In the Footsteps (Part 9)

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.

Joseph Rotblat, Los Alamos National Laboratory ID Badge

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.

2 thoughts on “In the Footsteps (Part 9)

  1. Great info and insights, as usual! You might enjoy reading “The Woman Who Knew Too Much; Alice Stewart and the Secrets of Radiation” by Gayle Greene. Dr. Stewart was a British epidemiologist who challenged nuclear safety standards throughout her career.

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