Bomb Shell

Bomb Shell

R umor has it that if you pull open a certain heating grill in Yale’s Sterling Chemistry Lab, you’ll find a staircase leading to the remains of an abandoned laboratory where, some 70 years ago, faculty conducted experiments for the Manhattan Project.

It appears that rumor is true.

It was 1939 when word reached President Roosevelt that Nazi Germany was dreaming of a city-destroyer—a weapon to unleash Biblical-style wrath from the heavens. The news shot adrenaline through America’s military and scientific circles. In secret, America sprinted forward in a mad—and, it turns out, essentially unopposed—dash to The Bomb, engulfing nearly all of America’s top physics labs along the way.

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At Princeton, Albert Einstein, Jon von Neumann and, later, MANIAC—one of the world’s first computers—were parting the mathematical sea of nuclear fission. At Harvard, an 85-ton magnet sold to the military for purported medical purposes was really a cyclotron or “atom smasher” destined for Los Alamos. At U. of Chicago, the “Metallurgy Laboratory” worked full-tilt to devise ways of purifying plutonium.

At Yale, early atomic research was in fact conducted by chemistry professor Herbert Harned, a “group leader” for the Manhattan Project. Though the university doesn’t make it onto the “Voices of the Manhattan Project” map of research locations, nor onto the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s list of project sites, a declassified document kept in Yale’s archives, “Summary Report of the Research at the Sterling Chemistry Laboratory Under Contract OEMsr-381,” details Harned’s efforts to produce weapons-grade uranium in the basement of Sterling Chemistry Lab (SCL).

A notoriously difficult task, none of the Yale experiments enjoyed direct success. But they were useful in crossing unproductive methods off the list, guiding other scientists towards more fruitful techniques. On April 1, 1943, 28 months before the bombs would be dropped over Japan, Harned’s machinery was shipped to New York, where it was consolidated with Columbia’s. The work that continued there eventually produced a novel gaseous diffusion technique for enriching uranium—that is, increasing the concentration of the fissile U-235 isotope, which makes up only 0.72% of natural uranium, to the 80% necessary for a massive chain reaction.

The legacy of Harned’s research in New Haven exists in more than just archival records. Current Yale chemistry professor Peter Moore says the research “resulted in the contamination of the floors of a few rooms on the east side of SCL with radioactive materials.” As a result of new flooring being installed, none of those rooms’ later occupants “was ever at risk,” he says, though he notes light hotspots were detected as recently as 1996.

But where exactly is Harned’s old lab and the rumored stairwell that leads to it?

Sure enough, on the eastern side of the building, at the far right end of the main hallway, there really is a hidden stairwell behind a metal grate. At the bottom of the stairs is a marked door that makes it clear not to enter the area, but photos obtained from a source who wishes to remain anonymous reveal what appears to lie on the other side: a tunnel crowded with pipes; rooms, clearly long-abandoned; and a high-ceilinged space overlooked by a mezzanine. You can imagine an early cyclotron or some other large apparatus rising up the center.

Even without a Geiger counter, the available evidence strongly suggests these are the rooms Harned used for his research. But certainty is elusive, because unless it’s actively maintained, history has a short half-life. And with Sterling being renovated as part of a wider update of Yale’s science facilities, the physical ties to Sterling’s Manhattan Project past are about to be severed once and for all.

“Major renovations are underway in SCL today that include all the rooms in question,” Moore confirms, but while the space may soon lose the glow of its mystery, and of its vestigial radiation, traces of the lab’s history continue to crackle in memory, and in text.

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik. Sterling Chemistry Lab is located at 225 Prospect Street, New Haven.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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