Richard Garwin is one of the last surviving members of the cadre of Manhattan Project-era physicists and their students who went on to distinguished careers as both scientists and policy analysts. The depth and breadth of Garwin's contributions to pure physics, commercial and national-security technologies, and service on government committees, boards, and panels is astonishing. As the subtitle of this biography indicates, Garwin is probably largely unknown to the public and likely even to today's generation of physicists. A sense of the magnitude of his contributions is indicated by a very partial list of the recognitions he has received: the National Medal of Science, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, election to all three United States National Academies, and being named one of ten Founders of National Reconnaissance by the National Reconnaissance Office.

A biography of Garwin is long overdue. This work was begun by writer and historian Daniel Ford in the 1990s but was taken on by Joel Shurkin when Ford was unable to complete the project. Shurkin had access to numerous interviews conducted by Ford, which he has complemented with considerable research and additional interviews of his own, including several with Garwin. Overall, Shurkin does a respectable job, but the result is marred by a choppy writing style and several minor errors.

Shurkin covers Garwin's life in essentially chronological order in 19 fast-paced chapters. Garwin's technical and mathematical talents were evident at a young age. He graduated from high school at age 16 and enrolled in the Case School of Applied Science, which is now part of Case Western Reserve University. A scholarship then took him to graduate school at the University of Chicago in 1947 where, as a student of Enrico Fermi, he graduated with his Ph.D. after only two years. Fermi considered Garwin a “real genius”; indeed, in his mastery of both experiment and theory, Garwin is reminiscent of Fermi. His career in public policy may have been inspired by Fermi, who towards the end of his life lamented what he felt to be his own relative lack of involvement in this area.

In the summer of 1950, Garwin accompanied Fermi to Los Alamos, where he became involved in the development of the “super” or hydrogen bomb in response to President Truman's call for research on such weapons. By the following summer, the Teller-Ulam radiation-implosion concept had been developed, and Teller assigned Garwin to draft a design, which he did in a still-classified six-page memo. This was not a final design but certainly played a role in the design of the “Ivy Mike” thermonuclear device that yielded a staggering 10.4 megatons when it was detonated in October 1952. Eclipsed by the debate over whether Teller or Ulam deserved credit for the bomb, Garwin's contribution to the project remained essentially unknown beyond a small group of insiders for nearly 50 years.

Garwin returned to Chicago in 1951 following his stint at Los Alamos, but the next year took a job as the Director of IBM's new computing laboratory located at Columbia University. His H-bomb work had brought him to the attention of the weapons establishment and its administrators in Washington, and his IBM contract included 1/3 release time for him to pursue government consulting. Both IBM and the nation benefitted from this arrangement.

Individual chapters of this book are each largely devoted to some technology, physical theory, or defense program in which Garwin had a hand in developing, proposing, or analyzing. His position at IBM coupled with two 4-year terms as a member of the President's Science Advisory Committee and longstanding service as a member of the JASON science advisory group brought him into contact with virtually every important defense and technological issue of the last half of the twentieth century. An incomplete list includes methods of detecting underground nuclear explosions and surprise bomber and missile attacks, advising President Kennedy on radiation released in the high-altitude Starfish Prime nuclear test of 1962, air traffic control systems, fast Fourier transforms, photocopiers, laser printers, touch screens, global positioning satellites, nuclear power, Permissive Action Links for nuclear weapons, electronic sensing of enemy troop movements in Vietnam, supersonic passenger aircraft, the MX missile system, the futility of anti-ballistic missile systems, briefing President Carter on the possible South African nuclear test of 1979, consulting on virtually every nuclear-arms treaty in existence, testifying against inflated claims for the Strategic Defense Initiative, and debunking claims of a second shooter in the Kennedy assassination. Some of his proposals were remarkably prescient, such as a computer-based system for exchanging medical records, offshore floating airports to ease congestion in crowded urban coastal areas, solar-sail spacecraft, superconducting power transmission, and sea-to-air refueling of aircraft. His assessments were always backed up by hard-headed analysis of the physics involved and a deep understanding of the relevant current and likely future technologies. One JASON member was of the opinion that Garwin was “the most informed person in the United States on defense matters.”

More often than not, Garwin's analysis of some issues would identify a technologically and economically superior approach only to run headlong into status-quo inertia, entrenched bureaucracies, the political power of contractors, and politicians who possessed no real technical understanding of programs upon which they were deciding. Despite numerous setbacks, Garwin never shied away from telling truth to power. He remains active, as evidenced by his 2015 effort to spearhead the preparation of a letter to President Obama praising the Iran nuclear deal that was signed by 29 distinguished scientists.

Unfortunately, the telling of Garwin's fascinating story suffers in this book. Perhaps reflective of his background as a freelance science writer and reporter, Shurkin's style is jumpy, characterized by frequent short phrases that gave me a sense of a work that was still in draft form, much in need of some editorial smoothing. An author's style is of course his or her own, but I suspect that many readers will find the narrative jarring. Some passages are garbled or come off as flippant, given the seriousness of the issues involved. For example, in a discussion of coincidence counting in Garwin's thesis work, we read that “He produced gamma-ray measurements less than a hundred-millionth of a second…” (p. 24). A discussion of the discovery of fission on page 22 summarizes that phenomenon as “…splitting the atom, and E = mc2 and all that.” A description of how a fission-fusion-fission bomb operates concludes with “Then the whole thing blows up” (p. 52). I came across a number of relatively minor but surprising errors that should have been corrected: Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann were chemists, not physicists (p. 22); Otto Frisch was in Birmingham, not London, when fission was discovered (p. 22); it is a leap to assert that Fermi's CP-1 pile showed that “it would be possible to build a city-destroying bomb” (p. 23); tritium is not “a radioactive isotope of lithium” (p. 29); the Department of Energy did not exist in 1962 (p. 92); and “National Research Laboratory” was probably intended to be “Naval Research Laboratory” (p. 192). These errors do not reflect on Garwin, but a biographical subject of his stature deserves better. Future treatments of Garwin will no doubt cite Shurkin, and misinformation propagation is bound to result.

Despite these problems, this book is required reading for anyone interested in learning about one of the key contributors to so many technologies and policies of the twentieth century. At a time when governments need sound scientific advice more than ever, Garwin is a shining example of a true patriot-citizen-scientist.

Cameron Reed is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Physics at Alma College. He served as the editor of the American Physical Society's “Physics & Society” newsletter from 2009 to 2013 and is currently the Secretary-Treasurer of the APS's Forum on the History of Physics. His interests lie in the physics and history of nuclear weapons; his text “The History and Science of the Manhattan Project” was published by Springer in late 2013.