What would you do if your boss handed you a mysterious box and said that if anything weird started happening with it, to just ditch the thing and run as fast as you can? Well that's exactly what happened to a poor courier working for the Manhattan Project back in the 1940s — a courier who, as it turns out, was probably carrying a plutonium core that was used in the development of nuclear bombs.
Alex Wellerstein writes about nuclear history at the Restricted Data blog, and his most recent post tells just such a story. In a terrifying tale that's excerpted from the 1946 book Dawn Over Zero: The Story of the Atomic Bomb by William L. Laurence, we can't help but feel bad for whoever this unnamed courier was:
The secrecy frequently led to tragicomic situations. A trusted courier was dispatched by automobile to deliver a small box of material, the nature of which he was not told, to a certain locality several hundred miles away. He was cautioned that at the first sign of any unusual behavior inside the box he was to abandon the automobile in a hurry and run as far away from it as his legs would carry him.
Our courier asked no questions and went his way, taking frequent glances at the strange box behind him. Things went well until he came to the middle of a long bridge. Suddenly, from directly behind him, came a terrific boom. Out of the car he dashed like one possessed, running faster than he had ever run in his life. Out of breath and exhausted, he stopped to examine himself to make sure that he was still in one piece. Meantime a long line of traffic had gathered behind his driverless car and the air was filled with the loud tooting of impatient motorists.
This mysterious, loud bang of a noise would happen again after he returned to the vehicle. And again, the courier made a run for it. After he returned to the car yet again — and caused a traffic jam reportedly a mile long — he finally figured out what had happened: there was loud construction occurring under the bridge he was sitting on.
At the end of Wellerstein's blog post, he cautioned that these kinds of stories are prone to exaggeration. But on its face, the bare facts seem pretty plausible to me — if someone tells you that what you're carrying is dangerous, you're probably going to be a bit jumpy.
I'd hope that today our top secret nuclear material is under a little better watch than it was in the 1940s. But after the news yesterday that Air Force officers were leaving the blast doors to our nuclear missile sites open, I'm starting to think that we're almost no better off than trusting our nukes with a nervous courier.
Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory on Flickr