Thursday, August 21, 2014

A-Bomb and Penicillin secrets 'Hidden in Plain Sight' : un-redacting wartime Manhattan's two "Projects"

The structure of my drama in five acts, "Manhattan Natural" (the other Manhattan Project) , has one obvious influence --- the efforts of science historian Robert S Norris to destroy the oldest and biggest myth of wartime's Atomic Bomb.

Norris , in "The Manhattan Project" (published by Black Dog and Leventhal) , first recounts the usual version of this pernicious myth.

We all know - vaguely - how it goes.

To misdirect curiosity away from all the secret atomic research going on in a remote desert location in the empty dusty American South West, the entire Project was supposedly - and very cleverly - given the title of that location's geographical and cultural opposite.

So the rural-focused A-bomb project was named after the most urban location in the world - Manhattan Island, with all its skyscrapers, in the far off and crowded American North East, two thousand miles away.

Norris seeks to destroy this utter nonsense .

"The Purloined Bomb"

He hints that Edgar Allan Poe himself might have approved the truly audacious cleverness that lay behind the naming of the top secret atomic project.

Because the A-Bomb was actually a secret 'hidden in plain sight', just as in Poe's famous story, "The Purloined Letter".

The easy - cheap - fast - part of the entire atomic project was the basic science bits - the realm of atomic physicists as atomic physicists.

The truly difficult parts - consuming tons of money , man and woman power and  scarce time, were the engineering and manufacturing aspects- chemists and metallurgists playing key roles.

 (Along with the printers who made the boxes Chiclet chewing gum came in !)

Most of the physicists, most of the time, were hands on engineers in all but formal title.

And much of all that activity - along with a lot of the basic science - happened in America's industrial and technical heartland.

In 1940 , that was definitely centred around New York , not in some empty desert.

After reading Norris,  it is clear that any history of the wartime atomic bomb that never once mentions personalities, institutions and events in the greater NYC area would read like one of those 'forthright' investigative reports loved by the CIA and NSA  - all those reams of redacted paper more black than white.

Here is a link to a tour of all of the many Manhattan sites connected to the A-Bomb that he conducted with science reporter William J Broad of the New York Times.

( Equally interesting atomic tours could be conducted in the other boroughs, on Long island and in nearby communities in New Jersey and the Hudson Valley.)

I knew Norris's claim of the Manhattan-ness of the Manhattan Project to be even more profoundly true of 'The other Manhattan Project' :  the successful development of wartime natural penicillin.

After about one hundred big books on penicillin , something entirely new : an account of the one successful penicillin project , not another hagiographic account of Oxford penicillin's failed effort.

(The unsuccessful development of wartime natural penicillin's rival , synthetic penicillin , by way of pointed contrast, happened everywhere but NYC !)

A very interesting and historically accurate account of the development of successful wartime penicillin can be told by simply centring it in New York City with Dr Martin Henry Dawson's team.

Outlier chapters will be added as events - sparked by Dawson's efforts in Manhattan - gradually emerge elsewhere.

I intend to parallel the story of Dawson's project with my recalling of the New York City aspects of the story of the A-bomb.

(Albeit in much less detail than from scholars like Norris.)

All this designed to highlight the truly Janus-like nature of the mercurial and mysterious little island of Manhattan : always seemingly two parts Gordon Gekko and two parts Emma Lazarus ....

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