Book review: Churchill's Bomb: A hidden history of science, war and politics, By Graham Farmelo

Churchill's prescient passion for nuclear science – and flexible morality – inspire a very timely study

You would never have caught Winston Churchill employing the current catch-all term "assets" for military hardware and personnel. He was interested in the details. The surprise of Graham Farmelo's very fine book is the revelation that, as early as 1926, Churchill was boning up on quantum mechanics, and in 1931 predicting the enormous power that would come from hydrogen nuclear fusion.

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Churchill's interest in science was spurred by his admiration for HG Wells. The two became close friends and Wells's bold prognostications chimed well with Churchill's sense of himself as a master of human destiny. But despite his attempts to grasp quantum physics, when it came to the weapons of war Churchill was a boy with toys, preferring gadgets and hare-brained schemes to solid science. He liked to surround himself with idiosyncratic men such as the businessman and politician Brendan Bracken, the South African statesman and military leader Jan Smuts and, most relevant for this book, Frederick Lindemann, the faithful science adviser he called Prof.

Although Lindemann did fine work in bringing Jewish refugee physicists to Britain in the 1930s, his relationship with the physics community was strained. He was not himself a first-rank scientist but he had Churchill's ear. The result was that, although the process of creating a uranium bomb was devised by the refugee physicists Rudolf Peierls and Otto Frisch in Birmingham in 1940, from 1941 the British Atomic Bomb programme foundered in interminable committees.

When Churchill woke up to the fact that America was planning the largest industrial enterprise in history to manufacture the atomic bomb, it was too late. A few British scientists went to Los Alamos to work on the project but when the war ended Britain was frozen out of nuclear work. While Churchill was out of power (1945-51), the Attlee government went ahead to develop Britain's atomic bomb alone.

By the time Churchill returned, the H-Bomb cast its shadow over the world and he became obsessed with it. In his last days in office he was behaving dangerously erratically, more or less simultaneously inviting the Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov to a summit meeting and authorising the production of the British H-Bomb, both without Cabinet approval.

Churchill's ambivalent attitude to weapons of mass destruction sheds an ironic light on recent events. Despite his musings during the 1930s on the need for international control of the putative atomic bomb, in 1943 he brushed aside the anxieties of scientists such as the father-figure of nuclear research, Niels Bohr, claiming that it was just a bigger bomb and "made no difference to the principles of war".

He was also prepared to use anthrax against the Germans and was only prevented by supply problems. Of this he wrote, "it is absurd to consider morality". Noting that the bombing of civilian cities was once thought inadvisable and now "everybody does it", he went on, "It is simply a question of fashion changing".

Syria today demonstrates how the "fashion" has changed. When George Osborne suggests that Britain now needs to do some soul-searching in the wake of Parliament's rejection of intervention, Farmelo's book reminds us that the soul-searching is overdue by 60 years or so. When he returned in 1951, Churchill wanted Britain to continue with Great Power diplomacy. But even as he did so, the science adviser he should have had but never did, Henry Tizard, was warning: "We are not a Great Power and never will be again".

Farmelo's book illuminates the nexus between science, politics, war, and even literature better than anything I have read for some time. The issues it raises are both eternal and especially pressing now. It is not yet Book of the Year time but this has to be a contender.

Peter Forbes's 'Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage' is published by Yale