I have scoffed at their B.S. because apocalypse never comes. Only opportunists who prey on tiny minds predict doomsday. The woman who developed carbon dating of trees to determine whether centuries ago was a physicist extraordinaire -- the only woman to work with Enrico Fermi in his end of the Manhattan Project. While she did not do so backwards and in high heels, she was pregnant during the project.
In 1979, she predicted the world would warm until around 2000, then cool, perhaps to threatening levels. I wrote about her in my Exceptional Americas series and re-post it today in light of these events.
Originally posted on April 20, 2015, under the title: "Leona Woods, from the Manhattan Project to climatology."
On December 2, 1942, in a bunker below the stands of the abandoned Amos Alonzo Stagg Memorial Stadium, a relic of the football team the University of Chicago disbanded after the 1939 season, Nobel laureate physicist Enrico Fermi and his team of 50 scientists began the atomic age with the worlds first nuclear reactor. The theoretical had become reality with the splitting of those atoms. General Leslie Grove, the commanding officer of the Manhattan Project called the event, “The single most important scientific even in the development of atomic power.”
Seated beside Fermi was Leona Woods, calling out the readings during the 28-minute experiment so that the rest of the team could swoop and cool the reactor if anything went awry. At one point she asked Fermi, "When do we become scared?"
Four decades later, in an interview with S.L. Sanger just before Woods death in 1986, she said, "I think everyone was terrified that we were wrong (in our way of method of developing the bomb) and the Germans were ahead of us. That was a persistent and ever-present fear, fed, of course, by the fact that our leaders knew those people in Germany. They went to school with them. Our leaders were terrified, and that terror fed to us. If the Germans had got it before we did, I don't know what would have happened to the world. Something different. Germany led in the field of physics, in every respect, at the time war set in, when Hitler lowered the boom. It was a very frightening time."
She was the youngest and only woman on Fermi's team of 50 scientists. The team had several Nobel winners, including Fermi. She had yet to receive her doctorate. But it didn't matter. Fermi went by competence, not credentials. Many members of his team were graduate students. They were all dedicated to saving the world from Adolf Hitler in a race to become the first nation to wield an atomic bomb. Fermi, who was once a Fascist himself, fled his native Italy in 1938 because he feared for the life of his wife, Laura, a Jew. Woods had a different motivation: Her brother, the Marine. The quicker she could end the war, the less time he would have to put his life in jeopardy fighting the Japanese. But no matter what the personal motivation was, they came together to build Fat Man, the plutonium bomb that would explode over Nagasaki and finally end World War II.
What a far cry that night in December 1942 was from a decade earlier, when Woods was a 13-year-old student at Lyons Township High School in La Grange, Illinois. She would graduate the next year, at 14, and in 1938, she would graduate with a bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University of Chicago. She had the audacity to ask Nobel laureate physicist James Franck if she could be his graduate student. He said, "You are a woman. You will starve." She took it the wrong way; his doctoral advisor had told him "You are a Jew. You will starve." Woods became a graduate student of Robert S. Mulliken, who would later win a Nobel for chemistry.
Woods was tall and no nerd. She swam in Lake Michigan in the summer. Fermi's wife, Laura, later recalled that Woods was "a tall young girl built like an athlete, who could do a man's job and do it well. She was the only woman physicist in Enrico's group. At that time, her mother, who was also endowed with inexhaustible energy, was running a small farm near Chicago almost by herself. To relieve Mrs. Woods of some work, Leona divided her time between atoms and potatoes."
Success in Chicago led to construction of a nuclear reactor in Hanford, Washington, also known as the middle of no place. She married a fellow physicist, John Marshall, on July 3, 1943, became pregnant, and wore baggy clothes to hide her pregnancy with the first of her two sons. After his birth, her mother left the potato farm and headed to Hanford to help care for the baby. Marshall and Woods worked separate shifts. Once again, she worked alongside Fermi. The Hanford reactor went critical right on cue on September 27, 1944, a few hours later there was an abrupt drop in power before the reactor shut down completely.
“People stood around and stared at each other,” Woods later recalled.
"Her first thought was that a water leak was to blame, but nixed this explanation when operators succeeded in powering the reactor up during the night, only to have it shut down again a few hours later. It was John Wheeler who recalled that there had been hints of a problem with poisoning via byproducts of the process used to make plutonium for bombs at the Oak Ridge reactor, although the exact isotope had never been definitively established. He and Woods-Marshall calculated the neutron cross-section and determined the culprit was a rare isotope, xenon-135, solving the stalling problem," the American Physical Society reported.
That saved the project. The reactor's importance was that it was used to develop the plutonium for the bomb. A year later, the war was over, killed by Little Boy exploding over Hiroshima, and Fat Man exploding over Nagasaki. Leona Woods had absolutely no regrets, and would champion nuclear energy all her life.
"I certainly do recall how I felt when the atomic bombs were used. My brother-in-law was captain of the first minesweeper scheduled into Sasebo Harbor. My brother was a Marine, with a flame thrower, on Okinawa. I'm sure these people would not have lasted in an invasion. It was pretty clear the war would continue, with half a million of our fighting men dead not to say how many Japanese. You know and I know that General (Curtis) LeMay firebombed Tokyo and nobody even mentions the slaughter that happened then. They think Nagasaki and Hiroshima were something compared to the firebombing," she told Sanger in 1986.
"I have no regrets. I think we did right, and we couldn't have done it differently. Yeah, I know it has been suggested the second bomb, Nagasaki, was not necessary. The guys who cry on shoulders. When you are in a war, to the death, I don't think you stand around and ask, Is it right?"
After the war, she and Marshall settled down to raise two boys and to pursue science. She would author three books and 200 scientific papers. In 1954, they separated and in 1966, she and Marshall divorced, and she met and married Willard Libby, who had won the Nobel prize in 1960 in chemistry for his development of radiocarbon dating, which revolutionized archaeology. With carbon dating, archaeologists could get a scientific approximation of the age of an object.
Leona Woods took it a step further, applying the process to tree rings by devising a way to use the isotope ratios of Oxygen-18 to Oxygen-16, Carbon-13 to Carbon-12, and Deuterium to Hydrogen to study changes in temperature and rainfall patterns hundreds of years before records were kept. This became the gateway to climatology.
However, the global warming crowd might not like what she had to say about their doomsday theory. At the height of the global cooling scare in 1978, Leona Woods told George Alexander of the Los Angeles Times that based on the study of 1,800 years of history as viewed through tree rings, the world was due for a 20-year rise in temperatures -- followed by a 50-year fall.
Leona Woods died in 1986, survived by her two sons. She left behind quite a legacy, of helping enable the atomic weaponry that would end World War II, and developing the technique that would enable climatologists to study the temperatures of the Earth. Unfortunately, tree ring data is ignored, while we are basing decisions on less than 40 years worth of satellite data.
Hitler did not get the bomb first because he chased off his best scientists. America got the bomb because it opened the doors not only to the cast-offs of Hitler (and in the case of Fermi, Mussolini) but because it gave the opportunity to so many young Americans, including a young woman from La Grange, Illinois, who worked weekends on her mother's potato farm.
Just as James Franck's professor was wrong about Franck starving because he was a Jew, Franck was wrong about Woods starving because she was a woman. She thrived because she was strong, smart, and brave.
I am publishing the best of these tales, in Kindle and on Amazon. Volume I covering American history from the 16th through the 20th century is here. And Volume II on The Capitalists is available here.
Suggestions are welcome. Email me at DonSurber@GMail.com