October 17, 2008


As Manhattan Project's Cast Reconvenes, Terrible Beauty Takes the Stage at the Met (ROBERT LEE HOTZ, 10/17/08, Wall Street Journal)

Arias of the Bomb triggered a chain reaction of science and national memory this week, through a new staging of "Doctor Atomic" at New York's Metropolitan Opera, telling how young men and women in the urgency of war first kindled atomic fire from the tinder of physics.

The opera is scored by John Adams, who was inspired by the creation of the world's first atomic weapon during the Manhattan Project and its leader, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Few other achievements of 20th-century science lend themselves so readily to the high drama of opera as the haunting history of scientists atop an isolated New Mexico mesa driven in secrecy by ambition and fear to unleash the atom's destructive power.

The new production, which opened Monday and will be broadcast in 30 countries next month, has prompted a scholarly retrospective on the Manhattan Project at the City University of New York. Many of the project's surviving physicists are convening there today, perhaps for the last time, at a moment when an estimated 11,000 or so nuclear weapons are deployed among at least seven nations world-wide and diplomats are trying to limit the spread of nuclear technology in North Korea and Iran. The U.S. itself is poised to resume warhead production for the first time in two decades.

"We are at real risk now," says Nobel laureate Norman Ramsey, 94 years old. As head of the Manhattan Project's Delivery Group, the Harvard University physicist developed the means to drop the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Indeed, researchers are still struggling to grasp all the destructive effects of the force that these scientists distilled from fractured bonds of matter. [...]

Using advanced climate models developed by NASA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the scientists calculated the consequences of a regional conflict in which each side might attack with 50 nuclear weapons, compared with the thousands of warheads that could be launched by a nuclear superpower. Millions of tons of soot from burning cities would be lofted higher into the atmosphere than previously believed, drop temperatures world-wide to levels not seen for a thousand years and strip much of the atmosphere's protective layer of ozone, researchers at the University of Colorado and Rutgers University reported.

...they'd tell us exactly how many we need to drop in Waziristan in order to counterbalance global warming, and we'd get a two-fer.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 17, 2008 6:25 AM
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