Reviewed by S. S. Schweber, Fisher School of Physics,
John Canaday's beautifully written and insightful study, The Nuclear Muse, is the melding of literature and science at its best. He wants to understand how the nuclear physicists, who working at Chicago and at Los Alamos made nuclear weapons a reality, were inspired by their readings before World War II. He probes how and why they used metaphors, analogies, and tropes to obtain insights into, and to come to terms with, the representations of the dynamics of the microscopic world that they had created, and why, during and after the war, they adopted literary modes of expression to come to terms with, and to explain, the new world they had shaped. Since Canaday is concerned with nuclear physicists, he calls the muse that inspired them the nuclear muse. However, he might as well have called her the scientific muse, for she is also the muse that 'inspires terror and wonder in us when we think of the forces we have learned to unleash but are not quite certain how to control' (p.23). She is a muse who through her love of literature and of science nurtures 'the common anxieties of [our] times'.
In several chapters of his book, Canaday carefully examines the rhetorical construction of some of the literary texts produced by physicists before, during, and after World War II: Niels Bohr's 1927 Como lecture in which he introduced the notion of complementarity; the Blegdamsveg Faust, the parody of Goethe's play put on at the 1932 theoretical physics conference at Bohr's Institute in Copenhagen; the Los Alamos Primer, the mimeographed booklet of the extant knowledge of nuclear weapons that greeted the physicists when they arrived in Los Alamos in April 1943; Szilard's postwar novella, The Voice of the Turtle, his plan for a livable world; Russell Hoben's novel Riddley Walker, a view of a futuristic world in the aftermath of a nuclear conflagration. In the chapters on Los Alamos, Canaday analyses the rhetoric that the Los Alamites used to conceptualize their social world and their technical work. He shows how the metaphors of exploration and discovery allowed them to express and to contain the deep anxieties that were engendered by their work on nuclear weapons, and how the language they used infused a moral purpose to their scientific activities.
The Nuclear Muse is an impressive achievement. Its exposition of the physics and of the history of nuclear weaponry is accurate and illuminating; its application of the tools and techniques of literary criticism enlightening and rewarding. It offers a new vantage point from which to elucidate these fateful developments. I know of no other exploration of the relation between literary and scientific languages that is as clear, as important, as generative, and as relevant.