An examination of the remarkable role of the shadowy but powerful “amateur physicist” whose intellect and energy spurred critical scientific research that shortened and helped win WWII.
The author cites the association of Alfred Lee Loomis with her grandfather James Conant (president of Harvard for 20 years) to underscore her fascination with what, in the absence of extensive personal records, sometimes reads like fiction. Shrewd enough as a young investment banker to convert the bulk of his investments into a pile of cash on the brink of the Depression, Loomis got only richer as Wall Street foundered. He had all anyone could want in cars, yachts, and island hideaways (Hilton Head), so he funded his principal avocation: scientific investigation. The physics laboratory he had built into his mansion in the gilt-edged community of Tuxedo Park, New York, matched almost anything industry or academia could offer. At first, the scientific community called him an “eccentric dabbler,” but soon figures like Bohr, Fermi, Einstein, and Ernest Lawrence were cajoled into visits to Tuxedo Park, finding their host to be a serious thinker and accomplished experimenter who could also pour bathtub gin with a steady hand on the butler’s night off. Fascinated by physical phenomena, Loomis had investigated everything from ultrasonics to brain waves as the world moved toward war in 1940. Realizing early on that R&D would be critical to Allied success, he parlayed his influence, charm, and connections (Secretary of War Henry Stimson was a cousin) into a key management role in the refinement of super-secret radar technology and, later, into championing the nuclear fission projects that led to the first atomic bomb. Following a scandalous divorce, Loomis lived out his life in relative obscurity, hastened into oblivion by the intense desire for privacy that had always kept him out of the limelight
Remarkable and remarkably told, as if F. Scott Fitzgerald had penned Batman.