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70 Years of Nuclear Weapons: A Personal View

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Thursday, 06 Aug 2015 04:46 PM Current | Bio | Archive

August 6, 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of an American Boeing B-29 bomber dropping the world’s first atomic bomb used in warfare, on Hiroshima.

Both the uranium “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima and the plutonium “Fat Man” implosion bomb used on Nagasaki a few days later on August 9th, were developed by the secret Manhattan Project, in particular a branch called “Project Y” at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, headed by J. Robert Oppenheimer.

The Manhattan Project is a perfect example of where human priorities lie when it comes to science and technology, particularly during wartime.

Put it this way: The German-American science writer Willy Ley once noted that if a really wealthy individual such as Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller had wanted to ride a rocket into orbit, he could have done so as early as 1910.

Even at that early date, scientists and technologists understood all of the components of spaceflight: rocket propulsion, the mathematics of trajectories, airtight suits, heat-resistant metals suitable for rocket motors and spaceship frames and skins (such as Monel metal, patented in 1906), as well as how to liquefy and store oxygen and hydrogen to use as rocket fuel.

Alas, those unfortunate souls who dared suggest such an enterprise were lambasted by just about everybody — take the American professor and inventor Robert H. Goddard, for example, who was ridiculed for his experiments and spaceflight theories by no less than The New York Times in a July 13, 1920 editorial.

It was not until April 12, 1957 that the first human finally ventured into space: Yuri Gagarin, who orbited the Earth in his Vostok 1 spacecraft.

On the other hand, the discovery of nuclear fission on December 17, 1938 by German scientist Otto Hahn and his assistant Fritz Strassmann, set about a mad dash by America, Britain, Germany and Japan to develop an atomic bomb.

In the case of America, the Manhattan Project achieved the first atomic explosion just a few years later with a device called “Gadget,” detonated on July 16, 1945 near Alamogordo, New Mexico.

It had taken more than 130,000 workers and $2 billion ($26 billion in 2015 dollars) to enter the nuclear age.

I have a unique view of all of this, since my late mother, the former Louise M. Di Servio (July 14, 1913–June 28,1969) was a mathematician who worked on The Bomb — not at Los Alamos, but from the comfort of her home on Hillside Avenue in Nutley, New Jersey.

Louise seemed an unlikely person to become involved with The Bomb. Born to a well-to-do family, who counted Napoleon in their family tree, she earned a degree in theology from the American Baptist Home Mission Society’s International Baptist Seminary, which flourished from 1921–1941 in East Orange, New Jersey.

She had wanted to be a missionary, but while at the seminary she met the man who would become her first husband, a Czechoslovakian named Victor Medla. They decided to remain in America. (Tragically Victor died in his 30s of a heart attack.)

As Louise Medla, she became chief statistician of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in Newark, NJ. This was thanks to her near-photographic memory and idiot savant-like abilities when it came to doing mathematical computations at lightning speed — without the need for a calculating device or even a scratchpad.

Naturally, she was called upon to work on the Manhattan Project as one of their "human computers.” It was physicist Richard Feynman's idea to break up the mathematical “grunt work” on the project into 80 pieces, each of which would be sent to a mathematician somewhere in the United States.

Any single piece falling into enemy hands would be meaningless.

When the government courier first arrived he asked, “Mrs. Medla, when shall I come back for the results? A week? Ten days?”

She replied, with perfect aplomb, “If I make you a cup of coffee, could you take a seat in the living room for half an hour? You can leave with the results.” Recounting the story shortly before her death, she recalled the look of astonishment on the fellow’s face.

She found an error in the equations regarding the production of the fissionable material that, if not caught quickly, might have delayed production of The Bomb long enough to necessitate the Invasion of Japan.

After she met and married my father in 1949, she left her job to give birth to yours truly and become a typical housewife of the 1950s.

Still, her old boss would sometimes stop by the house to beg her to come back, for although the company had replaced her with six other women, the department was floundering.

In recalling her personality, let’s just say that she did not suffer fools gladly.

Richard Grigonis is an internationally known technology editor and writer. He was executive editor of Technology Management Corporation’s IP Communications Group of magazines from 2006 to 2009. The author of five books on computers and telecom, including the highly influential Computer Telephony Encyclopedia (2000), he was the chief technical editor of Harry Newton's Computer Telephony magazine (later retitled Communications Convergence after its acquisition by Miller Freeman/CMP Media) from its first year of operation in 1994 until 2003. Read more reports from Richard Grigonis — Click Here Now.

 
 


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The Manhattan Project is a perfect example of where human priorities lie when it comes to science and technology, particularly during wartime.
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2015-46-06
Thursday, 06 Aug 2015 04:46 PM
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