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Science: Atomic Symbol

2 minute read

The National Academy of Sciences added a “foreign associate” to its goodly company: Russian physicist Peter Kapitza, Hero of Socialist Labor. He was worthy of the honor. Besides a monster string of Soviet decorations, he held medals from Belgium, Britain, and the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia.

His worthiness was not new. Since the National Academy had received no scientific paper of his since 1941, its action was prompted as much by political as by scientific considerations. Few if any U.S. academicians were Communist partisans. But nearly all scientists look back with longing to their golden age before Hitler and World War II, when science was free and truly international. The honor the Academy bestowed on Kapitza was a protest against the bristling barriers of secrecy and suspicion that now separate the scientists of the world.

The Russian Government, painfully conscious of its atomic-bomblessness, had made Kapitza’s name a national reassurance. “Don’t worry,” it comforted its people, “the great Kapitza will build you a bomb in no time.” According to Russian reports and rumors, he was buzzing around like a June bug, supervising the building of cyclotrons, studying cosmic rays, taking full scientific charge of the Soviet’s own Manhattan (or Moscow) Project. Generalissimo Stalin was said to have called him into his presence and offered him everything he needed.

Kapitza had come late to the problems of atomic energy. Though he earned his fame in the laboratory of Britain’s great Lord Rutherford, the man who first smashed the atom, he worked there on magnetism, which was only indirectly connected with nuclear energy. Since magnetism was best studied at extremely low temperatures, Kapitza became an authority on the liquefaction of gases at close to absolute zero.

After Kapitza’s return to Russia in 1935, his most publicized accomplishment was a method of producing cheap liquid oxygen from the air for use in blast furnaces and brick kilns.

What Kapitza was doing last week was a pitch-black secret. No doubt the Soviet Institute of Physical Problems, which he heads, was frantically busy with bomb research. But the U.S.S.R. has other excellent physicists. To its Government, Kapitza was most valuable as a symbol of national security. To U.S. academicians, Peter Kapitza also stood as a symbol—a living symbol of science’s lost internationalism.

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