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1945 ignorance about radiation

A revelatory paper by UCal historian Sean Malloy shocked me. Check out the final sentence of this conclusion to his masterful analysis: This survey of pre-Hiroshima knowledge of radiation effects in the United States makes it clear that most of the immediate and long-term biological effects of radiation on victims of the bomb were predictable at the time of the A-bomb decision, even if still. . .

Szilard in public

Leo Szilard played an enormously important role in the development of the first atomic bombs. His eccentricities are oft mentioned. His core strengths as a physicist were not the complex maths of a theory, nor in conducting imaginative experiments. Rather he was a big-picture thinker, a prodigious one. After WWII ended, he retained some atomic charisma but quickly moved on to biology. One of his. . .

A vague press release

Of course my book presents Walter Zinn’s 1951 experimental breeder reactor as a key event, but one of its purposes was to confirm the very presence of such reactors, namely that they “breed” fissile material. That is, for every atom of uranium-235 (or other fissile material) consumed inside the reactor, another atom of plutonium (or other fissile material) is produced, almost as. . .

Mercury

I don’t know what I would have done without Red Atom: Russia’s Nuclear Power from Stalin to Today (2000, W. H. Freeman, New York; I quote from p. 61). American historian Paul Josephson gained remarkable access to the nuclear centers of Russia during the 90s and Red Atom is one of only three book-length English language histories available to us Westerners. But Josephson’s. . .

Sodium at sea

One of nuclear power’s forgotten historical byways is General Electric’s pursuit, for over a decade after WWII, of what they called an “intermediate” reactor cooled by liquid sodium. Most nuclear machines slow down the “fast” neutrons expelled by nuclear fission, resulting in “thermal” or slow neutron reactors. More futuristic breeder reactors. . .

The Smyth Report and the launch of Soviet health physics

I’ve read way too much about the beginnings of what is euphemistically called “health physics” (rather than, say, “radiation protection science”) and what strikes me is the imbalance between the myriad reports, papers, and memoirs from USA and nothing at all from the Soviet Union. It is clear that the Soviet physicists, like their American counterparts, recognized. . .

A British physicist’s opinion

Terence Price was an English nuclear physicist, born in 1921. In 1947, aged 26, he joined John Cockcroft’s startup laboratory in the English countryside. When he published his autobiography (titled Political Physicist) in 2004, I was at first agog with the data implications for me. “A month after joining Harwell,” he writes about a fifth of the way through the book, “I. . .

History can be sweetly written

As with genre fiction, mainstream (i.e. non-academic) history need only possess clear prose. The point is the history, the story, the organization, the data. Virtuosic stylistics, if they arise, are a bonus. So when you find a historian whose writing is a pleasure to read, savor her, my friends, savor her. My go-to paragon of evocative history style is Richard Rhodes but another author I’ve. . .

Say what?

Walter Zinn’s words amidst twelve pages of dense technical verbiage: “It may be acceptable in the early development of the industry to place as the first goal reactor power plants which are competitive in an economic sense with the coal-fired plants. Success in this inevitably will bring a demand for an increased utilization of the nuclear raw material. … It is equally clear that in. . .

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. . .

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