Society for the Historical Preservation of the Manhattan Project

Met Lab, Hanford, & Los Alamos

Aaron Novick

Physical Chemist

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Web Master's Note:  The following "story" was reprinted from a an article in the "Other Paper", Eugene, Oregon - February, 2001.


A Personal Look at the Bomb: In memory of Aaron Novick

by George Beres

Was there another month, among the 1,200 months of the 20th century, to match August 1945 for impact on world history? As I joined other Oregonians in saying goodbye to Prof. Aaron Novick, who died last Dec. 22, the events of that month 55 years ago seemed as vivid to me as if they had occurred yesterday.

The thoughts were stirred by the fact that Aaron was one of the last surviving members of the Manhattan Project, the highly secret effort that created the “doomsday weapon” of that long ago August. Because Aaron and his colleagues succeeded, World War II came to an abrupt end when the nuclear attacks on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, brought about Japan’s surrender.

No one called it the “doomsday weapon” at the time. But the frightening impact of the devastation registered on project members when they were shown gory photos of the carnage where the bombs hit. While Aaron at first shared in the Allied euphoria over the war’s end, he later had nightmares over what it meant. The human race was unable to put the cap back on the bottle from which he had helped the atomic genie emerge.

The son of immigrant parents who had immigrated to Ohio, Novick became part of the historic race to create the atomic bomb in the early 1940s, after he earned his doctorate in physical organic chemistry at the University of Chicago. After being sworn to secrecy, Aaron was introduced to the project at the university where Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard directed the effort. From there, he worked on plutonium production at Hanford, Wash., whose poisonous buried waste today filters into Oregon through the Columbia River. Then he joined the brilliant crew of scientists assembled by Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, N.M., where he witnessed the experimental detonation that set free the ominous genie.

In later years, at the University of Oregon, Aaron often recounted how the jubilation at the war’s sudden end, orchestrated by him and his fellow scientists, turned to bitterness they directed at themselves. “The cheers were barely out of our mouths after hearing of the successful bombing of Hiroshima,” Aaron recalled, “before most of us came to our senses, realizing what terrible things this meant for the future of the earth.”

Aaron joined other troubled scientists as they worked against legislation that would have put the nuclear program in the hands of the military. He made hundreds of speaking appearances to talk about how the continued development of nuclear weapons would threaten the life of the planet. I remember his comment to a group of 5th graders at Eugene’s Washington School: “We as human beings are used to settling our conflicts through wars. You as children can try to educate adults that there are other ways to settle those differences. “ Asked about his feelings of guilt, Novick told the students: “I feel guilty. We established the bad, bad precedent of being willing to use a terrible weapon we could not control.”

Aaron established the Institute of Molecular Biology, at the University of Oregon in 1959. As he nursed the Institute to international prominence, Aaron remained true to his commitment as an activist for peace. He was a founder of the UO Arms Control Forum, involving some of the university’s leading scientists in discussions of how to control the nuclear arms race.

The atomic genie still is out there, as Novick always reminded anyone who would listen. His legacy is the reminder to never cease in the effort to control it. When I last saw Aaron, weeks before his death, I asked in half jest, as I had dozens of times before, “Can the earth survive?” He answered as he always did. “That,” he said, “is up to you.”





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