A Physicist’s Perspective of Early Atomic Research

Amid WWII, the race for nuclear power became paramount after the German scientists had mastered fission. A week later, American scientists successfully accomplished the same feat and questioned the far-reaching consequences.


| November 2017



explosion

Nuclear energy can be a peaceful source of energy or a godlike force of destruction.

Photo by Getty Images/Romolo Tavani

Almighty (Blue Rider Press, 2016) by Dan Zak, a Washington Post reporter, tells the tale of a trio of elderly peace activists who penetrating the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Once inside, the pacifists hung freshly spray-painted protest banners, streaked the complex’s white walls with human blood and waited to be arrested. The following excerpt is from chapter 1, “Manhattan.”

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Gargoyles ruled the island at the turn of the century, but in 1910 the new building at 35 Claremont Avenue had angels peering from its third story. They were archangels, not cherubs, with stern stone faces and sleek wings flared upward, bodies protected by stone shields — a biblical squadron rendered in medieval style, as if summoned from the pages of Milton to the building’s Italian Renaissance facade. They looked ready for battle.

In the spring of 1926, one floor above the angels, a man of science moved into apartment 4B.

Selig Hecht was 34, with a wife named Cecelia and a two-year old daughter named Maressa. He was fresh from Cambridge University and was now Columbia University’s newest associate professor of biophysics. Selig’s academic and scientific bona fides were prodigious for his age, especially given his lower-class upbringing. He was born in the village of Głogów, in what was then Austria, and journeyed at age six with his family to the Lower East Side, a grimy warren of poor European expats. The oldest of five, Selig ran errands after Hebrew school to support the family, and during high school and college he kept the books at a wool business. His father fancied friendly arguments about history and philosophy. He raised Selig on a diet of Schopenhauer, who believed the world was godless and meaningless, and Spinoza, who believed the world was inherently divine and perfect, though man’s blundering prevented him from realizing it. Philosophy and ethics would later inform Selig’s work and writings, but first he pursued a formal education in the hardier fields of mathematics and zoology. He graduated with a biology degree from the City College of New York and got a job as a chemist in a fermentation research laboratory, where he studied the effect of light on beer. Selig then worked as a chemist at the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., to raise money for graduate school. The subject of his dissertation at Harvard  University was the physiology of a marine invertebrate called a sea squirt, which he studied at the Bermuda Biological Station. His life’s work, though, would be the study of human vision and its adaptation to darkness.

It took him years to get an academic appointment worthy of his talents. “You yourself may safely ignore the stupidity and even brutality of our times,” the biologist Jacques Loeb wrote to Selig in 1922, in a note of encouragement. Loeb told him to “keep that serenity which is required of a man who wishes to do his best work. The future needs you and belongs to you.”