Dark clouds

Of all the tales I have read about element discovery, that of einsteinium and fermium truly shocked me. I had assumed that all the man-made elements were the result of planned experiments in the particle accelerators of nuclear science laboratories, but the way in which these two were discovered was both extraordinary and tragic.

Rather than being the story of scientists, this is the story of a pilot, Captain Jimmy Robinson. It was 1952 and in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the US was testing the world’s first H-bomb. ‘Ivy Mike’ was 700 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that razed Hiroshima to the ground. The detonation of Ivy Mike blasted away the island of Elugelab, leaving a 164 ft deep crater in the sea floor. A 3-mile diameter fireball gave way to a mushroom cloud that reached 25 miles high.

As a bomber pilot who survived being shot down in the Second World War, Jimmy Robinson had proved his calmness under pressure. A great deal of skill was required to pilot a plane into the turbulent and unpredictable environment of a mushroom cloud, and since 1948 the US Air Force had been sending its most capable pilots on missions to collect samples of the debris from atomic explosions.

An hour after Ivy Mike was detonated, Jimmy and three others took off from another island in fighter jets, their fuel tanks adapted with filters to catch the debris of the cloud. The top of the mushroom cloud was higher than their maximum altitude of 55,000 ft (10.4 miles) and so they were forced to enter the maelstrom of the stem instead. As the first two pilots went in, their radiation counters went off the scale. They likened it to flying into a red hot furnace and warned Jimmy and the fourth pilot not to go in too far. Jimmy immediately hit turbulence and his plane spun out of control. He managed to maintain consciousness, wrest control and fly out, as did his companion, but in the dark shadow of the cloud they were unable to see the tanker plane to refuel. With their instruments scrambled, navigation was impossible. Eventually, running on fumes, they spotted the runway from which they’d taken off. Jimmy’s companion was able to glide and land safely, but Jimmy crashed into the sea just three miles out. His body, in its protective lead suit, was never found.

Back in UC Berkeley, the element-hunting team of Glenn Seaborg and Al Ghiorso got hold of some of the filters retrieved from the surviving planes and, as they suspected, found them to contain evidence of elements 99 and 100. They went on to synthesise the elements in the laboratory, as did others, and although the elements’ original source was kept a military secret for a number of years, Seaborg and Ghiorso were given the credit for their discovery. It was another step forward in nuclear science, but worth sparing a thought for Jimmy Robinson and the wife and child he left behind.

Further detail can be found on sciencehistory.org and the story is beautifully told in Kit Chapman’s fascinating book Superheavy. Einsteinium (99) is represent by H for H-bomb, and fermium (100) by the F-84 Thunderjet as piloted by Jimmy Robinson.

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