Science: The Philosophers' Stone

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Convened by the United Nations as an outgrowth of President Eisenhower's dramatic atoms-for-peace proposal of 1953, the International Conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy has brought together 1,200 scientists from 72 nations, collected for all to see and hear just about everything mankind knows about non-military aspects of nuclear energy.

There are mathematicians and theoretical physicists who think in strange abstractions, practical physicists who deal in billions of volts of energy and hundred-millionths of seconds, chemists who juggle beakers of death-dealing radiation, engineers who work to microscopic tolerances in strange new metals, biologists who use the atom in delicate life experiments, physicians who enlist the atom as a strong new ally against disease and death.

There are hundreds of unofficial delegates who came to watch and listen: far-sighted industrialists who see an enormous business potential and want to get in on the ground floor, financiers who smell big money, 500 journalists, swarms of plain tourists. They packed Geneva to the alleys, forced even some official delegates to live outside the city (e.g., some U.S. delegates are sleeping 20 miles away across the Swiss border in France). There are Indians and Czechs. Japanese and Hollanders, Pakistani and Lichtensteiners. The Russians arrived in force with 30 chainsmoking technicians to set up their exhibits and 150 other members in their delegation. The British, highly skilled in atomics, flooded down from London. Besides U.S. Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss and four other chief delegates (Dr. Libby. Nobel Prizewinner I. I. Rabi of Columbia, Detlev Bronk, president of the National Academy of Sciences, and Dr. Shields Warren, director of the Cancer Research Institute at the New England Deaconess Hospital), the U.S. sent a Government delegation of 319 scientists and technicians, plus an unofficial drove of scientists, business men and industrialists.

Treasure Trove. Almost from the day the atom was split and its energy harnessed, scientists around the world have been longing for such an opportunity to climb over national fences to talk, teach, speculate and dream about the atom's future. By the end of World War II, they knew that they had found a treasure of incredible value. They stood like the openmouthed shepherd boys in an ancient tale who stumbled on the entrance of a cave heaped high with jew els. The deeper they looked the more treasure they saw — and the cave went on for ever. What the scientists had found, they told one another with growing excitement, was the modern counterpart of the Philosophers' Stone, which medieval alchemists searched for in vain as the tool to transmute gold from base metals. The atom has turned the medieval dream into 20th century reality. Modern atomic science can actually transmute metals —plutonium is a transmuted metal, and gold could be made from other elements if it were worth the expense and effort.

During the ten years of the cold war and atomic arms stockpiling, the knowledge grew, but it grew in compartments, with each group of scientists forced to parallel the work of colleagues in other nations.

New information was seldom released, even if it had little to do with weapons.

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