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Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War IIby Jennet Conant
Chapter 1: The Patron
Ward was smiling but that did not mean that he was amused. The smile was a velvet glove covering his iron determination to get under way without any lost motion.
On January 30, 1940, shortly after ten P.M., the superintendent of the building at 116 East 83rd Street noticed that a bottle of milk delivered that morning to one of his tenants had remained in front of the door all day. The young man who rented the three-room apartment had not said anything about going out of town. He was a conspicuous fellow, extremely tall — at least six feet four — and lean, with piercing blue eyes and a shock of dark hair. After knocking repeatedly and failing to get an answer, the superintendent notified the police.
William T. Richards was found dead in the bathtub with his wrists slashed, blood from his wounds garlanding the walls of the bathroom. He was dressed in his pajamas, his head resting on a pillow. A razor blade lay by his hand. He was a former chemistry professor at Princeton University who was currently employed as a consultant at the Loomis Laboratory in Tuxedo Park, New York. He was thirty-nine years old. His personal papers mentioned a mother, Miriam Stuart Richards, living in Massachusetts, and the detective at the scene asked the Cambridge police to contact her. As The New York Times reported the following morning, William Richards was from a prominent Boston family, son of the late professor Theodore William Richards of Harvard, winner of a Nobel Prize in chemistry, and the brother of the former Grace (Patty) Thayer Richards, wife of the president of Harvard, James B. Conant.
Although his death was clearly a suicide, everything possible was done to hush up the more unpleasant aspects of the event, and the Boston papers never published the details. Richards' brother, Thayer, was immediately dispatched to New York, and he saw to it that most of what had transpired was concealed from his mother and sister. A suicide note that was found by the tub was destroyed, and its contents were never revealed. The Richards family was naturally concerned about its reputation, but there were also pressing concerns, of a rather delicate nature, that made it vitally important that Bill's suicide be kept as quiet as possible. Miriam Richards, desperate to avoid any scandal, drafted a reassuring letter attempting to put the untimely death of her son in a better light, copies of which she sent out to important friends and relations. She explained that Bill had long been "nervously, seriously ill" and had never properly recovered from severe abdominal surgery several years earlier. She also supplied him with an end that left open the possibility that his death was accidental, writing that "Bill died of an overdose of a sleeping draught." It is entirely possible that this is what she had been told.
"William Theodore Richards was beyond any doubt one of the most brilliant members of our class," began his Harvard obituary, based on the fond reminiscences of his friends and scientific colleagues. He was interested in new scientific phenomena, the originality of his ideas leading him into experimental work. But he had the kind of restless, wide-ranging intelligence — he was a talented painter and musician and briefly considered playing the cello professionally — that made him, according to one friend, "a veritable Renaissance man." He was a chemist at his father's insistence, but his heart was not in it, and he found it difficult to force himself to undertake the routine proofs and laborious accumulation of data that would have given him more publishable material and more recognition in his field. He had "a mentality which could be called great," wrote his classmate Leopold Mannes, a fellow scientist and musician, who speculated that Richards despaired of ever meeting the onerous demands he imposed on himself. "In his attitude towards life, towards science, towards music — of which he had an astounding knowledge and perception — and towards literature, he was a relentless perfectionist, and thus his own implacable judge. No human being could be expected fully to satisfy such standards."
Richards was a solitary man, confining his friends to a small, clever circle. He kept most of his contemporaries at bay with his caustic wit, which made quick work of any human frailty, whether at his own expense or someone else's. With complete abandon, he would ruthlessly mimic anyone from Adolf Hitler to some sentimental woman who had been foolish enough to confide in him. To most, he seemed cordial, cold, and a bit superior, his moodiness exacerbated by periods of poor health and depression. He eventually quit his job at Princeton and moved to New York, where he worked part-time as a chemical consultant while devoting himself to an arduous course of psychotherapy. The Harvard memorial notes concluded that "after a brave struggle for ten years to overcome a serious neurosis, which in spite of treatment grew worse, Bill died by his own hand."
Richards' death was nevertheless "shocking" to Jim Conant and his wife, Patty. Richards had celebrated Christmas with them only a few weeks before and had stayed in the large brick mansion at 17 Quincy Street that was the official residence of the Harvard president. Although his psychological condition had always been precarious, he had seemed "to be making real progress," his mother later lamented in a letter to a close family friend, so much so that "last summer and autumn he was so happy and well that for fun he wrote a detective story." Richards had submitted the manuscript to Scribner's, which "had at once accepted it."
Just a few weeks after he took his own life, his book, Brain Waves and Death, was published under the pseudonym "Willard Rich." It was, in most respects, a conventional murder mystery, with the added interest of being set in a sophisticated modern laboratory, where a group of eminent scientists are hard at work on an experiment designed to measure the electrical impulses sent out by the brain. In a twist on the standard "hermetically sealed room" problem, Richards staged the murder in a locked experimental chamber that is constantly monitored by highly sensitive listening devices and a camera. The book earned respectful reviews, with The New York Times describing the story as "ingeniously contrived and executed" and awarding Willard Rich "an honorable place in the ranks of mystery mongers." None of the critics were apparently aware that the author was already dead or that he had rather morbidly foreshadowed his imminent demise in the book, in which the first victim is a tall, arrogant young chemist named Bill Roberts.
At the time, only a small group of elite scientists could have known that while the method Richards devised to kill off his literary alter ego was of his own invention — a lethal packet of poison gas that was frozen solid and released into the atmosphere when warmed to room temperature — the actual science and the laboratory itself were real. George Kistiakowsky, a Harvard chemistry professor and one of Richards' closest friends and professional colleagues, guessed the truth immediately, "that it was a take-off on the Loomis Laboratory and the characters frequenting it." Despite its contrived plot, the book was essentially a roman à clef. No one who had ever been there could fail to recognize that the "Howard M. Ward Laboratory" was in reality the Loomis Laboratory in Tuxedo Park and that the charismatic figure of Ward himself was transparently based on Alfred Lee Loomis, the immensely wealthy Wall Street tycoon and amateur physicist who, among his myriad inventions, claimed a patent for the electroencephalograph, a device that measured brain waves.
The opening paragraphs of the book perfectly captured Loomis' rarefied world, where scientists mingled with polite society and where intellectual problems in astronomy, biology, psychiatry, or physics could be discussed and pursued in a genteel and collegial atmosphere:
The Howard M. Ward Laboratory was not one of those hospital-like institutions where Pure Science is hounded grimly and humorlessly as if it were a venomous reptile; the grounds of the Laboratory included a tennis court, bridle paths, and a nine-hole golf course. Guests there did not have to confine themselves to science, they could live fully and graciously.
It was Richards who had first told Kistiakowsky about Loomis' private scientific playground in Tuxedo Park, a guarded enclave of money and privilege nestled in the foothills of the Ramapo Mountains. Tuxedo Park, forty miles northwest of New York City, had originally been developed in 1886 by Pierre Lorillard, the tobacco magnate, as a private lakefront resort where his wealthy friends could summer every year. The rustic retreat became the prime meeting ground of American society, what Ward McCallister famously called "the Four Hundred," where wealthy moguls communed with nature in forty-room "cottages" with the required ten bedrooms, gardens, stables, and housing for the small army of servants required for entertaining in style. Leading members of the financial elite, such as Rockefellers and Morgans, numbered among its residents, as did Averell Harriman, who occupied a vast neighboring estate known as Arden. Over the years, Tuxedo Park, with its exclusive clubhouse and fabled balls, had taken on all of the luster and lore of a royal court, and although it had dimmed somewhat since the First World War, it still regarded itself as the Versailles of the New York rich.
Loomis, a prominent banker and socialite, was very much part of that world and owned several homes there. According to Richards, however, Loomis was also somewhat eccentric and disdained the glamorous swirl around him. He had developed a passion for science and for some time had been leading a sort of double life: as a partner in Bonbright & Co., the thriving bond investments subsidiary of J. P. Morgan, he had amassed a substantial fortune, which allowed him to act as a patron somewhat in the manner of the great nineteenth-century British scientists such as Charles Darwin and Lord Rayleigh. To that end, Loomis had purchased an enormous stone mansion in Tuxedo, known as the Tower House, and turned it into a private laboratory where he could give free rein to his avocation — primarily physics, but also chemistry, astronomy, and other ventures. He entertained lavishly at Tower House and invited eminent scientists to spend long weekends and holidays as his guests. More to the point, as Richards told Kistiakowsky, Loomis also extended his hospitality to "impecunious" young scientists, offering them stipends so they could enjoy elegant living conditions while laboring as skilled researchers in his laboratory.
Richards had seen to it that Kistiakowsky — "Kisty" to his pals — secured a generous grant from the Loomis Laboratory. The two had met and become fast friends at Princeton in the fall of 1926, when as new chemistry teachers they were assigned to share the same ground-floor laboratory. They were both tall, physically imposing men, with the same contradictory mixture of witty raconteur and reserved, introspective scientist. In no time they had discovered a mutual fondness for late night philosophizing and bathtub gin. As this was during Prohibition, the Chemistry Department had to sponsor its own drinking parties, and the two chemists "doctored" their own mixture of bootleg alcohol and ginger ale with varying degrees of success. Richards, who was subsidized by his well-heeled Brahmin family, had soon noticed that his Russian colleague, a recent émigré who sent money to his family in Europe, was having difficulty managing on the standard instructor's salary of $160 a month. Knowing any extra source of funds would be welcome, Richards had put in a good word with Loomis, just as he had when recommending Kistiakowsky to his "uncle Lawrence" — A. Lawrence Lowell, who was then president of Harvard, and Bill's uncle on his mother's side. Grinning into the phone, he had provided assurances that Kistiakowsky was not some "wild and woolly Russian" and, despite being just off the boat, was "wholly a gentleman, had proper appearance and table manners, etc."
Richards' own introduction to Loomis had happened quite by accident a few months prior to his arrival at Princeton. While Richards was completing his postdoctoral studies at Göttingen, he had been sitting in the park one Sunday morning, idly reading Chemical Abstracts, when a paragraph briefly describing an experiment being carried on in the "Loomis Laboratory" had caught his eye. He had immediately sent off a letter to the laboratory, "suggesting that certain aspects of the experiment could be further developed," and he had even outlined what the result of this development would probably be. Some months later, he received a response from the laboratory informing him that they had carried out his suggestions and the results were those he had anticipated. This had been followed by a formal invitation to work at the Loomis Laboratory.
Over the years, Richards and Kistiakowky had often commuted from Princeton to Tuxedo Park together on weekends and holidays and had conducted some of their research experiments jointly. Richards had arranged for them both to spend the summer of 1930 as research fellows at the Loomis Laboratory. What a grand time that had been. Not only was the room and board better than that of any resort hotel, but weekend recreation at Tower House — when the restriction against women was relaxed — included festive picnics, drinks, parties, and elaborate black-tie dinners. Back then, they had both been ambitious young chemists at the beginning of their careers and had reveled in the chance to work with such legendary figures as R. W. Wood, the brilliant American experimental physicist from Johns Hopkins, whom Loomis had lured to Tuxedo Park as director of his laboratory. Working alongside Loomis and a long list of distinguished collaborators, they had carried out series of original experiments, including some of the first with intense ultrasonic radiation, and had proudly seen their lines of investigation published in scientific journals and taken up by laboratories in America and Europe.
Kistiakowsky, who by then had joined Harvard's Chemistry Department and become close friends with Conant, never publicly revealed that Richards' book was based on Loomis and the brain wave experiments conducted at Tower House. In his carefully composed entry in Richards' Harvard obituary, he made only a passing reference to a "Mr. A. L. Loomis of Tuxedo Park," diplomatically noting that Richards' work at the laboratory had afforded him "one of the keenest scientific pleasures of his career." However, it is typical that he could not resist dropping one hint. Observing that very few physical chemists possessed his late friend's keenness of mind, Kistiakowsky concluded that no one could ever match Richards' own concise presentation of his work, "which was always done in the best literary form."
At the time of Richards' death, Kistiakowsky was still working for Loomis on the side. But the stakes were much higher now, and the project he had undertaken was so secret, and of such fearful importance, that Richards' parody of the Loomis Laboratory must have struck him as a wildly precipitous and ill-conceived prank. Richards had always thumbed his nose at authority and convention and had been disdainful of the narrow scope of his scientific colleagues, whom he once complained talked about "nothing but the facts, the fundamental tone of life, while I prefer the inferred third harmonic." But for Kistiakowsky, a White Russian who at age seventeen had battled the advancing Germans at the tail end of World War I, and then fought the Bolsheviks before being wounded and forced to flee his country, the prospect of another European war took precedence over everything. While in the past he might have joined Richards in poking fun at Loomis and his collector's attitude toward scientists, Kistiakowsky now appreciated him as a man who knew how to get things done. Loomis was a bit stiff, with the bearing of a four-star general in civilian clothes, but he was strong and decisive.
Kistiakowsky did not have to be told to be discreet, though he may have been. Loomis was furious about the book and threatened to sue for libel. He was an intensely private man and was horrified at the breach of trust from such an old friend. Richards had been a regular at the Tower House for more than ten years and was intimately acquainted with the goings-on there. In the months directly preceding his suicide, Loomis had plunged the laboratory into highly sensitive war-related research projects. Loomis wanted no part of the gossip and notoriety that might result either from Richards' unfortunate death or his book.
Neither did Jim Conant, who regarded the book as a source of acute embarrassment. It was bad enough that his wife's family continuously vexed him with their financial excesses and emotional crises, here was his brother-in-law stirring up trouble from the grave with this incriminating tale. Patty Conant was so distressed that she begged her brother, Thayer, to have the book recalled at once. But it was too late for that, and it was not long before Conant discovered that Brain Waves and Death was not Richards' only legacy.
With his instinctive ability to home in on the latest developments on the frontiers of research, Richards had followed up his first book with something far more sensational. Among the papers collected from his apartment after his death was the draft of a short story entitled "The Uranium Bomb." It was written once again under the pseudonym Willard Rich. The slim typed manuscript, bearing the name and address of his literary agent, Madeleine Boyd, on the front cover, was clearly intended for publication. Richards was an avid reader of Astounding Science Fiction and probably intended to place his story in the magazine, which regularly carried the futuristic visions of H. G. Wells and was a popular venue for the doomsday fantasies of scientists who were themselves good writers. Richards' story opens with the meeting in March 1939 between a rather callow young chemist named Perkins (Richards) and a Russian physicist named Boris Zmenov, who tries to enlist the well-connected American to warn his influential friends, and ultimately the president, "to suppress a threat to humanity." The Zmenov character, who is convinced the Nazis want to build a bomb, explains that there had been a breakthrough in atomic fission: the uranium nucleus had been split up, with the liberation of fifty million times as much energy as could be obtained from any other explosive. "A ton of uranium would make a bomb which could blow the end off Manhattan island."
Richards outlined Zmenov's theory, "tossed off with the breezy impudence of a theoretical physicist," describing the principles of atomic fission and the chain reaction by which an explosion spreads from a few atoms to a large mass of material, thereby generating a colossal amount of power. When Perkins professes disbelief, Zmenov becomes furious: "I am on the verge of developing a weapon," he declares, "which will be the greatest military discovery of all time. It will revolutionize war, and make the nation possessing it supreme. I wish that the United States should be this nation, but am I encouraged? Am I assisted with the most meager financial support? Bah."
As Conant read the manuscript, he realized it was an accurate representation of the facts as far as they were known. While not exactly common knowledge, Conant was aware that a great deal of information about uranium had been leaking out in scientific conferences and journals over the past year. His brother-in-law could have easily picked up many of his ideas just from reading The New York Times, which had extensively covered the lecture appearances of the Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his outspoken remarks about the destructive potential for fission. Even Newsweek had reported that atomic energy might create "an explosion that would make the forces of TNT or high-power bombs seem like firecrackers." For his part, Conant, an accomplished scientist who had been chairman of Harvard's Chemistry Department before becoming president of the university, was far from convinced atomic fission was anywhere near to being used as a military weapon. He was still inclined to believe the only imminent danger from fission was to some university laboratories. But he was not ready to dismiss it, either.
Richards' story was disturbing, and if it cut as close to the bone as his novel had, it was potentially dangerous. There were too many familiar names for comfort, including an acquaintance "prominent in education circles" by the name of "Jim," which Conant must have read as a sly reference to himself. More troubling still, the physical description of Zmenov — very short, round, and excitable — matched that of the Hungarian refugee scientist Leo Szilard, who was known to be experimenting with uranium fission at Columbia University in New York. Szilard was always agitating within the scientific community about the importance of fission and had even formed his own association to solicit funds for his work. In a scene that rang especially true, Perkins arranges for Zmenov to meet a wealthy banker, and Zmenov is crestfallen when he does not pull out his checkbook. "Perhaps Zmenov thought all bankers were crazy to find something to sling their money into," Richards wrote in yet another thinly disguised account of Loomis' exploits. This time, Harvard's cautious president did not wait for Loomis to tell him that the story revealed too great a knowledge of high-level developments in the scientific world, and at the very moment external pressures were coming to a peak. Conant made sure the story was suppressed.
Conant was too guarded to ever fully confide his doubts in anyone, but he expressed some of his reservations to his son, Ted, who was thirteen years old at the time. The boy had come across the story when going through the boxes of books and radio equipment Richards had left to him and insisted that it ought to be published according to the wishes of his beloved uncle. Anything short of that, he argued, "was censorship." The fierce row between father and son that followed was memorable because it was so rare. Conant was a calm, controlled man who rarely lost his temper. He was also coldly practical and not given to old-fashioned sentiment. His angry retort that Richards' story was "outlandish" and "unworthy of him," coupled with his uncharacteristic claim that "the family honor was at stake," suggested there was something more to his opposition than he was letting on. His son reluctantly let the matter drop.
By the time Conant discovered Richards' manuscript, many of the events described in the story, although slightly distorted, had in fact already transpired. Szilard had befriended Richards and was regularly updating him on the work he was carrying on with the Italian émigré physicist Enrico Fermi, who had won a Nobel Prize and had recently joined the staff of Columbia University. After the French physicist Frédéric Joliot-Curie published his findings on uranium fission, Fermi lost patience with Szilard's passion for secrecy and insisted that their recent experiments be published. In a hasty note to Richards on April 18, 1939, Szilard broke the news:
Dear Richards: —
As Richards cynically noted in his story, Szilard's interest in him was primarily as a link to private investors like Loomis, whom Szilard desperately wanted to bankroll the costly experiments he planned to do at Columbia University. At the same time, Szilard had been busy wooing other Wall Street investors, enticing them with the promise of cheap energy. In a letter to Lewis L. Strauss, a New York businessman interested in the atom's commercial potential, Szilard wrote tantalizingly of "a very sensational new development in nuclear physics" and predicted that fission "might make it possible to produce power by means of nuclear energy." At one point, Szilard arranged for himself and Fermi to have drinks at Strauss' apartment and asked Strauss to invite his wealthy acquaintance Lord Rothschild, but the two physicists could not persuade the English financier to underwrite their chain reaction research. Part of the problem was that while Szilard needed backers, he was desperately afraid Germany would realize fission's military potential first. He was obsessed with secrecy. He was determined to protect his discoveries and cloaked his project in so much mystery that he often appeared as "paranoid" as Richards portrayed him in his sharp caricature. After all his efforts to find private investors had met with failure, Szilard wrote to Richards on July 9, 1939, pleading for money to prove "once and for all if a chain reaction can be made to work." His tone was urgent:
During the summer of 1939, Szilard and Fermi worked out the basis for the first successful chain reaction in a series of letters. Encouraged by their correspondence, but frustrated by his continued failure to enlist any financial support for his experiments, Szilard turned to his old mentor, Albert Einstein, for help. Einstein was sixty years old and famous, someone with enough stature to lend credibility to his cause. After meeting with Szilard and reviewing his calculations, Einstein was quickly persuaded that the government should be warned that an atomic bomb was a possibility and that the Nazis could not be allowed to build such an unimaginably powerful weapon. On August 2, Szilard drafted the final version of the letter Einstein had agreed to send to the president. Szilard called a part-time stenographer at Columbia named Janet Coatesworth and, speaking over the telephone in his thick Hungarian accent, dictated the letter to "F. D. Roosevelt, president of the United States," advising him that "extremely powerful bombs of a new type" could now be constructed. By the time Szilard read her the signature, "Yours very truly, Albert Einstein," he was fully aware that the young woman thought he was out of his mind. That incident, no doubt exaggerated in Szilard's gleeful retelling, bears close resemblance to a passage in Richards' story in which a young secretary comes to see Perkins and confides her concerns about Zmenov. "I'm afraid he's getting himself into the most dreadful trouble," she tells him. "You know how impetuous he is. He's a genius, and when other people don't see that, he gets impatient."
Einstein's letter to Roosevelt would result in the convening of a government advisory committee to study the problem. Roosevelt appointed Lyman J. Briggs, director of the National Bureau of Standards, the government's bureaucratic physics laboratory, as chairman. On October 21, 1939, Szilard went to Washington and reported to the first meeting of the Briggs Advisory Committee on Uranium. He explained how his chain reaction theory worked and put in his usual plea for funds to conduct a large-scale experiment — the same test he had been writing to Richards about for months. To Szilard's astonishment, the committee agreed to give him $6,000 for his uranium research.
Even then, Szilard did not cease his efforts at fund-raising and kept up his letters and calls to promising prospects. Twelve days after the meeting in Washington, he sent a brief note to Richards and included an eight-page memorandum for his "personal information only," summing up his report to the Briggs committee. The memo laid out exactly how much uranium and graphite he and Fermi would need for their experiments, how much it would probably cost, and which companies could supply the materials — a blueprint for building a bomb. "It seems advisable we should talk about these things in greater detail before you take up the matter with a third person..."
Szilard was never able to pin down the elusive Loomis, who a few months later would decide to back Fermi's chain reaction research. Four years later, Szilard wrote to Loomis directly, requesting an appointment to see him, and recalled his previous attempts to contact him: "I regretted very much not having been able to meet you in March and again in July of 1939 and am inclined sometimes to think that much subsequent trouble would have been avoided if a contact with you had been established at that time."
There are no records indicating whether Conant had any knowledge of Szilard's regular correspondence with Richards or his attempts to use him as a conduit to Loomis. But by the spring of 1940, when Conant found Richards' story, any public mention of atomic energy's military potential would have made the Harvard president uneasy. War had overtaken Europe, and there was already speculation about how long England would be able to fend off a German invasion. Although America was still resolutely isolationist, Conant and other leading scientific advisers to the president had been working to keep the government informed of any new developments of importance to national defense. The Briggs committee had been formed in response to the growing concern about how far along the Germans were in their atomic research. Many noted physicists, including Niels Bohr and Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner, two Hungarians now teaching in the United States, were urging their European colleagues — notably the French nuclear scientist Frédéric Joliot-Curie, the Viennese physicist Erwin Shrödinger, and the British physicist Paul Dirac — to exercise caution and were pushing for a publication ban on uranium fission. At the same time, Vannevar Bush, a tough-minded Yankee engineer who had recently resigned the vice presidency of MIT to head the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., was agitating for "an accelerated defense effort." Alarmed that the United States military was technologically unprepared for war, Bush was exploring ways to mobilize the country's scientists for war.
Conant was aware that Loomis was in the thick of these talks. With close ties in the worlds of finance, government, and science, Loomis had virtually unprecedented access to the men who would ultimately decide the country's future. Not only was he a tycoon with his own advanced laboratory at his disposal, he had the financial resources to underwrite any research project he found promising, even writing a personal check for $5,000 to help jump-start Harvard's nuclear physics research. He was an avid supporter of leading physicist Ernest O. Lawrence and his ambitious cyclotron project — which produced radioactive isotopes that might prove to be therapeutic or possibly provide clues to the exploitation of atomic energy — and was using his wide influence among corporate chiefs and Washington officials to help Lawrence secure more than $1 million in grant money from the Rockefeller Foundation. He was also a first cousin of Henry Stimson, who was a member of two Republican administrations and rumored to be President Roosevelt's choice as secretary of war. Because he had Stimson's confidence, Loomis was uniquely positioned to play a pivotal role as the country prepared for a war the Germans had already demonstrated would be, in Bush's words, "a highly technical struggle."
Of course, Loomis did not need anyone's permission to undertake his own investigation of the new machinery of war. He was enthusiastic about American know-how and was not inclined to sit idly by until the military, which he viewed as slow and hidebound by tradition, finally determined it was time to take action — particularly if just catching up with the Germans proved to be a monumental task. Long before the government moved to enlist scientists to develop advanced weapons, Loomis had assessed the situation and concluded it was critical that the country be as informed as possible about which technologies would matter in the future war. He scrapped all his experiments and turned the Tower House into his personal civilian research project, then began recruiting the brightest minds he could find to help him take measure of the enemy's capabilities and start working on new gadgets and devices for defense purposes.
How much Richards actually saw and heard at the Tower House, and how much he gleaned from Szilard or simply guessed at, is impossible to know. What had passed for science fiction and wild speculation only a short time ago was now no longer beyond imagining. His roman à clef provides a rare glimpse inside Loomis' empyrean of pure science just before they would all be cast out into a corrupt and violent world. In the final scene in his short story, Zmenov intentionally kills himself by detonating a small explosive "to prove forever that his theory is true." Richards realized the race to build the bomb was on and that the coming war would change everything. He understood that the leisurely, cloistered world of gentlemen scientists he had known at the Tower House was at an end, and the irony that his death coincided with the passing of an era did not escape him.
Years later, Kistiakowsky's widow, Elaine, would compare Richards' stories to passages in her husband's unfinished memoir, which he had been dictating into a tape recorder up to the time of his death in December 1982. She was amazed to learn how many details Richards had drawn directly from the period the two scientists had been involved with the Tower House — from its grand beginnings in 1926 to the day it was hastily shuttered in 1940. During the decade and a half Tower House flourished, Loomis played host to a remarkable group of young scientists at a moment when new discoveries were transforming all their fields and a spirit of intellectual excitement and experimentation fueled their research. It was hard to believe that in only a few years, that bright circle would not only build the radar system that would alter the course of the war, but would go on to create a weapon that would change the world forever. "It sounds like fiction," said Elaine. "It's incredible to me now, looking back, that it really happened."
Copyright © 2002 by Jennet Conant
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