An American Prometheus

Sprawled on the sands of the New Mexico desert, Isador Isaac Rabi was witness on July 16, 1945, to a demonstration of scientific power so spectacular that neither his welder's glasses nor his analytical training could fully shield him from its awe-inspiring effects:

Suddenly, there was an enormous flash of light, the brightest light I have ever seen or that I think anyone else has ever seen. It blasted; it pounced; it bored its way into you. It was a vision which was seen with more than the eye. . . . Finally it was over . . . and we looked toward the place where the bomb had been; there was an enormous ball of fire which grew and grew and rolled as it grew; it went up into the air, in yellow flashes and into scarlet and green. It looked menacing.

More than two years before this first test of an atomic bomb, I.I. Rabi had refused J. Robert Oppenheimer's invitation to serve as associate director of the Manhattan Project. Still, no one questioned his place among the leading American scientists who gathered on that summer night to observe the fireball that rose above Alamogordo. Though his services to the Project as a consultant were modest, everyone involved recognized Rabi as one of the pioneers who had pushed America into the forefront of modern physics.

In this wonderfully accessible new biography, John Rigden paints an intriguing portrait of this remarkable man. Though himself a physicist,...

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