Salamander 2024 Fiction Contest

SUBMIT: May 1 through June 2, 2024 | READING FEE: $15


Where the River Makes a Noise

TaraShea Nesbit
| Essay


Road to the River: 1939-1943


Uranium, number 92 on the periodic table, a heavy metal used for pottery glaze, Fiestaware, glass cake plates that glow. But now, something more powerful than uranium can be made, physicists think, by bombarding uranium with neutrons to create a sequence of events, a chain reaction. With each explosion is another explosion. To make one thing strong enough and unhappy enough to leave its home, and take over another’s, until each home is taken over, until someone wins, and someone is without a home. To become very unstable. To become very strong.

To make a chain reaction, a group of nuclear physicists in America need money to buy materials like uranium and graphite. Graphite, they think, will keep the unstable nuclei cool enough to be manageable. They need graphite because, above all, they need the ability to control energy. Specifically, they need six thousand dollars.The Chair of the Physics Department at Columbia University introduces Enrico Fermi, a scientist, to Admiral Hooper, a Director with the Navy. Fermi stands 5’6”, is an immigrant from Italy, plucks hairs from the back of his head and uses them to clean hamburger from between his two front teeth during lunch. He has been described by his mentee, Leona, as a “warrior against mystery.2 There is no record of Admiral Hooper’s eating and flossing habits or what he thought about mystery. Fermi goes to Washington and asks Hooper for six thousand dollars for a research project that might help the war effort. He comes back to New York empty-handed. In August of 1939, two different scientists, Szilard and Wigner, compose a letter addressed to the president. It says that a chain reaction could produce powerful bombs, and that Germany is probably beating America at this development:

In the course of the last four months it has been made probable— through the work of Joliot in France as well as Fermi and Szilard in America—that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future. This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable—though much less certain—that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory. However, such bombs might very well prove to be too heavy for transportation by air.

I understand that Germany has actually stopped the sale of uranium from the Czechoslovakian mines which she has taken over. That she should have taken such early action might perhaps be understood on the ground that the son of the German Under-Secretary of State, von Weizsäcker, is attached to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut in Berlin where some of the American work on uranium is now being repeated.3


Einstein signs the letter. There is no mention of money.


Roosevelt receives the letter. He creates a Committee. There is a meeting of military men and science men. Szilard, representing physicists conducting this new atom research, again asks for six thousand dollars to buy graphite. The Army representative, Colonel Adamson, says war is not won by weapons but by the excellent morale of the fighting men. Wigner says if that is true, and the largest expense of the military budget is on weapons, then perhaps the Army budget should be cut. There is a pause. Adamson agrees to give the scientists the money. In December, President Roosevelt gives a speech. His words enter the ears of Americans through their radios, after meatloaf…But all our present efforts are not enough. We must have more ships, more guns, more planes—more of everything. We must be the great arsenal of democracy.4

That same year, Katherine (“Kitty”) Puening Harrison is married to a physics graduate student, but meets and sleeps with Robert Oppenheimer at a party. Oppie invites her to his ranch in New Mexico for the summer and she goes, stays, gets pregnant, asks her husband for a divorce, is not granted it, runs to Reno for a quick divorce, gets it, and marries Oppie that November. Peter is born in May, and a few years later, Toni.5


TaraShea Nesbit is the author of The Wives of Los Alamos, which is a Spring 2014 Indies Choice Debut Novel Pick and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection. Her writing has been featured in The Iowa Review, Quarterly West, The Collagist, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and is forthcoming on NPR and in Necessary Fiction. She teaches at the University of Denver and is the nonfiction editor of Better: Culture & Lit.

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