Science Talk

The Manhattan Project and the Met

The Metropolitan Opera's production of the new opera Doctor Atomic aired on PBS on December 29th. We'll hear from Manhattan Project veterans Roy Glauber (Nobel laureate), Murray Peshkin, Leonard Jossem, Al Bartlett, Hans Courant, Harold Agnew, Benjamin Bederson, who spoke at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. And we talk to the Metropolitan Opera's Patricia Steiner. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include

Podcast Transcription

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, for the seven days starting December 31st, 2008. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast we'll talk first about the Manhattan Project and later about the opera, Doctor Atomic, which portrays the efforts and anxieties of the scientists at Los Alamos, especially Robert Oppenheimer. The opera ran in New York back in October and November accompanied by numerous events in the city related to the Manhattan Project. I went to a gathering of surviving project scientists at New York University back on October 17th. They shared some of their memories of the project and its aftermath, and we will hear some highlights from that session. First, Harold Agnew who was a young physicist during the war and went on to become the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1970 to 1979. Here, he talks about Enrico Fermi and then Leo Szilard.

Agnew: You hear a lot about Oppenheimer; you hear some about General Groves. You don't hear as much publicly about Fermi, but to me the real brains, the scientific brains, was Fermi and in a way we owed all to Sweden. Now if you look at the literature or the letters in Columbia between [George] Pegram, who was the dean and Fermi, you see that Fermi had visited the United States. He doctored at Michigan and at Columbia in the late '30s, but he was never allowed to bring his wife Laura with him. Mussolini did not allow him to leave Italy with the family. If you look at his correspondence, it's very interesting, because he's obviously trying to leave the country and join the faculty at Columbia. And in one of his letters, the earliest letters, he tells Pegram in correspondence to him, do not send it to him, send it to third parties, and he listed people that he wanted Pegram to send the letters to with regard to his potential for joining the faculty at Columbia. And then a wonderful thing happened. In 1938, he was awarded the Nobel Prize. This presented a problem for the Italian government, because Fermi wouldn't go to accept it unless he took his wife and his family. So they got their suitcases together to go pick up the prize. They picked up the prize and kept on going and came to the United States. So you can say, in a way, if it wasn't for the Swedes and the Nobel Prize, we may not have gotten Fermi. And it was Fermi's idea of doing the pile which, of course, was the way we got plutonium, and that's most amazing that we went critical in, [it] was like in December of 1942, I think, it was the seventh, and two years later we were getting plutonium at Los Alamos to build a bomb, most amazing; and of course that reactor there was made with unenriched uranium, so you don't need enriched uranium to have a nuclear reactor and to make plutonium, but Fermi clearly he was known as the Pope: infallible, no question about it. He also pointed out at Los Alamos where it was originally planned that this was going to be easy, and we are going to use a gun to assemble the uranium and then we have got plutonium and we are going to use a gun. Fermi pointed out that the plutonium that we are going to get from the reactors might be different, it might have a high neutron background, if that was so you cannot use it in the gun. And that was Fermi, and that's what led to the implosion. Now all this time, Fermi was [a]n the illegal enemy alien; so he couldn't be in charge of anything. He also, I found a very interesting, I think of all the people in the project, he was the only one that Groves insisted that he have a bodyguard, and he had a bodyguard all the time and he went under the name of Henry Farmer. So he was really considered as a very valuable part of the project by Groves, who was a very smart person, and Fermi, who was called the supervisor or a counselor, but he was really in charge. There was no question that what transpired there, as far as the nuclear part, Fermi was in charge.

The man in the trench coat who I think Colombo took after was Szilard. Szilard was really, I never saw Szilard do any work; I never saw him not wear that coat. Szilard was there one evening and he announced that he was going to get his fingers pinched back from the United States government and this is after the war and people said—you know, students said, you know, why? He said, well, he might want to become a criminal and he didn't wished to be handicapped. He did another thing when we first went back to Chicago, Fermi gave lectures twice a week in the evenings and we had to sign an attendance sheet that we had heard the lecture. Szilard refused but he wanted to hear the lecture, so what he would do is, sit out in the hall with the door open. He was a really unusual person. But of course it was Szilard and Teller or Wigner who went up to Princeton to get Einstein to sign the letter which went to the president to get the project started.

Steve: For more on Fermi and Szilard check out the April 5th 2006 podcast for a brief chat with Bill Lanouette who wrote an article for SciAm in 2000 on Fermi and Szilard called the "Odd Couple and the Bomb". The episode is archived at Last week we mentioned Luis Alvarez as one of the cofounders of the Asteroid Impact theory of dinosaur extinction. Alvarez was a physicist with the Manhattan project. Here's a quick story from Agnew.

Agnew: People may not realize, but if it wasn't for Luis Alvarez, the Berlin Airlift wouldn't have been possible. When he was at the radiation lab, he conceived the idea and actually brought into being something called GCA, Ground Control Approach, and that enabled the people in the Berlin area to airlift, to come and land independent of the weather, and without that they couldn't have kept that up and that was that something that Luis had invented.


Steve: Now a few of the other Manhattan Project physicists: Murray Peshkin, Leonard Jossem, Roy Glauber, Al Bartlett, and Hans Courant.

Peshkin: I am Murray Peshkin. I was among the very youngest people on the technical staff at Los Alamos and, as you can imagine, consequently the least amongst the very least significant. I was an undergraduate student, I had had about two and a half years in college which was not great preparation for doing profound physics, so instead of telling you about what I did, I would like to mention a couple of experiences that speak to the spirit of how things were at that time. When the war ended, the small group in which I was working that was led by Dick Feynman evaporated and I was the only one left, I was still in the army at that time, so I joined a group led by Philip Morrison which was doing two things. We were building a novel kind of reactor, also part of the group were doing what were called critical experiments. These were experiments in which we brought together some masses of uranium or plutonium and measured how many neutrons came out as a function of the distance between the parts, and it was a way of getting information about the basic processes that were going on in the neutron reactions with the plutonium and other things. They were very dangerous experiments because the masses of fissile material that they assembled was very close to critical. The hand, the burned hand that you so depicted a few minutes ago was the hand of Louis Slotin who was leading one of those experiments. At that time, we had informal safety rules. When you are bringing the two pieces of plutonium together slowly and seeing how the rate at which the neutrons that came out increased there was an obvious safety rule: You should not lower a piece of plutonium towards the rest, you should raise it from the bottom. The reason is perfectly clear—if you're lowering that and you dropped it you are in line for a disaster. Well, that's exactly what happened. He dropped it, there was an invisible, inaudible explosion of neutrons but everybody knew. A few people thought that they saw a blue haze, it wasn't clear. It was almost a nonevent, Louis threw the piece of plutonium which he was lowering away but of course it was too late, everybody raced that of the room, although nothing that happened except the military guard who was standing near the door, he was the last man out, because he didn't know anything had happened; well a few days later Louis died. My own connection with it was that not so interesting—I was amongst the first people into the lab afterward to clean it up. The reason I bring it up is what it tells you about the spirit at that time: Why were they doing that insanely dangerous experiment? What was the hurry? The war was over; it could have been done more safely if it had been done in a more leisurely way. Well, my own answer after thinking about that for a lot many years is that it was inevitable given the culture of that time and the place. There was a war; we all worked as hard as we could. People took terrible risks. When the war was over, well that was the way we were working, so we kept on doing that.

Jossem: I'm Leonard Jossem, an emeritus professor of physics at Ohio State University. I had graduated in physics from City College in 1938. I went from there to graduate work at Cornell. I went out to Los Alamos and initially was in the P division working on electronic instrumentation, and after Trinity, switched over to doing measurements, which were to become useful in the work on the Super. Although people worked 24/7 on getting the bomb ready to go, there were other things going on as well, and one that I would like to mention is what happened after the war in the formation of the ALAS, Association of Los Alamos Scientists, where people in the group were concerned with questions of, What do we do now and how is this is to be controlled? And there were similar organizations in the other places in the Manhattan Project in Chicago and Oak Ridge in particular. A question of whether the bomb should have been dropped was a very, very important part of it and trying to in some way educate the public as to what was involved became a very important thing for those of us who were concerned whether to put our efforts into. One of the things that I might mention was that as part of the process, we took samples of Trinitite diffuse and from the Trinity explosion and embedded them in clear plastic and sent those samples to the mayors of the 42 largest cities in the country with the cover letter saying, "If things are not put under control, you could have this in your city." It apparently didn't have the effect we wanted it to have, but it was a little known part of the effort that people who worked at Los Alamos put into trying to get a rational decisions made about where we go from here.

Glauber: I'm Roy Glauber. I am still teaching at Harvard and, well, I think you can see anytime you look back 65 years, the people who can recollect it have to have a certain maturity and the people who are in fact still here were mostly pretty young at that time. I was 18, myself, when I went to Los Alamos, at least, first arranged to go there in 1943; and one of the things that immediately struck to you about the place—there are many remarkable things about the place but—one was an almost total absence of gray hair. There well, Oppenheimer was one of the grand old men of the place at age 38. There were only a couple of people very much older. The scientists were for the most part in their 20s and early 30s and they were a pretty spirited lot. There were also the people who had not yet been tapped for war work, which had been organized quite extensively already in other laboratory centers. But they were also very highly motivated people, and I would say that all of us shared a considerable fear of Germany, and we're aware that if the Germans by any chance manage to have any success in building such a weapon, that they would not be very sentimental about using it. And that indeed was in the indication you remember later after the Battle of Britain in their use of the V1 and V2 weapons. So we had then [that] very much in mind, all of us. The one thing I would add is that there was no one I recall saying a word about Japan; we did not consider them a threat and none of us has thought of using the weapon on Japan as an immediate matter. In fact, when the war in Europe ended in early 1945, as a [it] ground down, we continued with full momentum and it was momentum conveying us. There was, I think, scarcely one person, who left the project. Now, we as young intellectuals, almost all of us, thought a great deal about the intention of the project; not too many people went there with any awareness of what it was intending to do. We wanted, many of us, to discuss the intentions for the use of the weapon. There was no forum devoted to that whatsoever. There was a good deal of discussion between individuals and, heaven knows, probably quite a few discussions in living rooms, but there was no organizational discussion at all. Now of course, we were living on a military base, and nothing was quite so evident as military security, except that it generally tended to behave in a fairly rational and even benign way. All our mail, of course, was censored and we were not supposed to travel out of our rather restricted radius of about 75 miles—and most of us couldn't anyway because we had no means of locomotion. But we did want to discuss the matter and itching to do that for some time decided, I think 20 or 30 of us, to hold a meeting, which we did hold within a secure area in the technical area at 8 in the evening and about the first week of December. But now if you put all these intellectual academics in one room, what is the first thing that they'll discuss? It's really, "Shall we have discussions? Do we have any right to do this?" And there was considerable worry about that, quite a bit of discussion of that very issue, and a decision to send an emissary to the one person we respected, knowing that if we went directly to the security people, the answer would be no. We charged Robert Wilson, who I gather is in the opera, with going off and talking [to] Oppe; they went out riding together in those days. We didn't get an answer back from Wilson for almost a month. Remember by that time, we're talking about January of 1945. The answer was Oppe rather thought the general might take a dim view of our discussing any such questions, but perhaps this was a poor time to do it, perhaps a better time would be closer to the Trinity test, which of course was being prepared with full speed at that time. That seemed to me a rather disingenuous answer and to many people there was a little doubt what General Groves really thought about this, and I have to say that partly at least on this account, the Los Alamos scientists were intimidated, felt intimidated; and in fact the people in Chicago who felt much less intimidation of that sort, they were not living on a military base, and they may have been wondering what to do with themselves anyway at that point. They went off and began speaking to the world at large immediately after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki explosions.


Bartlett: I'm Al Bartlett. I went to Los Alamos in the middle of July of 1944. This was about the time that it was found that the isotope plutonium 240 had a very high spontaneous fission rate; and there was a great urgency to have a mass spectrometer set up to measure the amount of 240 that was in the plutonium that was coming down from Hanford. I was assigned to work with Bob Thomson and with Donald Swinehart and the three of us set up a mass spectrometer and made these measurements, and it was a wonderful experience for me. I had just graduated from Colgate University with a bachelor's degree, and so I really got my hands into the experimental physics. Werner Heisenberg has been mentioned. He was the head of the German effort, whatever there was, and as we all had the highest respect for the scientific ability of the German scientists, we were all genuinely concerned, as professor Glover has said. There was a public address system throughout the entire laboratory, and if I couldn't reach John Smith at his phone extension, I could call the telephone operator and she would come over on the intercom and to the whole lab and say, "Will John Smith, please call extension so and so" and two or three times, you would hear the operator come on two or three different times with a message, "Will Werner Heisenberg please report to the director's office". (laughs) I lived in a dormitory that was at the north end of the complex and these dormitories, there were several of them made, they were same architectural pattern, very quickly put up; and the room 40 in our dorm was Harry Daghlian who had been mentioned earlier. Harry worked out at I think, it was the omega site, where they did these near-criticality experiments that I was interested, and I asked him, you know, I would love to see this and see what's going on. He took me out there one night and showed me these experiments; and one of them, they would have on a wooden table small cubes, like 1 cm, on an edge of enriched uranium. In the center of our assembly of these cubes would [be] a neutron source, and you would hear from a loudspeaker clicks as neutrons were registered in some neutron detectors and as you brought more cubes in, making an approximate sphere the counting rate would go up; and I was just a fixed arrangement, you could come up and bring your hand up and the neutrons gathered off the hydrogen in your hand and you would hear the counting rate go up. So as [it was] a very interesting thing for me it is [to] be able to tour the site. Sometime later over lunch in the mess hall somebody said, "Well, Harry has had an accident, and he was in the hospital"; and a day or two later I went to visit him in the hospital and he was quite lucid, his right hand was bandaged and very, very bulky with heavy bandages and he told me that, as [has] been recounted already here, that he brought in a cube instead of bringing it up from the bottom, so that if you sense if anything was wrong, your act of dropping it and sort of getting the hell out there would reduce the criticality. He brought it in from the top and it dropped, he told me that it was glowing blue around this whole assembly. He reached his right hand then and knocked it apart and that stopped the reaction and at that time that I talked to him, he thought he might lose some fingers on his right hand, but he lived I think about three weeks. That was room 40 in our dorm. In room 39 for a brief period Louis Slotin lived and I talked to him a few times. He had been a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War fighting on the Republican side against General Franco and he was a very good physicist. When we were in the Pacific on our way to the test at Bikini, we heard over the radio that he too had had a criticality accident, and he died just a few weeks later.

Courant: I am Hans Courant. I witness[ed] the Trinity test at 05:30 on the cold and clammy morning and I was at South 10,000, yards from ground zero when the countdown came to an end. This was an awesome experience for me. Awesome, you know, means fear and dread and terror; nowadays it may have changed its meaning. It was awesome on several levels, first so bright, so enormous, so silent. Second it was so devastating, it was so successful. Third it was so deadly. The concept that next time there would be people in the blast suddenly struck home to me; it was terrifying. The Trinity test had been intended as an exercise to obtain technical data and might well have been postponed a few days due to the extremely miserable weather, but the yes or no decision on the bomb was much more important as it was the one piece of information that people really needed. Because at that time, in Potsdam, there was a meeting between Truman, Churchill and Stalin, and they were discussing the ending of the war and this is an important piece of data for them. The test took place in a short respite of really miserable weather, stormy wet weather, and the ground at South 10,000 was wet and soggy, and our pressure measurements, which I had undertaken to prepare, did not work in the wetness of the general circumstances. We the group of observers at South 10,000 were equipped with welder's glasses that would permit the direct observation of the bomb. I mounted mine over a hole in a cardboard shield as did almost all the other people there. Well, the rainy conditions may have compromised the official measurements. However, it did not prevent Fermi and Morrison in our group to make some measurements on the spot. Morrison ranged from stakes on the ground to measure the size of the fireball when the explosive energy had stopped and when the expansion of the fire ball was just due to the sound pressure. And Fermi had devised a simple measurement which you all have heard about of dropping a stream of little pieces of paper to measure the displacement of the air at South 10,000 as a result of the bomb going off. The weather was very quiet at that moment, and he and Phil Morrison both came up with a number immediately on that morning.

Steve: Hans Courant mentioned the late Phil Morrison—he later became the book reviewer for Scientific American. Roy Glauber, who you heard speak, went to win the Nobel Prize in physics for his contributions to the quantum theory of optical coherence. Last week, I mentioned that the nationwide broadcast of The Metropolitan Opera's production of Doctor Atomic was airing on December 29th. Here's a brief clip with Gerald Finley as Oppenheimer.

(song clip from Doctor Atomic)

Steve: Benjamin Bederson is emeritus professor of physics at NYU. He will take us from the Manhattan Project itself to a discussion of the opera, Doctor Atomic.

Bederson: I was at Los Alamos and I also went to Tinian. My particular job was to help design and to then test electric switches that we used in connection with the implosive lenses, but that's not what I am going to talk about. I decided that you're going to hear more than you probably want to know about what we all did in Los Alamos and other Manhattan Project groups. I happened to have seen the opera Doctor Atomic in dress rehearsal last week and I wanted to give some of my impressions of what I thought of it. It brought me back to the time several years ago when Bryan Schwartz actually, as he said, organized a symposium in connection with the play Copenhagen by Michael Frayn. There was this wonderful symposium in which people gave opinions, but the point of the play was something about Heisenberg's ambivalence about working on the bomb and finally one got the impression from the play that Heisenberg, if certainly not an active saboteur of the German research, but didn't really work very hard on it and felt that he was morally justified in helping stall the development of the atomic bomb. Now my first reaction after I saw the play was I didn't think it was fair, it didn't represent what I thought was the truth, but I thought about it a long time. I finally decided that it was a play. It was art, and I was thinking of reality, and reality and art are not the same thing. Who knows what's going to survive? Probably in centuries to come, no one will remember what Heisenberg actually did, but the play, which is a very fine play, may actually survive, and then nobody will know what I thought was the truth, but they will know what really was art. Then I saw this wonderful opera, Doctor Atomic. It's truly a marvelous opera. However, I have to point out that having seen an opera one time, you cannot really judge whether it's going to last into the repertoire. It takes a long time for an opera to sink in, and it is not a simple opera. It is a complex opera. There's no hummable tunes in the opera. So you have to let it sink in. Truth and art also clash in my opinion in the opera. Maybe not very dramatically, but Oppenheimer showed his multifaceted polymath personality. His obsession with eastern philosophy, his self-doubts, his famous quote about [how] physicists have known sin—I have to say that, as Dr. Agnew said, the people who were in the war, and there were millions of soldiers in the war, when the atomic bomb was dropped, there was universal joy. The millions of soldiers, many of whom were destined to invade Japan, felt until they had been released from a sword that was hanging over their heads. Okay, so all I did then to complete, to conclude, it turns out that the opera is art; it's not true in the sense of reality, but 100 years from now nobody will know that Oppenheimer had no doubts whatever about what he was doing then or later as far as I know but the depth of his soul reveals itself in the opera as a piece of beautiful art.

Steve: Patricia Steiner is a mezzo-soprano with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus and performed in Doctor Atomic. She is also an old friend of mine, so I called her to get some inside info. Hey Pat how['re] you doing?

Steiner: I'm well, how are you?

Steve: I'm good. So anybody who saw Doctor Atomic on PBS can't miss you because when the show opens you're right up front in the middle of the stage.

Steiner: Yes I am. I am a military, actually a guard.

Steve: Anybody who is looking for Patricia Steiner, she is the tall woman in uniform at the leftmost part of the group on stage right at the top of the show. So what was it like to be in this work which is very different—I mean this is not The Magic Flute?

Steiner: No, it's a fabulous piece. It's so different for what we usually do because it's a little atonal. It's very difficult rhythmically, and it's about something that we are all moderately familiar about but we were so interested in.

Steve: Let's talk about the music a little bit, because I found the music to kind of be anxiety inducing, and I think it was meant to do that.

Steiner: Yes, I can't tell you how many of my friends who saw the opera thought the same thing. I think that the composer did that for the reason that the people that were doing the Manhattan Project, they were so intense about getting this done because of what was happening at that time. Plus they knew that this had never been done before, [it] was like a first, it was a huge boon for them that would be something that they would go down in history for.

Steve: Let's talk about the atonal nature of the music, which I found to be kind of midway between like real atonal stuff and sort of "Sondheimy" a little bit.

Steiner: Yes, "Sondheimy" is a very good way of saying it. It's not truly atonal. It's what we would consider now moderately [atonal], like a modern tonality; we're used to hearing minor seconds and sevens and jazz uses that kind of thing all the time. So it's something we're used to using. The difference is it doesn't use really melody in there. It goes along with what the composer felt like was a feeling and takes this, you know, uses these very closely knit chords for this, like you said, this anxiety-provoking thing and then it will calm down a little bit, but it will come right back.

Steve: Yeah, there are good examples in Oppenheimer's arias, and by the way, I would like to just say how much I appreciate an opera in which the lead male is a baritone instead of a tenor. (laughs) That's nice.

Steiner: That's true. It's doesn't happen that often.

Steve: Right, it's nice to hear for a change. (laughs) Yeah, the Oppenheimer arias and a lot of Edward Teller stuff has that kind of moderate atonality that you're talking about. Then it's really interesting because it, you know, if you're going out, if you want to see Oklahoma, this ain't for you.

Steiner: No.

Steve: But it really kind of grabs you and draws you into this, to this scene, this historic moment.

Steiner: Right. You see the problems, that they were suffering; I mean they were so worried it was going to rain, they were so worried it was going to blow up the wrong way, they were so worried it wouldn't blow up at all.

Steve: And when you think about it, I mean, did this occur to you guys, you know, in your rehearsals and sitting around talking about the show? How this moment in history is really so suitable for an opera because it's almost, you know, Wagnerian in this intent? These people are trying to work together to create this doomsday weapon. It's almost like a fictional story.

Steiner: It is. It's actually a perfect opera story because its got drama in it and going toward this incredible moment in time and then the ramifications of what it means at the very end, that's what opera is all about. Where you're kind of at the end, you can't believe this happened. It's like finally the tenor gets, he says he loves the soprano, and then she dies, it's like...

Steve: Right.

Steiner: It's that same feeling.

Steve: Right—like all the great operas where everybody is dead at the end.

Steiner: Yes, except for this particular case it happened to be millions, well not millions, but ...

Steve: Tens of thousands.

Steiner: Tens of thousands, yes.

Steve: Well, Pat it was great to talk to you, and thanks very much. And do you know if there are any plans to do it again?

Steiner: I bet you that we will be doing that again because it was quite popular. Probably won't be next year, I don't think it's on the schedule, but I bet we'll see it in the next couple of years.

Steve: If you didn't catch Doctor Atomic when it aired on PBS, look for it to be rerun or to become available on DVD soon. Also just Google Doctor Atomic, spell out the word doctor to get to the Met opera's Web site featuring clips from the show, interviews with the creators of the opera and lots more. A DVD on the making of the opera is coming out in February, and on January 26th, PBS is running a program called The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer with the great actor David Strathairn in the lead.


Steve: Now it's time to play TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: In these tough economic times, some divorcing couples are now fighting over who has to keep the house.

Story number 2: It is now legal in California to use human fat collected during liposuction as biofuel to run vehicles.

Story number 3: The head is not a uniquely high source of heat loss, despite oft repeated claims that we lose 40 percent of our body heat through the head.

And story number 4: CIA operatives in Afghanistan are apparently supplying local leaders with Viagra in exchange for information.

Time is up.

Story number 1 is true. Divorcing couples are now fighting over who has to keep the economic burden of the house. One in six homes is now worth less than the mortgage being paid on it. On December 29th, The New York Times quoted Gary Nickelson, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, as saying, "We used to fight about who gets to keep the house; now we fight about who gets stuck with the dead cow."

Story number 4 is true. There are reliable reports that the CIA is basically bribing Afghans with Viagra for intel. For more, check out the December 29th 60-Second Science blog item by Coco Ballantyne at The article quotes a urologist who warns about the potential dangers of using Viagra without a proper medical history, but he also says, "I'm glad they're making love, not war."

And story number 3 is true. We've been told to wear hats because you lose so much heat from your head in cold weather. The British Medical Journal says that the 40 percent figure probably originated with an old military study in which subjects in Arctic survival gear but no hats were put in extreme cold. Because their heads were uncovered that was where the heat escaped from, but a 2006 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that there is nothing special about your head, and I mean that. And the BMJ notes that if you really lost 40 percent of your body heat from your head it would be the equivalent of being out in the cold without pants on, which is probably somehow related to stories 1 and 4.

All of which means that story number 2, about human fat harvested with liposuction being a legal source of biofuel in California, is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Because what is true is that a Beverly Hills liposuction doctor claim that he was running his car in his patient's fat but he skipped to South America to avoid prosecution for a bunch of other shady stuff before he could substantiate his claim. For more, check out our December 29th blog item by Larry Greenemeier. Although it is theoretically possible to produce biodiesel from human fat, it is still illegal to put medical waste in your gas tank. But it would make an interesting plotline for a sequel to Soylent Green: Unleaded 87 is people.

Well that's it for this edition of Scientific American's Science Talk. Check out for the latest science news and artist Michael Oliveri's images of the nanoscale world. For Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

Science Talk is a weekly podcast, subscribe here: RSS | iTunes

The Metropolitan Opera's production of the new opera Doctor Atomic aired on PBS on December 29th. We'll hear from Manhattan Project veterans Roy Glauber (Nobel laureate), Murray Peshkin, Leonard Jossem, Al Bartlett, Hans Courant, Harold Agnew, Benjamin Bederson, who spoke at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. And we talk to the Metropolitan Opera's Patricia Steiner. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Starting Thanksgiving

Enter code: HOLIDAY 2015
at checkout

Get 20% off now! >


Email this Article