It was a dark and stormy night when we ventured into the tunnels under Pupin to see the cyclotron. After running from security, climbing over air ducts, and following clues scrawled on the tunnel walls, we found it sitting in a room that looked like a time capsule from the Atomic Age. Documents were strewn everywhere, among which a friend claimed to have found a shopping list that included uranium. The warning signs were only outnumbered by the graffiti, which, in true Ivy League fashion, was mostly respectful and even reverent of one of the earliest machines used to split the atom. I count seeing the cyclotron as one of my best Columbia memories, and it’s no coincidence that the people I went with remain my best friends. Our trip to the Pupin tunnels was our first adventure together, and even though we’ve sneaked onto plenty of rooftops since then, I still think it was our best.
The cyclotron is an underground Columbia landmark, with generations of tunnel explorers (students and others) taking the same outrageous steps we did to see it. But in an effort to maximize its pre-expansion campus, the University recently decided to turn the cyclotron’s lair into usable lab space. Unfortunately, that means removing the cyclotron and selling it for scrap.
To be fair, what is currently in Pupin is not the complete cyclotron—when the machine was decommissioned in 1965, it was dismantled and important pieces of it were sent to the Smithsonian and briefly exhibited there. According to professor Andrew Millis, chair of the Columbia physics department, what we and so many other tunnel explorers visited is the cyclotron’s magnet, which helped control the direction and speed of the charged particles that whizzed around the machine on their way to collisions. The machine under Pupin cannot be turned on again, and its 65 tons of iron are no longer radioactive. That said, the cyclotron remains an important piece of scientific history and a beloved real-life urban legend. It deserves better than to be turned into a pile of scrap metal. Columbia argues that preserving the machine would be needlessly expensive and that it needs more lab space to continue to be a scientific leader. It’s sad, however, that today’s progress has to come at the expense of remembering the past.
Columbia’s cyclotron was built in 1939 and is the oldest U.S. artifact from the Atomic Age. Its prominent role in early nuclear experiments led to Pupin being designated a national historic landmark. It also directly led to the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb. When it was retired to the basement, Columbia’s cyclotron was all but written out of official University history. There is no plaque in Pupin’s lobby commemorating the lab’s important early nuclear projects, no mention on campus tours of the experiments, and no way to even see the cyclotron without climbing over an air duct. Mention of its impending destruction was made briefly in a campus newsletter last fall, which inspired preservationists to belatedly take up its cause.
The most demanding (and expensive) preservation plan called for a campus display about the cyclotron and Columbia’s role in the Atomic Age. While the University dismissed the proposal as prohibitively expensive and logistically impossible, more should be done to commemorate, remember, and reflect upon Columbia’s role in one of history’s most important and devastating scientific achievements: the development and use of the atomic bomb.
When I pressed the start button on the cyclotron, I wish I had felt even the slightest twinge of dread. After all, when Columbia physicists first pressed that button it started us down the road to Trinity, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, fallout shelters, the nuclear arms race, and the acute paranoia that continues to drive military endeavors. Forgetting our school’s role in that problematic history is tempting and all too easy. Displaying the cyclotron—or at least discussing its impending demise more publicly—would have been the perfect opportunity to both appreciate Columbia’s impressive scientific achievements and reflect on their implications.
Without our cyclotron, World War II might have ended very differently, the Cold War would never have been so heated, and the debate over the existence of Iran’s nuclear weapons program never would have happened. It is easy to lose touch with that history now that we are accustomed to living with the threat and promise of nuclear power. But precisely because that threat still exists, it is vital that we understand the history of its development. Recognizing that science and history could have taken a different course is the first step to understanding that we don’t have to continue down this path.
On Riverside Drive between 105th and 106th Streets, there is a statue of a Buddhist monk that was formerly displayed in Hiroshima, about a mile from where the atomic bomb hit. The statue miraculously survived the blast and, according to its plaque, was brought to New York in 1955 as a “testimonial to the atomic bomb devastation and a symbol of lasting hope for world peace.” Columbia’s cyclotron could have served a similar purpose, helping us to appreciate influential science and commemorate the tragedy and tension it produced. Now that we no longer have such an opportunity, perhaps the best available option is to make sure that some of the cyclotron’s pieces are used in current international science projects. It would be a poetic end to the machine that ushered in the Atomic Age to be recycled for use in experiments that exemplify international collaboration and cooperation. We should never attempt to erase the past, but we can use it to improve the future.
Elizabeth Wade is a Barnard College senior majoring in comparative literature. Fear of Physics runs alternate Mondays. Specopinion@columbia.edu