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Chapter 3: Accelerating Projects

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SMALL SCIENCE IN A BIG LABORATORY

Where are they? Where's George? Where's Mary Jane? That's a nice picture of Charles, but where's Milton?" Do you have questions like these? Don't feel bad, you're not alone. There's too little space and too many memories. This brief history has to cover a lot of  years, a lot of people, a lot of accomplishments. And many of the readers won't have your background. 

The story has to have continuity to give them a chance to understand what the Laboratory—what we—were all about. It must concentrate on the big projects, the big science, the big bucks that built the reactors, the pilot plants, Building 4500-North. You'll find some smaller things in here. A neat physics experiment by a couple of people. A new chemical element. Stuff like that. For   someone from outside—not you, Jim—for someone who thinks that the Laboratory was mainly involved with bombs and reactors and airplanes and a million mice—maybe there ought to be some explanation about how the little stuff fits into the big picture. And about how much of it there was.

It was all Big Science in the beginning. The Project. Get the pile up, get out some plutonium. No time for anything that wasn't needed for Hanford or Los Alamos. But, so much of what came up was new and interesting. New radioisotopes. New problems in chemical separation. Neutrons in unheard of numbers. Almost every practical problem, solved or unsolved, revealed new physics or chemistry or biology that ought to be studied as science, but had to be left waiting until Hanford and Los Alamos and everybody else had what they needed.

Don 
            Palmer injects a solution into an electrochemical cell in an experiment 
            to determine the nature of a sample of chromium.
Don Palmer injects a solution into an electrochemical cell in an experiment to determine the nature of a sample of chromium.

All these opportunities didn't go unnoticed. People talked about them at lunch, stored them away in their minds, wrote little paragraphs about them in research notebooks, even got out  memos-to-file or secret reports on this or that item that ought to be looked at after the War. If they were still here to do it. Or for someone else if they weren't.

Well, the War did end. And the Laboratory was still here, along with many of the people and many of the memos-to-file. And some big new things started up, and there were left over big Project things still to do, and new people were brought in to fill in for the ones that went away. These new people saw all the new things and they, too, had ideas about what could be done with them. So, here were all these people with new ideas set down in the midst of new science and new technology in a laboratory that didn't any more have a single big mission nor a clear idea about what it was supposed to do. So, they all set about doing what they thought they should do and making up reasons for doing it (beyond the fact that it was fun and good science). 

As long as the Manhattan Engineer District was in charge, money was no problem. They were used to buying whatever the scientists said they needed. After the AEC came along, there was at first still no problem about funding, at least for the things that didn't require a big chunk of capital money. The program monitors in Washington were largely old Project people, and they understood the new science and the new ideas. The first budget, at least the first one to come down to the divisional level, was put together in a few hours by setting down what each group was currently spending, adding proportional amounts for the new things they wanted to do, and putting in a little more for contingencies. It really took only one afternoon in the Chemistry Division.

Now, where does all this fit into the background of overall Laboratory development, into the reactors and the mice and the politics that are the foreground of this history? The new ideas of    some of the people were part of the Laboratory's big technology, such as reactors and fuel reprocessing. They joined right in with the large groups devoted to such items and became part of the big picture and got noticed in the history. They were still physicists or chemists or biologists or whatever, but their goals were those of their particular project. 

Another large set of people had seen their future in some of the science that underlay the technology: nuclear physics, separations chemistry, radiation biology. Work in these fields found ready acceptance from the Laboratory management and from the AEC, since it was clearly important to any technology that might be developed. So, these people set happily to work studying the radioactivity of new isotopes, neutron cross sections of elements and isotopes,   solubility of uranium compounds at high temperatures, the mechanism of the radiation decomposition of water, the effects of radiation on Paramecium. 

Many of these people moved back and forth between their small-science research and the big projects, driven by their changing interests and by the changing needs of the Laboratory. One of the Laboratory's chief strengths was the existence of this cadre of experienced, imaginative basic scientists who could be called on  to solve practical problems and who would respond enthusiastically. They had been loyal to the Project and now they were loyal to the Laboratory.

Another set of people had another kind of idea, one that could be carried out only at the Laboratory but didn't really underlie any of its technological interests. Probably foremost among these was the distribution of radioisotopes. The Laboratory was a unique source, in terms of production in the Graphite Reactor and the ability to separate them into forms suitable for shipment and use. Because its value transcended the Laboratory's interests, it became a major effort, and this history naturally treats it as such in the appropriate place. Other examples of work that could only be done near the reactor included use of short-lived radioisotopes for various kinds of research in chemistry and the study and use of neutrons and other radiations from the reactor. Research being what it is, many of these efforts and many of the kind underlying the   technology turned up related questions of scientific interest or developed capabilities that were not necessarily related to the original goals. They might no longer be supportive of the particular interests of the Laboratory or might no longer require the particular materials or facilities that had justified their undertaking. Nevertheless, when they appeared to be good science, the Laboratory supported them, and the AEC generally concurred.

These kinds of small science, carried out in groups of from one to a dozen or so people, were characteristic of the Physics and Chemistry Divisions and later of the Solid State Division. There   were also groups of similar size and origin in Biology, Metallurgy and other divisions, but those divisions tended to be more programmatic or thematic, and their accomplishments generally fit   more understandably into the main thread of the history. 

All of this small science added up to a significant part of the Laboratory. In a typical year between 1955 and 1968, about 35% of the Laboratory's budget supported small science. That's where Henry and John and Tony were. Perhaps incognito by necessity in this history, but important to the Laboratory and remembered by those who were there.

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