Lewis Worth Seagondollar
1921 to September 20th, 2013
1921 to September 20th, 2013
"Emporian who worked on Atomic Bomb remembered"
October 5th, 2013
The Emporia Gazette
Former Emporian and well known physicist Dr. Lewis Worth Seagondollar has died in Raleigh, N.C. The death occurred on Sept. 20, 2013, just short of his 93rd birthday anniversary.
Seagondollar, a graduate of then-Kansas State Teachers College, worked on the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb.
He had moved with his parents to Emporia from Hoisington when he was 3 years old and lived here until he graduated from KSTC in 1941, now known as Emporia State University.
His lifetime work in physics brought him recognition and respect in the scientific community worldwide.
Dr. DeWayne Backhus of Emporia State University had met Seagondollar on several occasions and had been his host when Seagondollar returned to ESU in April 1993 as part of a panel of Distinguished Alumni.
Seagondollar had been among several outstanding students of former KSTC /ESU professor Dr. S. Winston Cram in the early 1940s. Cram had “turned out top-flight physicists for more than 20 years,” according to an article published in The Gazette in 1995. “The scientists, most of them male, were known in the physics community as ‘Cram’s Boys.’” Many of them went on to become leaders in their field.
Giant in science
“In fact, we invited three stellar graduates from that early World War II period who were known as ‘Cram’s Boys’ back for an event,” Backhus said. “(Seagondollar) was a modest person but his record of accomplishments really spoke for itself. ...
“You knew when you were in his presence, he was a person who had rubbed shoulders with some of the true giants in physics during that Manhattan project period. And then his career after he completed his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin was in the wake of not just World War II, but in the Cold War period and then ultimately in those decades that followed Sputnik,” the Earth’s first artificial satellite, launched by the U.S.S.R.
Seagondollar’s ongoing contribution to science is commemorated through the Seagondollar Award, a national honor given to an exceptional undergraduate student in physics, Backhus said.
Seagondollar had seemed to be on the physics fast track after graduating with a bachelor’s degree from KSTC. In addition to working at Los Alamos, after earning a doctoral degree from the University of Wisconsin, he had worked his way from instructor to professor at the University of Kansas between 1947 and 1945. He was professor and head of the department at North Carolina State University and later had been professor emeritus and radiation safety officer. During summers in the 1950s and 1960s, he had been a physicist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, a consultant at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, and a physicist for General Electric Co.’s Hanford Laboratory at Richland, Wash.
The job on the Manhattan Project, however, almost escaped him, according to an Aug. 7, 1995, article that marked the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.
The story, picked up by the Associated Press and published in The Gazette, originated from an interview by the News & Record of Greensboro, N.C.
The article described Seagondollar as “a kid from Emporia who had enjoyed the simplicity of physics.”
He’d considered Los Alamos “the best place to be” at a time when leading scientists of the day were working on atomic bomb research with the code name of the Manhattan Project.
“Los Alamos in 1944 was the Hollywood of the science industry,” the article stated. “The stars were some of the foremost physicists in the world -- Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, Niels Bohr, Leo Szilard, and Enrico Fermi."
Seagondollar first had been invited to Los Alamos in 1942, but his job was canceled two hours before his train was scheduled to leave the station.
“Too many people already, said Gen. Leslie Groves, the army commander overseeing the atomic research,” the article explained.
Los Alamos called Seagondollar again in the spring of 1944 and this time, the offer stayed in place.
As the newest physicist on the project, Seagondollar worked the night shift, doing experiments that involved snapping plutonium hemispheres around a radioactive core; it resembled closing a plastic Easter egg. Then, he would record how many plutonium atoms the radioactive core had smashed, the article stated. ,
“The size of the plutonium spheres grew over time, from the size of a ping pong ball to the size of a softball, approaching critical mass, the point at which the fragments of atoms would break apart more and more atoms -- a sustained nuclear reaction,” the 1995 article said.
One drop of plutonium was capable of giving a healthy man cancer. For this reason, it was always sealed in a thin coating to keep it from leaking. Armed guards in the laboratory watched every move to ensure that no one smuggled any plutonium out of the laboratory.
“About 2:30 on morning, Seagondollar dropped one of the spheres,” the article stated. “He doesn’t remember how it happened -- he may have stumbled or lost concentration momentarily -- but he remembers watching the two hemispheres fall. One half he caught. The other dented as it hit a table. The two halves would not fit together."
“’What do you do when you’re scared?’ he said to the interviewer. ‘I felt like throwing up.’ “
He grabbed a hammer and carefully tapped the dent out so the two halves fit.
Witness to first test
Later, Seagondollar was one of a few members of his team to participate in the first atomic test at Alamogordo, N.M., on July 16, 1945. He had worn a pair of welder’s goggles to protect his eyes from the glare of the blast, but traded them for a thick piece of blue glass.
The scientist-spectators were told to look away from the blast for at least 15 seconds, to avoid blindness. Still, the blast was so overwhelming that Seagondollar at first thought he had forgotten to wear the blue glass.
“I don’t think the noonday sun is that bright. The air was glowing all around,” he said in the 1995 article.
He was instructed not to utter a word about the test. The after-effects of bomb awed Seagondollar when he re-visited the site about a month later.
“The desert had melted and solidified into green glass. Lead bricks out there had been reduced to the size of bars of soap,” he told the interviewer.
Intending the war’s end
It was a plutonium bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, less than two years after Seagondollar joined the Manhattan Project. Three days before, the U.S. had dropped a bomb made using uranium on Hiroshima.
Seagondollar had been working in his lab in Los Alamos on Aug. 6, 1945, when the Hiroshima bombing was announced over the camp’s loudspeaker.
“It’s not comfortable to think of the misery you did cause,” he was quoted as saying in the News & Record article. “I take no great pride in helping kill a great number of Japanese men, women and children.”
Almost half of Hiroshima’s population died outright or within six months after the bomb was dropped.
Balancing the regret was the hope that the bomb would bring a quick end to the war with Japan.
As good as it gets
For his work on the Manhattan Project and his subsequent ongoing contributions to his field, Seagondollar earned numerous honors. Among them was Honorary Member status at an induction ceremony conducted by Sigma Pi Sigma, National Physics Honor Society, in 2004.
“Only distinguished scientists who have made a lifetime of valuable contributions to physics at the national level are eligible for Honorary status,” according to a letter from Sigma Pi Sigma.
Seagondollar, a member of Sigma Pi Sigma, also had served as its president from 1962-1968.
The significance of the Honorary Member status, Backhus said, may lie in the company of other scientists inducted in the same ceremony with Seagondollar.
“When he was given an honorary membership to Sigma Pi Sigma, another (recipient) was the president’s science advisor, and there was a Nobel Laureate in there, and there was a professor from MIT. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in that crowd,” Backhus said.
“And his roots were in our community. That’s probably as good as we can get.”
"They helped start atomic age"
August 6th, 2010
Sixty-five years ago today, high in the mountains of northern New Mexico, the public address system at a secret facility called Site Y - now known as Los Alamos National Laboratory - crackled to life.
Worth Seagondollar paused, along with hundreds of other scientists, engineers and technicians who had been working for years to figure out how to create the first nuclear bombs.
"Attention, please. Attention, please," the announcer said. "One of our units has just been successfully dropped on Japan."
That was it. No details about the destruction or even the name of the city that had been struck, Hiroshima.
But Seagondollar, 89, who now lives at Springmoor retirement center in North Raleigh, was one of only a handful of people who had seen an atomic bomb blast firsthand, and he knew that the world was suddenly much different.
Thousands of people had probably died in an instant, and a new weapon had been unleashed that allowed humans to kill each other in vast numbers. But it also surely meant the end of the most horrific war in world history and of the global march of fascism.
"I didn't have any feelings of regret at all," he said in an interview this week. "My feeling was that it was the beginning of the end of the Japanese war, and it was."
Later that day at another Manhattan Project site, Oak Ridge in the Tennessee mountains, Raymond Murray came home to his hastily-built government house where his wife had learned a secret he had been keeping. She had heard about the bomb on the radio.
"I finally know what you've been doing all this time," she said.
Seagondollar and Murray both later came to teach at N.C. State University's physics department and became department heads. By coincidence, Murray, now 90, also lives at Springmoor, making that retirement center an unusual repository of the memories of how the atomic age was born.
Murray and Seagondollar have given many talks on the bomb program, and Murray still makes annual presentations to groups of high school students who come to NCSU each summer and to a group at MIT.
Many of those who were in the heart of the Manhattan Project - the formal name of the U.S. effort to beat Germany in the race to building nuclear weapons - are gone now. Murray and Seagondollar were unusually young when they were recruited into the project, both in their early 20s.
Youngsters in new field
Nuclear science was young, too. Fission had been discovered just three years earlier, in 1939, and there were only a handful of scientists that physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his senior staff could call on to help develop a nuclear weapon.
At Los Alamos, Seagondollar was part of a team doing research on "critical mass," the minimum amount of fissionable material it takes to start a nuclear chain reaction and create a blast.
Murray, meanwhile, was assigned to run one of four massive production buildings at Oak Ridge that used electromagnetic radiation to extract Uranium-235, the isotope used in the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.
Murray's building was able to separate out only about 25 pounds of it in a year and a half of production, he said.
They remember the mistakes and setbacks and the growing pains for the two isolated communities as thousands of people flooded in.
Murray remembers the red clay mud that dominated the instant town of Oak Ridge, built by the government for the project. It had been planned for about 13,000 residents but grew to 75,000 in three years. One uranium separation facility covered 44 acres and was the largest building in the world, though Oak Ridge was kept secret by the government and didn't appear on maps for years.
Los Alamos, meanwhile, was so far up in the mountains that people bought their food at the military PX on the facility and made their own entertainment. There was a lively group of square dancers, though when Worth and Winifred Seagondollar first arrived, they found that they weren't ready for so much exercise at 7,200 feet.
Worth Seagondollar was among a handful of people to get a preview of the terrible force that would be unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki when he was sent to a remote bombing range south of Los Alamos to help with the first test explosion of a nuclear bomb, on July 16, 1945.
He had fashioned eye protection from the darkest lenses he could find, dark blue glass used by welders in their hoods.
Seagondollar and other observers were put nine miles from the bomb and told to look in the opposite direction from the blast itself, but even with their backs turned they were still startled.
"It was like looking into a photographer's flashbulb, except that's concentrated in one place and this was just everywhere, the brightest light I've ever seen," he said.
He counted to 15 and turned to face the blast.
"My first reaction was, 'You darned fool, you forgot the blue glass,'" he said. "I was looking through the blue glass, but it was just pure white light coming through."
"When I saw it, the ball of fire was about its own diameter above the valley floor, and I watched it go on up and the clouds above it; a huge hole opened up, and the ball of fire went up through that, and it went through the proverbial mushroom cloud about 70,000 feet. ... It was not particularly loud, but it was heavy rolling thunder."
Germany had surrendered months before the Hiroshima blast, ending any threat that the United States would be beaten to a bomb, and the debate continues about whether it was proper to continue the program and use the bomb, given that Japan didn't have a serious program to build one.
An estimated 70,000 people in Hiroshima and 40,000 in Nagasaki were killed instantly, and tens of thousands more continued to succumb to burns and the effects of radiation, including cancer. Estimates of total deaths range to 240,000 or more.
Lives lost, lives saved
Both Murray and Seagondollar say that the suffering and loss of life in Japan was a terrible thing. Their lives, though, were built around clinically analyzing data, and they can't help but look at the deaths the same way.
By ending the war before a planned invasion of Japan, on balance the bombs helped save lives, they say. By some estimates, an invasion of Japan would have killed 250,000 U.S. troops or more, and an even greater number of Japanese troops and civilians.
"I have had many, many people come up to me over the years and thank me because they were going to be part of the invasion force," Murray said.
Once, Seagondollar said, he had just finished a speech at NCSU on the Manhattan Project and said, as he always did, that the use of the bombs had been effective and positive, when he noticed a member of the audience walking stiffly toward him with a cane.
His heart sank. It was a professor visiting from Japan.
The man looked at him, then took the cane and whacked one of his own legs, which made a hollow sound.
"He told me that he had lost his leg at Hiroshima, and that he agreed that what happened was beneficial to both the Americans and the Japanese," Seagondollar said.
Still, Murray and Seagondollar both worry about the threats posed by terrorism and unpredictable regimes like that in North Korea.
"The use of nuclear weapons so far has been to the advantage of the civilized world," Seagondollar said. "I'm not so sure it will be in the future."
Seagondollar's lecture--Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory