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Posts Tagged ‘science’

20 MARCH, 2013

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Behind the Bomb

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From janitor to chemist, the women of Oak Ridge worked hard and talked little.

The civil servant was given only one clue where she would be going: a train ticket to Knoxville, Tennessee. She packed her best clothes, wore a new pair of shoes, and gave herself entirely to the project at hand: don’t ask questions, don’t talk unnecessarily, do your part to win the war. She arrived at a place that was more of a camp than a town, half-built prefabricated houses, an administration center, three reactors, and a foot of mud sure to suck off any shoe that stepped in it. On the books, she had arrived at the Clinton Engineer Works, a refinery plant for “Tubealloy.” Off the books, she had arrived at Site X of the Manhattan Project, where uranium would be enriched before it was shipped to Site Y in Los Alamos for use in “The Gadget.”

In The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II (public library), Denise Kiernan tells the story of the Oak Ridge center of the Manhattan Project, a town of 70,000 workers — primarily women — who lived in a camp-like environment of propaganda, barbed wire, checkpoints, code words, and spies, while working a thousand different jobs, all of which contributed to the events of August 6, 1945 and the dropping of the atomic bomb.

Operator at a reactor control panel.

Women who had graduated from high school but couldn’t afford college could take the civil service exam. In a matter of months, they might be transferred to jobs in Washington, D.C., New York, or even abroad, without being informed where they were going or how long they would be there. Workers transferred to Oak Ridge were told to get on a train to Knoxville. College-educated women were recruited for their skills, but not always for their specialties. One woman who had wanted to be an engineer accepted a job as a statistician, which was considered more appropriate for her gender. Unskilled local women were also necessary to the project, and these locals often found themselves applying for work at the very place which had evicted their families.

Reactor operators worked multiple shifts to keep the plant going twenty-four hours a day.

Once at Oak Ridge, the workers were fingerprinted, interviewed, assigned a job, and given a clearance badge. Housing was limited and cramped in dormitories that often didn’t have heat. Food at the cafeteria was in short supply and lines were long. Everywhere there was mud, ruining shoes and clothes, and dirtying hallways. One employee remarked that the entire operation seemed more like camping than living, but work had opened up for women and it was their patriotic duty to take it.

Control room at one of three reactor plants.

Officially members of the Clinton Engineer Works, the employees at Oak Ridge adhered to a coded language whose real meanings were known to few. The Clinton Engineer Works was a waystation for “Tubealloy,” or uranium. Those higher up knew that the Tubealloy was being enriched at the Oak Ridge power plants for “the Gadget.” In official documents, Oak Ridge was known as “Site X,” and Los Alamos as “Site Y.” Billboards greeted workers throughout the day: “Your pen and your tongue can be enemy weapons. Watch what you write and say…” The local newspaper, the Oak Ridge Journal, wasn’t allowed to print the names of anyone in its columns. Some women were specially recruited to spy on each other, reporting any breaches in security to the higher-ups.

Workers were encouraged by billboards hung all over the town to to keep to themselves.

A patriotic billboard encouraging fast work and an end to the war.

A billboard emphasizing secrecy.

Tennessee was a Jim Crow state, and while the project wasn’t officially segregated, it abided by segregation in practice. All African-Americans on the project were laborers, domestics, or janitors. Married men and women were forced to live apart in huts with up to five people, while white workers were housed in dormitories and single family dwellings. Women were only allowed to visit their husbands if they had the proper clearance and documentation, proving they were married.

Trailers were brought in to alleviate a housing shortage.

On August 6, 1945, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed in an instant the equivalent population of the project at Oak Ridge—more than 70,000 people. In the President’s address to the nation about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, he mentioned the work done at sites near Santa Fe, New Mexico and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. This was the first that anyone had heard about their involvement with the atomic bomb. Secretary of War Henry L Stimson, explained that the workers had been rigorously kept in the dark:

The work has been completely compartmentalized so that while many thousands of people have been associated with the program in one way or another, no one has been given more information concerning it than was particularly necessary to do the job.

This, however, was giving the employees at Oak Ridge little credit. One chemist, who analyzed product from one of the reactors, knew that she was doing was atomic in nature — but she didn’t have enough pieces to puzzle together the larger picture. Her superiors knew more, but they never talked about it. No one talked in this town of 70,000. For three years. they had kept their work a secret from the outside world, and most impressively, from each other.

Shift change at a uranium enrichment facility in Oak Ridge.

A Girl Scout troop visits X-10 in 1951.

A lively story about the tens of thousands of women who made the bomb — from the power-plant janitor struggling each day through the mud to the exiled physicist in Sweden — The Girls of Atomic City offers a bottom-up history revealing that the atomic bomb was not simply the product of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s genius, but also of the work of women at every level of education and class.

Photographs by Ed Westcott courtesy American Museum of Science and Energy, Oak Ridge

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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08 MARCH, 2013

Synergetics and The Wellspring of Reality: Buckminster Fuller Against Specialization

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“Only mind can discover how to do so much with so little as forever to be able to sustain and physically satisfy all humanity.”

Writer Alvin Toffler once described architect, theorist, designer, and futurist Buckminster Fuller as “one of the most-powerful myth-makers and myth-exposers of our time … a controversial, constructive, endlessly energetic metaphor-maker who sees things differently from the rest of us, and thereby makes us see ourselves afresh” — perhaps the richest and most accurate account of a mind to whom we owe more than we realize.

Today, the concept of synergy permeates everything from boardrooms to artspeak to hipster dinner party chatter — but it was Fuller who coined it as cultural currency in pioneering the study of synergentics, which concerns itself with the “behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior of their parts taken separately.” In “The Wellspring of Reality,” the introductory essay to his seminal 1975 volume Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking (public library), Fuller decries specialization as the enemy of synergy and proposes a reframing of culture that could “get all of humanity to educate itself swiftly enough to generate spontaneous social behaviors that will avoid extinction.” At its epicenter he places the value of wide curiosity and generalist knowledge.

Fuller begins:

We are in an age that assumes the narrowing trends of specialization to be logical, natural, and desirable. Consequently, society expects all earnestly responsible communication to be crisply brief. Advancing science has now discovered that all the known cases of biological extinction have been caused by overspecialization, whose concentration of only selected genes sacrifices general adaptability. Thus the specialist’s brief for pinpointing brevity is dubious. In the meantime, humanity has been deprived of comprehensive understanding. Specialization has bred feelings of isolation, futility, and confusion in individuals. It has also resulted in the individual’s leaving responsibility for thinking and social action to others. Specialization breeds biases that ultimately aggregate as international and ideological discord, which in turn leads to war.

He makes an eloquent contribution to history’s greatest definitions of science:

Science is the attempt to set in order the facts of experience.

While contemporary neuroscientists might scoff at the distinction between brain and mind, claiming that “trying to suggest one causes the other is like saying wetness causes water” — a contention biologically correct in some ways and spiritually impoverished in others, worrisomely neuro-deterministic and negating the reality of the malleable self — Fuller does make a noteworthy distinction, reminiscent of Arthur Conan Doyle’s concept of the “brain attic” and modern-day conceptions of how creativity works:

The human brain is a physical mechanism for storing, retrieving, and re-storing again, each special-case experience. The experience is often a packaged concept.

[…]

Mind is the weightless and uniquely human faculty that surveys the ever larger inventory of special-case experiences stored in the brain bank and, seeking to identify their intercomplementary significance, from time to time discovers one of the rare scientifically generalizable principles running consistently through all the relevant experience set. The thoughts that discover these principles are weightless and tentative and may also be eternal. … It seems also to follow that the more experiences we have, the more chances there are that the mind may discover, on the one hand, additional generalized principles or, on the other hand, exceptions that disqualify one or another of the already catalogued principles that, having heretofore held ‘true’ without contradiction for a long time, had been tentatively conceded to be demonstrating eternal persistence of behavior. Mind’s relentless reviewing of the comprehensive brain bank’s storage of all our special-case experiences tends both to progressive enlargement and definitive refinement of the catalogue of generalized principles that interaccommodatively govern all transactions of Universe.

In a sentiment that the late Aaron Swartz seemed to echo in his memorable wisdom on curiosity, Fuller cautions:

Specialization tends to shut off the wide-band tuning searches and thus to preclude further discovery.

(Indeed, we see such “wide-band tuning” as central to the expansive genius of celebrated “specialists,” as evidenced by the reading lists of Carl Sagan and Alan Turing.)

Fuller then moves on to the vital distinction between money-work and purpose, debunking the myth of the zero-sum game of prosperity:

It is also mistakenly assumed that employment is the only means by which humans can earn the right to live, for politicians have yet to discover how much wealth is available for distribution. All this is rationalized on the now scientifically discredited premise that there can never be enough life support for all. Thus humanity’s specialization leads only toward warring and such devastating tools, both, visible and invisible, as ultimately to destroy all Earthians.

[…]

It is eminently feasible not only to provide full life support for all humans but also to permit all humans’ individual enjoyment of all the Earth without anyone profiting at the expense of another and without any individuals interfering with others.

Indeed, I wholeheartedly subscribe to this notion of symbiotic prosperity, something my favorite graphic designer, Milton Glaser, articulates beautifully in Debbie Millman’s indispensable How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer, in words I quoted in this hand-drawn slide from a recent talk:

Fuller points to the usefulness of useless knowledge as a critical element in this collective abundance and the salvation of our species:

Only a comprehensive switch from the narrowing specialization and toward an ever more inclusive and reining comprehension by all humanity — regarding all the factors covering omnicontinuing life aboard our spaceship Earth — can bring about reorientation from the self-extinction-bound human trending, and do so with the critical time remaining before we have passed the point of chemical process irretrievability.

[…]

Specialization’s preoccupation with parts deliberately forfeits the opportunity to apprehend and comprehend what is provided exclusively by synergy.

Amidst the obstacles to such synergetic success, he counts the bias of the news media — a point all the more prescient in the age of the “Gladwell Effect”, as editors would deliberately inflate information to make headlines more clickable. Fuller laments:

Today’s news consists of aggregates of fragments. Anyone who has taken part in any event that has subsequently appeared in the news is aware of the gross disparity between the actual and the reported events. … We also learn frequently of prefabricated and prevaricated events of a complex nature purportedly undertaken for the purposes either of suppressing or rigging the news, which in turn perverts humanity’s tactical information resources. All history becomes suspect. Probably our most polluted resource is the tactical information to which humanity spontaneously reflexes.

Bewailing scientific reductionism in a passage that falls squarely between Einstein and Tagore, Fuller — true to his reputation as a fringe-thinker — makes a case for the metaphysical as inextricably intertwined with the physical:

Science’s self-assumed responsibility has been self-limited to disclosure to society only of the separate, supposedly physical (because separately weighable) atomic component isolations data. Synergetic integrity would require the scientists to announce that in reality what had been identified heretofore as physical is entirely metaphysical — because synergetically weightless. Metaphysical has been science’s designation for all weightless phenomena such as thought. But science has made no experimental finding of any phenomena that can be described as a solid, or as continuous, or as a straight surface plane, or as a straight line, or as infinite anything. We are now synergetically forced to conclude that all phenomena are metaphysical; wherefore, as many have long suspected — like it or not — life is but a dream.

To be sure, Fuller is far from negating science. To the contrary, he — like Bertrand Russell — sees it as essential to democracy and social good:

Unguided by science, society is allowed to go right on filling its children’s brain banks with large inventories of competence-devastating misinformation.

Presaging the ethos of the Occupy movement, Fuller observes:

The youth of humanity all around our planet are intuitively revolting from all sovereignties and political ideologies. The youth of Earth are moving intuitively toward an utterly classless, raceless, omnicooperative, omniworld humanity.

Fuller portends contemporary grievances about our flawed education system and concludes with a hopeful vision for tomorrow:

Children freed of the ignorantly founded educational traditions and exposed only to their spontaneously summoned, computer-stored and -distributed outflow of reliable-opinion-purged, experimentally verified data, shall indeed lead society to its happy egress from all misinformedly conceived, fearfully and legally imposed, and physically enforced customs of yesterday. They can lead all humanity into omnisuccessful survival as well as entrance into an utterly new era of human experience in an as-yet and ever-will-be fundamentally mysterious Universe.

And whence will come the wealth with which we may undertake to lead world man into his new and validly hopeful life? From the wealth of the minds of world man — whence comes all wealth. Only mind can discover how to do so much with so little as forever to be able to sustain and physically satisfy all humanity.

Synergetics, a hefty tome of nearly 1,000 pages, is fascinating and mind-bending in its entirety. Complement it with Benjamin Betts’s Geometrical Psychology from nearly a century earlier and Bertrand Russell’s Education and the Good Life.

Public domain photographs courtesy State Archives of North Carolina

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08 MARCH, 2013

You Are Stardust: Teaching Kids About the Universe in Stunning Illustrated Dioramas

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“Every tiny atom in your body came from a star that exploded long before you were born.”

“Everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was … lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” Carl Sagan famously marveled in his poetic Pale Blue Dot monologue, titled after the iconic 1990 photograph of Earth. The stardust metaphor for our interconnection with the cosmos soon permeated popular culture and became a vehicle for the allure of space exploration. There’s something at once incredibly empowering and incredibly humbling in knowing that the flame in your fireplace came from the sun.

That’s precisely the kind of cosmic awe environmental writer Elin Kelsey and Toronto-based Korean artist Soyeon Kim seek to inspire in kids in You Are Stardust (public library) — an exquisite picture-book that instills that profound sense of connection with the natural world. Underpinning the narrative is a bold sense of optimism — a refreshing antidote to the fear-appeal strategy plaguing most environmental messages today.

Kim’s breathtaking dioramas, to which this screen does absolutely no justice, mix tactile physical materials with fine drawing techniques and digital compositing to illuminate the relentlessly wondrous realities of our intertwined existence: The water in your sink once quenched the thirst of dinosaurs; with every sneeze, wind blasts out of your nose faster than a cheetah’s sprint; the electricity that powers every thought in your brain is stronger than lightning.

But rather than dry science trivia, the message is carried on the wings of poetic admiration for these intricate relationships:

Be still. Listen.

Like you, the Earth breathes.

Your breath is alive with the promise of flowers.

Each time you blow a kiss to the world, you spread pollen that might grow to be a new plant.

The book is nonetheless grounded in real science. Kelsey notes:

I wrote this book as a celebration — one to honor the extraordinary ways in which all of us simply are nature. Every example in this book is backed by current science. Every day, for instance, you breathe in more than a million pollen grains.

But what makes the project particularly exciting is that, in the face of the devastating gender gap in science education, here is a thoughtful, beautiful piece of early science education presented by two women, the most heartening such example since Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive.

A companion iPad app features sound effects, animation, an original score by Paul Aucoin, behind-the-scenes glimpses of Kim’s process in creating her stunning 3D dioramas, and even build-your-own-diorama adventures.

Pair You Are Stardust with particle physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss’s explanation to kids of why we are, indeed, all made of stardust.

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