The highlights of the Mississippi Academy of Science Convention in Jackson April 19-20, 1946 was the banquet address by Dr. Clyde Q. Sheely of the Department of Chemistry of Mississippi State College and permanent secretary-treasurer of the Academy on “The Birth of the Atomic Age.”
With the use of numerous prepared charts, models and semi-technical language, Sheely traced the nuclear physics and chemical developments of the last 50 years leading to the atomic bomb and some of the uses of atomic energy in the future. Beginning with our solar system with the sun as the nucleus, Sheely showed that atoms too had nuclei packed with protons and neutrons which were surrounded by many electrons revolving in orbits of various degrees and complexity.
According to Sheely, “atomic energy is due to five forces tied up in the nucleus with the neutrons as the dominating factor. These forces are one million times that of gravitation. One pound of Uranium as used in the atomic bomb releases 11.4 million-kilowatt hours equivalent of energy, 3 million pounds of coal, or 200,000 gallons of gasoline. In other words scientists have discovered use of natural phenomena that has been here for 3 billion years. Einstein definitely proved in 1901 that energy and matter were interchangeable.
“The minds of scientists have been pregnant with the idea of atomic energy for about 50 years but business really picked up in 1941 when the problem received bedside attention while blacked-out with secrecy for four years at Oak Ridge and Hanford, Wash. The first public cry of this atomic baby was first heard over Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. The world knew then that atom fission was not only theory. Our scientists and engineers cooperating with those of our allies out-raced the best efforts of our enemies to harness atomic power. The Germans concentrated on V-bombs while we developed A-bombs. They started at the wrong end of the alphabet.”
In developing the subject, Sheely, classified matter, gave the nature of its building blocks and their relationship within the atoms, sketched the structures of a dozen or more of the 97 known atoms comprising the 97 known atoms from which all matter is made. The theory of radioactivity, artificial radioactivity, atomic fission, ad transmutation of atoms was graphically portrayed. Compound formation and molecular energy was related to that of atomic energy. Tribute was paid to many contributing scientists, including 15 Nobel winners of the past half-century. The application of the cyclotron and the van de Graff electrostatic generator was cited as a tool in the research operations leading to the realization of atomic power.
Facts reveal that about five atoms undergo fission or splitting to release tremendous energy. Of these, Thorium and Protactinium are too scarce. Uranium-238 is too slow, while Uranium-235 is most difficult to separate from Uranium 238 with which it occurs one part in 140 in low concentrated ores of Pitchblende and Carotid ores in Bohemia, Canada, Belgium Congo, Utah and Colorado. The future is in Plutonium, which has to be made synthetically from Uranium-238 in the presence of some Uranium-245 with the atomic "pile." In thinking of atomic power, one might visualize Plutonium as the powder and neutrons as the spark, yet Uranium-235 is the key to all atomic power.
The extremely difficult task of separating U-235 isotope from U-238 makes PU-239 as made from U-238 give 100 times more atomic power from our Uranium ores. In the atomic “pile” where PU is made from Uranium metal (U-235 and U-238 isotopes), The Uranium metal obtained from the Pitchblende and Carnotite ores is sealed in aluminum cans and placed in holes in huge graphite blocks or “piles.” Water is also circulated through holes in the graphite which aids boron steel rods in controlling the chain reaction that is thermally very delecate.
The ever present stray neutrons in air resulting from cosmic rays starts the chain by causing fission with the U-235 which hurls out many neutrons per atom. These ejected neutrons of tremendous velocities are slowed down by the graphite to a rate where they are captured by the U-238 to make PU239 which is element number 94 (synthetically prepared). A half dozen rays are eminated from the atomic “pile” from which workers are protected from permanent injury by systematic white counts. The life of the “piles” are short since the U-235 soon becomes poisoned from the 30-odd radioactive atoms artificially formed within the “pile.” The Plutonium is separated from the Uranium by chemical means. (The U-235 is separated from U-238 by physical means only, taking advantage of the slight difference in weight.
In a bomb that Sheely does not guarantee, he has several small portions (a few grams) of Plutonium placed behind as many pistons which are well shielded from one another. At the moment of setting off, a charge of TNT or gunpowder may be fired in the circular piston to force all the small bits of Plutonium into one charge of “super” critical mass. The joining and not the impact set it off. U-235 or Plutonium may be safely stored in small batches or denatured with the proper substance. The temperature at the core of the atom on fission is 10 trillion degrees Fahrenheit.
Besides graphite, there may be used heavy water or paraffin as midwives in producing the “slow ball” neutrons for the transmutation of U-238 to Plutonium. The elastic atomic nature of these substances slows down the fast-moving neutrons without capturing them.
Sheely warned the scientists that anything is not possible in science even though civilization has recently been presented with Radar, synthetic rubber in quantities, super antiknock fuels, and the atomic bomb. The bare facts are these: pure science and applied science go hand in hand, and we have depleted or applied all our knowledge of pure science. We lost a college generation of scientists by the war. We need peaceful time for pure research with freedom. For the first time in history scientists are being called in to advise on governmental matters. Looks like the time might be approaching when scientists may be considered as citizens.”
In closing, the speaker cited some of the probable peacetime applications of atomic energy. He pointed out that a tiny bit of Uranium or Plutonium built in at the factory will drive a car for life through an engine no bigger than your fist is a claim that is not justified. Many things might restrict the use of atomic energy but he sees it as a boon to civilization.
“Let us remember that Science is the endless frontier. That we won the race with our enemies for the development of atomic power, but I say we have only about a three-year advantage. In time all the big powers can work it out. We have no choice, but to turn our full powers of creative imagination to control the forces we have leashed and to bend them to man’s use rather than to his destruction.”
Dr. and Mrs. Sheely gave untiringly to the town of Starkville and Mississippi State University. In 1964 Mrs. Sheely was one of Mississippi’s 13 delegates to the Republican National Convention where she was one of 50 women serving on the platform committee. Mrs. Sheely also served the schools in many capacities from PTA to room mother and had many Easter egg hunts for children on her lawn. Dr. Sheely played a major role in the establishment of the museum.
Sheely Circle at MSU is named for this famous former professor of Chemistry. Sheely, who died in 1983 at age 79, was the first to receive the MSU Alumni Association's Faculty Award for Outstanding Classroom Teaching. An active researcher, he held five patents for chemical and technical processes and wrote more than 20 scientific papers.
Robert Sheely of Madison is the son of the late professor.
A Rankin County native and Pelahatchie High School graduate, Dr. Sheely taught chemistry from 1929 until his retirement in 1970. He also served for many years as the supervisor of the College of Arts and Sciences' general chemistry program.
In addition to faculty duties, Sheely was alumni adviser for the campus chapter of Kappa Sigma social fraternity, where he was a charter member and recipient of its highest honor.
For more than a quarter century, Sheely led the MSU commencement procession as grand marshal.
Sheely Circle serves nine of the 12 on-campus fraternity houses.
Its entrance/exit points are accessible from Bully Boulevard, the major thoroughfare from the Five Points intersection near Scott Field to its merger with the state Highway 12 bypass and from the Russell Street entrance to campus.