Saturday, August 22, 2009

70th Anniversary of 'the little $6,000 that grew'

In February 2010, most of the world will not celebrate the 70th anniversary of the start of the Manhattan Project.

Nor should they.

But they should mark it, and pause to reflect on its continuing consequences for us here today.

For 1940 was truly an Annus Mirabillis , and only partly because it marked the start of the development of the world's biggest life-taker.

Because 1940 was also crucial in the development of the world's smallest life-saver .

And aren't these two things the Alpha and the Omega of a continuing human existence in this universe?

During that February almost seventy years ago, two lead investigators at Columbia University in Manhattan were given $6,000 in federal tax dollars to look into the possibility of developing an atomic 'boiler' - which is to say, given money to develop an engine, not a bomb.

But the money came from orders of the president himself and FDR knew the project, if fully successful, would lead to investigating the building of an atomic bomb, to be held in reserve against the possibility the Nazis were already trying to build - and use - one.

Seventy years on, the six thousand dollars has become, for the American taxpayers alone, six trillion dollars and counting.

Laying blame for the current American debt crisis ? February 1940 is as good a place as any to start - that six trillion dollars would sure erase a lot of America's public and private debt worries.

If the American nuclear bomb arsenal of today ever gets used in a shooting match, the cost in lives would be six billion plus - and probably no one left to do the counting.

The costs of this the best known of Manhattan's wartime projects, in terms of the tarnishing of America's image abroad, is impossible to calculate.

The desk of the president is famously thought of as the place where the sign reads "the buck stops here".

But this project was highly unusual, in that it can be more truly said of the Manhattan Project, that "the buck started here", right at the president's desk.

As its political and financial father, FDR 'knew' about the start of the building of the world's biggest life-taker long before almost anyone else on the planet.

Not so with the start of the other Manhattan-based project , the one to finally start saving lives with the world's smallest life-saver, twelve years after its initial discovery.

FDR first learned of this life-saving substance at the exact same time that the rest of the world did , by opening his paper and reading a highly dramatic news story, one morning in mid-August 1943, almost three years after the life-saving project's obscure beginnings.

Perhaps the delay in the president learning of this life-saver is best explained by the fact that this project's lead investigator, also at Columbia University, never asked for any federal government grant or presidential 'seal of approval' - and in fact never sought a grant from anyone.

Still , his work never added a cent to the federal debt and his legacy continues to add lustre to the American image abroad.

Few people around the world, including those terrorists who harbor nothing but ill will towards Manhattan Island, do not have a family member or friend whose life was spared, thanks to the kick-starting efforts of this Manhattan Island life saver.

His project's 70th anniversary also comes up next year, in September 2010.

Perhaps this other Manhattan Project also needs a moment from us, to reflect on the changes it has brought into our world.

In this case, changes much for the better....

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