Tuesday, April 02, 2013

What's going on at Oak Ridge?

That's what everyone in East Tennessee wanted to know during the Second World War. A huge industrial complex and a good-sized city had been built in the middle of nowhere. Tens of housands of people were employed. And no one seemed to know what was going on. I remember my father, an engineer, puzzling over the mystery.

People hired on without a clue what they would be doing, and didn't know what they were doing while they did it.

"Ever'thang's goin' in, and nuthin's comin' out."

As an old East Tennessee boy I've been reading with interest Denise Kiernan's new The Girls of Atomic City, the story of the women who lived and worked at Oak Ridge. Except it wasn't known as "Atomic City" at the time. The word "atomic" wasn't mentioned.

Then, sixteen hours after the first atomic bomb obliterated Hiroshima, President Truman informed the nation of the biggest secret of the war. At last the folks at Oak Ridge, and the other atomic sites, knew what they had been doing.

According to Kiernan, Elizabeth Edwards, the librarian for Oak Ridge, recruited by the government from the New York Public Library system, went immediately to the encyclopedia and took down the volume for "U". It fell open to the page for "uranium," the spine bent and broken from being opened so many times to the same page. Clearly, a substantial number of chemistry-savvy people had made a shrewd guess about what was going on.

Elizabeth Edwards! Could this be the same Elizabeth Edwards who in the early 1950s, as head of the Chattanooga Public Library, gave me my first job, as a sixteen-year-old stack boy? An encyclopedia wouldn't help answer that question, but a few seconds with Google -– "Elizabeth Edwards"+librarian+Chattanooga -- gave the answer. (I should say that although Miss Edwards gave me the job, the fact that my aunt was on the library's staff was not irrelevant.)

No more secret trips to the library to suss out government secrets. Whatever you want to know is probably on the internet and you can be sure someone is watching if you go snooping.