Podcast #18: Atomic Bill

Join our podcast host and former NYT Science Times editor David Corcoran as he discusses Undark’s latest Case Study on William “Atomic Bill” Laurence, with writer Mark Wolverton and science and media commentator Seth Mnookin. Also: Andy Stapleton on an initiative to bring scientists to talk about their research in pubs around the world.



A full transcript of the podcast follows.

David Corcoran: This is Undark. We’re a magazine devoted to exploring the intersection of science and society, and we’re this podcast. Hello again. Welcome to episode 18. I’m David Corcoran. For our cover story, present at the creation of the atomic bomb, during World War II, the U.S. military and a team of scientists undertook a top secret effort called the Manhattan Project, to unleash the power of the atom in the form of a weapon vastly more powerful than anything the world had ever seen.

To write the history of the project, the army hired the New York Times’ star science reporter and swore him to secrecy. As reporter Mark Wolverton writes in Undark this month, that arrangement set off ethical reverberations that are echoing to this day. Mark Wolverton joins us now, along with a special guest, Seth Mnookin, our commentator on science and the media. Mark and Seth, welcome.

Mark Wolverton: Hi, David.

Seth Mnookin: Thank you.

David Corcoran: Well, first of all, Mark, tell us about the New York Times’ reporter, William L. Laurence. Who was he, and when and how did he get this assignment?

Mark Wolverton: Well, William Laurence was actually the first full-time science reporter in the United States. He started working at the New York Times in 1930, and he covered most of the big science stories of the day, through the ’30s, and one of the things that he was interested in was the nuclear research that was becoming very prominent at that time.

He was one of the first people to really talk about the discovery of nuclear fission. He covered it in a piece in the New York Times in May 5th, 1940, in which he really laid out the recent discoveries in that. Also, it was in that story where he first discussed the possibility of Hitler getting the bomb, which became sort of an obsession of his, and he was following the other developments in the atomic story for the beginning of World War II.

Somewhere along the line, he kind of attracted the attention of the government, and the head of the military, head of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves, who in spring 1945 decided that he needed a historian for the Manhattan project, and he tapped William Laurence to fulfill this role.

David Corcoran: Laurence himself turns out to be quite an elusive character. What was he like?

Mark Wolverton: He was really a very interesting character, sort of a classic immigrant, self-made man story. He was actually born in Lithuania in 1988, came to the United States in 1905, with 50 cents in his pocket, to Ellis Island. He ended up…he became a citizen, he served in the United States Army in World War I. He attended Harvard off and on. He did tutoring at Harvard, eventually earned a law degree there, and somewhere along the line, he actually fell into journalism. It was not really … after a law degree, he actually was going to become a lawyer, and decided that he then didn’t want to help rich men cheat the government — as he put it when he saw the jobs that were available.

He was actually at a party, in I think 1926, and he was trying to chat up Ethel Barrymore at the time. There was also a trivia game going on in the party, for some reason, and people would come over and ask him these trivia questions, and he’d sort of answer dismissively, and just, “Go away, I’m trying to chat up Ethel Barrymore,” and he ended up winning the game, beating the reigning champion at the time, which was a guy named Herbert Bayard Swope, who was the editor of the New York World newspaper at that time.

Swope was so impressed that he had been displaced as the champion at this game, that he thought, “Who is this William Laurence guy?” And ended up offering him a job with the paper, as a reporter. That’s where Laurence started his journalistic career, and he worked until 1930, when he went to The Times.

David Corcoran: So, how did you get interested in Laurence?

Mark Wolverton: Well, I’ve always been interested in atomic history, nuclear history, the history of the Manhattan Project, so of course, that led to my writing a book about Robert Oppenheimer and other things, but William Laurence is kind of this shadowy figure through all the histories of the Manhattan Project. If you look at all the histories and the books that have been written about it, such as Richard Rhodes’ “Making of the Atomic Bomb,” and many of the others, Laurence is this kind of figure on the sidelines.

He’s mentioned being there at the first atomic bomb test, the Trinity Test, in July 1945, flying on the Nagasaki mission, as the only journalist to go on that. But he was never really described in much detail after that, and it got me thinking, “Well, who was this guy, and how did he get this job? How did he become the only reporter allowed this kind of exclusive access, and how did he get it?”

So I started looking into that a bit more, and as I did that, I just discovered what an interesting and varied figure he was, both before the war and after the war.

David Corcoran: You write that he died in 1977, left no children, and very few people are still around who knew him. How did you go about reporting this story?

Mark Wolverton: Yeah, that was quite a challenge. I mean, usually with most stories, you can go interview people, or you find archives, and for a writer, I would think he would have left a lot of papers, and letters, and correspondence behind, but I’ve never been able to find anything.

I mentioned in the story, the only person that I located who actually knew him was Arthur Gelb, of the New York Times. The main source that I really used were other material that have been written about him, and he ended up doing, in the late 1950s and early ’60s, after he retired from The Times, he did a very lengthy oral history interview with Columbia University. It was about 500 pages long, in its transcript. It’s very detailed. It tells the story of his entire life, and his childhood in Lithuania, up until that present time, then.

But Laurence was someone who had a … and you can see this in his work, too, in his written work, he was someone who had a tendency to be polite, exaggerate. He had a very kind of purple prose style, and that was also evident when he’s telling his own history, to the point where it’s sometimes unclear how much he’s saying was actual truth, and how much was a little bit of embellishment for personal reasons.

So yeah, it was definitely a challenge, and in some cases, it was sort of reading between the lines, as to what he was thinking and what his motivations were, which makes him even more of an enigmatic figure.

David Corcoran: They called him Atomic Bill Laurence, apparently, to differentiate him from another William Lawrence, who wrote about politics for The Times. Seth Mnookin, I want to bring you into the conversation. You have actually written a book about the New York Times. Did you know about Atomic Bill Laurence?

Seth Mnookin: I had heard of him, but I actually did not know, and had not read about, his whole backstory. In my book, there’s a section where I sort of give a very quick Cliffs Notes of the times, from the 19th century up until kind of 2001. So I knew a little bit about him, and knew that he had been one of the only journalists, if not the only journalist at a lot of instances regarding the creation and development of the atomic bomb, but did not know any of his backstory, and had also not realized that he had been hired by the army, to chronicle the Manhattan Project.

David Corcoran: So, just to recap, that is what Mark’s article in Undark is all about, Laurence’s role in covering the creation of the atomic bomb, and then following it during the Cold War as well. The story is called “Atomic Bill and the Birth of the Bomb.” Seth, can you imagine a reporter or a news organization agreeing to the terms that Laurence agreed to? He was hired by the War Department, to cover the Manhattan Project, but while he was in their employ, he couldn’t write about it for the New York Times. Can you imagine something like that happening today?

Seth Mnookin: Yeah, well there are a couple of things that are really interesting about this. One is that there seems to be some ambiguity as to whether … according to Mark’s piece, some ambiguity as to whether he was being paid by The Times or paid by the War Department during this period, and it was a period during which he was not writing for The Times, and the work that he was doing was ultimately for this history that was not going to be published in The Times, although obviously, all of that information was going to inform his later work, and he did go back and continue to write about atomic energy and the atomic bomb for The Times.

What I think is … probably raises questions the most for people today is the fact that he returned to The Times to then write about the same topic and subject that he had been paid to cover by those sources that he was covering. That’s the type of thing that would, I think, raise clear alarm bells as a perceived, if not an actual conflict of interest. I was trying to think of an analogous situation today, and you do have scenarios where you have someone like George Stephanopoulos, who was a political consultant, and now in his role as a television journalist, does cover politics, but it’s hard to imagine a journalist then being hired, by some other political entity, and then coming back to that same news organization, and covering the exact topic that he had been hired to write about separately.

On the flip side, though, I think that we would really have lost a lot, had it not been for his access. As Mark highlights, a lot of what we know about those years, about early atomic tests, come from Laurence, so in a very elegant way, I think it highlights conflict and attention that reporters always go through. It’s more stark here, because you have the added financial issue, but you know, the question of to what extent do you need to sort of play nice with your sources to continue to get information, and at what point are you doing a disservice to your readers, either by not getting access to that information, or by shading the reality of what you’re actually covering?

David Corcoran: Mark Wolverton, can you talk about some of the criticism of Laurence in recent years, for his coverage of the nuclear weapons program?

Mark Wolverton: Yeah, there’s been some that has dealt with these issues that Seth was just discussing. Back in 2004 or 2005, the journalists Amy and David Goodman, from Democracy Now!, had written an article, and were kind of castigating the Pulitzer Committee, and calling for the revocation of Laurence’s 1946 Pulitzer Prize. He won two of them, one in ’36 and one in ’46, for his coverage of Nagasaki and the atomic bomb.

They were doing this because they were basically accusing him of being a propagandist, and saying that he, and by extension the New York Times, had participated in essentially a cover-up of the dangers of radiation, and also discounting the casualties of Nagasaki, and the effect on the Japanese people.

I think those are rather partisan and unfair criticisms, and I think partly for the reason, one aspect that Seth mentioned, was Laurence was the only one who had this access at the time, and he was very aware of that. That’s one reason that he agreed to take the job, aside from his great interest in the subject, but he was really, as Seth said, without him there at Trinity and Nagasaki, we would not have the journalistic viewpoint that we now have.

And for Laurence, his viewpoint was … As I said, he was an immigrant. He lost his family to the Nazis, and to the Russians. He was American through and through, in the way that I think only a naturalized citizen can be, and he saw this … At that time, he was in his middle-50s. He’d already been a veteran in World War I. He saw this as a way to serve his country again, at a time of national emergency and wartime. So, for that, I think kind of mitigated any considerations of conflict of interest and so forth. He thought this was really his patriotic duty in a way, to do this job.

And the other aspect of the Goodman criticisms and others, is that they’re kind of looking at this back from our perspective, in retrospect, what we know now as opposed to what was known then. And in those, immediately after the war, the dangers of radiation and fallout were still quite uncertain. We knew that there was danger, of course, but a lot of the reports that were coming out from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, from Japan, were discounted at that time, as just enemy propaganda, which considering the nature of the times, was quite a reasonable assumption, even if it was untrue. It was actually partly true.

So yeah, there are many, many facets to this, and it was an unusual situation in a way that perhaps journalists today, in a situation where they’re embedded in a war zone and whatever, are not facing, and that’s something I think we have to think about in this instance.

Seth Mnookin: I think one thing that is very crucial to highlight is, unlike other Times Pulitzer winners, explicitly Walter Duranty, whose coverage of the Stalin famines in the Ukraine, in the ’30s, it was actually shown that he covered up the information about the famines, so was knowingly reporting false information.

Laurence did not witness the effects of radiation poisoning. He was not on the ground in Japan, so there, as far I know, has never been an accusation that there was information that he knew and he purposefully withheld it because he thought it would put something in a negative or a positive light.

Today, I think that’s something that is really, really crucial to remember here. His reporting might seem, by our standards now, to be incredibly credulous, but this was a time in which all of this was new, and you can debate whether he should have been more skeptical, but I don’t think there is debate that he had information that he knew was going to put this project in a negative light and withheld it.

David Corcoran: The story of Atomic Bill Laurence at the New York Times has a really kind of remarkable coda. It takes place more than a decade after the Nagasaki mission, and it changed the way he thought about nuclear weapons, and I think you might argue that it changed the way a lot of people thought about them. Can you tell us about that?

Mark Wolverton: Yeah. One thing about Laurence is that, even before the war, when he was writing his first articles, before he even joined the Manhattan Project, was writing his articles, he was worried, more than anything else, about Hitler getting the bomb. When he actually saw atomic bombs for himself, he was horrified at the destruction and their power.

Immediately after the war, he was very much in favor of the international efforts that were then going on to try to control atomic energy. There was the Acheson-Lilienthal plan, and several others. Then, in 1946, he witnessed the Bikini atomic tests in the Pacific, the first test after World War II, and that convinced him even further, that we have to get the atomic bomb under control, or civilization is doomed.

His attitudes began to change, I think, in 1950, with Korea, the Korean War. That’s when he began to see that communism, which he had always known was a danger, but he began to feel a bit more threatened by it, or that America had to be strong and do something about it, and atomic bombs were a way of doing that, so we had to stay strong to counter this communist aggression.

And I think it really developed, as I say in the story, it kind of developed slowly with him, but then when he saw his first hydrogen bomb in 1956, the Cherokee Test, and that’s when he, as he describes in his book “Men and Atoms,” he sort of had this epiphany, that it’s this vast power, that it’s this world-covering umbrella that can shield us from being destroyed by our rivals, the Soviet Union, and another factor in this is that he had always … There had always been a sort of dichotomy between his attitudes toward atomic weapons, and his attitudes toward atomic energy.

He was one of the first to extol the virtues of nuclear energy, nuclear power, our friend the atom, that kind of thing. And especially after this sort of epiphany in 1956, he began in his coverage, to emphasize that a bit more, that we need the bomb, because we need to defend ourselves. We need to preserve civilization. This is our best tool, but we can also divert it to more peaceful, constructive uses with atomic energy and other purposes, so it is this strange dichotomy, in both his public attitudes, and I think probably his personal attitudes as well.

David Corcoran: Seth and Mark, you’ve both pointed out that Atomic Bill Laurence, William Laurence, worked in a much different era from our era today. Are there any lessons you think that we can learn and apply today?

Mark Wolverton: I think there are several. I think one of them is … The first one that occurs to me is just the dangers of judging history by present standards, as people who are calling for the revocation of his Pulitzer Prize and so forth are doing. One thing that Arthur Gelb told me is, at that time, he was considered a hero. I mean, he had done something that no other journalist had done. He did something necessary. He did a job and he did it well, and he was not really, at least in his mind, involved in covering up anything or being a propagandist.

The other lesson, and I think for journalists today, is I think Laurence also … He was someone who was very enthusiastic, very passionate about what he did, and the subjects that he became interested in, to the point where I think he sometimes lost his own perspective of things, and the downsides, and I think that happened with his view on atomic weapons.

He let himself be dazzled by them a bit too much, I think, and I think also, in a way, he was disillusioned by the fact that this age of nuclear peace and plenty that he had envisioned never really came about, which is something … And that grew from his own perspective, his own particular viewpoints about the bomb.

And I think now, today, as science journalists, it’s very easy to get wrapped up in the wonder of things, and how cool things are, and the promise of things, while perhaps disregarding the negative aspects, the downside, the dark side, if you will, of them, which is something that I think Laurence did, and I think he provides an example of what happens when you do that too much.

David Corcoran: Seth, what do you think? Disillusioning tale or inspiring one?

Seth Mnookin: I think that it underscores a very interesting and important tension that science journalists face today, and it’s a tension that I think we face today in a way that’s very different from what science journalists faced in the ’40s and ’50s, in that we need to decide whether, as Mark said, we’re going to sort of serve as science supporters and cheerleaders, or be more dispassionate, and I don’t think that the answer there is always as clear as it might seem on first blush, because science itself is contested in a way that it never has been, not whether this research is more important than that research, but whether the core values of science, whether science is a tool that we can use to illustrate and illuminate reality.

I think it’s paramount on us, as science journalists, to be aware of the environment in which we’re living. There are times when there are things that are presented, sometimes, in the press, as a conflict when it’s really not a scientific debate, and I think sometimes we don’t acknowledge that something is not a debate, out of fear of being seen as cheerleaders.

But it’s our job, actually, to say, “Look, here’s the evidence. There’s not evidence on this opposing side, and that’s what it is. There might be a cultural debate, but there’s not a scientific debate.”

David Corcoran: Well, I want to thank you both for taking the time to talk about this fascinating tale from the dawn of the atomic age. Mark Wolverton is a science writer, author, and playwright, whose most recent book is “A Life in Twilight: The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer.” He was a Knight Science Journalism fellow here at MIT, in 2016-17.

Seth Mnookin is our media and science commentator. He’s the author of a number of books about science and journalism, including “The Panic Virus” and “Hard News: Twenty-one Brutal Months at the New York Times and How They Changed the American Media.” And he’s director of the graduate program in science writing here at MIT.

Seth and Mark, many thanks for being with us.

Seth Mnookin: Thank you.

Mark Wolverton: Thank you.

David Corcoran: How do you keep up to date with the latest science news? Do you get it from newspapers, online articles, or do you just allow it to wash across your social media feed? Well, a new grassroots initiative is starting to spring up around the world, and is becoming a popular part of science communication. Dr. Andy Stapleton investigates.

Andy Stapleton: It’s a cold and rainy Tuesday night, in Adelaide, Australia, and I’m heading to the pub on the outskirts of the city, to meet with Katharina Richter. This isn’t a Tinder date, and I’m not going to see a band. This is something a little out of the ordinary for the pub environment. I enter through old, wooden doors, and make my way down a beer-soaked corridor to a large backroom full of people. There, on the stage, projected onto a big, white screen, is the event’s name, A Pint of Science.

I work my way through the crowd, to find Katharina, so that she can tell me a little bit more about what I’ve gotten myself in for.

Katharina Richter: Pint of Science is a scientific festival that was founded in 2012, in London, and the two founders, they were scientists themselves, and they had the great idea to bring science to the pub, and thereby foster science communication with the general public.

Andy Stapleton: The question that came to mind is, “Why a pub?” There are other, more obvious spaces for talking about science. I’m thinking public lectures and outreach activities. Is a pub really the best place to talk about science? Katharina says that hosting science festivals in a pub brings a different dynamic to science communication.

Katharina Richter: The pub environment is certainly very relaxed. You know, it gives space for better discussions, and a pint of beer helps as well, to loosen up.

Andy Stapleton: With a beer in hand, presumably to help the science flow, and the sound of rain on the roof, the event begins.

Speaker 6: Welcome to Pint of Science, Pint of Science 2017.

Andy Stapleton: Dr. Briony Forbes is more at home in the lab or at the front of a lecture hall, but tonight, she’s on stage in front of a hundred people, calling on a set of different skills to talk about science, a talk that unfortunately, I’ve been asked not to record. Dr. Forbes is a professor at Flinders University, and she’s conducting research on insulin and insulin-like growth factors in diabetes and cancer. Tonight, she can’t rely solely on PowerPoint and the threat of an exam at the end, to keep the audience’s attention. She must take a different approach, and she’s brought a bag of tricks to keep things interesting.

Her talk is punctuated by noisily delving into her bag, to pull out cone snail shells to pass around the audience. Her presentation lacks the formal tone so many students loathe about lectures, and as a result, people are participating. They’re asking questions. Afterwards, Dr. Forbes tells me she’s got as much out of the Pint of Science as the audience did.

Briony Forbes: It really makes us think about the problems, in a way that really translate, and if we don’t talk to the public, then we don’t know what the real needs are of the public as well, so we get stuff back, we get ideas and so on back, as well.

Andy Stapleton: It’s not easy for scientists to put themselves out there, and the added benefit of holding these events at the pub is the ability to gain a little bit of Dutch courage before venturing into the spotlight.

Justin Chalker: Well right now, I’m on my second.

Andy Stapleton: That’s Justin Chalker. He’s a chemist from Flinders University, and he runs a lab that makes new molecules to improve human health and protect the environment. He’s confident that the pub is the perfect environment to speak to the general public.

Justin Chalker: Well, lecture halls are terribly boring and oppressive, and the pub is the opposite experience. It’s a venue where it’s a public venue, right? It is the pub, and people can come and exchange ideas, have a beer, relax, and experience and talk about science in a very non-imposing way.

Andy Stapleton: While getting up in front of a load of people in a pub may be out of the comfort zone of many scientists, it’s vital for the future of science funding, too. The general consensus is that the era of outreach being optional for scientists is over, because without public support, how can we convince politicians not to cut public spending on research?

It appears that many scientists have gotten the message, but are they reaching out to the right people? A 2012 study from Warwick and Cambridge University in the U.K. found that while science festivals are designed to expand the public’s interest in science, this genre of science communication appeals mainly to a select demographic. It found that most attendees at an event like A Pint of Science already support scientific research. It’s essentially preaching to the choir. And that made sense. As I took my microphone around the crowd, guess what? Everyone I spoke to was a scientist.

Female: I am a medical student.

Male: I’m doing my Ph.D. in engineering.

Female: I’m doing a Ph.D. in genetics.

Andy Stapleton: This realization is bittersweet for me. I’m glad that so many of my scientist colleagues have moved outside their comfort zone in attempt to communicate science to the public, but they haven’t quite moved far enough. We’ve got to market events like A Pint of Science to a non-scientist audience, not just move the presentations from a scientific conference to the pub. Fortunately, there’s plenty of other options to combine science with things people love.

Female: Sport and science go very well together.

Male: Well maybe science and yoga.

Female: Science and cheese. They need to add cheese to this.

Male: Well, food is always good as well, so if we have a pub with good food, who knows where we’ll end up?

Andy Stapleton: For Undark, I’m Andy Stapleton.

David Corcoran: And that’s all for this episode of Undark, a project of the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT. Our show is produced by Katie Hiler. We’ll be back next month with more news and interviews from the intersection of science and society. Until then, I’m David Corcoran, for Undark.