Atoms in the Family: My Life with Enrico Fermi

atoms-in-the-familyI obtained this book by Laura Fermi published in 1954 by my usual method of interlibrary loan. It is an excellent book that gives personal insights into Enrico and many other of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project. This is an excellent companion to the book by Leona Woods reviewed last week, and readers shouldn’t become accustomed to having a review posted each week. I’m doing more writing than reading lately. Also, I once again am posting a summary of the book complete with page numbers for reference, which is how I usually save information to be used in my book about the history of the development of nuclear weapons and the Rocky Flats Plant.

The first sections of the book introduce Laura Capon and Enrico Fermi in Italy when they first became acquainted in Italy. It progresses to their wedding and the beginning of the troubles for Jews imposed by Mussolini (Il Duce). Laura was a non-practicing Jew, so she and the children were all at risk. She tells of how their lives became increasingly dangerous until the family left Italy by travelling to Sweden to accept Enrico’s Noble Prize and made it to the United States. The “becoming Americanized” is fascinating reading. Laura’s father, an Italian naval officer, was at first not concerned about the actions that Mussolini took in the early days. “Il Duce knows what he is doing. It is not for us to judge his actions.” 5-6

The book describes the childhoods and families of the Capons and the Fermis. As an example, a traumatic loss struck the Fermis when Giulio, the oldest son, died of complications from an abscess in the throat. (Laura and Enrico would name their son Giulio.) The family moved into a melancholy existence and Enrico filled his life with studying and outdoor activities. It wasn’t long before his teachers declared that he was “exceptional.” His academic achievements and early career are described. 15-32 Much of one chapter is devoted to his yellow Peugeot, which is described as having a top speed of 20 mph. The next chapter describes the Fermi’s early married years 33-68

Fermi began to achieve wide recognition for his brilliance and was named to the Royal Academy of Italy in 1929. Enrico and Laura spent two months of 1930 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. They also spent some time in New York City, where Laura was astonished to note “…with a shock the existence of tattoos…on the bare arms of summer riders, in the most civilized city in the world.” (What would she think today?) They were often asked what they thought of Mussolini, which was “…indicative of the great interest fascism had aroused in the United States. Those were good times for fascism, which was looked upon with tolerance, often with sympathy, both inside Italy and abroad.” 73-81 Continue reading

The Uranium People

the-uranium-people_webThis autobiography by Leona (Woods) Marshall Libby is a valuable asset to anyone wanting to learn about the people involved in the Manhattan Project. Leona was the only woman present when Chicago Pile-1 sustained controlled nuclear reaction under the leadership of Enrico Fermi, who had become Leona’s friend. I obtained the book through my local library’s interlibrary loan process, which I recommend for books such as this one that was published in 1979. Leona’s book focuses on the achievements of the Manhattan Project and includes very little personal information. The book often meanders into stories of events involving Leona and other Manhattan Project scientists, but I thought those distractions from the main story were among the most interesting. The front and back covers of the book contain reproductions of the famous letter from Albert Einstein to F. D. Roosevelt outlining why the United States should speed up research on chain reactions and warning that Germany might have embarked on the same effort. I highly recommend this book, and will warn that I’m going to break from my tradition of trying to restrict this review to two pages. Besides, I haven’t posted a review in weeks, so I “owe” a very long review. I’ll let the reader decide how much they want. I often record page numbers for items from the book in what I call my “personal reviews”, and I’ll leave those in the event someone wants to look up the reference. I also left the sections I recorded in bold for my own reference on passages that I wanted to be certain to remember when writing my book about Rocky Flats.

Leona had done her doctoral work as a chemist in the University of Chicago physics department chaired by Nobel laureate Arthur Compton. Her doctoral professor was future Nobel laureate Robert Milliken. She joined the Metallurgical Laboratory in August 1942. She describes details of her work where she was the only woman participating in activating “Fermi’s Pile.” She also was involved in at Argonne, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Lawrence Livermore Laboratories. Her primary role in the operation of the first nuclear reactor was to build boron trifluoride counters to detect neutron flux. 118 She frequently expresses pride in her soldering skills in making the detectors in her autobiography.  She was obviously disappointed that, “Laura Fermi, who kindly was going to read the book before its publication, died suddenly December 26, 1977.”  Ix-x

There are many stories about Leona’s numerous interactions with Enrico and Laura Fermi. She was clearly an admirer. Chapter 1 begins with the sentence, “Perhaps the most influential person in my life was Enrico Fermi.” She then lists all of his positive attributes and adds, “He managed all of this…without pomposity.” She said even “…he was amazed when he thought how modest he was.” I was also impressed that she said Fermi was influenced by the deterioration of relations between the U.S., Soviet Union, and China and the Soviet detonation of a deliverable hydrogen bomb to lay “…in a store of canned goods and water in his basement.” 1-9 I intend to leave most discussions of how Enrico and his family made it to the United States to escape the Fascism that threatened Laura and their children to a review in another book “Atoms in the Family” authored by Laura Fermi. Continue reading

The Man Behind the Rosenbergs Again

man-behindI recently decided to reread this book by retired KGB agent Alexander Feklisov with Sergei Kostin hoping to better understand why Americans were willing to spy for the Soviet Union during World War II. Communism and “the worker’s paradise” of the USSR was a lure during the crushing poverty created by the Great Depression. There was also the belief by some that Communism was the only viable protection from Fascism, although the mutual defense pact signed by Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union confused some of those people. Many of the people recruited by the Soviets were American Jews who were children of Russian immigrants. They were convinced that the United States should share any useful technology with the Soviet Union as an ally in the war against Hitler. Feklisov saw those people as “anti-Fascist activists” who were heroes and not spies.  Feklisov managed large networks of American spies, and his book provides insight into their motivations.

Feklisov mentions that many U.S. politicians weren’t friendly to the Soviet Union. Harry Truman as a Senator expressed the point of view about the conflict between Germany and the Soviet Union, that “…if Germany is winning we must help Russia; if Russia was winning, the help should go to Germany.” The first prize for bluntness would go to the New York Daily News, which published a cartoon depicting the USSR and Germany as two snakes fighting each other. The caption read, ‘Let’s let them eat each other’.” Feklisov portrays FDR as being a moderate whose attitude toward the USSR, which was “…bearing the brunt of the war efforts, was favorable.”  Continue reading

Radiation Fears and Depleted Uranium

A new fear has apparently been created by the application by the U.S. Army with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to leave depleted uranium from firing tests of the Davey Crocket weapons system at the ranges on Fort Carson near Colorado Springs, Colorado and other military locations. The Army contends, and I agree, that “…cleaning up the waste at Fort Carson and other installations is too expensive.”

A military report on the Davey Crocket program indicates that about 7 ounces of depleted uranium was used in each training round. “The Army estimates that more than 1,400 of the training rounds rained down at Fort Carson; none have been found.” The Army reported in 1961 that depleted uranium could be handled “…with your bare hands and it’s not going to hurt you.” The half life is a bit under 4.5 billion years, which indicates there is a minimal or non-existence radiation risk. One research project I was assigned when I worked at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant required the use of machining turnings of depleted uranium. I was warned that the turnings would be sharp, but there was no radiation risk.

The Davey Crocket was a small nuclear round launched from a “bazooka” system. It was tested in Nevada in 1962 in a blast named “Little Feller.” The weapon was a key component of the defense of Germany when there were fears about the massive tank-led army units of the Soviet and East German armies. There were 2,100 Davey Crocket nuclear rounds produced during the Cold War. There were also 75,000 depleted uranium training rounds produced, of which 30,000 were fired. The only risk of the depleted uranium at Fort Carson and the other sites would be if someone found one of the rounds, picked it up, and dropped it on their foot.

The Oak Ridge Story

Oak Ridge Story book coverThis book was referenced in an article provided by a friend, and it contains some extraordinarily interesting aspects for a book published in 1950. For example, the Introduction describes how the Japanese, when they were in control of Southern Luzon in the Philippines, conducted a roundup of “…persons suspected of unfriendly attitudes.” An elderly American who had lived in the Philippines for many years was questioned about his nationality. “The man replied he was from Tennessee. A perplexed look crossed the (Japanese) officer’s face. Then he decreed. ‘You may depart. You are of a non-belligerent nation. Japan has no war with Tennessee’.” The irony is that activities in Tennessee would lead to the first atomic bomb used in warfare that was detonated over Hiroshima in 1945.

The book describes how John Hendrix was a devoutly religious person who lived in Eastern Tennessee at the turn of the Twentieth Century and described visions that caused people to laugh. He described a railroad that had yet to be built but was eventually built. However, that isn’t the most remarkable vision described by the “Prophet.” He described visions he had during a forty day self-imposed isolation in the woods. He emerged from his isolation to tell neighbors the valley, “…some day will be filled with great buildings and factories and they will help toward winning the greatest war that ever will be…Big engines will dig big ditches and thousands of people will be running to and fro. They will be building things and there will be great noise and confusion and the earth will shake…I’ve seen it. It’s coming.”

Many of the neighbors of Hendrix undoubtedly considered him to be hopelessly delusional, or perhaps they just passed him off as an interesting eccentric. There is no doubt his visions, perhaps by sheer luck or by actual prophesy, accurately predicted the building of massive Manhattan Project installations in Eastern Tennessee. I find the prediction that, “…the earth will shake” to be the most compelling. The detonation of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 indeed caused the earth to shake along with other effects that killed or injured tens of thousands of people in that Japanese city. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did indeed, as prophesized by Mr. Hendrix, “…help toward winning the greatest war that ever will be…” Continue reading


Hiroshima book coverI’ve been told this book by John Hershey is the most famous of the many books describing the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. My first reaction was to be astonished that it was so small. I won’t be so foolish to dismiss the importance of a book that has over 400 Amazon reviews with an average of more than 4 out of five “stars,” but I expected more. Perhaps I’ve read too many books that describe the horrific effects of a nuclear weapon detonation over a city. My purpose for finally reading it was to look for new information for the book I’m writing that has the working title of “Nuclear Deterrence: An Early History of The Rocky Flats Plant.” That history obviously includes the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Any history of the impact of nuclear weapons on deterrence would obviously be deficient without a discussion of the first use of nuclear weapons in war.

The book describes the situations of six residents of Hiroshima when the nuclear bomb was detonated over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The six are described as a clerk who was chatting with a coworker, a physician who had sat down to read a newspaper, a tailor’s widow who was watching a neighbor, a German priest who was reading a magazine, a surgeon who was carrying a blood sample to a laboratory, and a Methodist pastor who was unloading a cart of clothes. The first observation is that they all had, for one reason or another, turned their heads away from the location of the detonation or were a few feet beyond a window that faced the detonation. Those small accidents of history saved all of them from having their eyes destroyed. There is a description of how a contingent of Japanese soldiers was outside and all had looked up to see the single B-29 when the detonation occurred. All of them had their “eyes melted.” Continue reading