The discovery of nuclear fission in 1939 foisted a number of vitally important scientific, political, and ethical questions on the world. Less vitally, it also raised a number of linguistic questions. How does one express the act of “fission” in the future tense? “Can be made to undergo fission”? What a mouthful.
On the case was one of my favorite characters of the Manhattan Project, William A. Shurcliff, who pops up all over the place in the archival record of the atomic bomb, despite being obscure even to scholars of the bomb.
A painting of William A. Shurcliff from 1948 by his father-in-law, the American artist Charles Hopkinson.
Shurcliff was a physicist with three Harvard degree (B.A., Ph.D., business admin.) who worked across the hall from Vannevar Bush at the Office of Scientific Research and Development. He was involved in the OSRD’s Liaison Office (shuffling reports from one division of the OSRD to another), worked as a patent censor for the Manhattan Project, was an assistant to Richard Tolman (who was himself an assistant to General Groves), was a copyeditor of the Smyth Report, and in 1946 he would be the “official historian” for the Operations Crossroads tests, of all things. So he’s all over the place, but always just on the periphery.
What really distinguished Shurcliff, though, was his propensity to write lots of little, unsolicited memos to Bush and Tolman on ideas that came to mind. These included speculations on the future uses of atomic energy, his analysis of arguments for and against secrecy, and, to bring it around again, a suggested “fission vocabulary” for the atomic age.
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