Monday, April 1, 2013

What happens when you ask a scientist

These last two weeks have really been busy for me as a classroom teacher. Our department is pushing to get through a very content rich curriculum in US history. One goal is to have all students writing a persuasive essay that we can score together using the same rubric.

I decided to slow down and give students an opportunity to debate the necessity of the use of the atomic bomb before giving them a graded assessment in essay writing. We used a map from to practice persuasive argument before studying events leading up to and away from the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Students read articles, studied archival photo sets and watched videos. But they still had unanswered questions. I'm no expert on atomic or nuclear studies so our high school tech integrationist suggested contacting the Los Alamos lab or the Bradbury Science museum. He tried to set up a video chat but for security reasons this was not allowed. Instead we set up an email discussion with great success. Students had some very sincere questions and our contact responded before the end of the day. Here are the Q&As.

>What happened to the third bomb? (Not Fat Man or Little Boy)

I don't think it was ever totally assembled on Tinian Island, although I
might be wrong. I have been asked if it was dumped in the Pacific off San
Francisco (NO!). Operation Crossroads was a series of atomic bomb tests
conducted at Bikini Atoll in the South pacific starting in 1946, and any
weapons or weapons parts that existed at the end of WWII would have been
used there. (At the same time a clothing designer came out with a sexy new
two-piece swimsuit for women, guess where he got the name for it.

>Should we be worried about North Korea?

We need to be concerned about North Korea. We need to be aware of
activities in North Korea. I don't think we need to be worried about North
Korea. The North Korean government, in my personal opinion, is a nasty
piece of work. Their recent proclamations and actions sound threatening
and can mean any of several things. They might actually be planning
aggression against South Korea and/or the U.S. Out of some terrible
miscalculation. That depends on how insulated the leaders are from world
realities, and it is hard to imagine them being that out of touch.
Another, I hope and believe more likely, rationale for their behavior is
that they want attention and respect. They are acting like a bully perhaps
to cover their internal woes, and because they think if they poke us
enough, we will have to negotiate with them. I don't think they are
suicidal. I would not be at all surprised to see them repeat provocations
like attacking ships or shelling islands again as they did a few years
ago, but it is a stretch to imagine them trying to launch a nuclear war.

>Are we safe- can others get us with a nuclear bomb?

Others can reach us with nuclear weapons, but no one who can sees it being
in their interest. We are concerned about the weapons in Pakistan, North
Korea, and the work in Iran not for our own safety so much as for that of
our friends who are their neighbors. It is conceivable that Iran might
attack Israel, Pakistan India, or North Korea South Korea or Japan, but I
don't think it is likely. Starting a nuclear war, especially against a
nuclear armed enemy, would be extremely serious business.

>How safe are we?

This is a good question. I think we are pretty safe from nuclear weapons.
When I was a kid in the 1950's and 60's, we had air raid drills several
times a year. They were sometimes simple, everyone evacuates to the school
basement, sort of like your lockdown drills today. Others actually closed
and evacuated schools and sent us home on foot, no buses, to see how long
this took, or people pretended to be injured and medical workers practiced
for a disaster. (I never did the famous 'duck and cover.') Ask anyone my
age (I am 61) why their hometown was a 'primary target' and almost every
one can tell you some reason why the Soviet Union was aiming a missile
somewhere near where they were. Compared to that time, You are very, very
safe. (What might you want to be concerned about? Cyberwarfare, where an
enemy hacks into our information grids and disrupts systems that depend on
computers (everything including that tractor over there in that field.) In
a cyberwar, people don't get killed at the rate that they do in fighting
war, but economies might be destroyed, and industries crippled. It could
be bad. I hope some of you become great computer scientists and help
defend our country!)

>I'm scared, what can you tell me to make me less worried about Nuclear War?

A few weeks ago I was asked a question very much like this. Could I
imagine a situation where nuclear weapons would be used again? I said
currently, I can't imagine it. The atomic bomb was developed during the
worst, most horrible war of modern times. We built it, it was an ideal
secret weapon, we had the only ones in the world, and we were very very
angry with Japan. (We never had Japan in our sights during the bomb's
development. The scientist thought they were in a race with Germany to be
first.) We faced a grim prospect of having to invade the home islands of
Japan, and our experience with Saipan, Iwo Jima, and other islands
suggested this was going to be a horror show. So the bomb was arguably
appropriate for use in Japan. I admit this is controversial.

Today, a war would have to start with a nuclear exchange, as a surprise
attack, or spin so badly out of control that a country would feel it
necessary to bring out its nuclear weapons just to survive. Neither of
these scenarios has played out in the 60+ years since WWII, in spite of
the fact that none of the nuclear powers have experienced many years of
peace during that time. In the centuries before WWII, it was not uncommon
for major wars between powers to break out about every 20 years or so. It
is true we have had the Cold War, as well as proxy wars but we have not
pushed anyone anywhere hard enough that they chose the nuclear option.
Don't be scared, be informed and involved.

>How close was Germany to developing their bomb?

Not at all close. They tried, but they didn't have the enormous intact
infrastructure of the United States. After the war scientists who had been
loyal Nazis claimed to have dragged their feet on their project, but
really, they lacked the resources, they were being constantly bombed, they
were trying to work with slave labor, and none of it adds up to a hopeful

>Why didn't we use it on Germany?

Easy. Hitler killed himself on April 30, 1945 during the fall of Berlin,
the Gadget was tested at Trinity Site on July 16, 1945. Actually, it is
doubtful we would have used it in Europe as the Reich was already in deep
collapse, and nearly every German city was in ruins already.

Begin forwarded message:
Subject: Re: Questions from northern Vermont high school.

Whitney, it is good to be in this conversation with your students.

Were American POWs near either city when it was bombed?

It is very possible, but I have no idea where or in what numbers, nor do I know what affects the bombs may have had on them. I have read extensively on the bombings and have not come across such information, so it is also possible that POW camps were situated elsewhere.

Why can't we use our nuclear weapons in Iraq (or Afghanistan) or North Korea?

The political reason is one of perception. No one wants the negative image that would come about from the use of any weapon of mass destruction. The US is probably more circumspect in the Middle East, where we struggle with our image in Muslim countries. Militarily, in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the idea of a 'front line' is as much an abstraction as a reality, the enemy is so spread out across huge territories, that nuclear weapons are useless. Al Qaida officers in Pakistan have reportedly moved into cities under pressure from drone strikes. We certainly would not bomb a city to get at a relatively small number of enemies there.

North Korea is a different case. I doubt we would ever bomb cities there, because we view the population as victims of a repressive regime. (Hiroshima is often described as a civilian target, but during WWII, much of Japan's industry was operated at the cottage level, with individual artisans turning out weapons and equipment in home workshops.) Yet North Korea has an enormous army, and if they were to mobilize it and move aggressively against South Korea, especially in the heat of an attack, I can imagine the use of tactical or theater nuclear weapons for the defense of South Korea. I don't expect that to happen, in fact just this morning on the news, someone said that so far there is no evidence that North Korea has taken any actions at all to back up their bellicose words.

How close were the Japanese to building their own bomb?

I too, have seen this story, only on the (suspect) Internet. I think they had a nuclear weapons program, I think they were conducting preliminary research. I think they were far from developing a useful weapon. Japan had highly trained and competent physicists, and they were certainly aware of the possibility.

Who do I know that was personally involved in the Manhattan Project?

The most famous participant I knew was Harold "Doc" Edgerton. I was in High School in Massachusetts, he had just retired from teaching at MIT. My father had been one of his students, and I actually got to spend some time around him. At the time I had no idea Doc had helped build the electronics that triggered the Trinity device and Fat Man bomb. He passed away in 1990. You might know his work, he took famous strobe pictures of bullets passing through an apple or playing card, a football being kicked, or a drop of cream splashing into a cup of coffee. His other nickname was "Strobe," and there is still a hallway at MIT with wonderful stroboscopic devices that he built. (He always carried postcards of some of his photos in his jacket pocket to hand out to new acquaintances.)

Most Los Alamos MP workers were quite young. The average age here was something like 29, and in 1943, even a 23 year old was born in 1920 and would be 93 now. A few years ago we showed our Manhattan Project film, "The Town That Never Was" to a group of high school students, and when the lights came up we discovered an elderly couple sitting in the front row. We led a discussion with the students, and when questions dried up, I asked the couple if they had been here then. Indeed they had. Florence Osvath worked with health physics, keeping records of workers' exposures to radiation, and Frank Osvath built some of the ultra (for the time) high speed cameras used to film experiments and the Trinity test. They are both still alive as I write this.

You can find that movie on line at:

Thank you for asking stimulating questions!

Bradbury Science Museum
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Los Alamos, NM. USA 87545

I tried to push students to find answers in our own library collection and online before they ask the scientist. I think students like to ask questions that they know can be answered by a teacher. However, when the answer comes from some other source, it always impresses them. Most importantly students need to know that questions like this are important and appreciated.

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