History Book – The birth of the atomic age

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Monday, December 14th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

Thanks to all of you who have sent us readings for our special Christmas week Advent series. We still need a few more Scriptures recorded. So, if you’d like to participate, go to worldandeverything.org/christmas. You’ll find all the instructions there!

EICHER: Next up: the WORLD History Book. This week, a notable wedding, radioactive research, and a celebrated splashdown. Here’s WORLD senior correspondent Katie Gaultney.


KATIE GAULTNEY, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: It’s been 240 years since Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler said “I do” at Schuyler Mansion in upstate New York. Hamilton, of course, is remembered as a Federalist, secretary of the Treasury, and proponent of a federal central bank. But before his place in history was secure, he was a young man smitten with “Eliza,” a young woman from a prominent New York family. Lin Manuel Miranda reimagined their first meeting in his runaway Broadway hit, Hamilton

MIRANDA AND PHILIPPA SOO: Elizabeth Schuyler. It’s a pleasure to meet you./ Schuyler?/ My sister/ Thank you for all your service./ If it takes fighting a war for us to meet, it will have been worth it…

They began courting in Morristown, New Jersey, while Hamilton was General Washington’s aide de camp. 

They married in a typical Dutch wedding in the front parlor of the family home in Albany. But marriage was full of heartache and pain for the Hamiltons. God blessed them with a large family, but their oldest son died in a duel, defending Alexander’s honor. And Hamilton’s pride and temper repeatedly caused professional setbacks. Despite public revelations of Hamilton’s adultery, Eliza remained steadfast, preserving his letters—and his legacy—long after his death. 


She never remarried. 

Now, a milestone for the science lovers among us… 

CLIP: The atomic age was born…

…The advent of nuclear science, which began in earnest in the 1940s. A group of scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, achieved a bombshell of a breakthrough 80 years ago, on December 14, 1940. That’s the day they first produced and isolated plutonium. This 1953 educational film explains the process. 

CLIP: It will capture neutrons from U-235 fission and start a process which converts the U-238, first to neptunium, then to plutonium…

Uranium and neptunium both had planetary names and preceded the new element on the periodic table. So researchers named their discovery after Pluto. Scientist Glen Seaborg was on the research team that discovered the element. Of course, World War II was in full swing at the time of the discovery, and anything nuclear had to be kept under wraps. Seaborg responded to a question about the devastation produced by plutonium—namely, nuclear weaponry. 

SEABORG: It was produced in order to save our country. We were in a race with Hitler’s Germany. And so all of the scientists were working night and day. They all wanted to beat Hitler to the atomic bomb. 

Because of wartime security concerns, U.C. Berkley’s team wasn’t able to publish its discovery until eight years later. Today, Room 405 of the George Herbert Jones Laboratory, where the first isolation of plutonium took place, is a National Historic Landmark.


Now let’s move from a scientific breakthrough on earth to one in space. 

NEWSREEL: Project Gemini: Two Weeks in Space. Today, the final act: Recovery of Gemini 7 astronauts Borman and Lovell… 

American astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell splashed down in the Atlantic after the two-week Gemini 7 mission on December 18, 1965—55 years ago Friday. 

NEWSREEL: The splashdown this morning came at 9:06 Eastern Standard Time, when the spacecraft landed at six and six-tenths miles away from its exact predicted impact point, one of the closest so far for the Gemini program.

NASA launched Gemini 7 as a long duration flight. In preparation for an expedition to the moon, scientists wanted to investigate the medical effects of two weeks in space on the human body. 

After 14 days, Borman and Lovell had doubled the length of time anyone had been in space, holding that record for five years. NBC News that day reported surprise that the men walked directly off the helicopter that retrieved their landing module. And they remarked on the men’s physical appearance. 

NEWSREEL: Frank Borman, the command pilot with less of a beard than his colleague James Lovell Jr., happy, smiling, their space suits somewhat grimy, but nevertheless a magnificent sight as they walk unassisted, absolutely unassisted, the American flags on the sleeves of their space suits still glistening… 

And here’s a fun fact for you: Today, Borman is the oldest living former American astronaut, followed closely by Lovell, who is just 11 days Borman’s junior.

That’s this week’s History Book. I’m Katie Gaultney.

(Photo/NASA) Lovell and Borman in a raft shortly after splashdown waiting to be picked up.

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