Archive for October, 2012


About those nukes in Cuba….

Thursday, October 25th, 2012

The Cuban Missile Crisis turned 50 this week. If you’re interested in nuclear things you no doubt already know this, given that every organization with a plausible connection to it seems to have done something to commemorate it. It’s kind of amazing, but even after all this time, there are new things to learn — and things we still don’t know.

“November 9, 1962: Low-level photograph of 6 Frog (Luna) missile transporters under a tree at a military camp near Remedios [Cuba]. U.S. photo analysts first spotted these tactical nuclear-capable missiles on October 25, but only in 1992 did U.S. policymakers learn that nuclear warheads for the Lunas were already in Cuba in October 1962. Source: Dino A. Brugioni collection, The National Security Archive.”

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to be in the audience at a talk by Stan Norris and David Rosenberg at the Wilson Center. Stan is, you will recall, the author of the great biography of General Groves, and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ “Nuclear Notebook” series where he and Hans Kristensen give us the definitive estimates for how many nuclear weapons there are in the world at any given time. David has been a major military historian for at least 30 years or so, and has written a number of important articles with awesome titles: “The Origins of Overkill,” “A Smoking Radiating Ruin.”

The talk was on the “Nuclear Order of Battle,” a project Stan has been working on to find out what were the actual nuclear forces available to both the United States and the Soviet Union as the Cuban Missile Crisis was unfolding. (Stan and Hans have an article in the Bulletin which summarizes some of the initial findings, though Stan is working on a much longer piece as well.) David, for his part, talked about the nuclear war planning that was going on at the time. What was the context of the crisis, in terms of thinking about nuclear weapons in the United States? What was American nuclear strategy of the time? How did this contrast with the Soviet side of things?

Range of the missiles that the Soviets were installing in Cuba. A number of working MRBMs (Medium Range Ballistic Missiles) had already been installed.

All of this is a pretty sobering thing to contemplate, obviously. I mean, everybody knows that nuclear war in 1962 would have been, to put it mildly, bad. But thinking through how bad in very concrete terms makes it even more disturbing — it takes it from the realm of “generic existential threat” to images of destroyed American cities.

Both were excellent and said far more than I can summarize justly in such a short space, and the audience questions were great. The audience had a good dollop of DC nukerati in it — among those who asked questions were Bill Burr of the National Security ArchiveSvetlana Savranskaya, who just wrote a book about the Soviet side of the Crisis; Irving Lerch of the American Physical Society, who had been involved with some of the on-the-ground planning for invading Cuba back in the day; Chris Pocock, an historian of the U-2 spy plane; and Thomas Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council. It was hopping, and both Stan and David were pretty great. The whole thing was taped, and you can watch the video of it online.

The basics were such: At the time of the Crisis, the United States could out-nuke the Soviets by a fairly considerable margin. Depending on how you hash out megatonnage vs. delivery vs. success likelihood and whatnot, the US arguably had an advantage of 17-to-1 over the Soviets, though by my reckoning it was probably more like a 10-to-1 advantage in terms of strategic weapons. In one small but important example of this disparity, in 1962 the Soviet Union had only 42 long-range ICBMs ready to launch. The United States had 182, plus some 500 nukes nestled up along the Soviet border in Italy, Germany, Turkey, and other European sites. The Soviets had maybe 160 bomber-delivered weapons to launch, while the US had around 1,600, plus a technological advantage in bomber technology. Plus the US also had several thousands of other nukes stashed around the globe ready to go, as well.

But the Soviets still could have easily killed tens of millions in the United States and in Europe if it had come to it. 42 ICBMs is still a pretty big number — especially when 6 of them are wearing 3 megaton warheads, and the other 36 are ranging from 3 to 6 megatons. Even if the Soviets were being very conservative about those and launching three per target, that’s still 14 American cities you can scratch off the list, ignoring the fallout. Plus whatever else they threw at us. Which would have been completely devastating. In the face of this fact, our 1o-to-1 “superiority” looks pretty pointless.

As Oppenheimer put it in 1953: “Our twenty-thousandth bomb, useful as it may be in filling the vast munitions pipeline of a great war, will not in any deep strategic sense offset their two-thousandth.”

A SS-4 Medium Range Ballistic Missile, of the sort the Soviets were installing had actually installed! on Cuba in 1962.

But there’s more. For many years now we’ve known that in a certain sense, Kennedy’s attempt at nuclear “quarantine” failed in Cuba: the Soviets already had moved working nuclear weapons there. This is discussed a bit in Errol Morris’ Fog of War and I’ve always been a little surprised this hasn’t been more talked about. I’d always imagined, though, that the number of Soviet nukes was low. I always imagined four or five. I mean, if they only had 42 ICBMs in the Soviet Union itself, how many nukes could they have put on the island before we noticed? I mean, wasn’t the Cuban Missile Crisis supposed to be that great example of an Incredible Intelligence Coup in which our super-awesome spy planes tipped us off before things got too awful?

Well, according to Stan, the total number of Soviet nuclear warheads on Cuba was… wait for it158. One hundred and fifty eight nukes. On Cuba. During the Cuban Missile Crisis. Manned by scared Soviet troops and a whole lot of Cubans. Yeah. Let that one sink in. Now, to be fair, most of them were tactical nuclear warheads to be used against U.S. forces in case of invasion (which, by American estimates, would have cost 18,500 American casualties, even if nukes didn’t go flying), and “only” 95 to 100 of those were ready to be used. “Only.” But six to eight SS-4 medium-range ballistic missiles were also there, and also at “operational” status. Those SS-4s could have reached as far north as Washington, D.C., with explosive yields of a little over a megaton each.

Imagine that: the major cities of the South and the lower Eastern Seaboard subjected to at least 8 megatons of yield, with no possibility of defense, with fallout going wherever it may. And that’s just the “regional” problem — there’s still those other ICBMs that Soviets had. Oh, and here’s a fun thing: those Soviet nukes had no negative physical protection — no PALs. Moscow vigorously asserted its authority in terms of actual nuclear use in the region, but if it had come down to it, there would have been little they could have done to stop a local commander from using one. 

What’s shocking about this is that apparently the Americans had no clue. They knew there might be some tactical nukes in Cuba, but chose to ignore the fact. They didn’t know there were strategic weapons there and ready to go. My question to Stan and David was, why didn’t Khrushchev say, in one of his drunken telegraphs, “guys, you’re too late, you can’t do anything about it?” Their response (augmented as well by Svetlana and Bill Burr) was believable: Khrushchev was too afraid of nuclear war, and the Cuba missile base was really only a fraction of what it was meant to be at that point.

Classic Herblock — “Let’s Get a Lock For This Thing!”

The big point that both Stan and David made was that we really shouldn’t see the danger of the Crisis as being carefully delineated by those famous “13 days.” The period of danger stretched out well into November 1962, and those MRBMs weren’t removed until December 1962. Furthermore, Kennedy and Khrushchev both realized that they only had limited control when it came to preventing all-out nuclear war. The military engines were spinning up, and getting them back to a not-hair-trigger state was a non-trivial thing.

The overall conclusion from both was that the Cuban Missile Crisis was even more dangerous than most people realized at the time, and more dangerous than most people know now. Well, that’s a cheery thought, isn’t it?


Who knew about radiation sickness, and when?

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

Historians of science love “who knew what, and when?” question in science. We like to do so, in part, because the results are often so counterintuitive when compared with the “traditional” narratives: Mendel wasn’t really a Mendelian, Darwin’s novelty is often quite overstated, and even superficially straightforward questions like, “when was the electron discovered?” yield a considerable amount of debate about how one knows when the existence and identity of a fundamental particle is “discovered.”1 They rarely have answers that come in the form of names and exact dates. In fact, they usually show you something deeper about the way knowledge is produced, circulated, and agreed-upon at any given time in history.

Of all the many questions and sub-questions about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, one of the ones that occasionally comes up is, “How much was known about the radiation effects of the first atomic bombs before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?” Did Harry Truman know, for example, that the bombs would produce both prompt and residual radiation? Would it have changed his decision to use the bomb?

21-year-old soldier at Nagasaki, suffering from what was known as “Disease X” to the Japanese doctors before its identification as radiation poisoning. It took him a little under a month to die from the effects; click the image for the unpleasant details.

The reason it might matter is because arguably the radiation effects of the first atomic bombs are what distinguish them from “traditional” incendiary raids — i.e., the firebombing that had already been going on for quite some time before the Second World War went nuclear. (I personally don’t think they do, from an ethical standpoint, but I’ll be writing an entire post on this very soon, so let’s put that question to the side for now.)

Truman didn’t feel it was appropriate to use chemical or “poison” warfare — so perhaps, the argument goes, if he had thought about the atomic bombs not just as “big fire bombs” but instead as “big fire bombs with poison” he would have considered them an inappropriate weapon to actually use on cities inhabited primarily by non-combatants.

This is an interesting question, and one that would take a lot of careful work to answer. So I was really glad that Sean Malloy, an historian at UC Merced and the author of a great biography of Henry L. Stimson, decided to sit down and seriously hash it over. He wrote what I expect is going to be the definitive article on the subject, published this summer in Diplomatic History with the title: “‘A Very Pleasant Way to Die’: Radiation Effects and the Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb Against Japan.” For the very literal out there, Malloy isn’t himself saying that radiation sickness is a pleasant way to die; it’s from a quote by General Groves. (If you would like a copy of the article and don’t have access to the journal, I am sure that Sean would be happy to send you one if you sent him an e-mail.)

I have written a lengthy review of Sean’s article for the online-list H-Diplo. I wrote it a little while back — closer to when Sean’s article actually came out — but due to the way H-Diplo schedules things, it’s only just come out this week. You can read it online here, if you’re interested in getting my extended take on Malloy’s article.

What follows here is a summary of my main points from my review of Malloy, which summarizes his main points. So if you’re curious about anything said below, read my full review, and if you’re still curious, read Malloy’s article.

There were certainly physicists at Los Alamos who understood that the first atomic bombs would produce significant amounts of radiation, and were likely to cause both radiation sickness and nuclear fallout effects.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1946. Oppenheimer was curiously incurious about the effects of radiation on the Japanese. Photo via the DOE Digital Archive.

But J. Robert Oppenheimer never seemed to be very interested in that. Why not? It remains something of a mystery — how do you find out why someone wasn’t interested in something? Anyway, for whatever reason, he never really paid too much attention to the reports about radiation effects, and spoke almost exclusively of the bomb in terms of heat and blast effects.

Despite much lore to the contrary, the targeting height of the bomb was not chosen in order to minimize radiation effects. It was chosen to maximize blast and thermal effects. The argument that its height was chosen to minimize radiation effects is an after-the-fact argument, though it is not an entirely inaccurate side-effect.2

Because Oppenheimer didn’t know/care about radiation effects, General Leslie Groves didn’t really, either. Groves actually thought he could march American troops through an area that was recently atomic bombed — had he been given the opportunity to do so, his ignorance would have actually cost American lives. Malloy thinks — and I agree — that such is a good indication that he was pretty confused on the issue.

And yet, Groves and Oppenheimer did consider radiation in other contexts — such as the health of those involved with witnessing the Trinity test. But they never seemed to have talked about it in the context of the Japanese, the intended victims of the bomb. Why not? Malloy suggests that Groves was subjected to a “self-compartmentalization” — that a side-effect of his compartmentalized project was a compartmentalized self. Health safety and weapons effects were totally different departments as far as he was concerned; he never made the linkage. This is, of course, speculative, but I like it as an explanation, because it jibes with other commonly-observed side-effects of working in highly-compartmentalized environments.

Oppenheimer, Groves, and others take reporters to the Trinity test site in September 1945, as part of their publicity effort to show that the atomic bombs were not too toxic. Many of the visitors picked up Trinitite — radioactive glass — as souvenirs. Some of this was made into jewelry, prompting a later press release saying that radioactive glass shouldn’t be worn close to the body. Whoops.

If Groves didn’t know/care, then the Targeting Committee and Interim Committee, Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s turf, didn’t know at all. If Stimson didn’t know, Truman didn’t know. Question answered, in a sense: some people knew, but they were very low on the hierarchy, and the Manhattan Project was highly hierarchical. The reasons it didn’t percolate up the chain aren’t because anyone was deliberately holding it down — it’s because knowing something and caring about it (that is, thinking it is important) are linked. (This is my formulation of the reason, anyway, and why I like to use know/care as a linked term here.)

They didn’t really care, they didn’t really know, and it never got passed up. Oppenheimer was a scientific filter to Groves, and Groves was a filter to the politicians — and a good deal of filtering had to take place for something done at Los Alamos to ever make it to Truman’s ear. (As an aside, Groves struggled with this even in explaining the basics of the project to Truman in terms the latter could understand and care about, much less technical details.)

Would Truman have stopped the bombing if he had known that 15%-20% of those affected by it would die of radiation sickness?

Would it have mattered? Malloy thinks it might very well have mattered for Truman — he was markedly averse to the idea of poison warfare. Personally I doubt it would have made a difference; you don’t call off a massacre because you think it might kill a few more people than you originally intended, and the scientists would have had no way to give a plausible number for the number affected. Later estimates put the number of acute dead from radiation exposure at about 15%-20% of the total casualties from the bombings — a not insignificant number (many thousands of people), but probably not enough to change the direction of the bomb program, and probably a number that would have been dismissed as too high if it had been presented as an estimate before actual use.

Lastly, what about the allegations of an “atomic cover up” that periodically go around, which say that Groves et al. tried to hide the fact of radiation illnesses? Malloy gets into this here fairly well, too. Not long after the bombing, reports started coming in that doctors in Japan were seeing the effects of radiation sickness amongst the (apparent) survivors of the attacks. Groves thought they were just propaganda, trying to make the American people feel sympathetic to the Japanese. He asked his medical experts about it, they told him it was unlikely, and so he enlisted Oppenheimer to help deny that this could have been the case.

A few things here warrant attention:

  1. Oppenheimer was happy to help, even though really he was kind of out of his league. Such was the way of Oppenheimer, but I also suspect he genuinely thought the reports were propaganda, as well.
  2. Prior to this instance, there actually had been fairly uninformed stories circulating about how Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be totally uninhabited for generations and things like that which legitimately were total nonsense. So Groves was already in “defensive mode” when it came to radiation effects, and already primed to see them as nonsense.
  3. The Japanese did release significant propaganda about the bomb during this period. A lot of total nonsense, like the fact that they too had atomic bombs and were just saving them up for a rainy day and now were going to use them. (The Germans did stuff like this too, of course.) It’s easy to forget, in the absence of a sense of the day-to-day from that period, how hard it would have been to separate out fact from fiction. If you look through newspapers of the day though you will be amazed at how much weird news — stuff that was clearly propaganda and false — was coming in from abroad.

To his credit, even though he dismissed the Japanese doctors’ claims, Groves also sent his own teams to Japan as soon as he could to evaluate the results themselves. They found that indeed, radiation had been a significant factor in mortality at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Groves’ testimony to the Special Senate Committee on Atomic Energy, late November 1945: “…they say it is a very pleasant way to die.”

By November 1945, Groves had stopped denying that radiation sickness had occurred, even if he did, in his awful way, suggest that they were not all so bad (the aforementioned “very pleasant way to die”). But spinning, however misleading or offensive, is not the same thing as knowingly perpetuating a cover-up.

I find Malloy’s account very convincing, not just because it is well-documented and well-argued, but because it generally agrees with my reading of the primary sources. These guys were not really in the “cover-up” business. They certainly were in the “spin” business. They were willing to give in to their internal biases and believe what they wanted to believe in the absence of indisputable information. They weren’t shining heros, and they weren’t despicable villains. They muddled it out the way most people do when it came to anything other than the business of producing atomic bombs, which they turned out to be fairly good at — though even there, their superhuman prowess is usually exaggerated.

But what I really love about Malloy’s work, here, is that instead of saying, “they did know” or “they didn’t know,” he asks about how knowledge worked in the context of the Manhattan Project, which is a question of how knowledge is created, how it circulates within institutions, and how it is or isn’t acted upon. This is a very deep endeavor and one that takes you well beyond the standard ways of thinking not only about the bomb, but in thinking about any other comparable projects and institutions. This is how these sorts of questions should be worked on.

  1. Does it matter, for example, that J.J. Thomson, the so-called discoverer of the electron, thought his results said something quite different than did his contemporaries? Does it matter that the modern understanding of what it means to be an electron is quite different from that of the late 19th century? Does it matter that a low-mass, negatively-charged particle called an “electron” had been proposed well before Thomson claimed the existence of his “corpuscle”? If this sort of question interests you — there must be one of you out there! — you might enjoy Helge Kragh’s Quantum Generations, which is full of interesting stuff like this. []
  2. The height of the detonation points did mean that the neutron effects of the bomb were relatively minimal, even if the gamma rays were not; the difference matters because neutrons, and not gamma rays, can induce radioactivity in other substances, and thus produce more contamination. The height also meant less material was sucked up into the fireball than otherwise would have been were it detonated lower. But the fact remains that the height wasn’t chosen to minimize radiation effects. []

Plutonium Lives and Half-lives

Friday, October 12th, 2012

Plutonium is a fascinating element. It’s named after the Roman God of Death (by way of being named after a former planet). Its atomic abbreviation, “Pu,” was chosen to sound like “Peee-yooou,” as in, something smells bad. It doesn’t exist in nature (at least not in more than trace quantities) — all plutonium of significance currently in the world was created by human beings. And of course it is fissile, and so can be used as fuel for nuclear bombs or nuclear reactors.

It’s also pyrophoric, which is a fancy term to say it combusts on contact with air. It’s chemically unusual — it’s right on the juncture point between two different groups of elements, so it has six allotropic phases and four oxidation states. In non-sciency terms, this means that its volume and density changes radically as a factor of its temperature. This made it a tetchy addition to the wartime bomb project, where things like volume and density made a big difference when trying to use it inside of an exploding nuclear bomb. (They found that a plutonium-gallium alloy was a bit more stable.)

And hey, at least one form of it, Plutonium-238, actually glows in the dark! It does so because it’s radioactive enough to be scalding hot, which is why it is useful as a power source for things like the Curiosity rover currently tooling around Mars.1

A glowing pellet of plutonium-238. And you thought The Simpsons wasn’t factually accurate.

If you’re something of a science geek, all of the above is, again, terribly fascinating. And I think it’s been established on here that I am, among other things, something of a science geek. There’s something alluring to folks like me about the idea of a chemically irritable, glowing man-made element named after the god of the dead that catches fire on its own and can be used to blow up entire cities. It sounds like something out of the worst types of science fiction, where authors just make up goofy substances to advance the plot.

Oh — I left out one key thing. It’s also toxic. Exactly how toxic is up for some debate — some informed sources say it is intensely, acutely toxic in very small inhaled amounts, others suggest its toxicity is a lot lower than that, making it more of a long-term threat — but either way, it’s not good for you if it gets into your body. 

Because of its connections to nuclear weapons, the United States produced some 100 metric tons of plutonium over the course of the Cold War. And it was produced and operated on in big factories, under lots of secrecy, surrounded by lots of regular people. And there’s the rub: part of me wants to geek out on how awesome plutonium is, and part of me keeps saying, hey, idiot, don’t forget how it affects individual human beings — men, women, children, families. People who have been inadvertently exposed to it, for example. People who went out of their way to live next to a plutonium fabrication facility, for example, because it promised them good jobs and work that helped their country. 

Map adapted from P.W. Krey and E.P. Hardy, “Plutonium in Soil around the Rocky Flats Plant,” HASL-235 (1970). This adaptation is taken from here.

I find nuclear history fascinating, from an intellectual point of view, and all of its little detailed ins and outs continually draw me in. But I endeavor to not be too fascinated by it — so attracted to the “technically sweet” bits that I lose sight of the big picture, and lose any empathy I might have with those who lived it. It’s all too common that in our rush for objectivity, especially about Big Male Military Subjects, that we take solace in the cold, hard facts, and disregard accounts that come from other perspectives.

I was reminded of this last week, when I went to see a talk at the National Museum of American History. The speaker was Kristen Iversen, talking about her new book, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats (which recently got a very favorable review from the New York Times). Iversen directs the Creative Writing program at the University of Memphis, and gave a good, heartfelt presentation to a packed room. Interestingly, the room was packed with mostly women, which is highly unusual for nuclear-themed talks, in my experience.

The book is part memoir, part investigative account. Iversen’s family moved to Arvada, Colorado, in the late-1950s. Arvada, a small town north of Denver, was next to Rocky Flats, a plutonium fabrication facility owned by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and operated initially by Dow Chemical.

Hanford would breed the plutonium in their mammoth nuclear reactors, and the metal would be shipped to Rocky Flats, where workers would shape it into forms useful inside nuclear weapons — the “pits.” The pits would then be shipped to the Pantex Plant in Texas for final assembly into bombs.

In theory, all of this would be well-contained within glove boxes and filters and sensibly designed waste systems. In practice, plutonium is a messy substance, and for a variety of reasons, a lot of corners were cut. The result is that map up above — a fairly large plume of plutonium was deposited in the soil around the plant and the surrounding communities.

An employee at Rocky Flats holds a plutonium “button” inside of a glove box, 1973.

From Iversen’s presentation, it sounded like a pretty interesting read. It’s historical, it’s journalistic, and yet it’s read through the lens of the personal. This sort of thing is necessary — we need to keep in mind, when talking about grand strategy and big motivations, that there are all sorts of regular people caught up in this as well. That most of the world is not comprised of heads of state, or even heads of agencies.

The residents of the towns around Rocky Flats were ill served by nuclear secrecy. They weren’t told, for example, that a fire in 1957 spread a wide plume of radioactivity across the area. Or when it happened again in 1969. They weren’t given information on the sorts of diseases that are associated with coming into contact with heavy actinides. They were assured, again and again, that everything was under control.

And from Iversen’s account, most of them believed it. Why wouldn’t they? They had skin in that game — the livelihood of their town depended on it, and, as we’ve all seen again and again, human beings, for all of their famed skittishness, are quick to rationalize the big, unwieldly long-term risks that they live next door to. This is something that people in the field of risk communication have known for a long time: we learn to ignore risks that we live next to, especially when we have a personal incentive to do so. (In fact, many of those cut corners mentioned above were done by the employees themselves, because the profit incentive was on speed, not safety. This is unfortunately an all-too-common story with toxic industries.)

An “Infinity Room” at Rocky Flats — a room so contaminated by radiation that it was never to be occupied by unshielded humans again. From the DOE Digital Archive.

To give you an idea of how not under control things were, though, Iversen tells a gripping account of when the FBI raided Rocky Flats in 1989. Alerted by whistleblowers for egregious safety violations inside the plant, the FBI eventually concluded that the only way to find out what was being done inside Rocky Flats was to bust on inside. But you can’t just walk into a plutonium fabrication facility, even if you’re the FBI. So they came up with what was really an ingenious plan. The FBI told the Department of Energy officials at Rocky Flats that they had to brief all of them on a potential eco-terrorist threat — they said that Earth First was planning to attack the plant. Once the FBI had all of the senior management rounded up in a room for the briefing, they served them with search warrants, and along with the EPA, they invaded the facility and occupied it.

The DOE and the contractor (by then Rockwell) got off the hook pretty much scott free, despite plenty of evidence that they had in fact been complicit in plenty of environmental crimes — which are, as well, crimes against the community at large. Such is how things go, sometimes, when you’re talking about plants that do secret things for the nuclear weapons industry.

I’m looking forward to reading Iversen’s full book. Because I work primarily with records of the state, I always risk seeing like a state — or at least seeing history like one. Stories of the personal effects, ironically, can help one keep some distance from that standpoint. This isn’t to say that the personal, individual perspective is everything — the “big picture” still undoubtedly matters — but I think a serious historian excludes it at their peril.

One little announcement: In today’s issue of Science, I have a review published of Michael Gordin’s The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovksy and the Birth of the Modern Fringe (University of Chicago Press, 2012). I’ve reviewed a number of Michael’s books over the years, but I think this one is his best-written one yet, and I really enjoyed it a lot. It’s not very nuclear, but it does have an important Cold War theme. Check it out.

  1. A correspondent also notes that this heating is from alpha emission, which also tends to break the Pu-238 into small particles — meaning they can contaminate a volume rather quickly. Charming. []
Meditations | News and Notes

Christy’s Gadget: Reflections on a death

Friday, October 5th, 2012

Robert Christy, ca. 1959. Via the AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Robert F. Christy, one of the last remaining “big names” on the Manhattan Project, has died, at the age of 96.

I met Christy at his office in Pasadena in 2007, while I was doing some research at the Caltech Archives. He was extremely charitable with his time; it was clear even then that his health wasn’t great.

We talked a little bit about the origins of the famous “Christy Gadget” — the solid-core design of the Trinity and Nagasaki implosion bombs. Christy always got the credit for that, to the point of it being dubbed his Gadget, and the solid-core models being referred to as “Christies” for some time afterwards. To me, he professed to being a little confused as to why he, of all people, got his name attached to it.

The solid-core concept was originally proposed by Edward Teller, whose experience working with George Gamow on the iron core of the Earth gave him the somewhat unintuitive knowledge that even very dense materials can be compressed to even higher densities under many megabars of uniform force. Christy, for his part, was the guy who took it from the “Teller’s interesting but potentially wrong idea” phase to the “so will it actually work?” phase. And he did a good job of that — everyone was convinced that a solid core bomb would be both plausible and easier than the alternatives (such as a hollow core bomb).

I asked Christy what he thought about having his name associated with a design for a nuclear bomb — one of the only two that was actually dropped on cities. He said he didn’t really mind.

We also talked a bit about Los Alamos patenting procedures; this was still in the very early days of my work on the patenting of the atomic bomb. Christy confirmed to me that indeed, he had had to sign off his patent rights to the bomb almost immediately after arrival. I only much more recently learned that there is still a secret patent application for the bomb in Christy’s name. (There are about a dozen of these still-secret bomb patents.) The DOE was willing to let me know its predictably unrevealing and dull name: Robert Christy and Rudolph Peierls, “Method and apparatus for explosively releasing nuclear energy,” filed August 27, 1946. Still secret after all these years. (I now regret having not gotten in touch with Christy again and asking if he even knew about it — I suspect not.)

The only other remarkable thing from our conversation is that he asked me if I could find declassified copies of reports he had written from that time period, because he had never been able to get ahold of them himself! I sent him half a dozen of them, including this one that might interest my readers: “Memorandum on the Immediate After Effects of the Gadget,” by Hans Bethe and Robert F. Christy, dated December 1944. (My original source for this was Los Alamos’ history website, but see below for a note on that.)

In their report, Bethe and Christy attempt to describe, in quantitative as well as qualitative terms, what the effects of an exploding atomic bomb would be, apparently with the question of in mind of how a pilot would be able to drop this from a plane and also survive it. It is written quite readably, for something that must have been based on extensive calculations. Notably, it dismisses the hazards of fallout:

The radioactive materials are expected to be near the center of the ball of fire and rise with that ball of fire to the stratosphere. Presumably the ball of fire will rise to very considerable height (100 kilometers or more) before its rise is stopped by either diffusion or cooling. If the radioactive material ever comes down again it will certainly be spread out over a radius of at least 100 kilometers and probably very more and will, therefore, be completely harmless.

There some hedging there (“probably,” “if”), but it still is a highly idealized treatment of a very serious health question — lots of things affect the deposition of fallout (weather being an important one of them), and I do wonder if “completely harmless” was perhaps a bit too strong of a phrase. (A post on this specific question is slated for a few weeks from now.)

One last little thing on Christy specifically: in 1994, he did an Oral History interview at Caltech, the transcript of which is online. One thing I didn’t know is that Christy and his family briefly shared a house with Edward Teller and his family in Chicago right after the war. The many connections of Christy with Teller are particularly interesting in that Christy cut off all relations with Teller after the Oppenheimer security hearing. His was the hand shake that Teller was famously denied at Los Alamos, which signaled to Teller that his life had irrevocably changed on account of his involvement with the Oppenheimer affair. In the Oral History, Christy details the incident:

Well, my feelings were very strong. I told you earlier that in some sense I viewed Oppenheimer as a god. He was on a pedestal, and I looked up to him. And I was sure that he was not a treasonable person. I knew he had leftist contacts; that was well known to everyone. But I felt that it was just the wrong thing to do, for an honorable physicist to testify against Oppenheimer. It just wasn’t right. And I was very upset by it. I still am. I felt, therefore, that it as really improper, it was wrong. …

I ran into [Teller] not long afterward. We were both at Los Alamos—this was in the summertime. I remember that the Fuller Lodge was where they had an eating establishment. It was a fine, beautiful old log building. And there I was, eating. And I happened to see Edward Teller. I believe he approached me with his hand out to shake my hand. And I very deliberately refused to shake his hand.

[I]t was a very deliberate action on my part—impulse, of course, because I didn’t have time to plan this. And it was recognized by everyone else for what it was—that I refused to have a direct association with him. I think he was somewhat hurt. … I’ve seen him from time to time [since then]. Our relationship has remained cool.

The connection between Teller and Christy on the solid-core bomb, and the fact that they shared a house together after the war, makes all of this even more poignant. Rest in Peace, Robert F. Christy.

One of the silver Manhattan Project pins given to individuals who worked on the Manhattan Project for over a year. From my personal collection.

Every time one of these major Manhattan Project scientists dies, I wonder, how many of them are still left? Looking at an intersection of the Wikipedia categories “Manhattan Project people” and “Living people,” I came up with this paltry list of eleven names:

Jack Aeby
Harold Agnew
Philip J. Dolan
Anthony French
Roy J. Glauber
David Greenglass
Dieter Gruen
William Perl
Ed Westcott
Robin M. Williams
Hubert Yockey

That’s not a big list. I bolded the ones I recognized immediately.1 (Undoubtedly there are lots of other people who worked on the Manhattan Project, even in a scientific context, who are still alive — but they aren’t really known for it, and they weren’t really “major figures.”) Only Agnew was something of a big wig at Los Alamos, and even then, he was a pretty young (early 20s) guy. Greenglass was of course notorious and interesting for that reason. Aeby and Westcott’s work is well known even if their names are not (though Westcott is a much-beloved figure for Oak Ridgers). French’s Los Alamos experience is interesting (he worked on the cross-section of deuterium reactions, if I remember correctly), but not very well known.

We are on the precipice of an age where no one alive will have worked on the Manhattan Project. It’s very close. I’ve thought quite a lot about this, and talked about it with other nuclear historians. Is this a good or a bad thing, from an historical point of view? I’m mixed on it — immediacy can be useful for reconstructing the past, as lots of great historians before me have shown. But getting beyond the immediate can be useful, too, for taking a more detached look at things. Whether that detachment will lead to deeper insight, or just easier dismissal of the past’s fears and hopes, is something we’ll have to see.

In the process of writing this post up, I found, in a bitter irony, that Los Alamos seems to have — in the last week or two — completely taken down their once-excellent online history exhibit (including all of those staff photographs) and replaced it with an awful piece of corporate copy that rambles meaninglessly about their commitment to “innovation.” All of those cool photographs, nice write-ups, and online documents? Gone. All that remains is a desiccated timeline and a Flickr feed of many of the same images that used to be in the exhibit, sans context. Thanks, Los Alamos National Security, LLC! Way to prove your critics wrong about your corporate sensibilities. Maybe I’m jumping the gun, and they’ll replace it with something even better — or eventually restore it — but we’ll have to see. At a time when the living legacies of the Manhattan Project are disappearing, it’s sad to see that the lab has made reading about its own past a more difficult endeavor.

  1. Aeby is known primarily as the guy who took that one color photograph of the Trinity test, which graces the cover of The Making of the Atomic Bomb (which I see just came out in a 25th anniversary edition and no longer features that photograph as prominently as in the past). Agnew was a major figure, present at the bombing of Hiroshima and later a director of Los Alamos. Dolan is mostly recognizable to me (and most others) as half of the famous Glasstone and Dolan duo that edited the Effects of Nuclear Weapons books. Glauber won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2005 and is quite scientifically distinguished (and a known presence at Harvard). Greenglass was the brother-in-law of Julius Rosenberg, and a confessed spy. French was part of the British delegation to Los Alamos, and I’ve talked with him at MIT; he’s written a number of important physics textbooks, as well. (Fun fact: he bought Klaus Fuchs’ car after the war ended — the same one that Fuchs smuggled his secrets out of in the trunk — and drove it back to Cambridge. He then re-sold it to someone else, who had the unfortunate fate of having it searched and dismantled by the FBI years later.) Westcott was the official photographer at Oak Ridge.

    Of the others: Gruen worked on isotope separation and later became a senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory; a name not known to me, but probably known to others. Perl was apparently another minor Rosenberg ring spy (and it’s not clear to me that he’s actually known to be still alive — there’s very little reference to him other than his conviction in the early 1950s). Williams seems to have later gone on to a state career in New Zealand, but it’s not quite clear to me what he did with the Manhattan Project; unlikely a major figure. Yockey is an information theorist who was a student of Oppenheimer’s. []