A view from the bridge
Up Close and Personal
My interest in physics was not sparked by an autumn afternoon lecture in New Haven. Nor was it triggered on a chilly February morning in Newport, Rhode Island, by a Chief Petty Officer’s presentation on nuclear weapons . My interest in physics was born on 11 May 1962 at 13:02 pm. 400 nautical miles west of San Diego when, with a British accent, a voice counted down…” -3, -2, -1, 0
I remember that it was a day of intermittent weather but the Pacific was calm. Our ship, the destroyer (USS Samuel N. Moore, DD747) was stationed 6000 yards from an epicenter (surface zero) on which an atomic ASROC (anti-submarine rocket weapon) was to be dropped. Two destroyers (with their entire crew removed) were placed on a rim 2200 yards from surface zero.
My station was on the bridge. Our entire crew had been ordered to go below decks except for on board test monitors and those of us topside who were standing watch on the bridge. I was wearing an officer’s uniform with short sleeves, with no protective gear
I have never heard or seen anything like it. In 16 seconds the spray dome from the detonation rose 2100 feet into the air leaving behind a huge circle of foam-covered radioactive water, a mountain of water where seconds earlier the ocean had been calm.
Then the water fell, the shock wave passed, and the ocean was calm again, as if no physics in the form of fission had just disrupted an otherwise calm and pleasant day at sea.
I walked over to the port side and saw a figure in white standing by the railing on the deck below. I climbed down the portside ladder and walked up to the figure standing by the railing.
The figure wore a thick white protective uniform ( I could not tell whether it was a man or woman) wearing thick protective gear, a thick (glass or plastic) mask protecting the face.
As I stood there with my skin exposed, no protection for my face, arms or legs, the thought crossed my mind that something didn’t add up.
Then I heard the ticking.
The figure’s left hand held a Geiger counter, its needle clicking so fast against the right edge of the instrument, it appeared as if there was too much radiation to measure.
At that moment I knew I was in trouble.
And now forty-eight years later, a Veteran with service related disabilities resulting from that day, May 11, 1962 at 13:02 pm, 400 nautical miles west of San Diego, from time to time, when I am undergoing cancer surgery or being dosed with (BCG) inactivated tuberculosis bacteria, or when, because my left ear is stone dead, I miss hearing music in stereo (among other things I am a composer and have played the piano since the age of five) , I am not angry.
To the contrary, I am proud that I was honored to serve my country in harms way as a line officer in the United States Navy. The Navy takes care of its own and the Navy has taken good care of me.
If the phone rang tomorrow (I suppose it would be a cell phone these days) and I heard someone at the other end of the line say, “Lieutenant Judd you are reactivated and are ordered to report for duty ASAP.” I would do so gladly.
What did I learn from this lesson?
Though we have little control over the conditions in which matter finds itself in Quasar, 3C 273, we have tremendous control over conditions we can change to halt our slide into environmental catastrophe if we only use our science, our imagination, our common sense and our courage to change our planet for the better. Kids, teen-agers, young adults, and ‘yes’ physicists all over the world should know this.
How do I know?
Because I’ve been there.
Physics at its worst.
We don’t want to go down that road again.
“Every time a child is harmed, humanity takes a backward step.”
– H Stanley Judd