addition, we are party to the rivalry between Kennedy brothers, sons of the US Ambassador to England, as we read of the PT109 heroism of John (later US President JFK) and the reckless abandon of his brother Joe Jr. Finally, while most of us know of the D Day landing, Kean makes us privy to the incredible technical aspects and meticulous scientific preparations performed in advance.
The fear of a Nazi nuclear capability is palpable both in the political and military circles but paramount within the scientific community as we are aware of both the awe and revulsion felt for Werner Heisenberg, the chief architect of the Nazi nuclear machine. The task of the Brigade to attempt to kidnap or eliminate him was filled with "uncertainty" in both the literal and figurative sense. In reality, the Manhattan Project was started as a defence against the Nazi fission bomb. Alas, once Germany was "on the ropes", the American nuclear war effort shifted from defence to offence. With the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, most scientists were extremely troubled and terribly saddened at how their discoveries were turned into a horrifying weapon. There was even the fear that Otto Hahn, who was credited with the discovery of the splitting of the uranium atom,6 and under house arrest in England at the time, might suicide.
The postwar section ties up loose ends for the three main characters of The Bastard Brigade. Particularly poignant is the visit Goudsmit made to his childhood home in The Hague, Netherlands, his parents having been killed two years earlier in Auschwitz. Closure is also given for Pash and Berg. Throughout the war, the Bastard Brigade had worked out of the OSS, Office of Strategic Services which, after the war, became the American CIA.
There is a definite advantage to reading history in that one already knows the outcome. But Kean's magnificent storytelling style places you inside the action; you feel the Allied fear at playing catch up to the Nazi nuclear program. And while you know how it all plays out, you still experience the dread and elation of the various players.
For the science teacher this is a wonderful war book that has a great deal of science included. While the science may not be new to you, how it is presented and the chronology of discovery may be. So too will be the fleshing out of the many scientists, of whom you may have heard but perhaps know little about. Putting science into a historical perspective helps it to come alive for you and ultimately for your students. For that reason, this is a book deserving to be read by everyone and should be read by science teachers.
- “The Disappearing Spoon and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements”, Chem 13 News, September 2011.
- “The Violinist’s Thumb and Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius as Written by Our Genetic Code”, Chem 13 News, May 2013.
- “The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons — The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness and Recovery”, Chem 13 News, November 2016.
- “Caesar's Last Breath — Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us”, Chem 13 News, May 2018.
- Read Kean's roasting of Fritz Haber in “Caesar's Last Breath”.
- It was Lise Meitner's calculations that made the discovery possible; but as she was Jewish and female, Hahn took all the credit as well as the Nobel Prize.