Dieter Gruen fled Nazi Germany at the age of 14. After studying chemistry at Northwestern University, he joined the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He went on to receive his doctorate from the University of Chicago and worked as a scientist at Argonne National Laboratory.
Narrator: Dieter Gruen describes how atomic science dominated the news after the end of World War II and how the Manhattan Project was a formative experience.
Dieter Gruen: After the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were dropped and the war was over, it’s very hard to reconstruct the feeling that existed in this country. People talked about atoms as if that was something totally new, and mysterious and secret. You talked to a person on the street about atoms, and they were all a dither. It’s very hard to reconstruct the intense feeling people had from one day to the next about atoms and atomic science.
One of the messages that we had was that there are no secrets about atoms and that there is no defense against atomic weapons. So we started an organization called The Oak Ridge Engineers and Scientists. We wanted to create public awareness of what urgency there is in preventing anything like this from happening again.
My work at Argonne [National Laboratory] was strongly influenced by my experiences on the Manhattan Project. On reflecting back on what I did during most of my life, I would have to say that my scientific work had its origins in the realization that nuclear power was something really new and important. And that there were two sides to it: one destructive and the other constructive, and that that power could be used as a non-polluting alternative source of energy. So for the rest of my scientific life, I devoted myself to the solution of this very daunting and challenging problem of how to create a sustainable, non-polluting global energy source.
Oak Ridge has been the home of many pioneering developments in nuclear and scientific research since the 1940s. Gordon Fee contends that the nuclear age was born at Oak Ridge. Ruth Huddleston recalls her work at the Y-12 Plant during the Manhattan Project. Denise Kiernan describes how Oak Ridge reacted to the end of World War II and the town’s historic legacy.
Narrator: Former manager of the Y-12 Plant Gordon Fee reflects on Oak Ridge’s role in the nuclear era.
Gordon Fee: We all know, the genie’s out of the bottle, but so much good has come out of the nuclear era that was born here. The nuclear era was born here.
Narrator: Ruth Huddleston was a “Calutron girl” at the Y-12 Plant during the Manhattan Project. Ruth was never told what she was producing but learned to calibrate the Calutrons, which were machines that electromagnetically separated the uranium isotopes for the atomic bombs.
Ruth Huddleston: When I got cleared, you know, to go to work, they took us to this room, and it was filled with what we called “cubicles.” And that was a big apparatus. It was metal. It had all kinds of gauges and meters, and all that you had to learn to operate. And then, they told us when it got out of hand, if it went over too far to the right, we had to adjust it to get it back where, you know, it’s supposed to be. It went too far to the left, we had to adjust it.
If anybody asked you what you did over there, we just—I never did answer them, really, because I didn’t know, really.
Narrator: Denise Kiernan, author of the bestselling book The Girls of Atomic City, describes Oak Ridgers’ reactions to the end of World War II and their work’s powerful legacy.
Denise Kiernan: You know, it was a very difficult moment because if you see pictures at the end of World War II, you see sailors kissing girls in Times Square and everybody saying “Hooray!” And people in Oak Ridge were happy that the war was over, too. Everybody was happy that the war was over, but they had this added issue that they had been a part of something that was quite interesting and quite different and quite significant. And being a part of that, you know, some people were proud that they’d made a contribution to help the war effort.
Then, people started—some people I talked to said that they started to have concerns about, like, you know, “Well, am I okay? You know, what is this stuff called radiation?” Because then there was this whole new language people had to get used to. You know, the phrase “radiation sickness” hadn’t existed really in the common language, and now this was something people heard about. And people started talking eventually after a few months. They started hearing about this strange cancer in Japan where the people had been bombed. That’s what some of them referred to it as, this kind of, “What is that?” And so, so much information came out really after August 6th. You know, August 6th was just the beginning to understand of what the bombing was. And then, there was more information.
It continues to affect our lives. It continues to affect our lives. It affects our economics. It affects our politics, the way we relate to other countries. Nuclear medicine has become a staple in every hospital in the world. You know, so, nuclear medicine, nuclear energy, nuclear weapons, all of that, you know, goes back to Oak Ridge. All of that goes back to eighteen-year-old girls sitting in front of panels turning knobs and flipping switches.
ORNL scientist Eric Pierce and Manhattan Project chemist Dieter Gruen emphasize the power of collaboration at the laboratory and describe how scientists can address today’s global challenges.
Narrator: Eric Pierce, a senior scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and leader of the laboratory’s Earth Sciences Group, describes the Manhattan Project’s unique blend of scientific specialties.
Eric Pierce: From the historical mission, right, the national labs were built to very simply beat Hitler in building a nuclear bomb. The world today has been forever changed as a result of that intense focus of a variety of scientists from a variety of different disciplines, tackling a challenge that at the time seemed insurmountable, right? They did it in short order.
Narrator: Many Manhattan Project scientists were concerned about their creations would be used. Dieter Gruen expresses hope that the world will resolve its nuclear weapon and climate change challenges.
Dieter Gruen: Scientists working on the Manhattan Project became, many of them, very concerned about issues that we’re still talking about today. And that is how to control the spread and the use of nuclear weapons, recognizing that we are living in that new age.
All of us, humanity as a whole, we face two existential questions: annihilation by nuclear weapons or by climate change. And our demise is avertable. We can prevent this. We have all the means possible to prevent it.
Narrator: National laboratories like Oak Ridge can efficiently solve massive problems. Eric Pierce believes those solutions will greatly benefit society.
Pierce: Bringing this collection of computational scientists, biophysicists who are using neutrons to study protein crystals, geochemists, just regular chemists, microbiologists, people who understand genetics, all together, figure out how to talk to one another, speaks to the lab’s power of bringing these multidisciplinary teams together. Tackling something that is in the national interest and doing it in short order to resolve these really, really, really, really, really challenging problems. And it makes it exciting, right? Because the discoveries that will come out into the future, given ORNL’s ,what, 75-year history, will be quite impactful.