Posts Tagged ‘Vannevar Bush’


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.


Shurcliff on Secrecy

Friday, July 5th, 2013

William A. Shurcliff is one of my favorite Manhattan Project dramatis personaeI’ve written about him before on here, some time back. In a nutshell, Shurcliff was a physicist who worked as a technical advisor to Vannevar Bush in the Office of Scientific Research and Development, and was connected to the bomb project only peripherally. In fact, his value to Bush was that he wasn’t really steeped in the work to make the bomb: he was a trusted, technically-competent outsider. So he was the person they called, for example, when they needed a censor for atomic patents, because he could be “read in” on the secrets but wasn’t otherwise in a position to have conflicted interests. Among his other roles on the bomb project was to be the copyeditor of the Smyth Report, and he later was the “official historian” for Operation Crossroads.

William Shurcliff, age 39, 1948, 29 x 22.5 inches, Oil.

A painting of William A. Shurcliff from 1948 by his father-in-law, the American artist Charles Hopkinson.

What I love about the Shurcliff one finds in the Manhattan Project files is that he shows up in the most unusual, unsought places, and he loved to write unsolicited memos. I imagine him sitting around, thinking about some core problem related to the social and political future of atomic energy, and writing his thoughts out in a methodical fashion and sending them to the top. Occasionally there is evidence that these memos were read and circulated, though none were ever obviously used as the basis of policy going forward. Still, what’s really wonderful about someone like Shurcliff is that he wasn’t being exposed to all of the other scientists on the project, so he had a relatively independent outlook. This makes him a nice “barometer” for what kinds of thoughts were thinkable at the time, outside of the standard range of positions that the scientists took on the issues in front of them.

One of the issues that Shurcliff chimed in on was the prospects of long-term scientific secrecy. Late in the project (i.e. late 1944 and early 1945), the scientists at the University of Chicago had largely finished up their portion of the work (helping getting the Hanford reactors designed and running), and had more extra time for contemplation of long-term issues than those who were at Los Alamos. So they did things like write the Franck Report and other studies into the long-term prospects of nuclear energy, secrecy, the use of the bomb, and so on. A repeating theme in all of these reports is that long-term, postwar nuclear secrecy would not work. It is a position you will be familiar with from discussions today: secrecy would not prevent foreign nations (or “enemies” more broadly) from getting the bomb,  it would inhibit and slow future American work, and the worst thing imaginable would be a “secret arms race” between nations.

Vannevar Bush and James Conant, despite being key people behind the secrecy procedures of the Manhattan Project (which started well before the Army got involved), thoroughly embraced the anti-secrecy line. As Bush put it to President Truman in September 1945: “A secret race on atomic bombs can lead to a very unhappy world.”  In fact, almost every discussion I’ve found of postwar secrecy made during the Manhattan Project takes more or less this sort of position.

Shurcliff, however, approached it differently. I’m not sure how he picked up that these thing were “in the air,” though he was in limited doses exposed to the Chicago scientists while doing his patent work. In December 1944, he wrote a seven-page memo to Richard Tolman, another OSRD scientist who worked as a personal technical advisor to General Groves (among other things), with the lengthy subject heading of: “Analysis of the theses: (A) Maintaining secrecy on the details of the present weapon will not insure security. (B) Secrecy will come from ‘keeping ahead.’”1

Click on the image to view the full document.

Click on the image above to view the full memo. Shurcliff’s memo was itself classified “Secret — Limited” which basically meant that only the very top-top level of administrators and advisors were allowed to read it. The “Top Secret” classification was only just starting to be used in this period, and probably only would have been used here if the memo had any insight onto when the United States would have a bomb ready to use.

Keeping to his form, Shurcliff’s memo is highly-structured and carefully argued. He starts it off with a statement of his motivations and his conclusions:

Explanation: Some analysis of these theses appears called for since they lie at the heart of the general secrecy policy which, in turn, is fundamental to the entire postwar policy. These theses have been endorsed by many persons heard by the [Interim] Committee.2 The writer knows of no one-who has disagreed with these theses.

Conclusions: While it can be said that the theses are “more true than false,” it is apparent that they are seriously inadequate and to an appreciable extent misleading, since:

With regard to Thesis A, maintaining secrecy will make for security for a good many years at least — especially with respect to the many smaller countries incapable of developing nucleonics weapons independently.3 To place one’s faith in secrecy may be rash, but appreciably to dispense with secrecy may be even more rash.

With regard to Thesis B, even “keeping ahead” may prove futile when even “obsolete” nucleonics weapons can be employed by an enemy to wipe out our major centers, including nucleonics centers, in a single hour before declaration of war.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re probably recoiling from Shurcliff’s pro-secrecy arguments. They are pretty far distant from the “there is no secret” mantra of the postwar atomic scientists, but they are not bad arguments. Shurcliff’s approach is eminently pragmatic, not ideological. His memo is one about  technology transfer between nations, with an eye beyond seeing things as just a competition between two powers. Of course, he says, you can’t maintain such secrets indefinitely. But if you can maintain them for a few decades, that’s not nothing — time is a valuable commodity. 

Shurcliff also augments his analysis with the practical experience of technical espionage. Shurcliff’s main job at the OSRD was to be a liaison with other branches regarding information seized about enemy technology. So if the Allied soldiers found reports about, say, German tanks, they would send them to Shurcliff, and he’d figure out which of the OSRD divisions could make the most use of it. So unlike the scientists at Chicago, he actually knew a little bit about how difficult it was to construct technology based solely on knowledge alone:

Parenthetical note: The writer recalls many instances during 1943 and 1944 where, despite a wealth of fragmentary information from cooperative enemy prisoners, neutrals, and allied agents, the really significant technical engineering data on enemy devices remained wanting until uncomfortably late dates. Examples are: (a) technical characteristics of German infra-red search receivers and image tubes; (b) control frequencies for the German HS-293 glider bomb; (c) launching means, fuels, and radio control means of the German V-1 flying bomb. In-all these cases the serious gaps in our knowledge were not filled until reasonably intact specimens of the weapons in question had been captured. The abundance of such situations is believed to show that there is a good chance that appreciable amounts of highly-technical engineering data on secret devices may be kept out of enemy hands for years — perhaps decades.

Shurcliff’s estimates on the possibility of real espionage were, in the end, more optimistic than the reality. Neither he nor anyone else suspected that Los Alamos was full of a number of relatively high-level spies, and that direct design information on the bombs would be so immediately and thoroughly compromised. But it is worth noting that Shurcliff’s above discussion about the difficulty of reconstructing a physical technology from design information alone is, in fact, shown to be reasonably on the mark when we look at the history of the Soviet program. Even though the Soviets did have very detailed design information on the atomic bomb, it still took a tremendous effort to turn that into an actual bomb, and it has become much more clear over the years that information was not the primary determinant of when the Soviets developed their first nuclear weapons.

William Shurcliff, 50 years later.

William Shurcliff, 50 years later.

Lastly, Shurcliff’s views on “staying ahead” feel remarkably relevant to our modern day, as well. Nukes, he argues, are not weapons were there is such a significant difference between the “best” and the “second-best.” Getting hit with an “obsolete” weapon is still going to be a disastrous thing. Does it matter that the North Korean’s largest test was 10 kilotons, whereas the largest bomb in the US arsenal is megaton-range? To most people, probably not — 10 kilotons will still ruin your day.

Shurcliff ends his memo with a set of “Concluding Remarks”:

We are entering an age (starting, say, in 1960) in which even inferior arms (e.g., 1950 nucleonics bombs) any be used suddenly to cripple and perhaps conquer the most advanced country. The coming age may be further characterised (in the following over-simplified and over-dramatic terms:!) thus:

An age in which surprise aggression can laugh at military defense;
An age in which nucleonics is the grand currency of military negotiations;
An age in which our scientists will no longer be able to contribute to the defense of the country;
An age in which international physical compulsion is possible, but in which international physical conflict is impossible;
An age in which international conflicts can only be moral conflicts;
An age in which the line separating international disagreement between two countries from sudden devastation of one of them may become vanishingly thin;
An age in which “balance of power” and “threat” are merely historical terms.

If the last war was a chemists’ war and  the present war is a physicists’  war, the next war may be an “administrator’s war” — a war whose outcome may be determined by the mere formulation and concealment of the administrative decision as to whether and when to strike.

What a conclusion!

So what became of Shurcliff’s analysis? He sent it to Tolman, who forwarded it to Bush, and Bush in turn forwarded it to Harvey H. Bundy, an assistant to Secretary of War Stimson (and father of McGeorge Bundy), with the following note attached:

Here is the pessimistic viewpoint, and I think you ought to read it. I would add 1) while scientific interchange is inevitable, transmission of details of weapons is not. 2) A sudden strike will not prevent a riposte, if stores of weapons are well protected underground. The case as between two nations with hidden and ample supplies is of most interest, as it will be the case probably, and is not here treated.

I doubt Shurcliff ever knew that his memo had been forwarded up the chain like this — the secrecy, ironically, meant that he rarely had any indication of what was going on other than his own little corner of things. And perhaps even more ironically, that never kept him from speculating and dreaming about the possibilities of the future.

I don’t think anything more came of his memo. But I do treasure it, not because I necessarily agree with it — though I do find it better rooted in the realities of technology and epistemology than many of the statements of the anti-secrecy scientists of the time — but because it is a little indication of the fact that there were some nuclear physicists in 1944 who could find ways to defend secrecy (a rare thing!), and also find ways to see, arguably with some clarity, the shape of things to come.

  1. William A. Shurcliff to Richard C. Tolman (8 December 1944), Harrison-Bundy Files Relating to the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1108 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 6, Target 4, Folder 75, “Interim Committee — Publicity.” []
  2. The Interim Committee was the main administrative body planning for what to do once the bomb was a matter of public record, i.e. after it had been used on Japan. []
  3. “Nucleonics” was at this time being floated as a new name for the entire field of nuclear technology, in analogy to “electronics.” It didn’t take off. []

George Gamow and the atomic bomb

Friday, January 18th, 2013

George Gamow stands out as a colorful physicist among a generation of colorful physicists. He was a known wit, a friend to many of the “golden generation” of physicists, and — on top of all that — was a Russian émigré who had made a dramatic defection from the Soviet Union during a Solvay Conference. He was also a well-known popularizer of science, authoring well over a dozen works of physics aimed at the general public, often illustrated with his own amusing little drawings. He was quite a card: who else adds a scientist’s name to a massively important paper just to make a silly pun?

George Gamow, laughing and smoking, probably ca. the 1950s. Photo from the AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

George Gamow, laughing and smoking, probably ca. the 1950s. Photo via the AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

(Later in life, he became a very difficult person to be around, on account of his alcoholism. It was this fact that made me a little surprised that there was a free wine bar sponsored in the name of George Gamow at a meeting of the History of Science Society a few years back.)

Gamow’s scientific interests were all over the place — he was completely uninterested in disciplinary boundaries — and he was enormously influential on his peers as a “program builder.”1  It’s a little-known fact that Edward Teller came up with the idea of using a solid core of plutonium in the implosion design — an intuition he had because of his work with Gamow on the molten, compressed iron core of the Earth.2 Gamow’s work on nucleosynthesis and the Big Bang was immensely important to the advancement of cosmological thinking. Incidentally, Gamow did not like the term “Big Bang,”  because it sounded too much like nukes. He later even had an excursion into molecular biology.

But during World War II, Gamow didn’t work on the atomic bomb, though he continued to work on nuclear physics. One of the most charming letters I’ve found in the archives was written by Gamow to Vannevar Bush on August 12, 1945. You will note, of course, that this comes just three days after the bombing of Nagasaki, and is the same day the Smyth Report was released. In a clear but stylized handwriting, with a touch of refugee’s English, Gamow wrote the following letter to Bush:3

Click image to view PDF.

Click image to view PDF.

Aug 12th, 1945
19 Thoreau Drive
Bethesda, Md.

Dear Dr. Bush,

I am writing to you because I think you are the best man to advice me what to do. As you know I was in no way connected with the project of “atomic bomb” developement, while on the other hand, working all my life on nuclear physics, I naturally could not help not thinking about it and have rather clear ideas about the possibilities involved etc. As long as the whole thing remained a supersecret I was naturally trying to hold all my thoughts to myself. However now, when the thing exploded and all the newspapers are full of informations, I wonder where the boundary between what can and what cannot be told should be placed. Thus, for example, in my course of nuclear physics which I am giving in G.W.U. this summer I will have to speak next week about nuclear transformations, thermonuclear reaction, and nuclear chain reactions. Should I entirely avoid mentioning explosive reactions or not?

Again, I am now preparing the new edition of my Book on Nuclear Physics for Oxford Univ. Press. How much could be told in it about this part of the problem? Finally I was recently asked to write a small popular book on Atomic Energy. Must I reject such offer or not?

You understand of course that in all these cases the question is not about the technical details which I do not know, but about broad “purely scientific” point of view. As the matter of fact I do not think I know much more on the subject that the scientists in other countries, as for example in Soviet Russia, know at present, so that such utterings on my part will hardly be of any particular use for the “competitors.” Still, I would not like to do anything in this direction, without first receiving your advice.

Hoping to hear from you soon

Your very truly G Gamow.

Gamow’s concern was not unique to him, though he was a little ahead of the curve when it came to expressing it. He, like most other physicists, quickly saw that nuclear physics was going to become a much more troublesome thing in the age of atomic bombs. One of the biggest concerns at the time, by those inside the bomb project and those not, was that if nuclear physics became a top-secret area, it would severely impact the education of new physicists.

His letter did not go unnoticed; Vannevar Bush wrote him back a careful reply two days later, pointing out that the Smyth Report was released at almost the same time that Gamow’s letter was written, and that one of its explicit purposes was to make that firm line of security visible to folks like Gamow. Bush then offered up this bit of speculation:

I have no doubt that later there will be constituted in some way an official body to determine the proper bounds of scientific discussion, and undoubtedly competent scientists will be present on any such body. How this may possibly be done it is too early to know. However, in the interim there is a guide in the form of a report [the Smyth Report] and after the body is established there will be a place to turn which anyone can use who may be in doubt. 

The reality was somewhat more complicated than this, in the end. Policing “the proper bounds of scientific discussion” was ostensibly the role of the Atomic Energy Commission, but they found it quite hard to do such a thing in practice.

Gamow was, in the end, somewhat sucked into the weapons complex. He was a lecturer to US Naval Officers on fission physics just before Operation Crossroads, and later he was involved in the work on the hydrogen bomb, at Los Alamos. While there he drew this rather unusual little drawing celebrating the discovery/invention of the Teller-Ulam design in 1951:4

Gamow's drawing of Ulam and Teller, March 1951

What does it mean? Stanislaw Ulam as a very Bugs-Bunnyish hare, Edward Teller as a tortoise? The most banal and boring interpretation would be that Teller had been working at the H-bomb problem for a long time, and it was Ulam — the relative new-comer — had scooped him.

But I can’t help but wonder if there is more to its imagery than that — Gamow’s pen was famously more quick-witted than that. Perhaps there is meant to be a secret clue as to the differences in their approaches?

One stab at it: Teller’s Classical Super involved a propagating thermonuclear reaction in a large mass of fusion fuel — you light one end of a deuterium candle, and the thermonuclear “fire” travels along it. Ulam’s compression scheme (which would be translated into radiation implosion in collaboration with Teller) involved trying to ignite the entire fusion fuel mass all at once, more or less. Teller’s approach is a much slower reaction than Ulam’s; this is part of the reason that Teller’s Classical Super wouldn’t work (the fuel cools too quickly and can’t sustain the temperatures needed for fusion). So Ulam is the fast rabbit, Teller is the slow turtle, and in this instance (unlike Aesop), the rabbit wins the race.

Or perhaps it has something to do with the different geometries? Why does the Teller turtle have three rocks? Is the carrot a reference to the relatively long geometry of the Ulam approach, versus the spherical symmetry of the Alarm Clock design? Is the “P” on Ulam’s hat for his native Poland, or something else?

Are there secrets hidden in Gamow’s humor? Might Gamow be having the last laugh?

  1. Nasser Zakariya, “Making Knowledge Whole: Genres of Synthesis and Grammars of Ignorance,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 42, No. 5 (November 2012), 432-475. []
  2. Robert Christy usually gets the credit for the solid core. It was Teller’s initial idea, but it was Christy who proved it would work. []
  3. George Gamow to Vannevar Bush (12 August 1945), General Records of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, National Archives and Records Administration, RG 227, Box 110, “Security – S-1.” []
  4. This scan comes from the copy reproduced in Peter Galison’s Image and Logic. []

Biological Warfare: Vannevar Bush’s “Entering Wedge” (1944)

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

At the end of 1944, Vannevar Bush and James Conant, the atomic administrators at the Office of Scientific Research and Development and the National Defense Research Committee, were starting to worry about what to do about the bomb. Not in the near term — but what to do about it after World War II.

How do you regulate a totally new technology — both domestically and internationally? Where do you begin, in thinking about it? Especially when the technology in question is the atomic bomb, a weapon that seemed to pose insuperable existential questions and seemed capable of revolutionizing not only war, but the idea of nation-states themselves?

General Leslie Groves, James B. Conant, and Vannevar Bush, in August 1945

Bush and Conant, for their part, spent a lot of time looking for analogies: using their experience with other regulatory regimes to inform their understanding of an atomic regulatory regime.

This wasn’t their first technological rodeo: Bush had been deeply involved in radio technology regulation in the 1920s, and Conant was a veteran hand when it came both to chemical warfare and, as it happened, the regulation of rubber. (One of the many control approaches they pursued was that of patents, which I’ve written about pretty extensively.)

But even more pertinently, they worked openly on the problem of regulating biological warfare, with the secret goal of using this as a trial balloon for the types of regulations they’d recommend for the atomic bomb.

The weekly document is a letter from Vannevar Bush to James B. Conant, dated October 24, 1944, on the problem of the long-term control of biological warfare— not just because Bush thought it was important, but because he thought it would help make sense of what to do with the bomb.1

Click image for the PDF.

Bush started it off by referencing a “recent memorandum” to the Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, which they had sent at the end of September. In that memo, Bush and Conant warned that secrecy wouldn’t be a long-term international solution for the bomb, and strongly recommended that Stimson start seriously making moves towards some means of international control of the bomb. Stimson wasn’t yet sure, though (he would later become convinced).

He then continued:

I have been giving some thought to another subject recently, and possibly it offers a means of approaching this one [the bomb]. Everyone is now agreed, I think, that biological warfare is not likely to break out in the European Theatre. In the Far East the situation may be more dangerous, especially if chemical warfare is started, but even there I believe that any large-scale biological warfare is highly unlikely for the present war. In fact, excitement on the matter in this country has died down. 

In the world of the future there may be some danger that biological warfare would be developed in secret by a future aggressor and suddenly sprung upon the world. This depends, I suppose, upon how biological matters develop, but the possibility is already there in some forms.

Bush considers biological warfare to be somewhat of a dead, but scary, letter.  Since it was looking like it would be irrelevant to the current conflict (Bush either didn’t know or didn’t consider the BW use by Japan again the Chinese to fall under this assessment), it could be talked about relatively openly. Thus they could explore some of the salient questions about the atomic bomb before the bomb itself was outside of secrecy. Pretty clever, Dr. Bush.

The exact plan Bush was shooting around was as follows:

Now it seems to me that this would be far less dangerous if there were full interchange between biological scientists all over the world, especially if this occurred through an international organization, with frequent international conferences on epidemiology held in all of the large countries in turn, and with a central organization collecting public health information, with particular emphasis on the prevention of epidemics. Under such circumstances if one country were developing the military aspects of the matter on a large scale in secret there would be a fair chance, I believe, that it would become known.

Certainly any county that did not have ideas of aggression somewhere in the back of its mind would be inclined to join such an affair genuinely and open up the interchange, unless indeed there is more duplicity in the world than I am inclined to think. It may be well worth while to attempt to bring this about.

The plan, then, was to have complete scientific interchange as a regulatory mechanism. If the work being done is talked about openly, then there would be no “secret arms race.”

This is an idea that was quite popular in many circles at the time regarding the bomb, as well. Niels Bohr in particular argued very strongly for this form of “international control”: if you got rid of secrecy, he argued, you’d be able to see what everyone was doing, and if all the relevant scientists dropped of the face of the Earth all of the sudden, you’d know they were developing WMDs.2

It’s an optimistic idea, one which puts a little too much stock, I think, in the communicative power of scientific exchange. An invitation to a conference is not a verification mechanism. It doesn’t take into account the ability of states to stage entirely shadow programs, or to have scientists who are happy to be duplicitious to other scientists. It somewhat naively subscribes to the idea of a transnational scientific community that is “above” politics. Even by World War II such a notion should have been seen as somewhat old fashioned; certainly the Cold War showed it to be.

Still, the goals were laudable, and as a way for thinking through international scientific control, it wasn’t the worst approach. Bush and Conant’s greatest fear with respects to the bomb was a “secret arms race.” They really thought this could not end with anything but mass destruction for all. At least a non-secret arms race, they argued, would keep people from doing anything too stupid.

Bush closes the letter with this wonderful paragraph:

You will readily see that I have in mind more than meets the eye, and am thinking of an entering wedge. However, I would very much like to explore with you this particular thing on its own merits, and also from the standpoint of what its relationship might be to other matters.

Bush was interested in the control of biological warfare, but he was more interested in thinking about the bomb. Biological warfare would be his “entering wedge” in approaching the issue of scientific control, knowing that soon enough they’d be worrying about something he considered even bigger.

  1. Citation: Vannevar Bush to James B. Conant (24 October 1944), Bush-Conant File Relating the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1940-1945, Records of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, RG 227, microfilm publication M1392, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., n.d. (ca. 1990), , Roll 5, Target 8, Folder 38, “Bush, V. (1944-45).” []
  2. The full, more formal plan can be found in Vannevar Bush and James B. Conant, “Memorandum on the Future of Biological Warfare as an International Problem in the Postwar World,” (27 October 1944), Harrison-Bundy Files Relating to the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1108 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 6, Target 6, Folder 77, “Interim Committee — International Control.” []

James B. Conant on Trinity (1945)

Monday, July 16th, 2012

This week, you’ll get your weekly document on a Monday, because it’s a special occasion. Today, July 16, 2012, is the 67th anniversary of the first test of an atomic bomb: “Trinity.” 

A photo negative from the first milliseconds of the nuclear age. The bright spots are where the negative was burnt through by the heat. Photo by Berlyn Brixner; scanned from the National Archives Still Pictures Branch, 454-RF-12A (TR84-1).

A lot has been written about “Trinity.” What I thought I’d offer up is a perspective on the test that you’ve probably never seen — the personal account of James B. Conant, President of Harvard and key figure in the Manhattan Project.

The original document isn’t easy to come by — it was withdrawn from the Bush-Conant File when it was microfilmed — but James Hershberg, when writing his great Conant biography (James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age) managed to get access to it, where it is reprinted as an appendix. It’s one of the more gripping of the many personal accounts of the first bomb test, and as far as I’ve seen, isn’t posted anywhere else on the web.

James B. Conant (fourth from left) at a meeting with Uranium Committee principles at UC Berkeley, March 1940. Left to right: Ernest O. Lawrence, Arthur C. Compton, Vannevar Bush, Conant, Karl Compton, Alfred L. Loomis.

This transcription is Hershberg’s; the original is no doubt in Conant’s impossible handwriting. Any notes italicized in brackets are Hershberg’s, any not-italicized are mine.1

Rather than breaking it up with comments, I’ve added footnotes to highlight little points or add a little depth to things that you might not be familiar with, unless you are a serious Manhattan Project nerd. The footnotes are only visible if you look at this post in “single post” mode, rather than via the main site’s front page. If you don’t see any footnotes, click on the title of this post at the top. The bolding is by me. Any non sic‘d typos are probably by me, too!

Conant and Bush reenact a post-Trinity handshake for the “March of Time” documentary on the atomic bomb. Apparently they were really just in a Boston garage for the reenactment. Via the New York Times.

Notes on the “Trinity” Test Held at Alamogordo Bombing Range

125 miles south east of Alburquerque

5:30 a.m. Monday, July 16

V. Bush, Gen. Groves, and J.B.C. arrived at the Base Camp located 10 miles from the bomb at about 8 p.m. Sunday evening. After dinner at the mess and some brief explanation by [J.R.] Oppenheimer, [R.C.] Tolman, [G.] Kistiakowsky, and [I.I.] Rabbi [sic] in very informal conversation we went to bed. The atmosphere was a bit tense as might be expected but everyone felt confident that the bomb would explode. The pool on the size of the explosion ran from 0 (a few pessimists) to 18,000 (Rabbi [sic]) and perhaps someone at 50,000 [several words censored].2 My own figure was 4400 [tons of T.N.T.] but I never signed up.3 It was a bad night though the weather forecast had been favorable for a clear early morning with light winds (the desired condition). From about 10:30 to 1 a.m., it blew very hard thus preventing sleep in our tent and promising a postponement of the Test. Then it poured for about an hour!

At 1 a.m. General Groves arose and went out to the forward barricade with the key personnel. There were two forward bases located 10,000 yds. N. & S. of the bomb. The [wiring?] from [this?] point to the test and to the camp was fantastic in the [extreme?].4 The instrumentation of the test included a vast array of equipment. At 3:15 a.m., the rain having just ceased, Rabbi [sic]5 came into our tent (V. Bush and JBC) and said that there had been much talk of a postponement because of the weather but reports indicated a 75% chance of going through with it but at 5 a.m. instead of the scheduled 4 a.m.

We got up & dressed and drank some coffee about 4 a.m. and wandered around. The sky was still overcast. It had not rained however at the zero point (the bomb)6 and the [wires? lines?] were O.K. Word then came through about 4:30 that 5:10 would be the time. About 5 p.m. [sic a.m.] or a little after, word came that the firing would occur at 5:30. Shortly after, General Groves came back to the forward area. We prepared to view the scene from a slight rise near the camp. Col. S[tafford]. Warren [was] in charge of health.7 Tolman, Rabbi [sic], Gen. Groves & J.B.C. were more or less together.8 It was agreed that because of the expected (or hoped!) bright flash and the ultra violet light (no ozone to absorb it) it would be advisable to lie flat and look away at the start, then look through the heavy dark glass.

At 5:20 the sirens blew the 10 min signal then another at 5:25 and I think another 2 mins. before. We lay belly down facing 180 [degrees] away from the spot on the tarpaulin. I kept my eyes open looking at the horizon opposite the spot. It was beginning to be light, but the general sky was still dark particularly in the general direction I was looking. Through the loud speaker nearby I heard [Samuel] Allison counting the seconds minus 45, minus 40, minus 30, minus 20, minus 10. (The firing was done by some kind of timing devices started at minus 45 sec.) These were long seconds! Then came a burst of white light that seemed to fill the sky and seemed to last for seconds. I had expected a relatively quick and bright flash. The enormity of the light and its length quite stunned me. My instantaneous reaction was that something had gone wrong and that the thermal nuclear transformational of the atmosphere, once discussed as a possibility and jokingly referred to a few minutes earlier, had actually occurred.9  Slightly blinded for a second, I turned on my back as quickly as possible and raising my head slightly, could see the “fire” through the dark glass. At that stage it looked like an enormous pyrotechnic display with great boiling of luminous vapors, some spots being brighter than others. A picture from memory is as seen through heavy dark glass.

Trinity fireball drawing by James Conant

Very shortly this view began to fade and without thinking the glass was lowered and the scene viewed with the naked eye. The ball of gas was enlarging rapidly and turning into a mushroom. It was reddish purple and against the early dawn very luminous, though I instantly thought of it as colored [somewhere?]. Then someone shouted watch out for the detonation wave (this was 40 sec after zero time). Still on my back I heard the detonation but was not in a position to notice any blast (there was relatively little felt here). The sound was less loud or startling than I expected, but the shock of sensory impression was still dominant in my mind. Then I got up and watched the spread of the colored luminous gas. There was two secondary explosions, after the detonation wave reached us or just before. The cloud billowed upward when these occurred and very soon thereafter [billowed?] up as would an oil fire, the color became [illegible] and the whole looked more like a [unintelligible] fire (though on an enormous scale). The column of smoke then began to spread and took on a Z form which persisted for some time. The spectacular part must have been confined to about 90 seconds. The phases observed by the eve were as follows from memory.

Conant's drawing of the rising and dissipating mushroom cloud

As soon as I had lowered my dark glass and before rising I shook Gen. Groves hand who said “Well, I guess there is something in nucleonics after all.”10 Tolman as we rose said, that is something very different from the 100-ton TNT shot,11 “entirely differently, there is no question but what they got a nuclear reaction.” Then several people began saying, “Very much larger than expected. Rabbi [sic] said it was 15,000 Tons equivalent at least.”

At about 60 sec. as the cloud billowed up, the assembled group including many MPs’ gave out a spontaneous cheer.

Then the reports began to come in. Oppenheimer arrived in about 5 or 10 minutes and said the equivalent was 2100 Tons which was greeted with great skepticism. It afterwards turned out he had made an error in converting the first blast measurement and the figure showed 7,000 tons.12

The most exciting news was that the steel tower over “Jumbo” 800 yards away had disappeared.13 This was reported by some one with a telescope and verified by all. This was unexpected and showed a very much more powerful effect than expected.

Before we left at noon, the best estimate seemed to be between 10,000–15,000 though Rabbi [sic] maintain 18,000 would yet prove right.14 Careful exploration of the crater showed 1200 yards again more than expected. The toxicity problem proved not serious. Thought at 10,000 [yards] North evacuated in a hurry as their meter went off the scale almost at once and the cloud of smoke seemed to chase them they declared!15 All evacuation was by car, of course. One man at the Camp Site who looked at the explosion without dark eye glasses got a bad eye burn and was given morphine: the prognosis was that he would not lose his sight. G. Kistiakowsky, all [word illegible], came in to report that the shock wave had knocked him down as he stood outside the barricade at 10,000 S.16 There were reports of two others being knocked down at the same spot.

My first impression remains the most vivid, a cosmic phenomena like an eclipse. The whole sky suddenly full of white light like the end of the world. Perhaps my impression was only premature on a time scale of years!

J.B. Conant, Washington, D.C.
July 17, 1945 4:30 p.m.

  1. Citation: James B. Conant, “Notes on the ‘Trinity’ Test,” (17 July 1945), Bush-Conant File Relating the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1940-1945, Records of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, RG 227, microfilm publication M1392, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., n.d. (ca. 1990), Roll 5, Target 8, Folder 38, “Bush, V. 1944-45.” Reprinted in James Hershberg, James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age(New York: Knopf, 1993), 758-760. []
  2. The yield estimates are questions of how efficient the fission reaction will be — how much plutonium would fission before the bomb blew itself apart? This itself was a question of how effectively the implosion mechanism worked, and how long the bomb could be held in a supercritical state before full explosion. A rough estimate provided by Richard Garwin is that the complete fissioning of 1 kg of Pu-239 produces 17 kt of yield. The “Gadget” contained  6.2 kg of Pu-239 in its core. So obviously zero yield would mean no significant fissioning at all. 18 kt would mean only 17% of the plutonium fissioned. 50 kt would mean 47% fissioned. Conant’s estimate, 4.4 kt, would mean 4% fissioned. Perfect efficiency — 100% fissioning — would have been 105 kt. Separately, one wonders what Conant would have to say here that would still be censored today. I suspect it has does have something to do with efficiency questions, and his reasoning on them, because those were considered quite taboo by redactors until relatively recently. I suspect if this was re-reviewed by a classification officer today these lines would be cleared. Note that Rabi’s guess was in fact not chosen because of any optimism — he arrived late and it was the only figure left to choose! []
  3. Conant’s estimate looks low today — since we know that the bomb was 18 kt was correct. But for the first test, of course, there was no real barometer. The original estimates for the atomic bomb’s yield were much, much lower than what the bombs turned out to be — when Roosevelt signed off on the Manhattan Project in 1942, it was under the assumption that the first atomic bomb would be only 2 kt in yield! []
  4. These parenthetical sentences are from Hershberg and are likely good interpretations of Conant’s awful handwriting. []
  5. Conant consistently misspells I.I. Rabi’s name. But it is amusing to imagine two New England Yankees like Bush and Conant being visited by a rabbi for the Trinity test. []
  6. “Zero point” was the term for where the bomb was located, sometimes just called “Zero” or, eventually, “Ground Zero.” This was the original usage of the term, well before it became more commonly used for all manner of targets. The zero obviously came from marking out the distances from the bomb blast site — zero would have been the exact site of the bomb exploding. []
  7. Warren was in charge of making sure that nobody got too much radiation exposure at Trinity, especially from fallout. They actually did have a fallout scare, but more on that another time. []
  8. It’s interesting that Rabi was in this group and not any other. Tolman was Groves’ personal scientific advisor; Conant and Bush were high-level policy guys; Rabi was more or less just visiting — he wasn’t heavily involved in the bomb project, just a consultant, and was spending most of his time working on radar at MIT. It may have been his “outsider” status that got him put into the high-policy bunker. Or maybe Bush and Conant just liked him. I don’t know. []
  9. The idea that an atomic bomb might start a thermonuclear reaction in the atmosphere was not quite so seriously considered as a threat as it was later made out to be — and was something that was known to be physically impossible — but it’s not surprising that this unlikely fear came back to Conant in this instant of awe. It’s also worth remembering that nobody had seen an atomic bomb before, so this must have been fantastically more impressive even than later tests, when you had a general idea of what it ought to look like. I’m also reminded of a comment that Harold Agnew made about watching the first hydrogen bomb explosion in 1952, how it kept getting hotter, and hotter, and hotter, and he actually started to get worried that it would never stop. []
  10. “Nucleonics” was a term coined during World War II to designate the field of nuclear technology. It didn’t really catch on. []
  11. The 100-ton TNT shot was a detonation of isotope-laced explosives on May 7, 1945, done as a means of trying to calibrate instrumentation and expectations for the Trinity shot. Read more about it on Carey Sublette’s page. []
  12. Oppenheimer was regarded by all as quite brilliant when it came to the physics of these sorts of things, but poor when it came to the mathematics. But I don’t know that he actually did these equations — it’s unlikely. It’s still interesting that the revised estimate was off by 250%. Still, it was an estimate some 15 minutes after the first test, so let’s cut them some slack. []
  13. “Jumbo” was a massive containment unit that was initially supposed to have the bomb detonated inside of it, so that if it fizzled, the billion-dollars-worth of plutonium would be recoverable. It was not used, however. Details about Jumbo are here. Jumbo itself survived the blast, though its tower was destroyed. []
  14. And Rabi was, indeed, more or less correct — the final yield was just shy of 19 kt. But, again, he chose 18 kt not because he had any good reason to — he did it because it was the only choice left when he showed up. Now an historical question that I’ve never seen the answer to is how much money did Rabi win? Apparently it was only a $1 entry fee, and it was restricted to senior scientists, so it probably wasn’t much. We know that Oppenheimer (0.3 kt), Teller (45 kt), Kistiakowsky (1.4 kt), Bethe (8 kt), and Ramsey (zero) put in. So that’s at least 5 dollars, not counting the one Rabi would have gotten back for admission. (Note that Conant said he did not participate in the pool.) But it must have been more crowded a field than that, given that 18 kt was all that was left to Rabi when he arrived later, and it seems rather arbitrary given the other numbers listed. It may yet be an unsolved mystery… []
  15. This is related to the fallout scare that I mentioned previously — they were somewhat woefully underprepared for fallout issues, though they were aware they might exist. I have a post on this coming up fairly soon… []
  16. So I guess the drawings I posted here weren’t completely far-fetched! []