Oak Ridge 1 Franklin Roosevelt was good at many things. For one, he could keep a secret. Of course, he was in on the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, but he kept what he knew sub sigillo. The urgency of the project was based on the concern that Nazi Germany would build such a weapon first and was known to be trying very hard to find out what kind of research and development was going on in the United States.

So Roosevelt kept his counsel — in fact, he kept it to a fault. Although he was aware of his own fragile health, he never said a word to Harry S Truman, his vice president. Truman found out about the project only after Roosevelt’s sudden death in 1945.

If nothing else, Roosevelt’s secrecy set an example for the subjects of Denise Kiernan’s enlightening and witty book, The Girls of Atomic City. These were  the young women who were among tens of thousands of Americans recruited to work at the Clinton Engineering Works outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, one of several sites that housed the operations that led to the bomb that would be deployed against Japan.

Oak Ridge 2 CEW consisted of four plants — one of which was the largest building in the world — that were built on a massive tract of land the government more or less appropriated, muscling out the farmers and others for whom the area had been both home and livelihood. Along with the plants, the government and its contractors built a sort of town, Oak Ridge, to serve as the residential community for CEW workers, both civilian and military. Some of the employees also lived outside the plant and commuted.

CEW had one goal: to enrich uranium to the point that it could be used as the fuel for the atomic bomb being developed by scientists at other sites in the country, most notably Los Alamos, New Mexico. None of the tens of thousands of men and women who worked at the plant knew what was taking place there, except that it was a project designed to win the war. They didn’t know they were refining uranium; they never heard uranium mentioned. Each person was directed to perform the task to which he or she was best suited, but was not told the purpose of the task. Some folks spent their days or nights monitoring gauges and recording the readings; some folks inspected pipes for leaks; some did mathematical calculations; some repeated chemical experiments — the same ones over and over again. Some worked at jobs not directly related to the core purpose of CEW — secretaries, nurses, shopkeepers, custodians.

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Everyone was told, repeatedly and forcefully, not to ask questions about what took place at CEW and not to discuss with each other or anyone else any aspect of work at the plant. Employees knew that they were being watched all the time by official personnel and by fellow workers who had been recruited as internal spies. And employees who noticed that someone suddenly vanished from a work site knew that person had probably been overheard speaking out of line and had been jettisoned from the complex with a stern warning to keep quiet.

It was only after the bomb had been deployed against Hiroshima in August 1945, causing unprecedented casualties and property damage, that the workers learned the truth about CEW and about what they had unwittingly made possible. As Denise Kiernan skillfully reports, there was a mixed reaction, a combination of relief, elation, remorse, and foreboding. People were glad that the war would finally end, but many were deeply shaken by  the carnage in Japan and worried about what new force had been unleashed in the world.

Oak Ridge 4As the title suggests, Kiernan is especially interested in the young women, including several specific ones, who left home, in some cases along with their families, to work at CEW. Some sought better pay, some sought any kind of work, some were motivated by a yen for adventure. At Oak Ridge, they found what in many ways was a spartan existence, a town without sidewalks but with plenty of ankle-deep mud. Many also found friendship and even romance and, if they were black, the same Jim Crow restrictions on their lives that they had experienced back home. While she tells the story of Oak Ridge and CEW, Kiernan simultaneously traces the development from theory to experiment to technology of nuclear fission, the principal that led to the bomb, and she calls particular attention to female scientists who played significant if under-appreciated roles in that process.

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Em cee squared

May 17, 2010

A blackboard with formulas written by Albert Einstein, preserved in the Museum of the History of Science at the University of Oxford.

Several decades ago, I began to make a point of reading several books each year on subjects about which I knew little or nothing — including subjects that I found repulsive. Among those subjects have been mathematics and physics, both of which bedeviled me when I had to study them in high school and college. As I have mentioned here before, at least with respect to mathematics, I have derived a great deal of satisfaction from pondering these subjects when examinations and grades are not at issue, and I have found that those who claim that there  is beauty and wonder in these fields are telling the truth

That background explains why I grabbed the opportunity to review a popular biography entitled “Einstein: The Life of a Genius” by Walter Isaacson. This is a coffee table book that contains a limited amount of text in proportion to the number pages and illustrates its points with many photographs and also with facsimiles of several letters and documents. Among these are Einstein’s letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt in which the scientist advised the president to call together a group of experts to study the possibility of developing an atom bomb — something Nazi Germany was known to be doing at the time. As it happened, Einstein — a pacifist whose work in physics  helped pave the way to such weapons — was considered too great a security risk to work on the project himself, what with him being a native of Germany, a socialist, and a Jew.

Isaacson records that one of Einstein’s early physics instructors described him as “an extremely clever boy,” but added, “You have one great fault: You’ll never let yourself be told anything.”  It wasn’t meant as compliment, but still, this tendency as much as anything else led to Einstein’s achievements in theoretical physics. Einstein — like Isaac Newton before him — would not accept anything as settled just because it was handed on to him by authoritative sources. He wondered and questioned and “experimented” with physical phenomena such as light and motion by forming images in his mind, and he changed the world.

Einstein is a curiosity in a way, because he was one of the most widely known celebrities of his time and his name is part of our language more than 50 years after his death, and yet most of us have little or no idea what he was up to. That doesn’t matter. He deserves his place in our culture if for no other reason than his persistence in questioning even his own conclusions.