The Atomic Age That Wasn’t

“It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter, will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history, will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age.”

Lewis L. Strauss, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)

Speech to the National Association of Science Writers, New York City September 16th, 1954.

This past week marks the seventieth anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb used in war, code-named “Little Boy,” on the Japanese city of Hiroshima (August 6, 1945). This was followed a few days later with the destruction of Nagasaki (August 9, 1945) by the second and so-far the last atomic bomb used in war, code-named “Fat Man.” Remarkably only two of these extremely destructive weapons have been used in combat, although many thousands remain ready for use in the United States, the former Soviet Union, and several other nations.

Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima (August 6, 1945)

Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima (August 6, 1945)

In the 1940’s and 1950’s the development of the “atomic” nuclear fission bombs, nuclear reactors, and the much more powerful “hydrogen” or “thermonuclear” fusion bombs ushered in hopes and also fears of an Atomic Age of plenty in which nuclear reactors would produce terawatts of “electricity too cheap to meter.” Despite many billions of dollars invested in atomic powered aircraft, compact nuclear rockets, several different concepts for nuclear fusion power including tokamaks and inertial confinement fusion, and literally hundreds of billions of dollars invested directly and indirectly into atomic weapons research, this Atomic Age never happened.

President Eisenhower and Lewis Strauss

President Eisenhower and Lewis Strauss

Nuclear megaprojects such as ITER and the United States National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have yielded little in practical results despite multi-billion dollar budgets, armies of scientists and engineers, and banks of supercomputers. Other megaprojects like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN have also failed to serendipitously lead to the hoped for Atomic Age. Smaller budget efforts such as research into the Farnsworth fusor have also failed to yield significant practical results.

A modern iPhone is as powerful as a Cray supercomputer from the 1980’s and far more powerful than the Marchant adding machines and IBM punch card machines used to develop the first atomic weapons and nuclear reactors during the Manhattan Project. Calculus and applied mathematics has progressed substantially since World War II. We now have sophisticated symbolic manipulation programs to partially automate and enhance mathematical investigations. These have allegedly resolved a number of open questions in Pure Mathematics including Fermat’s Last Theorem, the Four Color Theorem, and Poincare’s Conjecture. However, the results of attempts to apply these dramatic advances in mathematics and computing to atomic power as well as other kinds of alternative energy have consistently proven disappointing in practical terms.

Seventy years after Hiroshima, with the world mired in a protracted conflict for control of the world’s dwindling oil supplies, costing many thousands of lives and trillions of dollars and risking the use of weapons each a thousand times more powerful than Little Boy, we should pause to reflect and ask why is this? Why has seventy years of heavily funded efforts yielded so little? Why has modern mathematics and super-powerful computers failed to crack this problem?

Here are my theories:

The Manhattan Project was a Fluke

Seventy years of experience strongly suggests that the Manhattan Project was a fluke. Massive government funding, a quasi-military organization, armies of the “best and brightest” scientists and engineers generally fails to make breakthroughs, major inventions and scientific discoveries. Numerous attempts to duplicate the success of the Manhattan Project have failed since 1945. The War on Cancer with a total budget of over $200 billion in current dollars, roughly ten times the total inflation-adjusted cost of the Manhattan Project, is one of the most expensive examples of the many failed New Manhattan Projects of the last seventy years.

Despite their enormous destructive power, atomic weapons are actually relatively simple devices compared to other technological advances such as mechanical clocks, internal combustion engines, radios, and so forth. Little Boy was essentially a series of concentric metal cylinders — a glorified gun to shoot the Uranium 235 core into a target and trigger the deadly fission reaction. Fat Man was even simpler in many respects, a series of concentric spherical shells. In both cases, the simple geometry made mathematical calculations simpler and easier and more reliable than those in most inventions and discoveries, before and since.

Gadget (The Trinity Bomb)

Gadget (The Trinity Bomb)

It was possible to test the theoretical calculations with risky sub-critical mass assembly tests (which killed at least two people) rather than a large number of full-system tests (such as the Trinity explosion on July 16, 1945) unlike many other inventions where hundreds or even thousands of full-system tests were required to develop a working system.

Many of the key scientists and engineers were Jewish and/or refugees from Nazi Germany and were unusually motivated both individually and as a group by the belief that Hitler and the Nazis intended to kill them and their families. This probably produced an unusually high level of focus on practical results compared to subsequent Big Science megaprojects which are notorious for inefficiency and bureaucratic paralysis.

The belief that the Manhattan Project represented a new, more effective, repeatable model for scientific research and technological invention drew and continues to draw vast resources and talent into scientific and engineering megaprojects that have mostly failed and starved smaller table top approaches of both funding and the “best and brightest.” Despite the disappointing track record, the “New Manhattan Project” remains an expensive recurring theme in public policy.


The spectacular success of the Manhattan Project and the subsequent development of the hydrogen or thermonuclear fusion bomb in the 1950s went to the physicists heads. It also consolidated power and control over funding in the hands of a small group of Manhattan Project veterans and their students, whose already oversized egos expanded greatly with success and public adulation. The arrogance went up and the practical results went down.

Shut Up and Calculate

The post-war era, particularly in physics, saw a shift away from the interest in philosophy and conceptual analysis evident in the work of Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and other pre-war physicists, scientists, and engineers. Raw calculational skills and tools, symbolic manipulation by both humans and computer programs have advanced greatly in the last seventy years, but at the price of a reduced skill level in conceptual analysis, something that we cannot duplicate with computers despite the recent hype about Deep Learning and Machine Learning.

MIT science historian and physicist David Kaiser has argued that the post-War and post-Sputnik flood of students into physics resulted in much larger class sizes and it proved difficult to teach this more contemplative conceptual and philosophical approach to large classes. Perhaps equally important was the legacy of the dispute between Einstein, Schrodinger, de Broglie and a few other physicists and Bohr, Heisenberg, and others over the foundations of quantum mechanics and the iffy basis of the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics championed by Bohr and his students.

The Decline of the Individual Craftsman and the Rise of Mass Production

None of this can fully explain the disappointing results of shoestring budget table top research in the power and propulsion fields since World War II and especially about 1970. The Farnsworth Fusor and similar tabletop fusion devices are fascinating gadgets but despite considerable effort by a diverse group of enthusiasts since at least the 1960s, results here have also been disappointing. The enthusiasts now have access to today’s super-powerful computers, far more powerful than the early computers used to develop the hydrogen bombs in the 1950s, free open source numerical and mathematical programs such as Python/NumPy/SciPy, Octave, SciLab, Maxima and many others, physics simulation codes, and modern advances in pure and applied mathematics.

Historically, individual craftsman such as blacksmiths and clockmakers built most devices and machines nearly from scratch. This was and is expensive and ultimately unable to compete with modern mass production techniques. However, it meant that these craftsmen (and sometimes women) had very extensive hands on experience with building the devices and machines, far beyond the knowledge and skill level of modern factory workers or engineers, both of whom usually specialize in one part of the device or machine rather than the whole system.

A clockmaker who custom builds hundreds of clocks starting in his early teens or even childhood like John Harrison, the inventor of the nautical chronometers used to measure longitude, probably had a level of practical familiarity with his or her subject unparalleled today. Many of these craftsmen, like Harrison, were also literate and studied the scholarship of their time and past generations. Very few modern engineers have the experience of building their device or machine from scratch hundreds or thousands of times.

The Way Forward

The grim 70th anniversary of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should remind us to stop and take stock of the Atomic Age that wasn’t, of the “electricity too cheap to meter” that never came. Surely we can do better.

If my theories are correct, we need to break free of the legacy of the Manhattan Project and shift back to smaller scale, decentralized research and development with a stronger emphasis on conceptual analysis and hands-on skills in designing and building full systems. The rise of 3d printers, inexpensive programmable machine tools and robots, and similar gadgets may make it possible to duplicate and even surpass the expertise of the craftsmen and inventors of the pre-industrial era.

In this dark time when evil forces seem to be on the march and mostly winning throughout the world, it is worth remembering that so far reason and good will have prevailed and only two atomic bombs have been used in war or to take human lives in any context.

© 2015 John F. McGowan

About the Author

John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves problems using mathematics and mathematical software, including developing gesture recognition for touch devices, video compression and speech recognition technologies. He has extensive experience developing software in C, C++, MATLAB, Python, Visual Basic and many other programming languages. He has been a Visiting Scholar at HP Labs developing computer vision algorithms and software for mobile devices. He has worked as a contractor at NASA Ames Research Center involved in the research and development of image and video processing algorithms and technology. He has published articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the discovery of methane on Mars), and cheap access to space. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He can be reached at [email protected].

Note on the Pictures

The picture of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was taken from the Enola Gay, a specially modified B-29 bomber, as it flew away from the city. The Enola Gay is on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia, not far from the Dulles International Airport.

The picture of President Dwight Eisenhower and Lewis Strauss, then Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), supposedly shows the President receiving a report on the Operation Castle hydrogen bomb tests in the Pacific, March 30, 1954.

The picture of Gadget, the first atomic bomb, is a still from a color movie of the Trinity atomic bomb test.

All three are products of the US Government and therefore in the public domain.

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