The Bastard Brigade by Sam Kean

The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic BombThe Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb by Sam Kean
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m a big fan of science books, but not so much of history, so I was a bit skeptical when I started this book. I found it very enjoyable as I went along, largely due to the author’s very novel-like style. It’s told as a tipsy raconteur might tell war stories to regale the crowd. The author uses humor and slang liberally. Once he wrote that when one of the physicists commandeered a colonel’s Jeep, “a big swinging dick was royally pissed off.” Beers were brewskis and an assassination attempt might be described as trying to bump someone off. When a spy fell for a female physicist, the author observed that “cupid is a perverse little imp.”

He spent more time on the personalities than I would have liked, especially on Joe Kennedy, JFK’s older brother. He was a WWII pilot, and apparently not a very good one, whose only motivation was to become a war hero so that he could win the presidency someday. He was reckless, self-centered, obscenely ambitious, and had almost nothing to do with the central topic of the Nazi atomic bomb. He did, however, give his life on a volunteer mission to blow up what was thought to be a new Nazi superweapon. One aspect revealed in the book that was more troubling than entertaining was how many of scientists who worked for Germany rationalized their continuing to help the Nazi regime, even while claiming they hated the Nazis. Virtually none of the “renegade scientists” in the title were German; those people continued to try to defeat the Allies. It was Dutch, Russian, French, and American scientists who fit that description. That was illuminating, however, and helped solidify the serious side of the book. All in all, it’s a worthwhile read.

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