Los Alamos Changed Everything, Especially for the 'Wizards' Who Were There


The scientists of the Los Alamos generation are receding into a status half history and half myth. A few of them are still active, such as Edward Teller and the incomparable Hans Bethe, but as a group they are already a standard item on the historian's bookshelf.

Of them all, it was Glenn T. Seaborg, who passed away this year, who was most concerned with securing a fitting place in history for himself and his peers. In his lifetime, he was repeatedly honored as the leader of teams that added 10 new elements to the periodic table. He won not just a Nobel Prize but a far rarer distinction: Element 106 is named seaborgium. Almost as impressive a demonstration of Seaborg's unusual abilities was his leadership of the controversial Atomic Energy Commission for an entire decade. He promoted a ban on nuclear-weapons tests without losing the confidence of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, or Nixon.

His fellow chemists lionized him, but it was the regard of posterity that most concerned Seaborg. He took unusual steps to preserve a record of his doings. He published volumes of tediously detailed diaries, and even established a large autobiographical site on the World-Wide Web (http://www.lbl.gov/seaborg). It seems like vanity. But Seaborg was correct that posterity -- in other words, us -- must be deeply concerned about what his generation did. They stood for something pivotal.

In the 1930s, when Seaborg chose his career, common opinion already held that the century was being shaped by physicists, along with the chemists and biologists who took up the tools that physics gave them. Many of Seaborg's colleagues, like many other Americans, had grown up on farms, rising at daybreak to follow the back end of a horse; they keenly appreciated the technologies brought by science. Publicists rightly hailed electric lighting for its "conquest of the night," radio and the telephone for their "conquest of loneliness." They exalted scientists as the creators of astonishing benefits. Then came quantum theory, along with the theories of relativity and the expanding universe, opening a vision of intellectual adventures that seemed to verge on mystical insights.

Those were matchless transformations, beyond anything before or since. That doesn't mean, as some say, that the 20th century was the century of physics and the 21st will be that of biology. This has been the century of biology, too, while the next century has colossal potential for physics, whose most basic laws are still unknown. Yet what happened in the early decades of the 20th century -- Newtonian certainties overthrown, human lives catapulted out of conditions that were often practically medieval -- was shocking in ways unlikely to be repeated.

Then came Los Alamos. The first element discovered by Seaborg's group was plutonium. In later years, he was unfailingly proud of his baby, and he pushed harder than was strictly reasonable to promote nuclear reactors that would use plutonium as a boundless source of energy (clean energy, he would insist, as opposed to coal or oil). But most people remember the new element for what it did to Nagasaki.

In 1945, the Los Alamos scientists came down from their isolated hilltop to meet a storm of public attention. "Wizards," they were called. At first they were flattered, but they found that an awe of wizards is mixed with fear and suspicion. Masters of cosmic secrets could destroy as well as create. Seaborg missed most of the obloquy and spy scares in his position as an apolitical chemist and all-around nice guy, but many of his fellows were bruised by the collision of science with hardball politics.

They were standing at ground zero of a historic change in the relationship between humanity and its knowledge. For their parents and grandparents, qualms about advances in science and technology had been a minor undercurrent in a torrent of praise; Frankenstein tales were a matter for adolescent entertainment, not adult fears. The work done at Los Alamos changed that. Henceforth, it seemed technically possible for a government to cause something resembling Armageddon. Chemists were dragged in during the 1960s by warnings that certain industrial chemicals, as much as radioactive fallout, might bring illness on a worldwide scale.

Seaborg and his colleagues, forced to become savvy in politics and public opinion, fought to suppress fears about science. They started public-relations efforts at the Atomic Energy Commission, the American Chemical Society, and other organizations. On the whole, the American public has remained enthusiastic about science. But it is a fact that science-based technologies are far more prevalent and more powerful now than they were a century ago -- and, almost inevitably, every new development now receives a close and nervous scrutiny. Questions about the consequences of scientific discovery and about the public reaction, which scarcely would have occurred to Seaborg in his youth, are a worry in the back of every scientist's thoughts.

Meanwhile, the social structure of science also was changing fundamentally. Up through the 1950s, physicists and their colleagues in allied fields could barely have populated a small village. All of the chief people knew one another pretty well, and often they knew each others' students, too. Adding to the cohesion, each senior scientist produced dozens of students who went on to become scientists. That meant their numbers had been doubling every 10 or 12 years since the middle of the 19th century.

By the 1960s, there were so many physicists that fragmentation into smaller groups -- for example, solid-state physicists -- became inevitable. (That had already happened to the chemists earlier in the century.) Today, many of the smaller groups have, in turn, become so large that even the leaders scarcely know all of their colleagues personally.

The doubling could not continue indefinitely, of course. By the middle of the 21st century, there would have been more scientists than people. In fact, the growth leveled off in the 1970s. The expectation that every professor could produce a dozen professional scientists was broken. The limits on employment, combined with the decline in public adulation for science, have reduced the number of bright young people who will dedicate their lives to such an arduous career.

Through all of the changes, members of the Los Alamos generation kept in touch with one another. Scores of them could be seen mingling this past March at the centennial celebration of the American Physical Society. But the sense of a tight personal group, isolated from politics, with an untroubled dedication to the advance of pure science -- all that is long gone.

The scientists of Seaborg's generation were not naive. They meant to produce knowledge that would shatter traditional thinking. They meant to bring sweeping changes to industry and thereby to all society. When threatened by fascism and Communism, they meant to create irresistible weapons. They did everything that they had intended to do. But in creating a world, they lost one. All people lose the things of their childhood, and in many ways, the world of scientists now is a more mature place.

Spencer Weart is director of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics, in College Park, Md., and the author of Never at War: Why Democracies Will Not Fight One Another (Yale University Press, 1998).

Section: Opinion & Arts
Page: A64

Copyright © 1999 by The Chronicle of Higher Education