Science: The Philosophers' Stone

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While shunning broad political philosophies about atomic policy, Libby, according to things he has told some intimates, has worked his way around to a philosophy anyway. The philosophy in a nutshell: bigger bombs and more bombs. As bigger and bigger ones have become a reality, Libby has come to the conclusion that their very bigness may be the principal protection against an outburst of nuclear war. "Let's build them as big as we can," he has in effect told his friends, "and build all we can. Then war will become inconceivable."

Scientist Libby. for all his years at work inside the secrets of atomic energy, has never seen an atomic explosion, and does not want to. His main concern has long been not the atomic boom, but the atomic boon. It was because of his interest in the peaceful atom that he fell so naturally into his key role at Geneva's revolutionary conclave.

Indigestible Feast. Packed into twelve days is a program covering some 90 basic topics, more than 400 scientific papers. It is one of those indigestible feasts that only scientists can enjoy. Few of their technical papers will enchant the lay public; even among the scientists they will separate the men from the boys. Some of the titles alone, e.g., "Remarks About the Milne Problem with Cylindrical Symmetry," are brain strainers. The contents bristle with symbols, charts and jawbreaking terminology, the hard stuff of which the Philosophers' Stone is made.

High Proficiency. According to Whitman, the scientific interest of the material is above all expectation. The U.S. has told a surprising lot. An interesting U.S. paper tells how scientists at Oak Ridge wanted to know what would happen if a nuclear reactor should get out of control. They built two, of different kinds, and let them rip. They blew up with clouds of steam, but not with anything like the violence of a true atomic explosion. Russia and Britain have told a lot, too, and the smaller nations have made manful contributions.

When the conference is over, says Whitman, any nation with a high technology, such as West Germany, will know enough to build an efficient power reactor. "The Russian papers are good," said one U.S. scientist. "The Russians are well abreast of reactor developments, and in some cases they have tried a few tricks of their own." Said another man: "U.S. scientists sorting through these papers have actually sent a few whistles up and down AEC corridors." Probably the papers most useful to the scientists will be of no public interest at all. They will be minute details about obscure matters. One British paper, for instance, tells about the troublesome chemistry of ruthenium, a rare element that had almost no importance before atomic science was born. But it is a fission product formed in nuclear reactors, and it has to be dealt with during the purification of reactor fuels. The information in the U.S. paper probably represents hundreds of man-years of scientific labor.

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