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Nobel Week 2015 October 8, 2015

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Svetlana Alexievich is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 2015. Alexievich is a Belarusian writer who is being recognized, according to the announcement, “”for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” Especially in light of our focus on “Countdown to The Cold War” over the past year, Lofty Ambitions applauds this selection.

Read an excerpt from Alexievich’s “Voices from Chernobyl” in The Paris Review HERE.

For the whole list of this year’s new Nobel laureates (Peace will be announced tomorrow), go to the Nobel Prize website HERE. We mentioned the Physics prize in yesterday’s post and are still celebrating the birthday listed in our Wednesday 5 list.

5 Physicists with Birthdays This Week October 7, 2015

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It’s Nobel Prize week, and Wednesday’s announcement of this year’s award in Physics says, “The Nobel Prize in Physics 2015 recognises Takaaki Kajita in Japan andArthur B. McDonald in Canada, for their key contributions to the experiments which demonstrated that neutrinos change identities. This metamorphosis requires that neutrinos have mass. The discovery has changed our understanding of the innermost workings of matter and can prove crucial to our view of the universe.” Lofty Ambitions celebrates five other physicists whose birthdays fall this week.

Neil deGrasses Tyson

Neil deGrasses Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson, born October 5, 1958

Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History

Ernest Walton, born October 6, 1903

Nobel Laureate in Physics in 1951 for work on particle accelerators to, as the saying goes, split the atom

Niels Bohr

Niels Bohr

Niels Bohr, born October 7, 1885

Nobel Laureate in Physics in 1922 for work on the atomic structure and quantum theory

From Anna Leahy’s poem “Notes on a Few Atomic Scientists”

IV. Enrico Fermi listens to Niels Bohr carefully. Who wouldn’t? He know that later he will not remember if he was surprised at the question. He straightens his jacket as if that is answer enough. To accept a Nobel Prize is rarely such a difficult choice. His wife will be pleased, he will have to write a speech, and the will live in Italy.

Mark Oliphant, born October 8, 1901

Early investigator of nuclear fusion and, later, politician and advocate for voluntary euthanasia for the terminally ill (an issue in the news in California this week)

Max von Laue, born October 9, 1879

Nobel Laureate in Physics in 1914 for work with crystals and x-ray defraction

5 Graphic (Nonfiction) Books September 16, 2015

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What It Is: the formless thing which gives things form (2008)

By Lynda Barry

Lynda Barry’s What It Is is a book like none other we’ve seen. It’s part stories, part memoir about her life, and part creativity workbook for the reader. It’s nonlinear; it poses questions; it’s fun. One of our favorite bits of wisdom:

To be able to stand not knowing long enough to let something alive take shape!

Fallout: J. Robert Oppenehimer, Leo Szilard, and the Political Science of the Atomic Bomb (2001)

By Jim Ottaviani, Janine Johnston, Steve Lieber, Vince Locke, Bernie Mireault, Jeff Parker

oppy-pork-pieThe other four books in today’s list circle around nuclear history. A wee bit is fabricated, so Fallout isn’t really nonfiction, but a lot of what happens and what is said in this book really did happen and was said. For instance, early on in the book, Leo Szilard takes a bath and reads H.G. Wells’s The World Is Set Free. Szilard is thought to have enjoyed taking baths and credited that book as one of the two that shaped his thinking.

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie—A Tale of Love and Fallout (2010)

By Lauren Redniss

This book is gorgeous. The other three nuclear history books are told in panels of comic strips, but Radioactive plays with images in different ways, with maps, diagrams, drawings, photographs, lots of shapes and colors. The author even created her own typeface and named it after the spiritualist medium the Curies visited. This book is especially interested in Marie Curie’s relationships, with Pierre, of course, but also with others, including her lover Paul Langevin. The personal story, though, is always woven into history and science, as we see in the early passage that introduces Marie Curie:

Three times before her death, Marya Sklodowska would find, then swiftly lose, a cherished lover. The gray-eyed girl was born in Warsaw on November 7, 1867, the year chemist and orchid cultivator Alfred Nobel patented dynamite. She would become famous as Marie Curie, twice winning the prize Nobel established with his explosive fortune.

Feynman (2011)

By Jim Ottaviani, Leland Myrick, Hilary Sycamore

Bert2This book is fun. Well, it’s Richard Feynman, and he was a character, and it’s in color. Feynman gives readers Los Alamos, his later lectures, and his role in the Challenger accident investigation, and it also tells of Feynman’s eye for the ladies and his illness. It’s a sweeping biography of a charismatic scientist. One of the most captivating aspects of this book is that Feynman narrates in first person, using boxed voiceovers. In the section about Arline and her diagnosis with tuberculosis, for instance, Feynman reveals his unspoken responses and emotions, eventually concluding:

So we knew we could face things together, and after going through that we had no difficulty facing other problems.

Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb (2012)

By Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

Trinity is in the same vein as Fallout, though it uses more whole-page and double-page spreads that are visually striking and allow for explanation of concepts, such as everything you need to know about uranium. In the end, this book looks beyond the Trinity test to Mutually Assured Destruction and “Duck and Cover,” to the risks with which we’ve lived since 1945. The afterword concludes:

We would see that the secret of atomic power was stolen not from the gods, but simply from the earth.

And we would remember that this atomic force is a force of nature.

As innocent as an earthquake.

As oblivious as the sun.

It will outlast our dreams.

Countdown to The Cold War (sort of, with serendipity) August 26, 2015

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Longtime readers of Lofty Ambitions know what tremendous fans we are of the seemingly random connections of things that push their way into our lives to give us delight in the form of serendipity

Bert2Over the weekend, we were co-editing a piece of writing that mentioned our parents’ exposure to duck-and-cover drills as schoolchildren. This prompted a question of when that famous film that featured Bert the Turtle first appeared. In tracking down the film’s release date, we wound up where many internet searches do: Wikipedia. Even though one of us is a librarian, we’re pretty fond of Wikipedia at least as a starting point. In this instance, we followed a chain of hyperlinks that had us arriving back in the place that we’d started, which is to say that we arrived back at our home in Orange, California. The whole sequence of events was reminiscent of the Connections 2 television show hosted by James Burke, which, when we started thinking about that, revealed a second whole set of connections.

Our first step was to track down the release date of the now infamous Cold War-era civil defense film, Duck-and-Cover. Bert the Turtle made his appearance before American schoolchildren in 1951. We’re notoriously curious here at Lofty Ambitions, and, despite a looming deadline, we couldn’t help but notice something interesting in the sidebox.

NectarCastleIn addition to a video clip of a thermonuclear weapon test—shot Nectar of Operation Castle—was a bit of accompanying text that mentioned the double flash in this type of explosion. The second flash is brighter than the sun.

This is the kind of information that gets our attention, so we followed the hyperlink for double flash, which actually led us to the entry for the bhangmeter. A bhangmeter is a device for detecting and measuring the strength of a nuclear explosion. What caught our attention next was the section that explained why it’s bHang- and not the infinitely more sensible bang-.

The name of the detector is a playful pun, which was bestowed upon it by Fred Reines, one of the scientists working on the project. The name is derived from the Hindi word bhang, a locally grown variety of cannabis which is smoked or drunk to induce intoxicating effects. The joke is that one would have to be on drugs to believe the bhangmeter detectors would work properly. This is in contrast to a bangmeter one might associate with detection of nuclear explosions.

Fred Reines

Fred Reines

The next thing that caught our collective eye was a name: Fred Reines. We know Fred Reines from our extensive research on Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project. As it turns out, Reines, a Nobel Prize winner for his work on the discovery of the neutrino, spent the last part of his career in our neck of the woods. Reines was the first Dean of the Physical Sciences at nearby University of California of Irvine. Reines was on the UCI faculty until his death on August 26, 1998, seventeen years ago today, in Orange, California. Altogether, it was an unusal chain of events that brought us back to the town we live in for a post on the anniversary of the day this man died.

What of the second set of connections—Burke’s Connections 2 show—that we mentioned at the beginning of this post? Recently, Doug had a new book come out. The book, Intertwingled: The Work and Influence of Ted Nelson, is a Festschrift, a lovely German word meaning festival (fest-) + writing (schrift). In this case, Intertwingled—which Doug co-edited with Daniele Struppa, a mathematician and Chapman University’s Chancellor—is a series of essays generated from the conference presentations given at a conference the university held in Nelson’s honor in April 2014. The book’s title comes from a phrase coined by Ted, intertwingularity.

Intertwingularity is Nelson’s attempt to describe the interrelatedness of information. In other words, it describes the connectedness of all of the knowledge in and about the world. Connectedness—seeing meaningful connections—is what this post is about.

With last month’s release of the book, Doug was now going back through his emails to make sure that people associated with the conference knew that the book had been published. Whose name should appear in a search of Doug’s inbox? James Burke. When the conference planning was going on, Burke, whom Ted Nelson has known for years, was a potential speaker. In the end, his schedule wouldn’t allow for him to appear, but how appropriate that a day of following seeming random connections would wind up with this one additional association. That’s serendipity.

Countdown to The Cold War: The Language of Trinity July 29, 2015

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Two weeks ago, we wrote about the 70th anniversary of the Trinity test. This was the first detonation  of an atomic bomb. Being writers and lovers of words, we are following up by examining more closely the language and literature that surrounded the Trinity test and the birth of the atomic age. Here, we also take a look at some of the other intriguing facts, occurrences, and ideas associated with this landmark event.

Oppenheimer and Groves at Trinity Site (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Oppenheimer and Groves at Trinity Site (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Today, the event is simply known as Trinity. In 1945, Trinity was the name of both the test site—located nearly two hundred miles from Los Alamos in southern New Mexico—and the test itself. Locally, the site chosen for carrying out the Trinity test was known as the Jornada del Muerto, or Journey of Death.

Read Anna’s poem at Drunken Boat (with audio of her reading her words) at http://www.drunkenboat.com/db17/anna-leahy.

Trinity is possibly a reference to the poem “Batter My Heart” by the British metaphysical poet, John Donne. Or, given project director J. Robert Oppenheimer’s familiarity with Sanskrit and Hindu texts, Trinity might refer to a trio of Hindu gods: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

Witnessing the Trinity test brought out a remarkable level of eloquence in some of the eyewitnesses. Physicist and Nobel Prize winner I. I. Rabi described the event this way:

It was seen to last forever. You would wish it would stop…Finally it was over, diminishing, and we looked toward the place where the bomb had been; there was an enormous ball of fire which grew and grew and it rolled as it grew; it went up into the air, in yellow flashes and into scarlet and green. It looked menacing.

Physicist Joan Hinton, one of the few female scientists at Los Alamos, had this to say:

It was like being at the bottom of an ocean of light. We were bathed in it from all directions. The light withdrew into the bomb as if the bomb sucked it up. Then it turned purple and blue and went up and up and up. We were still talking in whispers when the cloud reached the level where it was struck by the rising sunlight.

Trinity Explosion

Trinity Explosion

Hinton’s poetic description of the quality of the light associated with the atomic bomb belies the quantity of light produced in that moment. Like a too-curious child told not to stare at the Sun, future Nobel laureate Richard Feynman—despite having been given welder’s glass for viewing the explosion—was momentarily blinded when he stared directly into the blast. The converse of this experience, that a blind woman seemingly saw the Trinity explosion has long been repeated after appearing in a flawed Associated Press article. Another article that appeared in the press was actually a statement prepared on behalf of General Groves and the Manhattan Project by embedded New York Times journalist William L. Laurence. Laurence’s article reported “a heavy explosion which occurred on the Alamogordo Air Base reservation this morning.” The article went on to blame the explosion on a mishap at the air base’s ammo dump.

The news of the success at Trinity made its way back to Los Alamos quickly. In her book Inside Box 1663, Eleanor Jette, who arrived at Los Alamos with her metallurgist husband in January 1944, describes the day after Trinity:

Monday, the sixteenth of July, was a flawless day. The adults who remained in town were jubilant. Women, whose husbands were at Trinity, shooed their children out of the house if they were of shooable age, and toured the town. Other such women, tied at home with tiny children, hung over porch railings or rushed out their back doors making the famous Churchillian V for Victory sign.

There were tears and laughter[…]. The fact that we didn’t know its exact nature nature didn’t dampen our enthusiasm in the least—IT WORKED!


One woman broke out a treasured bottle of whiskey at ten A.M. We toasted our men, the men and women of the Manhattan District and the end of war.

As Jette makes clear, the denizens of Los Alamos celebrated even if they couldn’t be quite specific about what it was that they were celebrating. Speculating about atomic bombs and their powerful effects had been going on for decades even while their development was top secret and confined to a relatively short period of time. In Los Alamos and the Development of the Atomic Bomb, author Robert W. Seidel notes:

Los Alamos had succeeded in producing a nuclear weapon only 2 years, 3 months and 16 days after it was formally opened.

British author H. G. Wells introduced the world to the term atomic bomb in his novel The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind, when he wrote the following:

[T]hese atomic bombs which science burst upon the world that night were strange even to the men who used them.

Trinity Aerial View (US Government Photo)

Trinity Aerial View (US Government Photo)

Although it’s oft been noted that Wells was conceptually mistaken about how atomic bombs would function, this quote has a nice ring of uncertainty to it that played out early and often in the reality of the Manhattan Project. At one point early in the project, a group of scientists were briefly concerned that the heat from an atomic bomb might set Earth’s atmosphere on fire. As plans were being made for Trinity, the level of uncertainty surrounding the plutonium-based implosion device—the bomb type tested at Trinity—was high enough that a 200-ton steel vessel known as Jumbo was built as a container and test apparatus for the device. Jumbo was designed so that, in the event of a so-called fizzle—an incomplete detonation—the irreplaceable plutonium would remain inside Jumbo. Although how the thoroughly deconstructed plutonium would have been retrieved from Jumbo’s insides beggars the imagination.

In Applied Nuclear Physics, Ernest Pollard of Yale University and William Davidson Jr. of the B. F. Goodrich Company made this eerie prediction in 1942:

The separation of the uranium isotopes in quantity lots is now being attempted in several places. If the reader wakes some morning to read in his newspaper that half the United States was blown into the sea overnight he can rest assured that someone, somewhere, succeeded.

Fortunately, Laurence’s post-Trinity article only had to faux-report that an ammo dump had gone up in an unfortunate explosion, not that New Mexico, Arizona, and California disappeared in a conflagration. Although it isn’t about atomic bombs (it was published in 1937), the post-apocalyptic Stephen Vincent Benet short story “By the Waters of Babylon” echoes these doomsday possibilities that hung in the air in July 1945 and also haunted Doug during moments of his Cold War childhood.

It’s arguable that no other event in human history remade the reality of our existence as wholly or as swiftly. The conclusion of Rabi’s remarks speaks directly to what had been achieved:

A new thing had just been born; a new control; and new understanding of man, which man had acquired over nature.

Years later, Oppenheimer’s familiarity with Sanskrit and Hindu scripture would lead him to claim that watching the first atomic bomb explosion would remind him of lines from the Bhagavad-Gita:

Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.

HERE is a link to an interview with Oppenheimer during which he recollects this memory. Oppenheimer’s words serve as the final ones for our posts about Trinity and also as the introduction to next week’s post in The Countdown to The Cold War. August 1945, of course, brings us to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Countdown to The Cold War: Trinity July 15, 2015

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Seventy years ago, at a site near Alamogordo, New Mexico, a new era in human history was birthed into existence. At approximately 5:30 a.m. Mountain War Time (MWT) on July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated.

Trinity Explosion

Trinity Explosion

In the pre-dawn hours of that long-ago July morning, a rainstorm passed through the area of the impending test. Thunder and lightning filled the skies, and members of the test crew fretted that the test might be delayed or, worse, that lightning might strike the 100-foot tall tower atop which the bomb was perched, damaging the bomb. Perhaps, the bomb might be inadvertently set off.

The weather had long been a concern of the group of scientists, engineers, and military men responsible for conducting the test. In “The Test at Trinity,” a chapter of Critical Assembly by Lillian Hoddeson, et al., the authors say this of the weather:

The date of the Trinity test depended both on the readiness of the components and the weather. In the early months of 1945, gadget parts promised to be ready in June or July. The questions was, when would the weather conditions be appropriate? Haze, dust, and mirage effects would interfere with photographic measurements; overcast skies would make flying more difficult for the airplanes that would drop the instruments. Thunderstorms would wreak havoc with the barrage balloons. Winds had to be favorable to keep the radioactive cloud away from inhabited areas to the east and north.

This level of attention to the weather was, in part, made necessary by all of the various pieces of testing equipment that would be employed to monitor and analyze the explosion. To measure the strength of the atom bomb explosion, piezoelectric, aluminum diaphragm, and airborne condenser gauges were to be employed at the Trinity site. These gauges and other aspects of the test program were validated on May 7, 1945 in the so-called “100-ton test,” which actually used 108 tons of TNT. Radioactivity detection gear was calibrated by including a small amount of radioactive material—plutonium created in the Hanford reactor—in among the thousands of crates of TNT. The plutonium was dispersed by the explosion; it didn’t contribute to the explosion in any fashion. Among the more unique parts of the test protocol that were exercised during the 100-ton test was a lead-lined Sherman (M-4) tank. After the actual Trinity test, the tank was used to retrieve radioactive samples of earth from the blast area.

The storms on the night of the test made it obvious that the scientists had been right to be concerned about the weather. But, another passage in Critical Assembly makes it clear that there was little to be done:

Meeting the weather needs of all groups proved impossible. The pit assembly team’s request for humidity below 89 percent and Anderson’s for no rain after the shot were easy to meet in the desert. But the groups had to compromise on wind needs. Manley requested calm air for his blast gauges. Holloway and Morrison of the pit assembly group also wanted little or no wind, to avoid dust in the air at the base of the tower. In contrast, Bainbridge asked for 10- to 15-mph winds to carry the cloud away from Ground Zero and to help disperse it.

Around 450 personnel were present at the Trinity test. As the night wore on, the test was delayed in an attempt to wait for the weather to clear. It was rescheduled for 5:30 a.m. MWT. The scientists who were present busied themselves as best they could. Much to the discomfort of some of those present, physicist Edward Teller slathered sunblock on his face and arms and then offered it to others. Nobel prize winner Enrico Fermi tore a piece of paper into shreds. He planned to use them in a simple experiment to test the size of the blast.

Oppenheimer and Groves at Trinity Site (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Oppenheimer and Groves at Trinity Site (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The bomb went off, and, as the blast wave passed through the viewing area, Fermi dropped the shreds of paper from his hand and watched as they fluttered along, carried the moving air. He calculated the blast’s size at approximately ten kilotons (ten thousand tons of TNT). He was quite close for a physicist making an estimate based on such a rough—yet, somehow, simultaneously elegant—measurement. Later analysis would put the bomb’s strength at about twenty to twenty-two kilotons.

In the moment, physicist Kenneth Bainbridge, Trinity’s test director, reportedly said, “Now we are all sons of bitches.” That quote appears in a number of places, including a guest post written by Claire Robinson May, Bainbridge’s granddaughter.

Physicist Phil Morrison—who would later direct the dissertation of our Chapman University colleague, Menas Kafatos—once said in a documentary that he was taken aback when he realized that the light and heat on his face warmed it like the morning sun.

We will discuss some of the fallout, literal, figurative, and pun-intended in next week’s post. In the meantime, check out pour previous posts about Trinity; Trinity & Apollo and A Day with Two Suns.

Countdown to The Cold War: June 1945 June 10, 2015

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Within 4 months we shall in all probability have completed the most terrible weapon ever known in human history, one bomb of which could destroy a whole city.

These words began a memo that was drafted by Secretary of War Henry Stimson and presented on April 25, 1945, to President Truman. Truman had been president less than two weeks, and, with the help of General Leslie Groves, Stimson provided Truman’s first, in-depth introduction to the Manhattan Project on that day.

Stimson-memo-FranckReport-p1On May 8, 1945, Germany, its war machine defeated and many of its cities in ruins, had surrendered. Even in the face of Germany’s defeat, the pace of development of the atomic bomb intensified at Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Hanford. Looming in the near future was the test of the implosion-based gadget, the so-called Fat Man atomic bomb. In late February, the date for the test had been set; named Trinity, the test would occur in early July.

Fear of a German atomic bomb, which, given Germany’s deep reservoir of scientific talent, seemed likely for the first few years of the war initially drove the scientists of the Manhattan Project. But like many science and engineering projects, once it got going, the Manhattan Project moved with the inertia of discovery. Years later, J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the work at Los Alamos said:

When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.

He wasn’t the only Manhattan Project scientist and engineer to feel that way, but it wasn’t a universally shared position.

Stimson-memo-FranckReport-p2At the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory, known informally as the Met Lab, the pace of research and development had slowed enough to allow the scientists to catch their collective breath. Met Lab scientists were had responsible for ground-breaking work on the chemistry of plutonium and the physics of nuclear chain reactions, but both of those programs were foundational, early-days items. As the spring of 1945 made way for the summer, Met Lab scientists, particularly Leo Szilard, began to think about the future. As ever, the future concerned Szilard.

As Richard Rhodes says in The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Szilard was “the man who had thought longer and harder than anyone else about the consequences of the chain reaction.”

The government, too, was finally beginning to wrestle with the nuclear genie threatening to escape its bottle. On May 9, 1945, the Interim Committee met for first time. The Interim Committee, composed of academics, military leaders, and politicians, was created to provide guidance and develop policy on nuclear affairs as the United States ventured into an uncertain nuclear future. The committee was chaired by Stimson and advised by a Scientific Panel comprised of Arthur Compton, Ernest Lawrence, Robert Oppenheimer, and Enrico Fermi. The scientists on the panel were told to report any issues to the committee in a blunt and open manner. Compton, a Nobel Prize winner, was the leader of the Met Lab, and he took it upon himself to gather and convey the concerns of the researchers under his leadership.

Compton decided to convene yet another committee; this one consisted of Met Lab senior scientists. This sub-sub-committee was led by yet another Nobel Prize winner, James Franck, and its members included Szilard and future Nobel Prize awardee Glenn Seaborg. Bruce Cameron Reed’s book, The History and Science of the Manhattan Project, has this to say:

Franck’s committee […] was to prepare a report on “Political and Social Problems” associated with the bomb. Working over the week of June 4-11, they drafted a document known as the Franck Report, which is now acknowledged to be a founding manifesto of the nuclear non-proliferation movement.

One of the more provocative recommendations made in the Franck Report was the call for the atomic bomb to NOT be used against Japan. Instead, the Franck Report called for a “technical demonstration” of the weapon. Numerous concerns generated this suggestion, but they all centered on the reality that the United States couldn’t hope to maintain a monopoly on nucleonics, which was then the favored Met Lab term for all things related to atomic science.

Oppenheimer and Groves at Trinity Site (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Oppenheimer and Groves at Trinity Site (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The Franck Report was given to the Interim Committee on or about this date in 1945 (some sources say June 10, others say June 11, whereas others refer to mid-June). The committee passed it on to the Science Panel for their thoughts. The Science Panel wasn’t of one mind, and their thoughts ranged from support for technical demonstration—in a remote part of the desert or perhaps on an island—to the outright use of the weapon against Japan. On June 21, 1945, the Interim Committee recommended the military use of the atomic bomb.

The Trinity test went ahead as planned in July, and the first two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August. World War II came to a close shortly afterwards.

For more in the series Countdown to The Cold War, click Countdown to The Cold War.

Countdown to The Cold War: J. Robert Oppenheimer April 22, 2015

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Trinity Explosion

Trinity Explosion

On this date in 1904, Julius Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York. Forty years later, he became the head of the secret nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and, therefore, also became instrumental in the countdown to The Cold War.

We’ve written about Oppenheimer before, and we’ve visited Los Alamos a few times to walk in his footsteps. Here, we talk about a few areas of Oppenheimer’s work and life that we haven’t discussed much before.

Oppenheimer skipped the basic college physics classes and leaped into graduate work at Harvard University. It took him only three years to graduate summa cum laude.

Oppenheimer and Groves at Trinity Site (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Oppenheimer and Groves at Trinity Site (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Robert is the Oppenheimer half of the Born-Oppenheimer approximation that, on the atomic level, the vibrational motion of nuclei can be separated from the rotational motion of electrons. Max Born is the other physicist in the discovery of this equation, and Born won the Nobel Prize in 1954 for his work in quantum mechanics.

Robert is also the Oppenheimer of the Oppenheimer-Phillips process that allows for a specific type of nuclear reaction to occur at lower energies than expected. Deuteron is a hydrogen isotope with one proton and one neutron. In the Oppenheimer-Phillips process, the neutron of this isotope fuses with a nucleus in a target to make a heavier target isotope with a discharged proton.

Melba Phillips, a native of Indiana, is the other half of the name of this process and was Oppenheimer’s student. Later, she refused to testify during the McCarthy-driven investigations of communists and lost her academic position. She did go back to teaching several years later, at Washington University in St. Louis and at the University of Chicago.

Oppenheimer took up with a married woman named Kitty Harrison. They married in 1940, after she got a quickie divorce in Reno, and they had two children within a few years.

Doug with Oppenheimer & Leslie Groves

Doug with Oppenheimer & Leslie Groves

It’s unclear whether he also continued or rekindled his affair with Jean Tatlock after he married Kitty, though there’s consensus that Oppenheimer and Tatlock spent the night together once. Tatlock committed suicide in January 1944. Oppenheimer’s association with her and her leftwing friends was brought up during his security hearing in front of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1954, which stripped him of his government security clearance.

Most people assume that Oppenheimer, at the moment of the first successful nuclear weapons test, Trinity, quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” He did claim, later, that he’d thought of that quote at the time of the explosion and also of another from the same text: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.” But it’s tough to find reliable evidence that he said either at the time.

Welcome to Los Alamos Today

Welcome to Los Alamos Today

To look at photos of Oppenheimer, anyone can see that he was extraordinarily thin. He stood roughly six feet tall and was often smoking. He likely never took very good care of his health. He first spent time in the New Mexico desert, in fact, not when he joined the Manhattan Project there but, rather, when he suffered a bout of colitis before college and went to New Mexico to recover. Oppenheimer’s adoration of the Southwest from that early experience influenced the Manhattan Project’s location later.

Oppenheimer was treated for throat cancer in 1965, but he never fully recovered. Undoubtedly, his smoking habit was a likely factor in the development of his cancer, and smoking plus exposure to radioactive materials couldn’t have done his health much good. He died on February 18, 1967, at the age of 62. His wife Kitty is said to have taken the ashes in an urn and dropped it into the ocean off the Virgin Islands, where they owned property and a small home.

Five French Scientists March 25, 2015

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We’re in Paris for a week. See last week’s post for information about the A380 we flew.

Here are five French scientists we’d like to meet while we’re in France, if only they were still alive. These scientists represent the kind of thinking we appreciate, thinking outside the box and searching for novel connections.

Marie Curie (1867-1934)

MarieCurieAmHistOkay, she was a naturalized French citizen, but Marie Curie is at the top of our list of French scientists we’d like to meet. She was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, and the only woman to win two Nobels, one in physics in 1903, shared with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel, and the other in chemistry in 1911 for her discovery of radium. Only she and Linus Pauling have won Nobels in two separate fields. To find out more about her, we recommend Marie Curie by Susan QuinnMarie Curie and Her Daughters by Shelley Emlingand Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallouta graphic biography by Lauren Redniss. We’ve written about Curie several times before (here’s one post about Curie), and we’ll undoubtedly write about her again.

René Decartes (1596-1650)

Equal parts mathematician and philosopher, Decartes had just the sort of interdisciplinary approach to the world we appreciate. He made the crucial connections between algebra and geometry upon which much of mathematical thinking followed. He also studied refraction and gave the world a scientific understanding of rainbows. He’s the guy who uttered, Cogito ergo sum. Or, I think, therefore I am. He thought that doubt and mistakes were part of learning and innovation and that reading books was like having conversations across centuries. Because we like to have any excuse to celebrate, Decartes’s birthday is next Tuesday, March 31. In fact, the town where he was born remains so proud of Decartes that they renamed the locale for him.

Prosper Ménière (1799-1862)

alanshepard_1Prosper Ménière may have more adept and interested in the humanities than in science, but he became a physician. Initially, he planned to teach at a university, but then a cholera epidemic called, and he got hands-on experience. Eventually, he headed up an institute for deaf-mutes and studied hearing loss caused by lesions inside the ear. Prosper Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear was named for this physician and is what grounded astronaut Alan Shepard for several years after he became the first American in space. Shepard’s disorder was cured by surgery so that he did fly Apollo 14. Other sufferers include Marilyn Monroe and possibly Charles Darwin and Julius Caesar.

Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)

Louis Pasteur argued that microorganisms couldn’t appear out of nothing and asserted the idea of contamination that has guided thinking about the spread of disease ever since. We are especially impressed that some of his most important work can be traced back to his understanding of alcohol fermentation in the making of wine and beer; published his Studies on Wine in 1866 and his Studies of Beer ten years lateen. He was also an early investigator of immunization and developer of specific vaccines. For a more recent and beautifully written book about the subject of immunity, we recommend Eula Biss‘s On Immunity: An Inoculation. At his own request, Pasteur’s private notebooks were kept secret long after his death, but his request was breeched by a descendant, who donated them to France’s national library for use after the descendent’s death. Those notebooks have revealed that Pasteur may have been a less-than-amiable character generally and a problematic researcher.

Henri Poincaré (1854-1912)

An epigraph from Henri Poincaré opens the first poem of Anna’s collection Constituents of Matter:

Modern man has used cause-and-effect as ancient man used the gods to give order to the Universe. This is not because it was the truest system, but because it was the most convenient.

Poincaré, as demonstrated by this statement, was a philosopher, in addition to being a mathematician and physicist. His work underpinned what would emerge as chaos theory and also laid the groundwork for topology, the geometrical study of space that focuses on connections and transformations. Poincaré worked with a team to establish international time zones, and this work led him to think about the relative speed of clocks, which, in turn, pointed to what would become Albert Einstein‘s theory of special relativity.

Interesting to Anna especially, Poincaré was a good decision-maker if he made a decision quickly, but the more he dwelled on a choice, the more difficult he had making it. A psychologist named Édouard Toulouse wrote about Poincaré‘s personality and work habits, and we think Poincaré has something to offer us as writers in this respect. For one thing, Poincaré worked on mathematics for four hours every day, one two-hour stretch in the late morning and another in the early evening, which strikes us as an ideal schedule for focusing on a large project. He would read later in the evening, a practice we like as well.

Eiffel Tower (Photo by Benh Lieu Song, Creative Commons)

Eiffel Tower (Photo by Benh Lieu Song, Creative Commons)

Countdown to The Cold War: March 1945 March 11, 2015

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
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S-50 Plant

S-50 Plant

The Manhattan Project boiled down to two enormous manufacturing problems: explosive materials and explosive devices. Each of these problems was eventually resolved in its own binary fashion. The explosive material, or, more appropriately, fissile material, came in two flavors: uranium and plutonium. Owing to their different physical properties, it was necessary to create an individual explosive device, or bomb, for each of the two radioactive elements. The gun design, known as Little Boy, was designed for the uranium, and the implosion design, known as Fat Man, was designed for the plutonium weapon.

Although the creation of the bombs, particularly the implosion device, was a fiendishly complex exercise that required some of the greatest physics talent then in existence, the effort to create the processes for the separation of uranium 235 from uranium 238 was every bit the equal intellectual enterprise. As a manufacturing problem, the facilities devoted to the separation of uranium isotopes dwarfed the bomb-making project.

A 1951 AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) report entitled “Liquid Thermal Diffusion” reiterates what we describe:

The primary problem, other than finding circumstances under which a controlled chain reaction could be sustained, which faced scientists engaged in this country’s atomic energy program in early 1940 was the development of methods for separating uranium isotopes on a large scale. Time would not permit a gradual development of individual separation processes, followed by the full exploitation of the best method. Consequently it was necessary to launch a number of separation projects simultaneously.

One of those separation projects was Oak Ridge’s S-50 facility, and it went into full production seventy years ago this month on March 15, 1945. The S-50 uranium production plant used the separation technique known as liquid thermal diffusion.

A good overview of the liquid thermal diffusion technique can be found at the Atomic Archive:

Into the space between two concentric vertical pipes [Philip] Abelson placed pressurized liquid uranium hexafluoride. With the outer wall cooled by a circulating water jacket and the inner heated by high-pressure steam, the lighter isotope tended to concentrate near the hot wall and the heavier near the cold. Convection would in time carry the lighter isotope to the top of the column. Taller columns would produce more separation.

Phillip Abelson

Phillip Abelson

As a graduate student, Philip Abelson worked with Nobel Laureate Ernest Lawrence, himself the developer of another Oak Ridge-based uranium separation technique, electromagnetic separation. Abelson began his pioneering work on using liquid thermal diffusion to enrich uranium in July 1940, and he was one of the editors of the AEC report mentioned above. After several frustrating years of experimental work (part of the frustration resulted from Army vs. Navy squabbles over ownership of the technique), Abelson’s technique was sufficiently refined to build a production plant at Oak Ridge.

Liquid thermal diffusion had already been underway at a pilot plant at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, which was the site of what may have been the largest accidental release of radioactive materials during the Manhattan Project. That accident occurred in September 1944.

S-50 Columns

S-50 Columns

The S-50 plant, sited on the Clinch River in Tennessee, was essentially a copy of the Philadelphia Navy Yard pilot plant, which used 102 separation columns (the vertical pipes described in the quote above). S-50 replicated the Philadelphia plant 21 times. S-50 was built so that it could share the steam generated by the power plant that also fed the K-25 gaseous diffusion plant. It was to be completed in ninety days. The primary contractor, H. K. Ferguson Company, missed that deadline, but the plant started operation in October 1944 and, then, went into full production 70 years ago this month.

S-50 was the first step in the uranium enrichment process used during the Manhattan Project, and it took the uranium from 0.72% to 0.85% U-235.

March 1945 was an eventful month beyond the Manhattan Project, of course, with war raging on. Other wartime events that occurred then include a Japanese Fugo balloon that exploded at the Hanford Site for nuclear production, the B-29 firebombing of Japanese cities by the United States, and V-2 rocket attacks against London by the Germans. Though the end of the war was in sight, we shouldn’t forget that much of the world was still enmeshed in battle.


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