15-19 Story 2: Women of the Atomic Age

 

Synopsis: The Atomic Age is credited mostly to men like Einstein, Oppenheimer and Fermi. Although there’s no question that these eminent scientists were leaders in the development and understanding of nuclear power, there were also many women who contributed knowledge and sometimes their health and lives, but who are overshadowed by the men. We talk to two authors whose books give these women the recognition they deserve.

Host: Marty Peterson. Guests: Craig Nelson, author of “The Age of Radiance: The epic rise and dramatic fall of the Atomic Era.” Denise Kiernan, author of the best-selling book, “The Girls of Atomic City,” now in paperback.

Links for more info:

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

Women of the Atomic Age

Marty Peterson: When we think about the atomic age, the names Oppenheimer, Bohr, Einstein and Fermi come to mind most often. The Manhattan project that created the bombs that ended world war two is credited to those men and others who worked at Los Alamos, Hanford and Oak Ridge to design and fuel the a-bomb. Along with those men were many women who contributed volumes to our understanding of atomic power and its application in all aspects of our lives. That’s one of the reasons Craig Nelson wrote his book, The Age of Radiance: The epic rise and dramatic fall of the Atomic Era — to introduce us to some of the women who strove to understand the power of the atom, and harness it. Of course the most famous female involved in the atomic age is Marie Curie, a young woman whose thirst for knowledge drove her to break the law back in late 19th century Poland…

Craig Nelson: Her original name is Marja Skłodowska. She’s Polish, she’s the youngest of five children, she comes from a family that had once been quite prosperous but had fallen on hard times. And her elder sister made a deal with her that if Marie went off to work as a nanny for two years and supported her older sister, Bronia the older sister would return the favor when she got through school. This was a wild thing for these girls to do then, when they were teenager, because at the time, it was illegal for women to be educated past about the age of 14. And both Mania and Bronia attended something called the “Floating University” which floated so that the authorities couldn’t figure out who was running it and throw him or her in a prison. But apparently this university did a great job because Bronia got into medical school at the University of Paris, the Sorbonne, and Mania joins her two years later.

Peterson: Nelson says that when Marie was studying in Paris, the big trends in science were electricity and x-rays…

Nelson: X-rays were wildly popular, there were a thousand books published about X-rays in the first year after it was discovered. And Marie was looking for an easy thing to do for her graduate studies. And there was a guy who discovered that there was a kind of X-ray coming out of uranium and she decided to look into this kind of X-ray coming out of uranium because no one had written anything about it and she thought it would be an easy thing to do. And instead, she and her husband spent 30 years extracting radium and polonium out of uranium, which they got a ton of ore donated from Bohemia and they had to run a chemical processing plant in the middle of Paris.

Peterson: Their hard work paid off, and Marie was made famous for another first in her field…the Nobel Prize being awarded to a woman….

Nelson: She won it for discovering radioactivity and then she won a second Prize for discovering the elements radium and polonium.

Peterson: Not only was Marie presented with the Nobel, but so was her daughter, Irene, the mother of nuclear medicine….

Nelson: She and her husband, Fred who called themselves the Joliot-Curies, invented a way that you could irradiate other things. And if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be able to produce all of these different things that we use in nuclear medicine. We might have nuclear medicine, but only Bill Gates and Donald Trump could use it because would involve these very rare elements that are very difficult to use. They invented the method of artificially inducing radiation in other elements and that, combined with the tracer technology invented by a guy named (de) Hevesy, is the foundation of nuclear medicine.

Peterson: The Curies were celebrated, but there was a downside to their work in radioactivity – a word, by the way, that Marie coined. It led to the deaths of Pierre, Marie and others who worked in the field…

Nelson: He (Pierre) was run over by a truck in the rain, but many people think that he was debilitated from working with radioactive materials and that helped lead up to that tragedy. So they do think it may be a side effect of that. The city of Hamburg has a memorial to the martyrs of nuclear science, because nobody had any idea really what was going on. For many years, in fact, and it think right now there’s something like 400 names on that memorial, including Marie and her daughter and her son-in-law and pretty much the entire family.

Peterson: Marie Curie’s work also affected other women. Not scientists, but those who unwittingly worked with products that came from her discoveries…

Nelson: When we had glow-in-the-dark things, it was a paint called “undark paint” and it was paint mixed with radium, and that’s what glowed in the dark, and so you had to paint it on things such as watch dials and airplane instrument panels. And they had a group of these women doing this at this factory in New York, and the women would stick the brushes into their mouths to sharpen the point and that’s how they got infected. If they had not done that, they would not have been infected. But the lawsuit against the company they won, which is one of the first times workers succeeded in winning a lawsuit against a company for working conditions, and that was the beginning of OSHA, the safety and health administration for working conditions.

Peterson: In his book, Nelson reveals another woman who was also instrumental in understanding atomic power, physicist and eminent professor, Lise Meitner. Meitner was a Jew who was forced to flee the Nazis in 1938 for Sweden. Her nephew visited her one day and they began discussing a curious problem that was confounding scientists back in Berlin…

Nelson: Whenever her ex-colleague, Otto Hahn, hits uranium with neutrons, it turns into barium. And the reason why this is odd is because normally when you hit something with neutrons, it moves slightly up or down the Periodic Table from the thing you’re hitting, whereas barium is way down from uranium, and they couldn’t figure out what this was. And Lise Meitner sits on a log, a snow-covered log, and takes out a pencil and paper and she starts writing down ideas, and she combines E=mc2 with other calculations and got from uranium to barium. And her nephew, when he went back to Copenhagen, asked one of his neighbors who is a biologist, “What do you call it when bacteria splits up?” and the biologist said “It’s called fission.” So she invented fission.

Peterson: Women in the United States were instrumental in the harnessing of atomic power early in the last century, and they weren’t all eminent scientists. Many lived in the shadows of the great men and women of the Manhattan project. These were the women that Denise Kiernan writes about in her best-selling book, The Girls of Atomic City, now in paperback. She talks about the lives and loves of the women who came from all over the United States to work on a super-secret project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee during World War II…

Denise Kiernan: Oak Ridge again grew to such a size, you had people really in all kind of capacities. You had people who needed to work in administrative support, and you needed teachers and people to work in the cafeteria and all of that sort of thing. And then as far as scientific applications of what was going on in Oak Ridge, one of my women that I interviewed, she had gotten her degree from the University of North Carolina in chemistry and she was working in one of the labs. And there were also physicists who were brought in there. And the majority of women were not working at the upper levels. There were some, definitely, who were playing larger roles in a scientific capacity. Another one of my women was a statistician and she oversaw a team of number crunchers.

Peterson: Kiernan says that the women who worked at the huge facility left home and traveled to Oak Ridge because it was an adventure, the pay was good, and they wanted to feel like they were doing something for the war effort. One thing they didn’t know was that they were playing a vital role in the development of the atomic bomb…

Kiernan: Of the three main Manhattan Project sites, Los Alamos, Hanford, and Oak Ridge, Hanford was responsible for plutonium production; Los Alamos was responsible for the design and the testing of the actual bomb, and Oak Ridge was responsible for uranium fuel, enriching uranium.

Peterson: Many of the women who worked in the plants spent their time sitting on chairs in front of panels covered with knobs, switches and dials…

Kiernan: Those women were operating “calutrons,” and calutrons were the basis of the electromagnetic separation process, one of the processes used to enrich uranium. And, basically, they did not know they were doing that. They were trained to watch the particular knobs, dials and gauges and you know, if a needle moved too much in this direction or the other then they would turn a knob a particular way; once a certain reading reached a certain level they would flip a certain switch. So they highly trained to perform these tasks but what those movements and dial turnings and everything was controlling, they had no idea.

Peterson: Kiernan says that in addition to their hard work, the women at Oak Ridge brought a little something else to the military-run facility…

Kiernan: Community, really. And having all of these women there, which included mothers and people came with their families, it stopped feeling, even though it was being run by the military, it didn’t feel exclusively like a military camp. You had moms and kids and young women and men who began dating and deciding to get married, and planting victory gardens outside of their trailers. So even though the government’s only desire in creating Oak Ridge was to have a town that served the creation of the weapons, that was it that was the only reason for that town to exist in their eyes, they didn’t plan for this really interesting community to spring up. And I think, you know, the women had a lot to do with that.

Peterson: Kiernan asked a number of women who worked at Oak Ridge if they felt “unsung” after the war. She says that they did somewhat, since the emphasis afterward was on the Nobel Prize winner Enrico Fermi, and the outspoken chief of the project, Robert Oppenheimer. But since Kiernan’s book came out, she says some of these “atomic” ladies are getting their due…

Kiernan: The project would not exist without them, just would not have ever happened. Now some of the women who were in my book who were in their late 80s and, you know, early 90s, they’re doing book signings in their local coffee shop. And people come by and they bring a copy of the book, and the women who were in the book sit there and sign copies for people which I just think is quite lovely. And I think it’s nice to get recognition that they did set off to help do what they could for the war effort, like so many people did.

Peterson: You can read up on all of their contributions as well as their lives at Oak Ridge in Denise Kiernan’s book, The Girls of Atomic City, available now. You can also visit Kiernan’s website at Girlsofatomiccity.com. For a look at the atomic age from beginning to end, pick up Craig Nelson’s book, The Age of Radiance, also available now in stores and online. He invites listeners to his site at CraigNelson.us. For information about all of our guests, you can log onto our site at viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.

Advertisements