A Physicist’s Perspective of Early Atomic Research

By Dan Zak
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Nuclear energy can be a peaceful source of energy or a godlike force of destruction.
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“Almighty” by Dan Zak, reexamines the seventy-year history of America’s nuclear weapons program and its attendant madness.

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 G?ogów, 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.”

Einstein’s E=me 

Now here he was in that future, on Claremont Avenue, back in his adoptive hometown of New York City, albeit far uptown from his youth in terms of geography and class. Riverside Drive was visible from the Hechts’ west-facing windows. To the east, following the gaze of the stone archangels, was Columbia’s campus, with its handsome new physics building three blocks away at West 120th Street and Broadway. A brick structure crowned with copper cornice, the Pupin Hall physics building was in some ways a monument to Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which had hurled physics into its modern era 21 years earlier by describing the relationship between energy and mass in the equation E = mc2. Energy (E) and mass (m) are essentially the same thing, because they are equivalent and potentially convertible. Because the speed of light (c) is such a massive number whose value remains constant, a small amount of mass multiplied by c can transform into a disproportionately massive amount of energy. Pupin Hall would also be an investment in the application of Werner Heisenberg’s recently introduced “uncertainty principle,” which argues that both the position and velocity of an atomic particle cannot be precisely measured at the same time. The more an observer knows about the particle’s position, the less he knows about its velocity, and vice versa, and the observation itself affects the particle’s location or speed.

“We cannot know, as a matter of principle, the present in all its details,” Heisenberg wrote in 1927, packaging quantum mechanics into a neat maxim. Quantum mechanics is the study of the universe’s smallest parts: atoms, the basic component of an element, and the protons, electrons, and neutrons inside — the invisible whirling ingredients of all things.

By the time Selig became a full professor in 1928, he was the sovereign of the physics building’s 13th floor, with an expansive lab and views of the southern sweep of Manhattan and sunsets over the Hudson River. During the next decade, Pupin Hall welcomed younger academic stars whose expertise was the atom. These scientists, shaggy and eccentric, were known in academia as “longhairs.”

Selig Hecht wasn’t a longhair. His black hair was short, wiry, and wavy, and would later turn steel-colored. He kept his mustache trimmed to his upper lip. He wore woolen three-piece suits with a white handkerchief peeking from his jacket pocket. Tea was served every afternoon in his lab, which became a salon for lively discussions of art, music, literature, and politics. He was known for drawing diagrams at lightning speed on his blackboards while providing a running commentary that was as clear as it was fast. One evening a week Selig hosted students, faculty, and other peers at his apartment on Claremont Avenue. Near Selig’s own vibrant watercolor paintings, in a dining room of dark oak wainscoting, they would discuss books like The Logic of Modern Physics by P. W. Bridgman. In his first chapter Bridgman asked bracing questions that enlivened cocktail hours shared by men of science: Why does time flow? Why does nature obey laws?

Are there parts of nature forever beyond our detection?

Was there ever a time when matter did not exist?

May time have a beginning or an end?

Selig’s salons were typical of bohemian Manhattan in the first decades of the 20th century. The Great Depression, its pall blanketing the city in the year after Selig became a full professor, transformed such academic discussions into social engagement and activism. By 1930 the Lower East Side, Selig’s childhood neighborhood, had devolved into a festering slum with 50 breadlines serving 50,000 meals a day. By 1932 half the city’s factories were closed, one-third of the population was unemployed, and the plight of the worker was a favorite cause of progressive New Yorkers. Selig and other professors signed a protest that year against the state of Kentucky’s mistreatment of industrial workers.

Physics and Philosophy

In January 1935 Selig published an essay in Harper’s Monthly Magazine titled “The Uncertainty Principle and Human Behavior,” in which he suggested that Heisenberg’s work had opened physics to philosophy. Heisenberg “apparently destroyed the pure and inevitable relations of cause and effect,” Selig wrote. The German physicist had discovered “a natural limit to knowledge” and that “there is a distinct limit to the total precision with which such an event may be described.” Uncertainty frees biological behavior from predetermination, allowing for the existence of free will, which in turn imbues mankind with godlike powers. Despite this feeling of freedom, Selig wrote, humans are still guided by an unseen hand.

To his own mind, the behavior of a man seems to be free and of his own choosing, and all the accumulated moralities of the world exhort him to choose the good and to act righteously on the assumption that he is capable of free choice and action…

If free-will means that we can choose our good behavior and be rewarded for it, it means also that we can choose our evil behavior and be punished for it…

[All behavior] is determined by the complicated series of conditions and circumstances which enter into the composition of an event. Selig, by applying an atomic principle to the wider world, arrived at a social dictum: Man must act as if he were free to choose, while remembering that the origins of his behavior are complex and steered by forces long forgotten and not immediately understood.

The uncertainty of the present, in other words, is the product of a certain past.

The Harper’s essay drew excitement and blowback from readers who were tantalized by the notion of scientific and moral uncertainty. When a reader from West Point wrote to Harper’s to criticize Selig’s validation of both free will and determinism, Selig responded with a typewritten note. Free will and determinism are as mutually exclusive as reason and instinct, Selig wrote. That is to say: They are not.

“I think that we can have both,” he wrote to the West Point reader, “since they are each a partial view of the world.” The essay burnished his reputation as a technician of nuance with a refined social conscience, which would soon be inflamed by the buildup to World War II.

The United States, as yet unprovoked by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was already engaged in World War II from an experimental standpoint. Thirteen floors below Hecht’s lab, in the basement, was a 30-ton, seven-feet-tall hunk of metal known as a cyclotron, which used a giant electromagnet to propel atomic particles at up to 25,000 miles per second. On January 25, 1939, a team at Columbia used the cyclotron to split an atom of the element uranium for the first time on American soil. This was fission, the process by which neutrons serve as projectiles that shatter atoms. Fission releases the energy that binds matter together, and is therefore a very efficient way to actualize Einstein’s famous equation involving E and m.

“Believe we have observed new phenomenon of far-reaching consequences,” the Columbia physicist John R. Dunning wrote in his diary that night.

In the minds of scientists, this discovery had two practical applications, both at odds with each other: as a peaceful source of energy and as a godlike force of destruction. “Complementarity” was the word that the physicist Niels Bohr used to describe the contradiction inherent in quantum physics — and, philosophically, in life itself.

A nuclear reaction could light a city.

A nuclear reaction could level a city.

It was all a matter of how the energy was used.

Over in Europe a madman was planning invasions of neighboring countries. His scientists were seemingly out in front with this new science.

Reprinted with permission fromAlmighty by Dan Zak, and published by Blue Rider Press, 2016.

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