Science Talk

Kodiak Update: Scientific American Alaska Cruise, Part 4

Scientific American Bright Horizons Cruise 22 is in port in Kodiak, Alaska, on September 2nd. We talk about our last few stops and hear from passenger and Manhattan Project veteran Margaret Asprey

Steve Mirsky:    Live on digital recorder from beautiful Kodiak, Alaska.  Steve Mirsky here with Scientific American Science Talk.  Reporting live from me, from Cabin 6168 on the MS Amsterdam as part of Bright Horizons Scientific American Cruise Number 22.  For more information on that, you can go to 

I'm stepping out onto the veranda here.  It's a beautiful sunny day.  It's 7 AM Alaska time.  It was 48 degrees, but they did anticipate a high of 68 and it's warming up rapidly and it's a spectacular day.  We've had exceptionally good and lucky weather while we've been here.  A little rain at first in Ketchikan, in Juneau.  Nothing serious, and then just beautiful clear skies in Anchorage, Homer, and now Kodiak. 

Going to head back into the room.  The music you hear is coming from the TV, Channel 41 on the television in all the rooms here on the ship, features a bow end camera, a front end camera, I should say.  The front of a ship is called the –

Robin Lloyd:       The bow. 

Steve Mirsky:    The bow.  That was Robin Lloyd, news editor at Scientific American.  And Channel 41 gives you this view of what we're sailing into at all times with a lovely classical music soundtrack.  Of course, we're in port right now.  So we're not sailing anywhere.  Then if you switch down to Channel 40, you'd get the information that I've been sharing with you.  So we are in port in Kodiak. 

There's a map here.  So we're south of Homer, where we were yesterday and even further south from Anchorage, where we were the day before.  Our position is 57 degrees, 47 minutes north exactly and 152 degrees, 25.73 minutes west.  Present air humidity, a balmy 74 percent.  And our apparent winds out of the southeast at 5 knots.  We've traveled over 2,000 nautical miles since we left Seattle on the 25th?

Robin Lloyd:       24th.

Steve Mirsky:    24th.  On the 24th, that's right.  Sundays the 24th.  We have, and on the screen, it now says the total cruise distance at this point has been 2,151 nautical miles as we follow the coastline, although we did cruise straight across from the Juneau area to Anchorage, along the Gulf of Alaska or within the Gulf of Alaska.  It stays light late.  It's 9:04 P.M. is the sunset at the present position, and sunrise is about 7:12 AM.  Present air temperature, 15 degrees centigrade for you centigrade fans.  And for us poor Americans, it's 59 degrees Fahrenheit but climbing.  It's supposed to get up to 68; 48 when we woke up this morning, 68 by this afternoon.  Lots of sun.  We've been very lucky with the weather. 

And so the last time I spoke to you, we were in Anchorage, but we had just come from Juneau and you heard tales of J.D., the cabbie.  We had a spectacular day in the Chugach Park and did a pretty strenuous hike along the Powerline Trail in the Chugach, which included some climbs over the tree line.  I think we did about seven miles, yeah.  And you're in a valley between two ranges of mountains, not too high, maybe between 3,000‑ and 5,000‑foot peaks, I think, along both sides.  But you're just walking down in this wide valley between them and it's a landscape unfamiliar to me coming from New York City. 

And we were there couple of days ago, late August, so we unfortunately didn't see any moose, but we were told that if you're there in October, the moose are all over the place looking for each other to make the next generation of moose, of mooses, of meese, mostly moose.  And they're alleged to bellow loudly and lustily.  So if you happen to be in Anchorage in October, I highly recommend hitting the Chugach Trail.  So we went from Anchorage down to Homer, where we were yesterday.  And we were disappointed it was Labor Day.  So everything was basically closed in downtown Homer, but we did go out to what they call a "spit." 

And we were told by Christi Keller, copy chief at Scientific American, that we should look for tents on the spit.  Her sister apparently years ago, when her sister was in college, would work the salmon canneries there in the summer and to save money, a lot of the college kids would go up there to work the summers and make a fair amount of money quickly in the salmon canneries.  I mean, I'm assuming they're working 16-hour days, you know, six, seven days a week and then putting all that money away and going back down to college in the fall.  But they live out on the spit in tents because it's cheaper. 

And there weren't that many tents out there, half a dozen maybe because school has already started and I'm not sure if that custom among the college kids is still in effect, but there definitely were people camping and living out on the spit, looked like for extended periods based on some fire pits and some of the other indications of people living in tents for long periods, if you get my drift.  One of the things that I love to do when I'm in small towns is listen to local radio and Homer really fit the bill for a small town that might have some interesting radio.  And I did record some of what I happened on.  So let me share that with you right now. 

Male 1:               Helping us to bring the Flea Market along on a holiday on this Labor Day.  You're on the air.  Hello.

Male 2:               Are you sure – you were talking about some health care, some offices, and I was wondering if you could tell me where the one is in Soldotna.

Male 1:               Well, I wasn't talking about health care.  Are you sure you have the right radio station?  If I can –

Male 2:               I thought I heard on the radio you were going to announce that today on Tradio.

Male 1:               Okay, well, this is Flea Market.  It's not Tradio.  So you may have the other station.

Male 2:               Oh, okay, I'm sorry, sir.

Male 1:               Okay, all right.  No problem.

Male 2:               Have a good day.

Male 1:               Yep.  That happens a lot.  You're on the Flea Market.  Hello.

Male 3:               Good morning.  I'd like to sell a 16‑foot flatbed trailer.  I had the trailer built to haul a 1962 Studebaker Lark on and I've sold the Lark and don't have any more need for the trailer. 

Steve Mirsky:    For you young folks out there, the Studebaker was a car.  I loved this kind of show.  I used to host it for a half an hour or 15 minutes a day, I forget how long it was because I've tried to block out that whole period of my life.  This was in the mid- to late 1980s.  I was working at a little radio station in upstate New York:  WMCR, AM and FM, Oneida, New York.  It was such a small station it was – well, you had to go outside to change your mind. 

It was not 24 hours a day.  We shut down at 10:00 PM and I would crank up the generator for our 6 AM sign-on in the morning.  I would get to the station at 4:30 in the morning, and at about 10:30 or 11:00 for 15 or half an hour, 15 minutes or half an hour, I would host one of these swap shop shows.  We used to call it the Flea Market.  A lot of places call it Tradio.  I think we called it the Swap Shop, but I honestly can't remember for sure.  Let's listen some more.

Male 1:               All right.  Well, move to Homer.  That will fix it. 

Male 3:               [Laughs] Well, I'm 82 and I think it's a little late now.

Male 1:               You know there is a thing you can do.  There's something called a "loop antenna."  Whereabouts do you live in Anchorage?

Male 3:               Out towards the airport.

Male 1:               Out towards the airport?

Male 3:               Yeah.

Male 1:               Oh, okay.  Do you know about the AM loop antennas?

Male 3:               Negative.

Male 1:               Okay.  You can call me after the program, but basically you just –

Steve Mirsky:    It sounds like this gentleman from Anchorage is interested in being able to hear this show, which is on a small radio station here at Homer.  So the host is giving him instructions on how to boost the signals so he can hear about all the bargains available in Homer from his home in Anchorage.  So when I was hosting a show like this, we would get a lot of these calls where the guy's got the flatbed, guys always trying to get rid of old tires. 

And I remember there was one fellow who I think the entire time that I worked there was trying to get rid of a goat dehorner.  He would call a couple times a week and the goat dehorner never seemed to sell.  I assumed that a goat dehorner was, as it sounds, something to get rid of the horns on your goat.  But back then we didn't have an Internet.  So I remained forever ignorant.

Male 1:               Younger generation, I'm sure has never heard of Studebakers. 

Steve Mirsky:    One of the really interesting things about the Scientific American cruise is the passenger backgrounds and for example, we have a woman here who's in the Army Corps of Engineers.  We've got a mathematician from Cambridge, who's part of the contingent who just came on board for the touring and to listen to the lectures from the assembled faculty.  We've got a retired California Supreme Court judge and we also have Mrs. Asprey who it turns out – let me just double‑check her name here.  She gave me her card.  And Mrs. Asprey worked on the Manhattan project. 

Margaret Williams Asprey and she is 92-and-a-half years old and she's the author of a book called A True Nuclear Family, which may be of particular interest to historians of science, historians of that era, and historians of women in science.  She was part of the team on the Manhattan Project.  And Neil Bauman, who runs the Bright Horizons Cruises for Scientific American did a short interview with her following one of the talks.  I'm going to play that for you now and I'm going to sign off now.  So enjoy Neil Bauman talking to Manhattan project veteran, Mrs. Asprey. 

Margaret Asprey:       As a teenager, I used to cry because I had to choose between being a mother and being a scientist, which is what I definitely wanted to be at, falling in love with astronomy when I was a teenager.  So at the University of Chicago, I became a chemistry student.  And there, I was studying from 1941 to 1943, and in '43 I had lost my – I ran out of money.  And so I got a job working on what turned out to be the Manhattan Project.  And what we did was we spent time analyzing samples that were sent from Hanford, Washington, of uranium.  And we analyzed for how they would work with absorbing neutrons. 

After I had been there for a year, they sent the man that was supposed to be my husband there.  He was in the Army and we met in February and were married in May.  Then we went to Berkeley, where my husband went to graduate school and got an advanced degree in chemistry and we went then to Los Alamos.  And I found out that I didn't have to choose because I spent the next 20 years raising seven children.  And then I went back to school and got my degree in math and chemistry. 

And then I went to work at Los Alamos, working on plans for atom bombs or for calculations for atom bombs.  So I didn't have to choose.  I just did them sequentially.

Neil Bauman:     So were you at the main facility in New Mexico, I guess that was?

Margaret Asprey:       I know that people think that all of Los – that things only happen in Los Alamos.  That's not true.  The main start was in Chicago because it was there that they built the – Fermi and Zinn built the first reactor that actually operated under the west stands and that was right across the street from where I was studying chemistry.  So we did a lot of the work there in Chicago and then we only came to Los Alamos in '49.  So it –

Neil Bauman:     Did they tell you it was top secret from the moment you started?

Margaret Asprey:       Yes.  We were absolutely told that we could not say a word about this to anyone, anything, and as a 20-year-old girl, it's most shocking maybe 'cause my father had been down where Oak Ridge was being built, down in Tennessee, and he came back and said it's a fabulous place they were building, and I knew what was it was all about and I couldn't tell him.

Neil Bauman:     So you were measuring emissions, neutrino emissions from uranium?

Margaret Asprey:       No, of neutron absorption.

Neil Bauman:     You were obviously exposed to a lot of uranium then.  How is it you're still alive? 

Margaret Asprey:       Well, they told us we'd probably all be deformed and abnormal and all the rest of it, so anything wrong with me, I can blame on them.  [Laughs]  But my children were all fine.  They all managed to graduate from college.  So obviously, it didn't affect them much.

Neil Bauman:     So they presumably didn't know that these things were that dangerous, but they thought you might have some deformity? 

Margaret Asprey:       They didn't know.  We all rumored about what it would be like if we got there, but mostly, I don't think most people ended up having trouble because of...

Neil Bauman:     Did you meet Oppenheimer?

Margaret Asprey:       I heard him lecture, but I never met him.  I met Fermi.  Enrico Fermi was well worth meeting.  He was a very nice person.  And I met some of the others.  Oh, yes, we had one man, James Byrnes, who was just down the hall from me and come from Germany.  And that's another thing I should say.  We were not building it to drop on Japan.  We were building it to drop on Germany because we thought that the Germans were building a reactor and that they would eventually drop 'em on us and so we wanted to get there first.

Neil Bauman:     So you knew pretty much from the start of your employment that you were building a bomb, a nuclear bomb? 

Margaret Asprey:       Well, the first few weeks, we didn't, and then they thought we should know.  And they came and talked to us about just what it was we were trying to do and how we were trying to do it.  The fact of fission had only been discovered in 1937.  And so it couldn't have been built before that because nobody knew the facts.  I started in March of 1943 and at that time I remember when the first sample plutonium arrived.  It was about that big, you couldn't even see it.  And they were all protected because they didn't know anything about plutonium or what it would be like. 

And so my husband was the one that figured out the chemistry of plutonium, which they used later to take the samples from the reactors at Hanford and sort out the plutonium from the uranium.  And so which, of course, it's much easier than trying to just sort out the fissionable uranium, which is what they were doing at Oak Ridge, but at Hanford, they made the new reactors.  And the new reactors, they got the plutonium out of that.  And then when they got the plutonium, they sent it to Los Alamos.  And Los Alamos is the one that put them together and the test on Trinity – uranium is very easy to make a bomb because all you do is just push two chunks of plutonium together – I mean, of uranium together. 

Plutonium is not so easy because plutonium, you have to either find a way to get the plutonium all together and this is not so easy and it turned out to be quite a problem.  And so one of the main things they did at Los Alamos was they fixed it sort of like a basketball, like a volleyball, and then they put a uranium test – I mean, uranium plugs on certain spots and then that pushed them all together.  And you can't do this easily.  And so they were not at all sure that was going to work and that's why they had the Trinity test is to find out whether this was going to work or not because they didn't know whether it would work.

Audience:           Were you there at the Trinity test? 

Margaret Asprey:       No, I've been in there since, but I was not there at the time.

Neil Bauman:     Any questions?

Audience:           Were you doing experiments on enriched uranium or actual uranium when you started? 

Margaret Asprey:       What we were doing was just testing whatever sample they sent us.  And they would shut down a reactor in Hanford and then when they would try to start it up again, it wouldn't start up and they didn't understand why.  And so the main thing we were testing is neutron absorption of samples from various parts of the reactor to see what the neutron absorption of those different parts were. 

Neil Bauman:     Do you know if they were enriched uranium samples? 

Margaret Asprey:       They could have been anything.  We didn't even worry about that.  That wasn't our problem.

Audience:           Somebody else was collecting that information from you and making sense of it. 

Margaret Asprey:       Well, we would –

Audience:           You were part of a team.

Margaret Asprey:       We were part of a team and we would report what results we got.  It might be very, very absorbent of uranium of neutrons and beyond, but all we did is take the sample they sent us and we would test it for neutron absorption. 

Audience:           Were there other women at the lab as well? 

Margaret Asprey:       What?

Neil Bauman:     Were there other women at the lab? 

Margaret Asprey:       Very few.  There were a few, but not very many. 

Audience:           And would you say that you encountered a climate that was welcoming or not so welcoming towards you as a woman, or was that just not relevant? 

Margaret Asprey:       ________ They treated me just like another person.  I give them a lot of credit for that, too.  They obviously treated me like another human being. 

Audience:           How well-known was it at the time that –

Margaret Asprey:       What?

Neil Bauman:     I'll repeat the question. 

Audience:           How well-known at the time that Fermi had a pile operating just across the road from you?  Was it well-known, or –

Margaret Asprey:       No.  Nobody knew it.

Neil Bauman:     Did you hear the question?  How well-known was it that Fermi had a pile across the street?  

Margaret Asprey:       Yes.  Here in the heart of Chicago, he had one operating and nobody knew about it.  I didn't even know about it at first.  Once I started, I heard about it. 

Audience:           I've always heard a story.  I'm from Chicago.  I've always heard a story and I wonder if it was apocryphal and maybe you know the answer that when Enrico Fermi ran the first controlled nuclear reaction under Amos Alonzo Stagg Field, that they weren't quite sure what would happen.  So there was a fellow standing there with a bucket of sand in case.  Is that true, or is that apocryphal? 

Margaret Asprey:       That's true.  They didn't know whether it would work.  All they did is they pulled out, rolled out the rod, which had neutron absorbers in it.  And when they pulled it out, gradually, the radiation moved out, but not –

Audience:           But they literally were standing there with a bucket of sand in case it got out of hand? 

Margaret Asprey:       Not sand, of neutron absorbers.  And so he was standing on top of it with an ax so in case [Laughs].  Yes, that was true.

Neil Bauman:     Thank you very much. 


Thank you, Margaret.  Okay, so formal night tonight.  See you all in the dining room in an hour and 15 minutes. 

Audience:           That was very interesting.  The person who invented the shaped charge for the plutonium was Bob Christy and I knew him.  He died just a couple of years ago. 

Margaret Asprey:       Oh, did you?  Oh, really? 

Audience:           And so I saw him every day at Caltech. 

Margaret Asprey:       It was hard, hard work.  It was not an easy problem. 

Audience:           That was quite difficult thing to figure out and why Norman was important because – and Hans Bethe – because they had to figure out how the shockwaves propagated and how they – yeah, and it was basically a lens.  It was designed as a lens because you had to have the waves ebb together in the right way. 

Margaret Asprey:       And so they would push the plutonium to the center. 

Audience:           Yeah.  Yes.

[End of Audio]

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