The terrifying first use of nuclear weapons over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 was the most controversial act of warfare in history, dramatically ending the Second World War but ushering in the age of mass destruction. Yet it was also the climax of a story that extends beyond Japan and Washington: the culmination of decades of scientific achievement and centuries of colonial exploitation.
Snake Dance is the account of a journey that turned into a quest to discover how humanity reaches this point. Patrick Marnham travels from the opulent nineteenth-century palaces of King Leopold II of Belgium, built with riches plundered from the Congo, to the lethally derelict nuclear reactor of modern-day Kinshasa. He follows the shipment of Congolese uranium to the deserts of New Mexico for the Manhattan Project’s secret test detonation. Here he uncovers the legacies of Robert Oppenheimer and Aby Warburg, two ‘mad geniuses’ who confronted the devastating power of twentieth-century science in very different ways.
Both men travelled to New Mexico. Oppenheimer was honoured for buiding a bomb, the ancestor of weapons that have enslaved humanity. Warburg, condemned to obscurity and confined to a mental hospital, regained his sanity by studying the rituals of the Native Americans of the Southwest who, for thousands of years, practiced the ritual of the ‘snake dance’ in an attempt to harness the power of lightening. And it was in New Mexico, at Los Alamos, that the ultimate act of playing God was realised.
The circle is closed in Japan. Faced with the catastrophe at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant in March 2011, scientific man, like the snake dancers, is faced with a power beyond his control. Spanning three continents and the history of civilisation, Snake Dance is at once an intrepid intellectual adventure and a wake-up call for mankind.