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Cheap Thoughts on Science


Atomic Stuff


For many centuries chemists labored to change lead into precious gold, and eventually found that precious uranium turned to lead without any human effort at all.
     Isaac Asimov


Radiation, unlike smoking, drinking, and overeating, gives no pleasure, so the possible victims object.
     Isaac Asimov


Radium, n. A mineral that gives off heat and stimulates the organ that a scientist if a fool with.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images.
     Niels Bohr


It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of find atomic dust, non of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.
     Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)


We shall never get people whose time is money to take much interest in atoms.
     Samuel Butler, Note-Books (1912)


Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.


For instance, the scientific article may say, "The radioactive phosphorus content of the cerebrum of the rat decreases to one-half in a period of two weeks." Now what does that mean? It means that the phosphorus that is in the brain of a rat — and also in mine, and yours — is not the same phosphorus as it was two weeks ago. It means the atoms that are in the brain are being replaced: the ones that were there before have gone away. So what is this mind of ours: what are these atoms with consciousness? Last week's potatoes! They now can remember what was going on in my mind a year ago — a mind which has long ago been replaced. To note that the thing I call my individuality is only a pattern or dance, that is what it means when one discovers how long it takes for the atoms of the brain to be replaced by other atoms. The atoms come into my brain, dance a dance, and then go out — there are always new atoms, but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday.
     Richard Feynman, "The Value of Science" (speech at NAS meeting, 1955)
     reprinted in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short
     Works of Richard P. Feynman
(Jeffrey Robbins, ed., 1999)


If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they ore a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.
     Richard Feynman, Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained
     by Its Most Brilliant Teacher
(1995) "Atoms in Motion"


Everything is made of atoms. That is the key hypothesis. The most important hypothesis in all of biology, for example, is that everything that animals do, atoms do. In other words, there is nothing that living things do that cannot be understood from the point of view that they are made of atoms acting according to the laws of physics. This was not known from the beginning: it took some experimenting and theorizing to suggest this hypothesis, but now it is accepted, and it is the most useful theory for producing new ideas in the field of biology.
     Richard Feynman, Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained
     by Its Most Brilliant Teacher
(1995) "Atoms in Motion"


If instead of arranging the atoms in some definite pattern, again and again repeated, on and on, or even forming little lumps of complexity like the odor of violets, we make an arrangement which is always different from place to place, with different kinds of atoms arranged in many ways, continually changing, not repeating, how much more marvelously is it possible that this thing might behave? Is it possible that that "thing" walking back and forth in front of you, talking to you, is a great glob of these atoms in a very complex arrangement, such that the sheer complexity of it staggers the imagination as to what it can do? When we say we are a pile of atoms, we do not mean we are merely a pile of atoms, because a pile of atoms which is not repeated from one to the other might well have the possibilities which you see before you in the mirror.
     Richard Feynman, Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained
     by Its Most Brilliant Teacher
(1995) "Atoms in Motion"


They assumed their solution then contained about one microgram of plutonium 239. (Pu239, that is: Seaborg had chosen the abbreviation Pu rather than Pl partly to avoid confusion with platinum, Pt, but also "facetiously," he says, "to create attention" — P.U. the old sland for putrid, something that raises a stink.)
     Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986)


YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS: Atoms cannot be seen. To show that the world was made of particles a million times smaller than objects visible to the naked eye was so difficult that their existence was not established beyond reasonable doubt until the end of the nineteenth century.
     Tony Rothman, Instant Physics: From
     Aristotle to Einstein, and Beyond


[Frederick] Soddy and Rutherford found, for example, the half-life of uranium to be 4.5 billion years, radium's to be 1,620 years. Today their discoveries form the basis of radioactive dating. (In fact, radioactive dating often comprises the sum of many a physicist's social life.)
     Tony Rothman, Instant Physics: From
     Aristotle to Einstein, and Beyond



The Atomic Bomb

We had the means to end the war quickly, with a great savings of human life. I believed it was the sensible thing to do, and I still do.
     Luis W. Alvarez


No one who saw it could forget it, a foul and awesome display.
     Kenneth Bainbridge, describing the explosion
     of the first atomic bomb (Trinity, July 16, 1945)


If I had known that the Germans would not succeed in constructing the atom bomb, I would have never lifted a finger.
     Albert Einstein


The effects could well be called unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous, and terrifying. No man-made phenomenon of such tremendous power had ever occurred before. the lighting effects beggared description. The whole country was lighted with the intensity many times that of the midday sun.
     Brig. Gen. Thomas Farrell, describing the explosion
     of the first atomic bomb (Trinity, July 16, 1945)


"Such a [atomic] war is not a possible policy for rational men," Truman added. Nonetheless, each of the next five presidents who succeeded him in office found it advisable to threaten the Soviets with the use of nuclear weapons. As the British physicist P. M. S. Blackett observed, "Once a nation pledges its safety to an absolute weapon, it becomes emotionally essential to believe in an absolute enemy."
     Einstein, sad-eyed student of human tragedy, closed the circle of evolution, thermodynamics, and nuclear fusion in a single sentence. "Man," he said, "grows cold faster than the planet he inhabits."
     Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way (1988)


Without a sound, the sun was shining. Or so it looked. The sand hills at the edge of the desert were shimmering in a very bright light, almost colorless and shapeless ... after another ten seconds or so it had grown and dimmed into something more like a huge oil fire, with a structure that made it look a bit like a strawberry ... the bang came minutes later, quite loud though I had plugged my ears, and followed by a long rumble like heavy traffic very far away. I can still hear it.
     Otto Frisch, describing the explosion of the
     first atomic bomb (Trinity, July 16, 1945)


At Los Alamos during World War II there was no moral issue with respect to working on the atomic bomb. Everyone was agreed on the necessity of stopping Hitler and the Japanese from destroying the free world. It was not an academic question, our friends and relatives were being killed and we, ourselves, were desperately afraid.
     Joseph O. Hirschfelder


At Los Alamos we had some conversations on the subject and I must admit that my own position was that the atom bomb is no worse than the fire raids which our B-29s were doing daily in Japan, and anything to end the war quickly was the thing to do.
     George B. Kistiakowsky


My feeling was something like, "Well it worked!" There's no great emotion to that, except that it worked. I think it was later that I and many other began to think about the consequences, about what could be done with such a powerful device.
     Edward McMillan, describing the explosion of
     the first atomic bomb (Trinity, July 16, 1945)


There floated through my mind a line from the Bhagavad-Gita in which Krishna is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty: "I am become death, the shatterer of worlds." I think we all had this feeling more or less.
     J. Robert Oppenheimer, quoted in N. P. Davis,
     Lawrence and Oppenheimer (1969)


Suddenly there was an enormous flash of light, the brightest light I have ever seen.
     I. I. Rabi, describing the explosion of the
     first atomic bomb (Trinity, July 16, 1945)


In an enterprise such as the building of the atomic bomb the difference between ideas, hopes, suggestions and theoretical calculations, and solid numbers based on measurement, is paramount. All the committees, the politicking and the plans would have come to naught if a few unpredictable nuclear cross sections had been different from what they are by a factor of two.
     Emilio Segrč, quoted in Richard Rhodes,
     The Making of the Atomic Bomb


During 1943 and part of 1944 our greatest worry was the possibility that Germany would perfect an atomic bomb before the invasion of Europe. … In 1945, when we ceased worrying about what the Germans might do to us, we began to worry about what the government of the United States might do to other countries.
     Leo Szilard


We were afraid that Hitler had the bomb first, and we made this bomb, which shortened the war and saved a lot of American and Japanese lives in the Japanese war.
     Victor Weisskopf


As for my participation in making the bomb, there was no choice. The original discovery that made it possible was made in Germany, and we had believed that the German scientists were ahead of us in the development of a nuclear weapon. I shudder to think what would have happened if Germany had been first to acquire the weapon.
     Eugene Wigner