How the war turned boffins into sex bombs

After 1945, scientists' popularity mushroomed, says Brian Cathcart
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The Independent Online
With National Science Week starting this Friday - a desperate bid to bolster science's public image - it may be hard to believe, but scientists can be fashionable, not just as individuals but as a group. There was a time when every society hostess wanted scientists on her guest list, when every publisher wanted scientists on his book list, and when every broadcaster wanted scientists on his programme. Even in Britain, for a short time boffins were sexy.

It was the war that did it, and more than anything else in the war it was the atomic bomb. The sense of awe and relief that the bomb produced in 1945 set scientists in general and physicists in particular on a path to celebrity that they have rarely, if ever, known since.

The new weapon was unbelievably powerful; it had been produced at incredible expense in total secrecy, it had brought the war to an end with breathtaking suddenness, and it looked set to transform the peacetime world.

Even as the appalling descriptions of destruction filtered back from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bomb-makers were being elevated to the status of superheroes. The chief lightning-rod for popular adulation was J Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who had directed the secret laboratory at Los Alamos, where the weapons were made. That Oppenheimer proved to be a polymath, philosopher, linguist, anthropologist and much more besides - and that he was articulate and witty - served only to heighten the excitement.

"His name carries magic," wrote a friend. He was mobbed on the street. Women gathered round him at Washington cocktail parties and, it is said, more or less openly invited him to go to bed. Congressmen and senators vied to be seen with him. Glossy magazines lionised him. The stardust, however, was not reserved for Oppenheimer. "To have worked on the bomb," said Richard Feynman's biographer, James Gleick, "gave a scientist a stature matched only by the Nobel Prize."

One of them remarked in wonder at the time: "Before the war we were supposed to be completely ignorant of the world and inexperienced in its ways. But now we are regarded as the ultimate authorities on all possible subjects, from nylon stockings to the best form of international organisation."

This glamour touched British scientists, even those not involved with the bomb. Sir Neville Mott, who has since won a Nobel Prize, has recalled that before the war relatives looked down on his career in physics as arcane and unrewarded, even though he was a professor. After the bomb, although he had not been at Los Alamos, he rose suddenly and dramatically in their esteem.

People were particularly impressed, not just by the war-winning capabilities of tiny atoms, but by their supposedly peacetime potential to generate cheap electricity. This was a notion fostered by the government. The Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, spoke of the atom as the "perennial phantom of world prosperity" and scientists for the most part encouraged such thinking.

It seemed that these "new men", as C P Snow was to call them, had unlocked the future. By mastering the forces within the atom, scientists were changing the world. One historian wrote later that the bomb-makers "had drawn a line across history so that the centuries before 6 August 1945 were sharply separated from the years to come".

The drama of this seized the popular imagination. The Daily Express mounted an exhibition about atoms. Every British publishing house worth its salt had a book on its list called The Boon of the Atom, or Atomic Challenge, all written by eminent scientists. Penguin's Science News series took off, thanks in large measure to a special number on atomic energy. A scientist was de rigueur on any radio Brains Trust panel.

It did not last. The arrival of the H-bomb, and with it global fall-out, spooked everyone. Harnessing atoms for electricity proved slow and difficult. Oppenheimer, supposedly a Soviet fellow-traveller, was broken on the wheel of McCarthyism. By the mid-Fifties the magic was gone and, as C P Snow was to lament, boffins were no longer sexy.