This past weekend the Santa Fe Institute hosted a two-day seminar on the “Legacies of the Manhattan Project,” which the Nuclear Diner live-blogged on Twitter. You can see the whole transcript by looking up the hashtag “#bomblegacy.” I tuned in whenever I got a chance over the weekend. There were a lot of interesting things said; here are some of the bits that provoked the most thoughts from me.
One of the big questions that Murray Gell-Mann asked a number of times was whether “Big Science” would have taken off in the same way without the Manhattan Project. Obviously there’s no way to know that, but I would emphasize that Sputnik was responsible for a lot of the ramping up of science funding in the United States. My favorite illustration of this comes from David Kaiser‘s work, much of which is about the postwar physics boom (and eventual bust). (I might plug How the Hippies Saved Physics, here, given that I helped on it in various small ways — I was a research assistant for some of it, rendered the in-book figures, and designed the website.) One of Dave’s great charts is of the number of American Ph.D.s in Physics granted between 1900 and 1980:
Two things jump out. One is that during World War II, the number of degrees granted went down quite a lot. No surprise: it’s hard to finish or supervise degrees when you’re building the atomic bomb, radar, and the other multitude of projects that physicists were mobilized to do during those years. After 1945, you get an initial up-tick in degrees, a lot of which are the “backlog” of the war years. Then things level off a bit… until 1957, when you start an exponential climb that peaks in 1970, at which point the market collapses (for various reasons that Dave goes into).
Anyway, I just bring this up to note that we naturally see moments like the end of the Manhattan Project as the “obvious” point where “everything changed,” but reality can be a bit more complicated than that. Sometimes it takes a decade for the “lesson” of the previous decade to fully sink in.
Another interesting bit: “[Stan] Norris: I make the argument in my book that the ManProj is the template for a Natl Security State.” That’s an interesting idea, no? My one nit-pick there is that while the Manhattan Project utilized huge numbers of massive contractors to pull off its feat, they were largely not-for-profit arrangements. You could do that during World War II because the contractors in question (e.g. DuPont) were afraid of being dubbed “war profiteers,” as they had been at the end of World War I, and there was that whole patriotism thing. The modern national security state is immensely enriching to private contractors, and the idea that anyone would be criticized — rather than lauded — for making massive profits off of war feels rather quaint!
Another bit from Stan: “Norris: Nearly 20 scientists became Nobel Prize winners as a result of research associated with the ManProj.” I find myself wondering if that was transcribed correctly, because it seems like too high a number. There were well over 20 laureates involved in the Manhattan Project, but I find it a stretch that 20 Nobel Prizes came out of research during the Manhattan Project. (Glenn Seaborg and Edwin McMillan’s bomb-related work definitely was behind their Nobel Prize, but I’m having a hard time thinking of any other prizes so directly related to the US bomb project.)
A lot of the stuff I hadn’t heard before came from Harold Agnew, which is no surprise, given that he was actually there. At one point he was asked “What was the take of the Native Americans and surrounding people living around Los Alamos with all of the activity?” His answer was new to me: “Agnew: The whole NM National Guard went to Philippines in War. They were all lost. Young male Native Americans were wiped out.”
He also had some amusing recollections on nuclear waste: “Agnew: The way we got rid of waste – mix w/ concrete, dig a big cylindrical hole, line w/ culvert. There is a farm of it.” “Waste should be above ground in monitored retrievable storage to get rid of the heat. You can see if there is a leak.” “I argued with Sierra Club. Look at the Pyramids. They are still here.” “Put the Catholic Church in charge on monitoring the storage. It will be here forever. Sierra Club person not humored.”
Divine waste management? That’s actually an idea I’ve heard before (religions are known to have been more persistent over the centuries than states or other political institutions; Neal Stephenson also plays with this idea briefly in his Anathem), but I hadn’t thought about the Catholic Church as the steward! (It is arguably a more realistic idea than the idea of creating a new religion to steward nuclear waste…)
Another great bit from Harold Agnew that I didn’t know about: “Oppy was so charming. I made $125/mo. Carpenters, electricians made $500/mo. Some of us got mad.” “ I told Oppy we were a bit unhappy. Oppy came down to Z bldg. I said that we are doing carpentry/electrical at work.” “Oppy said ‘You know what you are doing here. They don’t.’ We were speechless. He walked out.”
I’ve talked before about the concerns that project administrators had with respects to the demoralizing effect of compartmentalization — when you don’t know what you’re doing, or why you’re doing it, you’re less motivated to do it. I hadn’t realized that increased pay might be part of that incentive (though it makes sense), or, the converse, that those who did know what they were doing might be paid less than those who were not “in the know”! That’s fascinating.
At one point, Cormac McCarthy joined the conversation (!!), but his main contribution that made it to the Twitter feed was to note that, “One thing you here from people who worked on these weapons is that they never had so much fun.” I can see why that might stick out to a guy with his interests.
It’s an interesting event, in any case. I’ve never been a huge fan of live-blogging (either stream the thing, or don’t, is usually how I’ve thought of it), but I did enjoy tuning in to this one.