Archive for November, 2011


The Bureaucracy will Survive the Apocalypse

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

This week’s document concerns a vexing Cold War question: if the United States was nuked by the Soviet Union, would the bureaucracy survive, or would we have to start from scratch? Would nuclear apocalypse accomplish the ultimate deregulation, the ultimate experiment in small government? Would all debts be off, all credit clean, all records blanked? For God’s sake, what would happen to private business, private industry? If capitalism was destroyed in a nuclear inferno, would the survivors envy the dead?

Faced with this crushing uncertainty, the U.S. government approached the problem methodically. In the spring of 1955, they nuked the heck out of some filing cabinets.

One unlucky filing cabinet. (GZ = “Ground Zero”)

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You Don’t Know Fat Man

Monday, November 28th, 2011

Everybody knows “Fat Man,” right? The atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki has been described in some detail in the last few decades. It, just like the “Trinity” “gadget,” was an implosion design bomb that used explosives lenses to compress its plutonium core.

A novel solution to the threat of "dirty bombs"? A "Fat Man" display casing being driven through a Los Alamos car wash. Vouched as legitimate (not Photoshopped) to me over e-mail by a scientist at Los Alamos who claims to have spoken to the truck's driver. The car wash appears to me (via Google Street View) to be the one attached to a "Shamrock" gas station at 1239 Trinity Drive.

Since the implosion concept was first declassified in 1951 as part of the Rosenberg trial,1 there has been a steady stream of information about the “Fat Man” and “Trinity” bomb designs. The most detailed ones on offer today come from Carey Sublette and John Coster-Mullen, two nuclear weapons design speculators who’ve pinned down a relentlessly detailed, fine-grained vision of what those two nearly-identical weapons were supposed to be:

Carey Sublette and John Coster-Mullen's version of the Gadget/Fat Man bombs.

And yet, after all this time, is there still more to know? More details? How wonkish can you get? Here’s my play for bomb-secret-speculator immortality: there was a very specific, small difference between the cores of the Trinity “gadget” and the “Fat Man” devices. (And the crowd goes, oooo.)

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  1. On the declassification of implosion, see Roger M. Anders, “The Rosenberg case revisited: The Greenglass testimony and the protection of atomic secrets,” American Historical Review 83, no. 2 (April 1978), 388-400. []

Posing with the Plutonium

Friday, November 25th, 2011

Everybody loves those moments when you feel yourself to be “part of history in the making.” I’m sympathetic with that. It’s exciting when you feel like you’re becoming part of a great movement, or something that people will look back on in wonder. No surprise today that, with the profusion of cell-phone cameras, you can’t go within five feet of anything “historical” without someone snapping their own grainy photo of it. It’s not that they think their cell phone photo of the Mona Lisa is going to be somehow a replacement of it — it’s some kind of act of documentation, some sort of “I was here” motion, in an age where getting accurate reproductions of famous things has become a trivial as typing their names into a search bar. But despite its obvious presence in modernity, the compulsion to self-document seems to be pretty old:

But I digress a bit. Today’s set of images is a grouping of self-documentation that I find fascinating. In the late summer of 1945, a group of scientists and technicians from Los Alamos went to the island of Tinian to prepare for the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. The first atomic bombs were big, clunky, ad hoc engineering creations and took a lot of work to put together, so the level of scientific talent was pretty high. Just to illustrate this, it’s worth noting that one of the people who assembled the final bombs was Luis Alvarez, who would later win a Nobel Prize in Physics:

Physicist and future Nobel Prize winner Luis Alvarez posing with a mysterious box on Tinian

The scientists heavily documented the Tinian mission. John Coster-Mullen has used a lot of these now-declassified photos to pretty extreme ends in figuring out exactly what they were doing in assembling these bombs. But my favorite set of photos are these ones the Tinian scientists took of themselves in front of Quonset hut with a funny little box in their hands:1

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  1. The original source for these are the TR- series of photographs from Los Alamos National Laboratory. These particular files were provided to me by John Coster-Mullen as part of a much larger set of TR- series photos. []

William Shurcliff’s “Fission Vocabulary”

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

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,1 was an assistant to Richard Tolman (who was himself an assistant to General Groves), was a copyeditor of the Smyth Report,2 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.3

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  1. For more on Shurcliff’s patent work, see my articles on the subject: the long article (the section on “Fear of the Lone Inventor”) or the short article (almost entirely about Shurcliff’s work). []
  2. Smyth, he later wrote, “seemed not to have heard of topic sentences.” []
  3. Citation: William A. Shurcliff to Richard C. Tolman, “‘Fission’ vocabulary,” (29 November 1944), in Manhattan Engineer District records, Records of the Army Corps of Engineers, Record Group 77, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland, Box 88, “Shurcliff, W.” []

Oppenheimer’s Oddest Quote

Monday, November 21st, 2011

J. Robert Oppenheimer is what we historians often call a “complicated” figure. One of my advisors once pressed me as to what one was supposed to mean by that term that we often apply to, well, any human being. To me it means that they are a difficult person to fit into a traditional narrative — they are neither hero nor anti-hero, neither tragic nor comic, neither romantic nor satiric. Sure, we can write people in each of these roles or voices, but we always know something is missing from that description.1

Two frames from a 1961 photo session with Ulli Steltzer. On the photo series, Steltzer told me via e-mail: "He was shy of the camera and I never got more than 12 shots. It is hard to say which expression is most typical."

Or, to put it another way, our subject is a ”real” person. As T.H. White put in The Once and Future King:

One explanation of Guenever, for what it is worth, is that she was what they used to call a “real” person. She was not the kind who can be fitted away safely under some label or other, as “loyal” or “disloyal” or “self-sacrificing” or “jealous.” Sometimes she was loyal and sometimes she was disloyal. She behaved like herself. And there must have been something in this self, some sincerity of heart, or she would not have held two people like Arthur and Lancelot. Like likes like, they say — and at least they are certain that her men were generous. She must have been generous too. It is difficult to write about a real person.

When I read the above paragraph (not too long ago), I thought, yes, it is difficult to write about a real person. That’s exactly the problem with someone like Oppenheimer.

Here’s one of my favorite examples of this, which I’ve never seen printed anywhere.

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  1. I’m not much of a narratologist, but one particular article has helped me quite a bit in thinking about the sorts of narratives we tell in the history of science: William Clark, “Narratology and the History of Science,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 26, no. 1 (1995): 1-71. []