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Fri Oct 18, 2019, 07:30 PM

From bomb to Moon: a Nobel laureate of principles

When I was a kid, I used to spend a lot of time at Urey Hall on the UCSD campus. Urey, of course, is the discoverer of deuterium.

At that time of my life I didn't think all that much about Urey, which was my loss. (I was a stupid kid and am now a somewhat less stupid adult.)

Nature has a review of a biography of Urey, and I'm going to put it on my list of "need to read someday."

From bomb to Moon: a Nobel laureate of principles

I think the review is open sourced, but if it isn't, some excerpts:

The Life and Science of Harold C. Urey Matthew Shindell University of Chicago Press (2019)

After witnessing the 1945 Trinity atomic-bomb test, the theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer recalled Hindu scripture: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Although this is often interpreted as admitting moral culpability on the part of the Manhattan Project’s scientific director, Oppenheimer remained a central player in the nuclear-weapons establishment until he lost his security clearance in the mid-1950s.

Harold Urey also worked for the Manhattan Project. But by contrast, the Nobel-prizewinning chemist distanced himself from nuclear weapons development after the war. His search for science beyond defence work prompted a shift into studying the origins of life and lunar geology. Now, the absorbing biography The Life and Science of Harold C. Urey by science historian Matthew Shindell uses the researcher’s life to show how a conscientious chemist navigated the cold war.


Shindell argues that Urey’s pious upbringing underpinned his convictions about the dangers of a nuclear arms race, and his commitment to research integrity. Urey grew up a minister’s son in a poor Indiana farming family belonging to a plain-living Protestant sect, the Church of the Brethren. Progressing through increasingly diverse educational environments, culminating in a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, Urey became self-conscious about the zealousness of his family’s faith. He also found the path to a cosmopolitan, middle-class life.

In the 1920s, Urey was among a small group of chemists who collaborated closely with physicists. Working at Niels Bohr’s Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of Copenhagen, he kept abreast of developments in quantum mechanics. There, and on travels in Germany, he met the likes of Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli and Albert Einstein. But Urey decided he lacked the mathematical skills to make theoretical advances in quantum chemistry. Moving back to the United States, he started both a family and an academic career.

At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and later at Columbia University in New York City, Urey taught quantum mechanics to chemists, while setting out on the trail that led him to deuterium. In 1931, he discovered this isotope of hydrogen. Predicted on the basis of work by Bohr, Frederick Soddy, and J. J. Thomson, its existence had been doubted by many chemists and physicists. Urey’s identification won him the Nobel three years later. By this time, he had also co-authored one of the first texts in English on quantum mechanics as applied to molecular systems, the 1930 Atoms, Quanta and Molecules.

Urey’s continuing work on stable isotopes of other chemical elements, such as nitrogen and oxygen, led to important applications in biochemistry and geochemistry, including the pioneering use of isotopic labels to study metabolic pathways. Living in New York also led Urey to political liberalism. He became aware of the anti-Semitism affecting Jewish scientists, and the lack of opportunities for women scientists. A generous mentor, he shared his Nobel prize money with two collaborators, and split a grant he had been awarded with the young Isidor Rabi (who later discovered nuclear magnetic resonance)...

...The Second World War changed Urey’s life, as it did those of most physical scientists and researchers in many countries. His expertise in isotopes made him valuable to the Manhattan Project. Here, he eventually headed a massive team of scientists and engineers working on the separation of uranium isotopes using gaseous diffusion methods. However, he was ill-suited to the pressure of managing this technologically complex and cumbersome project, and Leslie Groves — the project’s overall director — regarded him with suspicion. Even before the war’s end, Urey became deeply disenchanted with working for the military...

...After the war, Urey used his laureate status to voice alarm about the prospect of nuclear warfare. He backed international control through world government as a way to control the military future of atomic energy. This was not a radical view in 1946...

...Over this harrowing period, Urey lost faith in the ability of modern secular society to manage the new threats of the atomic age. Although he had long abandoned his parents’ religion, he began to argue that Judaeo-Christianity was key to democracy. He attributed the success of science itself, with its commitments to honesty and credit, to religious ethics...

...In the late 1940s, Urey used his expertise in mass spectrometry to begin work in geochemistry, and then in planetary science. It was a way to escape the orbit of the nuclear weapons establishment (although he still advised the US Atomic Energy Commission). With chemistry graduate Stanley Miller, he tested hypotheses on the origins of life by Soviet biochemist Alexander Oparin and biologist J. B. S. Haldane, and successfully produced amino acids by sparking a solution of water, methane, ammonia and hydrogen. In 1952, Urey published The Planets, a chemical treatise on the formation of the Solar System...

...Urey became influential during the early days of NASA, formed after the 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, offering the agency persuasive reasons to prioritize exploration of the Moon over other bodies. In 1969, he analysed lunar rocks collected during the Apollo 11 mission, which supported his theory of the Moon’s common origin with Earth. He wanted the well-funded agency to test theories about the origins of the Solar System — experimentation beyond the reach of individual university scientists. Despite his influence, he was disappointed in this: NASA focused on crewed space exploration over questions of cosmogony.


Sounds like a cool book about a cool life, no?

Have a nice weekend.

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Reply From bomb to Moon: a Nobel laureate of principles (Original post)
NNadir Oct 18 OP
lastlib Oct 18 #1
NNadir Oct 19 #2

Response to NNadir (Original post)

Fri Oct 18, 2019, 10:15 PM

1. Though I thought I was fairly well-rounded in science, I had never heard of Urey!

Thank you for enlightening me! --- ---

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Response to lastlib (Reply #1)

Sat Oct 19, 2019, 08:31 AM

2. When I was in high school, I knew of him from the Urey-Miller experiment...

...but very little else. It was just a name; when I was young I tended to think more about the science and less about the scientists who created it.

I certainly didn't know about him as the discoverer of deuterium.

It's funny because when I was a kid I used to run NMR's in the evenings and on weekends in Urey Hall at UCSD, and the Chem Library was where I did all of my library work in those days, but I never thought about Urey. I don't live in San Diego any more, but the last time I visited it, the Chem library was gone and had moved into that Dr. Suess library that always makes me nervous because of its center of gravity in an earthquake zone.

I guess Urey was easy to miss, because even though he was a very big guy, he hung out among giants, in the Manhattan project and elsewhere.

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