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The secretary general of the first United Nations international conference on the peaceful uses of the atom was a jay Whitman a leading scientist and this the century of science. I think that the possibilities of the great benefit to man by a new source of energy atomic energy which will help to carry civilization further as we need more and more energy is probably a big factor in bringing most of our man into nuclear engineering. WGBH FM in Boston presents a century of science produced under a grant from the Educational Television and Radio Center in cooperation with the National Association of educational broadcasters. This is an exploration of developments in 20th century science and of the implications they present for contemporary American society. Your host Volta Tory former editor of Popular Science and now director of radio television programming for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
When Professor Walter G Whitman joined the staff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1917 as an assistant in industrial chemistry very little was known about the nuclei of atoms since then those very tiny hard cores of atoms had been made to yield tremendous quantities of energy as you all know. No new industrial techniques new power plants and even new ways of practicing medicine have resulted from the release of atomic energy. Professor Whitman has seen and participated in developments which have changed all professions and created a new one is no head of the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT and served as secretary general of the United Nations first world scientific conference on atomic energy. Professor Whitman is there any chance that chemical engineering will give way to nuclear engineering the way the horse and buggy has given way to the automobile. Well I very much question that you see our chemical
industry is based entirely on chemists and chemical engineers and our chemical industry is certainly not hoss and buggy industry. All of the new text of fibers the better ties things like plastic containers modern gasoline are all products of the chemical and the related petroleum industry. As we develop new rocket propellant these all come from the chemical industry. In fact the atomic energy industry itself is largely managed and run by notable plants in the chemical industry. Dupont carbide Phillips Petroleum Monsanto they are all major elements in running the atomic energy industry for the United States government. The chemical engineer in this field has many
duties to do. He's mixed up in almost all phases. For example he's largely responsible for preparing the fuels the which are to be used in the reactor the fuels which undergo fission and create energy and then after these fuels have been in the reactor for a while so that they are sort of what we call spent fuels used up. They're very hot and they're very radioactive but they have a lot of valuable complement still in them. It's the chemical engineers job to take these hot spent fuel pools and separate them so that one can recover the valuable components and return them to the reactor. Parts of the fuel that are still useful for further power production. I think we think of this as something that has come out of the study of physics very largely and we think of the atomic engineers a physicist in the popular
sense ordinarily are other engineering specialties involved as deeply as the chemical engineers. Oh yes there is a great part to be played by other kinds of engineers. The civil engineer for example is involved in the plant construction problems which incidentally involved some problems of shielding that are entirely new. And he also gets into the sanitary field in terms of the handling of the waste in terms of the effect Dharm water supplies and air supplies. The mechanical engineer is involved all the way through because equipment is particularly the problem of the mechanical engineer and you get some pretty complicated equipment in this field particularly in the power planes and then the electrical engineer is very much involved in the control problems reactions occur so rapidly in this atomic work in matters of a hundred thousandth of a second that
the controls have to be completely automatic. You can't rely on human reactions to take care of the control of an atomic reactor. Well it brings up a question that I think that many of us wonder about at times how do you really distinguish between an engineer or scientist. Well there are similar kinds of people really. In general the scientist is working toward new knowledge just for the sake of new knowledge. The engineer is concerned primarily with adapting new knowledge and using it for constructive purposes for useful purposes. I might give a little illustration from my own experience. I'm an engineer but early in my career I was considerably interested in research and it was research rather scientific nature. I went out to work in industry with an oil company and after I'd been there a short time I
got to work on an absorption plant where they were recovering gasoline from gas. This had been a field of real theoretical interest to me and I started working on the further development of theory in this absorption plan. One day I discovered by making some calculations that this old absorption plant that we had was losing about $5000 a day. That 5000 dollars a day just burned itself on my mind and I immediately realized that if we would only hurry up and put in a modern plant even though it wouldn't be of the best perhaps it would be saving $5000 a day. You might say that at that particular point I change from the scientific attitude toward the very practical engineering attitude I'm accomplishing something useful. And from then on getting a new plant built and saving that 5000 dollars a day was all important.
Well speaking of science now that raises a question that many people seem to feel that we have developed atomic reactors quite rapidly and others complain from time to time that it's dragging and that we aren't making the progress that we ought to be. How do you feel about the way atomic power plants have come along. Well I would say that they've come along pretty well and that at the present time we are very active in our program. It must be conceded that for a while after the war the government's efforts on atomic energy were primarily toward the development of weapons and the uses of atomic energy for peaceful power purposes were relatively unimportant in the thinking of that time. This was because the United States really has plenty of oil and gas and coal and can make cheap power from its usual sources of energy. But in more
recent years the government has put a great deal of effort on to the development of power plants from atomic energy for example. Well I was a member of the general advisory committee of the Atomic Energy Commission for six years from 1950 to 1956 and early in that period was a time when all of a sudden the government got intensely interested because of its general relationship to the overall world situation. The desire of the United States to be a leader in developing atomic power for the benefit of countries all over the world. The way our government has gone at it has been to build a number of what we call prototype plans. They are not big plans intended to turn out tremendous amounts of electrical power. But there are somewhat smaller plants which nevertheless involve all of the problems which one would
run into in a bigger plant. Now the difficulties of building an atomic power plant which will be efficient and safe are very great. It means that one has to build a first one which will be quite expensive. Then based upon the experience there a second one can be build which will be more economical and may be based on that experience a third one can be build which will truly be economical and will be useful today for commercial purposes. But that takes quite a long time to develop. My general feeling is that the. Government today is pushing along on the development of atomic power in a very satisfactory manner although at say 10 years ago it was not getting any particular attention. Here at MIT building a research reactor and there are others that we hear about and other schools and laboratories around the country do
these help power people primarily or are these more concerned with the production of isotopes and material that is used in other sciences. Well you could take our own reactor at MIT. It will be very useful in connection with an educational program for nuclear engineers. The reactor however is primarily a research reactor. It makes many neutrons which can be used for all sorts of purposes which are not themselves related to direct power production. So that having a research reactor is a first step toward the power reactor business. But it is also much greater than that it's a great tool for research in a lot of other fields. It will never has progress in this field really retarded seriously by the secrecy and security limitations probably have
been necessary. Well I would say that in the earlier days yes they were. There was a feeling right after the war that anything associated with atomic energy ought to be kept secret and this was represented in the first Atomic Energy Act. As time has gone on we have realized that this is not a sound position and a great deal of opening up and what we call declassification of material has occurred within the last five years in the development of these power reactors. Isn't there some danger professor of Britain that by the time we have big fission reactors really working well will also know how to make fusion reactors and they might be much more efficient might they not. Well there is if we call it a danger yes it could exist.
I don't think of it as a danger because I feel that all the way along we are improving and improving our techniques on knowledge our ability to build power plants. Now the fission reactor has been worked on for. Many many years the first fission reactor really was way back in one thousand forty two or three when Ferrum e had his first pile. And here we are 15 years later and we still are not at all satisfied that we have a competitive reacted today and we look forward to another 10 years or so before in the United States we have good competitive fission reactors. Now the fusion problem is quite a different one. But it does involve some tremendously difficult things having to have as far as we know temperatures over around 100 million degrees. And the problems of how to control long was tremendous and I would
imagine that we would have just as long a time in developing fusion reactors as we're having in developing fission reactors. I see no reason to expect that fission reactors will become obsolete because a fusion reactor. How can we explain afterward when the difference between a fusion and efficiently act. I think that's best understood by saying that both of them produce tremendous amounts of energy but in the case of a fission reactor it's the result of a very heavy atom like uranium being split into two smaller atoms and the energy comes off at the time of that split. In the case of a fusion reaction it is the combining of two very light elements like hydrogen to form a somewhat heavier element. Still a very light one but heavier than hydrogen. And in this
case tremendous amounts of energy also are produced. You get the same amount of radioactive debris or ashes when the fusion process that you would in the face you know in the straight fusion process you don't get all of these many new elements. Radioactive that come from the splitting of the heavy rain Iam atom by fission. So in a way it would be a big advantage there wouldn't air in that you wouldn't have there's a big disposal problem that you have that there's a big advantage on the other hand there are just tremendous difficulties about a fusion reaction that mean we don't yet know much about how to handle it. The earlier principle peaceful use of atomic energy that we hear a great deal about is the use of isotopes and various tracing experiments and research of new things. You expect further development of that or do you feel that there has been introduced about the extent
it's going to be for a while. Well I would think we're just opening up the possibilities on the use of isotopes. You see isotopes represent a new tool for research and study. They represent a chance to put a what we call a radioactive atom that acts chemically like an ordinary atom into a system and then follow it along by means of detectors so that we can see what it's doing. Now this is just a tremendous research tool has been used a great deal in medicine and I think the diagnosing by the doctors today is just beginning to capitalize upon the possibilities of introducing these radioactive atoms into the human system and following along and seeing what they're going to do. Medicine is of course just one example of many
ways in which the radioactive atoms are now being employed. I see a well known since there seems to be a field that requires a great deal of engineering a great deal of science a lot of chemistry a lot of electrical knowledge and everything else. What courses would you recommend that a high school student take if he was especially interested in the time mechanics. Well I think in high school one could well say he should take the same kind of courses that he would take for Science and Engineering in any of its branches really. He should of course take mathematics to the maximum degree that it's available in the high school he should take the science courses like physics and chemistry as they are offered to him. I might illustrate this point by saying that if one is going to become a nuclear engineer we recommend that he go right through college not as a nuclear engineer but as a physicist or a
chemical engineer a mechanical engineer an electrical engineer and planned to study nuclear engineering in his graduate program because as a nuclear engineer he is going to capitalize on his background in physics chemical engineering mechanical engineering and the like in an area in a field that is rather different because it's all surrounded by the nuclear phenomena. Nevertheless he's still going to be a physicist working in nuclear engineering in the nuclear area or a chemical engineer working in the nuclear area. Do you have any idea how most of your students and their engineering here became interested in it. What attracted them to it. I think that the possibilities of the great benefit to man by a new source of energy atomic energy
which will help to carry civilization further as we need more and more energy is probably the the big factor in bringing most of our man into nuclear engineering. As I say this nuclear engineering is a graduate program and today we have oh say 90 men who are taking it. None of them practically have been taking undergraduate work in nuclear engineering. I think it's interesting to point out that a man who's had a good fundamental training as a chemical engineer or a physicist may very well go into nuclear engineering or he may not he may go somewhere else he's got the now the flexibility to pick one or another kind of specialisation as the interest and the need exists at the time. This all seems to mean that most young people are going to be in school much longer than they were would have been in the past.
Both. When we talk to you and to others it sounds as though we're going to hear more and more people spending as many years as say the doctors were the only ones who spent a few years ago does that same true. I think that for the people who are going to be needed as this is true now when I went through school nobody took a doctor's degree in chemical engineering. In fact the first doctor's degree in chemical engineering granted by MIT was in 1920 for that reason. Today a number of people go on to take the doctor's degree. This is merely indicative of the point you made that as time goes on people who are going to be professionally the leaders will stay longer in school for graduate work and used to be the case. Well there are enough people studying nuclear engineering now. Well the demand for these specialists continue to be as great as it is currently.
This is very hard to say. I think yes the demand is going to be very high. And these same people are going to be the ones who are involved. If fusion power becomes important but one can never predict with accuracy just what's going to be the case 20 25 years from now. I would have a great deal of confidence that there will be a large demand for nuclear engineers but I would also point out that if this demand does not exist these same people are fully qualified for many other useful and productive careers. You speak as though there were a great deal of fun in this. Yeah I'm sure a good many people think of people who work on such projects as the feasibility of an atomic airplane as being rather grim and having rather a hard stern jobs in which there is much pleasure. Well it is characteristic of science and engineering that the man who gets into it gets paid for doing this sort of thing he wants to do.
Now this is a kind of a career that is most satisfying. Furthermore you never know what is ahead. I have gotten to the point of being of saying I don't know what will happen three months from now and this gives a stimulating sort of life to anyone who has the feeling for going ahead with into the unknown whether it be the unknown of pure science or the problems that the engineer has to face of making decisions without being quite sure what's going to happen. How does it happen that we get so many mis understandings and and mis impressions or false impressions about these matters. We don't get much of that feeling from the speeches that scientists and engineers make or what we read in the newspapers. Well I think the scientists and engineers haven't yet developed as much as they should. The ability to express their ideas so that the rest of the people can understand them. This is true of
most professions the medical people. As good in expressing their ideas for the layman as should be. I think that I guess I mention back ago that a boy I was in high school a boy or a girl they ought to take a good deal of mathematics and science as it is offered there if they're interested in going into science and engineering. I would stress also they should study their English and take it quite seriously. I'm not talking about being able to spell well. I don't think that's important. I do think though that the ability to formulate your ideas to express those ideas so that someone else can understand what you're talking about and can understand the implications of what you're saying is a tremendously important part of the development of a scientist and an engineer but very often the kind of boy who likes mathematics and likes physics and chemistry
course is a little bit rebellious about the English course or the Course where he writes essays. Yes and I am certainly urging that he try to change his mind on that and realize that this is an important part of his preparation for being a successful scientist and engineer. I think he is likely to argue that the scientist and engineer. Talks pretty exclusively of mathematics and equations. Is that true in your work. Less in my work in chemical engineering perhaps then in pure physics. And I can get lost very quickly when the theoretical physicist begins to talk in his higher mathematics. It's rather impossible to express that so that the layman and for this purpose I'm a layman can really understand it. But there is so much that can be stated in a way that people can
appreciate it and Kim take actions our government can take actions our peoples as a whole can take action if they really understand what the scientist and the engineer should be able to tell them. So the young man the young woman. Should pay a lot of attention to the ability to think clearly as to what they do want to have understood and be able to express it in words such that it can be understood. When I first knew you Professor Whitman about 20 years ago you were so wrapped up in chemistry that I was completely astonished later on to read that you were involved in nuclear engineering. How did that happen. Well I guess it developed really after the war I was not in the Manhattan Project at all but around 1940 eight the Atomic Energy Commission and the Air Force were tremendously interested in trying to find
out whether one could fly an airplane with atomic energy. And there were so many people saying that it was a good idea and others saying it was no good that the government came to MIT and said Won't you make a really objective study of this thing from the technical angle and give us your opinion. I thought we ought to do it because the government needed the information so badly. And so as usually happens when somebody argues that you should do it I found I had to do it myself. So I had a very hard but pleasant task running a team in the summer of 1948 known as the Lexington Project which had as its objective deciding whether it was feasible to fly an airplane with atomic energy. This team incidentally brought together physicists and chemical engineers and mechanical engineers and metallurgist aeronautical engineers
about 45 of them. And at first they didn't know each other they didn't particularly understand each other and there was a little bit of feeling between the groups because the trainings were different. Within a matter of a months as they got into this problem they realized that the problem could only be solved by the full cooperation and understanding between the different kinds of people and by the time that the three months were over and we completed our work there was the strongest feeling of friendship and mutual respect between these people with different kinds of backgrounds. It was a marvelous experience in terms of showing how an overall problem has to be handled with the talents and trainings of people who have come up with different backgrounds. Thank you very much Professor Whitman for telling us this about nuclear engineering.
It certainly sounds as though it's a profession that is going to change a great deal and offer a great many opportunities in the future. You have been listening to utilizing the atom with Walter G Whitman nuclear engineer and chairman of the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT. This is been a part of century of science a recorded exploration of the developments in science and their import for the 20th century American. This series is prepared by WGBH FM in Boston for the Lowell Institute cooperative broadcasting Council. Your host Volta Torre a former editor of Popular Science and now director of radio television programming for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Director for the series Libyan Embassy known producer Jack the Summerfield Bill kavanah speaking a century of science is produced under a grant from the Educational Television and Radio Center and distributed by the National Association of educational broadcasters.
This is the end E.B. Radio Network.
Century of Science
Utilizing the atom
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WGBH Educational Foundation
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
Walter G. Whitman, nuclear physicist, MIT.
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Discussions of aspects of science affecting modern America. This series is hosted by Volta Torrey, the director of radio and television programming at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as the former editor of Popular Science.
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Director: Ambrosino, Lillian
Guest: Whitman, Walter G. (Walter George), 1874-
Host: Torrey, Volta, 1905-
Producer: Summerfield, Jack D.
Producing Organization: WGBH Educational Foundation
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University of Maryland
Identifier: 59-9-1 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:15
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Chicago: “Century of Science; Utilizing the atom,” 1959-01-01, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed September 30, 2023,
MLA: “Century of Science; Utilizing the atom.” 1959-01-01. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. September 30, 2023. <>.
APA: Century of Science; Utilizing the atom. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from