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  • Seventy

    Posted by Jay Manifold on December 2nd, 2012 (All posts by )

    “On the afternoon of December 2, 1942, the Atomic Age began inside an enormous tent on a squash court under the stands of the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field. There, headed by Italian scientist Enrico Fermi, the first controlled nuclear fission chain reaction was engineered. The result—sustainable nuclear energy—led to creation of the atomic bomb and nuclear power plants—two of the twentieth century’s most powerful and controversial achievements.”

    I was there halfway between then and now. I am a by-product of the Manhattan Project, being the son of a onetime rifleman in an infantry platoon who was on a troopship in the Pacific on August 6, 1945, in transit for Operation Downfall. He went to the Philippines instead, and never heard a shot fired in anger. I did not matriculate at Chicago to repay a debt – which is fortunate, because as things went, the University spent a good deal of money on me for (so far) no return whatsoever.

    Earlier today I went to a lecture, “Talking Tolkien: War and J.R.R. Tolkien,” in the appropriately subterranean research center of the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial. It was given by Janet Brennan Croft of the University of Oklahoma, who has a book out that I suppose I will buy, to add to the same shelf containing the Hobbit, the trilogy, the Silmarillion, the Letters, and Tolkien and the Great War (all of which were referenced at some point in her talk).

    I didn’t hear all that much that was new, but I didn’t expect to. It was well worth going, however; I suppose the biggest “delta” was about how his writing changed after he had children and especially when two of them served in the military in WWII. She also pointed out that all the heroic leaders in the trilogy lead from the front, while the villainous leaders are far in the rear, the equivalent of the “chateau generals.”

    Another insight was how much the “black breath” and Frodo’s melancholia resemble PTSD. In combination with her remarks about parent-child relationships, this caused me to ask a question about what turns out to be Letter #74, written to Stanley Unwin on 29 June 1944, which includes the sentence: “I have at the moment another son, a much damaged soldier, at Trinity trying to do some work and recover a shadow of his old health.” – a reference to his son Michael, who was pretty severely PTSD’d for a while. So out of slightly morbid curiosity, I asked if she knew anything more about that episode. She did not but said that there are probably more letters, unpublished, that would have details, and perhaps they will eventually see the light of day.

    Scripture reading in church this morning was Isaiah 2:1-5. Verse 4 is of course poignant in light of today’s anniversary. If we really are entering the Crisis of 2020, those swords won’t be beaten into plowshares any time soon. Indeed, some future analog of December 2nd, 1942, presumably involving nanomachinery rather than tons of graphite blocks and lumps of enriched uranium, will happen in a laboratory somewhere in the world in another decade or so.


    4 Responses to “Seventy”

    1. Mike K Says:

      I read the “crisis of 2020” link but missed the details of the crisis. I do agree there will be a crisis but it is a consequence of the recent election and not a theory of cycles. George Friedman, who runs, recently wrote a book about “the next 100 years,” and mentions a theory of 20 year cycles.

      I do not believe the “millennial generation” has any heroic aspect to it and looks to me like just another generation of moochers. I have daughters born in 1980 and 1990. I love them and the younger one seems to have her sh*t together but I don’t know if either will ever own a home. So far, I have bought everything they needed that would have required saving, like I did. The older of the two is very bright and speaks four languages but doesn’t seem to be organized around accomplishment other than academics. She was complaining about jobs for anthropologists when she got her first degree. I suggested the army, which was recruiting anthropologists at the time, and she was horrified.

    2. IGotBupkis, Legally Defined Cyberbully in All 57 States Says:

      }}} So far, I have bought everything they needed that would have required saving, like I did.
      }}} I suggested the army, which was recruiting anthropologists at the time, and she was horrified.

      Ummmm… The two are perhaps related? She expects the world to provide for her, not to have to actually strive and do things she might not enjoy (i.e., “delayed gratification”).

      How much of this is generational and how much tied to your own parental technique is the relevant question.

      Note: No judgement intended or suggested, just observations re: cause and effect.

    3. John Cunningham Says:

      When I was in undergrad school at Michigan State in the mid-60s, I took a “Physics for Poets” class from physics prof. John Taylor. he was a grad student at Chicago in the early 1940s, and he was at the squash court the day that the atom was split. he had some great stories about Fermi, Oppenheimer, Teller, etc.

    4. Michael Kennedy Says:

      “How much of this is generational and how much tied to your own parental technique is the relevant question.”

      I have a theory that I have encouraged this behavior although my motivation seems to be guilt. I have been divorced twice and regret that the younger kids have had their lives disrupted. Fortunately, the older of the two is a wonderful person and very accomplished but does not seem to have the commercial gene that would encourage her to succeed at supporting herself. Her husband, also a nice guy , is no more practical than she is. The youngest has ambition but she is very annoyed with me when I decline her offers to accept more money from me. The latest occasion was today.