Death dust, 1941

by Alex Wellerstein, published March 7th, 2014

One of the biggest misconceptions that people have about the Manhattan Project is that prior to Hiroshima, all knowledge of atomic energy and nuclear fission was secret — that the very idea of nuclear weapons was unthought except inside classified circles. This is a side-effect of the narratives we tell about Manhattan Project secrecy, which emphasize how extreme and successful these restrictions on information were. The reality is, as always, more complicated, and more interesting. Fission had been discovered in 1939, chain reactions were talked about publicly a few months later, and by the early 1940s the subject of atomic power and atomic bombs had become a staple of science journalists and science fiction authors.

Campbell's magazine, Cartmill's story. Image source.

Leaks or speculation? Campbell’s magazine, Cartmill’s story. Image source.

John W. Campbell, Jr., was a prolific editor and publisher of science fiction throughout the mid-20th century. In the annals of nuclear weapons history, he is best known for publishing Cleve Cartmill’s story “Deadline” in March 1944, which talks about forming an atomic bomb from U-235. This got Cartmill and Campbell visitors from the FBI, trying to figure out whether they had access to classified information. They found nothing compromising (and, indeed, if you read Cartmill’s story, you can see that while it gets — as did many — that you can make atomic bombs from separated U-235, it doesn’t really have much truth in the specifics), but told Campbell to stop talking about atomic bombs.

But Campbell’s flirtation with the subject goes a bit deeper than that. Gene Dannen, who runs the wonderful Leo Szilard Online website, recently sent me a rare article from his personal collection. In July 1941, Campbell authored an article in PIC magazine with the provocative title, Is Death Dust America’s Secret Weapon?” It’s a story about radiological warfare in what appears to be rather middle-brow publication about entertainment. Click here to download the PDF. I don’t know anything about PIC, and haven’t been able to find much on it, but from the cover one wouldn’t necessarily expect it to be a source for people looking for hard-hitting science reporting — though the juxtaposition of DEATH DUST, “world’s strangest child,” and the “DAY DREAM” woman is a wonderfully American tableau.

PIC magazine 1941 - Campbell - Death Dust - cover

The story itself starts off with what has even by then become a clichéd way of talking about atomic energy (“A lump of U-235 the size of an ordinary pack of cigarettes would supply power enough to run the greatest bomb in the world three continuous years of unceasing flight“), other than the fact that it is one of the many publications that points out that after an exciting few years of talk about fission, by 1941 the scientists of the United States had clamped themselves up on the topic. The article itself admits none of this is really a secret, though — that all nations were interested in atomic energy to some degree. It vacillates between talking about using U-235 as a power source and using it to convert innocuous chemicals into radioactive ones.

Which is itself interesting — it doesn’t seem to be talking about fission products here, but “synthetic radium powders.” It’s a dirty bomb, but probably not that potent of one. Still, pretty exciting copy for 1941. (Campbell would much later write a book about the history of atomic energy, The Atomic Story, where he also spent a lot of time talking about “death dust.”)

The article contains a really wonderful, lurid illustration of what a city that had been sprayed with “horrible ‘death dust'” would look like:

"Even rats wouldn't survive the blue, luminescent radioactive dust. Vultures would be poisoned by their own appetites."

“Even rats wouldn’t survive the blue, luminescent radioactive dust. Vultures would be poisoned by their own appetites.”

The most interesting parts of the article are when it veers into speculation about what the United States might be doing:

With all the world seeking frantically for the secret of that irresistible weapon, what are America’s chances in the race?

It is a question of men and brains and equipment. Thanks to Hitler’s belief that those who don’t agree with him must be wrong, America now has nearly all the first-rank theoretical physicists of the world. Mussolini’s helped us somewhat, too, by exiling his best scientists. Niels Bohr, father of modern atomic theory, is at Princeton, along with Albert Einstein and others of Europe’s greatest.

The National Defense Research Committee is actively and vigorously supporting the research in atomic physics that seeks the final secrets of atomic power. Actively, because the world situation means that they must, yet reluctantly because they know better than anyone else can the full and frightful consequences of success. Dr. Vannevar Bush, Chairman of the Committee, has said: “I hope they never succeed in tapping atomic power. It will be a hell of a thing for civilization.”

Bohr was in fact still in occupied Denmark in July 1941 — he had his famous meeting with Heisenberg in September 1941 and wouldn’t be spirited out of the country until 1943. The photographs identify Harold Urey and Ernest Lawrence as American scientists who were trying to harness the power of atomic energy. Since Urey and Lawrence were, in fact, trying to do that, and since Vannevar Bush was, in fact, ostensibly in charge of the Uranium Committee work at this point, this superficially looks rather suggestive.

PIC magazine 1941 - death dust - scientists

But I think it’s just a good guess. Urey had worked on isotope separation years before fission was discovered (he got his Nobel Prize in 1934 for learning how to separate deuterium from regular hydrogen), so if you know that isotope separation is an issue, he’s your man. Lawrence was by that point known worldwide for his “atom smashing” particle accelerators, and had snagged the 1939 Nobel Prize for the work done at his Radiation Laboratory. If you were going to pick two scientists to be involved with nuclear weapons, those are the two you’d pick. As for Bush — he coordinated all of the nation’s scientific defense programs. So of course, if the US was working on atomic energy as part of their defense research, Bush would have to be in charge of it.

The other illustrations seem to be just generically chosen. They are particle accelerators of various sorts; one cyclotron and many electrostatic (e.g. Van De Graff) accelerators. Cyclotrons did have relevance to isotope separation — they were used to develop the Calutrons used at Y-12 — but the captions don’t indicate that this is why these machines are featured.

I’ve never seen any evidence that Campbell’s story in PIC came to any kind of official attention. Why not? In the summer of 1941, there was a lot of talk about U-235 and atomic energy — and Campbell’s article really isn’t the most provocative of the bunch. There wasn’t any official press secrecy of any form on the topic yet. “Voluntary censorship” of atomic energy issues, which is what would get Cartmill and Campbell in trouble later, didn’t start up until early 1943. Mid-1941 was still a time when a journalist could speculate wildly on these topics and not get visits from the FBI.

The irony is, there were official fears of a German dirty bomb, but they didn’t really crop up until 1942. But the American bomb effort was starting to get rolling in the late summer of 1941. By the end of 1941, Bush would be a convert to the idea of making the bomb and would start trying to accelerate the program greatly. It wasn’t the Manhattan Project, yet, but it was on its way. Campbell’s article was, in this sense, a bit ahead of its time.

A Campbell publication from 1947 — where he apparently has a better understanding of atomic power. Here he seems to have just scaled down a Hanford-style "pile" and added a turbine to it. It took a little more effort than that in reality...

A Campbell publication from 1947 — where he apparently has a better understanding of atomic power. Here he seems to have just scaled down a Hanford-style “pile” and added a turbine to it. It took a little more effort than that in reality…

What I find most interesting about Campbell’s article is that it reveals what the informed, amateur view of atomic energy was like in this early period. Some aspects of it are completely dead-on — that U-235 is the important isotope, that isotope separation is going to matter, that places with particle accelerators are going to play a role, that the acquisition of uranium ore was about to get important, that fears of German use of atomic energy existed. But parts of it are completely wrong — not only would dirty bombs not play a role, he doesn’t seem to understand that fission products, not irradiated substances, would play the strongest role. He doesn’t really seem to understand how nuclear power would be harnessed in a reactor. He doesn’t really seem to get fission bombs at all.

This mixture of accuracy and confusion, of guess and folly, tells us a lot about the state of public knowledge at the time. Atomic energy was a topic, it was an idea — but it wasn’t yet something tangible, a reality. So when people found out, in 1945, that the United States had made and detonated atomic fission bombs, they were primed to understand this as the beginning of a “new era,” as the realization of something they had been talking about for a long time — even if the details had been secret.

38 Responses to “Death dust, 1941”

  1. Michael F says:

    There is also a Robert Heinlein short story “Solution Unsatisfactory” published in 1940 that fits this theme. It was also more a radiological weapon story, but shows a grasp of the topic and dovetails with the various political theories about international control over such weapons.

    The Wikipedia entry is here:

    Via the Wayback machine, here is an online version of the story:

  2. Gene Dannen says:

    There are so many notable aspects of Campbell’s article. Beginning with the fact that it seems to be completely unknown to scholars. That’s why I brought it to Alex’s attention. You write a great blog, Alex! Later today I’ll post more of what I know about this article.

    Gene Dannen

    • Gene Dannen says:

      First of all, I knew about the existence of Campbell’s article because Leo Szilard knew about it. Szilard saved a copy in his files. (His files, of course, were his famous suitcases that accompanied him on his travels.)

      PIC magazine was published by Street and Smith, which also published Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction. This connection probably explains why the article appeared in this magazine.

      More to come.

      • Gene Dannen says:

        I am most struck by Campbell’s confidence that every War department in every nation on earth was aware of the importance of this subject and was working feverishly on it.

        Campbell was right that they should have been. But in fact they weren’t. The world’s governments were desperately far behind the curve of the looming nuclear age.

        The American government had yet to devote significant resources to fission research. That very summer, they were trying to decide if it even merited increased funding. The idea they found most promising at that time was exactly what Campbell discussed — radiological warfare.

        I have some ideas about the reasons this story has been lost and forgotten. More about that later.

        • Campbell was right that they should have been. But in fact they weren’t. The world’s governments were desperately far behind the curve of the looming nuclear age.

          I’m always on the fence about this sort of judgment, though. The Manhattan Project was really the anomaly — the big bet that actually paid off. Part of that was due to just luck, as natured turned out to be just amenable to what they were trying to do with the resources at their disposal. If one is looking at it from the perspective of what was known, and what could be done, in 1941-1942, I really can’t fault the governments of the world (other than the US) for saying, “the odds of this being worth the money right now seem rather low, because it seems incredibly difficult if not impossible, and if that is the case then nobody else is probably going to do it either.” It’s only the US (with UK encouragement) that thought that it wasn’t that hard and that other nations probably were making real progress on it. And they were mostly wrong: it was very hard, cost much more than they thought it would, required the labor of practically 1% of the entire civilian labor force, and no other nation was anywhere close to making a bomb.

          Which is only to say, I think I would phrase it as the US being way ahead of the curve — at least half a decade ahead of the curve — rather than everyone else being really behind it. The circumstances that led to the US deciding to take that plunge were very specific to a handful of individuals and some very specific fears (the role of the emigres in pushing this cannot be over-exaggerated, as you know, but if Conant rather than Bush had been the head of the OSRD, I doubt it would have gone anywhere even with them). That the US pulled it off in the amount of time given is still rather remarkable — no other nation has ever made the transition from nuclear aspirant to nuclear power so quickly.

          • Gene Dannen says:

            Alex, of course what you’re saying is the accepted standard historical view. It’s the success-narrative of the Manhattan Project. But historical narratives have agendas behind them. Researching the life of Leo Szilard has given me a very different perspective.

            The success-narrative attempts to gloss over a glaring gap in its story. The gap is that the Manhattan Project didn’t begin until almost 4 years after the discovery of fission.

            Four years is a long time. That’s why top scientists on the Project worried so much that Germany was ahead of them. They actually ASSUMED that Germany was ahead. Because they were acutely aware of the delay in starting the American project, and they knew what was possible with the available technology better than you or I.

            I think that is one important reason why Campbell’s article has been forgotten. And why it’s important. Reading the article makes one wonder why the Manhattan Project got such a late start.

            What if American bombs had been ready before the worst casualties of the war, before the worst of the Holocaust? That was a question that the late-to-the-party leaders of the Manhattan Project never wanted to be asked.

          • Hi Gene — The narrative I am pushing is not the standard success narrative. It’s the “wow, they started quite later than most people realize, and it was a terrible gamble that barely worked” narrative. Which is a type of success narrative, but a much more complex one.

            When one reads even the National Academy of Sciences report on fission — which was pretty late in the game, and enthusiastic about reactors but mum about bombs — I think it’s clear that scientists like Conant and Compton thought that fission was interesting but too big a gamble to be worth spending money on. It wasn’t clear it would pay off, unlike, say, radar, which could pay out incrementally and immediately. (Half-perfected radar is still useful; half-perfected atomic bombs don’t work.)

            My favorite quote reflecting the pre-MAUD Report position is a note from Conant to Bush, April 1941, which you may have seen:

            My personal opinion, which I admit is not based on deep knowledge of all the factors involved, is that we are probably now doing all that prospective values justify. Of course there may be something in the present knowledge with which I am not acquainted that makes this conclusion invalid. At the same time it seems to me that whatever the ultimate outcome of intensive research and development, the inevitable time intervals must be long. If this is so, and with the tremendous load of emergent problems to be attacked, I should hate to see too many of our limited group of able people committed to the uranium job.

            This is a conservative, sober point of view for mid-1941. It’s a natural conclusion from the work of the Uranium Committee, which indicated that bombs might be possible, but only at great expense and great difficulty, and in the face of huge uncertainties. (They had set up zero reactors at that point, they had enriched zero uranium at that point.)

            Bush was originally pretty conservative himself, but was convinced otherwise by the British. His cost estimate on the project ended up being 500% under the actual cost — it really was hard to pull off.

  3. Paul Thomas says:

    Also memorably described in “Solution Unsatisfactory” by Robert Heinlein, published in Astounding Magazine for May 1941. This story has a strong German woman physicist character (Estelle Karst) portrayed, probably influenced by the real life Lise Meitner.

  4. Michael F says:

    Paul is correct on the publishing date. I should have typed “written in 1940” not “published in”.

  5. Bill Higgins says:

    Allow me to rummage through my collection of Heinlein’s correspondence, which comes from the University of California at Santa Cruz.

    September 1940: Editor John W. Campbell, Jr. publishes Robert A. Heinlein’s story “Blowups Happen,” about engineers working on a nuclear reactor, in Astounding Science Fiction. When he has further ideas about using nuclear physics in science fiction stories, Campbell will continue to bring them to Heinlein.

    12 November 1940: Campbell writes to Heinlein suggesting a scenario about radioactive dust weapons created in fission reactors, sketching a timeline. In 1944, Berlin, Munich and Rome are rendered uninhabitable for six months. Germans also develop the dust and attack British cities later that year. Germany is dusted once again, defeating the Nazis. In a postwar depression, Communists dust the centers of government in the UK and other countries. Attacks spread to the US and USSR. By 1947, big cities are untenable, and civilzation begins to crumble. What will the world of 1977 be like?

    “You know,” Campbell says, “the more I think about it , the more I believe that it’s the people 100 or 200 years from now that are going to enjoy the benefits of atomic power. We’re apt to get atomic power but not enjoy it. Too many clever people thinking up clever ways of using it.”

    1 December 1940: Heinlein comments on the difficulties of making the scenario into a story, and mentions H.G. Wells’s “proposed world authority for aviation” as a way to police supplies of uranium 235.

    17 December 1940: Heinlein reports to Campbell that he is writing the radioactive dust story. “I have taken the simplicity and drasticness of the weapon and played it for all it is worth, emphasizing the fact that this new scientific development requires an entirely new socio-economic pattern for the human race to exist. It makes a pleasant little nightmare.”

    24 December 1940: Heinlein submits “Foreign Policy” to Astounding. “I turned the original idea upside down, inside out, shook it, and have turned out an entirely different story, shortened in time duration, in order that one small group of characters might be faced with the menace of the dust, and deal with it, as best they could, according to the circumstances and their several characters.”

    2 January 1941: Campbell suggests changing the title to “Solution Unsatisfactory:” “The story is weak, because the solution is palpably synthetic and unsatisfactory– and that very fact can be made, by proper blurbing, the greatest strength of the story.”

    7 January 1941: Campbell accepts “Solution Unsatisfactory.”

    May 1941: The story appears in Astounding. (The May issue would have appeared on newsstands around 16 April.) As Michael F and Paul Thomas have pointed out, it may be found online.

    July 1941: Campbell’s “Is Death Dust America’s Secret Weapon?” appears in Pic.

    Alex writes: I don’t know anything about PIC, and haven’t been able to find much on it, but from the cover one wouldn’t necessarily expect it to be a source for people looking for hard-hitting science reporting —

    I imagine, but have no evidence to offer, that Campbell pressed his latest hobbyhorses upon other Street and Smith editors in the same building, just as he did with visiting writers. Perhaps such a conversation led to an article.

    • Thanks, Bill. I had hoped you would chime in with some Heinlein information.

      • Bill Higgins says:

        An exchange between Campbell and Heinlein a year earlier led to Heinlein’s first fission story, “Blowups Happen.”

        On 15 January 1940, Campbell wrote to Heinlein: “I spent a half-day up at Columbia talking cyclotrons and atomic power to the nuclear research men up there, and came away with several interesting impressions, one of which led to an idea that might fit in with your series of shorts.”

        This indicates, as Gene Dannen pointed out to me in e-mail, that Campbell was not relying solely on public information, but also on conversations with “nuclear research men.”

        In a similar vein, Heinlein replied that he had been hearing about fission from his friend Robert Cornog, an engineer and physicist working on cyclotrons at Berkeley. So personal contacts sometimes supplemented the information these writers obtained from the press or the scientific literature.

  6. Peter says:

    It’s mildly amusing that Campbell mentioned nuclear-powered aircraft at the beginning of his article, as there’s never actually been any such thing (the Air Force operated an experimental B-36 with an onboard reactor, but it didn’t power the aircraft).

    • Michael F says:

      Amusing perhaps, but a tremendous amount of work was done to pursue that idea. The US spent on the order of $1B on the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion project from the mid-1940’s until the program was killed by Kennedy. There was a lot of infrastructure built and several test engines fired up in Idaho – including the first functioning molten salt reactors, in addition to the B-36 flights to test the feasibility of shielding. When ICBMs became practical, combined with the expense and immense difficulties inherent in an airborne reactor, the perceived necessity was lost and the program wrapped up.

      The Soviets supposedly had a similar program as well, but I never have been able to sift fact from urban legend on that and aside from that.

  7. kme says:

    When the PIC story talks about using U-235 to “… convert innocuous chemicals into radioactive ones.” it sounds like a description of neutron capture. Capture of thermal neutrons can indeed transmute ordinary stable isotopes into unstable, radioactive species.

    • Yes, I interpreted this as a reference to artificial/induced radioactivity (which had been discovered in 1934 by the Joliot-Curies). Which does not produce as virulent by-products as fission does, generally speaking.

  8. Bradley LAING says:

    —-I was thinking the other day about the watchmaker Harrison, who made the first chronometer. At the same time that he was trying to gain acceptance for it, another method for finding longitude was being promoted, the Lunar Distances system. I thought that meant that multiple approaches to the same problem are within reach, and usually being tried, at about the same time, in the feilds of science.

    —Is my thought backed up by the evidence, in your mind?

    • Eric Siegerman says:

      “Engineering is the art of the practical and depends more on the total state of the art than it does on the individual engineer. When railroading time comes you can railroad—but not before.”
      – Robert A. Heinlein (author of the above-discussed “Solution Unsatisfactory”); this quote is from “The Door into Summer”

      Not evidence, but it shows that at least one great mind agrees with you.

  9. Bradley Laing says:

    —Thought: if the subject was changed from “Death Dust” to poison gas, biological warfare, area bombing of cities, and so on, would mass audience magazines have sounded like they were writing about the same thing as “Death Dust.” that is, “It is different if nuclear energy is involved,” versus “nuclear energy is the same as poison gas attacks on cities would be, and there is no reason to see it as notable different than other types of terrible city destroying weapons”?

  10. Bill Higgins says:

    Nobody has yet commented on Campbell’s lede paragraph:

    For more than a year, there has been no news of the results attained in the most important scientific research in the world today-the research on Uranium 235. Behind this censorship of news that patriotic scientists have imposed upon themselves, there are moving events of immense importance–for this war will be won or lost in the laboratory.

    As historians know, it’s true that US and UK (and other?) scientists stopped publishing uranium research.

    It’s remarkable that, first, Campbell noticed this silence, and second, he saw fit to tell magazine readers about it.

    I wonder about his motives. If the war were truly to be won or lost in the laboratory, shouldn’t he have had the patriotic sense to shut up?

    • That physicists in general stopped publishing was noted very widely. By 1942, even Time magazine had written that:

      Exploration of the atom — chief interest of physicists — has come to a stop. … Such facts as these add up to the biggest scientific news of 1942: that there is less and less scientific news. Technical journals are thinner by as much as 50%, and they will get more so: much of the research now published was completed a year ago before the conversion of U.S. science to wartime uses had reached all-out proportions. A year ago one out of four physicists was working on military problems; today, nearly three out of four. And while news from the world’s battlefronts is often withheld for days or weeks, today’s momentous scientific achievements will not be disclosed until the war’s end. … Pure research is not secret now. In most sciences it no longer exists.

      — “Science Hush-Hushed,” Time (11 May 1942)

  11. Bill Higgins says:

    By the way, in the Cartmill “Deadline” affair of 1944, the investigator was not from the FBI but was rather Arthur Riley from the Counter-Intelligence Corps of the War Department. This we learn from part 1 of Robert Silverberg’s worthwhile two-part discussion of Michael Ravnitzky’s FOIA research. Alex has already linked to part 2.

    The affair is treated at length in Albert I. Berger’s 1993 book The Magic That Works: John W. Campbell and the American Response to Technology.

  12. PD Smith says:

    A fascinating post and equally interesting comments! I discussed the topic of “death dust”, first raised in this PIC article, in my book Doomsday Men (pp 300-301). My understanding is that Henry DeWolf Smyth and Szilard’s friend Eugene Wigner did investigate the idea of death dust at the end of 1941. They concluded that fission products could make a large area uninhabitable, but they did not recommend the use in weapons of these “particularly vicious” radioactive poisons. In 1943 Fermi suggested that radioactive isotopes might be used to contaminate Germany’s food supply. Teller then proposed strontium-90 as the most effective isotope. However, Oppenheimer rejected the proposal, saying: “I think we should not attempt a plan unless we can poison food sufficient to kill half a million men.” It was a response that appalled Rotblat, who obtained it under the Freedom of Information Act some forty years later.

  13. To supplement Bill Higgins’s citations, let me go back a bit further in the sequence to emphasize just how “in flux” the state of knowledge was at the time, which seems to me inadequately emphasized in the discussion here. Estelle Karst is, indeed, an homage to Leis Meitner, who worked out the necesary mathematical support for the idea of fission in 1939 on a train fleeing Nazi Germany. In January 1940 Campbell wanted Heinlein to write a story about “uncertainty in the sub-etheric field” (he probably got that story in 1942 as “Waldo”), In the meantime, Heinlein had been talking with his friend physicist Robert Cornog about subjects related to a reactor, and Heinlein combined Cornog and Campbell and the result was “Blowups Happen.” At the time there was no reactor in existence — and not as much as a gram of purified U238 in existence, so most of the physics here was speculative. [Ref: 01/02/40 [The date refers to the date on which he started writing “Magic, Inc.”] 25 Oct 57 RAH to Horace Gold. “But John [Campbell] . . . .suggested to me that I do a story about U-235 — but he wrote this suggestion about two weeks after I had been visited by one of the physicists from U of Calif who wound up in the Manhattan Project [Cornog]; I was thus working on BLOWUPS HAPPEN before his letter. He strongly swayed the plot of that one, however, as he had a fixed notion that a reactor would never work on earth surface (take a look around you). However, it was Dr. D. Cornog who got me started. [Per 04/26/58 RAH to Lurton Blassingame. Cornog “designed the trigger for the first A-bomb and is now with Ramo & Wooldridge on the IBCM.” and note: Letter of John W. Campbell to Bradford Lyau dated 06/06/68 (in Chapdelaine, Perry, ed. The John W. Campbell Letters with Isaac Asimov & A.E. van Vogt, Vol. II, p. 658.) “Blowups Happen” was strictly Bob Heinlein’s idea; I bought it because it was a good story — and incidentally projected what was, as of that time, a real possibility of danger. (We know better now; at that time, nuclear science did not know about the slow neutron-emitting isotope of Xenon which, alone, makes possible control of nuclear reactors.)”]

    Heinlein knew Campbell was in a rush to publish to keep ahead of the curve in the development, so rushed to get it ready and sent it off to Campbell on 2/24/40. Campbell may have intended a rapid publication, but a report (in I believe July 1940) suggested numbers for radiation escaping from a reactor that would require literally miles of lead shielding, so instead he wrote a fact article “Shhh! – Don’t mention it” and published it in the August 1940 ASF under one of his pseudonyms, “Arthur McCann.” Before the article came out, however, the theory had been revised again, and in August 1940 Campbell wrote Heinlein: There was a howler of an error in that “Shhh –Don’t Mention It” article on atomic power that I did. You should have spotted it offhand — as I should have. In the article I stated that lead is like a dark fog to gamma rays — reduces the intensity about half for every ½ inch. With the tremendous intensity of gamma coming from an atomic power plant, inasmuch as a pinpoint of radium takes 2 to 3 inches of shielding, the power plant would require hundreds of feet of lead. Hence a mountain would have to be used.
    I made the slight error of confusing an arithmetic progression with a geometric diminishing series. It isn’t ½ times the thickness of lead in ½-inches; it’s ½ to the thickness-of-the-lead-in-half-inches power. The intensity of gamma rays would be reduced to one trillionth of the original by 20 inches of lead. And a trillionth of almost anything is practically nothing.” and so on and on, as that was the way Campbell wrote (and wrote).

  14. I seem to have reached the character limit there.

    Campbell may have pulled “Blowups Happen” and replaced it with his McCann article, but the story did appear in the next issue.

    As Bill points out, the letters to and from Campbell and Heinlein that constitute the incitement of “Solution Unsatisfactory” came just a couple of months later — starting in November 1940

  15. By the time Szilard got to Einstein got to Roosevelt, the Germans did have a fission project going — heavy water moderation, IIRC. And ISTR the Japanese had a small effort goign that hardly merits the term “project.”

    The German “style” for this sort of thing was to set up a lot of separate projects doing different things, that all competed for resources. While there were other projects in the U.S., my impression is that Oppenheimer & Co. set about with lots of different approaches being worked by very small teams, and the teams that produced satisfactory initial results were emphasized and the others culled.

    It’s really too bad that Groves had such a down on Szilard. things might have gone very differently.

  16. Gene Dannen says:

    Alex, Campbell’s article is the most sensational one that I know about. But you wrote that it “really isn’t the most provocative of the bunch.” Can you say a bit more about that? Inquiring minds want to know.

    • Oh, there are a lot of strange leaks. (I’ve written about one of them previously, but there are many.) William Laurence’s reporting in the New York Times also would rank up there — aside from being provocative (and being about isotope separation, U-235, all that), it also had incredible exposure (front page coverage). During the war there were also many strange stories that ran in major newspapers about atomic bombs, atomic energy, and so forth, even after the voluntary censorship went into effect. Most them were speculative and not based on any kinds of leaks — just writers re-hashing the old themes of atomic energy.

  17. Katea Hammond says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I am John W. Campbell’s granddaughter. My mother often shared the story of the FBI coming to question grandfather.

  18. Cthippo says:

    “What I find most interesting about Campbell’s article is that it reveals what the informed, amateur view of atomic energy was like in this early period.”

    I have to wonder for what technologies us the current public understanding at this state. There is a tremendous about of “black” R&D going on and by virtue of throwing enough money at it, some of it must be yielding results.

    One area this probably applies to is radar absorbing materials for stealth aircraft. I find it interesting that even though the last F-117 was retired in 2008 none of them are in public display and they didn’t go to the boneyard at Davis Mothan AFB, but rather to a secure one in Nevada. Apparently there is something about the aircraft that someone still feels is too sensitive to release. There were two aspects to the F-117s stealth capabilities, it’s shape and it’s materials. The shape is well known and is based on computations that were openly published In 1964, Pyotr Ufimtsev. The shape was defined by the limitations of the computers of the time, a limitation which has been clearly overcome. That leaves the materials.

    • I think about this question a lot. In most cases, secret labs seem to be, at best, about a decade ahead of the public status quo. (And sometimes not ahead at all, of course.) Which makes sense, I guess — they aren’t ever light years ahead, but they have that edge that comes from throwing a lot of money at the applied aspects.

      So if we take any technology that has an open component today — say, quantum computing — and say, “where do we think this could be in a decade?” I think it gives us some indication of what the possibilities are.

      I’ve not found examples where the discrepancy was much more than decade unless one counts fields that are more or less entirely classified and there is no comparison point (e.g. one can’t talk about “private” thermonuclear weapon designs, really). Which rules out, say, anti-gravity machines and other things that are just a bit too fanciful according to the public science. But wouldn’t rule out advanced stealth materials, as you suggest.

      This is obviously pretty hand-wavy on my part — what does “a decade” mean? But I think it conveys the level of technological distance that does or doesn’t exist.

      What makes the pre-Hiroshima science fiction accounts of atomic bombs in the 1940s interesting is that they were a lot closer to becoming real than the authors themselves probably realized.

  19. Gene Dannen says:

    The memorable picture of the city sprayed with “Death Dust” is signed William Timmins. According to web sources, Timmins was a prolific illustrator for multiple Street and Smith publications. He produced many covers for Astounding, including the March 1944 issue that included Cleve Cartmill’s story “Deadline.”

  20. Gene Dannen says:

    James Gunn, the noted science fiction author, editor, and historian, has given permission to quote comments he made to me by email:

    “Thanks for calling the article to our attention, Gene. It is, indeed, fascinating. I would have connected it to Heinlein’s “Solution Unsatisfactory,” but the comments on the article covered the relationship between Campbell and Heinlein thoroughly. All I would add is Campbell’s introduction to the first anthology including the story, Groff Conklin’s THE BEST OF SCIENCE FICTION, and his introduction to “Solution Unsatisfactory,” in which he points out the inadequacy of the official U.S. response to the reality of atomic bombs, secrecy, and wished that officials had begun to consider their options as soon as SF writers did.”

    In a second email, Gunn added that, “It certainly is an important document you discovered, and I enjoyed the information in the correspondence Patterson and others discovered between Campbell and Heinlein.”

    James Gunn is the Founding Director of the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas.

  21. […] Wellerstein’s Restricted Data, the Nuclear Secrecy blog recently discussed Campbell’s nonfiction article “Death Dust”, published in a 1941 issue of Pic, and readers chimed in with numerous juicy details about its […]

  22. David Thorn says:

    Regarding the original premise of this post*, the level of knowledge of atomic energy in 1941, I found it interesting to read about it in a sermon by Dr. Peter Marshall on December 7, 1941. At the time, Dr. Marshall was the Pastor of Washington, D.C.’s historic New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Dr. Marshall had been invited to give a sermon (“Rendezvous in Samarra”) to the U.S. Naval Academy Midshipmen just hours before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Speaking about contemplating life after death for a Christian, Dr. Marshall included a passage I found intriguing, not for its obvious counterpoint, but because I never realized the common awareness of the topic at that time: “…It is more pleasant than the thought of atomic warfare.”

    Dr. Marshall was a learned and well-read man living in Washington, D.C.; even so, atomic energy/warfare must certainly have been common knowledge at the time to be included in a sermon!

    *”One of the biggest misconceptions that people have about the Manhattan Project is that prior to Hiroshima, all knowledge of atomic energy and nuclear fission was secret — that the very idea of nuclear weapons was unthought except inside classified circles.”