Friday, October 25, 2019

Big Science and Big Bombs: A Technical Appendix to Postblogging Technology, July 1949, II;

UPDATE: I don't usually fix these off-week posts. They're hurried for a reason. On the other hand, blah blah work schedule here I am with some free time Monday morning, and this one is particularly egregious and easy to fix.

 Operation Grapple
At this point, I feel an overwhelming urge to indulge my inner Geoff Crowther and blame the Atlee Government for blowing up Christmas. Yes, it was the Conservatives who carried out the 1957/8 Christmas Island tests, and the Conservatives who authorised Short Granite and Orange Herald. Short Granite was a hydrogen fizzle, which was perhaps not unexpected, because Orange Herald was ready in reserve. Orange Herald popped off at 800 kT. This qualified Britain for membership in the Megaton Club, and allowed it to hold up its head high at Security Council meetings and sneer at the French. Although this seems like rewriting the rules of the H-Bomb Club to me, because Orange Herald was a regular old fission bomb. Whatever. I'm not on the Security Council, and an 800kt fission bomb is a bravura performance in itself, and the Grapple X test, a year later, demonstrated some remarkable weapons design that Norman Dombey and Eric Groves probably know more about than they're allowed to say.

Notwithstanding being a cool design, any 800kT fission weapon is going to be dangerously susceptible to "multi-kiloton events," and the major safety mechanism on the descendant Violet Club is some real Cold War dark humour. These monsters theoretically armed the V-bomber force for a few years in small numbers, although no V-bomber ever took off with one, the RAF having more sense than whoever it was in the decision chain that signed off on Violet Club. Presumably, any crash-landing related "events" would be reserved for WWIII, when public opinion would be jaded by more pressing concerns like rampaging atomic zombies.  

As for blaming the Atlee Government, we can get there by arguing that the insanely accelerated British programme wouldn't have been necessary if the Atlee Government had launched a "Super" programme when the Truman Administration announced that it was going to develop an H-bomb, back in January of 1950. It makes for a kinder treatment of late-Fifties Conservative defence policy than dwelling on the fact that the upshot of Grapple diplomacy was that the British got access to American designs, pretty much ending independent British  atomic weapons development, which is the kind of thing you expect the core Conservative voter to support.

Oh, wait, no, that probably means no tax cut. Never mind.

By this point, I'm getting a few months ahead of myself in terms of postblogging. What I want to talk about is the 1949 Nuffield Foundation grants. Presumably all of the stuff that these grants facilitated is now ancient news after decades of work at Los Alamos, Scandia, Oakridge, Livermore and the Aldermaston in the years since, but the public doesn't always know anything about that except for what indiscreet persons such as the President of Russia might have let slip.

Alexander Litvinenko

One of the less savoury characteristics of said President is his habit of being all too closely associated with some inordinantly suspicious deaths. One of the more noteworthy of these, is that of Alexander Litvinenko. The details of Litvinenko's life belong elsewhere. That of his death, apparently very fortuitously, belongs to the world. He died of polonium-210 poisoning in November of 2006. Polonium-210 is a very esoteric atom, and while someone once told me that its use was a big "fuck you" to the world, Wikipedia thinks that it was only identified in Litvinenko by coincidence.

Polonium-210 has a half life of only 138 days. Present in small quantities in uranium ores as a result of being produced by decay of uranium-238, it was detected, identified and named by Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, in 1898 as a result of its highly radioactive nature. While atomic physics had a long way to go in 1898, Curie was able to characterise this as "alpha radiation," now known to be free protons; confusingly, these can also be understood as ionised hydrogen atoms, or hydrogen nucleii. That is not, however, how the polonium that poisoned Litvinenko, reached him. By far the most common source of polonium today, and the only one that could have produced it in the necessary quantity, is artificial production by neutron bombardment of bismuth. 

There are a number of ironies here. Curie named polonium to call attention to the "Polish Question," the longstanding international problem of the joint Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Prusso/German occupation of Poland. This was a facet of Eastern Europe's long and difficult relationship with its more powerful neighbours, and with alliance systems constraining Russia and would-be Central European hegemons. At the other end of the long Twentieth Century, a year after Litvinenko's death, Vladimir Putin would award a posthumous Order of Hero of the Russian Federation to George Koval. In one of the more extraordinary espionage coups of the mid-century, Koval, who was an actual GRU infiltrator and not a sympathiser recruited in place, penetrated a branch of the Manhattan Project and revealed theuse of polonium-210 in the American atom bomb to Soviet Russian scientific intelligence. He was then able to successfully exfiltrate America on pretext of taking a European vacation in the spring of 1948. Whether or not American counter-intelligence was aware of this before Putin's little ceremony, it remains the case that Russia and the United States implicitly cooperated to keep the polonium secret well into the 1960s. I guess, in order to piss off France. The secret is that you need polonium to make atom bombs. Or did, before some breakthroughs of the late Fifties exemplified by Orange Herald.

(Who wouldn't want to throw a few banana peels in the way of these assholes getting the Bomb?)

For many years after Curie's discovery, polonium had a place in the laboratory. People needed radiation for all sorts of fascinating experiments. For example, Curie's daughter, Irene, discovered atomic transmutation in 1934, by irradiating boron and aluminum with alpha particles, creating radioactive isotopes of nitrogen and phosphorus. She certainly used polonium in her work, and might have used it here, but atomic physics was advancing so rapidly in the 1930s that the details stack high and get lost.

To haul this back into something like coherence, I am looking at a series of events beginning (because it is relevant later), with Walter Bothe and Herbert Becker's 1930 discovery that alpha particles from polonium impinging on beryllium produced an "unusually penetrating radiation." Joliot-Curie and her husband followed up in 1933 with the discovery that this radiation ejected protons from hydrogen-containing targets, implying that it consisted of comparatively massive particles. These were identified by James Chadwick of the Cavendish Laboratory in 1933 as the neutron. It is a indicator of the changes that  Big Science have wrought in physics that Chadwick received his Nobel Prize in 1935, and not 1955! Five years later, playing with neutrons led to the discovery of uranium fission. (This is often described as the discovery of atomic fission, but clearly people had figured out that was going on by then!)

The same year, that is, 1933, members of  Ernest Lawrence's Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley, then operating the world's most powerful particle accelerator, arrived at the Solvay Conference to make a bumptious claim of having discovered an entirely new and somewhat magical particle, due to unexplained heat gains occurring when they bombarded targets with deuterium. James Chadwick, condescendingly did his best to lead the Americans out of the fever swamps by suggesting contamination of their apparatus. Even more unforgivably, while Lawrence's team continued their chase for the mystery particle, Chadwick and Mark Oliphant identified the contaminant was hydrogen, and showed that the Berkeley group was colliding  and fusing hydrogen atoms. The discovery of theoretically-proposed nuclear fusion, occurring well under its brute energy threshold is understandable as quantum tunneling, and explained with difficult maths that Lawrence, was evidently still having trouble with as late as a 1949/50 public argument that probably did not occur on the tarmac of Livermore NAS, but which did happen.

Anyway, a blunter demonstration of the criticism of post-Gilded Age American scientists as well-endowed mediocrities is hard to find.

iHow Robert Andrew Milliken became a physicist; ii) How Robert Milliken, CEO of Deering Milliken, became "the godfather of American conservatism"; Unfortunately, I haven't been able to establish a connection between the two. The New England Millikans are pretty distinguished for such an uncommon name

The Radiation Laboratory's Solvay humiliation was to take a back seat to more spectacular results in atomic physics, the discovery, to put it bluntly, that Uranium-235 blows up.  The 1938 discovery won Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman a Nobel Prize that should probably have been shared with Lise Meitner and Otto Robert Frisch. Science aside, the implications of an explosive so energetic that it had to be measured in the thousands of tons of TNT equivalent preoccupied scientific minds at the outbreak of WWII. This is definitely not the place to retell the history of the Manhattan or even the Dayton Project, so I'll close off with Edward Teller's 1942 attempt to divert the Project from an "easy" fission bomb to a more technically interesting "super" hydrogen bomb based on the fusion of tritium or deuterium atoms, perhaps triggered by a fission device.

 In fact, fission bombs proved a great deal more difficult to design than Teller supposed, and this led to two complications. First, addressed around these parts previously, the resulting bombs challenged the constraints of aircraft design. Second, a neutron initiator was identified as an important component of any bomb design, leading to the Dayton Project to manufacture reactor-produced Polonium-240 into such a device. Much more can be said about this, but should probably be saved for later. The key takeaway is that, from the start, weapon designs and the nuclear industry were both far more complicated than the open literature portrayed them as being. And, to be biographical for a moment, far more complicated than the discussions in the juvenile science fiction I used to read that suggested that atom bomb design was super-easy. Getting them to work, using more of the warhead to produce a bigger bang, making larger warheads, fitting them in planes and missiles. All of this stuff was, in fact, very tricky.

Downtown Sydney, March 1950
So the total amount of Nuffield  funds made available to the Natural Sciences was £280,760. Of this, £193,000 was awarded to five universities for "the early rebuilding of vigorous research backed by skilled technical services." Birmingham's Mark Oliphant received £25,000 to work on a "new type of accelerator [which] has been developed for the production of high energy protons, and the necessary apparatus and techniques [which] have been devised to observe their scattering with accuracy. The report makes sympathetic reference to the death, in the course of these researches, of Mr. G. Fertel" This pregnant reference, which I missed entirely in postblogging, is to the first  proton synchrotron. Lord Nuffield (and Neville Chamberlain, before his death) were strong supporters of Birmingham's "red brick" university, and Nuffield had already given the university, and Oliphant,  £60,000 before the war for a cyclotron which had been overtaken by events and larger machine abroad. Oliphant would be poached away to his native Australia from this hard (Mid-)Northern land land of rationing and space heaters the next year, and his synchrotron is listed by Wikipedia as a (1952) design, which makes the use of past tense in the Engineering article, which I have emphasised, a bit odd. However, Oliphant was the closest thing to a British Teller in his aggressive lean towards more and better atomic weapons, although he moderated quickly after returning to Australia.

Whatever. I'm sure Oliphant's synchrotron was being used for still-classified work into the fundamental building blocks of Nature, and has led to antimatter-catalysed fusion bombs that the Government isn't telling us about because the Government keeps all the cool stuff under wraps in secret underground cities in Wales. (Or Area 51, but that's been done to death on the Internet.) It's certainly not the case that the lab spent the first three years or so trying to make it produce something other than smoke and a fatality. Poor Mr. Fertel's death seems to have been classified into non-history.

Glasgow received £30,000 to be disbursed by P. I. Dee on a new 300 m eV cyclotron and a 30m eV synchotron. These would be used to produce high energy gamma radiation and accelerated protons and deuterons. Low energy detection methods were also to receive support for identification of emissions from several natural and artificial elements including tritium. Bernal's biomolecular lab at Birkbeck received £25,000, plus £1700 to be spread over five years, for work on the optical focussing of x-rays "and the design of a new type of electron-computing device." Blackett's Manchester lab received £4000 for work on cosmic-ray research. "It was hoped that the investigation of penetrating showers, of meson decay, and of extensive showers will lead eventually to increased knowledge of the ultimate structure of matter." The Clarendon lab, under Cherwell, received £64,000 over eight years for the study of low temperatures, the use of liquid helium, and of nuclear physics. Specific projects included the thermal conductivity of glass at all temperatures, the electrical conductivity of low temperature alkali metals and earths, and a mass spectrometer of unprecedented sensitivity and resolution to measure atmospheric helium. 

While that is all the atomic research (there is also some small change for soil studies, metallurgy and new microscope), I do want to note that Bragg's Cavendish Laboratory received £7500 over five years, specifically awarded to E. Orowan for metallurgical research, just because this minute award way down at the end of the column is such a ridiculous slap in the face for the Cavendish. One assumes that there is a reason for this. Perhaps it is because Bragg has dragged the Cavendish off on some boring old personal quest for the molecule of heredity, or perhaps there was a larger grant under the "medicine" heading that Engineering does not report. No matter, things will be set aright when Cockcroft comes back from Harwell! Though not to the point of disssuading Egon Orowan from taking a position at MIT.

Of the big names who get the big money, the most notable is loser non-Nobel nominee Paul Dee of Glasgow, a big name in wartime radar research. According to one reminiscence about research life back in the day, it basically spent the Fifties being debugged before coming on stream in the Sixties, by which time the old gadgets were being overtaken by the synchrotron. Modern cyclotrons are used mainly for radiation medicine, and nowadays even some particularly well-appointed hospitals have them for making Technetium-99m out of molybdenum. Although there is the odd job making polonium, one hears. 

Whether the British cyclotrons might have been used to make polonium, I have no idea. The Dayton Project had some fairly serious contamination issues in its Dayton days. In another callback to last week, the US government was forced to tear down the very spiffy clubhouse it procured under eminent domain from a realty firm controlled by a family derived from Kindleberger's old Delco lab. Since the procurement somehow involved a family angle, with the Monsanto executive seconded to head the Project being married into the family, it was probably very messy and unpleasant, although us bitter and truculent outsiders can afford to be amused at the antics of our betters,with three generations of "unicorn" money, from NCR to GM to the Manhattan Project, never mind Monsanto, tearing themselves apart over Polonium-240 and allied isotopes' disinclination to stay where they are put. What I'm saying here is that considering that mess, it makes sense to make polonium artificially on Britain's right little, tight little island. No idea whether they did.

It should be finally noted that, in pursuing the polonium question, I came across the tersely-described electronic neutron initiator, a "compact linear accelerator" that produces neutrons by banging some deuterium or tritium into same, perhaps in a hydride target. The device is popular in the nuclear weapon engineering set because it produces neutrons to order, presumably based on the dial setting of the power battery, making it a key element in variable-yield weapons. The first British electronic neutron initiator was Blue Stone, used in Violet Club, and that's all I know. It sounds like a very clever gadget, and given timelines, It's probably a sideline project for one of the labs that the Nuffield Foundation has just showered with money. Other big developments of the era, such as the use of U-233 alongside U-235, better purification of Pu-240 from Pu-239, and, of course, the "levitated pit" are not doubt underway, the latter more likely at Aldermaston than the universities.

In conclusion, 1950s atomic weapons research if far more interesting and involved than I thought. There's more going on here beyond morbid goulishness, and the links with the early days of Big Science Physics much more profound than I realised. The story of the independent British effort is also interesting from the point of view of industrial cross-fertilisation. In general, we could perhaps come to a clearer understanding of the early and topsy-turvy growth of the nuclear power industry if we  had a better understanding of the fine-grain details of atomic weaponeering. 


  1. Fertel? His obituary in Nature is here:

    Imperial College, Admiralty radar researcher.

    A personal rememberance:

    He was also a caving pioneer, and this leads us to detail of his tragically stupid end.

  2. (If no French, back from taking part in an expedition and bored, he decided to climb over the cyclotron rather than walk around it, and touched a high voltage wire.) He also made left-handed wood screws to annoy people who begged him for parts, which is real dedication to being a tiresome practical joker.

  3. "Tiresome?" I'm reminded of exciting Engineering articles about the geometry of screw threads and the comparative strength thereof.

    Fertel was working on the 60" cyclotron, old hat by January of 1949, but was probably recruited with an eye to working on the positron synchrotron, first proposed by Oliphant in 1943, but which only achieved a full power beam in 1952.

    Everyone's incredibly reticent about this. I don't know whether it's because the details of everyday acclerator work are deemed incredibly boring, or it's because the lads were shooting protons at uranium atoms to see what hot uranium plasma does. Besides the obvious, I mean. I imagine they were, because there was a lot to learn about the subject, back in the day. My fevered imagination is disappointed to discover that Fertel's death was due to a long-overdue appointment with a live wire, and not a radiation accident. Oh, Fifties physicists with your casual disregard for occupational safety.