Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Spiked History

Been reading a great book lately, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” by Richard Rhodes. It ties in with the work I do on a fundamental level, so it’s been a real education. Anyway, this book has been a real eye-opener, and a lesson on how some broad-stroke journalists and historians present a distorted picture of things. For instance, you always hear about the letter Albert Einstein sent to FDR, raising the concern about Nazi Germany building the bomb first, and urging the United States to begin seriously its own investigation of nuclear fission for the purpose of bomb-making. What’s fascinating to me is that, up until now, you’d think it was Einstein who did the urging. Not so. He saw the importance, yes, but it was other physicists, notably Leo Szilard, a Hungarian physicist, along with fellow physicist and Hungarian Edward Teller who were the urging behind the whole thing. They talked Einstein into signing his name to the letter because he had far more name recognition than they did with the figureheads in Washington, and in the popular press. Einstein hadn’t even been following (much) the discussion of nuclear fission until Szilard and Teller brought it to his attention. (Which makes sense, as Einstein was a theorist in relativity, a rather different branch of physics study than the nuclear physics that interested Teller and Szilard.)

I’ve also enjoyed, throughout this book, getting a peek into the minds and ways of these scientists, and some of the cockamamie things they had to do to get their experiments to work. In dealing with some of the radioactive substances, for instance, they had to get the stuff from one spot to another in a hurry, because the half-life was so short, often a matter of less than a minute. Apparently Enrico Fermi, in addition to being a good physicist, was also a fast runner, so the job always fell to him.

Equally interesting has been the latest chapter, looking at how the bureaucracy in both the United States and Germany either sped up or slowed down the research at critical times. With neither side really not knowing what the other was doing, due to a blackout both sides engaged in during their research – little of note was published on nuclear physics during the war years – it really became cat-and-mouse, guessing as to what the other guy was doing. And even when the scientists from opposing sides met, there was so much mistrust. Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg met in Copenhagen during the war, Bohr working in occupied Denmark and Heisenberg working in Germany. Heisenberg gave Bohr a schematic of the heavy water reactor they were working on in Germany, and though the two men had worked before, Bohr didn’t trust that Heisenberg was telling the truth – because he was so unsure of motivations, and so caught up in the Spy vs. Spy mentality. It’s all an interesting precursor to the furor and folly of the Cold War which, of course, carried nuclear physics more than any other science along for the ride.

Another interesting thing: The first nuclear pile – slabs of uranium and graphite, used to study neutron absorption and to look for plutonium – was built in New York City, not Chicago, though the one that gets all the attention was the one in Chicago, because that’s where the work was actually accomplished. Fermi had to move all of his blocks of uranium and graphite from New York to Chicago on the whim of a bureaucrat, who liked that Chicago was more central to other areas of research, notably Berkeley in California and the Oak Ridge reservation growing up out of the mud in Tennessee. As if there’s any less traveling involved when you haven’t concentrated the research and development phases in one spot. Even when they got to working, it all came down to politics. Los Alamos, Hanford, Oak Ridge, Berkeley, Chicago. I guess what I’m getting at is that the history we get in our textbooks, or from magazines and such, isn’t always accurate. It’s a caution to journalists (and I recognize this in myself) looking for shorthand ways to explain big things, mostly by perpetuating mistaken summations from the past or creating new mistakes out of whole cloth. No wonder scientists and engineers especially get fed up with journalists. I think it’s been of great advantage to me to work in this industry as well as journalism. In some ways, I think it’s making me a better researcher, which is probably more important than being a better writer.
Then again, there are times I think I’m so cute and stupid I wish someone would pat me on the head, get me a drink and send me to bed.
Add one linguistic mystery: How does a word go from “absorb” to “absorption,” is a mystery I’d like solved now.

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