William L. Davidson recently sent a letter to the editor, giving a heads-up that he is turning 95 and — probably sooner than later — his one-page obituary will arrive from Curlew Hills Memorial Garden. He's not sick, but he's a scientist. The human life span being what it is, he can't be too careful.
Near blindness bears down on widower Davidson, but he gets by pretty well with the help of a caretaker. His mind is sharp and active. Mortality and legacy occupy his thoughts. In his letter, he advised that his obituary will include a particular claim to fame: In 1938, when he was 23, he co-authored a book that foresaw the atomic bomb and explained how it would work, how just one would unleash enough power to wipe out a whole city.
Though the book, dryly titled Applied Nuclear Physics, was intended only as a technical manual, it became a bestseller as its horrific predictions became fact.
That, Davidson wrote, was why the editor might want to look out for his obituary.
If not, so be it.
"Feel free to toss it in the waste basket, and little harm will have been done."
• • •
William Davidson's front-row seat at the brink of the nuclear age was accidental. It all started, in fact, with a motorcycle accident. In 1934, a drunken driver knocked him off his Harley- Davidson, breaking his left leg in two places. He developed gas gangrene that reduced the leg to raw flesh. It took six months to save his life.
His long recovery cost him a scholarship offer. In the midst of the Great Depression, he cast about for something else and won an assistantship at Yale. There, working toward a doctorate in physics, he met nuclear physicist Ernest C. Pollard, who was then designing Yale's first cyclotron.
"He put me to work, diligently winding coils for the particle accelerator."
Pollard and Davidson began using the cyclotron to create radioactive isotopes, which have many applications in medical diagnostics. That caused Pollard to conceive a book — a guidebook — written not for physicists, but for technicians working with radioactive isotopes. He recruited Davidson to help him write it.
A textbook publisher accepted the book, but warned the authors they wouldn't get rich. The publisher estimated it could sell about 3,000 books at $3 each. Pollard and Davidson would get a royalty of 45 cents per book — to split. That worked out to about 10 cents an hour for their labor. "But at the time, you could buy 2 pounds of hamburger for 25 cents."
They took the deal.
Applied Nuclear Physics was published in November 1942. Davidson's first-quarter royalty check was $39.
But in December 1942, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi announced a nuclear breakthrough: Conducting experiments on a squash court in Chicago, he proved that a chain reaction could be created in natural uranium.
The proof triggered an immediate expansion of the secret Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb. It also triggered a moratorium on the publication of any material that included the words "nuclear fission" or "atomic bomb."
It so happened that Pollard's and Davidson's Chapter 11 included a detailed description of nuclear fission, of a futuristic atomic bomb and its capacity for annihilation.
All this was published before the moratorium. Their book was the only game in town.
Davidson's next royalty check was for $1,000.
The one after that was for $2,000.
Many of the books apparently were purchased by people hired for the Manhattan Project who weren't sure what the project was even about.
Applied Nuclear Physics went through 11 printings. It sold 100,000 copies.
• • •
Davidson and his wife, Miriam, bought a house with his $20,000 in royalties. They tried to have children but couldn't. Davidson always wondered whether the radiation experiments he conducted on the unshielded cyclotron at Yale were the reason. He never got checked.
"Let nature take its course," Miriam said.
After the book, Davidson went to work for B.F. Goodrich. His first project: to design a golf ball that would fly farther than any competitor's. He failed. He could never get one to go farther than an Acushnet.
Goodrich gave him a second project: to design a gas tank for American warplanes that wouldn't leak when riddled with bullets from German Messerschmitt fighter planes.
That time, he succeeded, wildly. He developed a rubber coating that expanded when exposed to gasoline — sealing those bullet holes shut and saving countless pilots.
He retired to Dunedin at age 50, figuring, as a scientist, that the average man's life span was 75, and a 25-year retirement was about right. His calculations proved way off.
He's turning 95 this summer. Miriam passed away in 1999 after 57 years of marriage. He won't predict exactly when that obituary will arrive from Curlew Hills Memorial Gardens.
The wonders of 65 years ago seem like yesterday, yet the skin grafts that saved him from gangrene and sent him to Yale have long faded. He realizes he's the only one left to tell his story.
"All the others were middle-aged and have long since gone to their reward."
For the final printing of Applied Nuclear Physics in 1951, Davidson and Pollard looked back on the nuclear age that they foretold in 1942:
"Thus far, the utilization of atomic energy for destructive purposes has had an impact on civilization far outweighing the beneficial gains. As we stand today, perhaps in the shadow of another world catastrophe, it requires a brave man indeed to suggest that the scales will be balanced tomorrow or even a century hence. . . .
"We must believe that in the final analysis it is the constructive, good, and useful side of this double-edged sword which will prevail."
John Barry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2258.