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Feature - When Science Fiction is Science Fact by George Pendle

It is now almost 60 years to the day (August 6th, 1945) that a nuclear weapon was dropped on Hiroshima. Constructed in absolute secrecy, no-one except those scientists cloistered within the highly secretive Manhattan Project had any idea that such a weapon was possible. Well, nearly no-one. Twelve months earlier the Los Alamos authorities had been startled to find out that a large chunk of technical data detailing the construction of an atomic bomb - and specifically the use of Uranium-235 as the fuel for the bomb - had appeared in the pages of a best-selling publication. It was neither Nature nor Popular Mechanics that had pre-empted the Allies’ greatest secret. No, national security had been breached within the pages of Astounding Science Fiction magazine.

Astounding was then at the forefront of the "juvenile" genre of science fiction. Under the visionary editorship of John W. Campbell, Astounding contained stories by such up-and-coming writers as Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. It was Campbell’s earnest desire that science fiction should be a prophetic medium, inspiring and presaging new technological breakthroughs, albeit in stories that also featured laser gun battles and perilous sexy aliens.

Take the example of the rocket. In the late 1930s no universities taught rocketry courses and there were no government grants allotted to rocketry research. In established scientific circles, rockets were synonymous with the ridiculous, the far-fetched, the lunatic, as much a euphemism for the foolish as "rocket scientist" is now a byword for genius. It was science fiction alone that took rocketry, and its attendant dream of space travel, seriously. Holding up the science-fiction magazines as their scriptures, amateur enthusiasts from all walks of life constructed small, primitive rockets, fated to blow up on take-off or explode in mid-air, in the hopes of progressing towards their far-off goal.

It was a brave dream to have, not least because it was sought in the face of so much public and professional hostility. Bullies existed at every level, from the schoolyard to the government, to taunt and terrorize the bespectacled readers of the genre. Even as late as 1941, one rocketry enthusiast was being mocked in Congress as “a crackpot with mental delusions that we can travel to the moon!” to which the entire House of Representatives roared with laughter. Werner Von Braun, who would head the Nazi V-1 and V-2 rocket programs, was one such teenage dreamer. Until his work was co-opted by the German army his overwhelming vision was of propelling man, not bombs, into the sky. It would stay so throughout the war - during which he had copies of Astounding air-dropped into neutral Sweden - and afterwards when he became head of the American space program.

The story in Astounding that had caused such uproar in the Manhattan Project was typical of science fiction yarns of the time. Written by author Cleve Cartmill it was called Deadline and described an earth-like planet, in which a commando, albeit one with a prehensile tail, was assigned to destroy a giant bomb. The story was packed with technical data describing "atomic isotope separation methods" and the dangers of being able to control the explosion of a U-235 bomb. While the bomb described in the story didn’t exactly resemble that being constructed in Los Alamos, the story’s descriptions of difficulties in separating uranium into fissionable and non-fissionable isotopes did speak of one of the major problems currently under investigation at the Manhattan Project. The federal authorities believed that these references could only have come from classified research.

Counter-intelligence agents were immediately sent round to Cartmill’s house in Los Angeles, but Cartmill assigned all blame to his editor, Campbell, who had provided him with the technical details. When Campbell was asked how he had come upon such classified information he explained that he was a physics graduate from MIT, and that he had come up with the idea by basing all his suppositions on information freely available to the public. He calmly showed where he had found out about Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman's discovery of nuclear fission in 1938 and how he had worked through the normal extrapolation process so common in his magazine's stories.

The investigators were not appeased. Cartmill was placed under observation, his mail was opened and he and Campbell were subjected to days of interrogation. The Manhattan Project’s security chief wanted the Office of Censorship to shut down the magazine entirely because “such highly particularised stories on secret weapons are detrimental to national security”. But, to their credit the Office of Censorship refused, stating that “editor Campbell’s…observations on the subject matter are those that can be produced by any person with a smattering of science plus a fertile imagination, who may be in the scientific fiction publishing business”.

Indeed it was not even the first time that science fiction had trod such classified ground. In 1914 in his story The World Set Free, H.G. Wells had written of the devastating power of an atomic bomb, and had predicted the splitting of the atom to within five years. As recently as 1941 Robert Heinlein’s story Solution Unsatisfactory had talked of using U-235 in a controlled explosion “that would be a whole air raid in itself, a single explosion that would flatten out an entire industrial centre”. Ultimately Astounding was let off the hook and its suggestion of the near-term practical possibility of an atomic bomb was put down to coincidence. However Campbell was warned not to publish any more stories containing “any reference to uranium and atomic power”.

When the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945, and became public knowledge John W. Campbell’s editorial in that month’s Astounding was filled with a perverse pride: “the science-fictioneers were suddenly recognised by their neighbours as not quite such wild-eyed dreamers as they had been thought, and in many soul-satisfying cases became the neighbourhood experts”. In his mind Hiroshima was a triumphant victory, not just for the Allies over Japan, but for the pencil-necked geeks and 98-pound weaklings over the playground bullies.

George Pendle is the author of Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons (published on July 14th by Weidenfeld & Nicolson)


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Last update 16 April 2011