When I saw “Oppenheimer” last weekend, it reminded me of a story I had heard about a former TCU professor who had some involvement in the Manhattan Project.
“Oppenheimer,” in case you haven’t seen it, tells the story of Robert Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist and director of the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II. He’s credited with developing the atomic bomb, and the Manhattan Project was the U.S. effort to build an atomic weapon during World War II.
The film brought in $82.5 million, behind “Barbie,” but quite an achievement for a three-hour movie about an event now nearly 80 years old.
I dashed off a quick note to TCU to see if my memory was on target and received a flood of information on Harrison Miller Moseley, former professor of physics.
It was Moseley who I recalled hearing about and who was involved in the Manhattan Project, though he didn’t speak about it until late in his life.
I spoke with Magnus Rittby, professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at TCU, who has been compiling a history of the physics department at the school.
Moseley (1922-2014) grew up in Fort Worth at the Masonic Home, a facility for widows and orphans, following the death of his father. He played on some of the school’s famed football teams and graduated valedictorian in 1938, earning a full ride to TCU. There he came under the tutelage of the chairman of the department, Newton Gaines, who probably deserves his own story as he recorded folk songs for Alan Lomax in the 1930s. At TCU, Moseley graduated the top of his class in 1943, then headed to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he worked with Nathan Rosen, a friend and fellow scientist with Albert Einstein.
Rosen and Einstein, together with another physicist, Boris Podolsky, in 1935 wrote one of the most famous papers in physics history, called “Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality be Considered Complete.”
That paper’s impact continues, Rittby said.
“There was a Nobel Prize given in 2022 about some of the same issues raised in the paper, on quantum entanglement,” he said.
When Rosen was asked by Einstein to join the Manhattan Project at the Naval Research Laboratory, Rosen asked if he could bring his brightest student, Moseley. Moseley enlisted in the Navy and began working in the Naval Research Laboratory with Rosen on a process to produce the enriched uranium needed for the atomic bomb. Their process was called liquid-thermal diffusion.
This approach to making enriched uranium was not originally favored, but it eventually proved to be the one that could produce the most material effectively. That is demonstrated in the film when Oppenheimer fills a fish bowl with marbles as the Manhattan Project grows its supply of enriched uranium. Without that enriched uranium, there would have been no bomb.
“He was at the very basic level of figuring out how they could get the necessary material for the first bomb. Which I think is pretty cool,” Rittby said.
While Moseley was doing serious work, he had a sense of humor, Rittby said. Rittby has some correspondence between Moseley and TCU’s then chairman, Gaines.
Moseley writes Gaines to advise him to to use a non-Navy mailing address since the guards are checking what goes in and out of the Navy Yard and that any physics writings would be suspect:
“Comic books, red apples, and second-hand submarines – these I could get away with. But should I start out with a sheet of solved problems in electricity I would no doubt be called in by Naval Intelligence for peddling A-Bomb secrets on the open market”.
While Moseley’s work on the Manhattan Project was not discussed much during his time at TCU, he did speak with Fort Worth author Stella Brooks about his life. She chronicled his life story in a book, Unbelievable: The Unmasking of Dr. Harrison Miller Moseley.
The book details Moseley’s remarkable life and offers an interesting peek behind the curtain at one of the most important scientific and technical achievements of the 20th century. All through the lens of a man who either led or was a member of the physics department at TCU for 40 years.
So if you go see “Oppenheimer,” when you see the scenes with the marbles in the fishbowl, just remember, a guy that taught at TCU for 40 years helped do that.
Walmart is inviting entrepreneurs to apply to pitch shelf-ready products that are made, grown or assembled in the U.S. to be sold in Walmart or Sam’s Club stores or online.
It’s Walmart’s 10th annual Open Call event. Applications are open until Aug. 18.
Open Call will take place on Oct. 24 and 25, during Manufacturing Month 2023.
Last year, more than 1,100 small and medium businesses participated, making Open Call 2022 the largest one yet.
Even if companies don’t walk away with a deal, all Open Call finalists will have access to mentoring sessions with Walmart leaders and special guests, where they will have access to business insights and resources. Each finalist will have a one-on-one pitch meeting with Walmart and/or Sam’s Club.
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Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.