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A leader who believed in science

Still trying to understand David Ben-Gurion’s, Israel’s first prime minister. I thought I knew enough but I don’t, so I’m working through two biographies. One is, of course, Israeli historian/journalist Tom Segev’s masterful book from a couple of years ago (see my review of it here, as a book rather than as a reference source). “He saw science as the pursuit of. . .

Imagining hair

Gaining a level of understanding of a historical personage’s motivations is tough for me. I’m tempted to acquire every available biography and pore over them, but that’s an impractical strategy, so I make do with a few books or articles or whatever. A key founder of Israel and its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, is fascinating. Here’s what one historian says about. . .

Travel expenses of reactor pioneers

It’s fun to catch a glimpse of times and individuals’ attitudes from archival research. Many of the world’s reactors descend from initial work done at the Argonne Laboratory over the late 1940s and 1950s (and onwards). An enormously talented group of scientists and engineers found their way there. During the summer of 1951, Winston Manning, head of the Chemistry Division. . .

Wattenberg and Lichtenberger

An enjoyable research moment is when historical actors, who you thought were apart, intersect. Albert Wattenberg was a physicist who helped out during the Manhattan Project but then mostly went into academia postwar. Harold Lichtenberger was a key lieutenant of Walter Zinn in designing and building key prototype reactors after the war. I hadn’t really been aware that they had a time. . .

Penny for an English error

Enrico Fermi “invented” (although that’s the wrong term, discovered might be better, but that’s not quite right either) reactors by starting up a tiny “pile” in Chicago in 1942. He died in 1954 (aged only 53) and was experimenting with neutrons (the initiators of nuclear fission) from the early 1930s, so in a sense his involvement in the history of reactors was. . .

Coincidences amuse us

Researching Argonne National Laboratory, from which sprang most of the key reactor designs after WWII and into the early 1950s, the following 1992 interview with a Manhattan Project physicist, Albert Wattenberg, piqued my interest: Some people in the U.S. Army wanted to set the National Laboratory up at Baraboo, Wisconsin, because the property was available. Fermi said that he wouldn’t go there. . .

Japan in WWII: An obscure strand

In writing up Japan’s early nuclear power history, I’ve needed to sum up the nation’s World War II efforts to manufacture a nuclear weapon (the main aspirants of course being U.S.A., Germany, and U.S.S.R.). It turns out Japan got almost nowhere towards a nuke, and what it did during the war turned out to have almost no relevance to its slowly emergent post-war interest in. . .

History means ignoring the news … until it doesn’t

News broadcasts should be ignored by historians, at least when they think of themselves as historians, because the news froths with such exuberance that it’s mostly wrong. So when I read a few days ago about a forest fire near the Chernobyl sarcophagus, I glanced at the report (it was mostly benign, yes a fire had started but it was out or nearly out, and no, there was no cause for concern). . .

Did Japan test a nuke?

I’m telling the tale of nuclear energy, not nuclear war, but in writing up the early history of power reactors, the German and Japanese stories need to (in my opinion) briefly refer to their World War II nuclear experiences vis a vis the successful Manhattan Project. In other words, when it came time for the Japanese and Germans to consider nuclear electricity, what was their background. . .

Jill Lepore on writing history

You’d think writing history would be easy. This fact, that event, another quote, an easy conclusion… Not so. I recently read Jill Lepore’s “These Truths: A History of the United States.” Regardless of what I think of the overall arc of her narrative, I found this quote to be true: No one can know a nation that far back, from its infancy, with or without baby teeth kept in. . .

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