A question of life or death – Radiation caused by atmospheric testing and Jesuit involvement in seismic stations

Materials World magazine
1 Dec 2007

Following my August column, I am introducing another mathematical anecdote. In 1920 in the Ukraine, the Russian physicist Igor Tamm was captured by a band of Nestor Makhno supporters who were intent on killing Bolsheviks. He too was threatened with death, but explained that he was simply a non-political academic at the University of Odessa. When asked what he taught, he replied that he specialised in mathematics. This prompted one of his captors to ask what error would be made by cutting off Maclaurin's series at the nth term. Overcoming his surprise, Tamm gave the correct answer and was spared.

In later life, he became a distinguished scientist and shared with Pavel Cherenkov and Ilja Frank the 1958 Nobel Prize for Physics for investigating and interpreting the phenomenon now known as Cherenkov radiation (this gives rise to the weak bluish-white glow in the pools of water shielding nuclear reactors - it is caused by electrons from the reactor travelling faster than the speed of light in water).

Nuclear fall-out and seismic stations

In the late 1950s, Tamm became an enthusiastic member of the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs and attended one of their regular meetings in London in 1962. It had been discovered that the deciduous teeth of infants raised on dairy milk were almost universally slightly radioactive due to the presence of the radio-isotope strontium-90. The isotope was traced to the fall-out from the testing in the atmosphere of atom bombs which, carried by rain onto pastures, had been digested by cows, concentrated in their milk, and finally incorporated in place of calcium in the teeth of babies. This was a hot topic at the Pugwash meeting.

Although levels of radiation in children were very low, it created a huge demand, especially by mothers, for the nuclear powers - America, Russia, Britain, China and France - to stop atmospheric testing. Either testing should cease entirely or it should be carried out underground. There was objection to the latter because of the inability to monitor the size of each other's nuclear programmes, and to know whether additional countries had joined the ‘nuclear club'.

The origins of the solution date back to 1909 when Father Frederick Odenbach of the Jesuit College of St Ignatius in Cleveland, USA, persuaded 18 other Jesuit colleges across the country to install the sensitive seismographs he had developed and take regular readings. In 1925, another Jesuit, Father John Macelwane, expanded the scheme to include stations in 12 countries across the world. In 1954, Father Rheinberger in Sydney, Australia, observed a small seismographic signal which coincided with the hydrogen bomb test at Bikini in the Marshall Islands. It was subsequently discovered that other Jesuit stations had records of all four recent thermonuclear tests.

At the 1962 Pugwash meeting, Tamm proposed to both the American and Soviet participants, and through them to the deadlocked sides of the nuclear test ban treaty, that the installation of automatic recording seismic stations - the ‘black boxes' - at sensitive locations could register nuclear tests, their locations and yields, making clandestine underground testing impossible. The idea was discussed by President Kennedy and Secretary Kruschev and adopted by most of the signatories of the Test Ban Treaty of 1963.

How fortunate it was that Tamm could work out the solution to that mathematical problem presented to him all those years ago.

This article was the idea of a friend, Anthony de Reuck. I also received help from the writings of George Gamov, Walter Gratzer and Robert Muir Wood.


Further information:

Maclaurin Series