The anatomy of an atomic mind

Who were the brains behind Manhattan Project which changed the course of history forever?

Akrita Reyar

To sit in judgment is not for the frail minded. To inflict injury, nay death, in the most gruesome of fashions cannot be pardonable. When a culprit stands in the court of trial, he is labeled a murderer and condemned to the gallows. But what of those who hide behind the pretensions of a lofty purpose?

When vile plots are executed with malevolent precision under the misnomer of a national cause, can they ever be justified! Yes, a soldier on the border is our star though he slings a gun on his shoulders, because he is also willing to take a bullet on his chest. That can be deemed a higher cause.

But what of those who draw up malicious designs to execute multitudes of innocent civilians to win a war. If Hiroshima was such a compulsion, was Nagasaki also needed? Was not the first volley of vice enough to bring the Japanese to their knees! Did the ‘Fat Man’ have to follow the ‘Little Boy’? Was it not hubris of unchallenged supremacy behind the double blow of sadism?

Who were the brains behind the Manhattan Project, which changed the course of history forever as it scripted a new chapter in diabolism? What was the anatomy of the atomic mind?

The list of scientists below is just a sample of men who worked on creating the world’s first atom bomb. A cursory glance at the people mentioned will put us in a quandary. They were all exceptionally gifted and lauded men. But they knew well the consequences of their creation.

After the first successful test of the atomic bomb, J Robert Openheimer had famously remarked “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one” and “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” As his quotes illustrates, the line between the sublime and a sin is very thin.

Certainly none of the scientists could be termed criminal in the traditional sense of the term. So the question arises: what is that point when the border between patriotism and putrid becomes blurred; when the champions of free world and invention become the devious partners in crime most foul! Who will decide a hero from a villain?

I told you at the beginning, there are no easy answers.

Take a look for yourself:

Albert Einstein

He was the initiator of the project in the sense that he was the first to write a letter to the then US President Franklin D Roosevelt in 1939 cautioning him of Nazi efforts to purify Uranium-235. The letter set the American administration thinking about readying a counter plan and pre-empting any German plan to create an atom bomb. Besides, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity proved that energy and mass were equitable and transmutable through the famous equation E = mc2. According to this theory, mass is associated with an amount to energy which is equal to mass multiplies by the square of light which is ‘c’. In other words, a very small amount of matter would be equivalent to a vast amount of energy. This theory became the basis of producing fission weapons in an era when explosions derived power from rapid decomposition of a chemical.

J Robert Openheimer

He was the scientific and technical director of the Manhattan Project and oversaw it from conception to completion. He is also often referred to as the ‘Father of the Atomic Bomb’. His famous works include the electron-positron theory and first prediction of quantum tunneling. He also made major contributions in quantum mechanics and quantum field theory. Openheimer was also the founding father of the American school of theoretical physics.

Enrico Fermi

The Italian physicist is the co-inventor of the nuclear reactor. Fermi did seminal work on statistical distribution of elementary particles that led him to divide atomic constituents into two categories depending on their spin characteristics. He also did experiments for production of artificial radio-active material by bombarding matter with neutrons.

Leo Szilard

He was the first to conceptualize the nuclear chain reaction, critical mass and the atomic bomb. Szilard was also the co-inventor the nuclear reactor along with Fermi. He was instrumental to the first phase of the project. Later he had said, “We turned the switch, saw the flashes, watched for ten minutes, then switched everything off and went home. That night I knew the world was headed for sorrow.”

Niels Bohr

He played a major role in formulating and interpreting quantum mechanics, the theory used to describe atomic and subatomic phenomena. He also formulated the “liquid drop” model of the nucleus, which showed that it was the isotope uranium-235 that was fissioned by slow neutrons. He found that electrons traveled in orbits around the atom`s nucleus, that the chemical properties of the element was largely determined by the number of electrons in the outer orbits, that an electron could drop from a higher-energy orbit to a lower one, emitting a photon (light quantum) of discrete energy. Bohr’s model of atomic structure became the basis for all future quantum theories.

Harold Urey

He discovered heavy hydrogen which is present in all natural hydrogen compounds including water. He also developed the gaseous diffusion method to separate uranium-235 from uranium-238. In autumn 1941, Urey led a diplomatic mission to England seeking co-operation for the project.

Ernest Lawrence

He invented the Cyclotron. It is a device used to accelerate nuclear particles and used in the discovery of the transuranium elements. To his credit is also the technique for the isolation of uranium-235, which was used in building the atomic bomb.

The project, which cost two billion dollars and was undertaken in 1939-45, had on its rolls nearly two lakh people connected with some 40 laboratories.

Eventually on August 06, 1945, the then US President Harry S Truman ordered dropping of the nuclear weapon “Little Boy” which flattened the city of Hiroshima, and on August 09 the detonation of “Fat Man” over Nagasaki. Lakhs died, were mutilated or suffered long term health effects in forms of lethal diseases. There can be no count of the dispossessed. Each one living in the two cities was affected in some way or the other. 65 years after the bombings, the imprints of death and destruction remain fresh and continue to haunt us with difficult questions.

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