Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Lessons of History

You would think that setting up a museum on a subject of recent history would be a bit of a doddle. Right? Well, apparently not.
Doing some research for a book, I stumbled across a website for The National Atomic Museum, located not far from where they first exploded an A-Bomb, in Albuquerque. This is shortly to be re-named, rather grandly, the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History.
Unfortunately, they seemed to have forgotten a good deal of the history of the development of nuclear fission. Understandably, national pride leads them to concentrate on the more patriotic aspects of the Manhattan Project but on their website there are some remarkable omissions and downright blatant errors.
Some mention is made of the early German, French and British research into the principles of atomic fission but there is no mention of the UK Tube Alloys programme which was the first stage in the development of a practical weapon. More alarmingly, much space is given to Albert Einstein’s letter to President Roosevelt, urging him to take a look at the possibilities of nuclear fission. The museum infers that this was what kicked off the Manhattan Project and the development of the bomb.
In fact, Einstein, who had no knowledge or even much interest in nuclear fission, wrote the letter at the insistence of an émigré scientist working on the British project. Leo Szilard, something of an idealist, felt that the information he and his British and American colleagues had acquired, needed more official weight behind them and Einstein, with his popular image, would be the man to do it.
On having the matter explained to him, Einstein responded “I never thought of that!”
Subsequently, the British handed all their research over to America, where it would not only be safer from enemy action but could also draw upon the greater resources of the United States, still at peace. Initially, the name remained Tube Alloys. Scientists know no national borders and the development had been an international project for many years.
It is a pity that a museum which touts itself as being an educational establishment can’t get it right. An American author, Richard Rhodes, does so in style in his book, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” Apparently the curator of the National Atomic Museum hasn’t read it.
Researching history that took place a few hundred years ago is tricky, but is less encumbered by nationalistic spin. But given that we are told that this is the information age, it should not be difficult to provide a balanced picture of the facts concerning developments that have taken place, certainly within living memory.
Then, of course, few realize, as they turn on their micro-waves, that they owe this convenient bit of kit to a little device called a cavity magnetron. This was developed in wartime Britain to generate high frequency radio waves for radar sets. The prototype was shipped across the Atlantic for production in the United States, who were given, free and clear, the rights to develop and later to market it. I wonder if it features in any museums in America?
Had the British not done so (they gave it in partial exchange for the Lease-Lend programme), just imagine what it might have done for the economy!

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