Today's Reading


Sometimes the clues that should have been warnings are lost in a blur, only to be seen in hindsight. Caught in the need to move ahead, most people rush, like speeding trains, past the truths and half-truths tucked into the terrain they thought they knew. And so it would be for a man and a woman one evening in 1948 at New York City's Grand Central Palace, each soon to learn the timeless cost of missing clues.

It was September 19, the last day of the Golden Anniversary Exposition commemorating the 1898 consolidation of the city's five boroughs, a celebration that had begun in late August with one of the most memorable opening ceremonies in New York history. After a black-tie dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, a torchlight procession of invited guests walked east to Lexington Avenue where for ten blocks, from Forty-Second Street north, all electric signs were turned off and street lamps dimmed to the level of gaslights fifty years before. Led by their hosts, New York mayor William O'Dwyer and David E. Lilienthal, the head of the US Atomic Energy Commission, the men and women, at least a hundred, stopped at the Forty-Seventh Street entrance to the Grand Central Palace where they joined thousands of opening-night guests along with fifty thousand or more spectators crowding the sidewalks of Lexington Avenue. Then, all at once it seemed, everyone looked up. At the top of the Empire State Building were two planetarium-projector-size telescopes aimed at Alioth, the brightest star in the Big Dipper.

What happened next was a new atomic-age ribbon-cutting. At exactly 8:30 p.m., the light streaming from Alioth activated photoelectric cells in the eyepiece of each telescope. This energy pulse moved through telegraph wires to the fourth floor of the Grand Central Palace where it excited a uranium atom, causing a switch to flip and current to be sent to ignite a mass of magnesium woven into a block-long strip of ribbon on Lexington Avenue. The flaming magnesium cut through the ribbon, making loud crackling sounds, as bright lights returned to the area and the mayor announced the official start of the anniversary celebration: "It is highly appropriate that we open this Golden Anniversary Exposition with energy from the uranium atom. One of the biggest features here is 'Man and the Atom,' the most complete exhibit on atomic energy ever assembled."

To be sure, the multifaceted exhibit on the fourth floor of the Palace was extraordinary, especially in the way that it explained the erudite topic of the atomic bomb in layman's language, demonstrating how atom smashers and nuclear fission worked and even linking the most fear-laden weapon in human history to the cause of peace. Throughout the month of the Golden Anniversary, the exit polls revealed that the most popular exhibit was the one that took the narrative of the atomic bomb from fear to fascination. "'Man and Atom': Best Show in New York" one September newspaper headline read.

Such rave reviews may have inspired the man and the woman meeting for a date at the Grand Central Palace to visit the exhibition before it shut down on the nineteenth. Or their interest may have been instigated by the current relevance of atomic energy issues, such as the hot debates over international control of nuclear power or by the ever-mounting allegations of Soviet espionage during the war at the labs where the first US atomic bombs were developed. Nearly every day in the month of September there had been news about the suspected wartime spies. On the Saturday when the man, whose name was George Koval, invited Jean Finkelstein to the exhibit, the New York Times lead story centered on a soon-to-be-released report that would unveil "a shocking chapter in Communist espionage in the atomic field," exposing previously unknown individuals allegedly tied to a spy ring partly based in New York City.

But Koval told his date that his reason for wanting to visit the Palace exhibits was to meet old friends there, former colleagues from the war years when he worked at the atomic energy plants in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He was certain they would come to see "Man and the Atom"—and see it with him. Out of respect for the man she believed she might marry, Jean agreed to his suggestion. And, having read reviews of the exhibits, such as the scale model of the Oak Ridge gaseous diffusion lab and the animated panels demonstrating how plutonium, a highly radioactive element, was produced, Jean was eager to go. Oak Ridge. Plutonium. Radioactivity. These were things her boyfriend knew a lot about, but she did not. And she wanted to know everything about this man: his interests, his past, and whatever part of his scientific knowledge she could learn.

Jean had first met George Koval one night in March 1948 at a bowling alley near the campus of the City College of New York. She was a twenty-one-year-old part-time student at CCNY and he was a thirty-four-year-old member of the same honorary fraternity in which her brother Leonard was active, both men having been recent classmates in CCNY's department of electrical engineering. That night the fraternity was competing for a bowling league title. And Leonard wanted his sister to meet his "interesting and rare friend," an electrical engineer who could recite verses from Walt Whitman and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

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