Angela N. H. Creager was greatly encouraged by the life experience of the Nobel laureate who discovered the slug. After witnessing the Trinity nuclear test in 1945, the theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer recalls the Hindu scriptures: “Now I am the destroyer of death, the world.” “Although this is often interpreted as an admission of moral culpability as the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer was a central figure in the nuclear weapons creation agency until the security concession was revoked in the mid-1950s.
Figures . . . Antoine Dore
Harold Urey C. Yuri) also worked on the Manhattan Project. But unlike Oppenheimer, the Nobel prize-winning chemist distanced himself from the development of nuclear weapons after the war. His exploration of science outside of national defense work led him to turn to the study of the origins of life and lunar geology. Now, the scientific historian Matthew Shindell has created a fascinating biography of Harold H. C. Yuri’s Life and Scientific Research, to show how the diligent and conscientious chemist survived the Cold War.
Harold P. The Life and Research of C. Yuri
(The Life and Science of Harold C. Urey )
By Matthew Shindell
Press: University of Chicago Press (2019)
Shindell believes that urey’s pious education as he grew up convinced him of the dangers of a nuclear arms race and strengthened his commitment to scientific integrity. Urey comes from a poor farming family in Indiana, where his father was a priest and belongs to the Brothers Church, a simple Protestant sect. He grew up in an increasingly diverse educational environment, remembering the family’s passionate beliefs, and eventually earning a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. He also found a path to an international middle-class life.
In the 1920s, Urey was one of a small group of chemists who worked closely with physicists. Working at the Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of Copenhagen, Niels Bohr, he followed the development of quantum mechanics. During his travels there and in Germany, he met academic bulls such as Heisenberg, Bubbleley and Einstein. But Urey believes he lacks the mathematical skills needed to make theoretical progress in quantum chemistry. After returning to the United States, he started a family and began his academic career.
Institute of Theoretical Physics, Niels Bohr, University of Copenhagen Wikimedia commons
At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and later at Columbia University in New York City, Urey taught chemists quantum mechanics, and he began to explore thorium. He’s based on Bohr, Frederick Soddy and J. J. Thomson’s research predicted the existence of radon, but this was suspected by many chemists and physicists. Finally, in 1931, Urey succeeded in discovering the isotope of hydrogen. Three years later, Urey’s discovery won him the Nobel Prize. Prior to that, he co-authored Atomics, Quantum, and Molecules (Atoms, Quanta and Molecules, 1930), one of the first English books on the application of quantum mechanics to molecular systems.
Urey’s ongoing research into stable isotopes of other chemical elements, such as nitrogen and oxygen, has made them important in biochemistry and geochemistry, including the pioneering use of isotope labels to study metabolic pathways. Living in New York has also led Toy to political liberalism. He became aware of the anti-Semitism that affected Jewish scientists and the lack of opportunities for female scientists. As a generous mentor, he shared his Nobel Prize with two collaborators and another prize with the young Isidor Rabi (later discovered with an MRI).
The Second World War changed Yuri’s life and the lives of most physicists and researchers in many countries. His expertise in isotopes made him valuable to the Manhattan project. Here, he eventually led a vast team of scientists and engineers working to separate uranium isotopes by gas diffusion. However, he was not fit to manage the technically complex and cumbersome project, and Leslie Groves, the project’s director, cast doubt on him. Even before the war ended, Urey was deeply disappointed to work for the military.
After the war, Urey used his Nobel prize to warn of the prospect of nuclear war. He supports international intervention through world governments to regulate the future military application of atomic energy. This was not a radical view in 1946; it was promoted in the U.S. government’s report on international control of atomic energy, much of which was drafted by Oppenheimer.
Yuri wants to regulate the future military application of atomic energy . . . Pixabay
However, when the Soviet Union rejected the international control plan to preserve America’s monopoly on atomic energy, supporters of world governments found that their loyalty as citizens was being questioned. 1946, J. Parnell Thomas (who later became chairman of the House Committee on Non-American Activities) attacked Comey’s idea of “the world as a common place” and said he was not patriotic enough. The FBI also investigated Urey, claiming that he belonged to several communist front groups.
During this painful period, Urey lost faith in the ability of modern secular societies to respond to new threats from the atomic age. Although he had long abandoned his parents’ religious beliefs, he began to believe that Judeo-Christianity was the key to democracy. He attributes the success of science itself, and its insistence on honesty and credibility, to religious ethics.
In the late 1940s, Urey used his expertise in mass spectrometry to begin geochemistry research and later planetary science. It’s a way to escape the nuclear-weapons-built track (though he’s still an adviser to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission). Together with Stanley Miller, a chemistry major, he examined Soviet biochemist Alexander Oparin and biologist J. B. S. Haldane’s hypothesis about the origin of life and successfully produced amino acids by discharge in solutions of water, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen. In 1952, Urey published The Planets, a monograph on the formation of the solar system.
After the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957, NASA was founded with great influence by Urey, who made a compelling case for why the moon should be explored over other celestial bodies. In 1969, he analyzed moon rocks collected during the Apollo 11 mission, which supported his theory of the moon’s common origin with Earth. He wants the well-funded body to test the theory of the origin of the solar system — an experiment beyond the personal capabilities of any university scientist. Despite his influence, some of NASA’s approaches have disappointed him, such as its focus on manned space exploration rather than the origin of the universe. The last depressing chapter of Urey’s life shows the politics of a combative, task-oriented study in which public interest or government priorities can take precedence over the scientific issues themselves.
Shindell is closely focused on his biographical theme throughout the book. At times, readers may wish him to talk a little more about American cultural life in the Urey era, or to comment on how the space race fits into the global cold war. In any case, this excellent biography offers a wonderful illustration of how Urey’s contribution to science has taken chemistry in new directions, including to the moon. In addition, Shindell describes the life of a top scientist, exploring the intricate relationship between faith, values and politics in the United States.