Science: The Philosophers' Stone

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Libby and a group of devoted associates worked for three years to perfect an "atomic calendar," ultimately achieved an accurate method of measuring the past with carbon 14. Refined and put into worldwide use, the method has strongly affected sciences as far apart as archaeology, geology and climatology. Once a New York newspaper misconstrued some remarks in a Libby speech to mean that he had accidentally come across the carbon 14 discovery, came out next day with a story headlined. SCIENTIST STUMBLES ON NEW METHOD. Back in the Chicago lab, Libby's assistants hit the ceiling, but regained their good humor and hung a plaque saying: "On this spot W. F. Libby, 40, stumbled (for three years) on the carbon 14 dating method." Age of Bison. Libby is a solemn, slow-spoken and serious man, and in his office at the AEC he seems weighed down, even a little awed, by the burdens of his position, where a single slip of the tongue may betray a national secret. But when carbon 14 is mentioned, he lights up like a Roman candle. He remembers with special pleasure his dealings with the archaeologists. "They are all as poor as church mice," he says, "but such enthusiasm!" They brought him unimpressive things —fragments of charcoal from ancient hearths, or bones of extinct bison—and when he measured the age of the objects, the archaeologists made him feel that he had done something priceless and wonderful for them.

Libby entered the inner circle of the AEC in 1950, when Chairman Gordon Dean appointed him to the General Advisory Committee. From his inside vantage point he could watch and play a role in the measured march of the nuclear weapons: first the Abomb; then better A-bombs; then the Russian Abomb; then the H-bomb; then the Russian H-bomb; then the fission-fusion-fission bomb. Libby saw why AECommissioners were rarely lighthearted and gay. Then in 1954 he became a commissioner himself, by appointment of President Eisenhower on the recommendation of AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss. When he moved to Washington with Leonor and their ten-year-old twin daughters, Libby brought along a truckload of scientific apparatus and set up a laboratory in the Carnegie Institution, where he works furiously on personal projects (his current interest: amino acids) whenever his work on the commission gives a moment of respite. "Science is like art," Libby explains. "You have to work at it or you go stale fast."

Inconceivable War. Libby's politics, on the rare occasions when he shows them, are stoutly conservative, and he is known to disagree with the highly vocal school of nuclear scientists (e.g., Chicago's Harold Urey) which insists that the only guarantees against nuclear war are political projects, such as world government. On atomic policy he has shown strong opinions, stood as one of the minority of atomic scientists who sided with Edward Teller and other advocates of the H-bomb "crash program" in opposition to the group headed by J. Robert Oppenheimer.

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