Program Notes: Who Patented the Bomb? Ask NPR.

Check this story out.

Here’s the backstory: Otto Hahn, (without mentioning mentor/partner Lise Meitner) published the news that he and co-workers had identified the element Barium in a sample of Uranium that had been bombarded by neutrons in December, 1938. Meitner, of Jewish background, had of necessity, abandoned her collaboration with Hahn and escaped for Stockholm earlier that year.

Still, she and her nephew, understood what had just happened. Hahn had achieved nuclear fission, the spectacularly unexpected splitting of uranium atoms.

By the happenstance of timing, this news came at almost the final moment for the next seven years that scientific communication would pass freely through the physics community. It was certainly almost the last time that a crucial result about the behavior of the atom would be so blithely broadcast to any and all…

…Or not quite, as the NPR broadcast linked above reveals. I’ve done a bit of reporting on atomic physics and the history of the bomb — not much, but not zero, either — and I never caught a whiff of the fact that the Manhattan Project filed something like 2,000 — two thousand!— patents on every angle they could find of design and engineering of the atomic bomb.

Patents are public documents, as the hero of the NPR story, Harvard graduate student Alex Wellerstein noted. National security can intervene — but even when it does, a secret patent leaves traces behind, decay products as it were. As the story explains, should someone else — a German agent — want to know if America were working on a bomb, all he would have to do is file a patent application of his own on some aspect of nuclear weaponry, and a letter would come back saying, in essence, the proposed invention had collided with a secret patent. Aha!

That never happened.

Do give the story a listen. It’s well done, and can be heard as a sidelight on the strangeness and the paranoia that accompanies every descent into a national security state.

But what gave me the most pleasure was hearing Philip Morrison remembered. Morrison had told Wallerstein that he had in fact filed a patent on the bomb (one that is still secret), and had signed his rights over to the US government for the princely sum of a buck year — which was never paid.

I’m pretty sure that Morrison never tried to collect. I knew him a bit — never that well, but for a few years, his role as advisor to NOVA meant that I would see him and his wife Phyllis on regular occasions. He was a genuinely great man, and the one time, the Morrisons came to my house for supper, I finally got my courage up to ask him what it was like to carry the plutonium core from Los Alamos to Almogodoro for the Trinity test.

He started speaking with a kind of a creak, as if he was resetting his mind to re-enter, and not just recall the event. And then the story took over, and my wife and I just listened as the drive unfolded, and Morrison started bringing to life the feeling, the combination of youth (Morrison was all of twenty nine years old), mastery, urgency — get the damn war done — and concern to make sure the damn thing worked.

Morrison is one of the unequivocally great figures I’ve had the good fortune to meet, smart, committed to right action, a small d democrat in all his doings — he’d talk with pleasure to anyone who was willing to exercise their brains. He became a major figure in the physicists’ movement working to defang the nuclear threat.

But he never hid the fascination and the sheer intensity of emotion and experience that came with working on the Manhattan Project. Sitting there around a dinner table, just the four of us, listening to the journey re-imagined — the guts of the bomb in his hands. Amazing. It was a moment when being a historian seem like the most fun it is possible to have, as so many lives and instants of place and time can, at lucky intervals, suddenly become imaginatively one’s own.

I’m still grateful to Phil (and Phyllis, who should never be left out of any memory of the Morrisons). He was kind to me and very helpful more than once. He deeper relations with and made a much greater impact on lots of other folks, and I don’t want to claim more of an acquaintance nor more influence from than was really there. But hearing a very nice bit of radio reminded me that I’d never acknowledged the real debt I owe him, and the great pleasure I took in the times I did get to hear what he had to say.

(Some other time, I’ll talk about an after dinner talk I heard him give to a very small and bumptious group of TV people who thought they knew about what mattered in 20th century science until they heard Phil’s defense of 1900.)

One last thing – a minor quibble with the NPR story. The story of the American patents on the bomb is, I think, genuinely new. But the broadcast did not mention something known for a while, and discussed in Richard Rhodes’ great book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Leo Szilard had been thinking about the possibility of nuclear chain reactions well before Hahn et al. achieved uranium fission. In 1936, living in Britain, he patented the idea — and assigned it to the Admirality to make sure that the weapon implied (obviously, it seemed to him) by the phenomenon would remain secret.

Image: Albin Schmalfuss, Boletus luridus, 1897. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Explore posts in the same categories: History, History of Science, memory, physics, radio, Uncategorized, War

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2 Comments on “Program Notes: Who Patented the Bomb? Ask NPR.”

  1. Kaleberg Says:

    I have a hand written note in a textbook on the Bohr theory of the atom, the theory right before quantum theory, in which a former owner notes that a total atomic bomb is probably impossible, but that a partial atomic bomb might be built. I assume that this note was based on a remark in class. The idea of the atomic bomb, converting atomic forces into energy has been around for a while. I suppose we are lucky that we have only managed to build partial atomic bombs, and that total atomic bombs are still beyond us.

    (BTW, for fun, read the August 7, 1945 New York Times front page. Lise Meitner gets her due).

    I really miss the Morrisons too., They wrote the most amazing book reviews in Scientific American. I remember reading one, nearly magical review of The Vacuum Handbook, and it actually made me want to read it. It is probably as dry as dirt, and just as interesting. Still, some of the review was almost poetic. Imagine removing stray nitrogen atoms by burning an antimony wire in them. Does antimony really burn in nitrogen? Did I hallucinate this? It still haunts me.

  2. eleplemit Says:

    Lots of folks talk about this subject but you said some true words.


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