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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Oral Histories

Jim Sanborn’s Interview

Jim Sanborn is an American sculptor known for works such as “Kryptos” at the CIA Headquarters in McLean, VA. In this interview, Sanborn discusses his exhibit “Critical Assembly,” which is now on display at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, NM. The installation recreates the Manhattan Project scientists’ experiments at Los Alamos to determine when plutonium would go “critical” in an atomic bomb. Sanborn explains why he decided to do the project, and how he carefully created each piece of the exhibit. He describes some of the artifacts in the exhibit, including the physics package of the Trinity device and an oscilloscope, and where he found some of the materials and artifacts he used. Sanborn also discusses the Slotin accident, the urchin initiator, and other key scientific and engineering devices from the Manhattan Project.

Jay Shelton’s Interview

Jay Shelton is an American physicist and science and math teacher. In this interview, he recalls his experiences from nearly three decades as a high school teacher in Northern New Mexico. He provides an overview of how radiation works and how alpha, beta, and gamma rays differ. Shelton explains the health risks associated with radiation and stresses the importance of quantitative analyses of risks from certain radiation sources. He argues that the general public often overplays many of these risks. He also goes over changes in public perception towards radiation. For example, he points out that radiation was believed to have health benefits prior to the 1930s. Throughout the interview, Shelton describes how a variety of scientific instruments work, including Geiger counters and oscilloscopes, and expounds on the importance of a hands-on approach in science education. He also discusses his personal collection of scientific artifacts, including Revigators and other nuclear-related objects.

Robert Cantrell’s Interview

Robert Cantrell joined the Manhattan Project in 1943 and worked as an architect for Dr. Walter Zinn’s design group at the University of Chicago. Working from his office in Ryerson Hall, Cantrell helped design a new mechanism for inserting the control rods into the nuclear reactor. He also designed innovative tools for scientists who were working on radioactive materials. Cantrell recalls borrowing a peace of platinum from the New Chem building at Chicago and being reprimanded walking back to his office without an armed escort; he found out that the piece of platinum was worth “about seventy thousand dollars” and that he “had about half of all the available platinum in the country.” After the war, Cantrell continued his career as an architect and helped design buildings for universities across the country.