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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: Inside the B-24 (Photos!) June 17, 2015

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On May 10, Anna flew in a B-24, and Doug flew in a B-17. Both aircraft are part of the Collings Foundation’s tour and stopped at Lyon Air Museum. Last week, we shared the view from inside the B-17 Nine-O-Nine during a flight along the California coast. This week, we share photos taken from inside the B-24 during flight.









Countdown to The Cold War: Inside the B-17 (Photos!) May 27, 2015

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On May 10, Anna flew in a B-24, and Doug flew in a B-17. Both aircraft are part of the Collings Foundation’s tour and stopped at Lyon Air Museum. This week, we share the view from inside the B-17 Nine-O-Nine during a flight along the California coast.











Countdown to The Cold War: B-17 Flying Fortress (Videos) May 20, 2015

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On May 10, Anna flew on a B-24. Doug flew on the B-17 during its stop at the Lyon Air Museum. If you’re interested in seeing these aircraft, check the Collings Foundation SCHEDULE. If you can’t see them in person, here are videos from Doug’s B-17 ride.

Though the Collings Foundation’s B-17 was built in April 1945 and, therefore, didn’t see combat, it has been designated as Nine-O-Nine, an aircraft that flew 140 combat missions. In 1952, the aircraft that we saw at the Lyon Air Museum was part of three nuclear weapons effects tests. After it was deemed sufficiently cooled down thirteen years later, it was refurbished and was used to fight forest fires. In 1987, during an airshow, the B-17 was caught by a crosswind just after touching down and crashed, with no loss of life but significant damage to the aircraft. Once again, the plane was restored and has been touring the country.

The original Nine-O-Nine started flying missions in February 1944. The aircraft’s first bombing run was against Augsburg, Germany. In the end, it flew more than a thousand hours and dropped more than a half-million pounds of bombs. The aircraft flew back to the United States in June 1945 and was eventually scrapped with other leftover planes.

Next week, check back for some amazing photos we took of and from the B-24 and B-17!

Countdown to The Cold War: B-24 Liberator (Videos) May 13, 2015

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Last week, May 8 marked the 70th anniversary of V-E Day. In 1945, the war in Europe officially ended with the signing of the act of surrender on May 7 in France and May 8 in Germany. The war in the Pacific Theater waged on.

B-24 Takeoff

In August 1944, a Consolidated B-24 was built. By October, it had been delivered to the U.S. Air Force, which then transferred it to the Royal Air Force. The RAF flew this B-24 in the Pacific Theater until the war there ended and it, along with a slew of other aircraft, was abandoned in India. The Indian Air Force restored it in 1948, and flew these restored aircraft for twenty years. After that, it was abandoned again, until a British aircraft collector took it apart and transported it back to England in 1981, then sold it to Dr. Robert F. Collings a few years later. After more than five years of restoration work, the B-24 flew again. In 2005, it was repainted as Witchcraft, another B-24 that had flown 130 combat missions but had long ago been scrapped.

B-24 Cockpit in Flight

On Sunday, May 10, 2015, we drove over to our local aviation museum, the Lyon Air Museum. There, Anna crawled into this B-24, strapped herself down under the waist gun, and took a half-hour ride. In this post, we share the experience through videos so you can take the ride too.

B-24 Tail Gun in Flight

The flight couldn’t go on forever, but Anna could have stayed up another half-hour at least.

B-24 Approach & Landing

Countdown to The Cold War: Aircraft of WWII April 29, 2015

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Doug’s Mom sent us a packet…


…filled with photographs of World War II aircraft:











Countdown to The Cold War: February 1945 February 18, 2015

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The Guard at the gate on The Hill, checking IDs

The Guard at the gate on The Hill, checking IDs

In February 1945, the end of war in the European theatre of operations was still a few months off in the future. Nonetheless, Allied leaders felt that the war’s end was close enough that they could begin to anticipate the post-war era. To that end, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin met in Yalta—a city on the Crimean peninsula overlooking the Black Sea—on February 4-11 to discuss the shape of post-war Europe. Because of the tense relations between the United States and Britain on one hand and the Soviet Union on the other, which were reinforced during the meetings, the Yalta Conference is the oft-cited start of the Cold War.

In our “Countdown to the Cold War: October 1944” post, we detailed the struggles associated with the Hanford nuclear reactors, then known as atomic piles. In the last months of 1944 and in January 1945, engineers and scientists working on Hanford’s problems ironed out the kinks of the plutonium production process. Sometime between February 2th and 7th—sources vary on the exact date—the first weapons grade plutonium began making its way from Hanford to Los Alamos.

In the book, Hanford and the Bomb: An Oral History of World War II, author S. L. Sanger has this to say about the event:

[T]he first Hanford-produced plutonium was handed over by Du Pont to the Army. The next morning, Col. F.T. Matthias took it to Portland by car with a military intelligence escort. From there, Matthias and an agent went by train to Los Angeles where the package was given to an officer from Los Alamos. Matthias described the container as a wooden box wrapped in brown paper about 14 inches on a side and 18 inches high. It had a carrying handle and the syrupy plutonium, weighing about 100 grams, was carried in a flask suspended between shock absorbers.

The next time you’re about to board an airplane and TSA agents in the security area shout reminders of the restriction to 3-ounce containers of liquids and gels, think about how times have changed. During World War II, one of the most hazardous substances ever present on the face of the earth was carried on a regular passenger train. In a wooden box. Wrapped in brown paper.

Hanford 1960

Hanford 1960

Sanger’s book describes the meeting between Matthias and the officer from Los Alamos in what was almost certainly Los Angeles’s Union Passenger Terminal. Apparently, Matthias discovered that the officer was traveling back to Los Alamos in an upper berth, a means of rail travel that had privacy by means of curtains, but no real security, not even a door. Matthias discovered that the officer didn’t know what exactly he was being entrusted to carry back to Los Alamos. Matthias told the officer that it cost $350 million to produce the item and suggested to the man that he get a compartment with a locking door. The man did as Matthias instructed.

As revealed in to Critical Assembly by Lillian Hoddesson, et al., the Los Alamos contingent was very pessimistic about the quality and amount of the plutonium that they expected to receive from Hanford: “Oppenheimer was not optimistic about the ease of interacting with Hanford.” Ultimately, the quality and quantity of the Hanford plutonium was deemed sufficient to carry out the metallurgical research necessary so that plutonium could be used in the Fat Man weapon.

While the arrival of the Hanford plutonium in February 1945 was a huge event in the run-up to the Trinity test of a Fat Man type of atomic weapon, other activities related to Fat Man were taking place at Los Alamos at the time as well.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, Anna, General Leslie Groves

J. Robert Oppenheimer, Anna, General Leslie Groves

In December 1944, several new advisory boards and standing committees were created at Los Alamos. Chaired by physicist Samuel K. Allison, the Technical and Scheduling Conference was responsible for oversight and coordination of the transition from research to implementation. On Saturday, February 17, the Technical and Scheduling Conference met for four hours to discuss competing designs for the Fat Man-type weapon.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project’s director, argued throughout the day for simpler, more conservative design decisions. As Bruce Cameron Reed describes it in his excellent book The History and Science of the Manhattan Project, the final outcome of that committee meeting wouldn’t be decided until an end-of-the-month visit by General Leslie Groves:

On February 28, just eleven days after the TSC meeting, Oppenheimer and Groves decided provisionally on the Christy-core design with explosive lenses made of Comp B and Baratol. Characteristic of so many decisions in the Manhattan Project, their choice was a gamble: few implosion lenses had by then been tested[…].

With this end-of-February meeting between Groves and Oppenheimer, the design for the Trinity test was effectively fixed, and the lab could then focus on fashioning the numerous technologies into the world’s first atomi

Lyon Air Museum (Photos!) February 11, 2015

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Lyon Air Museum, founded by Major General William Lyon and opened in 2009, is our local aviation museum. It’s located just across the runways from the terminals at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, and it’s open 10am-4pm every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. On March 9, at 10am, the museum will open the cockpit of their Douglas DC-3 flagship. On March 21, at 10:30am, Tuskegee Airmen will share their stories.

We finally made our first visit this past weekend. We’re sure to go back, and here’s why.

What’s there?

  • 7 aircraft
  • 8 automobiles (General Lyon is a long-time collector!)
  • lots of motorcycles

It’s small, incredibly well kept, and filled with surprising treasures. And planes are taking off and landing just outside the windows. Here’s a sampling of what we saw.

This C-47 saw D-Day. It was redone as a DC-3 after General Lyon sold his regional airline, AirCal, to American.

This C-47 saw D-Day. It was redone as a DC-3 after General Lyon sold his regional airline, AirCal, to American. That’s a yellow Buick next to it.

Here's the C-47.

Here’s the C-47.


B-17 with motorcycle in foreground. Note the three chairs and screen for viewing two short features, one on flying the B-17 and the other about the Memphis Belle.





Norden Bombsight

Norden Bombsight

Hot the red video "start" button, then look into the Norden bombsight to be the bombardier on a mission.

Hit the red video “start” button, then look into the Norden bombsight to be the bombardier on a mission.

One of actor Steve McQueen's former motorcycles.

One of actor Steve McQueen’s former motorcycles.

From a balcony, visitors can overlook the exhibit hall. Note the museum's proximity to the runway, with a Southwest Airlines flight taking off just outside. The noise of the active runway brings the static displays to life in the mind.

From a balcony, visitors can overlook the exhibit hall. Note the museum’s proximity to the runway, with a Southwest Airlines flight taking off just outside. The noise of the active runway brings the static displays to life in the mind.

Countdown to the Cold War: September 1944 September 24, 2014

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In the last couple of posts, we’ve begun our Countdown to the Cold War by talking about the reorganized at Los Alamos in the fall of 1944 to develop a method known as implosion. You can read the last post in the series by clicking HERE.

Handling Radiolanthanum

Handling Radiolanthanum

The next step on the Manhattan Project’s Countdown to the Cold War occurred on September 22, 1944, and was known as the RaLa experiment. Very early in the implosion research program, it became obvious that being able to systematically verify the success or failure of implosion would be a crucial measure for success. But very few experimental measures of implosion existed at the time.

In particular, for a successful atomic weapon, it was imperative that the scientists be able to engineer a symmetric implosion. Early attempts at creating implosion revealed a wide range of asymmetric behaviors that scattered material unevenly. In order to measure the symmetry of implosion, it became necessary to observe implosion events with instruments. One technique that was developed for observing implosion was known as RaLa.

Robert Server

Robert Server

RaLa is a shorthand for the active ingredient in a RaLa test: radiolanthanum. Radiolanthanum (La-140) is a manmade radioactive isotope of lanthanum. According to Critical Assembly (by Hoddesson, et al), Robert Serber first outlined what would become the RaLa method on November 1, 1943. Serber was arguably Robert Oppenheimer’s right-hand man at Los Alamos and someone familiar to folks there for the Los Alamos Primer, the introductory lectures that kicked off the Manhattan Project’s bomb design effort.

The RaLa method depended upon the use of gamma radiation given off by the radiolanthanum isotope. Gamma radiation—or just gamma rays—are a very energetic type of electromagnetic radiation. The EPA.gov website devoted to radiation protection has this to say about gamma rays:

Gamma photons have about 10,000 times as much energy as the photons in the visible range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Gamma photons have no mass and no electrical charge. The are pure electromagnetic energy.

Highly energetic gamma rays travel at the speed of light and easily pass through most materials. It is this set of properties that made them useful in characterizing the implosion necessary for setting off an atomic bomb.

Welcome to Los Alamos Today

Welcome to Los Alamos Today

Serber hypothesized that by placing an amount of radiolanthanum in the center of the metal sphere to be compressed by implosion, the strength of the gamma rays emitted during that implosion would vary in such a way that the scientists could use instruments to understand how symmetrical the implosion was. Serber knew that, as an implosion event progressed in a metallic core (uranium or plutonium for the atom bomb), there would be significant changes in the density of the material being compressed. These changes in density would retard the gamma rays in predictable ways. In addition, because the gamma rays would radiate out from the center of the sphere, the scientists would be able to collect information about the implosion in three physical dimensions.

Ta-dah, RaLa!

Given that the radiolanthanum material would be at the center of an explosion, there would of course be radioactive debris and dispersal of that debris. Gamma radiation is ionizing—releases electrons—and therefore has biological implications, meaning that it affects human bodies. And because gamma rays penetrate materials, they can be very dangerous. In this way, the RaLa experiments constitute the world’s first production of radioactive fallout, a waft of the Cold War to come. In order to minimize human exposure to the radiation that would be released, the RaLa experiments were held offsite in Bayo Canyon, located about two miles east of Los Alamos—a sort of lab away from lab. Checking the wind direction or measuring fallout, however, weren’t much a priority for these early radioactive test explosions.


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