Tall, lanky, and sporting a tight crew cut, Patterson was a chemistry wunderkind who had earned his master’s in just nine months. His talents in the lab convinced an army draft board to deny him entry into the military: His battlefield, they insisted, would be the laboratory; his weapon, the mass spectrometer.
A mass spectrometer is like an atomic sorting machine. It separates isotopes, atoms with a unique number of neutrons. (An isotope of uranium, for example, always contains 92 protons, 92 electrons, and a varying population of neutrons. Uranium-235 has 143 neutrons. Its cousin, uranium-238, has three more.) A mass spectrometer is sensitive enough to tell the difference. Patterson’s job was to separate them.
The machines in Oak Ridge consumed the room. The magnets were “like a football track,” Patterson recalled. “They had little collection boxes … So you could take a bunch of this stuff and put it in, and then when you got it out, you had the enriched 235 over in one box.”
In August 1945, the United States dropped some of that enriched uranium on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing upwards of 105,000 people. Six days after a mushroom cloud swallowed Nagasaki, Japan surrendered. Patterson was horrified.
After the war, he returned to civilian life as a chemistry Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago. He’d continue working with mass spectrometers, but no longer would he use the technology to edge the planet closer to the End Times. Instead, he’d use it to discover the Beginning of Time.