Saturday, August 9, 2008

My town and the Manhattan Project: incomplete thoughts for a lesson

This is going to be a bit long, and a bit local. It is for my students and those of us who teach them. It is about technology and memory, about abstract concepts of global community (nationalism/internationalism) and a more manageable concept of local community.

It is not about plutonium, at least not directly. “Fat Man,” the bomb dropped over Nagasaki, was a plutonium bomb, the second ever to be detonated (the first one was tested in the States). There was not enough uranium for more than one uranium bomb used on Japan (“Little Boy”), at least that's the story.

I am not convinced that evoking images of the destructive power of a nuclear weapon, then associating it with a contaminated site just over a mile away from my classroom, is a great idea with 14 year olds. It would make a good anticipatory set, though, and it does make the lesson more tangible.

I worry that one of my wackadoodles (an affectionate term) will spend an afternoon wandering around the site, then bring in a sample to check with a Geiger counter at school, with the subsequent evacuation of the building when the needle snaps through the gauge.

At any rate, these are notes for a lesson plan not yet developed. We live in the town where uranium was first commercially enriched specifically to build the atom bomb.

Next day Prof Wigner asked me to find another source of uranium metal. After some hours in the library, I cam back with the news that two people at Westinghouse, Marden and Rentschler, had made pure uranium metal for lamp filaments at the Westinghouse plant in Bloomfield, New Jersey. They held a patent on the process. Bloomfield was just outside New York City, only fifty miles away.

Ed Creutz went to Bloomfield a few days later and was remarkably persuasive. Westinghouse soon found itself committed to delivering enough uranium metal to make many, many lamp filaments. It was the beginning of their rapidly growing role as a major supplier on the Manhattan Project.

Dr. George Cowan: Personal Reflections on the Manhattan Project ,The Atomic Heritage Foundation
Dr. Cowan's interests now lie in early child development. He is also "a patron of the arts." He helped found a bank. He is obviously a bright man, with a well-rounded background, blessed with the best formal education our culture can provide.

He frightens me. Not because of who he is--I bet I'd love him as a neighbor, nor because of anything he's done to me. It's not fair for me to single him out just because googling "Bloomfield" and "Manhattan Project" happens to land him on the front page.

He serves merely as an icon in this post, an icon revered by our culture, the scientists who come to our rescue developing dangerous technologies for the (our) common good. We are blinded by reverence.

And here is what he has to say about his work, and others like him:

The lesson that remains most vividly in my mind from my wartime experiences is that teams of highly gifted, dedicated people working together on extremely difficult problems, given great resources, motivated by an overwhelming threat to national survival, and blessed with good luck, can work apparent miracles!

--also from Personal Reflections on the Manhattan Project ,The Atomic Heritage Foundation

I could spell out my several difficulties with this seemingly innocuous passage, but before I do, I must confess that my antennae vibrate whenever I see the words "national survival", "blessed", and "miracles" in the same thought.

Some of my kids live in the Watsessing part of town, a section sliced by the Garden State Parkway a few decades ago. The area has a remarkable neighborhood alliance (Watsessing Heights Neighborhood Association) that has battled, among other things, the use of a local park to serve as the staging area for a radium clean-up site in a completely different (and wealthier) town.

They know a bit about radiation, and a bit more about local politics. They can be a real thorn in the town's side, a huge plus in my book of how a democracy should work.

They put out a neat newsletter. And they remember history.

Not surprisingly, the Westinghouse site in Bloomfield was contaminated
with residual radiation from the work that was done there.
After the plant closed, the buildings on the site were razed and the
radioactive contamination removed to the satisfaction of the Federal
Government. However, the contamination is still above the acceptable
level for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
Westinghouse's successor, Viacom, hopes to lease the land to a
developer but cannot do so until the contamination is addressed. The
story of the Manhattan Project in Bloomfield still does not have an

Mimi Michalski , “Westinghouse and World War II” Watsessing Heights Newsletter, Spring 2004
And if we remember not to forget, never will have an ending.

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