Neil J. Sullivan


On his book The Prometheus Bomb: The Manhattan Project and Government in the Dark

Cover Interview of January 24, 2017

The wide angle

While getting my PhD at Brandeis University, I studied public administration and administrative law with Professor Peter Woll. A classic issue in those fields is the control of experts, especially in a legal context. Early in the 20th century, legal theorists began to propose that special courts be created with experts in germane fields put in the position of adjudicating disputes.

These theorists were concerned that judges rarely had scientific expertise. They likely had majored in history, government, English or some other field in the liberal arts. Law school would have taught contracts, torts and procedure, but nothing about radio communications, aviation, food and drug safety and other emerging issues. In effect, giving scientists a bit of a legal education would be easier than trying to teach biology to judges.

These administrative courts, as they were called, never fully developed, but the problem they purported to solve remains to this day. Imagine a judge trying to decide between dueling engineers about the wisdom of granting an injunction to shut down a nuclear power plant for additional inspection. Assuming the highest ethical standards, determination to dispense justice and other qualities essential to due process, the simple ability to determine a proper course for an obscure scientific issue remains daunting.

In the case of the Manhattan Project, administration officials were often very reluctant to pursue the atomic bomb because more promising scientific weapons could be shortchanged with resources squandered trying to build a bomb that could not be built in time to serve any purpose in the war.

Conflicts abounded among officials in the Manhattan Project, but the fear of a German bomb and the urgency of the war effort sustained the effort. When the feasibility of a bomb became more apparent, the organizational apparatus took final shape with the building of the bomb turned over to the Army Corps of Engineers.