Hidden sadness

It’s January 1956. American physicist Walter Zinn is about to leave the laboratory he founded a decade earlier, Argonne, situated on the outskirts of Chicago. Argonne now has 2,314 staff! He pens a formal-sounding memorandum to most of his direct reports, asking them to attend a series of eight 10 AM meetings to be held over three weeks. They’re all busy folks. He is, as always, frenetic.

Walter Zinn memo to Leonard Koch
Koch, Leonard. 2003. Experimental Breeder Reactor-II (EBR-II): An Integrated Experimental Fast Reactor Nuclear Power Station. Argonne National Laboratory, Illinois, p. B-10-3.

The memo’s subject matter is EBR-II. Zinn invented and sweated over EBR-I, a small experimental machine that famously lit up light globes four years earlier. EBR stands for “experimental breeder reactor.” A breeder reactor is one that regurgitates more magical fissile fuel than it consumes, as close to alchemy as science can get. We don’t have many breeders left in 2021 but back in 1956, the breeder represents the hope of near-infinite electricity. Zinn initiated EBR-II but has now passed it to Leonard Koch, a smart engineer. Zinn will not see the project to its fruition (or otherwise, who can tell if it will fail or succeed?). He could coast through his remaining weeks at the laboratory. Instead he summonses his people to grill them about EBR-II, to toughen up their plans, to maximize EBR-II’s chance of success beyond his might organizing hand.

Read this January 9, 1956 memorandum and feel your eyes glaze over with boredom (but note a dash of humor: Len Koch, in charge of a huge dangerous, precision project, has date-stamped it as 1955 not 1956). But boredom is not what I feel upon reading. Perhaps I’m divining too much, but what hits me is melancholy. To me, Zinn’s near-to-last memo is an expression of grief, the grief of an inventor abandoning his invention.