Nasa / Space

Geek Trivia: Which Manhattan Project scientist won the group's infamous 'doomsday' betting pool?

Manhattan Project scientists set up a betting pool for the likely yield for the first atomic weapon. The winner is perhaps the most distinguished physicist in modern medicine.

On July 16, 1945, the world's first atomic bomb was detonated in a remote stretch of New Mexico desert, inaugurating the era of nuclear weaponry -- for better or for worse. And, for all that an age of nuclear proliferation has brought us, the worst could have been much, much worse.

During the early stages of weapons planning at Los Alamos, scientists began calculating the likely yield of an atomic weapon. Much of the math was supposition, as exact needs for critical mass, the speed and power of a fission chain reaction, and the amount of light, heat, and force (and radioactive fallout) created by said reaction were all guesses founded upon guesses until some preliminary experimentation took place. The ultimate experiment would be the Trinity Test itself, when the first atomic explosive would actually be detonated. However, scientists needed a general ballpark of the likely Trinity results, if only to know minimum safe distance for observers.

Terrifyingly, some early math suggested there would be no minimum safe distance, as there was a slim chance the first atomic explosion would be hot enough to ignite the Earth's atmosphere, exterminating virtually every living creature on the planet. Those calculations were rather quickly dismissed as inaccurate (or, at least, almost infinitely unlikely), but they did inform the rather morbid humor that surrounded the Trinity Test. Case in point, the Trinity Betting Pool.

Manhattan Project scientists actually set up a betting pool for the likely yield -- in kilotons of TNT -- for the first atomic weapon. While the extermination of all Earthbound life wasn't an available wager (Enrico Fermi actually set up a mock side-pool for that bet, which also included wagers for "only" wiping out all of New Mexico), it did include a remarkably accurate bet that was won by one of the most distinguished physicists that modern medicine has ever known.

WHICH MANHATTAN PROJECT SCIENTIST WON THE GROUP'S TRINITY TEST BETTING POOL?

Get the answer.

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6 comments
RG Bargy
RG Bargy

What we should all stand in awe of is that at Fermi's insistence, the team decided that before the test shot, they should try to work out whether the "chain reaction" they hoped to initiate would ever stop - i.e. would the first bomb be the last, because it destroyed the entire planet. The team members set to the task (headed by Teller) did all this without computers. See "Edward Teller - The Real Dr. Strangelove" by Peter Goodchild (pub 2004) at page 104. The side bet is recorded (with Teller and Oppenheimer's predictions as well as Rabi's) lower down on the same page.

George_Butel
George_Butel

I would like to see more details about who was worrying about worst-case scenarios of Trinity. I would also like to see citations for the "side bet." What were the other pool options--earth's crust cracks, atmosphere catches on fire, or what, besides "only" wiping out New Mexico?

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Sorry, I'm a horrible person like that :D Back to the topic! MR is awesome! MRI is nice, but I really really love NMR spectrography! It's so incredibly elegant. See, organic compounds are bound together by fused/shared orbitals. These "bonds" affect the nuclear magnetic resonances, both those of the primary nucleus (the one originating the resonance) but also of the neighboring nuclei, and of their neighbors. It's a bit like one of those mobiles you can hang from the ceiling, the shared hybridized orbitals serve to transfer part of the tug on one nucleus to the next one, and from there again to the next. What this means for spectrography is that each organic compound will give a unique spectrum, one which can be analyzed to show which substance is in question. It's very powerful, and it can be fun too. Puzzling out which interferences are the cause of the intricate patterns appearing is better than Sudoku ;)

md_hunt
md_hunt

>If that was all Ravi contributed to the world of science, he???d be an odd footnote. Who is Ravi?

MaryWeilage
MaryWeilage

Steve, Thanks for the note. I've updated the post.

Steve_Bassler
Steve_Bassler

> Rabi is a genius whose work led to many of the comforts and advances the modern wold enjoys today. Apparently he was not a strong enough proponent of spell-checking, though, or these crimes against literacy might have been stopped before they happened. Steve

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