- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 19, 2002

During the time I was an undergraduate at Harvard, James Bryant Conant was president of the university. He was a craggy-looking New Englander, a distinguished chemist, with a delightful smile. He also had a family secret. On Jan. 30,1940, his brother-in-law, William Richards, a chemist and the son of Theodore William Richards who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1915, committed suicide by slashing his wrists in the bathtub.
Committing suicide was considered a moral disgrace, but to make matters worse, Richards was about to publish a scandalous roman a clef called "Brain Waves and Death." It was a murder mystery set in a private laboratory which was financed by an immensely wealthy tycoon and amateur scientist named Howard M. Ward. To Conant, and anyone else who understood the milieu, it was evident that "Howard M. Ward" was a thinly disguised depiction of a Wall Street tycoon named Alfred Lee Loomis who, after making a fortune, more or less retired to Tuxedo Park, near New York City and created what was certainly the finest private scientific laboratory in the United States.
Richards worked there. Not only is the description of the laboratory accurate but so is the description of a flamboyant European woman who was in reality Loomis' Belgian-born mistress the wife of one of his proteges whom he later married after trying unsuccessfully to get his own wife committed to a hospital for life. The Conant-Richards family did what they could to get the novel supressed, and it is said that Loomis bought all the copies he could get his hands on to keep it out of circulation. All of this is the stuff of a novel, but we have something better, a biography of Loomis written by Conant's granddaughter Jennet. Once you start it, you will have a hard time putting it down.
Loomis, whose father was a successful physician, was born in New York City in 1887. When he was still a young boy his parents separated and then divorced, something that was not done in their social circle. His mother was a Stimson and Loomis developed an especially close relationship with his cousin Henry Stimson who was 20 years older and eventually became Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of war. He followed his cousin's early career path; Andover, Yale and Harvard Law School. In each of these places he was at, or near, the top of his class. The word "genius" has become devalued but Loomis was certainly close. He then entered his cousin's law firm and got married.
At the age of 29 Loomis enlisted as an officer in Army artillery. As a Yale undergraduate he had majored in mathematics and had studied a good deal of physics, which he now applied to the science of ballistics at Aberdeen Proving Ground. Here, he made friends with the physicist Robert Wood, the first of a long line of distinguished scientists with whom Loomis would work. But before he could do this, he decided that he would have to make a fortune.
He and his brother-in-law began a venture capital business that specialized in electric utilities. Between 1924 and 1929 they did about $1.6 billion in utility financing, some 15 percent of the total. By 1929, Loomis was convinced the levels in the stock market were unsustainable so he sold everything and entered the Depression as one of the wealthiest men in the United States. Now he had enough money to devote himself to the science he had been doing part-time at Tuxedo Park. He and Wood did pioneering work in ultrasonics.
By the mid-1930s Loomis was privately financing any scientific project that caught his fancy. One of them was the building of large cyclotrons with the inventor of the cyclotron Ernest Lawrence. Lawrence, who was a brilliant entrepreneurial South Dakotan, had never seen anything like Loomis' setup in Tuxedo Park. It must have looked like something out of a James Bond movie. Loomis became a frequent guest researcher in Berkeley, where Lawrence was working. It was here that Loomis first learned about microwave generators which, once the war started, became the basis for radar.
During the war Loomis became one of the scientific oligarchs; Conant, Vannevar Bush, and Karl Compton, the president of M.I.T., were the others. It became apparent to Loomis that radar was the key to not losing the war in Europe and he applied all his energy and resources to creating the Radiation Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the basic radar development was done.
Here, the author correctly gives credit to the British, whose pioneering work was crucial , but she does not give enough credit to them when it comes to the atomic bomb also an interest of Loomis'. Without the 1940 calculation of Rudolf Peierls and Otto Frisch who argued that only 600 grams of uranium 235 was enough to make a bomb, I am doubtful that there would have been a nuclear weapons project. As it happened, they underestimated the amount needed by an order of magnitude.
While I am on complaints, let me mention one that amused me. The author refers to "John" Eastman as the founder of Eastman-Kodak. In the Rochester, N.Y, public schools Eastman's base we were taught to spell "geography" with the mnemonic "George Eastman's old grandfather rode a pig home yesterday."
While I was reading the book two questions occurred to me; first, could I think of any parallels to Loomis and second, would I have liked him if I had met him. On the first, clearly Thomas Edison is something of a parallel although his origins were comparatively humble. Perhaps closer, but less known, is Manfred, Baron von Ardenne. Von Ardenne, who was the son of Egmont, Baron von Ardenne, was born in Hamburg in 1907. His father was an important government official. By the time he was 15, young von Ardenne had taken out his first patent.
This one involved radios that were sold commercially. He studied physics for awhile in Berlin but soon founded his own laboratory in which he made important advances in such things as electron microscopes and the electronics that led to radar. During the war, his laboratory, which received funding from the post office, worked on nuclear energy. One of its members, Fritz Houtermans, hit on the notion of using what came to be called plutonium in nuclear weapons. He was so alarmed that he tried to warn the Allies.
The laboratory also did successful work on the separation of uranium isotopes. The lab and many of its occupants were shipped east by the Russians where they worked on the first Soviet atomic bomb while living in a kind of gilded ghetto. Eventually they were dumped back into East Germany. Von Ardenne died in 1997 in Dresden. I never met him but I saw enough of him on television to persuade me that I wouldn't have liked him very much. I also never met Loomis, who died in 1958. From Jennet Conant's portrait, my sense is that he was too self-centered and politically conservative for me. But he was a remarkable man and this is a very good book.

Jeremy Bernstein is a physicist at the Aspen Center for Physics in Aspen, Colo.

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