I’m reading the book shown above for the second time, and am noticing many things that escaped my attention the first time through. The most shocking of these items, so far, is finding out that history’s first nuclear explosion almost occurred by accident, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II. One person prevented this disaster, and that person was Richard Feynman, my favorite scientist in any field. If you’d like to read Feynman’s account of this, in his own words, it’s in the chapter “Los Alamos from Below,” which starts on page 107.
Feynman, a physicist, was one of many civilians involved in the Manhattan Project, doing most of his work in New Mexico. At one point, though, he obtained permission to visit Oak Ridge, in order to try to solve problems which existed there. These problems were caused by the American military’s obsession with secrecy, which was caused, in turn, by the fact that it was known, correctly, that at least one spy for the Nazis was among the people working on the Manhattan Project. The military’s “solution” to this problem was to try to keep each group of civilians working for them in the dark about what the other groups of civilians were doing. Most of them had no idea that they were working to develop a bomb, let alone an atomic bomb. In Tennessee, they thought they were simply working on developing a way to separate uranium isotopes, but did not know the underlying purpose for this research.
The military men in charge knew (because the physicists in New Mexico figured it out, and told them) a little bit about the concept of critical mass. In short, “critical mass” means that if you get too much uranium-235 in one place, a runaway chain-reaction occurs, and causes a nuclear explosion. The military “brass” had relayed this information to the civilian teams working in Tennessee, by simply telling them to keep the amount of U-235 in one place below a certain, specific amount. However, they lacked enough knowledge of physics to include all the necessary details, and they deliberately withheld the purpose for their directive. Feynman, by contrast, did not share this dangerous ignorance, nor was he a fan of secrecy — and, as is well known, the concept of respecting “authority” was utterly meaningless to him.
While in Tennessee, Feynman saw a large amount of “green water,” which was actually an aqueous solution of uranium nitrate. What he knew, but those in Tennessee did not, is that water slows down neutrons, and slow neutrons are the key to setting off a chain reaction. For this reason, the critical mass for uranium-235 in water is much less than the critical mass of dry U-235, and the “green water” Feynman saw contained enough U-235 to put it dangerously close to this lower threshhold. In response to this, Feynman told anyone who would listen that they were risking blowing up everything around them.
It wasn’t easy for Feynman to get people to believe this warning, but he persisted, until he found someone in authority — a military officer, of course — who, although he didn’t understand the physics involved, was smart enough to realize that Feynman did understand the physics. He was also smart enough to carefully listen to Feynman, and decided to heed his warning. The safety protocols were modified, as were procedures regarding sharing of information. With more openness, not only was a disaster in Tennessee avoided, but progress toward developing an atomic bomb was accelerated. It turns out that people are better at solving problems . . . when they know the purpose of those problems.
Had this not happened, not only would Eastern Tennessee likely have suffered the world’s first nuclear explosion, but overall progress on the Manhattan Project would have remained slow — and the Nazis, therefore, might have developed a controlled nuclear bomb before the Americans, making it more likely that the Axis Powers would have won the war. Richard Feynman, therefore, dramatically affected the course of history — by deliberately putting his disdain for authority to good use.