In the Footsteps: Jean Dayton (Part 14)

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.

Building Atomic Vegas, Atomic Testing Museum
Building Atomic Vegas, Atomic Testing Museum

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).

J. Robert Oppenheimer, Anna, General Leslie Groves
J. Robert Oppenheimer, Anna, General Leslie Groves

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.

Welcome to Los Alamos Today
Welcome to Los Alamos Today

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.”

Doug’s graduate work intervened, and it was more than a year before he contacted her for an interview. For more on Jean Dayton, who was born on December 30, 1924, check out our next post HERE.

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