JF Ptak Science Books LLC
My rare/significant/non-existent scientific bookstore was in Georgetown for many years. It was a few doors down from Alger Hiss’ house, a few less from Warren Christopher’s house, a few more further from Alex G. Bell’s house, diagonally away from a George Washington ____ here tavern, just across the street from a children’s park built on top of a Revolutionary War cemetery, and just generally in the misty mist of interesting stuff. It was by virtue of my location (it took 15 years for me to actually get a sign for the store, and only then because my glorious wife, Patti Digh, bought it for me) that I was able to met a wide range of interesting folks--and this is how I came to meet Robert L. Walker. Dr. Walker was retired and living in the desert near Santa Fe at that point, and had just happened to pop into the store because he was visiting a neighbor who shared his hobby of harpsichord building.
Since he was a physicist and of a certain age, it was my custom to find out what this class of human was doing, oh, 55 years earlier. Dr. Walker, as it turned out, was a graduate student at Cornell who was recruited to work at the Metallurgical Lab at U Chicago, beginning in 1941.
This of course was an incredibly interesting time to be where he was. Steps towards the realization of nuclear energy were being taken under the grandstands of Soldier’s Field (the “West Stands Laboratory”), with Enrico Fermi in charge--the atomic pile (code for a nuclear reactor) being constructed during the months of October and November 1942 and then becoming “operational” (becoming a self sustaining chain reaction initiating the controlled release of nuclear energy, as they say) for the first time (in human history) on December 2, 1942.
Now what really captured me in all of this was Dr. Walker’s story of how he came to go from Chicago to Los Alamos—it is to me a magnificent story of collected smallnesses in a very, decidedly, not-small environment.
Listen: Dr. Walker said that he was tasked “in June or July 1943” with taking a bit of plutonium from the Chicago reactor to Los Alamos. Los Alamos was just being completed at the time. The production of plutonium was very slow and produced minute amounts. It could well be that this was the first plutonium that was received at Los Alamos.
Dr. Walker had the plutonium in a small glass vial in his pocket. He traveled alone.
He got on a commercial flight and had several stops en route to the desert.
Once he reached Santa Fe he waited for a JEEP; once it arrived, he hopped in and he and the driver trundled off to the brand new top secret facility in Oppenheimer’s nowhere.
The plutonium was delivered.
The story is just so incredibly sotto voce, so offhand and chance-filled, to transport such an incredibly rare and valuable commodity in someone’s pocket, without a guard, as to be unimaginable, at least in my mind.
I asked Dr. Walker to draw on a 3x5 card the size of the plutonium bit—the results are above. The speck was a research speck to be used to determine fission quality and other preparatory tests—this was all pre –Hanford, when plutonium production really kicked in in 1944/5. But in 1943, the speck was pretty much what we had. And it was in Walker’s pants.
I misplaced this card for years, and it surfaced again just today. So, before I could send it off again to its Secret Place, I decided to write a bit about it and post its image here, just so that there is some record of this first momentous and bumpy trip.
Earlier today I called the Los Alamos National Lab and talked history with Gordon McDonough just to make sure I wasn’t overlooking something big in the story, something that would make it more understandable for this plutonium speck to make the trip in someone’s pants.
McDonough supported the rare nature of this trip, saying that the plutonium was very seldom transported, and that although Dr. Walker was noted in the official LANL history, there was no mention of this trip, nor it seemed was there any mention of the first plutonium received by the lab.
I knew that there was no danger in carrying the plutonium in a glass vial in your pants, and Gordon—an animated and charming speaker—perked up further, mentioning that Glenn Seaborg quite often carried his plutonium around in an envelope in his pocket. I really don't know what to say.
Seems to me that the first bits of the bomb would be moved around with a little more élan—though I am proven wrong. Now I’m forced to try and think about a category of essay in a new and perhaps untouched genre: great things of enormous importance that people carried in their pockets.
Dr. Walker went on to a brilliant career and was a much-loved and highly respected, and generous, teacher and colleague. The way in which he told his story of transporting what may have been the first plutonium to reach Los Alamos for the build of the atomic bomb will never leave me—the quiet, ultimate understatement of a man completing a task.