Fukushima Daiichi, Nuclear Power, Nuclear Weapons March 11, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Nuclear Weapons, Radioactivity
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Today marks the second anniversary of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. Along with the Chernobyl accident in 1986, it is designated as a level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale. The amount of radioactive contaminants released during Japan’s accident is, however, far less than in Russia’s. Also, recent predictions for health consequences suggest that the rise in cancer rates and deaths in Japan may be less than initially expected, according to the World Health Organization, in part because the accident occurred over time and many people had fled the tsunami and thereby avoided early and extended exposure. The uptick in cancer rates—thyroid cancer, breast cancer, leukemia—is most likely for the children of the area. The Japanese government predicts that the cleanup effort will take forty years.
Please read our regular post from last Wednesday—“The Second Anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi Accident”—for some of our reflections on the accident and our unfolding thinking.
Here in the United States—in our backyard in Southern California—the San Onofre nuclear power plant sits idle for the time being. The San Onofre license is good through 2022, but more than a year ago, a leak forced the plant to shut down. During maintenance, unexpected wear in metal tubes and one leak that resulted from this wear was discovered. A redacted report released Friday indicates that changes to the problematic generators were proposed before installation, but some of those changes required regulatory approval and, therefore, weren’t made. Mitsubishi, the company that manufactured the generators, claims that the changes would not have prevented the wear that was discovered.
Presumably—now in hindsight after inspection, rather than predicted as part of normal operation—the extensive wear resulted from the vibrations of parts that occurs when the plant runs at full power. The steam in the system was very dry, a known problem, but the kind of damage that occurred hadn’t been seen before. Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, the companies that own the nuclear power plant, have proposed repairs and running at less than full power.
Southern California, of course, is earthquake prone, so the Fukushima Daiichi accident casts a long shadow across the Pacific Ocean on whether the San Onofre plant should start up again, even if it’s running at 70% power. The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station—yes, SONGS—lies five miles from the nearest fault and is designed to withstand a 7.0 earthquake. Risk analysis at the time the San Onofre plant was designed indicated that the largest tsunami wave likely to hit the area would be 25 feet high, so the wall protecting the plant reaches 30 feet.
Also in the news lately and somewhat related, since nuclear power emerged from nuclear weapons research, is the problem at Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Hanford produced plutonium as part of the Manhattan Project and is now home to 177 tanks of nuclear waste, six of which are leaking, possibly releasing hundreds of gallons of radioactive material per year. Tanks at Hanford have been stabilized before, in 2005, after leaking millions of gallons, so this news about leaking now wasn’t unexpected. This place remains the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States. Cleanup is underway, riddled by delays and changes of plans, and will take decades and billions of dollars.
Our parents were children when the nuclear age began, when the first chain reaction was achieved by Enrico Fermi in Chicago and the first atomic bomb was tested in the New Mexico desert. The world’s first experimental nuclear power plant went online in Idaho in 1951, Russia started using a nuclear plant to power a grid in 1954, and England turned on the first commercial nuclear plant in 1956. All of this occurred before we were born.
We were born into an existing nuclear age. The Three Mile Island accident occurred on March 28, 1979, when we were in grade school and less than two weeks after the movie The China Syndrome—a film about a nuclear power plant accident—was released. The Chernobyl accident occurred on April 26, 1986, when we were in college and just months before Anna did a short study abroad course in the Soviet Union that had to be rescheduled to avoid the stop in Kiev, a couple of hours away from the disaster area. The Fukushima Daiichi accident occurred two years ago today, on March 11, 2011, as we went about our adult lives across the expanse of an ocean.
The Second Anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi Accident March 6, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Radioactivity
Note: Photographs in this post were taken at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque in May 2011.
Two years ago, on March 11, 2011, one of the worst nuclear accidents the world has ever known occurred at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan. The cleanup continues today and will continue for years to come.
That prefecture in Japan remains devastated. One need only look at the photo essay of ghost towns recently published in Bloomberg to see that, while we go about our daily lives, others across the Pacific Ocean live with the results of the nuclear accident every day. One need only hear the story of Atsufumi Yoshizawa published in The Independent early this month; Yoshizawa was a Tepco engineer who went back into the plant with a group of fellow workers to see what they could do to keep the accident from getting worse. One need only think about the fuel rods still in the mess, the debris still being removed. Or one need only think about the baby girls born in the last year who are 70% more likely to develop thyroid cancer; other cancers—breast cancer, leukemia—are expected to have an uptick in years to come for the population most exposed to radioactivity there.
Within a few days of the accident, we wrote about “Measurement and Scale.” Japan’s nuclear accident was the result of a 9.0 earthquake, and we wanted readers to ponder how enormous a shaking of the earth’s crust that was.
Later that month, we wrote about “Radiation vs. Radioactivity.” Radiation describes many physical processes; radios and light bulbs emit radiation. Radioactivity refers to the more specific process of nuclear decay. The danger from the nuclear accident—the danger that remains—is from radioactivity.
After that, as reports were emerging about exactly what substances had escaped into the atmosphere and ground around Fukushima Daiichi, we wrote about “Uranium & Plutonium & Fission.” Not all radioactive substances are equally toxic. Uranium is found in nature, whereas plutonium is manmade. Plutonium is especially toxic and stays around for a long, long time.
But the radioactive substances that were making the news in the weeks after Japan’s nuclear accident weren’t uranium and plutonium, so we wrote “Fission Products and Half Lives.” The products of nuclear fission—iodine-131, cesium-137, strontium-90—were what had escaped and continued to escape from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Our bodies absorb and metabolize each of these isotopes differently, so that iodine-131 collects in the thyroid, whereas strontium-90 affects the bones. These substances have a much swifter rate of decay than their parent elements uranium and plutonium, but they still stick around for decades.
Within two months of the nuclear accident, we write a two-part series on “Radioactivity and Other Risks” HERE and HERE. We wanted to talk about how we—individually and generally—weigh risk in our lives. Earthquakes and tsunamis are not unknown risks in Japan, but those who planned and built the nuclear power plant calculated that an earthquake of that magnitude and tsunami with waves of the height that occurred in 2011 were unlikely.
In that pair of posts, we also talked about the tricky nature of risk. Radioactivity affects each body differently, and most research we’ve been using to understand exposure risks is from the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Only recently have studes suggested that we’re exposing ourselves to potentially dangerous levels of radioactivity because we treat medical testing as safe and routine.
We’ve written about things nuclear since Japan’s accident two years ago, but the last time we mentioned Fukushima Daiichi specifically was at the end of 2011. We at Lofty Ambitions are interested in nuclear physics, nuclear weapons, and nuclear power, but even we didn’t bother to say anything about Fukushima Daiichi for more than a year. If we put it aside, certainly most people have. Sure, the anniversary will be covered in mainstream news media this coming week. But the nuclear accident of March 11, 2011, changed the world. The world became a little more risky that day.
In the wake of the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, Japan shut down all of its 50 nuclear power plants. Leaders talked about phasing out nuclear energy in Japan. But instead, Japan has toughened its standards for nuclear plants, and new leaders promise that some plants will go back online soon.
Meanwhile, debris from Japan’s tsunami is expected to wash onto the shores of British Columbia in Canada this year. The cleanup in Japan will continue for decades to come.
In the Footsteps: Jean Dayton (Part 15) January 2, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Books, In the Footsteps, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons
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Last Wednesday, Lofty Ambitions introduced Jean Dayton and our serendipitous meeting with that woman of the Manhattan Project and nuclear history. You can start with that post by clicking HERE.
Jean Klein Dayton would have been 88 years old this past Sunday. In continuing with our theme of chance, of serendipity, we hadn’t thought about Jean in quite a while, but recently, when tidying up the Manhattan Project area of Doug’s writing space, something in the stack of books, notes, photos, and maps brought Jean into a moment’s focus. Later, fingertips on laptop keyboard, Doug did a quick search for Jean (“jean klein dayton manhattan project”). Almost at the top of the search results was Jean’s obituary in the Corvallis Gazette-Times newspaper. She had died more than three years earlier in March 2009.
Also in that first page of results were links to information about Jean in Manhattan Project related websites and books. In particular, Doug was drawn to the passages about Jean in the book, Their Day in the Sun: Women of the Manhattan Project. It was a more-than-appropriate reminder of how we came to interview Jean in the summer of 2004. That summer was a furious maelstrom of activity. Doug was focused on writing up the results of his PhD research, Anna copyedited, and together we planned the moves necessary to reunite our household after five years of maintaining one residence in Oregon and another in the Midwest.
Doug hadn’t so much forgotten about his encounter with Jean Dayton and her association with the Manhattan Project as he had boxed them up and put them away like holiday decorations in the attic of his mind. Doug’s novel project, set in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, could easily consume weeks of time. Time that took him away from his dissertation. Time that he couldn’t afford if he were to finish his degree. Eventually, after some lengthy self-bargaining, working on the novel became a reward. It was a present Doug would give to himself for finishing his dissertation. But toward the end of that summer, running out of time if he were to finish before the move back to Illinois, Doug found himself fingering the spines of books about the Manhattan Project in Oregon State’s Valley Library. What had started out as a simple errand to return a stack of books about software engineering and qualitative research methods—two topics not often seen together at the time—had become a mini-break away from the drudgery of academic writing.
When Doug came across Their Day in the Sun, he instantly remembered the woman that he’d run into after the Cold War lecture more than a year earlier. He quickly skimmed the book’s index for her entry. Upon finding and reading Jean’s pages in the book, Doug was once again fascinated by this person and wondered if there would be time to interview her before leaving Corvallis for good. We quickly discussed the situation and decided that we would just have to make time for the interview. The phone call to set up the interview was very much like the last time that Doug and Jean spoke: quiet, full of pauses, and somewhat awkward. We agreed to a meeting in the cafeteria at a hospital in Corvallis. Jean or her husband was undergoing treatment at the time.
The interview began with lots of background about Jean’s life. She’d gone to Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project as the wife of a physicist, Henry Hurwitz. After the war, Hurwitz would be a leading thinker in the area of the nuclear power plants and made significant contributions to the design and development of nuclear submarines. Jean and Henry would ultimately divorce, but during the war, like many of the smart, capable scientists’ wives at the Manhattan Project, she pitched in.
Doug reminded her of their meeting after the Galison talk where she’d indicated that she worked for Edward Teller. She nodded, but said nothing. Even after further prompting, Jean was unwilling to provide specifics about the nature of her own work. In fact, before agreeing to the interview she required that we provide her with any notes that we took so that she could forward them to the security office at Los Alamos. We kept our word, and we can only assume that she did too. Jean exuded a calm competence that suggested when she said she would do something, she did. About her work during the Manhattan Project, Their Day in the Sun has this to say:
“Dayton started in the Electronics Division, making Geiger counters and other equipment and installing an interoffice phone system. She transferred to weapons testing in order to get outdoors, and she later helped to design the detonation system for the hydrogen bomb. John von Neumann selected her for the job because he felt that a mathematician would take to long to figure out the system. A person working intuitively, he hoped, would be more efficient.”
Although the book’s description doesn’t precisely coincide with Jean’s recollection—she indicated that she worked for Teller (von Neumann’s countrymen and friend)—it does pinpoint her thinking as to the reason that she was chosen. Also, given Teller’s role in the creation of the hydrogen bomb, it’s likely that she was collaborating with both men.
During the interview, Jean was much more open about day-to-day life on The Hill (one of the many monikers that Los Alamos went by during the Manhattan Project). Jean was reluctant to mention the names of many of the personages that she encountered during her time on The Hill. After mentioning a dinner party that she held where three of the attendees would eventually go on to win the Nobel Prize, we developed a habit of guessing whom she was talking about. If we guessed correctly, she’d confirm our guess with a quick nod. One of the attendees at her dinner party was a young Richard Feynman. After we made that connection, Jean fondly recalled broadcasting an advice-for-the-lovelorn radio show with Feynman. She also related that Feynman had developed a bit of a crush on her. Still married at the time, Jean introduced Feynman to her sister, and the two dated for a time.
It’s been more than eight years since we interviewed Jean. Jean arrived at Los Alamos in 1943. She was nineteen years old, younger than many of our students. Jean Dayton was our first interview as a team. We feel like we did a pretty good job, but now that we’ve done more research and visited Los Alamos ourselves, there are many things that we wish we could ask.
In the Footsteps: Jean Dayton (Part 14) December 26, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Nuclear Weapons, Serendipity, WWII
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As frequent readers of Lofty Ambitions well know, we’re big believers in serendipity–that chance meeting with an idea, a place, or a person (or even better, a combination of those). Afterwards, your thoughts move in a new, unexpected direction. Last week’s post was about recent serendipity, and this week’s is about serendipity from our past.
In May 2003, while he was a graduate student at Oregon State University, Doug had just such a chance collosion while attending a lecture about the Cold War and nuclear weapons. Peter Galison, Pellegrino University Professor in History of Science and Physics at Harvard University, was speaking about a documentary that he had recently completed, The Ultimate Weapon: The H-bomb Dilemma. The title of Galison’s talk was “Filming and Writing History: The H-bomb Debate.” Doug had just started doing research for a historical novel set during the Manhattan Project, and the talk seemed to dovetail neatly with this new project.
One of the 20th century’s most controversial scientific figures, Edward Teller, is often referred to as the father of the hydrogen bomb (H-bomb). The H-bomb came into the world’s consciousness in 1952, less than ten years after the atomic bomb. Although much distinguishes the two types of weapons, not the least of which is that they operate on different physical principles; atomic bombs use fission, H-bombs use fusion, and the resulting difference between the two weapons is their destructive power. Atomic bombs have a practical upper limit in explosive yield based on the size of their uranium or plutonium core (see more HERE). Hydrogen bombs (more commonly called thermonuclear weapons in the latter stages of the Cold War) are nearly unlimited in their destructive potential. The primary requirement for increasing their power is adding more fuel (see more HERE).
Galison’s documentary–which aired on the History Channel in August 2000–gave voice to a number of the people associated with the development and deployment of thermonuclear weapons. In his talk, Galison made it seem as if he had a particular fondness for, or at least was intrigued by, the nuclear weapons designer Theodore “Ted” Taylor. Taylor had a reputation for being a particularly innovative thinker, a producer of remarkably elegant designs, although perhaps elegant isn’t quite the right term when the context is nuclear weapons. In the late 1950s, Taylor worked with physicist Freeman Dyson on Project Orion, an extravagantly ambitious plan to create a spacecraft capable of deep-space travel. At a time when NASA had yet to place a man in orbit, the mavens behind Orion were proposing a ship that could scoot easily past Mars and make its way to the outer planets, Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune, Uranus, and even Pluto (back in the days when Pluto was punching above its weight and still held planet status). Potential multi-generational missions involving dozens of scientists, their families, and a small menagerie of farm animals gallivanting off to Alpha Centauri were considered. The magical elixir that would power the enormous Orion? Not Star Trek’s dilithium crystals or ion drives. No, Orion was designed to ride a steady stream of H-bomb explosions. Megaton class (1) H-bombs would be ejected from the rear of Orion, detonated at a so-called safe distance, and the resulting stream of radiation and shock waves would push against a gigantic metal plate–logically enough called a pusher plate–fixed to Orion’s backside. Orion, of course, never went beyond the drawing board.
In his later years, Taylor became an ardent critic of the nation’s nuclear weapons program and its potential for nuclear proliferation. Not so with Edward Teller. Teller remained a passionate defender of nuclear weapons and his role in the creation of the H-bomb until the end of his life in 2003.
At the end of Galison’s talk, Doug went up to the speaker’s lectern to ask him a question about Ted Taylor. Doug was not the only person in the audience whose personal interests weren’t fully addressed in the short Q&A; there were a half-dozen people in line to speak with Galison. Standing quietly in front of Doug was a tiny, elderly woman. When it was her turn to speak with Galison, the woman stepped forward and began to tell her story. She had been a part of the Manhattan Project. There, she worked as a kind of assistant to Edward Teller. Though not a physicist, she’d studied biology at Cornell University, Teller valued her unorthodox problem solving strategies–what we’d today call outside-the-box thinking–and often gave her problems to work on, thorny, unusual problems that were stymieing the physicists.
The woman’s interaction with Galison was economical. She did the majority of the speaking, and after a brief moment of silence, she turned and left. Even after standing in line and while still wanting to ask Galison a question, Doug made a very easy decision: he followed the woman. As reached the lecture hall’s doorway, Doug tapped her gently on the shoulder. Introducing himself and explaining his interest in the Manhattan Project, Doug asked her if he might interview her about her experiences. With a look that suggested she was taken aback by this turn of events, she thought for a moment and ultimately said in a soft voice, “Yes.” Again she turned to leave, and again Doug tapped her lightly on the shoulder. “Your name. I need your name.” This time, the frown on her face indicated that she hadn’t anticipated this question as a part of the bargain. After a brief pause, she relented and said, “Jean Dayton.”
Las Vegas, the National Atomic Testing Museum, and the Last Sixty Years November 28, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Museums & Archives, Nuclear Weapons
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This past weekend found us making our annual Thanksgiving pilgrimage to Las Vegas. The combination of bright lights, driving distance, and no mid-semester house cleaning/no post-dinner dishwashing is irresistible. It also helps that, over the years, members of our families have happily made the trip to join us. A weekend in Vegas may mean slot machines and poker to some folks, but here at Lofty Ambitions, it means at least one trip to the National Atomic Testing Museum (click HERE for a sense of our visit two years ago).
At Lofty Ambitions, we like museums. If the accumulated word count of our writing about museums hasn’t made that fact absolutely clear, we’ll say it again just so that it sinks in: We really like museums. We’ve written professionally about museums for conferences, journals, and books. Where others might plan a vacation based on a specific beach, we’ve been known to plan getaways around how many different museums we can pack into a voyage.
An affiliate museum of the Smithsonian Institution, the layout, exhibit design, and quality of the materials at the National Atomic Testing Museum meets the highest standards of the profession. For those whom are curious about this specific corner of America’s nuclear history, the exhibits are intellectually stimulating and information rich. After just a few minutes of gazing inside the museum, Doug and his father were struck by the fact that this year’s visit nearly coincided with the sixtieth anniversary of the two controversial nuclear tests of the early Cold War.
The Operation Ivy series of weapons tests took place on the Enewetak atoll in November 1952. The seventh series of nuclear weapons tests conducted by the United States, Operation Ivy consisted of two separate tests: Mike, conducted on November 1, 1952, and King, which was detonated on November 16. Both tests were designed to push the envelope of what was then known about the design of nuclear weapons.
The Ivy Mike test introduced a couple of new words into the nation’s burgeoning Cold War lexicon: thermonuclear and megaton. Although a previous test, George, had made use of fusion principles (as opposed to the fission that occurs in an atomic weapon), the Mike test is considered to be the first thermonuclear weapons test. In fact, Mike took its name from its anticipated explosive yield, itself a curious word suggesting some sort of harvest. Mike began with an “m”—m for megaton—because its scientists predicted an explosion in the megaton range. Less than a decade after the world had been forced to begin thinking about bombs that exploded with the force of 1,000 tons of TNT—a kiloton—humanity was forced to again expand its definition of destruction when explosions of 1,000,000 tons of TNT were introduced into the world. Aside from its destructive potential, Ivy Mike’s other distinguishing feature was that it was an impractical weapon. Designed by physicist Richard Garmin, Ivy Mike was more than twenty feet tall and weighed more than sixty tons. When Mike was detonated, it provided a staggering example of the kind of destruction that might await humanity’s future. At a yield of over ten megatons, Mike obliterated the patch of land that it occupied. In an instant, Eugelab—an island in the Enewetak atoll chain—was transformed into a mile-wide, 150-foot deep crater. Because of Mike’s design, the radioactive release was enormous, with highly radioactive debris falling into the ocean up to forty miles from ground zero.
King also took its name from its anticipated yield—“k” for kiloton—but it might as well have taken it from its destructive power vis-à-vis the 33 atomic bomb tests that preceded it. At a yield of 500 kilotons, King was the largest atom—fission—bomb designed and tested to that point.
These two tests conducted during Operation Ivy were the largest of their time. In fact, when measured in kilotons and megatons—the verbiage of nuclear weapons that is meant to connect the destructive power of nuclear weapons with the more comprehensible world of TNT and chemical explosives—the 10.4 megaton Ivy Mike was more than ten times more powerful than all of the atomic weapons that had preceded it. The previous thirty-three atomic weapons, twenty-nine American bombs, three Russian, and one British, represented an aggregate destructive release of almost 950 kilotons.
In part because the fear and uncertainty of the Cold War and nuclear annihilation was something with which the Lofty duo grew up, we both are drawn to attempt to understand what transpired. That’s why we are drawn back to the National Atomic Testing Museum.
Plutonium at Its Worst and Best August 6, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Chemistry, Mars, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Radioactivity, WWII
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This week marks the anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, respectively, in 1945. Tens of thousands died on those dates, and more people died, as a result of radiation sickness, in the weeks and years following. War reveals human beings at their worst. Nuclear weapons represent our largest, surest capability for self-destruction.
In commemoration for that time, we encourage you to read the poem “Hiroshima’s Secrets” at Lofty Ambitions and to seek out other ways to remember. We’ve written a lot more about nuclear weapons and the nuclear history of the United States—read some of it HERE.
The night before this anniversary—last night—our thoughts were elsewhere. We were following the story of Curiosity, the Mars rover that landed at 10:31pm Pacific Time. Or rather, the rover landed at 10:17pm, and the confirmation signal reached Earth fourteen minutes later. A few minutes after that, two thumbnail photos arrived from Curiosity’s Hazcams, cameras positioned on the front and rear of the rover, cameras with a fisheye lens and amazing focus from four inches to the horizon. Curiosity’s wheels were firmly planted on relatively smooth, even ground. We could see Curiosity’s shadow cast on the surface of Mars.
The two most recent rovers—Spirit and Opportunity—were powered by solar panels. Curiosity, though, is much larger and more complex than those predecessors, so it needed more oomph and a longer life. Besides, solar panels can be compromised by the dust whipping about the Martian landscape. Curiosity is powered, therefore, by what NASA calls “a multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator (MMRTG) supplied by the Department of Energy.” In other words, Curiosity runs on a nuclear battery containing more than ten pounds of plutonium-238.
In 1941, chemist Glenn Seaborg developed Pu-238 from uranium-238. As it decays and generates the heat that makes it useful as fuel in a robot’s battery, Pu-238 decays back into that uranium isotope. The half-life for Pu-238 is more than eighty-seven years. In comparison, the isotope plutonium-239 used in nuclear weapons and in nuclear power plants has a half-life of more than 24,000 years. Pu-238 does not explode like a bomb and is made in a ceramic form in an attempt to reduce health hazards. Neither the United States nor Russia produce Pu-238 anymore, though Russia has a small stockpile from which NASA purchases the isotope. Because its primary use is as battery power for NASA’s robotic space missions, there is some discussion of restarting production in the United States to ensure that the sort of Mars and outer planet exploration NASA has in mind can continue beyond 2020, but funding has not been approved by Congress.
This week, we remember the destruction that nuclear weapons can unleash in a single instant. May we also look to the skies this week and know that Curiosity, powered by its nuclear battery, is readying itself to explore the geochemistry of another world. May we glimpse, in Bill Nye’s words last night, “Humans at their very best.”
The Cold War: Trinity & Apollo July 16, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Apollo, Movies & TV, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Serendipity, WWII
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On this date in 1945, the United States exploded the first nuclear weapon. A test to see whether the concept worked. It did.
Two years ago to commemorate this anniversary, only a couple of weeks after we started blogging together as Lofty Ambitions, we posted “A Day with Two Suns.” That’s a relatively brief post that we hope you’ll read along with this one. That post hinges on a statement in a physics textbook from 1942 that presages the eventual use of an atomic bomb and implies the inevitability of nuclear weapons, once radioactivity and isotopes of uranium and plutonium were discovered and studied by scientists.
“The Gadget” was perched at the top of a hundred-foot tower and exploded on July 16, 1945. It had a twenty-kiloton yield. A device of the same design was detonated over Nagasaki a few weeks later, killing 40,000 people instantly. The exact detonation site for the Trinity test in New Mexico is now marked with an obelisk and is open to visitors two days every year.
On this anniversary of the beginning of the nuclear age, we invite you to look at another link as well, not ours, but an artist’s rendering in video of the nuclear age through 1998. Click HERE for Isao Hasimoto’s powerful representation of the world’s nuclear detonations, beginning with the Trinity test. In the top banner, note the detonation count by country along with the months and years elapsing. Since 1998 and the timeframe Hashimoto represents, North Korea has tested two nuclear weapons. That brings the total to 2055 nuclear explosions.
Tomorrow, too, marks another anniversary, that of the last above-ground nuclear test at the Nevada Test Site (now called the Nevada National Security Site and worth the click for the security notice). In 1962, Little Feller I was a comparatively small weapon shot from a Davy Crockett launcher. All nuclear tests thereafter moved underground to prevent fallout sprinkling radioactive particles around the globe and to protect the atmosphere and those of us who would breathe it for decades to come. Plutonium occurs almost nowhere in the natural world, but in the nuclear era, we swim in a thin stream of the man-made element as a byproduct of atmospheric testing in addition to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Plutonium-239, the isotope used for nuclear weapons, has a half-life of more than 24,000 years. You may also want to take a few minutes to read “Fission & Half-Lives.”
With the nuclear age, of course, came the Cold War, our decades of standoff with the Soviet Union. Part of the story of the Cold War is the story of the space race. The Soviets won the race to space, putting the first man into space, then the first man into low-Earth orbit. The United States won the race to the Moon. That victory began on this date in 1969, when Apollo 11 launched from Kennedy Space Center, with throngs of viewers crowded in the J.C Penney parking lot across the Indian River. A few days later, on July 20, Neil Armstrong, then Buzz Aldrin, stepped onto the lunar surface while Michael Collins circled across the far side of the Moon. The three splashed down safely on July 24, 1969.
Tomorrow marks the anniversary of another space exploration milestone as well, a friendly gesture between Cold War enemies, the Apollo-Soyuz mission. In 1975, the Soviet Union launched a Soyuz capsule and the United States launched an Apollo capsule. The two capsules docked in orbit on this date, and Tom Stafford and Alexey Leonov gave rise to the first outer-space handshake between nations. (Watch the docking HERE.)
We are no longer surprised by this sort of serendipity, by the fact that important historical events in two different realms about which we write—nuclear history and space exploration—would occur on the same date, years apart in the twentieth century. We find that this sort of serendipity happens regularly, while other dates contain nothing of import for our work at Lofty Ambitions.
What continues to surprise us is a different type of serendipity, one in which we seem actively involved. As we draft this post and realize that tomorrow marks the anniversary of Apollo-Soyuz, we have just watched the film The Far Side of the Moon, about which we knew almost nothing when we added it to our Netflix queue. The title, for us, was enough. It turns out that Alexey Leonov, the Soviet hand in that interstellar, Cold War handshake, plays a prominent role in The Far Side of the Moon. We don’t want to give too much away—the film is not about Leonov but about a philosophy of science student and his weatherman brother, in the wake of their mother’s death. We would have enjoyed the film any time because it is quirky, tells a character-driven story, and tries interesting cinematic moves. But that we happened to watch this film when it would be especially meaningful to us because of this anniversary is one of the pleasures we keep finding in our work together here.
Roswell: 65 Years of Alien Invasion July 8, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Movies & TV, Museums & Archives, Nuclear Weapons
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Today is the sixty-fifth anniversary of the reported crash of an UFO at Roswell, New Mexico. As is often the case, your Lofty duo takes its inspiration from the events that surround us, from the larger world that our lives move with and through. Although we’ve largely ignored Roswell and UFOs—and the oft-related Area 51—when we heard about today’s anniversary (the purported crash didn’t take place today, it’s the anniversary of the Army’s press release acknowledging the event), we decided to acknowledge the event, if only for its influence on our lives through popular culture.
When talking about whether or not to write about Roswell and Area 51, we were forthright with each other about what this might mean for the blog. Over the years, we’ve received email offers to show us photos that “prove” the existence of aliens, we’ve spoken to aerospace industry veterans who worked at Area 51, and we’ve even visited Roswell. If all of that makes us seem like true believers, we’re not.
Roswell was the logical stopping place in our trek across the country for our move to California. All right, we’ll cop to that not being 100% accurate. We did go a bit out of our way to spend the night in Roswell, and we slowed our journey by a few hours to visit Roswell’s UFO Museum. So, why would we do that? Part of the answer lies in the undeniable effect that the Roswell crash has had on our popular culture. It’s been featured heavily in television, including having an entire show—the eponymous, teen angst drama Roswell—that relied on the event’s continuously unfolding lore. Countless Hollywood films, blockbusters and B-movies alike, have borrowed part of the Roswell crash narrative for their plots. And this summer, we have found ourselves watching the X-Files again, from soup to nuts.
We imagine that most bloggers who write about aviation and space get an email or two from former Area 51 workers who have seen something or know something. In the UFO community, Area 51 is linked to the Roswell incident as the ultimate destination of the crashed-then-recovered flying disk. Furthering the mythology, Area 51 is also home to a decades-long attempt to re-engineer the alien technology that allowed the craft and its occupants to travel the implausible (to humans) distances that separate the galaxies and planets that make up our universe.
Area 51 is not a mythological place; it’s real. Area 51 was founded in the mid-1950s as an airbase for the CIA to flight test the U-2 spyplane. The base is an enormous military and civilian installation that has required the services of thousands of aerospace workers in its fifty-year history. In alignment with other of our interests, Area 51 abuts the northeast corner of the Nevada Test Site (now the Nevada National Security Site), a square-shaped slice of desert real estate larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. The Nevada Test Site, which we’ve written about HERE, HERE, and HERE, was home to almost one thousand atomic and nuclear weapons tests during the Cold War.
We’ve visited and done research at the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas more than once. In fact, part of our nerd-cred rests on the fact that we spent the first day of what unexpectedly became our honeymoon working in the archives of the National Atomic Testing Museum. Our most recent visit to the museum less than a month ago coincided with a special exhibit on—you guessed it—Area 51. The exhibit, Area 51: Myth or Reality, is heavy on reinforcing the Roswell and Area 51 legend. Each visitor is given a special pass to enter, and a video featuring a “Man in Black” warns you about security. A significant portion of the exhibit, however, focuses on Area 51’s role as a spyplane flight test center.
In this respect, the exhibit resembled a recent book that Doug read, Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base by Los Angeles-based journalist Annie Jacobsen. While we’ll leave a review for another post, Jacobsen mentions that she too did research in the archives of the National Atomic Testing Museum, and some of her human sources for the book are affiliated with the museum. So even though we haven’t become true believers in the Roswell and Area 51 stories of aliens, as bloggers who write about space exploration and science, these stories lurk in the periphery.
That’s not to say that we have enough hubris to think that the only intelligent life exists here on Earth. Even the esteemed scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson explains, “At the moment, life on Earth is the only known life in the universe, but compelling arguments suggest we are not alone. Indeed, nearly all astrophysicists accept the high probability of life elsewhere.” After all, there’s an awfully big universe out there, so we can’t be sure we’re that special. Even here on Earth, there’s a lot of variety among living things. The way extraterrestrial visitors have been portrayed in popular culture and common lore doesn’t capture the possibilities that might exist out there.
Going Nuclear: From New Mexico to Colorado to Nevada June 13, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, WWII
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Today’s post is an extension of or at least directly related to our “In the Footsteps” series, in which we trace the nuclear history of the United States.
On this date in 1911, Luis W. Alvarez was born. He would go on to become a world-renowned physicist, eventually awarded the Nobel Prize in 1968 for his work in particle physics, resonance states, bubble chambers, and data analysis. Just before his work on nuclear weapons at Los Alamos, Alvarez, while based briefly at the University of Chicago, helped develop a plan for the first intelligence gathering and monitoring of nuclear development in other countries, at the time Germany.
Then, he became one among a host of scientists who worked at Los Alamos in New Mexico on the Manhattan Project. There, Alvarez worked on the first plutonium bomb, Fat Man, which was used on Nagasaki. In fact, he flew on The Great Artiste with the detection equipment he developed to measure the explosive power of the nuclear detonations over both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, he turned his attention to particle accelerators, the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, and the cause of dinosaur extinction.
Last Tuesday, Anna headed over to the local Barnes & Noble to pick up the new book by a recent Lofty Ambitions guest blogger. Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats made its debut on June 5, 2012, and as a Discover Great New Writers selection. The book has been chosen as a common reader for incoming students at Virginia Commonwealth University, and it’s getting great reviews. So Anna tucked it into her bag and headed off to Las Vegas to read it under the cabana.
What we like about Full Body Burden is the concept of science writing to which we keep returning here at Lofty Ambitions, namely that good science writing tells a story and is about the people as well as the science or technology. Kristen goes one step further, as we do here on our blog, by weaving her own story—memoir—into the larger cultural story. Or rather, Kristen recognizes that she too is part of the story of Rocky Flats in Colorado, where she spent her childhood and where plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons were produced until 1992. So we learn about Kristen’s horses—Tonka, Sassy, and the others—and family life in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as about the fires in 1957 and 1969 at the Rocky Flats facility operated then by Dow Chemical.
The story of Rocky Flats, including its two major fires and its day-to-day leakage, is one that most of us don’t know. To put its importance in perspective, here’s a tidbit from Full Body Burden: “In early December 1974, residents wake up to a socking headline in the Rocky Mountain News: cattle near rocky flats show high plutonium level. An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study has found that cattle in a pasture just east of Rocky Flats have more plutonium in their lungs than cattle grazing on land at the Nevada Test Site, where the United States conducted hundreds of aboveground nuclear explosions in the 1950s and 1960s. Plutonium, uranium, americium, tritium, and strontium are found in measurable quantities in the cows’ bodies, and levels of plutonium in the lungs and tracheo-bronchial lymph nodes of the cows are especially high.”
Indeed, 928 nuclear tests (some with multiple detonations) were conducted both above and below ground at the Nevada Test Site (check this link to see warning to users) between 1951 and 1992, the year the United States agreed to a nuclear test ban and the year Rocky Flats stopped producing plutonium triggers. While the United States performed more than 200 atmospheric tests, some of those were done in the Pacific Ocean. The vast majority of nuclear tests in Nevada—more than eight hundred—were underground detonations. The last aboveground test at the Nevada Test Site occurred on July 17, 1962. Of course, underground tests raised dust too, and some, like Buster-Jangle Uncle in 1951 and Baneberry in 1970, had visible releases of fallout well above the Earth’s surface.
We know these facts about the Nevada Test Site in part because, while in Las Vegas, we usually visit the Atomic Testing Museum on Flamingo Road, just a few minutes drive off The Strip. Doug drove out to Las Vegas on Saturday to spend the night and retrieve Anna and some friends. So this trip provided another opportunity to visit the museum on Sunday, in the midst of reading about the nation’s nuclear history in Full Body Burden.
In the films at the museum, we were reminded of what the shift from aboveground testing to underground testing meant for the people involved in the program. One person pointed out that, though many scientists and engineers initially opposed the move, “The data was much better underground.” Another man, though, worries that, when we moved nuclear testing underground and out of sight, “We shielded ourselves and the public from what a nuclear test is really like.” The United States hasn’t conducted a critical nuclear explosion in twenty years.
The Nevada Test Site remains ready to resume nuclear testing, though. A test site engineer in one of the museum’s films went so far as to state, “As long as you have a nuclear stockpile, the day will come when you have to have a nuclear test.” A New York Times article this year notes that our current agreement with Russia limits us to 1550 deployed weapons and “thousands more warheads [that] can be kept in storage as a backup force” and additional short-range nuclear weapons. Given the order for a nuclear test, the Nevada Test Site could be ready again within two or three years.
Guest Blog: Claire Robinson May April 16, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science.
Tags: Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, WWII
We just never know whom we’re going to find for our next guest post. Today, we’re featuring the granddaughter of Kenneth T. Bainbridge, the director of the Trinity nuclear test. This guest post is a great complement to our In the Footsteps series, which you can find HERE.
Claire Robinson May is a playwright in the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts (NEOMFA) program. Her ten-minute performance piece, The Trinity Project, is being produced this month by the Oddy Theater Lab. Her full-length plays Mother/Tongue and Standardized ChildTM have been performed at Cleveland Public Theatre. She teaches Legal Writing at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and lives in Cleveland Heights with her husband, two sons, and a few other animals.
KENNETH BAINBRIDGE, IN HIS GRANDDAUGHTER’S WORDS
“Now we are all sons of bitches.” That’s what my grandfather, Kenneth T. Bainbridge, said after the successful Trinity test of the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in July 1945. Not a grand soliloquy like J. Robert Oppenheimer’s—Ken cut right to the heart of the matter.
Ken Bainbridge directed the Trinity Test. He always said he was glad the test was a success because otherwise he would have had to climb the tower to investigate what had gone wrong.
Ken was forty at the time of the test and a married father of three. He was a Harvard University physics professor who had relocated his family to Los Alamos, New Mexico, so that he could work on the Manhattan Project, one of the most top-secret endeavors in history.
Ken and his nine-year-old son, Martin, drove from Cambridge to Los Alamos in early July 1943. In late August, after Ken had arranged for their housing, my grandmother, Margaret Bainbridge (Peg), brought daughters Margaret (Margi) and Joan out to Los Alamos on the train. Joan was six. My mother, Margi, was fourteen months old. She learned to walk on the train to New Mexico. They lived at Los Alamos for the next two years.
The Bainbridges moved into a two-family house on the coveted Bathtub Row (so named because the street had the only housing units with bathtubs). Physicist Norman Ramsey’s family lived on the other side of the house. (Ramsey would go on to share a Nobel Prize in 1989.) Joan and Martin explored the new landscape, distressing the patrol guards with their utter disregard of the security fence.
Oppenheimer managed the gasoline rations so that scientists and their families could take the occasional day trip. There were picnics, mineral collecting outings, and visits to the pueblo. Joan remembers weekend fishing trips and other adventures with her father, writing, “I have some childhood memories with Dad at Los Alamos—I still have the trout rod he made for me, hand wrapped with silk . . . but, thinking about it, there are not as many as I might have imagined. He was very absorbed and then gone much of the time in the spring of ’45.” The test blast would occur on July 16, 1945.
After the war, my grandfather joined the numerous physicists who spoke out against nuclear weapons. But he never wavered in the conviction that developing the bomb was necessary. He later wrote in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that he had “a somewhat bloodthirsty viewpoint on the war” when he decided to join the Manhattan Project because he’d already heard first-hand accounts of Nazi atrocities from some of the European scientists he knew.
When I studied the history of science as an undergraduate at Harvard University in the early 1990s, I invited my grandfather to come to campus to hear a panel discussion that took place each year in one of the core science courses. Scientists such as Hans Bethe and Victor Weisskopf spoke to students about the development of the bomb and the decision to use it against Japan to end the war. Ken’s Los Alamos friends would wave from the stage, delighted to spot him in the Science Center auditorium. I was always proud to be with him. It was hardly a coincidence that my undergraduate studies focused on the history of twentieth-century physics.
Ken Bainbridge didn’t want to be remembered only for the bomb. He had many other achievements, both before and after the war, including his work on the Harvard cyclotron and the first experimental verification of E=MC2. When he chaired the Harvard University physics department in the early 1950s, Ken staunchly defended colleagues against the blacklisting attacks of Senator Joseph McCarthy. My grandfather was widely respected in his field as a careful and conscientious experimentalist and as a mentor to younger physicists. He was beloved by his family and many friends.
My grandfather died in 1996, shortly before his 92nd birthday. His wife, Peg, had died suddenly in 1967, several years before I was born. With both of them gone, I can’t help but wonder what transpired between my grandparents in the days after the test, when the families finally knew what really had been going on at Los Alamos. I wonder what role the experience may have played in Peg’s decision not long after the war to become a Quaker, a faith that wholly rejects violence. I now find myself drawn to the point where human history and family history intersect, in a blinding desert sky.