THE DRIZZLE stopped, the wind grew calm. A man's voice said "Zero." One hundred and twenty miles away, in Albuquerque, a blind girl looked up and said, "What was that?" She had felt an odd brightness in the room. It was 5:29 a.m., Monday, July 16, 1945, and in the primeval desert of Alamogordo, N.M., they had just exploded the world's first atomic bomb.
"Now we are all sons of bitches," an assistant to Robert Oppenheimer said softly in the control bunker.
Another assistant, a man named George Weil, was standing at the base camp that morning. There were pieces of dark glass over his eyes. He looked away when the blast went off. Perhaps some unseen sliver of doubt had already lodged in the 37-year-old nuclear physicist. If so, he didn't say anything, not then.
What had really changed? When it was light you could see some dead rattlers, black sand fused into glass, a moonlike crater. The world didn't seem so different. The sun still drilled its way to noon. Desert mountains slept on in their tideless oceans. Man, in his puny breast, still ran and carried fire and fretted about tomorrow.
Only this time he had "tickled the dragon's tail."
Several weeks later, on Aug. 6, 1945, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Three days later a plutonium bomb fell on Nagasaki. Soon there was a party at Los Alamos to celebrate, if that is the word, the awful/beautiful thing science had wrought. The party, unlike the bombs, was a dud. Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos lab, stopped by briefly. Outside he saw a colleague puking in the bushes. "The reaction has begun," he said.
George Weil is 74 now, one of America's last Men of Uranium. He sits at a lunch table in the Mayflower Hotel. It is four decades from the moment at Stagg Field in Chicago in 1942 when a handful of scientists, led by Enrico Fermi, achieved the world's first controlled nuclear chain reaction. The man who pushed the button that long-ago day to detonate the nuclear age (in reality he pulled out a cadmium control rod from an unlikely looking pile) is talking just above a mesmeric whisper. He speaks in chains of softly exploding thought. He was there, at the creation, with Fermi and Oppenheimer and all the rest. Only, history wants to forget him. For George Weil is a nuclear apostate, an infidel.
It is a half-hour past noon. His gray fedora is beside him. His Seiko watch has three adjustor stems. There are three pens in his shirt pocket. A Rooster tie gives barest light to a gray suit. Nothing about this man seems distinctive. Except, that is, his intelligence.
"I find it very hard to believe we have reached the end of our scientific discoveries. I just feel we don't need nuclear now. Or, I should add, nuclear at its price. And the price is Three Mile Island, or worse. It is an unforgiving technology. You make a mistake and you've had it. That's been my position all along. If a nuclear war doesn't get us first, there may come a distant point when we've exhausted all our other resources and we'll have to rely greatly on some form of nuclear energy. But not now.
"And of course if we have a nuclear war, then nothing makes any difference, does it? We'll all be doomed, including the planet. I'm not saying another civilization couldn't start up again at some distant point. If human life were destroyed on the earth, a civilization might grow again. From algae. Or worms."
"Worms. Whatever slithers out of the sea."
Call him the repentant Faust. (He would call himself a "one-man truth squad," helping to set the nuclear record straight.) Call him the physicist who looked the nuclear god cold in the eye--and came away scared for the fate of man. It didn't happen immediately. For nearly a decade, George Weil was a true believer. But then he turned.
"You know, the bomb is not that big," he is saying matter-of-factly, making a small oval with his hands. "About the size of a basketball, No, about the size of your head. It's plutonium metal. Plutonium is a very lethal thing. It emits alpha particles. I lost one of my best friends from plutonium radiation. He was working at Los Alamos on 'critical assembly,' using little blocks of plutonium to construct simulator bombs. The blocks probably weren't a foot in diameter. He got careless. He was using a screwdriver, trying to wedge something in, and the screwdriver slipped. He got a burst of radiation, and that was that. Another man was standing far enough away to lose his hair."
He picks up a knife, scratches it on the tablecloth. "I've been exposed to more than my legal limit of radiation--I don't think there's much doubt of that. But I don't worry about it. I had a job to do. We were in a race. Every day I was scared I was going to open The New York Times and read that the Germans had gotten there ahead of us."
It is hard to say exactly when George Weil grew wary of the nuclear god's promise, though his may have been one of the earliest warning voices (along with Edward Teller's and some others'), cautioning of a game not quite worth the candle. As early as 1954, when the postwar atomic hope still seemed lush, when talk of reactors was everywhere, Weil was invited to give a speech at the Plaza Hotel in New York City before a meeting of the Atomic Industrial Forum. He was asked to talk about the hazards of power plants. He spoke that day of the reactor's "built-in capacity for self-destruction--in a fraction of a second." Two years previously, George Weil had been the Atomic Energy Commission's assistant director in charge of reactor development.
After the speech, a man came up and said, "You oughtn't to have said all that."
"I wasn't absolutely against nuclear, though of course that's how I am always perceived. I think there's a difference between not favoring something and wanting to see it done correctly."
In the intervening years, George Weil has made his living as a Washington energy consultant. Some of his consulting has been for coal interests, and because of that, there are people, old comrades, he says, "who think I am just a goddamn prostitute. They think I've gone over to coal. Well, you don't know me very well, but I don't sell myself to anybody."
George Weil was lucky enough to be at Columbia University as a young man when the century was new, in the incubating days of the Manhattan Project. There he met Enrico Fermi. Fermi is long gone now--he died of stomach cancer in 1954--but he remains Weil's intellectual and moral conscience. Weil went to Chicago with Fermi to join the Metallurgical Laboratory, a wartime code name for the highly secret bomb work. He went to Hanford, Wash., where they first began making this cancerous brave new thing called plutonium. He went to Los Alamos, high in New Mexico's Jemez Mountains, where they were building the bomb. Nobody from the outside knew what was going on behind those high fences; there was only one road in.
And he was at Alamogordo, in southern New Mexico, at that mystical place called "Trinity." An explosive that dwarfed all previous explosives man had ever devised went off in the aching stillness of a summer morning. The thing went off in a billionth of a second. Its power was equivalent to 19,000 tons of TNT. Someone would say later that it lit up the desert darkness with the "radiance of a thousand suns."
On the old maps, the place where they exploded it has the name Jornada del Muerto. There was this billowing cloud. It must have been 1,000 feet high. It was boiling, swirling, just rising. It was red, purple, green, yellow, any color in the spectrum you could name.
"I think you have to know me. I don't get excited about things. I love beautiful places--the Pacific Northwest, for instance. I love this, I love that. But I don't get emotionally involved. It wasn't something beautiful, that bomb. It was something terrifying. And, by the way, I didn't particularly feel I was a son of a bitch. I wasn't impressed by the idea that we could just demonstrate it. I felt we had to drop it."
Writing in The New Yorker a few weeks later, as Japan was surrendering, E.B. White said: "It is the limitless power of the victor. The quest for a substitute for God ended suddenly. The substitute turned up. And who do you suppose it was? It was man himself, stealing God's stuff."
George Weil is semiretired now, working on a book about his days with the atom. He lives in a downtown Washington apartment. Once, he lived in a house in Cabin John, Md., made out of rammed earth. (The house was built by the uncle of Hubert Humphrey who worked in the Department of Agriculture.) Weil was married then, with one son. But the marriage ended and the son is in the ad business in Boston. So an old physicist dines alone.
Every day, practically without exception, George Weil goes to the Mayflower Hotel for lunch. He puts on his gray hat, and he walks out of an anonymous consulting office with "George L. Weil" in little gray raised letters on the door. He rides the elevator to the ground floor and he walks with a slight gimp and bemused smile the 2 1/2 blocks to his daily lunchroom. The world doesn't know who he is, and he isn't the kind to broadcast.
He used to eat at the YWCA, but the wrecker's ball put an end to that habit. Since food means nothing to George Weil other than fuel, he orders the same thing every day: cottage cheese and vegetables, glass of tomato juice. He takes time for lunch not because there is any pleasure in it, or because it provides a break from his work, but because he knows he must eat to live. Cottage cheese and vegetables (it used to be fruit) will do fine. Low cholesterol. Why should he try anything else? If he never looked up, the waitresses at the Mayflower would know to bring "the regular."
"My son is a lot more gregarious and outgoing than I am," he says.
Alamogordo was the promise at dawn, and the world was never again the same. But the more hidden, less dramatic story of the birth of the nuclear god took place in a squash court beneath the west stands of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago on a frigid, wind-whipped December day in 1942. There, in a crude 28-foot-high "pile" of graphite and uranium, science achieved for the first time a self-sustaining nuclear fission. This December will mark the 40th anniversary of the world's first controlled chain reaction. (Today is the 37th anniversary of Hiroshima). A flow of energy from a source other than the sun had been released, with all the attendant consequences of good and evil. Mortals had unlocked the secrets of the atom's heart. A crude lattice of graphite bricks and uranium pellets, lashed with beams and scaffolding, had become the forerunner of the modern nuclear reactor. You couldn't see it that day, not like you could at Alamogordo, but men had indeed stolen some of God's stuff. It was the real shattering atomic moment of the century. Trinity was only riveting proof.
"Hell," says George Weil, "a kid's erector set had more sophistication, practically. And yet . . . the thing was so sensitive."
Weil withdrew--inch by inch, foot by foot--the final cadmium control rod that afternoon under an empty football stadium, while neutron counters clicked with fury and science held its breath and students outside huddled against the cold on their way to class.
"Move it six inches, George," Fermi said at 3:20 p.m.
All day long the several dozen men in the squash court had brought "CP-1" (Chicago Pile-1) close to "criticality." In fact, before noon they had almost gone critical (that point when the rate of fissioning remains constant). Suddenly there had been a loud thump. Everybody jumped. But it was only one of the automatic control rods reinserting itself into the pile. The trip-level safety point had been set too low. "Let's go to lunch," said Fermi. Tension slumped.
If Robert Oppenheimer, the Berkeley theoretical physicist, was a frail, eccentric, literate (he was fluent in German and French, took up Sanskrit for the hell of it) egocentric and otherwise flawed human being, then Enrico Fermi, Nobel laureate, refugee from Italy's Fascism, seemed almost the pure scientist, deceptively and classically simple. Perhaps no other physicist of the century so excelled in both theory and experiment.
Los Alamos and Trinity belonged to "Oppie," but Chicago was all Fermi's. That day of history, Dec. 2, 1942, Fermi was steady, impassive, thoroughly in control. As was his wont, he had a pencil in his mouth, a six-inch slide rule in his hand.
He issued his instructions from a balcony above the squash court. A bridge connected the pile and the balcony. On the balcony with him were two dozen other physicists. Down below, alone, awaiting word, was young George Weil. That morning Weil had arisen at 7, eaten his usual sparse breakfast, walked across the campus from his room at the Quadrangle Club to the west stands. He knew this would be the day.
"I couldn't see the instruments," Weil later told someone. "I had to watch Fermi every second, waiting for orders. His face was motionless. His eyes darted from one dial to another. His expression was so calm it was hard."
The chances of something going wrong were practically nil, says Weil, so carefully did Fermi have it figured. But a scientist can only forecast on the basis of what he knows. This was virgin ground. No one had been here before, and Fermi was taking no chances. So he stationed atop the pile a "suicide squad" of three men with five-gallon jugs of liquid cadmium. At Fermi's signal, they were to flood the experiment with their salt solution in an attempt to cool the pile and slow down the reaction.
Another man stood by with an ax ready to cut a rope that would send one of the three control rods slamming back into the pile. It sounds crude, so crude it is charming. Rube Goldberg, with Chicago hanging in the balance. "It's the charm of the technology," shrugs Weil.
But what if? Could they have blown Chicago to hell and back from beneath a concrete football bunker? No, not really. George Weil studies the question. "I think Fermi chose me because he had confidence in me. I think he knew I wasn't going to flip my stack. If I had been a madman, I could have done a lot of damage that day. I guess I might have killed everyone in the room. Or at least exposed them to lethal radiation."
At 3:20 p.m. on Dec. 2, the electronic counters clicked with new fury. They nearly jammed, but again leveled off. Five minutes later Fermi said cooly, "Pull it out another foot." Weil withdrew the rod. Fermi's face broke in a smile. "This is going to do it," he said. "The reaction is self-sustaining. The curve is exponential."
Leona Woods, the lone woman of maybe two dozen people in the room that day, walked up to Fermi and said, "When do we become scared?"
"I think we were all scared witless," says George Weil.
Afterward Eugene Wigner brought out a bottle of Chianti. Everyone present drank in silence from paper cups. Then they signed the wine bottle's straw holster. That night an exhausted George Weil went ice skating at the university rink by the north stands. He was bursting inside. And he couldn't tell anybody why.
Arthur Compton made a long-distance call to a man in the Office of Scientific Research and Development at Harvard.
"The Italian navigator has reached the New World," said Compton.
"And how did he find the natives?"
But what is George Weil's place in history? Is he merely Enrico Fermi's technician, someone who was in the right place at the right moment? Some nuclear people would say that (despite Weil's degrees from Harvard and Columbia, and his years of responsible positions). The nuclear issue is a volatile and emotional one, and its personalities take stark sides. To some, George Weil's name is mud. He has gone over to the other side. His place in history is puny.
Though not to Herbert Anderson, who was Fermi's lieutenant from the earliest days of the Manhattan Project and a man who has known Weil more than 40 years. Anderson is now back at Los Alamos after a career at the University of Chicago. "He was extremely important to the success of the bomb. In Chicago, before the CP-1, George had charge of what we called the Sigma piles. These were experimental graphite piles. George had the responsibility. My general feeling is that he has and had a genuine insight that cannot be overlooked. We've been friends for years, but from the nuclear issue we long ago found sparks beginning to fly.
"Now if you're talking about intellectual contribution, then Weil is fairly low on the list. He is not a great physicist or even what you would call a successful one, in that he hasn't generated any new ideas. Physicists have to generate new ideas from their experiments. There have been no innovations out of George Weil. But this is not to say he isn't a pioneer or that his contributions were not invaluable."
"Actually, I think you're puffing him," says Carl Walske, head of the Atomic Industrial Forum. The AIF is one of the two prestigious nuclear associations in America. The AIF's charter proclaims it is in existence to promote the peaceful uses of atomic energy. The other major association is the American Nuclear Society. George Weil used to belong to both the AIF and the ANC; he has resigned. "Recently I've resigned from a lot of things," he says, shrugging, letting it go at that, not inclined to talk about the price one pays for speaking his conscience. Later, though, he says, "I'm on the AIF's 'hit list.' I'm not welcome." Some would say Weil has done more than speak his conscience, that some of his letters to the editor of The New York Times and other publications have been stridently antinuclear. In conversation sometimes, George Weil can be testy.
Technically, Weil's resignation from the AIF came over a matter of dues; they were raised, and Weil thinks unfairly. It was merely a ploy to get him out, he thinks. The head of the AIF denies that this is so. Nobody is trying to drive George Weil out. He adds, "Of course you're not talking about one of my favorite people . . . I only met him once . . . I think history has passed him by . . . I've never seen one important paper by George Weil."
A highly detailed book came out several years ago about the first days of the atom bomb. You have to look hard to find George Weil's name in it. "I'm not saying I was deliberately written out of the history . . ." Weil says, not finishing.
It's after lunch now, and the man who went from activator to activist is back in his cramped office. Everywhere you look are stacks of magazines and newspapers and journals, their folded-over contents underlined in red. Also, everywhere you look are gadgets--tape recorders, telephone answering machines, a copier, an IBM word processor. George Weil is very fond of gadgets. The "Gadget" is what they called the uranium bomb Oppenheimer and Co. built at Los Alamos.
On a coffee table, wedged in with other paraphernalia, are several Scotch tape dispensers. "What can science do without Scotch tape?" Enrico Fermi used to say.
On his desk is a red nuclear protest button. On the button, below an ominous mushroom cloud, is this: THEY LIE. Behind him there is a card depicting a huge sun, with the legend: "Over 4 Billion Years Without a Shortage." "Oh, just some things people have sent me," he says.
On a wall is a framed citation commemorating an international peace conference on atomic energy in Geneva in 1955. Weil was one of the key administrators. The citation reads: "His careful planning, foresight, and administrative ability contributed substantially to the success of the Geneva Conference which will be recorded as an outstanding event in the promotion of the peaceful and beneficial uses of atomic energy through the world."
He takes up a seat on an old green sofa, its leather finely cracked. He is talking about why he became a scientist in the first place.
"I've always had a drive to understand things. I think there is an innate curiosity in me. I had a very strong German mother, and when I was very young she took me to a German doctor who decided I was anemic and put me to bed for six months. Why? I couldn't understand it. All I could do was to try and use my intellect to figure out something confronting me.
"What we need is a new idea. And a new idea you can't describe. It has to come along. Toward the end of the last century, someone famous said the only thing left was measuring to the next decimal point. And then in a few years we had X-rays and after that all the rest of modern science we now take for granted. I refuse to be a pessimist. What will suffice us? Conservation, for one. We're going to have to find a way to live safely with our energy sources.
"A man more eloquent than I has said that if the people want nuclear power then, in essence, they're going to have to establish a priesthood. The power will have to be put in the hands of a select few, and these few will pass on the secrets from generation to generation. That is a lot to bank on."
Maybe he is thinking now of that great, gone nuclear priest, Fermi. He gets up slowly from the sofa and goes to a drawer. "Here, look at this," he says. It is a manila ticket with a string on it. It looks like somebody's ancient golf links ticket. What it really is is a souvenir from a long-forgotten Hanford Engineering Works picnic one August day in 1944. There are half a dozen signatures on the card, including his own. The first signature is that of "Eugene Farmer."
"That was Fermi's code travel name."
Now he pulls out a frail envelope with scratchy ink writing on it. In the envelope, inserted in holes in a roll of carefully wrapped paper, are several dozen thin gray wires.
"Do you know what these are? They're cadmium. They're extremely potent. I made them to a specific length and diamater so that I could put them into the pile for calibrating purposes. These things are like a black body to neutrons. Do you know what I mean by a black body? A black body absorbs all sunlight that hits it."
Why were they saved?
"Oh, I thought I might be able to use them again someday. Also, I'm an impulsive hoarder of things."
Might they also have been saved out of a sense of history?
"Not really. I never knew we were doing things that historic. Not at first, anyway."
On the 25th anniversary of the Stagg Field discovery, in 1967, George Weil delivered a speech to an engineering colloquium in Canada. He closed it with this: "What is the promise of the future? What will come of it all? I believe we will have an answer within the next 10 or 20 years at the most. We are living on borrowed time--and time is rapidly running out on us."