We took a side trip from Knoxville to visit Oak Ridge, TN and the American Museum of Science and Energy. Oak Ridge is known as the ‘Atomic City’ or the ‘Secret City’ because it was founded as a site for work on the Manhattan project. Much of the uranium researching the ‘upstream’ work that was ultimately used to create ‘Fat Man’ and ‘Little Boy’ at Los Alamos was done at Oak Ridge. The site is now home to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), the largest ($1.6B) Department of Energy laboratory, and also hosts US ITER, the hub of the US’s seat in ITER, the international collaboration on fusion power research and development.
Note: ITER is one of the most important things that our species is doing at this time, see their website http://www.iter.org/. It is also an inspiration in that at least someone in our world is interested in working across national boundaries and toward common or at least shared interest. Politically speaking, this may be because scientists are awesome.
The museum itself was very interesting and surprisingly (admittedly my bases for comparison are the AMNH and Liberty Science Center) almost empty on a weekday afternoon. Items of interest included actual relics from the first fission reactors, once-secret photos, interviews, film of the Manhattan Project sites, and displays and learning activities related to the current work being done at ORNL.
The AMSE's exhibits were inspirational but also sobering, balancing a portrayal of the heroic sacrifices made by the scientists and their families with unflinching descriptions of the human cost of the horrific result and the serious risks of nuclear proliferation.
One theme that kept resurfacing in the historical exhibits was the degree of public/private partnership in the project. It was an all-hands-on-deck proposition where failure (losing the atomic race to Nazi Germany) was not an option. I guess that it is for this reason that politicians and private sector visionaries still characterize important R&D programs as ‘the Manhattan project for Cancer’ or ‘the Manhattan Project for Anti-Virus’ when they want to convey the idea that an all-out effort beyond the normal limits of bureaucracy and economics is required. The examples of US corporations, private citizens, and the military really putting their time and their money on the table in the 1940s made me think of other revolutions that happened in the same way - Alan Turing’s work popularized in the film 'The Imitation Game', for example, which led to the Universal Turing Machine and the modern computer.
To my mind, these examples pose an interesting lesson regarding pure science. If we were to assign a dollar value to the invention of nuclear technology or the computer, what would it be? How can we estimate the value to gross cumulative human productivity of having developed those technologies, say, conservatively, 5 to 10 years earlier than they otherwise would have been?
There are current technologies (genetic, energy, computing, AI, and many less obvious ones) with even greater potential return on investment for the species, which we don't invest in in quite the same way, financially or culturally, perhaps because of our short sightedness. One imagines that if aliens were to attack us with a genetic weapon, we would learn to understand and rewrite our genome more rapidly than we are, just because the stakes would be clearer. If the Chinese developed a bio weapon capable of consuming or contaminating oil reserves, articles and books exist on the potential of these technologies and the urgency with which we should be pursuing them.
The point made clear for me by the Manhattan Project exhibit was this: it is easy culturally and politically for humans to spend money on the needs of today, either through state or philanthropic projects and programs or free market allocation of resources and innovation. It is more difficult to focus on pure science efforts that will bear in some cases infinitely more valuable fruit tomorrow and it is a shame if it takes fear of annihilation by Hitler to get us to act more wisely.
Another takeaway from the museum was the contribution of Enrico Fermi to the atomic program and also ultimately to the development of nuclear power, which provides about 8.5% of US energy and 5% worldwide. Names like Oppenheimer and Einstein are part of the public lexicon, but Fermi’s immigration to the US (his wife was Jewish and they fled Mussolini’s Italy) was perhaps tactically more critical. Fermilab in Chicago and fermions (half of the types of matter in the universe) are named after him, but he should probably be the most famous Italian whose name isn’t a Ninja Turtle or Caesar. Someone please make a movie about him so that he can become hip like Turing and Tesla.
Kathryn Tully and Shane Sesta are a married couple, one American and one Brit, who are spending a year traveling across America and writing about their discoveries. Sonny is their rescue cat and fried chicken aficionado.