Tuxedo Park : A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II

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9780684872872: Tuxedo Park : A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II

In the fall of 1940, as German bombers flew over London and with America not yet at war, a small team of British scientists on orders from Winston Churchill carried out a daring trans-atlantic mission. The British unveiled their most valuable military secret in a clandestine meeting with American nuclear physicists at the Tuxedo Park mansion of a mysterious Wall Street tycoon, Alfred Lee Loomis. Powerful, handsome, and enormously wealthy, Loomis had for years led a double life, spending his days brokering huge deals and his weekends working with the world's leading scientists in his deluxe private laboratory that was hidden in a massive stone castle. In this dramatic account of a hitherto unexplored but crucial story of the war, Jennet Conant traces one of the world's most extraordinary careers and scientific enterprises. She describes Loomis' phenomenal rise to become one of the Wall Street legends of the go-go twenties. He foresaw the stock market crash of 1929 in time to protect his vast holdings, making a fortune while other bankers were losing their shirts. He rode out the Depression years in high style, and indulged in the hobbies of the fabulously rich. He raced his own America's Cup yacht against the Vanderbilts and Astors, and purchased Hilton Head Island in South Carolina as his private game reserve. Conant writes about the glamour and privilege of his charmed circle as well as Loomis' marriage to a beautiful but depressive wife, whom he sent away for repeated hospitalizations while he pursued a covert affair with his protege's young wife. His bitter divorce scandalized New York society and drove Loomis into near seclusion in East Hampton. At the height of hisinfluence on Wall Street, Loomis abruptly retired and devoted himself purely to science. He turned his Tuxedo Park laboratory into the meeting place for the most visionary minds of the twentieth century: Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, James Franck, Niels Bohr, and Enrico Fermi. With England threatened by invasion, he joined Vannevar Bush, Karl Compton, and the author's grandfather, Harvard president James B. Conant, in mobilizing civilian scientists to defeat Nazi Germany, and personally bankrolled pioneering research into the radar detection systems that ultimately changed the course of World War II. Together with his friend Ernest Lawrence, the Nobel Prize-winning atom smasher, Loomis established a top-secret wartime laboratory at MIT and recruited the most famous names in physics. Through his close ties to his cousin Henry Stimson, who was secretary of war, Loomis was able to push FDR to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to create the advanced radar systems that defeated the German Air Force and deadly U-boats, and then to build the first atomic bomb. One of the greatest scientific generals of World War II, Loomis' legacy exists not only in the development of radar but also in his critical role in speeding the day of victory.

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Review:

This must have been an extremely difficult book to write. Its subject, Alfred Loomis, never gave interviews during his lifetime and destroyed all his papers before his death. "Few men of Loomis' prominence and achievement have gone to greater lengths to foil history," writes author Jennet Conant. Had he not done these things, his name would be better known--and this probably wouldn't be the first biography about him. So who was Alfred Loomis? "He was too complex to categorize--financier, philanthropist, society figure, physicist, inventor, amateur, dilettante--a contradiction in terms," writes Conant. Loomis established a private laboratory in New York and hired scientists whose work in the 1930s wound up making possible both the radar and the atomic bomb. These developments were essential to Allied victory in the Second World War. Conant is perhaps the only person who could have pierced Loomis's obsessive secrecy and written this book; she grew up with Loomis's children and other members of his family. Her grandfather, Harvard president James Bryant Conant, was one of Loomis's scientists. Tuxedo Park is an important book about the development of military technology in the United States; admirers of The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes and similar titles won't want to miss it. --John Miller

About the Author:

Jennet Conant's profiles have appeared in Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, Newsweek, and The New York Times. She was given unrestricted access to Loomis' and Conant's papers, as well as to previously unpublished letters and documents, and she interviewed Loomis' many family members, friends, and colleagues. She lives in New York City and Sag Harbor with her husband and son.

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