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The Prometheus Bomb: The Manhattan Project and Government in the Dark

The Prometheus Bomb: The Manhattan Project and Government in the Dark

by Neil J. Sullivan
The Prometheus Bomb: The Manhattan Project and Government in the Dark

The Prometheus Bomb: The Manhattan Project and Government in the Dark

by Neil J. Sullivan

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During World War II, the lives of millions of Americans lay precariously in the hands of a few brilliant scientists who raced to develop the first weapon of mass destruction. Elected officials gave the scientists free rein in the Manhattan Project without understanding the complexities and dangers involved in splitting the atom.
The Manhattan Project was the first example of a new type of choice for congressmen, presidents, and other government officials: life and death on a national scale. From that moment, our government began fashioning public policy for issues of scientific development, discoveries, and inventions that could secure or threaten our existence and our future. But those same men and women had no training in such fields, did not understand the ramifications of the research, and relied on incomplete information to form potentially life-changing decisions.
Through the story of the Manhattan Project, Neil J. Sullivan asks by what criteria the people in charge at the time made such critical decisions. He also ponders how similar judgments are reached today with similar incomprehension from those at the top as our society dives down the potential rabbit hole of bioengineering, nanotechnology, and scientific developments yet to come. 

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612348902
Publisher: Potomac Books
Publication date: 12/01/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Neil J. Sullivan is a professor in the Austin W. Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College–City University of New York. He has published several books, including The Diamond in the Bronx: Yankee Stadium and the Politics of New York and The Dodgers Move West.
Neil J. Sullivan is a professor in the Austin W. Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College–City University of New York. He has published several books, including The Diamond in the Bronx: Yankee Stadium and the Politics of New York and The Dodgers Move West.

Read an Excerpt

The Prometheus Bomb

The Manhattan Project and Government in the Dark

By Neil J. Sullivan


Copyright © 2016 Neil J. Sullivan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61234-890-2


A Squash Court in Chicago

On a November day in 1942, two guys had a conversation about blowing up Chicago. Enrico Fermi and Arthur Holly Compton were Nobel Prize–winning physicists and key figures in the Manhattan Project. Their plan to conduct the first controlled nuclear chain reaction in a facility outside the nation's second largest city had been frustrated by a labor dispute, so they were looking for an alternative site.

Fermi proposed that they run the experiment at the University of Chicago, where he and Compton were employed. Well aware that 3.4 million of their neighbors lived relatively near the test, their discussion first needed to rule out a couple of potential disasters.

One was a reactor explosion equivalent to the fate that awaited Hiroshima. Fermi and Compton allowed that "some new, unforeseen phenomenon" might intrude, "some unknown process" that would accelerate the reaction beyond their control, but Compton double-checked Fermi's math. They concluded that they would be able to slow the reaction to a safe level if an X factor appeared. They were willing to take even "superfluous" precautions to guard against such a catastrophe.

The second possible disaster was a massive leak of radiation without an explosion, the kind of event that occurred at Chernobyl in 1986. Compton described that scenario as "intolerable," and added he that "the outcome of the experiment might thus greatly affect the city." Indeed. More numbers crunched, and the two were confident that Chicago would not be in danger.

For those familiar with such positions, the tension rises when we learn that Compton was also an academic administrator. It crossed his mind while talking with Fermi that perhaps he should notify the university's president Robert Hutchins that the two Nobels had decided to proceed with the most famous scientific experiment ever attempted in a squash court.

Compton recognized that "according to every rule of organizational protocol, I should have taken the matter to my superior. But this would have been unfair." Why? "Based on considerations of the University's welfare the only answer [Hutchins] could have given would have been — no. And this answer would have been wrong. So I assumed the responsibility myself."

Robert Hutchins, unqualified in Compton's eyes, had begun his undergraduate studies at Oberlin at the age of sixteen. He left two years later to join the ambulance corps on the western front in the Great War. He returned and finished his bachelor's degree at Yale in 1921, received his law degree from the university in 1925, and was appointed dean of the Yale Law School two years later. In 1929, at the age of thirty, he was named the president of the University of Chicago, where he promoted the study of the Great Books, overhauled undergraduate education, eliminated a very successful football program for being inconsistent with the university's purpose, and cultivated a popular following unusual for a college president.

When a decision was needed on proceeding with an experiment to release unimaginable energy from the fundamental elements of matter on the campus of the University of Chicago, Arthur Holly Compton decided to keep Robert Hutchins in the dark. Beyond the risk to Chicago, some physicists wondered if a chain reaction of atom splitting might continue past the campus, the city limits, the nation's borders, around the world, into space, and then to every corner of the universe. An interesting question, but as Compton himself claimed, "President Hutchins was in no position to make an independent judgment of the hazards involved."

Hutchins wasn't worth a conversation? He didn't know other physicists and mathematicians who could have advised him after checking the numbers yet again and again? He couldn't have learned enough about the risks to make a reasonable and thoughtful judgment? If in doubt, he couldn't have contacted another president, Franklin Roosevelt, to plead that this one was above his weight class?

In Compton's account, written in 1956, he alone decided that Fermi should proceed with the chain reaction. His recollection implies that Robert Hutchins could be informed after the fact, but Compton's recollection was flawed. Under Hutchins's leadership, the university had become a research lab for the army, and Hutchins knew full well that the object of that research was to be an atomic bomb.

Hutchins had asked the university administrators and trustees to support his decision to cooperate with a government program that would be identified as the Metallurgical Project. He provided them with no specifics, not even mentioning the word uranium. He added that the venture would be extremely expensive, uncertain in outcome, but potentially decisive in winning the war.

A trustee asked if the project might be physically dangerous to the university or the city, and Hutchins replied that he would have to find out. He reported a few weeks later that "he had been told that such danger appeared to be unlikely but could not be excluded."8

Hutchins asked that his decision be endorsed on grounds of trust. Trust in him personally, just as he trusted the judgments of the public officials and scientists who had come to him with the urgency of the task and little in the way of details about the research. The man who championed the Great Books determined that the fight against totalitarianism required subordinating the traditional values of the liberal arts. In short, Robert Hutchins knew much more about the Manhattan Project than Compton was perhaps aware.

Even if Hutchins had not willingly turned the University of Chicago into a war plant, he could not have been ignorant of Fermi's work. The apparatus in which atomic nuclei would be split could not have been smuggled into the squash court in a gym bag. The device, known as Chicago Pile No. 1 (CP-1), had to be constructed over several weeks, and it was enormous. Four hundred tons of graphite, six tons of uranium metal, and fifty tons of uranium oxide were arranged in a complex lattice structure under Fermi's supervision. Layer upon layer was brought to the underground site and put into its proper place. Dozens of people were involved in the construction and the subsequent operation.

Hutchins certainly would have been aware of such a significant development on his own campus and could have brought the effort to a halt if he had not been satisfied about the safety and importance of the venture. Compton may have thought he bypassed Hutchins, but he did so only because Hutchins let him. Nonetheless, we have to wonder why Hutchins permitted such a radical experiment to proceed without apparent personal intervention.

A few weeks after the chat with Fermi, Compton briefed other members of the Manhattan Project at a meeting in Washington DC. The S-1 Section of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), an agency whose roots trace to the beginning of World War II, was comprised of key officials in the latest administrative scheme for determining the feasibility of an atomic bomb.

The accounts of the meeting at which Compton discussed the planned chain reaction in the squash court reveal that administrative forces reflected passionate collisions among the personalities who were trying to figure out the potential of atomic energy as a factor in the global conflict on which the future of civilization depended.

James Conant, the president of Harvard, was a liaison from the White House to the S-1 Committee. He reported directly to Vannevar Bush, who was FDR's chief administrator for the Manhattan Project; Compton claimed that, upon hearing about the upcoming experiment in the squash court, "Conant's face went white." In his own memoirs, Conant included the quote, adding that Compton wrote "with understandable poetic license." On the essential point of whether to block the experiment, Conant concluded, "I think we all felt that the construction of the pile was so far advanced that it was too late to call a halt."

Gen. Leslie Groves, the principal contractor for the project, was at the same meeting; when he heard that Compton had given a green light to the chain reaction within the city limits of Chicago, he rushed to check if the original site in the Argonne Forest outside the city might yet be available. Compton noticed that "it was evident that Groves did not like what we were doing in the least."

After the war, Groves wrote that due to the risk of the chain reaction, "I had serious misgivings about the wisdom of Compton's suggestion." He allowed that "there was no reason to wait, except for our uncertainty about whether the planned experiment might not prove hazardous to the surrounding community. If the pile should explode, no one knew just how far the danger would extend." He let Compton know of these concerns "but ... did not interfere with his plans."

Groves took heart that preliminary work was providing some empirical evidence that Fermi's project would be safe and effective. The university was already being used for limited purposes related to the chain reaction even when the Argonne Forest outside Chicago was expected to be the site of the full test. Groves wrote, "It did not seem possible, with the control system to be used, there could be an accident." Fair enough, but Compton himself had acknowledged that it was impossible to rule out every risk since the experiment was unique in the history of physics for releasing forces never before tapped.

With so much at stake, Groves elaborated without clarifying, "At this time, the exact status of responsibility for the operations of the Chicago laboratory was still a bit hazy to some, but not to Bush, Compton and me. Compton was in direct charge. The over-all responsibility was now mine." Direct charge and over-all responsibility can be expressed on an organization chart, invoked in a memoir, but remain murky in practice.

An elaborate structure of bureaucratic authority combined with brilliant scientific and mathematical calculations ruled out all kinds of hazards in the Manhattan Project, but they could be helpless against the human factor. When thinking about the chain reaction in the squash court, the worst fears of Compton, Hutchins, Conant, and Groves were understandably focused on their incomplete comprehension of the atomic nucleus. But to see the real danger to Chicago from Fermi's experiment in December of 1942, we need to jump to August of 1945 and the end of World War II. After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in the high desert of New Mexico, we learn that the threat to Chicago lay not in abstruse physics but in the mundane. If a catastrophe had emanated from the squash court, it would not have been because Fermi's math was off but because of a most common experience painfully familiar to anyone: human beings don't always follow the rules, and sometimes we drop things.

Harry Daghlian Jr. was a twenty-four-year-old graduate student in physics at Purdue University who moved to Los Alamos for the Manhattan Project and to further his studies toward his PhD. His responsibilities included a task known as "tickling the dragon's tail," in which materials that could trigger a nuclear chain reaction were brought into close proximity to determine the amount and arrangement of the materials that would generate such a reaction.

At this point in 1945, atomic bombs had been built and used, but the Manhattan Project was still crude in the sense that its scientists didn't know, with the precision that scientists want to know everything, the exact process of atomic fission. In other words, the purpose of the project had been accomplished without a complete knowledge of the process. How did things vary depending on whether the fuel was U-235 or plutonium? How did the reaction change when different materials were used to generate fission? How did these other materials have to be employed to trigger the reaction?

Harry Daghlian's job was to help answer those questions. On August 21, 1945, two weeks after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and a week after Emperor Hirohito's surrender speech, Daghlian was working with a sphere of plutonium to measure the critical mass when bricks of tungsten carbide (WC) were placed in various configurations about the orb.

When the elements of atomic fission are separate from one another, they are said to be subcritical. When brought together so that the reaction is stable (i.e., the neutrons released equal the neutrons lost to energy or absorption by adjacent material), the reaction is critical. When the neutrons released exceed those lost (i.e., when the chain reaction accelerates to split ever-more atoms in the fuel), the reaction is supercritical.

On the morning of the twenty-first, Daghlian built one partial cube with WC bricks to enclose the sphere, and he noted the exact distance and configuration between the bricks and the plutonium sphere when it reached a critical point. In the afternoon, he returned, built another partial cube in a different design, and again found a critical reaction.

After dinner, he attended a lecture and apparently got an idea about a way to assemble a complete cube to contain the sphere. If he had followed official procedures, he would have gone home, gotten a good night's sleep, and returned in the morning to test the new notion with colleagues present. As it was, he went back to the lab after hours and alone. Robert Hemmerly, an army private, was present, serving as a guard to prevent theft and to keep an eye on things. His duties did not extend to enforcing the protocol for scientists doing research.

Daghlian and Hemmerly exchanged pleasantries, and Daghlian retrieved the plutonium from a vault. Probably twelve hours after his workday had begun, he started placing the WC bricks about the sphere. A monitor emitted clicks that increased in frequency as the materials approached a critical point.

In the space of about a half hour, he fashioned four layers of bricks and proceeded with greater care as he built the fifth layer. Just before 10:00 p.m., he held a brick in his left hand and moved it over the center of the cube. The monitor issued a flurry of clicks that indicated a supercritical reaction was imminent, meaning that a dangerous release of radiation was possible.

Startled, tired, frightened, perhaps remembering that he wasn't supposed to be the lone scientist in the lab at that time, Daghlian tried to jerk the brick to a safe distance from the sphere. Instead, he dropped it.

The brick fell onto the sphere, the worst possible outcome. Daghlian reached with his right hand to grab the brick. The room filled with a flash of blue light, and Daghlian felt a tingling in his right hand. He then dismantled more of the structure to return it to a safe level, and he informed Private Hemmerly that they both had been exposed to radiation.

Another graduate student had just arrived at the lab, and she drove Daghlian to the hospital, where signs of acute radiation poisoning appeared almost immediately. His right hand began to swell, and debilitating nausea set in. After two days, his condition seemed to improve, but new symptoms soon showed.

His right hand was severely burned and blistered. The damage to his hand anticipated similar effects to his arms, neck, face, and internal organs. Blisters had to be sliced open, drained, and have the dead skin scraped away. Despite general anesthesia, Daghlian suffered the torments of the damned.

Ten days after the accident, nausea and abdominal pain returned but then abated. He was given intravenous fluids that seemed to cause a dangerous drop in blood pressure and a spike in his heart rate to 250 beats per minute. Treatments for one condition aggravated others, and his doctors were limited to easing some of the symptoms with no hope for a recovery.

Harry Daghlian died on September 15, 1945. "By the end, his appearance had changed dramatically because of a significant weight loss that had started on day 6 and had increasingly worsened. In addition, all of the epidermis of the abdomen and lower chest had been lost, as well as the hair from his upper chest, beard and temples."

Thousands of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were suffering the same fate at the same time, and thousands of people in Chicago had been in the same peril on December 2, 1942, not because of some strange, unknown aspect of physics but because somebody might have dropped something in the squash court.


Excerpted from The Prometheus Bomb by Neil J. Sullivan. Copyright © 2016 Neil J. Sullivan. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. A Squash Court in Chicago,
2. FDR and the Einstein Letter,
3. A Bungled Start,
4. The President's Man and the Liberal State,
5. MAUD — Working with the British,
6. The German Bomb,
7. Secrets and Spies,
8. Congress Rebounds,
9. The Transition to Truman,
10. Hiroshima,
11. Science and Democracy,

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