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Not Your Father’s World History Part 15:
“Just pretend you're a janitor.”

19 February 2006

Andrei Sakharov
Andrei Sakharov
Physicist & Human Rights Activist

Curious Article No. 24:

In Yenan between 1941 and 1945, Mao funded his Red Army by growing and selling opium. In at least one year he made $60 million. This enterprise grew so vast that the glut of all that dope drove the world price down and party officials begged him to knock it off. Also during this time Mao welcomed the Japanese occupation of China because he hoped he and Stalin could work out a deal to share the country with Japan after the war. A standout guy, no?

When it came to uninhibited extermination the Chairman handily surpassed both Hitler and Stalin. Estimates range from 40 to 80 million. These break down into three general categories or phases: The Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), The Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and the various liquidations and Stalinesque purges which spanned his entire period of influence from 1930 until his death in 1976. He dispatched thousands of his own Red Army soldiers before and during the Long March for sundry derelictions by either having them hacked to death or buried alive. The Great Leap Forward was Mao’s bid to boost the production of all sectors of the Chinese economy by re-deploying “surplus” rural laborers for vast, poorly engineered infrastructure projects or to run backyard furnaces to produce steel.

As agricultural output plummeted and a famine widely recognized as history’s greatest ravaged the land, he commandeered millions of tons of what grain there was and shipped it off to the Soviet Union in exchange for arms. Party records from 1958 quoted Mao as conceding, “Half of China may well have to die.” Neither did the prospect of nuclear war faze him: “There are 2.7 billion people in the world... I say that, taking the extreme situation, half dies, half lives, but imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist.”

Conventional wisdom credits Harry Truman with saving far more people than he killed by nuking Japan in August 1945, but there are compelling arguments on both sides and it’s not likely the question will be resolved anytime soon. Of course we’ve had sixty-plus years to ruminate over it, whereas Truman had 103 days and no precedent to guide him. For what it’s worth, most of the Manhattan Project’s principal scientists were opposed to using nuclear weapons in anger against a population, as was General Eisenhower. After the fact, so were General MacArthur, Major General Curtis LeMay, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, and Albert Einstein. One argument in favor was that the event brought such a quick surrender that Stalin didn’t have time to mobilize against Japan and so couldn’t demand joint occupation of it. Revenge against the Japanese for Pearl Harbor and their savagery toward POWs undoubtedly also played a role.

Igor Kurchatov
Igor Kurchatov
Though the outlines had been understood since the 1920s, the centerpiece secret of the Manhattan Project was that a radioactive metal like uranium-235 could be made vastly more radioactive — lethally so — by uniting two or more pieces into a composite that exceeds a certain size called a critical mass. Further, if you could bang those pieces together hard enough that critical mass would explode or fission with 1.5 million times the energy of an equal quantity of TNT. Another secret, way trickier, was how to produce those fissionable materials economically in the first place. The Russians began to share in much of this knowledge at least as far back as 1941 through the efforts of Klaus Fuchs, Theodore Hall, and several other spies as well as from their own world-class physicists Igor “The Beard” Kurchatov and Andrei Sakharov. They set off their first nuke in August 1949.

Atomic rumors swirled for years before Hiroshima. In the wartime film Notorious, a ring of Nazi spies hides granulated uranium in bottles in a wine cellar. Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman discover this, spill some, and rush to scoop it back up before Claude Rains catches them. She whispers, “I’m terrified,” to which Grant responds, “Just pretend you’re a janitor. Janitors are never terrified.” While making the picture in 1945, Alfred Hitchcock and his writer Ben Hecht looked up Nobel laureate Robert Millikan at Caltech in Pasadena and asked him how to make an atom bomb. Millikan wouldn’t respond except to allow that the main ingredient was uranium, maybe, and that it could fit in a bottle. Hitchcock later claimed that the FBI caught wind of these details in the project and put him under surveillance to make sure real-life versions of those spies weren’t informing him.

Building a critical mass unwittingly is called an excursion or criticality accident. One can do this by uniting two or more subcritical masses as discussed above or by reflecting a subcritical mass’s radiating neutrons back into it. The Manhattan Project’s personnel were cautious enough, perhaps owing to the novelty of what they were doing, that these things never happened under them. But on August 21, 1945, Los Alamos physicist Harry Daghlian, Jr accidentally dropped a tungsten carbide brick against a hemispherical plutonium bomb core. The brick reflected enough neutrons to make the plutonium go critical and Daghlian died twenty-five days later from that radiation blast. And on May 21, 1946, also at Los Alamos, physicist Louis Slotin was experimenting with two such hemispheres (one of which was the very same that had killed Daghlian) by bringing them very close together to study their subcritical radiation. As a precaution he habitually kept a screwdriver blade between them, but on this day the screwdriver fell away and the hemispheres touched. Instantly he slapped one of them to make it fall to the floor, sacrificing himself but at least saving most of the others in the room. He died nine days later and two of his onlookers followed him in 1948.


Our species officially became a spacefaring one on April 12, 1961 when Soviet fighter pilot Yuri Gagarin completed an orbit of the earth (well, almost) on a 108-minute flight. The state-run press reported that he had stayed inside his Vostok craft all the way to the ground, thus qualifying the feat for the record books. Actually the Vostok wasn’t capable of a soft landing in the first place, so as per prior arrangement Gagarin ejected. More provocatively, we now know that Vladimir Ilyushin, the son of celebrated aircraft engineer Sergei Ilyushin and for whom Gagarin was a backup, was the first human to reach space and return alive (if barely) on April 7th. This was confirmed recently by Ilyushin himself in an interview with PBS-affiliated Global Science Productions, and also by Kremlin documentation from the era.

There may well have been other Soviet attempts that were hushed up when their outcomes were less than stellar. Many say Ilyushin had an unnamed predecessor who went up February 2nd but didn’t survive, and according to a 2001 exposé in Pravda (hardly a bulwark of integrity, but let’s humor them) between 1957 and 1959 three other crypto-cosmonauts named Alexei Ledovsky, Serenti Shiborin, and Andrei Mitkov made solo suborbital flights but all died.

Next: Tragedy and Triumph, Plus Cosmic Neighbors
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Text © Peter Blinn 2006



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