Toad in the Hole

August 07, 2005

Saturday Science History Blogging

In 1985, Joe and I took a vacation and made a second visit to a birding site wed loved in 1980: Cave Creek Canyon, in way-southern Arizona. Its on the eastern side of the Chiricuahuas, a sycamore canyon formed by a creek in the desert, flowing out of the mountains. Gorgeous place, great birds.

There are campgrounds strung along the creek, and they were filled with birders. This was congenial, as we knew people would have tips to pass along and no one would be making noise all night. One fellow birder was a little old man with a home-rigged camper van, parked up at the end of the loop we camped in. One evening he walked to our site and introduced himself his name was John Manley -- and asked if he could buy a ride up to the top of the canyon the next day. Hed heard us telling someone we were going there, and his van was having engine trouble, probably caused by the ford at the entrance to the camp. His engine was mounted just a bit lower than ours, evidently, and the distributor cap had been splashed and needed time to dry out.

Oh, and he had a good red-faced warbler location up there.

That warbler was what we were going up there to see, and he was a fellow birder of course wed take him, no payment necessary.

So up we went, and sure enough he produced a male red-faced warbler. (I nearly broke my neck seeing it, as I was perched on the side of the roadcut trying to photograph an alligator juniper at the time.) There were other birds, and those trees, and he turned out to be good company. Splendid day.

As we drove back down the canyon and the conversation continued, John rather cautiously got into why he was familiar with Berkeley, where we live. Hed said he knew it from many business trips from his home in Los Alamos. Turned out a lot of those business trips were about his work in the Manhattan Project.

"Wow, really?? Tell us all about it!" evidently hed been apprehensive that wed react differently, negatively, being from Berkeley and all Hmph. But over the next few days, after dinners or during the universal siesta hour in the hot afternoons, he continued the story and we continued a fascinating conversation.

Oh, and he explained several aspects of automotive engines that I hadnt quite grasped till then, with the clarity and patience of a born teacher, as he cleaned and dried out his distributor cap and a few other bits. And that van was a marvel of compact cleverness foldout bed, table, seating, desk; kitchen including a fridge powered by either gas or battery, as the situation demanded; lighting, book storage Everything seemed to be able to unfold into several other things.

I dont think we ever asked him about Hiroshima. He answered some few questions before we asked him: Why had he become involved with the project?

Of course, the big driving force was getting there before the Germans. It was known they were working on a similar bomb, and whatever qualms anybody had and they did were overridden by that consideration. The Bomb wasnt dropped until after the European armistice, but all the work of inventing and producing it had happened before that and of course no one had any way of knowing when, or if, that would happen without it, or before the Nazi government had its own bomb.

But the big attraction was that the government had the only funding and resources sufficient to attack what John called "for a physicist, the sweetest problem in the world" atomic structure, splitting the atom. There was only one place to work on the real cutting edge of that science, and he and his colleagues considered themselves lucky to be in it.

John had had what he considered some annoying responsibilities, including supervisory ones. Hed supervised Oppenheimer, who he apparently respected, and Edward Teller. Over a beer one evening, I blurted a question: "Was Teller always such an asshole?"

There was a moment of silence, during which I thought, "Uh-oh. I just put my foot in it, and bad. I bet he liked the guy."

John actually steepled at me, and leaned forward over the table.

"To hear Ed Teller play the piano once

(pause) (ulp, fidget)

" was to hate him forever."

Imagine my relief, and illumination. "Oh yeah! We had a nun like that in school the music folks called her The Clydesdale of the Keys. "

John insisted on taking us to the only restaurant in Portal, the nearest town, when we all had errands to run there. Well, we have a policy, "Never turn down a meal," and camp food gets boring. Besides, more chat time.

As we walked to the restaurant, John told us the scariest story Ive ever heard in my life. Before he retired, theyd been working on a successor to the hydrogen bomb: the cobalt bomb, which would be more powerful, and I suspect dirtier. Some general was quizzing John about the chances of its working, and in his enthusiasm told John what he personally wanted to do with it: give it to the United Nations.

I must have some political instincts; I was so gut-deep scared by this that I actually stumbled, my knees got weak. And if you think about it, you might see why. And its not about letting other nations control this weapon. Its about monopoly, and who would actually be in control, of the weapon and the UN.

Posted at August 7, 2005 06:38 AM


Cool story. What an interesting man to run into! It also makes me wish I'd been interested in birds when I visited Arizona. :)

Posted by: Rurality at August 8, 2005 12:04 PM

I've enjoyed this story when I've heard it as part of the Ron oral tradition, but I don't think I've gotten this much detail before. Very nice.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at August 8, 2005 09:33 PM

He was interesting, and I wish we'd had more time with him. Joe remembers a few details I hadn't when I sat down to this, and I'll be editing to add them over the next few days. This may be slowed a bit by some actual paying work than just fell in to our laps, so kindly be patient.

Posted by: Ron at August 8, 2005 10:54 PM