On This Date: Five Notable Events October 30, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Cognitive Science, Music, Nuclear Weapons, Radioactivity, Space Shuttle
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On October 30, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a secret document mandating that the United States maintain and develop its nuclear weapons arsenal.
Just four years later, on this same date, the Soviet Union detonated the largest explosive device ever, Tsar Bomba. The estimated yield was 50 megatons, which is almost one-and-a-half times the power of the combined yield of the two bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For one brief moment, Tsar Bomba was 1.4% as energetic as the Sun. Yet Tsar Bomba was one of the cleanest—least fallout relative to yield—nuclear weapons tests. We wrote more about this nuclear test in “Measuring the Unthinkable” and included a video of the detonation there.
Today is also the anniversary of the launch of space shuttle Challenger’s last successful mission, STS-61A. The 1985 Spacelab mission was astronaut Guion Bluford’s second. His first mission two years earlier was the first time an African-American had been to space. The only woman on Challenger’s last successful crew, the first crew of eight, was Bonnie Dunbar. STS-61A was her first of five shuttle missions. In addition to performing science experiments, the crew launched the Global Low Orbiting Messaging Relay satellite, a proof-of-concept for military communications. Challenger’s last landing was at Edwards Air Force Base on November 6, 1985.
We have several other posts that talk about Challenger, including “Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia” and “25th Anniversary of the Challenger Accident.” In addition, we have guest posts by Roger Boisjoly, Allan McDonald, and Richard Cook, three engineers involved in the launch that day.
Today is also the fourth anniversary of the death of Washoe, a chimpanzee and the first non-human to communicate with American Sign Language. She was originally captured for use in the space program but ended up in Nevada, then the University of Oklahoma, and later Central Washington University She died at the age of 42. The New York Times obituary notes that not all scientists agree that Washoe and others like her were really communicating, not without signals and prompts from her trainers. But Washoe opened up a lot of questions and led to a great deal of additional research into learning and communication across species. See our birthday post for Colo, the first gorilla born in captivity HERE.
On a cheerier note and with a linguistic, if not exactly topical connection, to the usual subject matter of Lofty Ambitions, today is Grace Slick’s 72nd birthday. Born Grace Barnett Wing in Evanston, Illinois, where Anna’s mother grew up, Grace Slick joined Jefferson Airplane in 1966. After that band split up, Grace and some bandmates formed Jefferson Starship. In 2006, Virgin America Airlines named its first aircraft Jefferson Airplane.
Virgin Galactic, another entity in the Virgin conglomerate, is now booking seats. If you want to go to space, all you need is a $20,000 deposit and the full $200,000 when they’re ready to launch. Click HERE to reserve a spot. We wrote about one of their most recent hires, Mike Moses, the shuttle program’s Launch Integration Manager in “I Remember California: I Remember Mike Moses.”
Guest Blog: Kelly McMasters October 17, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science.
Tags: Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Radioactivity
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We’ve written about various things nuclear at Lofty Ambitions. (Click HERE for a post on “Radioactivity and Risk” that includes additional links at the end.) In fact, we’re in the midst of a series called “In the Footsteps” (Part 9 HERE) and will talk about that work next month in the Past Tense series at the Huntington Library. Our last guest blogger who wrote about nuclear issues was Ann Ronald (see that HERE). For this week’s guest blogger, as in that earlier case, we’d read the book but never met the author.
Kelly McMasters is the author of Welcome to Shirley, a memoir that’s being made into a documentary film. Her essays, reviews, and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, River Teeth, Newsday, and Time Out New York, among others. She is the recipient of a Pushcart nomination and teaches nonfiction writing at mediabistro.com and in the School of the Arts and Journalism Graduate School at Columbia University. We hope to meet Kelly, perhaps next February at the AWP Conference, where Anna has organized a panel about writing creative nonfiction in the nuclear age.
GROWING UP NUCLEAR
Down the highway from my childhood house on the south shore of Long Island, rows of tall, scrubby pitch pines stretch their gnarled branches up to the sky. Their rough, plated trunks stand close together, creating a thick wall along the William Floyd Parkway. If the traffic is moving slowly enough, drivers passing by can catch a glimpse of a tall, barbed-wire fence snugged a few feet into the forest. This fence surrounds hundreds of acres of the island’s Pine Barrens, and hidden in the center sits the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a nuclear facility run by the federal government.
I grew up in a reactor community, but because of these Pine Barrens and because of the secret nature of the laboratory, my family didn’t know until it was much too late. We moved there in 1981, drawn by cheap rent, the proximity to the ocean, and a job for my father. Other neighborhood fathers worked at the lab, mostly in support capacities like maintenance, cafeteria, post office, or IT, but the full nuclear reality of the place was never understood, even by those employed there. Everyone thought it was just a lab, full of white-coated scientists who poured things into beakers and scribbled into notebooks, certainly nothing more nefarious than a few animal experiments.
This changed in 1989 when, after years of hand-wringing and covert testing, the facility was listed as a Superfund site. Local newspapers devoted covers to the story, and the findings were bleak: Three nuclear reactors had been built at Brookhaven, and all three had leaked. Soil and drinking water was contaminated with Cesium 137, Plutonium 239, Radium 226, and Europium 154. Fish from the rivers whose headwaters started on the lab property tested high for heavy metals and local deer registered high levels of Cesium 137 in their bodies. Underground plumes of radioactive tritium stretched out towards Shirley. But my hometown was not the only place affected. Beneath the Pine Barrens is the recharge basin for one of the largest sole-source drinking water aquifers in the country, serving more than three million people on the island. The lab and its leaking reactors were located right in the center. It would take 300,000 years for the radioactive material released to reach levels safe enough for human interaction. That’s longer than Long Island itself has even existed.
Since the Fukushima Daiichi disaster six months ago, ghost names from the past have been shuffling up from the sands of our collective memories, like the soft bodies of silver-gray stingrays, invisible until a flap of their wings sends up swirls of sand, muddying the water and pulling them into focus. Chernobyl. Three Mile Island. Enola Gay. With these names, nuclear fears have jumped back into the spotlight: A string of earthquakes and wildfires across the United States have shuttered reactors, an explosion at a French nuclear power plant (the safest! the smartest!) injured four workers and left one person dead, and Iran’s first nuclear power plant powered up. All while the nuclear lobby continues to insist that reactors are clean and green, a friendly fix-it for our oil and coal gorged economy, ignoring the fact that they aren’t economically viable or insurable and that we still have no plans for the ever-accumulating waste.
But while the natural disaster scenarios and stories of radiation-laced milk, crops, and human bodies in Japan splash across the headlines, another string of names marches quietly in the background. Braidwood. Limerick. Indian Point. Vermont Yankee. Yucca Mountain. And Shirley. My hometown of Shirley has been struggling along with a class-action lawsuit brought against the lab for damages to health and property and the environment. Like Shirley, the reactor communities of Braidwood and Limerick complain of cancers, autoimmune diseases, high rates of miscarriages and birth defects, skin diseases, and other mysterious ailments. Like Shirley, reactors at Braidwood, Limerick, Indian Point, and Vermont Yankee have leaked tritium, Cesium-137, Strontium-90, and various other pollutants. In fact, a recent study showed that tritium leaks have been found at 48, or nearly three-quarters, of U.S. reactor sites.
Last year, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was tasked by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to conduct a long-term epidemiological study on the health effects and risks in U.S. reactor communities. During the Fukushima emergency, U.S. officials recommended that Americans within a 50-mile radius of the compromised reactors evacuate. According to 2010 census data, one-third of all Americans, or 116 million of us, live within a 50-mile radius of a commercial nuclear reactor. Add in the national laboratory system, of which the Brookhaven National Lab is a part, and that number only increases.
Even though one in every three Americans is potentially effected, and even though reactor communities have been calling for such studies for decades, before the NAS study began, there had never been a large-scale study of low-level radiation from nuclear reactors and their effects on human health, making it convenient and easy for the nuclear lobby to discount any connection between unexplained cancer clusters and other health issues and proximity to nuclear reactors and all that they spew. There is moderate hope that in a few years this may change with the NAS results, though most understand that, these days, scientific studies have become nearly as political as tea. But those of us who have lived in reactor communities know enough.
So forget about the tsunamis. Forget about the earthquakes and the floods and the wildfires. The real danger isn’t in the natural disasters or the worst-case scenarios. Before we get to Blue Ribbon Panels about the unsolvable waste issue, the dirty fuel harvest cycle, and the insanely high and uninsurable costs to build, we need to address the human cost of the simple, everyday operation of the reactors themselves and the leaks, spills, accidents, and releases that come with each reactor. We need to do this before the names of Braidwood, Indian Point, Limerick, Shirley, and the other nearly one hundred reactor communities join the ranks of the ghost names of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima.
In the Footsteps (Part 9) August 31, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Radioactivity, WWII
On this date in 2005, nuclear physicist Józef Rotblat died. Born in Poland, Rotblat joined The Manhattan Project in 1944. When he was certain that Germany was no longer pursuing an atomic bomb, he put in a request to leave the bomb-building project in Los Alamos. Shortly thereafter, he was accused of being a spy and was prohibited from returning to the United States for two decades.
Having opposed the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the political use of atomic weapons in the emerging struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, Joseph Rotblat returned to England to work on nuclear science for other purposes. He turned his attention to medical uses for radioactivity and to studying nuclear fallout, including the dangers of Strontium-90. He played an instrumental role in questioning the real extent of contamination from the Castle Bravo nuclear test and claimed that the nuclear weapons used in these tests were especially dangerous because they unfolded in three stages, with the last fission stage drastically intensifying radioactive contamination.
In 1995, Joseph Rotblat shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the Pugwash Conferences, an organization he helped found in 1957. The 59th Pugwash Conference was held in Berlin this past July and focused on Europe’s contribution to nuclear disarmament.
Rotblat helped bring wider attention to the dangers to humans of exposure to radioactivity. By that time, though, radioactivity had made its way into some common uses that may today seem odd. At the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, which we visited earlier this year, we saw lots of examples of the popularizing of radioactive substances and the idea of radioactivity’s power.
A poster boasts the benefits of Tho-Radia, a line of beauty creams and cosmetics containing Thorium and Radium. French women bought the concoctions in hopes that it would keep their skin healthy and stimulate beauty. Notice how the lighting in the advertising poster makes the woman’s face glow. Sadly, one of its creators banked on the last name he shared with two Nobel-winning scientists, Pierre and Marie Curie.
A much more familiar pop-culture outgrowth of nuclear science was the shoe-fiting fluoroscope. Thousands of these contraptions dotted America’s shoe store landscape as early as the 1930s. Kids loved to step up, stick their feet into the bottom of the wooden box, and look through the top to see the bones of their feet inside the shoes. Parents could take a peek to see that the shoes fit well. By the late 1940s, concern arose about exposing kids to radioactivity so that the fluoroscopes disappeared from shoe stores only to reappear as museum artifacts decades later.
Another widely known use of Radium was in the luminescent paint used on watches and clocks from 1917 to 1926. Thousands of women, now known as Radium Girls, painted hundreds of dials a day. To keep the brushes sharply pointed, they would use their lips or tongue. Five of the women later sued and reached a settlement that influenced our understanding of radioactivity tolerance levels, workplace safety standards, and labor laws.
In a bit of irony, The Manhattan Project temporarily ended the use of radioactive uranium oxide in the orange-red pottery glaze used by Fiesta for their dinnerware. In 1936, Fiesta introduced the United States to solid-color, mix-and-match ceramic dinnerware. In 1944, though, the Army needed all the uranium that was available to build an atomic bomb. Fifteen years later, Fiesta reintroduced its red plates and bowls, but this time, they used depleted, instead of natural, uranium. On the positive side for Fiesta, their dinnerware is lead free, made in the United States, and no longer made with radioactive materials.
As we meandered through these artifacts, a song by Blind Boys of Alabama played in the background (see video below too):
In nineteen hundred and forty-five
The atom bomb, it came alive.
In nineteen hundred and forty-nine
The USA got very wide.
We found out a country across the line
Had an atom bomb of the very same kind.
Everybody’s worried ’bout the atomic bomb.
But nobody’s worried about the day my lord will come
When he hits (great god almighty) like an atom bomb
When he comes, when he comes.
As the displays at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History make clear, we can’t eliminate radioactivity from our daily lives or from the larger world. We saw artifacts of popular culture of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s—items for daily use and sensational gadgets—about which few had any concern at the time. We’ve written before about the difficulties that individuals and entities have assessing risk (HERE and HERE). But Joseph Rotblat left us lessons about becoming more aware of the actual exposure levels and risks associated with radioactivity. We end this post with his words, which are taken from his Nobel lecture. (And then we top that off with a video for the Blind Boys of Alabama song mentioned above.)
But science, the exercise of the supreme power of the human intellect, was always linked in my mind with benefit to people. I saw science as being in harmony with humanity. I did not imagine that the second half of my life would be spent on efforts to avert a mortal danger to humanity created by science.
In the Footsteps (Part 8) August 24, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Museums & Archives, Nuclear Weapons, Radioactivity, WWII
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On this date in 1945, Japanese actress Midori Naka died from radiation sickness. She had been in a building not far from the Hiroshima bomb blast on August 6. After digging herself out from the collapsed structure, she thought she had suffered no serious injury. Soon, though, she became ill with a variety of symptoms, including vomiting and bleeding. By the time she was admitted to a hospital, she was in terrible shape. Her death was the first ever recorded as “A-bomb disease.”
Only three days earlier, a Los Alamos physicist named Harry Daghlian was working alone on a criticality test. As he piled tungsten carbide bricks, a neutron counter warned that, if he added the last brick, the stack would go supercritical. When he starting pulling the brick away, he dropped it on the stack. He stopped the reaction by disassembling the pile, all the while absorbing what would be a lethal dose of radioactivity. He died twenty-five days later.
In May of the following year, a similar accident at Los Alamos killed physicist and chemist Louis Slotin. He had already been working with uranium, then plutonium, and had assembled the core for the Trinity test on July 16, 1945. On May 21, 1946, with seven others in the room (after Daghlian’s accident criticality tests were not conducted alone), Louis Slotin was placing two halves of a beryllium sphere around the same core of plutonium that had irradiated Harry Daghlian. Though a screwdriver wasn’t recommended for the task, that’s the tool Slotin was using when his hand slipped and the gap maintained by the screwdriver closed. Slotin pulled his other hand, which he felt burning, and the half-sphere it held away from the core, stopping the reaction. But the room had already been doused with a blue-colored blast of radioactivity. Slotin died nine days later, having received four times the lethal dose of radioactivity. His was the last hands-on criticality test; the task was thereafter done by remotely controlled machines.
On Friday of last week, inspectors in Japan discovered that rice is among the foods contaminated by the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, though officials assure the public the radiation levels are within safe limits. Radioactivity had already been found in beef, spinach, and green tea. In April, TEPCO warned that radioactivity levels from Fukushima Daiichi, which hasn’t stopped leaking, could eventually exceed those of Chernobyl. One study puts Chernobyl-related deaths at 985,000 worldwide, with 170,000 of those in North America. Earlier this month, TEPCO measured record-setting radiation levels, and decommissioning the nuclear power plant will take decades.
Accidents happen. We’ve written before about risk and our inability to calculate it well or to use our calculations wisely. Nuclear weaponry and nuclear power are not without risks, and we’ve known that for 66 years. Some of those accidents are called broken arrows, a term that refers to nuclear weapons accidents that don’t pose a risk of starting nuclear war.
On January 17, 1966, this type of nuclear accident occurred: a B-52 bomber carrying four Mk-28 hydrogen bombs collided with a KC-135 during mid-air refueling off the coast of Spain. The KC-135, which was full of fuel, incinerated with its four crewmen aboard. Three crew from the B-52 were killed; one of those men ejected but was unable to open his parachute. Four crew parachuted safely, one to the ground without separating from his seat and three to the ocean.
The four bombs fell, too, near a small village named Palomares. Within a day, three of the bombs were found. One was in pretty good shape, but the conventional explosives in the other two had detonated. No nuclear explosion had occurred, but radioactive material—plutonium—had caught fire and been spread by a good wind, contaminating a couple of square miles. Decades later, traces of radioactivity remain there.
After five days, the fourth bomb had not been found, so the Navy started looking for it in the Mediterranean Sea. Using a carefully mapped grid of probabilities and an eyewitness account by a local fisherman of the bomb entering the water, an 80-day underwater search turned up the fourth bomb. DSV-Alvin located the missing nuclear weapon at a depth of 2550 feet. Unfortunately, as the Navy tried to raise the bomb, it slipped away. Alvin found it again on April 2 at a depth of 2900 feet. When a torpedo recovery submersible, not Alvin, became entangled in the weapon’s parachute, the two had to be raised together by the USS Petrel.
Two of these bomb casings are now on display at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (whose website link we haven’t included because the site has been hacked and is currently being used to advertise pharmaceuticals). When we looked at the two casings (the casings from the two bombs that didn’t explode) and thought about what had happened in 1966, we were amazed at what good shape they were in. Their rounded tips were dented, but both otherwise looked to be fully intact. We were also taken aback by how small a powerful nuclear weapon can be. The Mk-28 is just 22 inches in diameter and between eight and about fourteen feet long, depending on the model.
Two other accidents involving the same kind of nuclear weapon occurred. On March 14, 1961, a B-52 carrying two Mk-28s crashed in California. Neither bomb detonated. In 1968, a B-52 carrying four bombs caught fire, and the crew ejected before they could land back at Thule Air Base in Greenland. The plane crashed into the ocean, breaking apart and spreading radioactive contaminants. In the nine-month cleanup, the secondary section (which contained the fusion fuel, not plutonium) for one bomb was never found. Contaminated ice and debris were shipped to the United States for storage.
The Mk-28 thermonuclear bomb was part of our NATO arsenal for about a decade, from 1962 to 1972. Production started in 1958, and about 4500 individual Mk28s were made. Depending on the model, it packed a wallop of between 70 kilotons and 1.45 megatons. (The atomic bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ranged only from 13 to 22 kilotons.) The detonation could be set for the air or the ground. The Mk-28 was retired in 1991, thereby becoming another artifact in our nuclear history. We saw two of those artifacts in Albuquerque earlier this year as we retraced footsteps in nuclear history.
In the Footsteps (Part 7) August 17, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Museums & Archives, Nuclear Weapons, Radioactivity, WWII
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It wouldn’t hold up to any scientific scrutiny, but the Sun seems different in New Mexico. In Albuquerque, over a mile high (but 2000 feet lower in elevation than Los Alamos) and with an airport dubbed sunport, it’s one of those rare places where you could be chilly, cold even, all day, but still earn yourself a grade-A sunburn.
Part of the collection of the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (NMNSH; we’re not linking because the website may have been compromised) is located outside, behind the museum building. After leaving the moral ambiguity of the Cold War exhibit, with all of its manifestly inventive forms of atomic bombs and thermonuclear weapons, we stepped out into the sunlight falling through a cloudless New Mexico sky into a shocking, disorienting experience.
In many ways, this part of the NMNSH, entitled Heritage Park, is relatively standard aviation museum fare. In the museum’s enormous fenced in area, we found aircraft and missiles and oddities that covered a span of history from a WWII-era B-29 to the contemporary MX missile, removed from service in 2005.
The dry desert air is the perfect milieu for a retired aircraft. The American Southwest is littered with aircraft boneyards (Mojave Air and Space Port, Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, to name a few). Boneyard has become the apparent term of art as so many of the aircraft residing in these areas are picked apart until their bones—stringers and ribs of aluminum and steel—are showing. Boneyards are part storage facility, part scrap metal resource, and part aircraft parts warehouse.
But that fate of being picked to the bones doesn’t await the artifacts sitting in the Heritage Park. Here, the aircraft are meant to be studied, remembered, revered. This fenced-in expanse is a not a mausoleum or a sepulcher, and yet the sun’s harsh, white light reveals that the aircraft and other Cold War weapons are no longer alive either.
The smaller pieces, the fighter jets, seem to get the worst of it. Their sun-faded paint is a stark reminder just how far they have fallen from supersonic glory. On the ground, they look lost, without purpose. The bombers and the missiles benefit from their imposing size, as if, perhaps actually being able to fly was always of a secondary purpose, their primary mission objective simply fulfilled by the implied threat of their size. A B-52 personifies destruction, a deep, reverberation echoes from its enormous slab sides: I can carry a lot of bombs.
One of the oddities of NMNSH’s Heritage Park is an 83-ton, 84-foot-long cannon. There’s no mistaking the malevolent intent of such a machine. At least with a supersonic fighter jet, its sleek look and rakish attitude convey a machinistic grace. A cannon possesses few such aesthetic attributes, the model sitting behind the NMNSH doubly so. Like all of the artifacts at NMNSH, the cannon has a connection to our nuclear heritage, and this one was designed to fire tactical atomic bombs.
Its field designation was the M65 atomic canon. Unofficially, it was nicknamed “Atomic Annie,” echoing the name of a large German field canon (“Anzio Annie”) used in WWII. The M65 was designed to heave a 280-mm artillery shell—in this case, a shell containing a W9 atomic warhead—twenty miles. Expressly designed to be towed by articulated semis, the cannon was deployed to Europe and Korea.
In May of 1953, this type of cannon fired a W9 atomic shell during a nuclear weapons test named Grable. The ensuing atomic blast was measured at 15 kilotons, equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT (it would take about 150 railroad cars to haul that much TNT). This test sequence is shown in great detail in the film Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie.
At the film’s 45-minute mark, the giant cannon is fired (see video below). Seconds pass, but inevitably the iconic mushroom cloud blooms from the desert floor. As the explosion progresses, trees are bent, vehicles blown over, and an Army tent bursts into flame. Near the end of the sequence is a shot taken from a very distant camera, showing the shockwave’s symmetric disc spreading over the desert floor, with the rising sun-like atomic fireball at the center.
In part because of the ubiquity of aviation museums, it’s easy to get the impression that, during the Cold War, the Air Force and atomic weapons were, if not synonymous, then symbiotic. Just as the 280-mm atomic cannon and the SADM that we mentioned in last week’s post bear witness to the Army’s role in the Cold War, the other oddity in the Heritage Park works to tell the Navy’s story.
Sitting just outside the museum doorway that leads from the indoor exhibits out to the Heritage Park is the sail (in WWII-era terms, the conning tower) of the SSBN-645 James K. Polk, a Benjamin Franklin class nuclear ballistic missile submarine. Nicknamed the Jimmy K, the submarine spent 33 years in the fleet.
If the missiles and jet fighters seem lifeless, the animating spirits in their engines long since safed and removed, at least they appear, in their current state of affairs, to be largely intact. Not so with this submarine. The sail of the Jimmy K was cut away from the rest of the submarine’s hull. Angry, jagged metal edges remain as evidence of the cutter’s torches. Blistered black paint and rusting scars mar what was once the submarine’s smooth hydrodynamic surface. The overall impression of the effort that was required to dissect the Jimmy K into pieces is that the submarine was defiant till the end: I was built well. I won’t go easy.
By the time we made our rounds outside, our foreheads were tense from squinting, and we felt pretty sticky. We wandered back inside, leaving the NMNSH’s largest artifacts behind us. Inside were more exhibits to peruse.
In the Footsteps (Part 6) August 10, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Museums & Archives, Nobel Prize, Nuclear Weapons, Radioactivity, WWII
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In the fall of 2006, we wrote an article for Curator: The Museum Journal (“Not Just the Hangars of World War II: American Aviation Museums and the Role of Memorial”). One of the museum curators that we interviewed for the article, Katherine Huit, then of the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, described museum-goers as “streakers, strollers, and studiers.” Now, after a few more years of doing this thing we do, we’d like to add one more category. We’re not sure what to call ourselves (and those like us, you know who you are), but we like to think of our efforts as extreme-museum-going.
We don’t just study the scripts on the exhibit plates; we take notes, sometimes lots of notes. The first time we visited the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, Doug took down verbatim the text on each plate until his hand cramped, ending up with just over 100 paragraphs of text. We also do drawings, diagrams, and floor layouts and snap photos. The floor layout of the Udvar-Hazy Center’s display of the Enola Gay, the B-29 piloted by Col. Paul Tibbets and named for his mother, was actually quite helpful for the Curator article. It wasn’t until we reviewed our notes that we realized that the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb, which was constructed at Los Alamos, was surrounded on all sides by aircraft flown by nations of the Axis Powers. The enemy aircraft were so numerous that, at floor level, it was actually impossible to photograph the gleaming, stainless-steel-skinned B-29 without also capturing an Arado Ar 234 B-2 Blitz, an Aichi M6A1 Seiran, or a Focke-Wulf Fw 190. Our overall feeling was that, even in its retirement, the Enola Gay could not be without context and the larger story.
We dive so deeply into each exhibit because we are unsure when we will get back or if we will ever get back to see those artifacts. But that kind of attention to detail can also have an obscuring effect. When we visited the Enola Gay the first time, we missed the forest for the trees. The trees are striking.
On our visit to National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (NMNSH), we decided to pull back a bit from extreme-museum-going, to land closer to studiers on our scale from streakers to the extreme. Not that we don’t peer at the trees, but we’re more interested right now in the story—the forest—than in peeling away the layers of bark of an individual tree or two. Our notebooks are a bit thinner, perhaps because, with a digital camera, we take more photographs.
The natural traffic flow of NMNSH is akin to a timeline of the nuclear experience, beginning with Rutherford and Einstein The story proceeds through the Manhattan Project and the Cold War and ends with the ubiquity of nuclear power plants and the promise of green energy. A quick glance at Doug’s notebook reveals that, by the time he got to the Cold War section, he was just taking down the names of the primary items in each exhibit. Comparing our notebooks, we each have different tidbits with very little overlap.
The Cold War exhibit revealed the remarkable inventiveness that humanity has been willing to demonstrate in the pursuit of destruction. The weapon that really grabs your attention is the SADM (click for related FILM), or Special Atomic Demolition Munition. This is an atomic bomb that was intended to be carried by one or two soldiers. (If you watch the film in the link, that’s the warhead that the swimmer is strapping to his groin. The irony of the symbolism makes you wonder who really had a sense of humor.)
For Anna, this weapon has significant import. Leahy family lore has it that Anna’s father, Andy, scraped paint or rust off nuclear weapons at the Pirmasens Weapons Depot in West Germany, during his time as an enlisted man in the Army. As best as we can tell, it is likely that the SADM was this type of tactical atomic weapon that Andy Leahy would have been working on. Part of this story is the conclusion that Anna’s father reached about the Cold-War-era safety and monitoring measures that his group used: almost non-existent. Each man was issued a film badge dosimeter to affix to his person before descending into the below ground caverns where the weapons were stored. At the end of each week, the men would toss their dosimeters into a large bin. Andy and the other men assumed that no one actually examined the badges. There was certainly no hope of determining their own exposures.
The story of men being asked to scrape blistered, corroded paint off of stored atomic weapons begs belief and current common sense. And yet, in the context of the Cold War, where soldiers were denied access to basic information about atomic weapons and openly exposed to all manner of atomic tests (and the ensuing fallout), it becomes a more plausible story.
Anna’s father died after an extended fight with cancer that was everywhere in the abdomen, all at once, with no site of origin. When Anna’s lawyer mother (her father was also lawyer) attempted to obtain Andy’s service records, she found that his unit’s records had been destroyed in a fire. They had been held in a fire-protected, government document storage building in St. Louis.
The first time that Anna detailed her father’s cancer to Doug, he was reminded of James Gleick’s book Genius and the description of Richard Feynman’s cancer. Standing at NMNSH in front of a weapon that plausibly killed Anna’s father—ironically, by not fulfilling its expressed design—in this place that is, in part, a testament to the of the work of Feynman and thousands of other Los Alamos scientists reminded us of the threads that connect us to history. Threads that have us walking in the footsteps of those who’ve come before us. Whether we know it or not.
In the Footsteps (Part 5) August 3, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: In the Footsteps, Museums & Archives, Radioactivity, WWII
Earlier this summer, we traveled to New Mexico to walk in the footsteps of those men and women who developed the world’s first nuclear weapons. We return this week to that series about the landscape and museums of New Mexico.
To read Part 1 (Photos of New Mexico’s Nuclear Past), click HERE.
To read Part 2 (Lamy, New Mexico), click HERE.
To read Part 3 (Bandelier National Monument & Los Alamos Historical Society Museum), click HERE.
To read Part 4 (Los Alamos & the Bradbury Science Museum), click HERE.
After several days of making our way through America’s atomic past in the birthplace of the atom bomb, we decamped Los Alamos, La Fonda, and Santa Fe to head south for Albuquerque. Our destination was the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History (NMNSH). Located on the southeastern edge of the city, just a stone’s throw away from Kirtland Air Force Base and the Sandia Foothills, the museum, which was formerly known as the much-easier-to-say (and type) National Atomic Museum, states as its mission to serve “as America’s resource for nuclear history and science.”
The NMNSH is a Smithsonian Institution affiliate, as is the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas (for our post on that, click HERE), and it exudes the granite cool competence that one expects from the Smithsonian. This incarnation of the museum opened its doors in the fall of 2009, and it averages about 70,000 visitors a year. The NMNSH has eleven exhibit areas, and though we walked through each of them, we were naturally drawn to some more than others.
The first exhibit we visited is entitled “The Decision to Drop.” It contains a wide array of artifacts from the era of the Manhattan Project. The first piece of history that grabbed our attention was a calutron, a device used in the uranium separation process. These devices function by taking advantage of the slight difference in the atomic mass of U-235 and U-238. Inside the calutron, electromagnets bend a passing ionized beam of uranium. Each uranium isotope is deflected to a different degree and can then be collected at different points.
The calutron at the NMNSH is an original one, used during WWII at Oak Ridge plant Y-12. Calutrons and Y-12 are notable for some of the more interesting stories of the entire project. During the war, shortages of copper were acute. Given that the calutrons were, at their cores, electromagnets—iron bars wrapped by copper wire—this was an enormous problem. The solution: silver. Electrically similar to copper, silver also had another advantage: if you knew where to shop, it was available in abundance. When you had the kind of clout that General Leslie Grove and the Manhattan Project enjoyed, you could shop at the U.S. Treasury. And they did. In August 1942, Groves’s aide-de-camp began negotiations with the U.S. Treasury to take delivery of 6000 tons of silver. Eventually the Manhattan Project and the Y-12 calutrons would consume 14,700 tons of silver. That’s 428,749,990 troy ounces, or $17,188,587,099 in today’s dollars.
Perhaps the most remarkable artifact in the Decision to Drop exhibit, the one that attracts visitors’ rapt attention and about which docents like to talk, is the 1941 Packard limousine used to convey V.I.P.s from the train station in Lamy to and around Los Alamos. After its manufacture, the limo was modified by a coachworks maker to enable it to carry upwards of fifteen passengers at a time. But just a few years ago, this automobile was a castoff hulk sitting in a nearby junkyard. Now, the dramatic curves of the limo’s hood and fenders and its preposterously long, stretched slab sides are showroom-floor-new and painted in an era-appropriate olive drab. This car, almost lost as trash, matches the photographs of yesteryear.
Nearby the limo sits another car, a 1942 Plymouth. Though this car wasn’t actually a part of the Manhattan Project, it is correct for the time period, and it is arranged in a dramatic scene meant to reenact another famous moment in the history of the Manhattan Project: the arrival of the plutonium core at the Trinity site. Sitting the car’s back seat is a facsimile of the box that carried the plutonium from Los Alamos to McDonald’s farmhouse and, ultimately, to the Gadget, the lab-bench experiment that became the world’s first atomic bomb.
Other pieces from Trinity, including a seismograph used at the test site, and a Fat Man-style bomb case that was manufactured at the lab in the summer of 1945, sit nearby the car. Each one adds its own sentence or punctuation mark to the story of the Manhattan Project.
We’ve spent a fair bit of time in the Los Alamos and Santa Fe area over the past few years, and we’ve read a number of books, both fiction and non-fiction and a couple that are probably somewhere in between. At this point, it was easy for the two of us to stare at the tiny warning plate on the limo’s dash—Do Not Exceed 20 MPH—and to imagine the restless, wrung-out Oppenheimer and handful of his trusted confidantes, perhaps Norris Bradbury, maybe George Kistiakowsky, making their way the 200 miles from Los Alamos to Trinity, anxious to see what would happen, hoping it would work, worrying it would be a dud, and perhaps even fearing it would work.
We’ll cover the rest of the NMNSH in a second post next week. Keep reading because there’s more to these artifacts.
In the Footsteps (Part 4) June 29, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Computers, In the Footsteps, Museums & Archives, Nuclear Weapons, Physics, Radioactivity, WWII
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Last week, we wrote about our visit to the Los Alamos Historical Society Museum. This week, fires have been threatening Los Alamos. Its 12,000 residents have evacuated, and the federal laboratory is closed, with only essential employees still working in the fire zone. But the Historical Society says all the artifacts we wrote about last week are safe. The Environmental Protection Agency is measuring radioactivity in the air there (no elevated levels), and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) officials say that, though the fire has slithered within fifty yards of the laboratory grounds, the 20,000 barrels of nuclear waste stored above ground are not at risk. The area burned in 2000, with no detected elevation in radioactivity.
So today, we meander down the street past the post office to the Bradbury Science Museum, a version of public outreach for LANL.
We’ve long been interested in the missions of museums and have published a couple of articles that explore, in part, the ways aviation museums articulate their goals. The Bradbury Science Museum has a multifaceted, rather aggressive mission: to interpret what LANL does, to promote understanding of LANL’s role in national security, to assist the public in making decisions about national security matters, and to expand knowledge and education in what are known as the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math). Museums don’t merely document history, and this museum doesn’t shy away from the political context of the nuclear science it represents. Of course, it’s difficult to imagine that any museum that addresses the role of nuclear science and technology in our lives could avoid entering the political arena.
The first iteration of the museum opened near Fuller Lodge in 1954, mostly to store artifacts that folks thought might be important not to lose. In 1963, some unclassified items were transferred to a space that could be opened to the public, and within two years that stash of artifacts was large enough to demand more space. A few years after that move, in 1970, the museum took its name from Norris Bradbury, the scientist who succeeded J. Robert Oppenheimer and served as the director of LANL 1945-1970. In 1981, the museum was overhauled with a snazzy new professional look. In part because it was popular and needed more parking spaces, the Bradbury Science Museum moved to its current location in 1993 and now draws almost 100,000 visitors every year. This year, we were among those visitors.
Though we had a visit to the Bradbury as a primary reason for our return to Los Alamos, the museums, the city, Bandelier National Monument, and the town’s visitors inhabit a peculiar space where awe-inspiring nature abuts cutting-edge technology. We took in a lengthy hike at Bandelier in the morning and spent the afternoon at the Bradbury. We weren’t the only other visitors with this same itinerary, as we saw half dozen others at the Bradbury that afternoon with whom we’d earlier exchanged hello on the Long Trail.
We spent the bulk of our time at the Bradbury in the three main galleries. As the name would suggest, the History Gallery covers the early years of the laboratory at Los Alamos. In addition to standard displays of film footage and newspaper clippings from the era, the gallery also holds some intriguing pieces from the Trinity Test, which exploded the implosion-style, or Fat Man, atomic bomb on July 16th, 1945. Given that photos and film clips of expanding mushroom clouds are among the iconic imagery of the Cold War, it is appropriate that the Bradbury, a museum in the cradle of the atom bomb development, displays a camera used to record the early-morning event at Trinity, the birth of the atomic age.
The History Gallery also contains the Bradbury’s newest exhibit, “Kennedy’s Visit to Los Alamos.” On December 7th, 1962, President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson paid a visit to LANL as guests of the lab’s Chemistry and Metallurgy Research. One of LANL’s burgeoning research areas in that era was a joint program with NASA entitled Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application, or NERVA. Kennedy’s visit coincided with the height of the NERVA program, while the lab was in the midst of developing Project Rover and the Kiwi nuclear rocket engines. Several photos depict President Kennedy, Vice President Johnson, and Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Chair Glenn Seaborg looking at models developed for Project Rover. While the directors of LANL and the AEC must have enjoyed showing off the lab’s latest wares with the press snapping photos, many photos depict ordinary aspects of the day, including drinking a cup of coffee. Some thoughtful lab worker at the event had the foresight to retain and preserve the coffee cups. They are marked on their bottoms to indicate which was used by Kennedy and which by Johnson and are on display at the Bradbury.
The Research Gallery offers displays and narratives about the most important of LANL’s current research areas. Among the more engaging exhibits are those on earth and environmental sciences, genomics, and computational biology. We spent less time in this gallery, though, because, while it was rich in information (lots of big placards with photos and text), it had changed the least since our last visit and housed fewer artifacts. That said, the display about how various parts of the lab use particle accelerators piqued Doug’s interest as a former denizen of Fermilab.
The Defense Gallery exhibits, as you might expect, replicas of the first two atomic bombs, which were designed and put together at Los Alamos. Not far from replicas of the Fat Man and Little Boy atomic bombs is a giant, inverted yellow cone. The display script indicates that the cone is the approximate size of all of the plutonium that has been created since the beginning of the Manhattan Project. Plutonium isn’t found in nature, at least not in appreciable amounts, and to see its volume equivalent in the gallery makes it seem as if we didn’t produce much with all that money and effort. But if the cone were actually made of plutonium, it would weigh 70 tons. A smaller exhibit nearby hammers home that plutonium is an unusually hefty material. Lifting the first few fist-sized blocks of other materials comes easily (or relatively easy after a five-mile hike in the mountains). The final, plutonium-weight block is heavy—very heavy. We were utterly convinced of plutonium’s most obvious physical characteristic.
Also in the Defense Gallery, though it might just as readily fit into the concepts of history or research, is the exhibit detailing LANL’s role in the development of computing, from humans (mostly young women) punching/keying Marchant calculators to the lab’s first homegrown computer (MANIAC—Mathematical Analyzer, Numerical Integrator And Computer) to an alphanumeric soup of machines (IBM 701, IBM 704, IBM 7030, CDC 6600, CDC 7600, CM-2, CM-5, SGI, HP, etc.) and concluding with the lab’s current supercomputer, Roadrunner. In 2008, Roadrunner, built by IBM and taking six years for full functionality, became the world’s fastest supercomputer and the first to break the petaflop—one thousand-trillion operations per second—barrier. By way of comparison, the computer sitting on your desktop would need approximately 100 years to execute as many operations as Roadrunner can accomplish in a day. Three years later, Roadrunner is now the tenth fastest computer in the world. Or it would be, if it is turned on; reports say that LANL has shut down two supercomputers because of the fire.
We’ll have more in our “In the Footsteps” series later this summer (there’s a nuclear museum in Albuquerque too). Next week, however, we turn our attention back to the space shuttle, with a guest post from author Margaret Lazarus Dean on Monday. Then, we are off on our trip to the Space Coast for the last launch, scheduled for July 8. Cross your fingers for an on-schedule launch, then look for photos, videos, and commentary right here at Lofty Ambitions.
Interview: Michael Barratt June 13, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
Tags: Countdown to the Cape, Radioactivity, Space Shuttle
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Lofty Ambitions interviewed Astronaut Michael Barratt when we visited Kennedy Space Center for the not-launch of Endeavour this year. Barratt had recently retured from space himself, as he was part of the crew on STS-133, Discovery‘s last mission. The News Center was so crowded and noisy that Barratt suggested we slip into the closet off the the employee break room for a cozy conversation.
Michael Barratt is an especially engaging person; we would have been happy to hang out with him all afternoon, and he seemed happy to keep chatting with us. Here, he talks about his varied interests, how he followed his sweetheart to medical school, and issues of radioactivity and his own book on the subject. The radioactivity conversation is about seven minutes in and is very much related to our recent posts.
Guest Blog: Ann Ronald June 6, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Science, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Nuclear Weapons, Radioactivity
When we were doing research at the end of last year on the nuclear testing program in the American West, we came across a new book of short stories about the that subject. Having read through newspapers of 1953 ourselves at the Atomic Testing Museum and Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation, we were interested in Ann Ronald’s use of historical fact and details as she created fictional accounts for her book Friendly Fallout 1953. Ann Ronald is a professor emerita at the University of Nevada, Reno, so we looked her up there. She has published nine books and countless articles about sense of place in fiction and literary nonfiction. Beginning with The New West of Edward Abbey and continuing with Earthtones: A Nevada Album, GhostWest, Oh, Give Me a Home, and Reader of the Purple Sage, most of her work has focused on the American West. We’re happy to welcome her to Lofty Ambitions and see the ways she connects our nuclear testing past to our nuclear power present.
NUCLEAR FALLOUT, THEN AND NOW
A few months ago, I published a book about above-ground atomic testing in Nevada in the 1950s. Friendly Fallout 1953 gives a factual account of what happened but shows the events through the eyes of imagined characters, composites of the men, women, and children actually affected by the government’s tests and the fallout that followed. A reporter eyeballing a detonation in person, a radiation specialist, a secretary, a bartender, a Las Vegas showgirl, a young Paiute boy, a Mormon housewife whose family is caught downwind, a meteorologist, an animal custodian, a curious teenage girl, a soldier watching from a nearby trench, a physicist—altogether they reveal the complexities that accompanied the Cold War urgencies of the mid-twentieth century.
As I was writing Friendly Fallout 1953, I was struck by the cyclical nature of history. The 1950s seemed to be repeating themselves. For example, Americans then feared a vaguely defined enemy called the “red menace”; we now are afraid of terrorists, an enemy equally abstract. Then, somewhat unclear about their objectives, other than to defeat the red tide, people fought on foreign soil in Korea. Just as obliquely, we are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Senator McCarthy turned the early 1950s’ political scene upside down, so that a patriotic American dared not question anything about the fight against Communism. So, too, questions about the rationale for invading Iraq were deemed inappropriate. To protect its citizens from harm, first under Truman’s lead and then Eisenhower’s, the American government developed a massive atomic testing program. Its intricacies and inefficiencies and occasional ineptitudes remind me of Homeland Security. No cost spared.
Another common characteristic: the focus on New York City. “Collateral damage” was a term not commonly used in the 1950s, but Civil Defense authorities then were far more concerned about the large East Coast population than about the inconsequential few who happened to live downwind from the Nevada Proving Ground. Several quotes in Friendly Fallout 1953, taken directly from government documents, express a cavalier attitude toward denizens of the American West. As one commissioner firmly states, “Gentlemen, we must not let anything interfere with this series of tests—nothing.” Even when cancer ran rampant and ruined countless lives, the government acknowledged little culpability. In the patriotic urgency to protect everyone else, innocent people were irrevocably harmed.
Physicists and mathematicians and engineers at the test site meant well. Most of them were honestly patriotic, took their jobs seriously, and participated eagerly. In Friendly Fallout 1953, I look at above-ground atomic testing from multiple points of view. The gung-ho types get almost as many pages as the victims. I took great care, in fact, not to overlay a twenty-first century political sensibility on characters of a generation ago. Those times were complicated, and any modern value judgments are up to the reader. We might, however, enlarge the discussion and talk about today’s nuclear power industry and all those who would store nuclear waste in Nevada. No different than their predecessors, today’s advocates believe in the efficacy of nuclear power. They trust its efficiency, its cost-effectiveness, its safety.
Shortly after my book was published, an earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, with tragic consequences. Listening to the news, I saw even more parallels between my research and current events. At first, the government downplayed problems at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. So, too, did government officials downplay complications that followed 1953 detonations like Nancy, Simon, and Harry. Updates then and now admitted that potential problems were developing, but no one seemed to be divulging the whole story. Innocent bystanders were left to guess whether they were safe or not, if they should—or could—take precautions. On the one hand, they were told that radioactive plumes were nothing to worry about; on the other, the fallout seemed to be increasing in size and scope. Stay inside; evacuate now. Food was safe; food was contaminated. The details, predictions, and predications changed day by day.
We’re told that with proper precautions nuclear power is safe. Simultaneously we learn that nuclear plants are not always regularly inspected and that certain safeguards are just too costly to implement. 1953:2011. Not to worry, not at all. As Yogi Berra would say, déjà vu all over again.