April 15, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 14

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    [john simpson] by jason smith
    John Simpson, the Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Physics, recently received the 1999 Leo Szilard Lectureship Award. Simpson worked as a scientific group leader for the Manhattan Project, for which Szilard was a leading scientist. Always advocating civilian control of nuclear power, Simpson organized and received approval for meetings to take place in Ryerson Physical Laboratory during the atomic research on the University campus in 1945.

    John Simpson talks about our nuclear past and future

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    A noted Chicago space scientist who also worked on the Manhattan Project urges further development of safe nuclear reactors that could both meet a growing energy demand and reduce the risk of nuclear fuel proliferation for military applications.

    “The world is not going to wait around for the United States to phase out of nuclear energy,” said John Simpson, 82, the Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Physics. Simpson has made many discoveries regarding the solar system and served as a scien-tific group leader in the Manhattan Project from 1943 to 1946.

    “Developing nations represent 90 percent of the world’s population and they are going to go nuclear. We have to face that fact. Either we get in there and help lead the way, or we are going to be left hopelessly behind during the next century, unable to influence the rest of the world,” said the Chicago physicist.

    Simpson’s comments came during an interview before he delivered the Leo Szilard Lecture Thursday, March 25, at the American Physical Society’s Centennial Meeting in Atlanta. On the previous Wednesday, the society presented the 1999 Leo Szilard Lectureship Award to Simpson for his leading role in educating scientists, members of Congress and the public on the importance of civilian control of nuclear policy. The award also cites his critical efforts as an organizer of the International Geophysical Year, a collaborative effort to study the Earth and the space around it from July 1957 to December 1958. The study would serve as a successful model for today’s global-scale scientific endeavors.

    The award is named for the late Leo Szilard, a Manhattan Project scientist at the University who believed scientists should accept moral responsibility for the consequences of their work. It was actually Szilard who, fearful of Germany’s ability to develop an atomic bomb, wrote Albert Einstein’s famous letter to President Roosevelt that led to the Manhattan Project.

    Simpson occasionally worked with Szilard and shared many of his concerns about the military use of atomic power. But they sometimes disagreed on the best way to work toward their common goals. Szilard and other eminent senior scientists on the project favored working through official, classified channels. “They were mostly Europeans. Their elitist attitude was, ‘Leave it to us, you young guys. We’ll take care of everything,’” Simpson said.

    But Simpson and his young colleagues argued for a more open approach. “We said, ‘We’ve grown up in a democracy. We want to discuss the issue,’” Simpson said.

    Szilard and other senior atomic scientists already were meeting to discuss the implications of nuclear power as members of a committee chaired by Professor James Franck, namesake of the James Franck Research Institute. Unaware of these meetings, Simpson obtained approval in early 1945 to organize a series of meetings in Ryerson Laboratory, where he and his colleagues carried out much of their top-secret research under the security of armed guards. On an otherwise open campus, Simpson said, “The whole area was fully protected.”

    The meetings started in March 1945 and continued until May, when Gen. Leslie Groves, commander of the Manhattan Project, put a stop to them. Arthur Holly Compton, who directed the atomic research at Chicago, found himself caught between his restive young scientists and Groves.

    Ultimately, Compton attempted to relieve the tension by arranging for his scientists to take a secret vote on how they thought the atomic bomb should be used. Of five options, the top choice was to stage a military demonstration in Japan, followed by an opportunity for Japan to surrender before using the weapon over a city.

    On Aug. 7, 1945, the day after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Simpson and his colleagues organized the Atomic Scientists of Chicago to campaign for the peaceful use of nuclear power under international control. Simpson served as the group’s first chairman.

    Along with his University colleagues David Hill and Eugene Rabinowitch, Simpson made their case in a two-page article published in the Oct. 29, 1945 issue of Life magazine. In December 1945, Simpson went on to cofound the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

    In late 1945, Simpson also became an unofficial adviser to U.S. Sen. Brien McMahon of Connecticut, who chaired the Senate Special Committee on the Control of Atomic Energy. McMahon, Simpson and other atomic scientists, including Szilard, worked successfully to promote and develop legislation that provided for the civilian control of atomic energy.

    University social scientists and legal scholars led by the young Edward Levi, who later served as University President and as U.S. attorney general under President Ford, became involved as well. They met with Simpson and other physicists in the basement of the Social Science building to draft the framework of the McMahon Act of 1946, the civilian atomic energy bill.

    “In the intervening 50 years, the public, through ignorance and misunderstanding, has fallen into an antinuclear mode,” Simpson said. “But that isn’t going to prevent other nations from going nuclear to meet their energy needs. We know that there are problems of proliferation and misuse of nuclear materials. The question then is how best to handle these problems in the next century.”