The nuclear dawn’s light powered-up the ethics banks of the self-assembling supercomputers
within the Manhattan Project scientists’ brains. The scientists that rode the Manhattan Project from the laying of the first brick in 1941 to Trinity’s detonation in 1945 were arguably the single largest aggregation of brilliance the world has ever seen. These were the foundering brothers who built the atomic bomb. They also realized the raw power they had unleashed would never be controlled by them. Many members of the founding brothers awakened during the final stages of the bomb’s development. The amoral need to find the answer just because it needed finding morphed into the question of ‘what have we done?’. The awakening began a quest to neutralize the power of their scientific discoveries and the quest was at odds with the political and military objectives of the day. They were heroes, physics and chemistry’s answer to Hercules, fighting for the survival of the human race bound in the chains of secrecy. Although this group of scientists embodied the idea the Greeks called pathos, the experience of virtuous struggle and suffering, they would find the promised reward of fame and immortality a dubious honor.
The first controlled nuclear fission reaction of Enrico Fermi’s pile on December 2, 1942 marked a major milestone in the laboratory underneath the bleachers of the abandoned Stagg Stadium in Chicago. Scientists from the left and right American coasts were assembled in the middle to kick-off the Manhattan Project under the guise of a new “Metallurgical Laboratory” at the University of Chicago. Most of the scientists and technicians just referred to it as the Met Lab with a wink
and a nod as they tore into meeting its three simple objectives with a religious fervor; 1) develop chain-reacting “piles” for plutonium production, 2) devise a method for extracting plutonium from irradiated uranium, and 3) to design a weapon. They did that. Not a bad achievement considering that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s approval for the Atom Bomb’s development had been given a little over a year earlier on October 9, 1941.
The Met Lab successes spurred the design and construction phases into overdrive. Ordinary citizens, whole communities, farmers and ranchers by the dozens were removed from several tens of thousands of acres of land across the country by a government hungry for nuclear facilities supported by a congress vying for the economic windfalls such sites would produce, and a population terrified and driven by a terrible war. Nuclear sites sprouted; Oak Ridge in Tennessee, Hanford in Washington, and Los Alamos in New Mexico became working sites. The Met Lab, the mother lab, diversified and became the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory.
The successful detonation of the Los Alamos’ Trinity test on July 16, 1945 changed the world forever. Meanwhile back at the Met Lab, six star-studded committees had already been
formed and were plotting regularly on how to best influence future nuclear policy. James Franck, who along with his partner, Gustav Ludwig Hertz, won the 1925 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in 1912–1914 supporting the Bohr model of the atom, headed the Committee on Social and Political Implications, one of the six committees. Other Met Lab Social and Political Implications Committee members included:
- Glenn T. Seaborg who together with Edwin Mattison won the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for their discoveries in the chemistry of the transuranium elements”.
- Donald Hughes who specialized in neutron physics.
- James J. Nickson who influenced the handling and management of radioactive waste at Met Lab.
- Eugene Rabinowitch a Russian born American biophysicist who went on to become a founder and editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
- Joyce C. Stearns who was the Met Lab Director between November 1944 and July 1945.
- Leo Szilard, one of the physicists who along with Einstein petitioned FDR to begin the search for the Atom Bomb, was adamant that the A-Bomb should not be used. Continue reading