Date: Monday, June 03, 2002
To: Rachel Payne
From: Uncle Lou.12
Subject: Lou Stang in a Nut Shell3.

Since I don’t have a scanner for our computer, I will try to Xerox my driver’s license, passport, college diploma, and “Ode to a Lost Nickel” Monday (5/3/02).

So below here, I will give you a thumbnail sketch of my life with some detail about the Manhattan Project. For the other story (you asked for two) I suggest you use Chapter 5 (A Career at Stake) in The Really Great News, a copy of which I sent you (RGN2-lAL.doc, attached to an E-mail) on 5/30/02. My picture can be found on my daughter-in-law’s (Jeanne’s) web site, which is, under Stang Family; I suggest you use the one (showing both my wife {your Great Aunt Dorian} and me, and labeled At The Church), but use anything you like—if you have trouble downloading it or cropping or printing it, let me know, and I will see if I can help.

I was born at a very early age in the Women’s Hospital (of all places!—how embarrassing!) in Portland, Oregon on October 25, 1919.

Until I was 12 years old, nothing much happened except that there were many Sundays when my parents took me out to the Clackamus River to a point called Baker’s Bridge (an old wooden bridge), where my father would spend the day fishing and my mother and I would wade and fool around in a little creek that emptied into the Clackamus.

When I was 12 two things happened: First I spent the entire 2 1/2 months of school vacation on my grandfather’s dairy farm in Humboldt County, (northern) California, near the ocean 5 miles outside of Eureka. What an experience learning about farm life and getting to know my many cousins, aunts, and uncles on my mother’s side!

The other thing that happened was that when I got home I got a job (no pay) as the organist for our local (Presbyterian) church. I had had only two years of piano lessons at that point. Except for an occasional Sunday off, I was the only one who played the organ (and the piano)—for the worship services, which included preludes, postludes, congregational hymn singing, and choir anthems. Needless to say, it was a small church.

At age 18, I had to give it up, because the time it took to find (and practice) new music every week took too much time away from my schoolwork. 1937 was the year I finished Franklin High School and started going to Reed College, a college with extremely high scholastic accreditation, which just happened to be very close to our home in Portland, Oregon. I was a “day-dodger” there (not a dormitory resident), because the college was only about a mile away if I rode my bicycle (through woods, fields, and across a small but deep canyon). It was about five miles away, if I took the electric trolley busses that circled around all of this vegetation and connected our house and the college.

I majored in Analytical Chemistry at Reed, and wrote a thesis for the Bachelor of Arts degree (standard practice for all Reed students) on the Atomic weight of fluorine (the most accurate determination available at the time when I finished). Elected to Phi Beta Kappa, I graduated in June 1941.

From there I went to Cal Tech (California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA) on a Graduate Assistantship as an Instructor in the Analytical Chemistry Laboratory, intending to study Inorganic Chemistry under Professor Don M. Yost.

Cal Tech requires everyone studying for the Ph.D. to complete a series of several (four for chemistry majors) extremely difficult and comprehensive examinations, spaced about four to six months apart. Failure to pass all of these exams means termination of one’s graduate study program.

The first such Prelim, as they were called, was scheduled for December 1941, and it was to be in Organic Chemistry. Of the four major branches of chemistry (organic, analytical, physical, and inorganic), Organic was the one that I found most difficult, and, for that reason, did not like—largely because I felt that it required entirely too much memorization. I liked Physics much better, because I had had an excellent Physics instructor back at Reed who said, “Don’t memorize anything; understand and be able to derive the formula or the equation”. For me, that worked fine.

Anyway, all of the other students in my class got together after classes and studied together for this Organic Prelim. I studied alone, partly because I always had been a loner, thought that I knew how to study, studied much longer and harder than anyone else, didn’t want to be distracted by possibly frivolous talk, and I prayed a lot. I was careful not to pray that Mount Wilson, which I could see (on a clear day) outside my dorm window, would not fall into the Pacific Ocean, because I was sure that if I had ever said such a prayer, it would have happened. I was a real believer.

Came the day of the Organic Prelim, and I flunked. This was the first examination in my entire life that I had ever failed. I had gotten straight E’s (for Excellent, i.e. 90% or above) all through both Elementary and High School—never got less than 90% on any exam. I was crushed! I even quit going to church (for several years).

And right about that time, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

I pulled up stakes, quit school, and joined the National Defense Research Council (NDRC), working under Dr. Yost, who had also taken a leave of absence from Cal Tech to head up a group trying to do many things to assist the U.S. Army’s Chemical Warfare Service. In this capacity (as a research scientist), I spent several months at the NDRC’s new lab at the new Technological Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. My first assignment (while still at Cal Tech) was to try to synthesize what was expected to be a nerve gas with the formula S2F10 that the Germans were thought to have. That was never successful; I think that it may have been discovered many years later, because I vaguely remember hearing that it didn’t have any nerve gas properties after all.

Other projects of mine included designing and building a small battery-operated pump that could be used to sample the air during a gas shoot out at the Dugway Proving Grounds, outside Toole, Utah. During these shoots, a 4.2″ mortar shell filled with gas would be set off out in the Utah desert in the middle of concentric circles of air samplers. These shoots would occur during specific meteorological characteristics, and the range and dispersion of the gas downwind from the shoot would be calculated from the chemical analysis of the samples collected. This was fairly routine except for one time when I was handed a bunch of data at about 6 PM and was told that the data would have to be processed and be in Washington D.C. by the next morning.

Doing this involved solving for each of hundreds of samples a very long equation that involved taking the square root of a many-digit number. In those days we not only did not have computers, we didn’t even have electric calculators or even adding machines. The Army Base had an old Marchant calculator that could add, subtract, multiply, and do long division, but it had to be hand-cranked as I recall. At any rate, there was no “square root key” on it. I knew that there had to be some way to take square roots with this old clunker, but I had to make a quick decision: If I did all of the equations taking the square roots by long hand, it would probably take me all night to analyze all of the samples, and I still might not get finished. On the other hand, I could try to spend an hour or two trying to figure out how to get the machine to do the calculations; if I was successful, using the machine to do the calculations would be much faster, but how long would it take me before I could even start the calculations? I bet myself that figuring out how to get the machine to do it would be the fastest, and it was: It took only a few hours to figure out how to make the calculator take square roots, so I was able to get the results on the Colonel’s desk by about 1 or 2 in the morning, in time to meet the D.C. deadline.

After about three months at Dugway, the guys from Cal Tech who had gone with Yost to Evanston, IL moved back to Pasadena, CA and set up a lab at Cal Tech, so I rejoined the group there around in March or April of 1942. We were working then on “microvanes”—devices which we designed and produced, which would measure the “gustiness” of the winds at a level of 6 ft. off the ground—a measurement that the Chemical Warfare Service could use to determine how concentrated a gas would be at a specific point downwind from a 4.2″ mortar being shot off under particular measurable meteorological conditions.

Dorian, my present (and only) wife had joined the group in Evanston. She was its principal secretary. I was too busy to pay much attention to her then, but she dated my roommate a few times. However, she moved out to Pasadena when the group moved back, and I started paying attention to her out there. After a few dates, we were engaged, and after about three months of that, we were married out there in a cemetery—Forest Lawn’s Little Church of the Flowers. (We wanted to get married in Forest Lawn’s more famous Wee Kirk of the Heather, where a lot of celebrities get married, but that was closed for repainting on June 5th, 1943, so we went ahead with second best.)

However, after only less than three months, our boss, Dr. Yost, got osteomyelitis of the jaw, and nearly died. Because of his bad health, the group disbanded, and in September 1942, I joined the Manhattan Project. (Dorian came with me and later joined the project, as a secretary, after we arrived in Oak Ridge.)

Dorian and I spent the first year at the Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago. Everything was code-named because of secrecy. The Met Lab, as it was called, did no metallurgy whatsoever. It was located at the University of Chicago, and was the place where the chemists who would later be going to Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, Dayton, etc. worked until the labs at their respective destinations were built and equipped to receive them.

Incoming recruits were debriefed on arrival at the Met Lab to find out how much they knew about the project (to see how good the security was). I remember telling them that I didn’t know what the project was about but that there must be something awfully big going on out in the state of Washington because on the bus and train that took us from Pasadena to Chicago by way of Portland, Oregon we heard many construction workers talking about all of the construction work going on out in the eastern desert of Washington (at what later came to be known as Hanford, where the first nuclear reactors for the production of plutonium were to be built). These workers told stories like every bulldozer and crane in the state of California being bought up and shipped to eastern Washington, etc.

At the Met Lab I did some minor experiments mostly learning what there was to learn about the early Geiger counters, and how to process and measure radioactive samples. When we had a moment, we read and re-read “Pollard and Davidson”, the authors of the ONLY new and practical book in existence then on radioactivity (the title of which I forget)—only about 110 pages long, because not much else was known then.

After about a year of this, Dorian and I were shipped to Oak Ridge (together with our furniture, which had been moved from our rented Duplex house in Pasadena, to an apartment in the Hyde Park section of Chicago—a once-ritzy section of mansions just north of the University of Chicago—and from there to Oak Ridge). The furniture had to be stored for about 3 months (I think, maybe a little less), until our new house (a 2-bedroom, 1 bath house) was ready for us to move into. Meanwhile, we lived in separate dormitories (for Women and for Men waiting for other housing and for transient scientists). However, we ate together in the Oak Ridge Cafeteria, and rode the bus together from the village of Oak Ridge (where we ate and slept) to (in our case) the X-10 plant.

Plants were designated by the coordinates on somebody’s map. X-10 referred to the plant run (at that time) by the E. I. DuPont de Nemours Chemical Co., where the work was to be carried out to develop the reactor(s), processes, and other know-how needed to produce plutonium. Probably only about 40% of the people who worked at X-10 knew this—maybe not even that many people. Non-working wives, security guards, accountants, bookkeepers, etc. were kept in the dark as to what we were working on.

Other areas were Y-12 and K-25. Those of us at X-10 were not supposed to know what went on in these areas, but it wasn’t hard for those of us with a scientific background to learn that Y-12 was the Calutron area, where huge cyclotrons (copied after the small one that had been developed out at Berkeley, CA) were used to separate uranium-235 from natural uranium. Similarly, K-25 was the area where huge gaseous diffusion plants were used to do the same thing by a different process. X-10 was the only site devoted to making plutonium. Nuclear bombs can be made from either plutonium or enriched uranium-235, and Los Alamos was developing both. In fact, the two bombs that were dropped on Japan were one of each, but I forget which was which.

When we arrived on September 15, 1943, the wooden sidewalks of the town of Oak Ridge were in place but the streets were not paved. In fact, they were so muddy that one day Dorian was walking across the street from one side to the other and had to turn around and go back to the middle of the street to recover a boot that had been pulled off by that thick red Tennessee mud! One thing that we never did get used to were the barrels of drinking water at the construction sites: They had two spigots at the bottom—one labeled “White” and the other labeled “Colored” — same water, two spigots — “spigots for bigots”, I guess.

So, on arrival, the only buildings at X-10 were a few small wooden laboratory buildings. The group that I was in was headed by Dr. Charles Coryell (from which your Uncle Steven gets his middle name, Cory—also Melissa’s middle name, I think). Our assignment (straight from Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, head of The Los Alamos Laboratory) was to produce 50 curies of Barium-Lanthanum-140, and we were given exactly 365 days in which to do it. Oppie needed it for (I’m guessing) adding it to the test bombs as a standard of some kind with which to calibrate something having to do with the dispersion of the radioactivity following explosion of the bomb—we never were told exactly what the stuff would be used for—only that we had to make it and deliver it on time — period.

Dr. Robert L. Doan, the Scientific Head of the X-10 effort said it couldn’t be done, but my boss, Dr. Coryell, said it could, and bet him a nickel that we would do it. Since I was one of the people most instrumental in carrying out that assignment (and also since I left Oak Ridge to move back up to the Met Lab in Chicago on the same day that we shipped the material to Oppie, I was given the nickel that Coryell collected from Doan, together with a poem “Ode to a Lost Nickel” that Doan had composed for the occasion. (I will try to Xerox a copy of the poem which hangs in my office, and to which is glued what I believe is the original nickel from Coryell; in the left margin beside the poem are the signatures (from the original copy of the poem) of most of my co-workers.

To understand this feat, you have to imagine the problems that we faced. Fifty curies was an amount that was millions of time more powerful (more radioactive) than any radioactive material that anyone had ever been handled before. No building had ever been designed or built in which to work with amounts like that (and still be able to live to tell the story). No equipment existed for doing anything of this magnitude under conditions so difficult (having to do everything by remotely-operated mechanisms). Barium-Lanthanum-140 had not yet been produced in a nuclear reactor. Only an extremely tiny amount had been produced on the Berkeley cyclotron, just enough to determine its nuclear properties. No chemical process existed for separating barium and lanthanum from the dozens of other fission products that would be produced at the same time in the reactor.

Most of the chemists in Coryell’s group worked on studying radionuclides produced from the nuclear reactor that was just starting up at X-10—characterizing the radiation that they emitted, their decay processes, and, in the case of some of the rare earths, their chemical properties. However, it was my job to try to guess how thick the concrete walls would have to be to separate an operator from the material he was working with and then figure out some way of allowing him to perform any kind of a chemical process (that still hadn’t been figured out yet—not even in principal, much less in detail). He had to be able to see what he was doing and he had to be able to do it safely without getting contaminated or irradiated.

I helped design the building (Bldg. 706C) at X-10 to house four sets of “hot cells”, as the concrete-shielded rooms were called. I got an optical outfit to design “periscopes” that could be put into holes built into the concrete walls at an angle, so that the viewer wasn’t looking directly at the material inside, but saw instead a remotely operated mirror that could be swiveled around to view virtually any point inside the cell. I designed a simple means of being able to run a glass tube from the outside into the cell (where the chemist would be standing) without using a straight path through the wall through which the deadly gamma rays could have escaped. This was accomplished by having straight-through holes cast into the cell walls at locations where I guessed glass tubes might have to run. The holes were then filled with close-fitting steel plugs (which stopped the gamma rays even better than the surrounding concrete). Machined into the outside of the plug was a spiral groove that made one revolution from the outside to the inside of the cell. Then, using a glassblowing torch, I was able to lay into this groove a Pyrex glass tube that followed the spiral around.

I did my own glass blowing—I had to—I had learned how to do it in college and had become proficient in doing so when I wrote my thesis. Glass blowers in 1943 were non-existent in Tennessee. They hired one who had worked only with soft glass making cute little ornamental figures to sit on top of a table. He knew nothing about how to work with Pyrex—and chemical setups had to use Pyrex exclusively for many reasons. I made almost all of my equipment myself, although when I was nearly finished, they found a draft-dodger in Chicago who had been a chemical glassblower and knew how to do good work with Pyrex but who had tried to escape the draft by going into the glass eye business, on the theory that false eyes would be needed by many war casualties. They drafted him into the Army and shipped him down to us at Oak Ridge. He was so mad at this that he did miserable work for the first couple of weeks, but when he finally cooled off he did beautiful work, but by that time my stuff was nearly done.

In the course of trying to figure out how to carry on a chemical reaction by remote control—after you got the solutions inside the cell—I invented what came to be known as the Stang Reactor. (This idea was patented and I think under that name, but the name was unfortunate because it came to be a misnomer. At the time and for several years after that, what we now call Nuclear Reactors were called Piles, because the first one ever built by Enrico Fermi under the “West Stands” (football grandstands on the west side of some quadrangle at the University of Chicago) were literally piles of carefully placed fissionable material interlaced with “moderator” material; the pile eventually went “critical” when enough material had been added to the pile.)

Anyway, the Stang Reactor was a vessel made by cutting the bottoms off two very large Erlenmeyer flasks (the kind that look like inverted “V’s”) and then joining them at the bottom, so you created a vessel that had a narrow neck at the top and another narrow neck at the bottom and a bulging midsection. This involved a very large glass-to-glass seal, which was a doozy to have to anneal, because of its large size and the requirement of keeping the glass all at pretty much the same temperature at any given step. Then into the neck at the bottom was sealed a flat sintered-glass disk. Then other entrance and exit tubings were added at the top, and at the bottom were two critical attachments (all welded into the glass vessel): One was a liquid-diverter that I invented—an arrangement that allowed the solution coming through the sintered glass (filter) disk to flow into a funnel with an offset spout that could be rotated by applying electric current to appropriate electromagnets strategically placed outside, so, depending on which magnet was activated, the liquid could be diverted into any one of several outlet tubes which led to other vessels in the system. The other attachment was a tube that led from an air-pressure controller, arranged so that by applying a positive pressure we could keep liquid above the filter when we wanted to work with it up there and didn’t want it dripping through (we could even mix it by applying excess air that then bubbled up through the disk into the solution)—and by applying a vacuum we could suck the solution down through the filter and out of the vessel.

I got this equipment finished in time to test it and then let other chemists use it for carrying out the process that they had been developing all the while that I was developing this equipment. In order to get this done in time, my last three weeks at Oak Ridge were hectic.

By August 1944, Dorian had become so fed up with life4 at Oak Ridge that she quit her job (as secretary to the head of the Physics Department at X-10) and went back to Chicago to stay with her parents. This was three weeks before I also left and followed her. Since I had much to do and little reason to go home, I worked overtime those last three weeks: 90 hours the first week, 100 hours the second week, and 110 hours the final week. Many times I went to work on the bus at 7:30 in the morning and worked four straight shifts in a row before going back home—the 8 AM-4 PM shift, then the 4 PM-Midnight shift, then Midnight-8 AM. Workers coming in that next day would find me still there working the 8 AM-4 PM shift before going home to sleep for about 13 hours and then repeat.

Why the dedication? The reason was simple: All of us who knew what we were making were literally panicky that the Germans might be ahead of us, and we expected to be bombed at any moment. That is because the very early workers who first discovered the fission process were largely German—Harm, Strassmann, Lisa Meitner, and many others whose names escape me at the moment. The Italian, Enrico Fermi, beat them to the punch and interpreted correctly the results of the experiments that the two groups had been doing. This was around in 1940. American scientists who had been following these experiments contacted Dr. Albert Einstein, who had emigrated into the United States, and told him about what was going on. He immediately grasped the significance of it, and wrote a letter to President Roosevelt, pleading and urging that the United States develop an atom bomb before the Germans did. It was this letter that caused President Roosevelt to appoint General Groves to head up a project that was code-named Manhattan Project.

However, it was not until about a month after VE day (when Germany surrendered in 1945) that we learned the truth about the German effort, and it wasn’t until around 1952 that I learned not just what that truth was, but also how we learned it. The story was told to me by Dr. Sam Goudsmit, a famous Dutch physicist, best known for his discovery in 1925 that the electrons that rotate around the nucleus of an atom also spin as they rotate. In the early 1950’s Dr. Goudsmit had come to work at Brookhaven National Laboratory, where by then I also was working. Sam lived in the house right behind us in Sayville on Long Island, so he was a member of the 6-person carpool that we used to go to and from work.

One day, Sam told the carpool about Alsos, the Greek word meaning “groves” — like olive groves or orange groves. Alsos was a secret group of scientists, appointed by the U.S. Armed Services and headed by Dr. Goudsmit. It was named after General Groves, who was the head of the Manhattan Project. Alsos’ mission was to go into Germany immediately after its surrender and to snoop around in the various laboratories to find out the status of their nuclear bomb project—how far along they had gotten. What he found was almost a joke. The Germans, it turned out, had devoted almost their entire scientific work during the war to developing the V2 rockets, with which they bombed London and the rest of England. Sam found only a couple of tons of heavy water, which the Germans had stolen from the Norwegians who had made it in their electrolysis plants. Heavy water would have been used as the “moderator” in their nuclear reactor, if they had set out to develop such a reactor, but they never did.

So, was our work in vain? Only a small handful of scientists on the Manhattan Project thought so, although many of us gave the question a lot of thought. The two atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan saved thousands upon thousands of lives of American soldiers that would otherwise have been forfeited if we had had to invade Japan. The fact that they caused such horrible damage to life and property in Japan was extremely unfortunate, but the Japanese government had brought this catastrophe on itself.

Would the world have been better off if there had never been a Manhattan Project? Life would have been different, but the end result would have been the same. Enrico Fermi had let the Genie out of the bottle. Eventually the scientists from some country would have discovered how to make a nuclear reactor, harness it for nuclear power, and build an atomic bomb. Even if the United States now has no intention of ever using such a horrible weapon, we still have to keep one jump ahead of irresponsible governments like those in Iraq and Iran.

Can we keep scientific information to ourselves and keep our weapons secret? We thought so at the time, but it turns out that the Russians had spies throughout the Manhattan Project from an early stage onward, in spite of security precautions that we considered unbelievable5  We later learned that they weren’t too far behind us, as far as knowing what we had developed. Our only solution is to be more powerful and act responsibly.

However, even that may not be enough. Most people are hoping that India and Pakistan won’t get into a nuclear war, but very few people realize how much the entire planet will suffer if these two countries get into even a very limited war in which only a few small weapons are fired. Within a day or two we here in the United States would begin finding the radioactive debris from such firings in our own atmosphere. And if the such a war were to be an all-out war in which one country was totally destroyed, we in the United States (and, of course, all over the world) would be able to notice a decline in longevity and life expectancy, as the effects of the radionuclides and their radiation makes itself known in those who today are only children.

The only solution is for this country to realize the truth and try to get back to the Christian nation that our founding fathers intended us to be. Prayer is the only answer. I don’t believe that we will ever again experience the peace that we had prior to September 11, 2001. There are too many terrorists even within our own country, and access to means of mass destruction is too easy to obtain. I am not saying that we are quickly approaching the second coming of the Lord, because we don’t know how bad things are going to have to get before that happens. I am only saying that 9/11/01 marked a definite point in history when the rapid slide into total moral chaos suddenly got a lot steeper and faster.

Show 5 footnotes

  1. These footnotes were provided in the original, which the author created with MS Word.
  2. I am the father of your Uncle Steven, which I think makes me a Great Uncle, right?
  3. “In a Nut Shell” is not an admission of stupidity (i.e. I’m not a nut) but a metaphor referring to a compressed summary
  4. The final straw of many frustrations was when the public laundry in the town of Oak Ridge “lost” about $150 worth of our clothing due, as it was later determined, to an organized ring of thieves that operated inside the laundry. However, other frustrations included things like when the Roane-Anderson Company (which ran Oak Ridge, named after the two counties in which Oak Ridge was situated) decided to raise the rent that we paid for our house; but instead of getting permission to do so from the Federal Government, they converted all the monthly rates to daily rates, rounded them up to the nearest dollar, and then multiplied them by the number of days in the month to get a now higher monthly rate!
  5. Important people used pseudonyms so the security guards wouldn’t know who they really were: Enrico Fermi was Dr. Farmer. No one was allowed to know even where Los Alamos was: Mail was addressed to Individual’s Name, P. O. Box 1666, New Mexico. My boss, Dr. Coryell, once was invited to a meeting out there, and on his return he held a seminar for his people to tell us about his trip. One thing that I remember was that he said, “I can’t tell you where Los Alamos is. All I can tell you is that Grace Mary (his wife) had trouble boiling water for cooking eggs, because when she checked its temperature, she found that the water was boiling at 93° C.” (The boiling point of water at sea level is 100° C., so after the seminar everyone got out Handbooks and looked up the elevation at which water boils at 93° C., which is 7,500 ft. Then a quick look at a map narrowed the possibilities down to a small area in the Sangre de Christo mountain range.)