Most physicists lead hum-drum lives, but not if they were born in Iraq. Hamza studied in American graduate schools, and was summoned back to teach in Iraq as a way of paying off his university debts. When invited in 1972 to join the nascent Iraqi nuclear effort, Hamza did so with some enthusiasm, thinking this would be a wonderful professional challenge and not taking seriously the prospect of an actual bomb. In addition to Hamza's talent as a scientist and scholar, his finely-tuned ability to stay out of trouble quickly became apparent and he began a long march through the bureaucracy. By 1981, he was working directly for Saddam Husayn and by 1987 he served as director general of the Nuclear Weapon Program. This high stature inevitably brought the scientist head-turning benefits – a high salary, travel to the West, fancy cars, even a residence located within Saddam Husayn's presidential compound. "All that loot was softening me up, I don't deny it," Hamza admits. With time, however, an absorbing intellectual venture turned into a descent into Stalinist hell. Finally, Hamza fully woke to his situation ("I had sold out for a Mercedes") and in 1994 managed to escape from Iraq, settling a year later in the United States.
Although Saddam's Bombmaker is a well-written memoir (kudos to co-author Stein), it contains important information on two quite distinct topics of current interest: life at the highest levels of Iraqi regime and the inner workings of the Iraqi nuclear weapons project. It is hard to say which is scarier. Life in Saddam's court is morbidly fascinating. We learn about his paranoia about germs, his taste for virgins, and his personal penchant for brutality. As for the nukes, Hamza shows how, after an initial period (1972-81) of heavy dependence on imported technology, the Iraqis rethought their program, put twenty-five times more resources in it, and built "a crude, one-and-a-half ton nuclear device" by 1990.