Manhattan Project on Science Hill

Jonathan Setiabrata | jonathan.setiabrata@yale.edu September 1, 2010

A few things come to mind when one thinks of Sterling Chemistry Laboratory: long walks up Science Hill, dreaded 9:20 a.m. chemistry lectures, and obnoxious afternoon labs. Perhaps some new associations with the building would make our science classes much more enjoyable—or, at least make that painful walk a tad bit easier. Sterling Chemistry Laboratory has housed many eminent and prolific scientists since its construction and dedication in 1923. Construction for the Sterling Laboratory was made possible by a generous $18 million donation – roughly $180 million by today’s standards—by J.W. Sterling , Class of 1884, upon his death in 1918. Any building that old contains secrets and intrigues unknown to most students who study there daily. Alas, Sterling Chemistry Lab does not disappoint.

While a majority of the discoveries and breakthroughs made within the confines of Sterling Lab remain unknown and obscure to the general population, many mysteries and rumors surround the Sterling Chemistry and Sloane Physics Laboratories. Many of these stem from the World War II involvement of Yale scientists for the well-known Manhattan Project. Created by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1942, the Manhattan Project was in charge of creating the first atomic bomb for the United States in fear that Nazi Germany might also be involved in atomic weapon development. Historical records composed of correspondences and publications made by a number of scientists at Yale during the Manhattan Project era (circa 1942-1945) suggest that Yale scientists conducted active research for the Project and kept in close contact with Project leaders.

Yale professor Herbert S. Harned (1888-1969) was one Sterling Chemistry fellow conducting research in the Sterling Chemistry Laboratory for the Project. Harned, a prolific scientist, had contributed numerous publications by the time he joined the Yale faculty in 1928. Harned’s research at Yale included studying the diffusion coefficients of electrolytes. Autobiographical information submitted by Harned to his publishers included that he was the “Group Leader to the Manhattan Project.”

But how did Harned achieve this title? His research in electrolytic separation and extraction of the Uranium-235 isotope made its way to Oak Ridge Laboratories in Tennessee—the main scientific headquarters of the Manhattan Project. Harned’s initial findings on electrophoretic treatment of U-235 were classified by the government as “containing sensitive information affecting the National Defense of the United States.” Although the methods he developed were initially deemed insufficient, Harned’s findings allowed others to refine the process and allow for a more efficient treatment and extraction of Uranium isotopes. Harned’s documents and reports were eventually declassified by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1957. He kept in close correspondence with Oak Ridge National Laboratory long after the Project was over; his involvement was mainly composed of adjunct consulting for the Laboratory.

Scientists at the Yale Sloane Physics Laboratory also conducted research for the Project. Gregory Breit (1899-1981), a theoretical physics professor at Sloane from 1947 to 1968, joined the Yale faculty after having served on the Uranium Committee of the National Defense Research Committee during the war. During the time he was involved in the Manhattan Project, he also served as chief coordinator of the Fast Neutron Project at the University of Chicago, putting him at the forefront of the atomic bomb’s development. Breit’s numerous correspondences include those with Robert J. Oppenheimer, chief scientific direction of the Project. Their correspondence spanned many years even after the Project era.

Upon joining the Yale faculty at Sloane, Breit suggested that he “bring along as staff members…[some who had] appointments here as Project associates.” As Breit’s correspondence with Yale prior to his employment indicates, he asked Yale to allow some of the students who worked with him on the Project to be part of his research team at Sloane. Yale agreed to hire Breit’s associates from the Project for his research team, thereby bringing more Project scientists into the Yale faculty. By the time Breit worked on the hydrogen bomb—first detonated in 1952—Breit had used his experimental findings from Sloane and Chicago to contribute to that project.

So the next time you take your walk up Science Hill, consider where you’re really going. The halls you pass on your way to your classroom were once graced by monumental scientists involved in clandestine research for the government and are today still graced by experts in their fields. Sterling Chemistry Laboratory continues to lead scientific progress today—just as it did during its early years. With so much potential and possibilities just up the hill, why not walk up with a smile?