spacer



4. Dialogues with the Public
Nuclear Berkeley

B

erkeley’s physicists maintained the contact that they made in the classroom and with the public and often used it, especially during periods of social and political unrest. In the 1950s and 1960s, many physicists at Berkeley found certain internal and external developments troubling: the Loyalty Oath Controversy, the antics of the House Unamerican Activities Committee, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the pressures placed upon them by the military to contribute to weapons development.


Troubling to some was their contribution to the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons; consequently, to many in the public, physics had become a “science of death.”


As much as some might have liked to ignore Berkeley’s connections to nuclear weapons development, the local community might well have noticed a military helicopter landing on the Hill. More innocent signals of nuclear-age research – a pickup truck with a sign that read “Radioactive,” or the special goggles that had to be worn in certain science buildings that housed specialized isotope experiments – attracted public attention as well.


Delivery of Radioactive Material to Campus, Vicinity of Memorial Stadium, ca. 1950
Delivery of Radioactive Material to Campus, Vicinity of Memorial Stadium, ca. 1950

[BANC MSS 2002/345 z, Ctn. 25]


Single Axis Rotatable Goggles
Single Axis Rotatable Goggles
Required in certain science buildings that housed specialized isotope experiments

[Courtesy Lawrence Berkeley National Labratory]


A Schoolgirl's Request

A

mong the consequences that flowed from Berkeley physicists’ newfound activism were their dialogues held with the public, as much the product of a shrinking gap that separated experts and society, as an outgrowth of the public’s fascination with – and concern about -- their work.


As in much of the rest of society, traditional views that once determined who could be part of Lawrence’s “boys,” as he frequently described his staff, transitioned gradually and with difficulty into a more diverse population. Even youth knew fewer boundaries, as school-children from all over the world wrote Berkeley’s much esteemed faculty with simple questions about the subject, to which they might receive a charming, and informative, reply.


Lawrence to Sixth Grade Student Peggy Fein, May 17, 1957 Lawrence to Sixth Grade Student Peggy Fein, May 17, 1957
Letter from Sixth Grade Student Peggy Fein, May 13, 1957
[Courtesy Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory]


Lawrence to Sixth Grade Student Peggy Fein, May 17, 1957
Lawrence to Sixth Grade Student Peggy Fein, May 17, 1957

[Courtesy Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory]


“I was very glad to get your letter and to know that you think studying atoms is very interesting because I think so too.”


Gofman vs. Teller

T

he steady drumbeat of activism became more pronounced when Professor John Gofman turned his attention away from his own field, medical physics, and toward virtually any issue that he believed threatened public health and safety. Here Gofman departed most dramatically from his colleagues’ tendency to work within the system, and here he became one of the most visible of all Berkeley activists.


Few of his public appearances garnered as much attention, however, as his debate in San Luis Obispo – in the shadows of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Energy plant – with Edward Teller, the “father of the hydrogen bomb.”


“Nuclear Plants – Forum and Againstsum …” in Central Coast Times, Number 63, October 23, 1975
“Nuclear Plants – Forum and Againstsum …” in Central Coast Times, Number 63, October 23, 1975.
page shown [cover], additional [article 1, 2, 3]
[BANC MSS 87/108 c, Ctn. 4]


"Teller- Gofman debate stirs crowd of 4,000" reads the headline from one newspaper reporting on the appearance of nuclear experts in San Luis Obispo where the Diablo Canyon reactor was to be built. "‘For Gofman,’ the story continues, ‘nuclear reactors should not be developed. For Teller, '… nuclear power should not be stopped.’"


John Gofman at Donner Lab, Berkeley, ca. 1950
John Gofman at Donner Lab, Berkeley, ca. 1950
[BANC MSS 87/108 c, Ctn. 32:5]