'When Do We Become Scared?'

The stories of two physicists, and how they regarded the use of nuclear weapons to protect their loved ones, have something to offer our era of trigger-happy presidents and isolated dictators.

On December 2, 75 years ago, a team of 15 people created the world’s first human-made self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction under the stands of an old football stadium at the University of Chicago. The experiment was part of the Manhattan Project, the US’s effort to build a nuclear weapon during World War II. It was led by an Italian émigré named Enrico Fermi, widely acknowledged to be the ‘architect of the nuclear age’.

Many reports marking the 75th anniversary of that significant achievement have extolled Fermi. He comes first to mind when thinking of the Chicago Pile I, the name of the nuclear reactor in which his – and his team’s – feat was achieved. Four years after doing so, in fact, all of the people responsible for the experiment’s success gathered at the University of Chicago for a reunion, and a subsequently famous photograph was shot. Fermi is seen standing front row, left, his face calm.

The Chicago Pile I team. Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory/Wikimedia Commons

The Chicago Pile I team. Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory/Wikimedia Commons

This calmness is troubling because the nuclear weapons industry needs to be peopled with conscientious scientists and engineers who are aware of what they’re doing. Going by Gino Segrè’s and Bettina Hoerlin’s recent biography, The Pope of Physics, Fermi does not appear to have been so. Excerpt: ““At some level, he was able to treat the bomb blast as just another physics experiment”, the book reads. In another instance, a single line writes off any discomfiture that may have arisen after Fermi witnessed the Trinity test: “… while he was seemingly infallible, he was also human.” In a third, it quotes [Leo] Szilard: “The struggles of our time did not affect Fermi very much, and he is no fighter”, as if to excuse Fermi from judgment.”

After the Chicago Pile I reactor went critical, i.e. a chain of nuclear fission reactions was kicked off inside it, one member of his group present there is said to have asked Fermi, “When do we become scared?”

The person who asked the question was Leona Woods, the sole woman in Fermi’s group that worked on Chicago Pile I. You can see her in the photograph above, with a gentle smile in the midst of a sea of suits. Her question meant that someone present understood what they had just done.

At the time of her participation in Fermi’s experiment, she was only 23 years old. She had received her PhD under Robert Mulliken and had subsequently been recruited into Fermi’s group for her skill with vacuum technology, to measure neutron fluxes (neutrons were the particles used to instigate nuclear fission).

Mulliken hadn’t been her first choice, however. She had approached the Nobel laureate James Franck, also a scientist with the Manhattan Project, before that and asked to be his graduate student. While Franck agreed, he had told her, “You are a woman, and you will starve to death.”

A year after Fermi’s experiment, Woods married another physicist, John Marshall, and became pregnant with their son. She was the only female scientist at the Manhattan Project, and she had felt it necessary to hide her pregnancy from her colleagues there. She would dress in baggy clothes to conceal the changes in her body; she would come earlier than others to work so she could deal with her morning sickness without anyone else noticing. After her son was born, she didn’t have maternity leave, returning to her work in a few days.

The bombs were used on August 6 and 9, 1945, killing about 150,000 people and prompting the Imperial Japanese army to surrender within a week. The weapons had achieved their stated outcome – to spare US forces from mounting what had been anticipated to be a long-drawn, bloody and expensive invasion of the Japanese mainland.

While there is little to know about Fermi’s reaction in this regard, Woods had become more pragmatic. Three years earlier, she had asked, “When do we become scared?” After the bombs ended the war, she said, “I think we did right, and we couldn’t have done it differently. It was a frightening time.” According to APS Physics, her answer had been prompted by “her brother [having] been a marine on Okinawa, and her brother-in-law … a captain of a minesweeper during the war”.

Fermi, like Woods, had also been scared. He had to flee Rome in 1938 because Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime had just released the Manifesto of Race, a charter that stripped Jews of their civilian rights in Italy. His wife Laura was Jewish. So perhaps some of Fermi’s calmness was simply the face of a man giving his all to build a weapon that would vanquish the people who had forced him and his wife to leave their home and country.

Then again, both these people had secured the safety of their loved ones at a great price: their empathy. In their eagerness to end the war without further bloodshed on their shores, they had precipitated the killing of hundreds of thousands of people on a faraway island, seeding many generations with hereditary diseases and the horrific memory of what a weaponised force of nature looks like.

There is a similar lack of empathy prevailing at the moment between the trigger-happy US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leadership. After World War II ended, the US (and the Soviet Union) spent a better part of the Cold War amassing a stockpile of nuclear warheads because, in their logic of things, more warheads meant more security. As Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science, has said, let’s not be surprised when “a weak, vulnerable country buys into that logic”. Further, the remorse that Fermi and Woods lacked are also on display, but worse. According to Wellerstein,

Be wary of anyone who tells you North Koreans are ‘crazy.’ ‘Crazy’ is the 21st century way to dehumanise your enemies, to make it easier to say, ‘They can’t be dealt with like rational human beings.’ The DPRK leadership are dictators with no regard for their people or human rights. That, unfortunately, is not because they are crazy (and hardly makes them even unique). When it comes to nukes, they are acting like textbook ‘rational actors.’ …

It is difficult to do so, but try to put yourself in the [DPRK leadership’s] position. They [control] a small, poor, weak, isolated country. They have one half-friend (China) who benefits from their being a point of attention for the rest of the region. They are otherwise surrounded by enemies. … If you back them into a corner, they might do ‘crazy’ things. If they feel all is lost, they might do ‘crazy’ things. If they feel there is no hope, watch out. The same as we might, the same as most proud people might.

So, when do we become scared?