PD Smith

Fatal fascination

11 October 2008 | atomic bomb, C-bomb, Doomsday Men, Dr Strangelove, Faust | 3 comments

Two more great reviews of the paperback edition of Doomsday Men. The first is by Amber Pearson in the Daily Mail:

"From Adam and Eve to Dr Faustus and Dr Strangelove, the history - and popular culture - of the human race is littered with examples of our fatal fascination with the acquisition of knowledge. As PD Smith points out, Homo sapiens is the only species which knows it will die. So what is it that drives intelligent, rational men and women to push back the boundaries of science, knowing that their work will be used to develop ever more powerful methods of mass destruction? Written with all the pace of a thriller, this is a compelling, and ultimately extremely chilling, look at the way scientific discovery has always gone hand-in-hand with warfare, and it captures the sense of urgency and excitement felt in the race to create the atomic bomb."

The second is by Jon Swaine in today's Daily Telegraph:

"The story of the plan to create the C-bomb - a nu­clear bomb cap­able of dest­roy­ing all life on Earth - is chilling. Yet PD Smith's history, told with the joyful enthusiasm of a sci-fi aficionado, is also irresistible. Darting between history and biographies of the key scientists, Smith includes doomsday devices from fiction, showing how prescient some writers have (almost) proved. The tension at the story's heart - why their generation's most gifted scientists would seek to create potential apocalypse to preserve peace - endures, anchoring this surreal period drama in reality, 20 years after the end of the Cold War."

3 comments so far:

  1. Gwilym Williams | 14 October 2008

    I haven't yet had the pleasure of reading Doomsday Men. But I'd like to query your first premise.
    "Homo sapiens is the only species that knows it will die"
    Seals know they will die. Penguins know they will die. Elephants know they will die. Dolphins know they will die.
    Perhaps you mean
    "Homo sapiens is the only species that know it will die [out]"
    But homo sapiens does not 'know' that. Homo sapiens may discover a way to become immortal.

  2. PD Smith | 14 October 2008

    Thanks for your comment Gwilym.

    I guess this sentence is a generalisation and as such may be challenged. It arose partly out of my reading of an excellent book by Robin Dunbar - "The Human Story", in which he argues (among other things) that no other species "has anything remotely resembling religion".

    As a species we have such a wonderfully rich life of the mind: we can imagine utopias and dystopias, we create art and religions, believe in heavens and hells. And I think you could argue that much of this stems from our awareness, from quite a young age, that our time is limited: we will all die.

    I suppose as we are unable to talk to animals, we can't tell whether they know they will die. My feeling is that they don't have the kind of profound knowledge of death that has played such an important role in the history of our species.

    I hope in spite of this you will enjoy the book!

  3. Gwilym Williams | 14 October 2008

    This is an interesting subject.
    Sure, animals don't have religion. But we can't even say that for sure. Elephants have some strange rituals from what I can gather. In our local zoo for example a young elephant killed a zoo-keeper a few short weeks after the zoo director had ordered the body of an elderly elephant which had died to be removed from the elephant compound. An act of revenge?
    Might elephants need a period of mourning, perhaps some time with the deceased? Just like us in fact.
    I saw a film where some penguins having overwintered in a kind of shifting huddle in the Antarctic were basically starving by the time spring came. They made their way to the sea to catch some fish. There was a hole in the ice and in the water circling the hole were the predators who were waiting to snaffle the penguins as soon as they jumped into the water. It was a kind of cat and mouse situation. The penguins knew they might die on this day. You could see the fear in their expressions as they looked at each other wondering what to do.
    I will look out for your book.

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