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Palace of Science in the Arsenal of Democracy
Commenté aux États-Unis 🇺🇸 le 16 mars 2018
This is a book about the most important contributor to the development of radar and the atomic bomb that you have never heard of. Who the hell was Alfred Lee Loomis? Secret palace of science that changed the course of WWII, seriously? I picked this up at a used book store in 2002. I was in no hurry to read it so it sat on my shelf for a few years. How could this be really significant? I thought I knew all that was necessary to understand the technological and scientific developments that helped win that terrible war. Boy, was I wrong!
Alfred Loomis was intimately involved with the development of the two most critical technologies responsible for the allied victory in World War II: radar and the atomic bomb. The story of the atomic bomb is well known but the story of radar has not been widely told. Jennet Conant has put together a gripping tale that is full of surprises.
As a successful and wealthy financier Alfred Loomis owned property in the New York state gated community called Tuxedo Park. The tuxedo was named for the community not the other way round. That is where the “secret palace of science” was located. Loomis bought a second home called the Tower House and dedicated it solely to the pursuit of science. Better equipped than what universities had at the time, it became a haven for visiting scientists to do their own research and research that Alfred Loomis was interested in. His collaborators included the well-respected American physicist Dr Robert Wood and Ukrainian-American chemist George Kistiakowsky (later responsible for the implosion method of detonation for the plutonium bomb). Loomis also hosted scientific conferences and the best in their fields came to give talks. It was Albert Einstein who dubbed the house a “palace of science.” Among those who came to Tuxedo Park was Earnest Lawrence. He arrived in 1936 to meet Loomis, see the “palace of science,” and to perhaps see about arranging some funding for his scientific work. Lawrence had been working on a device called a cyclotron for several years and he was trying to get funding for a larger device. Not only was Loomis interested in the cyclotron but he and Lawrence became immediate friends. Loomis sponsored Lawrence’s work and the cyclotron would become a pivotal piece of equipment in the quest to build an atomic bomb; it also got Lawrence a Nobel Prize in 1939.
As a prominent and highly successful financier of public utility projects Loomis had important contacts in the business world. As a successful amateur physicist with his own state-of-the-art laboratory he had important contacts in academia. One of those contacts, MIT president Karl Compton, suggested that Loomis begin to investigate radar early in 1939. As the threat of war descended over Europe Loomis was casting about for something important to become involved in. Even though a solid Republican Loomis was not an isolationist. He would do everything he could to make sure America was prepared for defense and, if necessary, war. He remembered how difficult it had been for America during WW I. So, by 1939 Loomis was involved in both Lawrence’s cyclotron and radar. Lawrence would have most probably built his 184 inch cyclotron without Loomis’s help but Loomis’s financial support made everything move faster. Lawrence enjoyed bouncing all his ideas off Loomis. They were so close that Loomis actually had a desk at Lawrence’s Berkeley Radiation Lab. It quickly became clear that radar would not progress until a powerful beam of very short wave, 10 cm or less, radiation could be produced. All the devices designed in America were not powerful enough. This is where the astonishing Tizard Mission enters the story. Britain, now at complete industrial capacity, no longer had the ability to add new programs of production. They had newly invented devices that would dramatically improve her war fighting ability but needed the help of the US to put them into the hands of the war fighters. The mission arrived in the US in September of 1940 with one particularly amazing device, the cavity magnetron. The cavity magnetron makes modern radar possible. The British mission met with Loomis and he immediately knew that the magnetron changed everything and he went to work. Almost overnight, by the force of his determination, using his connections in government, industry and academia, using his personal wealth, Loomis started the Radiation Lab at MIT. Lawrence, who had never been politically involved, suddenly became motivated to work in radar. He immediately contacted physicists all over the country to come work on radar and they all said yes. Astonishing! Even before the US was involved in the war Lawrence and Loomis were able to get the top physicists to drop their research and come to newly constructed facilities at MIT and begin work on an enterprise none had ever tried or considered before. It was a startling success.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor the Army had an experimental radar station on Oahu. It was a very large beast with a monstrous antenna and operated at wavelengths in the meter range. It was so experimental their warnings of incoming unknown planes were ignored and the attack on 7 December took US forces by surprise. By the time of the naval battles in the waters around Guadalcanal in November of 1942, less than a year later, much smaller, more powerful and more accurate devices had been installed on the Navy’s ships. Devices had been installed aboard Navy and Army aircraft to track down and kill German subs off the east and gulf coasts of America. This fantastic success is a testament to the indomitable efforts of Loomis and Lawrence and the American (some European refugees too) scientists who came to their call. One of my favorite contributors is Columbia physics professor I.I. Rabi (physics Nobel Prize in 1944). He became head of radar research and when a new proposal for another use for radar was suggested Rabi would always ask, “How many Germans will it kill?” When the atomic bomb project finally started moving forward Oppenheimer began poaching physicists from the radar project. He really wanted Rabi but Rabi refused. He thought radar was more critical to the war effort and he thought the bomb could not be completed in time to matter. However he was too important to be left out of that effort and was made a consultant on the bomb project, the only person to commute from the radar project to the Los Alamos site during the war. He was present for the Trinity test.
The race to begin work on an atomic bomb had been horribly delayed by the ineptitude of Lyman Briggs, the one Roosevelt charged with investigating the possibility. Briggs should have immediately brought it to the attention of the National Academy of Sciences but he didn’t. He sat on it. He did nothing. It was Lawrence who, after becoming dismayed by the delay, began to investigate the possibility on his own in 1940. Lawrence did think uranium could be used to make a bomb and his team of scientists at Berkeley, using the cyclotron, discovered two new transuranic elements: neptunium and plutonium. Lawrence was convinced plutonium could also be used to make a bomb. Still nothing happened with Briggs. Finally British physicist Mark Oliphant came to the US in the summer of 1941. He was a member of a British committee looking into the possibility of an atomic bomb (he also worked on the cavity magnetron) and their assessment was it could and should be done. Briggs had ignored their report and Oliphant wanted to know why. Finally, because of Oliphant, after all that time wasted, the atomic bomb project began to move forward. Finally in the summer of 1942 locations for a site to be used to construct an atomic bomb were scouted. It could have, and should have, happened in the summer of 1941. I think that was a tragedy. Think what might have resulted from an atomic bomb ready for use in August of 1944 instead of 1945. In August of 1944 the Western Allies were still tied up in Normandy. So much death and destruction could have been avoided if Britain and America could have rained atomic bombs on Germany.
This book is primarily a biography of Alfred Loomis describing his upbringing, education, personal life, how he amassed a fortune, became a scientist and a prime participant in the two most critical technological enterprises of the Second World War. We have never heard of him before because he wanted it that way. He did not seek fame or fortune from any of his discoveries and inventions, like Loran navigation. After the war he insisted that the MIT lab be closed. It had been necessary for government to become involved in radar because of the war. Now, after the war, it should go to industry. And a billion dollar industry would be created. In 1945 it would be accidentally discovered by a Raytheon engineer (Raytheon was one of the companies that built radar sets for the military) that microwaves can heat food, another industry was born. And, in 1947, experimenting with microwaves beamed at hydrogen, Willis Lamb would discover the Lamb Shift, greatly further the understanding of quantum electrodynamics and win a Nobel Prize. The cavity magnetron made all that possible. It was the extraordinary collaboration between Britain and the US that won the war and greatly influenced progress in science, industry and the quality of life.
There is a very personal reason Jennet Conant wrote this book: her grandfather, James B Conant, was director of the National Defense Research Committee that oversaw the radar and atomic bomb projects, among others. There is also another family connection that ties directly into the Loomis “palace of science.” It is a very interesting and tragic part of the tale that the author opens this book with. In all I got an extremely fascinating story of the development of radar and the atomic bomb as well as an extremely fascinating look into the life of the man who contributed so much to making those efforts a success: Alfred Lee Loomis. Everyone should read this outstanding book!
I have been deeply interested in how it was America, profoundly resistant to becoming involved in another European war, was actually so prepared to fight by the first year of the war. It is fashionable among historians to tout the dismally small size of the US Army in 1939 and put that forward to demonstrate America’s unpreparedness. And it was true, in 1939 the US Army was pathetic. But it is also true that by 1942, the first year of the war, America was suddenly ready. Not completely ready but able to take the offensive by that first year. Even with the losses at Pearl Harbor the US Navy was ready, two new fast battleships entered action at Guadalcanal by November of 1942. The four carriers lost in 1942 were replaced in 1943. The Army had the men and amphibious craft necessary to launch a major assault on North Africa in November of 1942. And radar was ready in 1942! The atomic bomb project began in 1942 and my research shows me that represents a late start but many don’t see it that way. Jennet Conant’s book is a fabulous contribution to understanding how so many Americans saw the coming storm and made sure America was ready.
For more on the Tizard Mission see The Tizard Mission: The Top-Secret Operation That Changed the Course of World War II by Stephen Phelps
For more on US / British cooperation see Eisenhower's Armies: The American-British Alliance during World War II by Niall Barr
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