In 1944, fully a year before the first successful nuclear test, Astounding Science Fiction magazine published a remarkably detailed description of an atomic bomb. The story, by the otherwise undistinguished author Cleve Cartmill, sent military intelligence racing to discover the source of his information — and his motives for publishing it.
In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the investigation that ensued, which involved legendary editor John W. Campbell and illuminated the imaginative power of science fiction and the role of censorship in times of war. We’ll also hear Mark Twain’s advice against being too clever and puzzle over the failure of a seemingly perfect art theft.
Sources for our segment on Cleve Cartmill:
Cleve Cartmill and Jean Marie Stine, Deadline & Other Controversial SF Classics, 2011.
Albert I. Berger, “The Astounding Investigation: The Manhattan Project’s Confrontation With Science Fiction,” Analog, September 1984.
Robert Silverberg, “Reflections: The Cleve Cartmill Affair” (in two parts), Asimov’s Science Fiction, September and October–November 2003.
Mark Twain appended the poem “Be Good, Be Good” to a letter to Margaret Blackmer on Nov. 14, 1907:
Be good, be good, be always good,
And now & then be clever,
But don’t you ever be too good,
Nor ever be too clever;
For such as be too awful good
They awful lonely are,
And such as often clever be
Get cut & stung & trodden on by persons of lesser mental capacity, for this kind do by a law of their construction regard exhibitions of superior intellectuality as an offensive impertinence leveled at their lack of this high gift, & are prompt to resent such-like exhibitions in the manner above indicated — & are they justifiable? alas, alas they
(It is not best to go on; I think the line is already longer than it ought to be for real true poetry.)
The observation that a letter might be addressed to Glenn Seaborg by listing five chemical elements was made by Jeffrey Winters in “The Year in Science: Chemistry 1997,” Discover, January 1998. I don’t know whether any such letter was ever delivered successfully.
Jeff Van Bueren’s article “Postal Experiments” appeared in the Annals of Improbable Research, July/August 2000.
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