Archive for the ‘Lee Bollinger’ Category

Columbia and Germany’s Development of Atomic Weapons

September 24, 2007

Lee Bollinger, Columbia’s president, did a fantastic job of challenging Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on campus today.

Having said that, there’s quite a story to be told about what Columbia did when another tyrannical nation, Germany, appeared to be going after atomic weapons.

Back in the summer of 1939, Germany, like Iran today, wasn’t officially at war. Yet for an émigré-physicist at Columbia, Leo Szilard, the possibility that Germany might attempt to purchase uranium in the Belgian Congo was disturbing enough to take action. Szilard, it is recorded in Walter Isaacson’s “Einstein: His Life and Universe,” tracked down the great scientist in Princeton, New Jersey, and warned him of the dangers a fission weapon could pose. Szilard, Einstein and another scientist decided to send a letter to the Roosevelt Administration in the name of Einstein, who was famous enough to be taken seriously by the president. Both Szilard and another Columbia physicist, Enrico Fermi, were studying the power of splitting the atom at that time.

“Some recent work by E. Fermi and L. Szilard, which has been communicated to me in a manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future,” Einstein wrote. “The new phenomena would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable – though much less certain – that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.” Einstein concluded the letter with an ominous reference to Germany’s ceasing “the sale of uranium from the Czechoslovakian mines which she has taken over” and copying “American work on uranium.”

Eventually, the letter in conjunction with Szilard’s militating and the help of Alexander Sachs, an informal adviser to the president, prompted Roosevelt to set up the program that became the Manhattan Project, so named, in part, for atomic research taking place at Columbia. Roosevelt arranged for the transfer of $6,000 to support research at the university at that time. While the university appears inclined to provide a p.r. platform to a nation attempting to race ahead in its quest for atomic energy nowadays, it nonetheless recognizes work of Fermi. In a November 2001 story in “The Columbia News,” the university announced a conference recognizing the contributions of Fermi, who was affiliated with the school from 1939 to 1942, to the Manhattan Project. “Enrico Fermi shaped the destiny of physics from the Manhattan Project through the present times,” said Tsung-Dao Lee, University Professor at Columbia.

The Columbia News story, citing, Professor David Freedberg, Director of the Italian Academy, trumpeted Columbia’s status as “the appropriate setting for the signature American event of a year devoted to recalling the life and work of one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, who directed the experiment that initiated the world’s first controlled and self-sustaining nuclear reaction.” Fermi’s eagerness to speed his experiments forward prompted him to commandeer members of Columbia’s football team to pack heavy uranium into cans and then bring it into his lab, according to Mr. Freedberg in an accompanying podcast. Said Mr. Freedberg in the news story: “Had Fermi and another Columbian, the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard not persevered in their collaboration here, the world’s first controlled nuclear chain reaction would not have been developed by 1942, and the Manhattan Project would not have built the first atomic bombs by 1945.” And, Mr. Freedberg might have added, the history of the world might be tragically different today.

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