Science: The Philosophers' Stone

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The Philosophers' Stone (See Cover)

One day in 1928, at a boarding house near the University of California at Berkeley, a strapping, reddish-haired sophomore named Willard Frank Libby met two graduate students. Their talk about chemical research was so exciting that Libby forgot his yearning to be a mining engineer, and switched to chemistry. Because of that chance meeting, Willard Libby, 46, sat in Geneva's stately Palace of Nations this week as the ranking U.S. scientist and the chief U.S. spokesman at man's first international effort to release the unplumbed benefits of peaceful atomic energy.

It is an appropriate setting for Scientist Libby. As a nuclear scientist on the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, he is the man who unwrapped the stark facts about nuclear war. A "thermonuclear weapon" of the type that was exploded by the U.S. in the Pacific last year, said Scientist Libby in his famous "fallout speech" last June, can sprinkle death-dealing radioactive dust over an area of 100,000 square miles. "An area so large," he added dryly, ";that evacuation may be a bit impractical." As the AEC's "vice president in charge of atoms for peace," Libby is the American responsible for charting the tricky path away from national preoccupation with the destructive atom to international cooperation for harnessing the atom's untold goodness. "We have only begun to scratch the surface," says he. "We can advance in every direction." Old Story, New Story. The story of the warlike atom is not new—the dark but necessary secrecy, the uncounted billions spent for uncounted numbers of atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs, atomic cannon, nuclear submarines and still-secret devices which may exceed them all in power for ruination. Now the story of the peaceful atom has begun to unfold. Some of the benign works of atomic energy already under way:

¶In medicine, it can cure some kinds of cancer and promises to cure others.

¶In agriculture, it can produce better plant varieties, kill grain insects.

¶In industry, it speeds up chemical processes, measures the thickness of speeding sheets of paper or steel, forms better plastics and rubber, measures tobacco in cigarettes and traces the flow of oil in pipelines.

¶In laboratories, radioactive tracers have revolutionized research techniques, make it possible to follow the delicate chemical reactions within single living cells.

¶In power production, potentially the most promising avenue of all, current-producing reactors are already running in the U.S., Britain and Russia. At West Milton, N.Y., a reactor is feeding the first power—a token amount—into commercial use. The day is not distant when atomic power will be cheap enough and abundant enough to heat whole cities.

Beakers of Death. It is to measure this beginning, and explore the vast promise beyond, that the unprecedented Geneva conference convened this week. In a marble palace where, only days before, the world's political leaders had floated the hope of a calmer, friendlier world, the world's scientific leaders contemplated the means to make it a better world as well.

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