Ralph E. Lapp

Manhattan Project scientist and author of 'The Voyage of the Lucky Dragon'

Ralph E. Lapp worked with the Manhattan Project, helping to create the first atomic bombs, and became an authority on radiation hazards and civil defence. He is probably best known in Britain as the author of the 1957 best-seller
The Voyage of the Lucky Dragon, which did much to raise international awareness of the dangers of atmospheric nuclear testing.

Ralph Eugene Lapp, physicist and writer: born Buffalo, New York 24 August 1917; Assistant Director, Metallurgical Laboratory, University of Chicago 1943-45; Head of Nuclear Physics, US Office of Naval Research 1946-50; married (two sons); died Alexandria, Virginia 7 September 2004.

Ralph E. Lapp worked with the Manhattan Project, helping to create the first atomic bombs, and became an authority on radiation hazards and civil defence. He is probably best known in Britain as the author of the 1957 best-seller The Voyage of the Lucky Dragon, which did much to raise international awareness of the dangers of atmospheric nuclear testing.

Born in Buffalo, New York, in 1917, Lapp was studying for a physics PhD at the University of Chicago, specialising in cosmic rays, when the United States entered the Second World War. He soon found himself co-opted to his laboratory's effort, led by Enrico Fermi, to achieve the first controlled nuclear chain reaction, a key stage in the development of the atomic bomb. By the end of the war Lapp was assistant director of the laboratory.

It was at Chicago in mid-1945 that scientific doubts about the use of the weapon crystallised, and Lapp was one of 59 scientists to sign a petition to President Harry S. Truman declaring that the use of the bomb against Japanese cities could not be justified. "A nation which sets the precedent of using these newly liberated forces of nature for purposes of destruction may have to bear the responsibility of opening the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale," it warned.

Lapp did not, however, drop out of military work after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, instead becoming head of the US Navy's physics research department. When the US conducted its first peacetime nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946 he was there to supervise naval data gathering and analysis and it was after this that radiation and civil defence came to dominate his interests.

From 1950, when he left government service, until late in his life, he worked as a consultant, writer and commentator in this field. While he was critical of the nuclear arms race and of what he called "the tyranny of weapons technology", he also had strong views about what he regarded as an exaggerated public fear of things nuclear and radioactive.

Once, in a television programme, he took issue with the consumer activist Ralph Nader, who asserted (incorrectly) that a pound of plutonium could wipe out humanity. A pound of air was just as dangerous, stated Lapp, explaining that the plutonium could kill millions only if it were divided into tiny quantities and injected into just the right place on each human body, and even then many deaths might not occur for decades. By contrast, a bubble of air injected into the bloodstream in the right way would kill more certainly and more swiftly.

It was a US hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific in 1954 that prompted Lapp's most famous work. A Japanese tuna-fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon, was doused in a white snow of radioactive fallout even though it was supposedly outside the danger area, and all 23 men on board became sick, one dying soon afterwards.

Seeing this as a case where public concern was more than justified, Lapp went to Japan to investigate both as scientist and writer, and the result was his most famous work.

"The true striking power of the atom was revealed on the decks of the Lucky Dragon," Lapp wrote in his conclusion:

When a man a hundred miles from an explosion can be killed by the silent touch of the bomb, the world suddenly becomes too small a sphere for men to touch the atom.

Lapp's many books include both general and technical works on radiation, a fine Time-Life educational primer called Matter, accounts of space and space travel and a number of titles on the arms race. In 1995 he published an autobiography: My Life with Radiation: Hiroshima plus fifty years.

Brian Cathcart



Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?