Tuesday, January 27, 2009

DBTL 8B: Laugh While You Can

Rome, Italy
27 July 1940

As work progressed on the Prometheus Project, Enrico Fermi found himself growing more and more concerned. It went without saying that he could not express his concerns openly, for who knew which remarks might be overheard? So Fermi kept his concerns private for months, until chance allowed him the opportunity to unburden himself.

When Fermi had first begun organizing the Prometheus Project in February, he had particularly sought out the assistance of the man he personally regarded as the most brilliant scientist in Italy. Although he had won no awards, and (being a temperamental man of eccentric habits) had never even held an academic position, there was no doubt in Fermi's mind that Dr. Emilio Lizardo would ultimately make the difference between success and failure for the Prometheus Project.

Approaching Lizardo had been a delicate task, for the man had suffered considerable scorn from the more conservative members of the scientific establishment. Nevertheless, Fermi had known (well, hoped at any rate) that the challenge of creating the world's first atomic reactor would overcome Lizardo's antipathy towards bureaucratic encumbrances (to say nothing of his dislike for the Mussolini regime). In the end, Fermi's hope had been borne out, and Lizardo had agreed to take part in the Project.

Keeping the great scientist was almost as much work as getting him had been, but Fermi knew that the benefits justified the effort. Already Lizardo had constructed a centrifugal device which had enabled them to refine uranium at an astonishing rate. At their present rate of progress, Fermi calculated that they ought to have enough material to build a self-sustaining reactor by the end of 1941. Possibly even sooner.

Meanwhile, Dr. Lizardo had surprised all who knew him (Fermi most of all) by falling in love. He had met a girl named Clara Petacci, and they had chosen today to get married. As Fermi and Lizardo fulfilled the traditional roles of best man and groom by standing together in a small side room in some church or other, uncomfortable in tuxedos, Fermi had at last unburdened himself to his friend.

Not knowing any other way to broach the subject, Fermi had simply blurted out, "What if he decides to build a bomb?"

"Do you mean Mussolini?"

"I don't mean Louis B. Mayer."

"Are you sure the thought will occur to him?" said Lizardo. "He is a busy man, after all. He has all of Italy to boss around."

"He is not a stupid man," said Fermi, "and he takes a great interest in this project. He even named it. He did not understand much about nuclear physics when we started, but he can and will learn. And it is not as if the idea is an unlikely one. After all, one of our greatest problems in building the reactor will be to insure that it does not blow up. Sooner or later, he will realize that a reactor can be built to explode on purpose. Assuming of course that he has not already done so. No, my good friend, the day will inevitably come when Mussolini will come to us and say, 'How soon can you build me an atomic bomb?' What answer do we give him then?"

Lizardo, who had been fulfilling the traditional role of groom by pacing back and forth, slowed to a halt as he considered the problem.

"We could," he suggested, "bury our beloved leader in doubletalk, to the effect that a bomb would require decades of technical progress to create."

Fermi shook his head. "And if he should go to another physicist who does not share our misgivings? Our lies would be exposed at once, and we would be lined up against a wall for our troubles."

"True," Lizardo admitted sadly. "And we might well face the same fate if we admit that a bomb could be built and then refuse to do so."

"At the very least," said Fermi, "we would be expelled from the Project and replaced with less consciencious men."

"Or else," said Lizardo, "we could agree to build the bomb, and then sabotage it."

Fermi shook his head. "Sabotage would only be a temporary expedient. We would eventually be found out, and certainly executed."

"Perhaps," said Lizardo, "we could flee to France or Britain. I have heard one or two rumors to the effect that both countries are investigating atomic fission. Then, at least, we could be certain that Mussolini would not have a monopoly on atomic bombs."

Fermi shuddered. "My friend, the only thing I can think of that would be worse than a warring nation with an atomic bomb would be two warring nations with atomic bombs."

Lizardo finally sighed and said, "Enrico, at this point all we can do is hope that the problem does not arise. If and when it does, then perhaps we will see a way clear to resolving it. Until then, I must quote the great Francesco Petrarca: laugh while you can, monkey boy."

Then the door to the little side room opened, and it was time for Dr. Emilio Lizardo to face a future of wedded bliss.

1 comment:

Johnny Pez said...

In our own history, of course, both Fermi and Lizardo had fled Italy for the United States by the time this story takes place. Sadly, by the time Fermi began work on the first nuclear reactor at the University of Chicago, Lizardo had already suffered the accident that left him institutionalized.