Friends across borders

I enjoyed seeing global friendships in those hothouse early nuclear days. George Weil pulled out the control rod of Enrico Fermi’s CP-1 reactor in 1942. He doesn’t figure much in my story after that, but he must have visited John Cockcroft in rural Canada when Cockcroft ran the Canadian lab there in the early 1940s, for I found this letter from Cockcroft to Weil. The letter is super. . .

Spotting a spy

In England in the late 1940s, John Cockcroft’s Harwell laboratory thrived on committees. One of the most senior committees, the Power Steering Committee, sounds and was dry as bone, but was exceedingly important. Perusing its minutes one day, whose name should I notice as its chairman but that of “Dr. K. Fuchs.” The good doctor is, of course, Klaus Fuchs, one of the most. . .

1946 initiation

The #2 postwar British nuclear engineer was Len Owen. I don’t spend much time on him – other characters hold sway – but he was in his own way a colorful personality. Here he is, in 1963, describing his 1946 initiation into the nuclear world: At the start, of the twelve of us at Risley, only one person knew anything about atomic energy. He was Dennis Ginns, an engineer who was. . .

One of the most outsized personalities

I’ve grown to admire and, yes, like, Christopher Hinton, the engineer who built Britain’s reactors from 1946 to 1957. No one who met him forgot him. I enjoyed reading the resume Hinton provided a senior civil servant. Here’s an extract summarising his wartime role: In 1941 I was transferred to the Filling Factory organisation first as Deputy Director in charge of Engineering and later as Deputy. . .

The “unreasonable” Frenchman in Canada

Anyone disputing the role of individuals in history needs to take a look at Canada’s early reactor history. I won’t go into the details here (of course I tackle it in the book) but let me quote some recollections of George Laurence, the most senior Canadian physicist at the time. The context for his remarks is in itself remarkable. Frenchmen who had fled Hitler were bankrolled by Britain. . .

No escaping it . . .

Walking from Florence to Rome (you can see the Via di Roma sign at the bottom of the photo) over five weeks, what should I bump into when passing through an obscure Umbrian village (I didn’t even record its name) but a direct reference to Enrico Fermi, hero of my first chapter. Why a village square dedicated to Fermi? He was born in Rome, spent time in Pisa and then starred in a Rome university. . .

A character needs to be interesting

Even a history requires characters, people you write up in a way that hopefully brings them to life. To spend time with a character, I think the author must remain intrinsically interested in him or her. Plenty of French scientists and physicists were involved in the early history of that nation’s reactors but my interest was piqued early by a chemist, Bertrand Goldschmidt. Not only did he leave. . .

The difference between a fast and a slow neutron

Sometimes the unlikeliest of sources provides clarity. Silverstein’s book is entertaining but rather off topic for me, except take a look at this: Manhattan Project scientists discovered that some neutrons move at about seventeen million miles per hour, one fortieth of the speed of light. If they are “moderated” to about five thousand miles per hour, they have a better chance of being. . .

Archival blurs

During my weeks in the American and British archives, the only archives I ended up having time to explore, I concentrated on bringing home as much primary source material as I could. Sometimes the import of what I found was crystal clear, at other times not so much, so I rushed. Mostly I wielded a Canon point-&-shoot, holding the camera and pressing the button with one hand, while keeping the. . .

The complexity

Reactors bristle with subatomic complexity. Especially in the early days, devilishly complex reactor physics calculations had to be undertaken because the underlying physical phenomena are so difficult to model. As a former actuary, I knew something about mathematics, but I struggled, and still struggle, with nuclear physics. Witness this page from a wonderful, but tough, basic text, E. E. . .

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