I came into this world in the year Hitler invaded Poland.
I was too young to participate directly in that conflict but there are certain things I remember that left an indelible impression.
War was a given condition to my childhood. It was all I knew.
Unknown events were occurring in laboratories across Europe that would soon change the world forever.
Our fate hung on the physicists of the early twentieth century.
The 1927 Solvay Conference
“Probably the most intelligent picture ever taken”
Photo via http://3.bp.blogspot.com
Back to front, left to right:
Back: Auguste Piccard, Émile Henriot, Paul Ehrenfest, Édouard Herzen, Théophile de Donder, Erwin Schrödinger, JE Verschaffelt, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, Ralph Fowler, Léon Brillouin.
Middle: Peter Debye, Martin Knudsen, William Lawrence Bragg, Hendrik Anthony Kramers, Paul Dirac, Arthur Compton, Louis de Broglie, Max Born, Niels Bohr.
Front: Irving Langmuir, Max Planck, Marie Curie, Hendrik Lorentz, Albert Einstein, Paul Langevin, Charles-Eugène Guye, CTR Wilson, Owen Richardson.
Also see short film clip:
“Einstein and Bohr undoubtedly were two of the most famous of all 29 conference attendees, but it’s worthwhile to note that 17 out of the total became or already were Nobel Prize winners. Marie Curie was the only woman among the bunch of men, at that point was already distinguished for having won two Nobel Prizes. Her first one was in 1903 in the field of chemistry, and the second in 1911 for physics.” (From TheVintageNews.com/2017/12/05/Solvay-Conference-in-1927)
Twelve years later on August 2, 1939, a scant 27 days before Hitler invaded Poland, three Hungarian physicists sealed our future.
Convinced that Werner Heisenberg and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin had taken up research to build a bomb, Leo Szilard (age 41) and Eugene Wigner (age 37) recruited the younger, 31 year old Edward Teller as a chauffeur to drive the group from Manhattan out to Long Island to seek out the summer residence of Albert Einstein.
The plan was to enlist Einstein to their cause as the only scientist of sufficient reputation and weight that might stand a chance of gaining the attention of President Roosevelt. They were successful in locating Einstein after stopping in his Long Island neighborhood and asking a young girl where the man with the big hair lived.
On that fateful day, Einstein affixed his signature to the letter that would be hand-carried to Roosevelt.
Image from Wikipedia.org
The race was on.
It would be named “The Manhattan Project” because that was where the plan was hatched.
I learned about all this much later after the fact.
I did not need to have direct knowledge of unknown events in order to experience their profound effects as I came of age.
“Finish all the food on your plate Billy Lee. Remember all the starving people who would love to have what you are leaving.”
“Yes ma’am,” I replied dutifully as I poked a fork at the fried yellow crookneck squash from the victory garden lying there supine on my plate in a puddle of congealed margarine, the wartime substitute for butter.
For some reason I had developed a dislike for squash and I delayed eating it in the hope of surreptitiously sliding it onto another person’s plate or down into the napkin on my lap.
I was saved by the gathering roar of high-flying engines that came in through the open windows. “May I be excused, puleeze? The planes are coming!”
Without waiting for an answer, I pushed back my chair and ran out of the kitchen into the back yard, letting the screen door slam behind me, and stood there with my bare feet in the warm dust and my hand shading my eyes.
I looked up and thrilled to wave after wave of B-17s flying north, leaving contrails in the brilliant October sunlight.
“Mom! Come out quick, do you think uncle Bryan is up there?”
The cowboy matinees were much better. A Saturday double-feature at the movie theater would usually include a newsreel of the latest Hollywood Armed Forces propaganda that we ate up along with the popcorn and the serial adventures of Tom Mix and Hopalong Cassidy.
Mom, puleeze let me go. It only costs two cents and nobody can shoot Buster Crabbe in the back because he has eyes in the back of his head. You gotta see it!”
Newspapers and magazines were everywhere. I learned to read early and new worlds opened up. I became an omnivorous reader. If it had print on it I would read it. Sitting on the toilet in the bathroom, I would carefully read the labels on all the bottles at hand. I became something of a prodigy. I more or less skipped the third grade.
Grammar was really boring but I must hand it to our teacher, Miss Ora Starkweather. I swear that was her real name. Even though she was of a rather pinched and prunish disposition, when she discovered my penchant for reading she gave up on trying to pound grammar into my recalcitrant soul. She found that I always passed the tests and I was learning grammar by another method – by reading.
Unlike some of the rowdier kids, she never had to discipline me for antics which typically involved bubble gum – blowing a big bubble and busting it into the hair of the girl sitting in front of you – guaranteed to have Miss Starkweather grab you by the ear and haul you over to stand in the corner for a spell.
Some of those elementary teachers could be mean and their reputations preceded them to keep their students in line. My ear had been grabbed in the second grade and that was enough for me to not want any more of it.
Dumb kids were not passed to the next grade. They were sent to summer school or repeated the grade next year.
I spent a year in the back of the room reading whatever interested me and I was passed on up to the fourth grade. Soon I was reading almanacs and encyclopedias cover to cover.
By the ninth grade I had read all the books in the junior high school library – several thousand uncensored, politically incorrect books of all kinds. You will be surprised to learn the range of books that were in an ordinary, podunk, undistinguished junior high library of that era.
Perhaps my favorite, which one might expect, was The Bears of Blue River – boys adventure stories on the frontier read innumerable times.
And then, believe it or not for junior high, Mein Kampf by Adolph Hitler, a thick boring read into what motivated the Nazis.
Nietzsche was a challenge to a fifteen year old mind. Man and Superman and Thus Spake Zarathustra had interesting titles but were really convoluted for casual reading. I puzzled over concepts that were a maze I had not yet developed the necessary reference points to navigate.
Then I discovered a thin volume hiding on a shelf I had previously overlooked. It had less of an overt philosophical bent but it’s impact propelled me into a deep introspection that would last for decades and ultimately lead to the genesis of The Atomic Trekker.
Photo from Reuters
Hiroshima by war correspondent John Hersey was an unforgettable book. Published in 1946 in The New Yorker, it was a sensation that led many of the scientists that developed the bomb to reconsider their actions. Einstein said that if he had foreknowledge of what would happen at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he would not have signed the fateful letter to Roosevelt.
The entire August 31, 1946 issue of The New Yorker was devoted to Hersey’s story.
Read it here: NewYorker.com/Magazine/1946/08/31/Hiroshima
Within two months Alfred A. Knopf printed the article as a book. It has sold over three million copies and has never been out of print. More information: Wikipedia.org/Wiki/Hiroshima
Teller, after he became known as “The father of the H-Bomb,” an appellation he did not care for, eventually made the argument that if the United States had not developed the bomb first, Stalin would have gotten there instead. To even more hideous effect, Stalin would have had a weapon to enslave the world with the blessings of communism.
The nuclear genii has long been out of the box and that train has long left the station of 1939. But in commemoration of the 74th anniversary of that occasion of August 6, 1945 I am reminded of another story in another time and in another place that might help in bringing closure.
Embracing the Leper
You will note that one of the main characters of Hersey’s article was a German Roman Catholic priest, Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, who survived Hiroshima 1,400 yards from ground zero.
38 year old Kleinsorge was weak from wartime rationing and had a "thin face, with a prominent Adam's apple, a hollow chest, dangling hands, big feet..."
A great leap of irony takes us back to the 12th century and Giovanni di Bernardone, born in Assisi, Duchy of Spoleto, Holy Roman Empire. In a novel on Bernardone’s life, Nikos Kazantzakis writes of an incident that can instruct us.
If memory serves after a long passage of years, the main character is undergoing a long period of fasting, prayer and mortification while living alone in a remote mountain cave. He has received inner guidance that to make further spiritual progress, he must get rid of his worst fear. He knew what that fear was – lepers. At that time lepers were truly hideous and pitiful, shunned and driven away from society to roam about the countryside looking for sustenance.
One morning he awoke and from the mouth of his cave he saw a leper making his way methodically up the trail to the cave. Overcoming a revulsive panic to flee at the leper’s approach, he realized that his test had arrived and forced himself to reverse course and run down the path to embrace the leper and kiss him full on the mouth – at which time the leper transformed into the living Christ.
We now know that cave dweller as Saint Francis of Assisi. He overcame his worst fear – an example of a technique explained more fully in The Atomic Trekker: How I Avoided 9 Fatal Mistakes and Learned to Live Happily in a Radioactive World.
Normalcy Bias and the Psychology of Disaster
I go on in the book to use the example of G. Gordon Liddy who had a pathological fear of rats as a young boy. He eventually freed himself from that fear by embracing it in his own backyard.
He trapped, roasted and ate a rat thus exorcising his worst fear.
So here again on this anniversary we are fortunate indeed to have the opportunity to embrace one of the worst fears of our collective humanity and be free of it – free from the paralysis of fear and free to act while there is yet time to ameliorate our atomic legacy.
Hiroshima Mon Amie – Hiroshima My Friend
Requiescat In Pace
August 6, 2019
Mountains of Montana
Image Credit: Getty