The Manhattan Project

Phillip Broughton's Interview

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Phillip Broughton's Interview

Phillip Broughton is a health physicist and Deputy Laser Safety Officer at the University of California, Berkeley. In this interview, he describes how he became a health physicist and the kind of work he does at Berkeley. He provides an overview of the buildings at Berkeley where Manhattan Project scientists worked during the war, and discusses some of the key scientists such as Glenn Seaborg. Broughton also recounts experiences from the year he spent working at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica, where in addition to serving as the science cryogenics handler, he also became the Station’s bartender.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
May 15, 2018
Location of the Interview: 
University of California-Berkeley
Transcript: 

Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly. It is May 15, 2018, and I’m on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. I have with me Phillip Broughton. My first question for him is to say his name correctly and spell it.

Phillip Broughton: My name is Phillip Broughton, it’s P-h-i-l-l-i-p B-r-o-u-g-h-t-o-n.

I am a health physicist here at University of California-Berkeley, and the Deputy Laser Safety Officer. If you’ve never heard the term “health physicist” before, this is a Manhattan Project-era term for radiation safety professionals. It was specifically chosen to be nondescript, so that it conveyed no intelligence information of what we were doing out at Los Alamos.

Kelly: Phil, I’m going to start by asking a little bit of background for you, like when and where you were born and how you became interested in science.

Broughton: Okay. It’s a hard time remembering when I wasn’t [interested in science].

I was born in Cocoa Beach, Florida, which is the small town next to Kennedy Space Center, as part of the alien baby exchange program, which is why I have the lovely red hair.

I have been interested in “Big Science” really as long as I can remember. My earliest childhood memories are begging my mom to go have a picnic underneath the X-15 at the Rocket Garden at Kennedy Space Center, because that was my favorite place to have picnics, before they put it behind a fence. Now, you have to pay to go see it. 

Kelly: That’s great. Tell us about your education.

Broughton: I’m a graduate of the UC system, though not UC Berkeley itself. I have a degree in physics from UC Santa Cruz, and a Master’s in health physics from Oregon State University. I figured out that what I wanted to do was play with ionizing radiation, and help other people not commit some of the same errors I had done with it as a student, except I’d be paid for it now.

Kelly: How long have you been a health physicist here at the university?

Broughton: I’ve been a health physicist here at UC Berkeley just shy of ten years. I will actually hit the ten-year mark in June.

Kelly: Congratulations.

Broughton: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure being here, because while the University of California may comparatively not pay as well as Silicon Valley, it’s exciting to come to work every day. I have no idea what the students and researchers on campus are going to give me to do. That variety is worth its weight in gold.

Kelly: What are a couple of examples of what they have you do, just so we get a sense of your daily routine—or, it’s not routine?

Broughton: As an example, I’m the keeper of the gamma spectroscopy unit here on campus. When people go into the attic of one of our buildings, and they find a cardboard box that is labeled with the name of a dead professor on it, but it sets off a Geiger counter, I’m the person who gets called to figure out what exactly that was. Often, opening that box is the head-scratching moment of, “Is this something that needs to go to the Smithsonian?” Every day is exciting and different.

Kelly: Now you have to tell us about what you’ve found that has to do with the Manhattan Project. This was a very important campus, in many respects, for the work that was done on the atomic bomb, basically.

Broughton: UC Berkeley is one of the three major college campuses in the United States that was associated with the Manhattan Project, the other two big ones being Columbia and the University of Chicago, the other UC.

UC Berkeley—at that time, it was just the two UCs, UC Berkeley and UCLA—we were home to a growing and burgeoning physics department that was at the cutting edge of new research for accelerators.

Here on this campus, we have the home to the original accelerator site that Ernest Orlando Lawrence created in the early 1930s. We are the home to Dr. [J. Robert] Oppenheimer, the head of the Manhattan Project, who was set up here in the physics department. We were one of the homes of Glenn T. Seaborg, who came here and did the first isolation of plutonium, was done at this site using Lawrence’s accelerator. We have a plaque noting the creation of the first manmade element, plutonium, here in Gilman Hall. People have actually flocked to it regularly as a part of, basically, atomic pilgrimage.

We at UC Berkeley were the administrators of the original national laboratory at Los Alamos. We ran it until the early 2000s. We were the administrators of Lawrence Berkeley Lab, and Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the Nevada Test Site—all run by the University of California from this campus.

The heart of the nuclear weapons program and the atomic age really grew here. It’s fun, being able to walk around and see remnants of that atomic history on campus. Although you have to look a little hard, because a lot of it has been erased by time.

Let me take my inner map of Berkeley and project it for you. When you first arrive in Berkeley—I’m going to assume you’re going to go for the easiest method and take BART, you don’t have to deal with parking in our town. Coming in on BART, walking up Central Avenue, you will end up at the main gate and sign for UC Berkeley. You’ll go up the entrance circle into campus, and you will walk up a nice double-road with cherry trees and blossoms in the middle of it, coming up to a glade and the Valley Life Sciences Building.

I would like you to imagine that all of this beautiful greenery, the buildings around you—circa 1925, 1930, almost none of this is here. The campus was only about half the size it currently is, that you’re walking through. Most of the buildings that you’re going to see as you walk toward the old atomic research facilities weren’t built until the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, as there was a massive renewal of the campus that had been done and an expansion through a chancellor who decided, “We know that the student body will triple or quadruple. We need to build to accommodate that.”

While the buildings around you look old, look classical, they’re actually fairly new. For the researchers and students that were participating in the Manhattan Project, these would have been brand-new facilities to them, buildings that no one had even had a chance to break a toilet in yet. Fresh, neo-classical construction, which they promptly started building labs out in. Also, figuring out that, “Maybe this building isn’t adequate to our needs,” and bust a wall out of the side of it and extend that building, “Because we actually need a much larger facility for this accelerator.”  

Coming up on the tour, as you come up from the entrance of the campus, you’ll see on your right a very large white building called Valley Life Sciences. It was built to have a very classical—I believe the architect called it Sumerian—style, where on the top of the pillars, there are friezes depicting the different sciences, different astrological signs.

For a long time, this was not only the largest academic building in the world, but it was the largest building in America west of the Mississippi. Valley Life Sciences, if you step into it now, you can actually see a large T-Rex skeleton in the middle of it. It’s the home to one of our largest plant collections and the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, where you can store lizards and salamanders like other people store books.

As you keep walking up the road towards the Campanile—which you can see from pretty much anywhere in the East Bay—the tall clock tower, this will guide your way up towards the Chemistry and Physics Complex from downtown. You will pass Doe Memorial Library, which was also commissioned in the late ‘20s, early ‘30s. It took them several years to build it for its initial phase. This was the undergraduate library, and still is.

Doe Library is home to many of the special collections we have on campus, including the Bancroft Library that holds all of the historical pictures that we have of UC Berkeley from its dawn in 1868 to the current day. On your left, as you walk past Doe Library, there’s a place called Memorial Glade. Underneath Memorial Glade is the rest of the library. When you enter into Doe, you actually go underground to see most of it.

As you continue up past the Campanile—which wasn’t actually finished until 1915, if I remember correctly. Again, this landmark that the whole East Bay orients itself by, to the people showing up for the Manhattan Project, this also was a fairly new feature. The professors and older students in town remembered a Berkeley where this wasn’t your landmark.

Across the Campanile Plaza, you’ll see a building that is known as New LeConte that was built in the 1950s. Behind it, connected by some overarching pass, is Old LeConte, named for the original State Geologist of California and one of the founding scientists of UC Berkeley.

LeConte Hall is the home to the old physics department and current physics department. In the northeast corner on the fourth floor of Le Conte Hall is where Dr. Oppenheimer’s offices used to be, along with the offices for all of the students in his research group. More Nobel Laureates came out of that one half of one floor of a building than anywhere else in the world. We have a plaque denoting his office there as well. It’s currently the home to an astrophysics professor by the name of Bill Holzapfel. Please don’t disturb him.

On the other side of the road, east of LeConte Hall, is Gilman Hall, which is the old main chemistry building here at UC Berkeley, and where Glenn Seaborg’s laboratories were on the third floor. This is where plutonium was first isolated in Glenn’s labs, and then given to Oppenheimer’s students to count and verify that we really have something new.

Continuing uphill and east from Gilman, you will see the current building called Latimer Hall. On the columns of Latimer Hall, there is a plaque that denotes the location of where Ernest Orlando Lawrence’s original accelerator was. The building where that was has since been demolished, and replaced with Latimer and Pimentel Hall. The plaque is all that remains of it.

If you go into the main quad of the Chemistry Complex, you will see what looks like a little gingerbread house behind a fence, next to the building currently called Hildebrand Hall. We have since dropped the moniker “New” Hildebrand from this building. Because behind that fence in that little gingerbread house was the dovecote, at the very tippy top of an old wooden Victorian building, which was “Old” Hildebrand Hall, which was the original big chemistry laboratory building that predated Gilman. Unfortunately, wood is not a good thing to do chemistry with. Wood absorbs contaminants. Wood, you end up having to bury underground when you have to get rid of the building.

As you continue up the hill from there, you hit Gayley Road. Beyond Gayley Road, further up in the hills, is Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. In the current organization, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley are separate entities. Lawrence Berkeley is operated by the Department of Energy; UC Berkeley is run by the University of California.

Gayley Road sort of counts as the boundary between the two sites. Prior to 1963, we were all one facility, being jointly run with the buildings up the hill under an Atomic Energy Commission contract that UC Berkeley was administering, receiving money from the AEC to do it.

From the earliest stages of the Manhattan Project, there had been complaints—not just here at UC Berkeley, but also at Columbia and the University of Chicago—due to the militarization of the work that had been happening for the Manhattan Project, of soldiers being posted in academic buildings. The scientists and students were not terribly comfortable with big guys with guns inside of their academic building. The counterpoint—from the Department of War at that point, the Army Corps of Engineers—colleges were considered to be insecure institutions at the very best. The academics did not want military association. The decision was made that this work needed to be separated from the academic institution, and needed a new site to work.

This is the genesis of the Los Alamos site. Dr. Oppenheimer got to choose his favorite boyhood place to go play out in the [inaudible] in the desert and turned it into Los Alamos National Laboratory. Moving an awful lot of our professors, our grad students and more than a few undergraduates from UC Berkeley, following him out there to New Mexico.

Some of them came back and finished their doctoral work and graduated from UC Berkeley. Some never did and just stayed at Los Alamos, enjoyed long careers working for the National Lab.

Digging through the archives to try to find the reasons why contracts began, why contracts ended, who was in charge of what, where and when—I’m sure there are entire degrees that some history or anthropology student is more than welcome to get.

All that paper is still out there to go dig through. We have some of it in our departmental archives. Because one of the things required under a radioactive materials license, you pretty much have to keep all of your records past forty years beyond the termination of your radioactive materials license. As UC Berkeley has been playing with radioactive materials since prior to the discovery of radioactivity—we just didn’t quite know what minerals we had yet at that point—it’s a good guess we’ll be holding onto a lot of those records forever.

Kelly: That helps your job, when you trace things back.

Broughton: It does. I, at one point, found the letter where we did the separation of the campus from Lawrence Berkeley in 1963 that effectively created the department I work for. Prior to that, effectively, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab had been administering all safety on campus at a federal order level. But at 1963, they had pulled back to, “We’ll take care of our own. You take care of your own stuff.” And, lo, I have a department and a job to work in.

For the people who were students, grad students, professors on campus, these buildings—while they look old to us now—were brand-spanking new to them, including things like Memorial Stadium, where the Cal Bears play football. That had only been completed in the mid-‘20s for its first game, against Stanford. That was a brand-new, state-of-the-art stadium that everyone was extremely excited to go see every game they could.

Additionally, we had built Evans Field, so that we could have baseball. There were complaints you can go find in the campus archives about professors who could not get their students away from the baseball games. Odds on favored, if you needed a given one of your students, you would go to Evans Field if there was a game on, and you could go harass them to do their work.

Similarly, all the way down at the track, at the southwest corner, was—for a very long time—the only dedicated track and field facility on the West Coast. It is only a track. Many of our early students and researchers in the Manhattan Project were coming from Ivy League schools on the East Coast, where track and field was the preferred sport, after football. Thanks to the early Olympics making “the gold” of track and field something worth shooting for and fighting for. Again, you need to find someone, go find them running down at Evans Field.

Kelly: When we had our little walk-through, maybe a year or so ago, you pointed out one facility where you said that facility may have been where the Manhattan Project scientists went to get some exercise or work out.

Broughton: Oh, yeah. That would be Evans Track. Right here. At the moment, Evans Track is not being used much, due to the fact that—while it was brand new for Manhattan Project scientists—for us almost 100 years later, the concrete is starting to crumble. If you look closely, you’ll see the netting that has been put on those central piers, the structures, to keep the fascia from falling apart and landing on people below. Look, but don’t touch, if you’re at Evans Field.

Also, here at Mining Circle, across from where the old accelerator facility was for Lawrence’s lab, you can see across here there is now a nice pool and greenery, to a large granite structure with Spanish tile on the roof.

If you’ve been paying attention walking across campus, you will have seen a lot of Spanish-style tiled roofs as you walk around. This is a leftover of Phoebe Hearst and her preferred design style from her favorite architect, Julia Morgan, who also built San Simeon, also Hearst Castle. This building you’re seeing across Mining Circle is known as Hearst Memorial Mining Building, or at the time when all of our folks were here for the dawn of the Manhattan Project, the California School of Mines.

If you walk into the main lobby of the Hearst Memorial Mining Building, you will see a plaque to George Hearst and the epitaph he wanted for himself: “To George Hearst, a plain and simple, honest miner.” George Hearst was anything but. But this is the building that his wife dedicated to his memory.

The other thing it was, was a whole bunch of shielding. One of Seaborg’s students, who has sadly passed away since, Pat Durbin, let me know that when she was a doctoral student here, she got tasked with creating a counting lab to count all of the samples freshly removed from Lawrence’s accelerator. She was told, “Build one.”

“How?”

“You’re a doctoral student. Figure it out.”

She did, she built her instruments, except she couldn’t get anything to calibrate. She eventually figured that it was because the background due to the somewhat messy work of Seaborg, Oppenheimer, and Lawrence had left things sufficiently messed up that she needed to get far away from these laboratories to get a good calibration for her instruments.

Her answer was to pick up her counting equipment and walk all the way behind Hearst Memorial Mining Building to have several thousand tons of the Sierra Nevada’s finest granite between her and the Chemistry and Physics Complex as shielding. That was enough to have a quiet background.

If you’re standing in the road between Gilman Hall and Le Conte Hall, if you look up to the center of the building, of Gilman, and then look behind you to Le Conte Hall to that northeast point of the building, an apocryphal tale says that there used to be a zipline that ran between those uppermost windows and Oppenheimer’s office, between Seaborg’s lab and Oppenheimer. Once something had been isolated from the accelerator, before anything very short-lived had had a chance to die away, it was then loaded into a lead pig, closed, and put on the zipline and thrown from that lab to his office, to be counted on Pat Durbin’s equipment as soon as possible.

We have no pictorial evidence of this, but interviews with former students from the period who have since passed away suggest that it was once there.

Kelly: Maybe you can explain what you mean by “counted.” What were they doing in Oppenheimer’s office?

Broughton: Attached to his office were the former physics laboratories with the counting facility that had all of the radiation detection equipment, to try to see how much of a given element they had transmuted with bombardment in the accelerator, to see, “Did they make something new?” If they were trying to make more carbon-14, how much had they made? It’s not just a matter of smacking something into something else just for fun. You need to know what your result was at the other end and how efficient it was, how much you made.

If you go to the Smithsonian Museum of Science and Technology, which I believe is attached to the Museum of the American Experience, on display behind glass is the first sample of plutonium in an Alhambra cigar box. On a little platform, there is a metal planchet there and the plaque says, “This is plutonium.”

That planchet has some deposition of plutonium salt onto it, which would have been counted in Oppenheimer’s lab to determine that, “We have something new and different. We have energy lines we’ve never seen before, and now we know, we have a new element.” That’s why we have the plaque upstairs on the third floor of Gilman Hall, to show the plutonium was discovered here.

But that’s not the plutonium for which Seaborg got his Nobel Prize. The second sample of plutonium, which is actually macroscopic—it’s still pretty tiny, and you need a magnifying glass to see it—used to be on display at the Lawrence Hall of Science, way up in the hills here at Berkeley. That was a 2.7-microgram sample of plutonium that Seaborg and his collaborators developed a micro-balance and techniques for how to actually weigh this sample. This sample of plutonium was large enough that we could start learning about the physical properties of plutonium. How does it behave as you heat it? How hard is it? Start working on the chemical properties.

From this 2.7-gram sample was the decision to pursue a plutonium weapon in the Manhattan Project. Because we finally had enough to know what to do with it, rather than just a curiosity of, “We made this planchet and, hey, it counts funny.” That wasn’t enough to learn about how the element behaved.

That, we have here at UC Berkeley. It used to be on display at the Lawrence Hall of Science, as I said, in the Heritage and Legacy Exhibit that was there. In the late ‘90s, there had been some changes to the exhibits at the Lawrence Hall of Science, and the legacy exhibits for the atomic heritage on campus in the laboratory were taken off display. 

We, in the EH&S [Environment, Health and Safety] Department at UC Berkeley, are in possession of some of the carbon-14 originally generated off of Lawrence’s accelerator, as we would make carbon-14 to do research spikes for carbon-dating with. We have that original piece of plutonium.

When I first came to work at UC Berkeley, we were doing an inventory of special nuclear material on campus. One of the things in that inventory, in our waste facility, was that original macroscopic piece of plutonium, still in its museum mount. It even had the old museum plaque that went with it in a plastic bag, with the plutonium in a waste bucket.

While it was in our waste facility, as there was nowhere else for it to have a home, it was in no danger of being thrown away. We recognized the historical importance of this item and its importance to the heritage not just of this campus, but of humanity. This little piece of plutonium changed the course of history.

While we don’t have a place designated for its display again here at UC Berkeley, it will live with us until it has one.

The Hearst Memorial Mining Building has another interesting point off to the east of it, a little bit uphill. It’s a somewhat nondescript building, up the stairs, that is known as the Donner Lab. This building was one of the overlap points between the Atomic Energy Commission and the University of California.

One of the earliest bits of research that we had done following the Manhattan Project was looking for peaceful applications for everything we had learned in the course of developing nuclear weapons. It’s often said, one of the enduring tragedies of the Manhattan Project and nuclear energy has been we figured out the nuclear weapon before we figured out the nuclear reactor. We also figured it out before nuclear medicine.

Donner Lab is where the very first nuclear medicine treatment administration for cancer treatment was done. The pioneering studies of radiation medicine happened here. Then they moved across the bay to UCSF, and Stanford after that. Donner Lab, being right down the hill from the large accelerator facility that was built up at Lawrence Berkeley in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, had a steady flow of isotope that could be used for nuclear medicine study.

At the time, not many hospitals had an accelerator attached to them. Where you currently see the Haas School of Business here at UC Berkeley was formerly the Cowell Hospital. This campus used to have a hospital, and quite a few of the residents of Berkeley were born here. Now, all of that medical research has been moved across the bay to UC San Francisco, which is the premiere medical institution within the UC system.

At some point or another, people actually had, for the earliest proton therapy experiments—rather than bring isotopes to you from an accelerator, they brought you to an accelerator and aimed the beam at you.

Kelly: That happened here?

Broughton: That happened up the hill at Lawrence Berkeley, yes.

Kelly: In the Donner Lab?

Broughton: No, at the old bevatron facility.

Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory started as a remote location for work relative to Gilman Hall and Le Conte that you have already visited. A couple of sheds were built way up on the hill, a safe distance from these buildings, where they could store things or they could do some experiments that wouldn’t bother anyone else nearby.

The only problem is, there were really no roads up there at that time. The easiest way to get up to the sheds of what is now known as “Old Town” in Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was by horse. People would have to load their samples into shielded lead containers, throw them in saddlebags, and then ride a horse up to their laboratory that didn’t really have great electrical power, not much in the way of running water, just a cistern.

From those first sheds, an entire national laboratory grew. Once they put a road in, of course, and you could drive a Jeep up rather than a horse.

For those of you who have seen paperwork related to the national laboratories and may have in reading heard laboratories were referred to by site numbers: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is often known as Site 200, and the Nevada Test Site was referred to as Site 400.

Here at UC Berkeley, you are at Site 100. We and Lawrence Berkeley were considered one and the same place. This is because UC Berkeley ran all of these locations, and in discussing how radioactive material was moving between different places, you just said, “Yeah, I’m sending this to Site 200.” That meant you were sending your thing from here at UC Berkeley out to Lawrence Livermore. I forget if Los Alamos had a site designation, but I believe that was just called, “Sending it to ‘the lab,’” at the time.

Fair warning: if you find laboratory employees and you want to start a fight, just ask them, “Which lab is ‘the’ lab?” The fighting will start pretty quickly.

Kelly: Lawrence’s lab was called the Radiation Laboratory.

Broughton: Um-hmm.

Kelly: Wasn’t there a Radiation Laboratory at MIT?

Broughton: There was.

Kelly: And probably other places, too?

Broughton: Lawrence’s laboratory, the Radiation Laboratory—also known as the UC Radiation Laboratory, because they wanted that distinction from MIT. Of course, once you make a distinction, your generation’s distinction is the next generation’s confusion.

The UC Radiation Laboratory is one of the many names that Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and Lawrence Livermore National Lab were both known as, at one point or another in their history. When you said you were sending something to the UC Radiation Laboratory, where at the UC Radiation Laboratory? Which is why the site number designation got important, to tell them apart.

Lawrence’s original Radiation Laboratory work with his cyclotron started in 1931. His original cyclotron is the underpinning technology that went into the calutrons, that helped generate material for the Manhattan Project, and all of our bomb work after that.

It’s also the prototype for the much larger bevatron that went in up the hill at Lawrence Berkeley a decade and a half later, which was a quantum leap jump in power and ability to smash things together that we never had before, to start creating the rest of the elements that got names after that. For instance, berkelium and californium came out of research at the bevatron up at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. All starting from that one small unit, that Lawrence built in the high bay of his Radiation Laboratory.

When you’re standing in the Quad next to Pimentel Hall by that column with the plaque, you are standing roughly where Lawrence’s accelerator used to be.

Kelly: How big was this accelerator? Give people an idea of what we’re talking about.

Broughton: One of the problems with trying to answer that question is that Lawrence was building it as he went along. In 1931, how big was this? Is that the same size it was in 1932? How about ’33? He was constantly adding more equipment to this accelerator. As he got better electrical equipment, or was able to run another electrical main in the building to have more power to run his accelerator, he could add another ten centimeters of diameter to his accelerator.

The original one, his very first prototype was about that big, his very first accelerator. It had basically one spin and output, and that was his proof of concept model for, “Please let me build the one that’s a couple of meters across.” Then it just kept growing wider and wider as people gave him better magnets, more power to work with.

Kelly: What goes on inside an accelerator? Just the ABCs of this.

Broughton: For accelerator operation as Lawrence was doing it, he was spinning his accelerated particles. I believe he was running with electrons as his initial ion source for his proof of concept, shooting electrons into a strong magnetic field. The magnetic field would accelerate them as it bent them around in a curve. Then, having been kicked up, it would spin around here, turn off the magnetic field and turn on another one to give the electron another kick in the pants to go a little faster.

At each half of the cyclotron—they were known as “Ds” of the cyclotron—there would be another kick faster, faster, faster at each spin around, until you had basically exceeded the containment strength of the accelerator for the magnetic field to hold things in there anymore. At which point, you let your beam out and shot it at a target to bombard it and hopefully, either split some atoms apart with that beam, or implant that particle into whatever the target was, maybe transmuting it into a new element or a new isotope.

That’s how we made the first plutonium. Actually, the first thing we synthesized with Lawrence’s cyclotron was carbon-14, the first manmade isotope. Carbon-14 is regularly made by cosmic ray bombardment of our atmosphere.

Variations in carbon-14 are how we do carbon-dating of organic material, to see how old something that’s dead is. We made our very first synthetic carbon-14 with the cyclotron. That was the first manmade alchemy, something that we had never done before. That is actually how Seaborg referred to his first work with plutonium, of having synthesized an entirely new element: je had realized the dreams of alchemy, of turning something into something else.

Kelly: It’s always the dream to turn lead into gold.

Broughton: That’s a lot of work. Well, we didn’t turn lead into gold. We turned something else into gold. Unfortunately, it was rather radioactive, not worth it, and way too much electricity to actually make gold out of it, such that you spent far more than that gold was ever worth. The radioactive part is the part that’s less helpful.

Oh, you wanted to ask questions about downwinders.

I was asked to review the Tularosa Basin Downwinder’s Report, to give a health physics perspective on what had been written. In terms of what I saw in the Downwinder’s Report, I actually have no particular disagreement with it. The presentation I have some disagreement with, as it reads like a preliminary proposal for a lawyer’s action, rather than really relying on the science. But what the Tularosa Downwinder’s Report is complaining about is really a lack of science done fast enough, or done with respect and interest to the communities that have been affected.

The Tularosa Basin was the community downwind of the Trinity Test in 1945. That being our first atomic detonation, we didn’t necessarily know what the behaviors of an atomic weapon would be, what kind of lofting of radioactive material we might get, what the fallout would be like.

As a health physicist, when we have large groups of people that have been exposed in a similar manner, we like to study them because they are a statistically significant group. We refer to those groups as exposure cohorts, and they help build the model that we judge radiation safety by for the rest of the population.

The fact that no one studied the downwinders in the Tularosa Basin until sixty-plus years after the event is surprising at best, that we missed an opportunity to do science. More importantly, an opportunity was missed to take care of and show an interest in a population that had been affected by our work. We had effectively done science to them to them without their permission, and at this point, we are running out of members of that community to study.

The attempt to involve this community, to try to get this study done now, is the right thing to do for them and for our own interest in science. To continue not to do it fast enough, we will lose our dataset. And for the community, it will just be another matter of, “You didn’t care.” That is probably the most heartbreaking part of it.

For the Nevada Test Site, there is a community there that had material lofted their way, just because of an atmospheric test that went wrong. The wind kicked up, and deposited on a whole bunch of peoples’ farms. They ended up getting restitution, and the environmental impact was studied.

Honestly, if you have done something and something goes wrong, the best thing you can do is do your best to study what has gone wrong. Science you didn’t expect is still science. You should take the time to at least learn if you’ve done damage, rather than attempt to pretend you didn’t do harm. Never pass up an opportunity to do science.

Kelly: Did you get involved in any of these studies at the time? As a health physicist, are you engaged in looking at exposures?

Broughton: I hope and pray every day to never have to be part of a cohort study. Because to do a cohort study means you have identified a new, large, similarly-exposed population, as in, “I have thousands of people that have all been exposed roughly the same way.”

Until the power plants at Fukushima Daiichi went up, we hadn’t made a new cohort in over a decade. I believe our last radiation exposure cohort we had created before them were the Newfoundland mammography patients, where there had been one particular malfunctioning machine for use on the population of Newfoundland, one city in particular, several thousand women. Same basic X-ray operation, same rough community of people—a statistically significant number to try to tease out, “Is there damage done? What can we learn.?

Cohorts are instructive. You hope to never create a new cohort. I study them. They are the underpinning basis of our regulations, and our safe public radiation exposure limits. But we don’t want new ones, and they are all based upon very high exposures.

Kelly: I wondered if you could talk about the isolation of the plutonium speck that was done upstairs.

Broughton: The speck was not isolated upstairs. The planchet that’s on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., that was done here.

I can give an important bit of trivia about that particular display. The Alhambra cigar box that it’s displayed in, that’s also an important historical matter. Alhambra cigars were Glenn T. Seaborg’s very favorite cigar. Everywhere he traveled, he kept several of these cigar boxes in his luggage to go with him. I’m not going to say he quite smoked them as fast as other people go through a pack of cigarettes, but he smoked a lot of cigars per day.

He eventually had a piece of luggage full of empty cigar boxes, and he’d never throw them away. Because wherever he’d go, he would receive souvenirs, or that’s where he would put whatever sample he had for transport. Because he didn’t want it in with his clothes, he put it in the cigar box to isolate it from the rest of the things in his luggage—things that perhaps he shouldn’t have been putting in his luggage. But he had a cigar box to put it in, it was fine.

For people in the health physics field—particularly those of us that have worked at the national laboratories—of a certain age, there is a level of fear associated with finding an Alhambra cigar box. Because that means you probably just found one of Glenn T. Seaborg’s trinkets. It is now, “Spin the wheel of fortune for, what’s it going to be this time?”

In the past, opening up Alhambra cigar boxes have found: the original sample of plutonium, more cigars, a grenade, various radioactive samples of different isotopes, a signed playing card from Frank Sinatra. Apparently, he ran into Sinatra in Las Vegas. He said, “I know you,” and Sinatra said the same to him, and they exchanged signed cards with each other. And, various diplomatic medals that he had been granted just got thrown into cigar boxes.

For a while, at Lawrence Berkeley, there was a stack of them. We have found these many cigar boxes in the course of lab cleanouts. Last I knew, it’s now been about four years since we found our last Seaborg cigar box. No guarantee we won’t find more.

Kelly: Are they all kept in the same place now?

Broughton: Last I knew, they were all stored; all the ones Lawrence Berkeley has found are stored in their dissymmetry building. 

Kelly: Would talk about Antarctica—your time on the South Pole? It might interest a lot of people: what health physicists do in their spare time.

Broughton: This was actually before I was health physicist, really when I was a laser safety officer. In the year 2000, after a very particularly bad day at work, working for a large laser manufacturer in the Silicon Valley—we had recently blinded someone in one of our laser labs. After not getting very good management support to do the accident investigation that I needed to do, I went to the vending machine, got myself a Coke, went back to my desk. I opened up Yahoo, because Google didn’t exist yet, and with a deep sigh, said, “What is the farthest I can get from these assholes?” I typed in “Antarctica jobs” into that. Lo and behold, Raytheon Polar Services popped up. Oh, my God, there is someone.

I put my resume in to work for Raytheon Polar Services. At the time, Raytheon’s one non-defense contract was running all of the Antarctic stations for the National Science Foundation. I put my application in, and two and a half years later I got to go, because they found half of my resume in the bottom of a filing cabinet. It just happened that if you have more than a one-page resume, you’re supposed to put your contact information at the top of every page. If I had not put my contact information at the top of the second page, they never would have called me. But, the very first word at the top of my second page was “cryogenics handling,” and they hired me to be the science cryogenics technician for Amundson Scott South Pole Station. It was my job to keep things cold in Antarctica. I was responsible for all the liquid helium and liquid nitrogen on station, to run the radio-telescopes that were there, to support meteorology work. I also became their bartender. I stayed down there for a year and a day.

I got to South Pole Station on my birthday, November 2nd, and the station closed on Valentine’s Day for the last flight. Nine months later, I got to get back to New Zealand on Halloween. As a rule, we stopped flying planes to the South Pole when the temperature hits minus-50 Fahrenheit, because at that point, you’re no longer confident that the skis of the planes won’t stick to the ice. If they stick, you’re not flying anymore. If you’re moving, the LC-130s, all of the fluids freeze solid, and then you really aren’t flying anywhere. Minus-50 is when you can have flights. The other joke is, it’s usually about nine months. Whatever children you have left in New Zealand will be born by the time you get back.

If you just walk out to a street corner, and just look around you, you will see more people in a minute than I saw for a year. We had fifty-eight people winter-over my year, and that was one of the largest crews South Pole Station has ever had. Until the last decade, when we had a whole bunch of construction crews building the new South Pole Station, more people had been to space than had spent a year or wintered-over at the South Pole.

When I got there, my luggage didn’t get there.  Because people have some priority getting there, but for physical goods, science cargo has priority, not your underpants. I flew in; none of my gear flew in with me. I had the shirt, pants and extreme climate gear that I’d been issued, that I was wearing, with me. That was it.

After three days of not receiving new clothes, I went and complained to the cargo supervisor. I said, “Where’s my luggage?”

Patty responded, “You’re a smart guy, Phil. You told me you’re from Cocoa Beach, so you grew up near Kennedy.”

“Yeah.”

“Tell me, an astronaut going to space, what do they go through to get there?”

“You have to go to quarantine at Patrick Airforce Base first, then they’ll load you in the cap, the quarantine vehicle. They take you out to the space shuttle or the rocket, as the case may be. Shoot you up, you do a couple of orbits around, and you come back down a few days later.”

“Right. The logistics for all that—how long does it take to get rockets and the space shuttle out?”

“From the time of loading, it takes about four days for them to actually stand the rocket, the space shuttle, up and roll it out.”

“Right. We’re at three days. Tomorrow is when it officially becomes easier to launch something to space than to get your luggage to South Pole. It is not easy to get here. It would be easier for me to send you to space.”

The flight that I took to get to Pole was San Jose to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Auckland, Auckland to Christchurch, Christchurch to McMurdo, and McMurdo to the South Pole Station. It was a grand total of twenty-eight hours of flight time to get to the South Pole Station. Of course, nothing goes easy. There were layovers at every step. In the case of getting to Antarctica and then to Pole from McMurdo, it was a three-day delay to McMurdo due to a hurricane blizzard, and a three-more-day delay waiting to get to the South Pole Station for another hurricane blizzard, and waiting for South Pole Station to warm up.

Regarding hurricane blizzards, aka “hurbies,” at any given time there are three to five hurricanes spinning around the edge of Antarctica, always. It’s the same basic weather effect that makes hurricanes in the Atlantic. It’s just there is no land in the way of the circumpolar flow. They just keep spinning. Sometimes they calve, and now there’s two of them. They have all the hurricane-force winds, and they are blizzard, freezing cold. They will bury a building as they wander past.

At South Pole Station proper, though, don’t worry about that. There is no weather at the South Pole. It is clear and cold always. The warmest it has ever been at South Pole Station is minus-7 Fahrenheit. The coldest it was while I was there was minus-103.

While there’s no particular weather, sometimes a little bit of a breeze blows up, crossing the ice. There’s just a ten-mile-an-hour breeze, nothing. Except, if you have ever looked at the Weather Channel for wind-chill calculations? Wind-chill was invented in Antarctica by Paul Siple, the Little America research that happened in the ‘50s. He had his thermometer that said how cold it was outside. He looked at that and went, “No, it feels so much worse than this. This is not accurate. There is a physiological cold that must be different to this,” because this is a dry bulb thermometer temperature. He started adding the humidity and wind effects for what is the effective temperature, of wind-chill effect.

The problem is that math he did was close to the coast of Antarctica. It never got to minus-80 or below. When you get to minus-80 and some wind blows up, all of a sudden it says minus-212 on the weather monitor inside. Is it broken?

The answer from the meteorology office is, “No, it’s not. But, the math was never really meant to deal with this. Just take it from us: don’t go outside. There is no amount of protective gear you can wear that works.”

I have various patches of frostbite over my body from windy days or stupid days that I shouldn’t have gone outside and done things, where the wind just knifed directly through the gasketed zipper. On those days, just stay inside and drink. That’s safety, all about safety.

Kelly: Did you ever get your clothes and gear? 

Broughton: I did, the following week. I, by that time, had purchased more clothes in the ship stores because I was starting to smell a bit bad. You can cope with submarine showers, if you have other clothes to change into.

At South Pole Station, fuel is life. Everything at the station runs off of JP-8, jet propulsion 8 fuel. Every time an LC-130 flies in with cargo, we take all the cargo off of it, and then we drain the plane down to fumes to reload our fuel tanks at the station. They have just enough fuel to get back to McMurdo again. That’s how we fill our fuel tanks.

Burning JP-8 generates our electricity, it cooks our food, makes us our water. Fuel is life, and there is no such thing as spare fuel. Some sacrifices are made to make the station more fuel-efficient, such as, the station is never heated above 55 degrees. But at that point, that feels comfortable.

If you’re wintering over, you are given R&R, because you’re about to get locked down for nine months in a dark, frozen box. “Let’s let you go have some R&R in beautiful, balmy McMurdo. When you’ve gotten used to minus-30 during South Pole summer and you are required to wear all of your emergency climate ECWs, your emergency gear, and you show up in McMurdo, which is plus-30— still snow—you are required to wear all of that until you get off the transport vehicle.

We got off the transport vehicle and stripped down to our underwear in the middle of the street in McMurdo. We were overheating so badly at 30 degrees, because we had acclimated to minus-30. People walked out of the NSF [National Science Foundation] chalet wearing parkas, and looked at us in the street and they just went “f***ing polies.”

I’m originally from Florida. When we moved to California when I was little, my mom took me aside and said, “Phillip, you cannot wear t-shirts and shorts and flipflops like you do here. It’s cold in California.”

 “Okay, Mom.”

I never stopped wearing, that in central California. When I sent the winter-over staff photo to her, I  said, “Can you find me in the photo, Mom?”

She said, “Who’s the idiot in the Hawaiian print shorts and sandals?”

“That’s me.” I was wearing a knit cap, so that [inaudible].

“How cold was it that day?”

“Minus-98.”

“How long did you stay outside?”

I ducked back inside between shots, because my bedroom was right on the other side of that freezer door. All the external doors to the station are freezer doors. The construction of the station is like a big, industrial meat locker, except the cold is outside. You quite literally hit the button to open up the door to go into the freezer, and then close it, with the place you live.

It’s really nice, you just store food down there. As long as you don’t have to worry about freezer burn, or stuff freezing and being damaged by that, you can put infinite amount of stuff in cold storage just outside. Just don’t forget where you put it, because slowly, the drifting snow will bury it. As long as you have an excavator, you can get that back, too.

The day we discovered where all the Grasshopper Cookies were, that was a really good day. We dug a hole into the snow, tore open the Air Force transport container—the tri-wall, cardboard stuff—and just started handing out grasshopper packages. We had found the cargo manifest for where everything was, and we discovered that that manifest wasn’t exactly accurate. But we did find Grasshoppers, so it was a good day.

Other customs that I was telling someone about last week at DOE [Department of Energy]—wet station closing. When the last flight leaves is one of the major dinners of the year. People wear as formal of clothes as they have at South Pole Station. Some people who’ve been down there a couple of years bring tuxedos.

There is a saying, “You can get anyone to go to Antarctica once, twice for the money, three times because they can’t function in the real world anymore.” So, totally got me to go once. Also, totally got a Michelin-star chef to go, too, so we had some of the best food I ever ate for a station-closing dinner.

The next part of the custom after that is, you watch John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” to prepare you for the long winter ahead of you. At the end of that movie, I turned to the station manager and said, “How many guns do we have on station?”

“We’ve got a flare gun.”

“We seem woefully under-armed for an American station. We may need to work on that.”

Then the flame-thrower scene happened.

“I’m effectively a scientific plumber in my current job. I bet I could make a flame-thrower.”

And an actual plumber said, “An actual plumber can make a better one.”

“You’re on.”

Then the first and, as far as I know, only ever South Pole Station flame-thrower competition happened.

Later that year, for July 4th, we decided to have a bonfire. A campfire is important, because we had all the scrap wood from construction. Weird things get said like, “Kick the beer closer to the fire so it stays cold,” as opposed to freezing solid.

At one point, the station manager came down to us, “So, about done with your campfire?”

“It’ll burn out here soon.”

“Put it out soon.”

“Why?”

“I just got a call from Denver. They saw you.”

“What do you mean?”

He just looked at us and went, “How many other campfires do you think are burning on the Antarctic continent in the middle of winter?”

Got a point. They basically had called to make sure the station still existed, because fire is the most dire hazard there is at South Pole Station. We don’t have water running through sprinkler lines, because we don’t have the spare fuel to keep that much water liquid to flow. If you don’t have a station anymore at the South Pole, you die.

Okay, that’s lots of Antarctic stories.

Kelly: So, you were the bartender.

Broughton: I was.

Kelly: Talk about your bartending responsibilities.

Broughton: I ended up the bartender at South Pole Station because the first night I walked up to the bar during summer, there were no seats available except for the one behind the bar. So, I went and sat in that chair and put my feet up on the beer case. Someone asked, “Hey, get me a beer?" 

“Do I look like a f***ing bartender?”

“You’re behind the bar.”

“Don’t get used to that.” I put my feet back up on the case.

“Do you know how to mix anything?”

“Actually, I do.” That’s how I stayed as the bartender for the rest of the year.

It’s also just social fun-wise. If you’re the bartender, the party comes to you. You don’t have to go find things. I’m there. I was always guaranteed a chair. Part of what I did was, I tried to help wrangle and make sure that we had everything we needed in the bar. It was not a charging bar, like the other bars in Antarctica. It was an honor bar, so I had a shelf of booze and a beer case.

Basically, I told people, “We’re out of this beer. Go buy some from the ship store. We need more bourbon, restock the bourbon.” The general rule was, “Bring something, take whatever you want.” If you’re taking too much, eventually people will hassle you. Just from past bartending, I had gotten in the habit of “alternate non-alcoholic drink between alcoholic drink.” Just please, don’t drink yourself to death.

The reason why there even was a bar at South Pole Station and the other Antarctic bases, is because the Navy—these were all originally naval bases. The Navy had long ago figured out, “Yes, our sailors will drink. It would be a really good idea if they drank socially, rather than alone in their bunks. Particularly, in Antarctica, where the continent will kill you, it would be really good if you drank around other people. If you drink yourself to death in my bar, that’s fine, I’m here with you, and I can get the doctor. If you are drinking alone in your room, no one will find you. If you trip and pass out on the way back to your room, you could become a victim of the continent and the cold.”

Part of the fun of being the bartender in Antarctica was, “How do I judge your drinking to make sure you pass out here? Keep drinking with us, stay with us.”

The other unfortunate part was that idea of alternating non-alcoholic things between alcoholic things—just in terms of mass to ship to South Pole Station, you get a lot more bang for your buck and profit to ship alcohol than you do shipping soda. I ran out of almost all of my mixers by June. All I really had left was hard liquor and beer, and we had pretty much run out of the decent beer by August. I served my very last can of the very worst beer the day of first flight, when the beer resupply came in. God, Export Gold is truly a terrible beer. The only American domestic beer we had down there was Corona. Everything else was New Zealand or Australian beer. Not all of their beer is great.

Kelly: So, this was a long time ago.

Broughton: That was 2002, 2003. Part of going to South Pole was, I needed endorsements to go, recommendations. One of the people I asked was my mentor for health physics and laser safety, who is the former laser safety officer here at UC Berkeley, Dewey Sprague, who then went on to work at Lawrence Livermore.

I asked him for a recommendation. He sort of did a squint, looked at me, “Are you sure you really want to go to Antarctica and abandon your career in Silicon Valley?” 

“Yes.”

“Okay, I’ll do this for you. But when you come back from Antarctica, your ass belongs to Lawrence Livermore.”

“You mean, go work for the place I wanted to do since I learned it first existed at age nineteen? Ow, twist my arm, shucks, darn.”

I came back in 2003, and started working at Lawrence Livermore in 2004. That is how I started doing health physics, rather than just laser safety.