PD Smith

Filthy London

02 January 2015 | cities, London, Reviewing | Post a comment

I've just been wallowing in the history of filthy London, courtesy of Lee Jackson's excellent new book, Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth. It's a wonderful trawl through the history of London's sewers, cemeteries, and street cleaners. Did you know that by the 1890s, London needed some 300,000 horses to keep it moving and that 1,000 tons of dung were deposited each day on the city's streets? No wonder its streets were dirty!

Anyway, here's the first paragraph of my review:

“I have seen the greatest wonder which the world can show to the astonished spirit.” So said the German poet Heinrich Heine in 1827, and the wonder he referred to was London. In the course of the 19th century, London’s population soared from one million to six million. This booming centre of commerce and industry was at “the heart of the greatest empire ever known”, but, as Lee Jackson adds, London “was also infamously filthy”. The Chinese ambassador turned his nose up at this most dynamic city, complaining it was “too dirty”. He had a point, for this was a place whose infrastructure had scarcely changed in centuries. Cesspools were overflowing, the cemeteries were bursting with stinking corpses, the streets were coated with noxious black mud, rotting rubbish clogged its alleys, and its citizens lived in overcrowded, decrepit buildings, breathing air that was heavily polluted with soot and sulphurous fumes. This was the filthy reality of London for most of its inhabitants.

You can read the rest of my review over on the Guardian's website. Or you could even buy the paper tomorrow.

By the way: Happy New Year!

The Plutonium Collector

29 December 2014 | Atomic Age, atomic bomb, Doomsday Men, Los Alamos, nuclear weapons, plutonium, Sanford Simons | 2 comments

During the holidays I noticed that Sanford Lawrence Simons had died of cancer aged 92 in Littleton, Colorado. In 1950 he became known to the press as the “plutonium collector” after he was arrested by the FBI for stealing a sample of the deadly new radioactive element from Los Alamos. Simons had been part of the Manhattan Project during the war. But in 1946, he had removed a glass vial from the weapons laboratory. It contained a small amount of the element that had been at the heart of the Nagasaki atomic bomb.

In 1950, a few months after Leo Szilard had explained to the American people on national radio how a nuclear doomsday device could be created, FBI officers raided Simons’ home on the outskirts of Denver and, after a brief search, discovered the stolen plutonium hidden beneath the house. In the drawer of a dresser, the FBI men also found several pieces of uranium.

That day the 28-year-old research scientist was led away in handcuffs. Afterwards his daughter remembers him joking about the arrest. But at the time it was no laughing matter. I described what happened and the media reaction to it in my book Doomsday Men.

DM US cover

Simons, who had trained as a metallurgical engineer, readily admitted taking the radioactive material, but he claimed it was just a “souvenir” of his time at Los Alamos, which he left in July 1946. Flanked by two impassive FBI men wearing Humphrey Bogart fedoras, Simons talked freely with journalists after he’d been committed for trial. Unshaven and handcuffed, though still clutching his pipe, Simons seemed remarkably unfazed by his predicament. Under the Atomic Energy Act he faced a possible maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Just a few weeks earlier, the FBI had arrested Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in New York on suspicion of atomic espionage. They were both convicted the following year and, despite international pleas for clemency including from Einstein, the couple were subsequently executed in the electric chair.

“Why did I take it?”, said Simons sheepishly, in answer to reporters’ questions. “Well, it seems pretty silly now, but I’ve always collected mineral samples. I realized almost instantly that I didn’t want it, but it was like having a bull by the tail. I couldn’t let go!”

One of the press men asked how he managed to smuggle the plutonium out of the top-secret military research laboratory.

Simons grinned: “I just walked out with it.”

He explained that the plutonium sample had been lying around on his desk for some time. No one had asked for it back and eventually he simply couldn’t resist it.

“There was no real check-up on what was taken out of the place at that time,” he added with a shrug.

You wouldn’t have guessed it from what Simons said, but in the 1940s fissile elements such as plutonium were more precious than gold to the atomic bomb project. They were the result of a vast expenditure of money and effort. Whole cities of workers laboured to produce these lethal elements in vast industrial complexes specially built for the Manhattan Project. Each gram was the product of thousands of man hours. It was not unusual to see scientists down on their hands and knees, sweeping the floor with Geiger counters, hunting for the smallest stray piece of metal that might have been dropped.

Atomic Age Opens, 1945

Sometimes the Geiger counter would crackle furiously as it passed over a tiny orange or black speck on someone’s lab coat, revealing the tell-tale signs of dangerous radioactivity. Even the smallest scrap of fissionable matter was extremely valuable and as a result lab coats were treated routinely with chemicals to reclaim these elements. The journalists pressed the FBI agents who arrested Simons as to how much the plutonium in the vial was worth. Eventually one said he’d heard figures ranging from $500 to $200,000.

Sanford Simons hid the stolen plutonium under his house. He had good reason to. Plutonium has been called the most dangerous element on earth. With three small children, Simons wanted it out of reach. The glass vial and its deadly contents remained in its hiding place for four years. The FBI only became aware of it after they were tipped off. Simons had let slip in conversation with a friend that he had some plutonium. Perhaps his sense of guilt led Simons to make an unwise comment. Or maybe, just once, this modest scientist was tempted into an idle boast. But in the year that Senator Joe McCarthy was stoking fears about a Communist fifth column infiltrating American society, to admit that you had a key ingredient for an atomic bomb stashed in your home was simply asking for trouble.

Wylie, Smuggled Atom Bomb, 1951 edn

Outside the courtroom, a reporter put it to Agent Russell Kramer that taking plutonium as a “souvenir” was a rather corny excuse. The FBI man nodded and said, without a trace of humour, “He’s a pretty corny guy.”

During his trial, the defence pointed out that Simons had never been in trouble with the police. More importantly, he was not a “Red” and had no “Communist connections.” The defence attorney based his case on the popular image of the scientist. He argued, somewhat unconvincingly, that scientists are “all darned fools” when it came to experiments. He claimed that scientific curiosity alone had prompted Simons to take the plutonium and uranium in 1946. It was a case of the irresistible allure of forbidden knowledge, your Honour, and, as everyone knew, no scientist worth his slide-rule could resist that.

But Judge Lee Knous was not particularly impressed by this defence. For taking a pinch of plutonium, the disgraced scientist was sentenced to 18 months in a Federal prison.

When I was writing Doomsday Men, the story of the Plutonium Collector and the media’s interest in it struck me as a wonderful example of the public fascination with both scientists and the new atomic forces which they had unleashed. For some reason, since writing the book I’ve often thought about Simons and his dangerous desire for the new elements. At the time I didn’t explore what happened to him after his imprisonment. Fortunately, it turns out that his brief spell behind bars didn’t blight his career. According to his obituary, Simons became an inventor, running his own biomedical instruments company in Colorado. In that same piece, journalist Ann Imse says he was “known for his intelligence, impish personality, pet ferret and, in his later years, terrifyingly wild driving on mountain roads.”

But I bet he never forgot the time when he first picked up that valuable though deadly sample of plutonium and realised that he could simply pocket it and walk out of the top-secret Los Alamos laboratory. It’s not surprising that Simons wasn’t the only Los Alamos scientist who longed to own a souvenir of the Manhattan Project. Otto Frisch, whose calculations of critical mass were crucial in the early stages of the atomic bomb project, shared Simons’ dangerous fascination with the new atomic elements. When the silvery blocks of highly fissionable uranium-235 were first delivered to Los Alamos in April 1945, Frisch felt an overwhelming “urge to take one”. They were the first samples ever made of uranium-235 metal, the element that would blast the heart out of Hiroshima. Strangely, Frisch thought the heavy metal would make a nice paperweight.

I’m glad things went well for Simons, after his brush with the FBI in 1950. In my book I explored how the world became obsessed with the dreams and nightmares of the atomic age, terrified by mad scientists and filled with hope by saintly ones, such as Einstein. Despite his one brief moment of atomic madness, Sanford Simons seems to have been a reassuringly grounded sort of guy. An everyday kind of scientist. And in the end I guess that’s the best kind there is.

Science Fiction Quarterly, #1 vol 2 Nov 1952, Moskowitz, atom graphic unsharp


If you’ve enjoyed reading this post, which is based on my book Doomsday Men, then you might like to consider reading the whole book.

You can buy absurdly cheap copies of it now on Amazon, or if you really want to support me and my writing you might like to consider buying the e-book. You can buy it direct from Penguin (ePub) or from Amazon in the UK (Kindle), or Barnes & Noble (Nook) in the US. Thanks for reading!

Notebook on Cities and Culture

15 April 2014 | cities, City, Detectives, Watching the Detectives | Post a comment

On a very wet day at the end of January, Colin Marshall interviewed me in a Winchester bar for his excellent series of podcasts, Notebook on Cities and Culture. We talked for about an hour about our experiences of cities from Tokyo to Munich, about the differences between cities, about how they are built and how we experience them, about the city of non-places and the city of crime, and many other subjects.

You can download the podcast now on Colin's website.

Reasons for writing

08 April 2014 | City | Post a comment

As an author, there is nothing better than finding an email like this in your inbox:

“I bought your book City a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it. I am a high school teacher, specialising in geography and urban geography. I have been inspired by your book to re-create our rather tired urban geography unit, with a move away from a functional/chronological to a more narrative teaching approach. I am loosely basing the structure of the first 7-8 lessons on the chapters of your book with a view to both creating a deeper understanding of the urban environment as well as engaging and inspiring the students with stories about some amazing places - much the same as you do in your book.

Really, I guess I am writing this to thank you for inspiring me to try harder to inspire my kids.”

Neville Gibbs
Waitakere College, Auckland, New Zealand

Comments like that make all the hard work of writing and research worthwhile. Thanks Neville!

Dr Strangelove, Leo Szilard & the Doomsday Men: On the 50th Anniversary

31 January 2014 | Atomic Age, atomic bomb, C-bomb, cold war, Doomsday Machine, Doomsday Men, Dr Strangelove, H-bomb, Kubrick, mad scientist, My Books, nuclear weapons, scientists, SF, Szilard, Teller, Watching the Detectives, WMD | One comment

It’s the fiftieth anniversary of the release of one of my favourite films – Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Described by the director as a satire about a ‘nuclear Wise Man’, it was co-written by Peter George, the British author of the 1958 novel on which the film is based, Red Alert, published under his pen name, Peter Bryant. In Britain the novel was called Two Hours to Doom.

Bryant, Red Alert, Ace

Kubrick read George’s thriller in October 1961, the month Soviet scientists tested the largest nuclear bomb ever detonated. On 30 October at 08.30 GMT, scientists in Europe detected what was described as ‘the biggest man-made explosion on record’. Newsweek described the superbomb as ‘Khrushchev’s monster’. On an aerial photo of Manhattan Island, the magazine mapped the extent of its awesome destructive power. The bomb had a yield of at least 50 megatons. It would blast a crater at least a mile wide and would level buildings up to ten miles from ground zero. New York with its proud skyscrapers would be reduced to a radioactive wasteland.

Later, scientists said that the Russians had modified the bomb for the test; if it was ever used in war it would explode with a force of 100 megatons. The Hiroshima bomb was a mere 12.5 kilotons. The Soviets nicknamed their superweapon the Tsar Bomba, ‘King of Bombs’. Andrei Sakharov, who designed it under direct orders from Khrushchev, called it simply the Big Bomb. The detonation of the Tsar Bomba made Kubrick even more determined to make a movie about nuclear war. He had become obsessed with the subject.

Dr strangelove poster

Kubrick and George’s film was well received when it was finally released in January 1964 – the press screening of Dr Strangelove was originally due to take place on 22 November 1963, the day of President Kennedy’s assassination. The New York Times panned the movie as a ‘shattering sick joke’. But Sight and Sound said it demonstrated how ‘power politics have become a Frankenstein monster which one little error can send out of control’. Their critic praised it as ‘the most hilariously funny and the most nightmarish film of the year’. For the New Statesman it was a ‘mesmeric’ film that set out ‘to create its own category or genre.’ Despite Peregrine Worsthorne in the Sunday Telegraph likening Kubrick’s portrayal of Americans to Soviet propaganda, the film was hugely popular with moviegoers who ‘ringed the block’ at the Columbia cinema in London. The cinema even had to put on special late screenings at 11 p.m. each night. Ticket sales were 25 per cent higher than for any other film the Columbia had shown, and The Times reported that ‘all house records have been broken’.

Of course, it is the figure of the mad scientist, Dr Strangelove, that has helped make the film so memorable. Peter Sellers succeeds wonderfully in fusing together the traits of the real-life, and indeed fictional, figures on which he is based. Through the alchemy of film-making, Kubrick and Sellers created cinematic gold in the figure of Dr Strangelove.

The so-called father of the H-Bomb Edward Teller, Hitler’s rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun and the hawkish, wheel-chair-bound mathematician John von Neumann were all key players in the sciences of destruction. The references to Peenemünde and the concentration camps in the film’s novelization make it abundantly clear that von Braun was Peter George’s main model for Dr Strangelove. However, his words are those of the man who had worked with and admired both Teller and von Neumann: Herman Kahn, the physicist and futurologist who popularized the idea of the doomsday machine. He was the personification of the military intellectual – detached and coldly rational. Like the four riders of the apocalypse, these figures come together in the unforgettable character of Dr Strangelove, the ultimate doomsday man.

For the historian and cultural commentator Lewis Mumford, responding to the New York Times’ panning of the film, Kubrick’s masterstroke was to make Dr Strangelove ‘the central symbol of this scientifically organized nightmare of mass extermination’. For Mumford, the tragedy of the age they were living in was eloquently expressed by the manic figure of this fanatical rationalist:

‘This nightmare eventuality that we have concocted for our children is nothing but a crazy fantasy, by nature as horribly crippled and dehumanized as Dr Strangelove himself.’

He concluded by hailing Kubrick’s film as ‘the first break in the catatonic cold-war trance that has so long held our country in its rigid grip.’

Mumford was absolutely right to identify Kubrick’s film as a crucial moment in the culture of the cold war. For people all over the world, Dr Strangelove soon came to personify the sinister alliance of science and power politics that made it possible to annihilate millions at the touch of a button. Dr Strangelove’s logic could transform acts of inhumanity into practical solutions, his rhetoric clothed barbarity in sweet words of reason, and his think tanks – such as the ‘Bland Corporation’ (an allusion to Herman Kahn’s RAND Corporation) – used computers to transform lives into numbers. For numbers, as Kahn once said, are something you can think the unthinkable about.

Williams, Day they H-Bombed Los Angeles, 1961, descreening

Dr Strangelove ends with an awesome display of mushroom clouds erupting across the face of the earth, as the cobalt bombs of the Soviet doomsday machine explode. News footage of H-bomb tests is accompanied by British forces’ favourite Vera Lynn singing ‘We’ll Meet Again’. The brutal reality – fully understood by the film’s audience in 1964 – was that there would be no reunions after World War III.

The age of saviour scientists and winning weapons – familiar themes in the popular culture of the first half of the 20th century – was dead. Nuclear war in the age of the Tsar Bomba could have only one outcome: mutual annihilation. It was exactly this point that the pioneering nuclear scientist Leo Szilard had made during a radio broadcast in February 1950, when he first conjured up the spectre of the cobalt bomb, a weapon that could destroy life on Earth. It was this idea that Peter George later used in Red Alert.

In the 1960s, a new generation began to reject a life reduced to numbers and to look for answers beyond science and rationality. This generation no longer felt comfortable with the easy post-war certainties that their parents had accepted without question. For those who grew up in an age haunted by the Strangelovean cobalt bomb, the old ways of looking at the world seemed to lead to a dead end – to doomsday.

Atomic Age Opens, 1945

There’s another 50th anniversary this year, and that’s the death on 30 May 1964 of Leo Szilard. He was a brilliant though often infuriating man, bursting with original ideas on everything from science to politics and even fiction. He was, said one colleague, the greatest scientist never to have won a Nobel prize.

In 1933, while walking down Southampton Row in London he had seen how a self-sustaining atomic chain reaction could lead to an explosive release of nuclear energy. A close friend of Albert Einstein (they even designed a refrigerator together), it was Szilard who encouraged the great physicist to write to President Roosevelt in August 1939 warning of the possibility that Nazi Germany might develop an atomic superweapon. Leo Szilard was inspired by a utopian vision of how science and scientists could transform the world, but he was also haunted by a fear of how people might misuse this power. His life epitomizes the glories and follies of twentieth-century science and history.

Science Fiction Quarterly, #1 vol 2 Nov 1952, Moskowitz, atom graphic unsharp

I told the remarkable story of Leo Szilard and his nuclear hopes and fears, examined through the lens of popular culture, in my book Doomsday Men published seven years ago. I think it remains relevant, both as an exploration of our ambivalence towards science and scientists, and as a history of weapons of mass destruction. Today, cold-war tensions may have faded from the public mind and the media may be preoccupied with global warming, but the weapons are still out there, and the doomsday men are still at work developing new ones.

Few if any authors write for the money. I do it because I love books – both reading them and writing them. Doomsday Men and my last book, City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age, took at least three years to research and write. The book I’m now working on – a cultural history of crime, detectives and cities – will also take at least that long. Nowadays advances from publishers are extremely modest (I’m being polite; stronger words occur to me). You couldn’t live on them for a year, let alone three. I’m not an academic, so I scrape a living together by reviewing and editing.

There’s a lot of talk nowadays about crowdfunding new books and arts projects. That’s fine but the best way I know of supporting an author whose work you enjoy is to buy their books, and that includes their backlist too. So if you’ve enjoyed reading this brief post, which of course is based on what I wrote in my book Doomsday Men, then you might like to consider reading the whole book.

You can buy absurdly cheap copies of it now on Amazon (I don’t know who profits from these; certainly not the author) or if you really want to support me and my writing you might like to consider buying the e-book. You can buy it direct from Penguin (ePub) or from Amazon in the UK (Kindle), or Barnes & Noble (Nook) in the US.

Thank you for reading. Now go and watch Kubrick’s amazing film!

Doomsday weapon announced by Russia, PUnch, vol 247, 23 Sep 1964, p 443