Posts Tagged ‘Speculation’

Visions

Visualizing fissile materials

Friday, November 14th, 2014

I’ve had some very favorable interactions with the people at the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University over the years, so I’m happy to announce that four of the faculty have collaborated on a book about the control of fissile material stockpiles. Unmaking the Bomb: A Fissile Material Approach to Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, by Harold Feiveson, Alex Glaser, Zia Mian, and Frank von Hippel, was recently published by MIT Press. Glaser, who does some pretty far-out work at the Nuclear Futures Lab (among other things, he has been working on really unusual ways to verify weapons disarmament without giving away information about the bombs themselves — a really tricky intersection of policy, technical work, and secrecy), asked me if I would help them design the cover, knowing that I like to both dabble in graphic arts as well as bomb-related things. Here is what we came up with, in both its rendered and final form:

Unmaking the Bomb cover and render

The “exploded” bomb here is obvious a riff on the Fat Man bomb, simplified for aesthetic/functional purposes, and was created by me using the 3-D design program Blender. (The rest of the cover, i.e. the typography, was designed by the art people at MIT Press.) The idea behind the image was to highlight the fact that the fissile material, the nuclear core of the bomb, made up a very small piece of the overall contraption, but that its importance was absolutely paramount. This is why the non-nuclear parts of the bomb are rendered as a sort of grayish/white “putty,” and the core itself as a metallic black, levitating above.

The original idea, proposed by Glaser, was to do sort of a modern version of a drawing that appears in Chuck Hansen’s U.S. Nuclear Weapons: The Secret History (Aerofax: 1988). Hansen’s image is a thing of beauty and wonder:

1988 - Chuck Hansen - Fat Man

I first saw this diagram when I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, working on a project relating to nuclear weapons — one of my first exposures to this kind of stuff. I had checked out pretty much every book on the subject that was in the Berkeley library system, which meant I found lots of unexpected, un-searched-for things serendipitously amongst the stacks. (This is something that I think has been lost, or at least not replicated, with increased reliance on digital sources.) I saw this diagram and thought, “Wow! That’s a lot of information about an atomic bomb! I wonder how he got all of that, and how much of it is real and how much is made up?” I don’t want to say this diagram is what made me want to study nuclear secrecy — origins and interests are always more complicated than that, and a close friend of mine recently reminded me that even in elementary school I used to talk about how nuclear bombs were made, armed with the beautiful-but-highly-inaccurate drawings from Macaulay’s The Way Things Work), but it did play a role.

Eventually I did track down a lot of information about this particular diagram. I found Hansen’s own original sketch of it (in his papers at the National Security Archive) that he gave to the artist/draftsman who drew the piece, Mike Wagnon:

Chuck Hansen Fat Man sketch

I also tracked down Wagnon, some years back now. He told me how he drew it. The original drawing was made many times larger than it was going to be in the book — it was four feet long! After being finished, it was reduced down to the size on the page in the book, so that it just looked like it was packed with fine detail. He also confirmed for me what I had come to suspect, that the diagrams in Hansen’s book, as Wagnon put it to me in 2004, “advertise an accuracy they do not have.” A lot of it was just deduced and guessed, but when you draw it like an engineering diagram, people assuming you know what you’re doing.1

Looking at it now, I can see also sorts of really serious errors that show the limits of Hansen’s knowledge about Fat Man in 1988. An obvious one is that it is missing the aluminum pusher which sits in between the tamper and the high explosives. There are other issues relating to the most sensitive parts of the core, things that John Coster-Mullen has spent several decades now working out the details of. Hansen, in his later Swords of Armageddon, corrected many of these errors, but he never made a diagram that good again. As an aside, Wagnon’s version of Little Boy — which we also now know, because of Coster-Mullen, has many things wrong — was the source of the “blueprint” for the bomb in the 1989 film Fat Man and Little Boy:

At top, Wagnon's diagram of Little Boy from Hansen's 1988 U.S. Nuclear Weapons. At bottom, a screenshot from the 1989 film, Fat Man and Little Boy, shows Oppenheimer pondering essentially the same image.

At top, Wagnon’s diagram of Little Boy from Hansen’s 1988 U.S. Nuclear Weapons. At bottom, a screenshot from the 1989 film Fat Man and Little Boy shows Oppenheimer pondering essentially the same image.

Anyway, I am getting off the thread a bit. Unmaking the Bomb, aside from having an awesome cover, is about fissile materials: enriched uranium and separated plutonium, both of which can be readily used in the production of nuclear weapons. The authors outline a series of steps that could be taken to reduce the amount of fissile materials in the world, which they see as a bad thing both for non-proliferation (since a country with stockpiles of fissile materials can basically become a nuclear power in a matter of weeks), disarmament (since having lots of fissile materials means nuclear states could scale up their nuclear programs very quickly if they chose to), and anti-terrorism (the more fissile materials abound, the more opportunities for theft or diversion by terrorist groups).

The Princeton crew is also quite active in administering the International Panel on Fissile Materials, which produces regular reports on the quantities of fissile materials in the world. Numbers are, as always, hard for me to visualize, so I have been experimenting with ways of visualizing them effectively. This is a visualization I cooked up this week, and I think it is mostly effective at conveying the basic issues regarding fissile materials, which is that the stockpiles of them are extremely large with respect to the amounts necessary to make weapons:

world fissile material stockpiles

Click the image to enlarge it. The small blue-ish blocks represent the approximate volume of 50 kg of highly-enriched uranium (which is on order for what you’d need for a simple gun-type bomb, like Little Boy), and the small silver-ish blocks are the same for 5 kg of separated plutonium (on order for use in a first-generation implosion weapon). One can play with the numbers there a bit but the rough quantities work out the same. Each of the “big” stacks contain 1,000 smaller blocks. All references to “tons” are metric tons (1,000 kg). The “person” shown is “Susan” from Google SketchUp. The overall scene, however, is rendered in Blender, using volumes computed by WolframAlpha.

I made this visualization after a few in which I rendered the stockpiles as single cubes. The cubes were quite large but didn’t quite convey the sense of scale — it was too hard for my brain, anyway, to make sense of how little material you needed for a bomb and put that into conversation with the size of the cube. Rendering it in terms of bomb-sized materials does the trick a bit better, I think, and helps emphasize the overall political argument that the Unmaking the Bomb authors are trying to get across: you can make a lot of bombs with the materials that the world possesses. If you want the run-down on which countries have these materials (spoiler: it’s not just the ones with nuclear weapons), check out the IPFM’s most recent report, with graphs on pages 11 and 18.

To return to the original thread: the bomb model I used for the cover of Unmaking the Bomb is one I’ve been playing with for a while now. As one might imagine, when I was learning to use Blender, the first thing I thought to try and model was Fat Man and Little Boy, because they are subjects dear to my heart and they present interesting geometric challenges. They are not so free-form and difficult as rendering something organic (like a human being, which is hard), but they are also not simply combinations of Archimedean solids. One of my goals for this academic year is to develop a scaled, 3D-printed model of the Fat Man bomb, with all of the little internal pieces you’d expect, based on the work of John Coster-Mullen. I’ve never done 3D-printing before, but some of my new colleagues in the Visual Arts and Technology program here at the Stevens Institute of Technology are experienced in the genre, and have agreed to help me learn it. (To learn a new technology, one always needs a project, I find. And I find my projects always involve nuclear weapons.)

For a little preview of what the 3D model might end up looking like, I expanded upon the model I developed for the Unmaking the Bomb cover when I helped put together the Unmaking the Bomb website. Specifically, I put together a little Javascript application that I am calling The Visual Atomic Bomb, which lives on the Unmaking the Bomb website:

The Visual Atomic Bomb screenshot

I can’t guarantee it will work with old browsers (it requires a lot of Javascript and transparent PNGs), but please, give it a shot! By hovering your mouse over the various layer names, it will highlight them, and you can click the various buttons (“hide,” “show,” “open,” “close,” “collapse,” “expand,” and so on) to toggle how the various pieces are displayed. It is not truly 3D, as you will quickly see — it uses pre-rendered layers, because 3D is still a tricky thing to pull off in web browsers — but it is maybe the next best thing. It has more detail than the one on the cover of the book, but you can filter a lot of it on and off. Again, the point is to emphasize the centrality of the fissile material, but to also show all of the apparatus that is needed to make the thing actually explode.

I like to think that Chuck Hansen, were he alive today, would appreciate my attempt to take his original diagrammatic representation into a new era. And I like to think that this kind of visualization can help people, especially non-scientists (among which I count myself), wrap their heads around the tricky technical aspects of a controversial and problematic technology.

Notes
  1. I wrote a very, very, very long paper in graduate school about the relationship between visual tropes and claims to power through secrecy with relation to the drawing of nuclear weapons. I have never quite edited it into a publishable shape and I fear that it would be very hard to do anything with given the fact that you really need to reproduce the diagrams to see the argument, and navigating through the copyright permissions would probably take a year in and of itself (academic presses are really averse to the idea of relying on “fair use“), and funds that nobody has offered up! But maybe someday I will find some way to use it other than as a source for anecdotes for the blog. []
Meditations

Tokyo vs. Hiroshima

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

How many people would have died if an atomic bomb had been dropped on Tokyo in early 1945, instead of firebombs? Before you accuse me of excessive obsession with morbidity (as one anonymous e-mailer recently did), let me explain to you how I came to ask myself this question, and what the consequences of the answer are.

Before the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was the burning of Tokyo. Operation Meetinghouse, the early March 1945 raid on Tokyo that involved over 330 B-29s dropping incendiary bombs from low-altitude at night, killed roughly 100,000 people, and may have injured and made homeless an order of magnitude more. As with all statistics on the damage caused by strategic bombing during World War II, there are debatable points and methodologies, but most people accept that the bombing of Tokyo probably had at least as many deaths as the Hiroshima bombing raid, and probably more. It is sometimes listed as the most single deadly air raid of all time as a consequence.

The ruins of 1945: Tokyo, left, and Hiroshima, right.

The ruins of 1945: Tokyo, left, and Hiroshima, right.

So it is understandable that many people, including myself, point to Tokyo whenever people want to talk about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You can’t see the atomic bombings in isolation. The practice of targeting civilian areas with massively destructive aerial bombing had already been done before. And to some, the atomic bombs were just a refinement of the art of area bombing — a more efficient means to accomplish the same ends.1

However, there are a few points that I fear get missed in that kind of equivalence. I certainly agree that the philosophy of bombing used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki wasn’t a new one. Indeed, the experience of firebombing gave a lot of guidance to the question of nuclear targeting. The goals were similar, though the people planning the atomic bombs emphasized the raw terror that they hoped such a spectacle would inspire.

But I depart from the standard comparison in two places. The first is the idea that since the atomic bombings were not original in targeting civilians, then they do not present a moral or ethical question. As I’ve written about before, I think the question of morality gets more problematic. If the atomic bombings were one-off events, rare interventions to end the war, then it might (for some) be compelling to say that they were worth the price of crossing over some kind of line regarding the deliberate burning of civilians to death en masse. But if they were instead the continuation of a well-established policy of burning civilians to death en masse, then the moral question gets much broader. The question changes from, Was it morally justified to commit a civilian massacre two times?, to Was it morally justified to make civilian massacre a standard means of fighting the war? 

I want to state explicitly that I don’t think, and I don’t want my phrasing to imply, that the answer to the above is necessarily an unequivocal “no.” There are certainly many moral frameworks that can allow for massacres (e.g. ends-justify-the-means). But I prefer to not dress this sort of thing up in euphemisms, whether we think it justified or not.  Massacre means to deliberately and indiscriminately kill people. That is what you get when you bomb densely-populated cities with weapons that cannot distinguish between civilians and members of the military. Incendiary raids and atomic bombs certainly fall in this category, whether one thinks that the circumstances required them or not.

Japanese cities destroyed by strategic bombing in World War II. More information about this map here.

Japanese cities destroyed by strategic bombing in World War II. More information about this map here.

The second place I depart is a technical one. There are several important differences between the effects of firebombing and atomic bombing. They are not, even in the case of the bombing of Japan, strictly equivalent from the point of view of their effects or their outcomes.

The Tokyo firebombing raid was a relatively slow (compared to an atomic bomb), massively-distributed attack. The Tokyo raid involved hundreds of B-29 bombers arriving and attacking over the course of several hours. Such massive groups of B-29s could be heard and tracked from a considerable distance. They spread their bombs over a large area of the city, with the goal of creating a mass conflagration that would be impossible to control. They could be fought against with interceptors and anti-aircraft guns; air-raid alarms could be sounded; civilians could flee to shelter, or outside of the city itself.  This is not to imply that any of these strategies were necessarily effective, and it does not necessarily make firebombing raids any more “humane.” But it does change the outcome quite a bit, when compared to an atomic bomb attack.

The atomic bombing raids of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were fast, near-instantaneous attacks. They involved a single B-29 weather plane in advance, and then two or three B-29s approaching the city, one with the bomb itself. This means that effective air-raid warning was minimal, because it was not possible to distinguish an atomic bomb attack from a reconnaissance or weather flight, all of which were common by that late stage in the war. (And obviously any hope of detecting an atomic bomb attack was impossible prior to Hiroshima.)

Drawing by Goro Kiyoyoshi of his memories of the Hiroshima attack. "I got on a streetcar of the Kabe line about 8:10 AM. The door was open and I was standing there. As I heard the starting bell ring, I saw a silver flash and heard an explosion over the platform on which l had just walked. Next moment everything went dark. Instinctively I jumped down to the track and braced myself against it. Putting a handkerchief to my mouth, I covered my eyes and ears with my hands."

Drawing by Goro Kiyoyoshi of his memories of the Hiroshima attack. “I got on a streetcar of the Kabe line about 8:10 AM. The door was open and I was standing there. As I heard the starting bell ring, I saw a silver flash and heard an explosion over the platform on which l had just walked. Next moment everything went dark. Instinctively I jumped down to the track and braced myself against it. Putting a handkerchief to my mouth, I covered my eyes and ears with my hands.” From Unforgettable Fire: Drawings by Atomic Bomb Survivors (1977).

The primary acute effects of the atomic bombs were blast and thermal radiation. The former travels at the speed of sound, the latter significantly faster. (The rays are transmitted at more or less the speed of light, but the intensity and duration of the thermal pulse is a more complex phenomena and unfolds over the course of several seconds.) The blast knocks down buildings. The thermal radiation heats and burns. Both contribute to the starting of fires — the thermal radiation directly (for certain materials), the blast wave indirectly by knocking over flammable materials, stoves, candles, etc. After Hiroshima there was a significant firestorm, as with incendiary bombing, but there was not after Nagasaki. There was no effective preparation for such an attack — perhaps if they had the foresight of some later Civil Defense techniques, some lives could have been saved (different shelter types did affect the fatality rates significantly, even close in to the zero point), but obviously this was not quite in the cards during the war itself, when the atomic bomb was such a novelty. There was no time for shelters, no time to flee the city, no time even for real comprehension of what was happening — a bright light followed by a crushing blast, followed by fire. For those who survived the blast and fire, there were radiation effects, if they were with a few kilometers of the epicenter. This could range from acute radiation sickness and death with several weeks, to an increased cancer risk over the course of their lives.

Are the atomic bomb effects significantly different from firebombing to warrant putting them into different ethical or moral categories? One could argue the point either way. I tend to think that they are both pretty terrible forms of suffering, but they are not identical. In many ways the atomic bombing effects were significantly worse for the people living in the target cities — all of the suffering of firebombing accelerated, with a few new terrors added into the mix, and with less warning.

Table from a 1963 Office of Civil Defense report, "Survey of the Thermal Threat of Nuclear Weapons," by Jack C. Rogers and T. Miller. These numbers are not necessarily authoritative, but they give some indication of the relative mortality rates differences I am talking about.

Table from a 1963 Office of Civil Defense report, “Survey of the Thermal Threat of Nuclear Weapons,” by Jack C. Rogers and T. Miller. These numbers are not necessarily authoritative, but lay out the situation well: atomic bombs have much higher mortality and casualty rates per square mile than firebombing, but destroy proportionally smaller amounts of area.

But the equivalence argument also misses some important differences in how deadly the atomic bombs were. The firebombing of Tokyo did, indeed, kill the most people of any air raid in history — from 80,000 to over 100,000 dead in a single raid. But the city of Tokyo had some 5 million people living in it. In the areas targeted, there were 1.5 million people living. So that means that it killed no more than 2% of the total population of the city, and no more than 7% of the people who lived in the targeted areas. The bombing of Hiroshima killed between 90,000 and 160,000 people in a city of 345,000 or so. So that is a fatality rate of 26-46%, depending on whose fatality estimates you go with. The bombing of Nagasaki killed between 39,000 to 80,000 people in a city of 260,000 people or so. So that is a fatality rate of 15-30%.

So to put it another way, the Hiroshima bombing was around 5 times more deadly than the Tokyo raid per capita, and the Nagasaki bombing was maybe 4 times more deadly. The total number dead is similar in all three cases, but the total number of people possible to kill in Tokyo was much higher than the number of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

This isn’t the whole story, though. There is a subtle technical difference mixed in here. Firebombing on par with the Tokyo raid spread a moderate chance of death over a large area. The atomic bombs dropped in World War II spread a very high chance of death over a relatively small area. So depending on the target in question, the difference in fatalities might or might not matter. The Hiroshima bomb was perfectly capable of killing something like half of the city — but it was a pretty small city, compared to Tokyo. Tokyo has areas of incredibly high density, but also large areas of relatively moderate to low density.

So why does this matter? From an ethical standpoint, I’m not sure it does. The targeting of civilians for mass destruction seems to be the core ethical issue, whether you do this by means of fire, neutrons, or toxic gas. But I do think we end up underestimating the effects of the atomic bombs if we see them as exactly equivalent to firebombs. There is an error in seeing the atomic bombs as just an expeditious form of firebombing — it both overstates the deadliness of firebombing while understating the deadliness of atomic bombs.

This map gives a rough indication of the methodology used to construct the casualty estimates for a Little Boy bomb targeted on World War II Tokyo. Percentages are expected average fatality rates. The actual method used (see below) used many more gradations of difference. One can see, though, the way in which the most intense of the effects of the atomic bomb are highly localized relative to the total size of Tokyo.

This map gives a rough indication of the methodology used to construct the casualty estimates for a Little Boy bomb targeted on World War II Tokyo. Percentages are expected average fatality rates. The actual method used (see below) used many more gradations of difference. One can see, though, the way in which the most intense of the effects of the atomic bomb are highly localized relative to the total size of Tokyo. The underlying population density map of Tokyo comes from the very useful Japanairraids.org.

All of this is what led me to the question I opened with: What if, in some hypothetical alternative universe, instead of launching a firebombing raid in early March 1945, the US was able to drop the Little Boy atomic bomb onto Tokyo? What would the casualties have been for that raid?

Obviously an exact answer is not possible. But we do have population density maps of Tokyo, and we do have records on the relationship between distance from “ground zero” and percentage of population killed. There are lots of uncertainties, here, regarding the types of buildings, the differences in geography, and other things that are hard to estimate. But let’s do a rough estimation.

If we transpose the effects of Hiroshima — a 15 kiloton bomb detonated around 1,968 feet above the ground — to the population densities of Tokyo, what is the result? I don’t want to clog up the blog post with a detailed explanation of the methodology I’ve used, so I’m putting it at the end with the footnotes. The basic gist of it was this: I took a population density map of Tokyo from 1940, divided the different density areas into different layers in Photoshop, then selected radii based on bomb effects and did pixel counting. I used all of this to come up with rough minimum-maximum estimates of how many people lived in areas at different regions from the bomb blast, and then multiplied those population counts against known average fatality/casualty rate data taken from Hiroshima.

I looked at two ground zeros, to further emphasize the intense locality of a Hiroshima-sized atomic bomb attack (compared to a firebombing raid). If targeted on the moderately-dense Honjo area (which is more or less the center of the firebombing attack), one could roughly expect there to be between 213,000 and 344,000 fatalities, and between 442,000 and 686,000 injuries. This is the ground zero shown in the above image. If you move it north-west by only 1 km, though, to the more densely populated Asakusa area, the numbers change to 267,000 to 381,000 dead and 459,000 to 753,000 injured.

So if the Hiroshima bomb had been dropped on Tokyo, it probably would have destroyed less area than the March 1945 Tokyo firebombings — something like 5 square miles, compared to the 15 square miles destroyed by firebombing. However it would have killed between two and four times as many people who died in the firebombings, and injured possibly fewer or the same amount of people.

These numbers seem roughly plausible to me, even given all of the uncertainties involved, and they align with the rough guess one would make from the relative area destruction and casualty rates cited earlier. It is of note that the shifting of an atomic bomb’s aiming point can increase total casualties by several tens of thousands of people in a city the density of Tokyo; firebombing is probably not quite as dependent on any given aiming point, given how much lower the accuracy was.

Finally, it is worth noting that the Tokyo firebombing was much more fatal than most of the other firebombing raids. As the first low-altitude, massed night B-29 incendiary raid, against Japan’s highest-density city, it was especially fatal. Later raids killed, on average, orders of magnitudes less, both for the reasons given at the beginning (e.g. fleeing when you hear hundreds of B-29s in the distance), and because of much lower population densities. Had Hiroshima been firebombed, the fatalities would have certainly been much lower than the atomic bombings, because the Tokyo case is in fact an anomalously high one.

Atomic bombings may be ethically no better or worse than firebombing raids like Tokyo, but to regard them as simply an expedient form of firebombing misses a key point about their relative deadliness: If you have to pick, and you get to pick, one should choose to be firebombed, not atomic bombed — unless you know exactly where the bombs are going to go off.

Click for the full casualty calculation methodology.

Notes
  1. On this, see esp. Michael Gordin’s Five Days in August, and, perhaps,  my review of it. []
Meditations

The luck of Kokura

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

On the morning of August 9th, 1945, a B-29 bomber left the island of Tinian intending to drop an atomic bomb on the city of Kokura, the location of one of the largest arsenals still standing in Japan. On arriving at the target, the plane found it obscured by clouds. It turned south and went to its secondary target: Nagasaki. 

Supposedly, some in Japan still refer to the “luck of Kokura” in reference to this time in which some bad weather saved the lives of tens of thousands of people there. But what really happened that morning? Was it bad weather, or something else, that obscured, and thus saved, Kokura? 

Surprisingly, there are actually a few different theories floating around, and the uncertainty over the matter is generally not realized or acknowledged.

Model of the Kokura arsenal made for targeting purposes, ca. 1945. North is in the lower-right hand corner. Source: USAAF photos, via Fold3.com.

Model of the Kokura arsenal made for targeting purposes, ca. 1945. North is in the lower-right hand corner. Source: USAAF photos, via Fold3.com.

But first, let’s review the basics of the mission. The Kokura/Nagasaki mission (dubbed CENTERBOARD II), as with the Hiroshima mission before it (CENTERBOARD I), did not involve the bomber flying on its lonesome to the target, as is sometimes imagined. There were a total of six planes involved in the mission, all B-29 bombers. One of them was the strike plane that carried the Fat Man implosion bomb (Bockscar).1  Two other planes (The Great Artiste and Big Stink) were instrument and observation planes. One other plane was a “standby” plane (Full House) that was to serve as backup if the three bombing planes ran into air resistance — because they didn’t, it instead flew back to Iwo Jima instead of on to the target after a rendezvous with the bombing plane. Lastly, there were two weather planes that flew out in advance, one to Nagasaki (the Laggin’ Dragon), the other to Kokura (the Enola Gay, the same plane that had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima a few days earlier, but with a different crew). The weather planes would check out bombing conditions and then circle back, helping the bomber plane determine whether the primary or secondary target would be used. Niigata, a third atomic bombing target, was not considered on this mission because of its great geographical distance from Kokura and Nagasaki.

Bockscar was being piloted by Major Charles Sweeney. It had taken off from the island of Tinian at 3:47am, Tinian time. They had arrived at a rendezvous point at Yakushima Island around 9:15am. It rendezvoused with one of the other B-29s (the instrument plane), but did not spot the other one (the photo plane). At 9:50am, the pilot of Bockscar, Charles Sweeney, gave up and continued on to Kokura, having waited some 30 minutes longer than he was supposed to. At 10:44am, they arrived at Kokura. The flight log records that “Target was obscured by heavy ground haze and smoke.” A crew member of Bockscar rated it as “7/10 clouds coverage – Bomb must be dropped visually but I don’t think our chances are very good.”2

Three bombing runs on Kokura were attempted, but “at no time was the aiming point seen,” as the flight log recorded. Visual bombing had been made a mandatory requirement (they did not trust the accuracy of radar-assisted bombing), so this made Kokura a failed mission. Since Bockscar had limited fuel, Sweeney decided to continue on to the secondary target, Nagasaki. They arrived at Nagasaki at 11:50am, which they also found obscured by smoke and clouds, to the degree that they made the target approach entirely by radar. Right at the last possible moment, the clouds parted just enough for the bombardier to site the target and drop the bomb. (It missed the intended target by a significant margin.) Bockscar circled the target once and then, at 12:05pm, took off for Okinawa, and from there, after refueling, Tinian.

Care about the details of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings? Get this book.

Care about the details of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings? Get John’s book. I’m not just saying that because he says nice things about my blog, either.

An aside: For anyone interested in the nitty-gritty details of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki missions, my go-to reference these days is John Coster-Mullen’s Atom Bombs: The Top Secret Insider Story of Little Boy and Fat Man. I first got a copy of John’s book in 2006 or so. John sent me a new copy a few months ago, and I have been impressed with how much new material he has added over the last 8 years. (And I have managed to find a few useful things for him over the years, which have made it into his book as well — duly credited!) If you’re interested in the history of the Manhattan Project, you can’t not have a copy of John’s book… and if your copy is over 5 years old, considered getting an updated edition! All of these little details about times and planes and whatnot come from John’s book.

So what caused the “heavy ground haze and smoke”?

Theory #1: Bad weather

The most common explanation for the obscuring of Kokura is one of weather. It seems to me to be a valid possibility, but let’s pick it apart a bit.

As noted, the Enola Gay had flown ahead to Kokura to scope out the visual conditions. They had radioed back that the visibility was “3/10 low clouds, no intermediate or high clouds, and forecast of improving conditions.”3 That was a favorable-enough weather report that Kokura, the primary target, was chosen as the first run. Upon arriving, however, Bockscar found the weather conditions were now 7/10 — too obscured to bomb. Is this plausible?

Summer weather patterns in Japan, map made in early 1945. Not great for bombing. Source: Produced for the USAAF's IMPACT magazine, high-res version via Fold3.com.

Summer weather patterns in Japan, map made in early 1945. Not great for bombing. Source: Produced for the USAAF’s IMPACT magazine, high-res version via Fold3.com. There is another wonderful map for winter weather as well.

General Groves, in his 1964 memoir, suggests that it might have been the case that the change in weather conditions was simply a matter of how much time had passed between the forecast and arrival of Bockscar. The strike plane was, as noted, delayed by around half an hour. Groves also implies that there may have been a difference between how visual the target was at an angle — how a bombardier sees it — and how it looks from straight above — how a weather plane sees it). He concludes that the reasons for the haze were “never determined.”4

On the face of it, it’s hard to know whether such a rapid change in visibility is possible through entirely natural causes. In some parts of the world, the weather can be very volatile. Japan is one of these parts of the world, especially around the late fall. The variability of Japanese weather conditions was something that the US Army Air Forces knew very well, and was one of the bane of their bombing plans. It was a major issue in the atomic bombing discussions as well since very early on. At the first Target Committee meeting in April 1945, weather was a major point of discussion:

…it was pointed out that the months in which the initial mission will be run constitute the worst weather months of Japan. [...] Dennison pointed out that all weather maps indicated that there were only an average of 6 good bombing days in August and that of those 6 days a conservative estimate would probably result in safely predicting that we would have 3 good days in the month of August but these 3 good days could not be positively predicted in advance of more than 48 hours. 

Elsewhere in the memo it remarks that “3/10ths or less” cloud coverage was considered acceptable for visual bombing. It also notes that “only once in 6 years have there ever been 2 successive good visual bombing days of Tokyo,” which gives some indication of the weather’s variability.

Weather from the nearby city of Shimonoseki for August 8-9, 1945. Click to enlarge, or click here for the Excel file. Source: Japanese M

Weather from the nearby city of Shimonoseki for August 8-9, 1945. Click to enlarge, or click here for the Excel file. Source: Courtesy of the Japanese Meteorological Agency.

So it doesn’t seem impossible that it could have just been according to the weather, though the big difference between the conditions reported by the weather plane and the observed conditions by the strike plane seem, on the face of it, beyond what a half hour’s delay would accomplish. One question I don’t have the answer for is when the weather plane radioed those conditions back. In the case of the Hiroshima run, the weather plane was only 30 minutes earlier than the strike plane. If we assume that was a similar attempt on the second mission, it would mean that the strike plane was reaching the target over an hour after the weather plane had seen it, which could be a significant-enough delay for a serious change in visibility. (And another possibility is that the weather plane could have been, for whatever reason, incorrect — either at the wrong place or had its message garbled.)

There aren’t good weather records from this period, at least none I have seen. The closest site for state weather recording was in Shimonoseki, some 7 miles / 11 km northeast of Kokura. I asked the Japan Meteorological Agency for any records they had from that period and they sent me the above data.5 It is not especially helpful towards answering this question that I can see, but I’m not a meteorologist in the slightest. For me, the big take-away from the data is that it could go from totally clear to totally obscured over the course of an hour, which at least supports the plausibility of the weather theory.

Theory #2: Smoke from firebombing

One of the other causes put forward is that the “smoke and haze” seen over Kokura was actually a result of nearby firebombing. On August 8th, 1945, the 20th AF had sent 221 B-29s to the nearby city of Yahata (Yawata) to drop incendiary bombs.6 Yahata had been bombed several times during the war. It was, in fact, the site of the first B-29 attack on the Japanese homeland in June 1944, and indeed the first bombing attack against the Japanese homeland at all since the Doolittle raid. It had been bombed again in August 1944. The USAAF considered Yahata to be the largest steel producing center in the country, and dubbed it “the Pittsburgh of Japan.” It was the last Japanese city to be hit by a massive B-29 raid, a “night burn job” as a USAAF writer put it, and it was considered “leftover business” that had been scheduled to take place much earlier but delayed because of bad weather.7

Yahata/Yawata target map, March 1945. Kokura arsenal is visible to the east. Source: JapanAirRaids.org. Click here for the uncropped, unadjusted version.

Yahata/Yawata target map, March 1945. Kokura arsenal is visible to the east. Source: JapanAirRaids.org. Click here for the uncropped, unadjusted version.

The weather at Yahata had been 4/10 clouds over the target, but this didn’t matter for B-29 firebombing raids, because accuracy was not as big a concern as with the atomic bombs. The planes had arrived at Yahata around noontime. I’ve found very little in terms of documentation about how much of Yahata was burned out with this raid — perhaps because it was so late in the war, many of the traditional sources for information about incendiary bombing results (especially those contained on the invaluable website JapanAirRaids.org) essentially omit any discussion of this final big raid.

Could the bombing of Yahata have been the cause of the smoke that obscured Kokura? It doesn’t seem impossible, but it seems to me to be somewhat unlikely.

Approximate areas of interest in Yahata and Kokura, as seen on Google Earth today.

Approximate areas of interest in Yahata and Kokura, as seen on Google Earth today.

Bockscar was flying over Kokura just a little under 24 hours after the Yahata raid began. Incendiary raids did produce extreme amounts of smoke cover, as other photographic evidence indicates clearly. Yahata was only around 6 miles / 9 km west of Kokura (and their proximity is emphasized by the fact that both are today just considered wards of a larger city, Kitakyushu).

It seems odd that the Yahata smoke would have caught them off-guard. Wouldn’t the weather plane have noticed that there was smoke over Yahata rolling towards Kokura, or at least threatening it? Yahata is close enough that at the 30,000 feet or so that a weather plane would be flying over Kokura, all they would have to do is glance in its direction to see if there was heavy cloud cover. (One can easily replicate this experience with Google Earth if one chooses.) Could the smoke cloud have been lagged behind by just the amount of time that the weather plane wouldn’t see it, then rush ahead to obscure Kokura an hour later? Could the smoke have gone from non-obscuring to obscuring in just an hour? At the wind speeds measured at Shimonoseki (around 2-12 mph), it doesn’t strike me as super likely, but I’m not an expert in this kind of thing.

Theory #3: Japanese smokescreen

One last, more obscure theory. I first read of this in John Coster-Mullen’s book. I will quote him here:

When [Bockscar] finally arrived at 10:44 AM, smoke and industrial haze had obscured Kokura. Yahata had been firebombed by over 200 of LeMay’s B-29’s the previous day and the smoke had drifted over nearby Kokura. There was also a POW camp right next door to the main downtown power plan. An American prisoner in this camp reported later the Japanese had installed a large pipe that went from the power plant down to the river. He stated that whenever B-29’s were sighted over Kokura, the steam in the plant was diverted through this pipe and into the river. This created enormous condensation clouds that also helped to obscure the city.

John himself seems to have interviewed the POW camp survivor in question, and notes in a footnote that he thinks this was the first time this claim had surfaced in print. I certainly hadn’t seen it anywhere prior to John’s book. John asked Commander Ashworth about this in 1995, and Ashworth replied that this seemed possible, and added “if the Japanese really did that, then they were damn clever!”

German smokescreen use at Wilhelmshaven in June 1943. Caption: "Despite a smoke screen, 168 B-17s of the Eighth Air Force attacked Wilhelmshaven on 11 June. There are three lines of generators to windward of the area covered when the wind is in the north, as it was in this case. Generator boats are at the upper left. Despite the extent of the smoke screen hits are observed inside the circle..." Source: USAAAF IMPACT magazine, vol. 1, No. 5, August 1945, page 18.

German smokescreen use at Wilhelmshaven in June 1943. Caption: “Despite a smoke screen, 168 B-17s of the Eighth Air Force attacked Wilhelmshaven on 11 June. There are three lines of generators to windward of the area covered when the wind is in the north, as it was in this case. Generator boats are at the upper left. Despite the extent of the smoke screen hits are observed inside the circle…” Source: USAAAF IMPACT magazine, vol. 1, No. 5, August 1943, page 18.

A few weeks ago, there was a story carried by Japanese newspapers along these lines:

As the 69th anniversary of the Nagasaki atomic bombing approaches, a former mill worker in the present-day city of Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture, spoke about his untold story on how he burned coal tar to block the view of U.S. aircraft as they were about to drop the A-bomb on the city. … Of the three workers, Oita resident Satoru Miyashiro, 85, who worked at a can factory in the steel mill at around the end of the war said he burned coal tar to lay a smoke screen on Aug. 9, 1945. … Miyashiro said about two days before the Nagasaki attack Yawata steel workers learned that Hiroshima had been wiped out by the “new bomb” from their colleagues who had come back to Yawata via Hiroshima. He thought the next target would be his city as there were arms factories located in the area.

Note that this isn’t quite the same thing — this is someone in Yahata who was burning coal tar after hearing an air raid drill, and the smoke going downwind (east) to Kokura. I find it a little odd that the worker in question doesn’t mention that Yahata itself was firebombed less than a day before he decided to do this.

Are either of these theories plausible? In terms of, could they have done these things — of course. Turning on an incinerator is not an implausible action, and neither is the steam cloud scenario.

But would this have reduced the visibility over Kokura from 3/10 to 7/10 in the time it took the strike plane to get there? I’m not an atmospheric scientist, so I wouldn’t want to hazard a strong position on this. One can presumably model both of these scenarios and see if either were possible. I would be extremely interested if anyone wanted to that!

Susquehanna Steam Electric Station — just an example of what a very large nuclear power plant can generate in terms of steam. It's a lot of steam. Could it obscure a city downwind of it from a B-29 bomber? Image source.

Susquehanna Steam Electric Station — just an example of what a very large nuclear power plant can generate in terms of steam. It’s a lot of steam. Could it obscure a city downwind of it from a B-29 bomber? Image source.

My gut thought is that they were not super likely to be wholly responsible for the cloud cover. If it had been steam from a single plant, I suspect someone on Bockscar would have noted it as such. We have lots of experience with steam-generating power plants — think of the clouds created by nuclear cooling towers. They certainly can put out a lot of steam. Would it be enough to block off the entire city? I’m kind of dubious.

What about the coal tar possibility? I’m especially dubious that this would have been enough. Setting up honest-to-god smokescreen for an entire city is hard work, even if you are a professional. When the Germans wanted to protect individual places (like plants) from bombers they set up dozens to hundreds of smoke pots to do the job, or used multiple dedicated smoke generators. Some of the larger smokescreen images I have found clearly involve lots of smoke sources placed at good intervals upwind of the target they are meant to protect. So I don’t know.

On the other hand, if the smoke from Yahata was not from the firebombing but instead something deliberate, it would explain the time delay issue. If the wind was going due east at around 5 mph, that would in fact be perfect for putting a smoke cover over Kokura. So it has its merits as a theory.

Conclusion

There are narrative aspects of each theory that appeal, and each of them change what is meant by the “luck of Kokura.” If bad weather is what saved Kokura, then it becomes a metaphor for how serendipitously life and death are dealt out by the hands of fate. If it was smoke from the firebombing of Yahata, then it becomes an ironic story about the Army Air Forces’ zeal for destruction could become counterproductive. If it was the result of deliberate action on behalf of the Japanese, then it becomes something much more complicated, a story about how individual action may have led to the saving of some lives… and the dooming of others. It also would change the standard story of how defenseless the Japanese were against these weapons.

The bombing of Nagasaki. Original source. Slightly edited to improve foreground/background distinction.

Of course, what was lucky for Kokura was not so for Nagasaki.

Looking at these three options, I find the weather theory the easiest one to stomach. Japanese weather patterns were notoriously hard to predict and it was known as the worst season for bombing conditions. That they could change over an hour seems unsurprising to me, especially for a coastal city, where clouds can come and go which impressive rapidity (as someone who has lived in the Berkeley, Boston, and New York areas can attest). I like the irony of the Yahata story, but there are things that just don’t add up — I don’t see why the weather plane would not have mentioned it, and it seems implausible to me that it would take almost exactly 24 hours for the heavy cloud cover to have migrated a mere 5-10 miles. And for reasons indicated, I’m not sure I buy the smokescreen story — it would have been really difficult to pull off that degree of cloud cover reliably. It would have taken tremendous foresight and luck. And it is strange that this story would be “buried” for so long. This doesn’t mean that someone didn’t try it (I am emphatically not calling anyone a liar!). It just means that I’m not sure it would have worked even if they did try it.

A separate possibility is “all of the above.” Maybe the weather was bad. Maybe there was haze from the Yahata bombing. Maybe someone did try to release steam or smokescreen. Maybe all of these things occurred at once, making “the luck of Kokura” something that was the result of multiple causes. That would make Kokura extra lucky, I suppose, and not fit into any of the above pat narratives. And make Nagasaki extra un-lucky in turn.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter which of these things happened. The bare fact is that Kokura didn’t get bombed and Nagasaki did. But I find looking into these kinds of questions useful as a historian. Too often it is easy to take for granted that the explanations given in narrative works of history are “settled,” when really they are often resting on very thin evidence, thinner perhaps than the historian who writes them realizes. I don’t think we really know what happened at Kokura, and I’m not sure we ever truly will.

Notes
  1. Sometimes you see it as “Bock’s Car,” but it said “Bockscar” on the side of the B-29. This is one of those places where I say, “who cares?” but purists are concerned with this kind of detail. []
  2. Flight diary of Lt. Fred Olivi, quoted in Coster-Mullen’s book. []
  3. Bockscar flight log by Commander Frederick Ashworth, included in Norman F. Ramsey, “History of Project A,” (27 September 1945). A full of copy of Ramsey’s report is included in Coster-Mullen’s Atom Bombs book. []
  4. Leslie Groves, Now it Can Be Told, 345: “At Kokura, they found that visual bombing was not possible, although the weather plane had reported that it should be. Whether this unexpected condition was due to the time lag, or to the difference between an observer looking straight down and a bombardier looking at the target on a slant, was never determined.” []
  5. Here is the original Excel file they sent me. []
  6. Most US sources list the city as “Yawata,” but it apparently corresponds with what is today transliterated as the city of Yahata, in Fukoka prefecture, and there is an entirely different city known as Yawata in Kyoto Prefecture. The kanji is the same. Yahata has since been absorbed by Kitakyushu, along with Kokura. []
  7. Tom Prideaux, “Mission to Yawata, 7 Aug. 1945,” IMPACT, vol. 3, no. 9 (September-October 1945), 53. []
Meditations

Szilard’s chain reaction: visionary or crank?

Friday, May 16th, 2014

Leo Szilard is one of the most fascinating characters of the nuclear age. He was colorful, principled, clever, and often genuinely ahead of his time. And he always shows up early in the story.

Leo Szilard at the University of Chicago in 1954. Source.

Leo Szilard at the University of Chicago in 1954. Source.

Richard Rhodes starts off his The Making of the Atomic Bomb with Szilard’s famous 1933 epiphany:

In London, where Southampton Row passes Russell Square, across from the British Museum in Bloomsbury, Leo Szilard waited irritably one gray Depression morning for the stoplight to change. A trace of rain had fallen during the night; Tuesday, September 12, 1933, dawned cool, humid and dull. Drizzling rain would begin again in early afternoon. When Szilard told the story later he never mentioned his destination that morning. He may have had none; he often walked to think. In any case another destination intervened. The stoplight changed to green. Szilard stepped off the curb. As he crossed the street time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future, death into the world and all our woe, the shape of things to come. [...]

“As the light changed to green and I crossed the street,” Szilard recalls, “it … suddenly occurred to me that if we could find an element which is split by neutrons and which would emit two neutrons when it absorbs one neutron, such an element, if assembled in sufficiently large mass, could sustain a nuclear chain reaction. “I didn’t see at the moment just how one would go about finding such an element, or what experiments would be needed, but the idea never left me. In certain circumstances it might be possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction, liberate energy on an industrial scale, and construct atomic bombs.” Leo Szilard stepped up onto the sidewalk. Behind him the light changed to red.1

It makes for a good read, though there are disputes about the exact timing of this apparent epiphany. But the basic fact seems to remain: Leo Szilard thought up the nuclear chain reaction over five years before fission was discovered. But he wasn’t taken seriously.

But what did he really propose at the time, though, and not just in retrospect? And should he have been taken more seriously? This is what I want to discuss at some length here, because it is a point of common confusion in a lot of writing on nuclear history.

Szilard had a really interesting idea in the fall of 1933. He took out a patent on it in the United Kingdom, which he required to be made secret. Was Szilard’s idea really an atomic bomb? Was it even a nuclear reactor?  The reason to suspect it was not, on the face of it, is that nuclear fission hadn’t been discovered in 1933. That didn’t happen until late 1938, and it wasn’t announced until early 1939. So what, really, was Szilard’s idea? And why did he file a (secret) patent on it? Was Szilard ahead of his time, or just a crank?

Szilard patent GB630726

Szilard’s 1934 patent is easily available these days, and is worth looking at carefully with an eye to what it both says and doesn’t says. The patent in question is GB630,726: “Improvements in or relating to the Transmutation of Chemical Elements.”2 He filed the application first in late June 1934, updated it in early July, and finalized it by April 1935. The UK Patent Office accepted it as valid in late March 1936, but it was “withheld from publication” at Szilard’s request under Section 30 of the Patent and Designs Act. It was eventually published in late September 1949, 15 years after it had been originally applied for.

The basic summary of the patent is straightforward:

This invention has for its object the production of radio active bodies[,] the storage of energy through the production of such bodies, and the liberation of nuclear energy for power production and other purposes through nuclear transmutation.

In accordance with the present invention nuclear transmutation leading to the liberation of neutrons and of energy may be brought about by maintaining a chain reaction in which particles which carry no positive charge and the mass of which is approximately equal to the proton mass or a multiple thereof form the links of the chain.

This sounds awfully promising, especially when you know what you are looking for. It looks like he’s got the right idea, for a reactor at least: it is patent for creating a neutron-based chain reaction. The reason that neutrons matter is because they lack an electrical charge, and so are not repelled by either the protons or the electrons in atoms. This allows them to penetrate into the nucleus. If they can be linked up so that one reaction produces more reaction, they become a chain reaction. Sounds good, especially if we assume that he means an exponential chain reaction (i.e. each reaction produces more than one subsequent reaction).

But once you get beyond the heading, the details of the patent are, frankly, kind of a confused mess.

Szilard doesn’t actually even state that the chain reaction is going to be produced by neutrons. He hedges his bets there — he describes a neutron, essentially, but generalizes the claim for anything that might behave like a neutron. He calls these “efficient particles” (terrible name), and they have to basically be proton-like in mass but lacking a positive charge. OK, fine. The neutron had just been discovered in 1932, so Szilard is probably thinking that there might be other possible particles out there that acted the same way.

The really weird stuff comes in when he tries to explain how this really works. He defines a chain reaction as when “two efficient particles of different mass number alternate a ‘doublet chain.'” Wait, what? He gives an example:

C(12) + n(2) = C(13) + n(1)
Be(9) + n(1) = “Be(8)” + n(2)

Let’s unpack this. C-12 is Carbon-12, C-13 is Carbon-13, Be-9 is Beryllium-9, “Be(8)” is Beryllium-8, put in quotes here because Szilard know it is pretty unstable (it has an extremely short half-life before it alpha decays). The weird parts are the neutrons — n(1) is just a regular neutron. n(2) seems to be a dineutron, a particle which does exist but was only discovered in 2012, and is certainly not something you can count on. (Szilard never says it is a dineutron, but he implies that you might be able separate n(2) into n(1)+n(1) with another reaction, so it seems to be just that.)

Leo Szilard

So the idea here is that the Carbon-12 absorbs a dineutron, emits a neutron, which is then absorbed by the Beryllium-9, which emits another dineutron. It’s essentially a linear chain reaction, which is not nearly as impressive or fast as an exponential chain reaction. But it would generate some significant energy: calculating the mass deficit of these equations shows that together the net energy release would be around 3.3 MeV, about 100X less than a fission reaction, but is some 330,000X more powerful than the combustion of a single molecule of TNT (~10 eV).3 You’d also maybe get some alpha particles (from the Be(8) decay), but it isn’t going to generate a lot of neutrons or dineutrons (they are going to be eaten up by the reaction itself).

Szilard then notes that maybe there are exponential ways to do this. He suggests that maybe some elements will create multiple neutrons when irradiated with neutrons, e.g.

 Be(9) n(1) = “Be(8)” + n(1) + n(1)

This is a much more exciting possibility, because if every reaction creates the possibility of two more reactions, now we are talking about a reaction that can grow really dramatically. The only problem here is that this reaction seems to be endothermic; if you use E=mc2 to calculate the mass deficit, it comes out as -1.67 MeV. Which ought to be a hint that it isn’t going to work.

The final specification of Szilard’s reactor chamber, which is much more simple in operation than it at first appears.

Szilard then continues by saying that he could make this work well if only he knew what elements might behave this wayWhich is really the crux of it, of course. Szilard has no evidence that any element behaves this way. He has no a priori reason to think any of them do. It’s just a pie-in-the-sky idea: what if there were elements that, when they absorbed one neutron, released two? But Szilard doesn’t dwell on this lack of knowledge. He immediately moves on to how he would design a simple reactor if an element was found. It is nothing terribly interesting: he describes a way to create neutrons and aims them at the reacting substance, then siphons off heat with a heat exchanger and uses it to run a turbine.

In July 1934, Szilard filed an “additional specification” — another patent claim attached to his original patent application. It is an elaboration on the reactor idea. Since he still doesn’t know what fuel would make it run, it’s still not very interesting, other than the fact that he’s put a lot of evident work into figuring out some of the basic properties of the reactor despite not having any clue how its core would actually work. Interestingly he does discuss uranium, but not as a fuel (he thinks it would maybe emit X-rays if he shot high energy electrons at it).

Finally, in April 1935 he filed the last, “Complete” specification. This is more or less identical to a combination of the previous two, except he further makes explicit that he thinks there are going to be “explicit particles” other than neutrons that might work. Basically he asserts that there are probably “heavier isotopes of the neutron”4 and that “It is essential that two isotopes of the neutron should take part in the reaction in order to obtain a chain” (my emphasis). The latter instance shows that he is still not thinking of this quite right — it is not essential that there are multiple isotopes of neutrons.

In his examples, he believes that a “tetraneutron” (i.e. n(4)) exists and can play a role in the reactions. (I know nothing of tetraneutrons, but Wikipedia says that they were claimed to be discovered in 2002 but that the experiments could not be replicated.) Szilard seems to be basing his patent claims here on experiments, but it’s not clear whether he did them or someone else did them, but it seems likely he’s misinterpreting the data. It’s a very odd argument, and he rests quite a lot on it — he seems to think it is far more likely that a nuclear reaction will release bunches of bound neutrons (dineutrons, tetraneutrons) instead of multiples of free neutrons (i.e. as fission does). And then the whole thing was kept secret until 1949 — an awful long time for something that actually reveals nothing of any practical utility, much less military applications.

According to The Collected Works of Leo Szilard, there was an additional claim in his patent application of March 1934 that Szilard had removed from the final specification:

(a) Pure neutron chains, in which the links of the chain are formed by neutrons of the mass number 1, alone. Such chains are only possible in the presence of a metastable element. A metastable element is an element the mass of which (packing fraction) is sufficiently high to allow its disintegration into its parts under liberation of energy. Elements like uranium and thorium are examples of such metastable elements; these two elements reveal their metastable nature by emitting alpha particles. Other elements may be metastable without revealing their nature in this way.5

This is much, much closer to the truth, although it is still somewhat unclear what Szilard really thinks about this. It’s not clear whether he’s describing radioactive decay in the traditional sense, nuclear metastability (which is something different altogether), or something different. Uranium and thorium are radioactive and undergo alpha decay — that, by itself, doesn’t actually indicate that they are good candidates for the kinds of reactions Szilard is thinking about. Szilard doesn’t think they are going to split, he thinks they are going to become artificially radioactive. Not the same thing at all. Still, this is a lot closer to the correct formulation, but we have to read it in the context of everything else he put in the patent.

Anyway, so what’s the verdict? Does the patent describe a bomb? Does it even describe a reactor? Definitely not a bomb, and not really a reactor. Most of Szilard’s energies on the patent are describing something that would, at best, take an input amount of energy and magnify it a bit: you’d use a cathode ray to generate high energy electrons, which would generate high energy neutrons, which would stimulate linear chain reactions that would create radioactive byproducts and release a little energy. Maybe you could keep it self-sustaining but it seems like kind of a long-shot to me.6

An animated version of the above "reactor" operating in a pulsed fashion.

A crudely animated version of the 1934 “reactor” operating in a pulsed fashion, just in case you are having trouble visualizing it.

If you read the patent today with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see where Szilard was right and where he was wrong. There is a germ of rightness in the patent, but it is clouded by a fog of wrongness, or at least confusion. I’m not blaming Szilard for this, of course. Like almost everyone else, he didn’t predict fission. He was ahead of his time, in the sense of anticipating that neutrons in particular were going to be important particles for creating nuclear chain reactions. But he didn’t really understand how it would work. As a result, most of the patent involves describing a device that wouldn’t work. To guess even something right about the future is a large task, even if one gets a few things wrong.

So was Szilard a visionary or a crank? To someone in 1934 or 1935, it would have been completely reasonable to dismiss Szilard’s patent as being too speculative and potentially too wrong (dineutrons, tetraneutrons, etc.) to be worth spending time worrying about. It also isn’t clear it has any real military implications — it isn’t even clear it would work as a power source, much less a weapon. To dismiss Szilard as something of a crank prior to the discovery of fission wouldn’t have been wrong. Szilard’s point of reference here isn’t fission, it’s artificial (induced) radioactivity, which had been discovered by the Joliot-Curies just prior to Szilard’s patent filing. But you can’t make artificial radioactivity work the way Szilard wants it to. I don’t fault anyone for not taking him very seriously at the time — because Szilard’s scheme was missing an absolutely essential component, and in its place there were a lot of incorrect assumptions.

After the discovery of fission in late 1938/early 1939, suddenly it is easy to pick out the visionary aspects of Szilard’s work. It suddenly becomes clear that Szilard was, in fact, a little ahead of the game. That if instead of his plans for beryllium-carbon reactions with neutrons and dineutrons, that a simple, neutron-based, exponential chain reaction would be possible with nuclear fission, and that furthermore it would release a lot more energy a lot quicker than what Szilard had dreamed up in the early 1930s.

Which is a conclusion that complicates the simple visionary/crank dichotomy. Szilard wasn’t really either in my mind. He had a germ of a good idea, but not the whole picture. But when the missing element came along, he was uniquely ready to see how it would complete his original idea. That’s the real story here, the real accomplishment: Szilard didn’t have to play catch-up when fission was announced, because he’d already thought a lot of this through. But that shouldn’t lead us to over-estimate the importance of the original patent work — it wasn’t a bomb, it wasn’t really even a reactor. But it did become a useful framework for thinking about fission, when fission came along.

Notes
  1. Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Simon and Schuster, 1986), 13 and 28. []
  2. It should not be confused with another patent he filed for at the same time with an identical name (GB440,023) which has nothing to do with chain reactions at all.  GB440,023 is basically a patent for producing artificially radioactive elements. The device it describes involves using a cathode tube to generate X-rays, then using the X-rays to stimulate neutron emission in beryllium, and using those neutrons to make artificially radioactive elements through induced radioactivity. It’s not a bad idea — it is now known as the Szilard-Chalmers method and it works. But it’s not a chain reaction at all . Szilard filed a patent for the same idea in the US as well. That Szilard considered it something quite different is also evidenced by the fact that he doesn’t seem to have tried to keep it secret. He references the basic method in GB630,726 as the driver of the reactions in question. []
  3. The beryllium reaction is endothermic but the carbon one is not. []
  4. “I have reason to believe that apart from neutrons which carry no charge and have a mass approximately equal to the proton mass heavier isotopes of the neutron exist which particles carry no charge and has a mass number approximately equal to a multiple of the proton mass.” []
  5. Quoted in Julius Tabin, Introduction, Part V: Patents, Patent Applications, and Disclosures (1923-1959), The Collected Works of Leo Szilard: Scientific Papers (MIT Press, 1972), on 529. []
  6. The neutron multiplication factor, to use modern reactor terminology, seems to me like it is going to be 1 at best, and probably less than that given inefficiencies, losses, etc. One question unasked and unanswered in the patent is how many neutrons he thinks he is going to produce per blast. I think it is easy to overestimate how effective this would be from that point of view. The neutron initiator used in the Fat Man bomb, as an aside, produced only around 100 neutrons on average. This isn’t the same process at all, but in terms of orders of magnitude this is probably not inaccurate when it comes to imagining how many neutrons can be easily stimulated. It is nothing like what a fission chain reaction can generate with its exponential growth. []
Visions

Death dust, 1941

Friday, 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.