Digitized Photos and Back Stories

Digitization of photographs serves an important and often overlooked purpose beyond image accessibility and preservation. Although a magnifying glass has long been the standard tool for photographic analysis, the ability to zoom in on a digital image makes the task of identifying people and objects within an image so much easier. Sometimes, for example, analysis of what a person is wearing (such as a conference badge) or holding (such as a book) can unlock additional meaning beneath the visual surface, that is, can help to assemble the “back story” to the photo session. 

Several years ago, when first working on the Science Service collections, I came across a photograph of physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) in which he was reading what appeared to be a scientific journal article. This was among a series that Science Service photographer Fremont Davis took in January 1939 at the Fifth Washington Conference on Theoretical Physics. To help in interpreting the image, I turned to an expert (and friend).

Enrico Fermi (1901-1954), 1939, Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA Acc. 90-105 [SIA2008-0576].

Historian of science Lawrence Badash (1934-2010) was known for his intellectual generosity and for his depth of knowledge about the birth of atomic and nuclear physics. Fortunately, he was not on one of his Himalayan treks and could take a closer look at the digitized image.

As Badash knew, Fermi had just learned that a German laboratory had successfully achieved nuclear fission. Badash and his colleagues Elizabeth Hodes and Adolph Tiddens have described the “shock” to the scientific community worldwide when Otto Hahn published his findings in the January 6, 1939, issue of Naturwissenschaften.

Badash looked at an original copy of that journal issue and determined that, yes, here was a photograph of Fermi reading Hahn’s paper, perhaps for the first time.

In a February 2, 1939, letter, Science Service chemistry editor Robert D. Potter recounted the excitement generated by the announcement:

“I learned of the Hahn experiments from attending the Conference on Theoretical Physics here in Washington at which [Niels] Bohr and Fermi were discussing the work. During the conference the men from Carnegie Institution went out and duplicated the results here as you have already probably seen in the papers. I was extremely fortunate to have a copy of the German publication here in the office and to make it available to the scientists who actually did the work. As a consequence I was able to be in on the very excellent story right from the beginning and Science Service has now issued three stories.” [Robert D. Potter to A.V. Grosse, February 2, 1939, RU7091, Box 209, Folder 1]

At first glance, the digital image appears to be simply a photograph of a handsome man reading a piece of paper. With trained eyes and a lifetime of knowledge, the late (and great) Larry Badash could see so much more: Fermi absorbing the proof that German scientists were on the track toward harnessing the atom.

Within five and a half years, the Manhattan Project physicists, including Fermi, would win that race and create what Badash called the “modern counterpart to Pandora’s box” -- an atomic bomb.

Related Resources

Obituary of Lawrence Badash (1934-2010), The Santa Barbara Independent. 

Guide to the Lawrence Badash Papers, Online Archives of California. 

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