Friday, June 13, 2014

"Calutron girls"

I was vaguely aware of "the Calutron girls", but this io9 post on "ordinary life" at Oak Ridge during WWII brought it back. I thought this Wikipedia anecdote was funny:
The calutrons were initially operated by scientists from Berkeley to remove bugs and achieve a reasonable operating rate. Then Tennessee Eastman operators who had only a high-school education took over. Kenneth Nichols compared unit production data, and pointed out to Ernest Lawrence that the young "hillbilly" girl operators were outproducing his Ph.Ds. They agreed to a production race and Lawrence lost, a morale boost for the Tennessee Eastman workers and supervisors. The girls were trained like soldiers not to reason why, while "the scientists could not refrain from time-consuming investigation of the cause of even minor fluctuations of the dials".[6] Responsibility for operation passed entirely to Tennessee Eastman after the spring of 1944, and the Laboratory staff at Oak Ridge turned their attention to redesigning the calutron system for higher efficiency.
I think that the reason for the Tennessee Eastman operators' superior production is just a little too pat, especially the "not reasoning why" bit. I wonder if anyone had compared the downtime when the scientists had been at the calutron, versus the operators...

8 comments:

  1. good perspective on Oak Ridge is in "Brotherhood of the Bomb" from Gregg Herken. I think the main problem with sitting at the calutron controls must have been boredom.

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    1. Having been underemployed as a pharma QC tech with a MS, I can tell you the folks who barely made it through undergrad often made better employees because the overqualified ones were bored silly with a repetitive job. "Follow the method, don't think, don't ask questions" is a good mentality to have in a cGMP environment, but it will make any half-decent scientist crazy.

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  2. CJ - you're thinking like a "scientist" as opposed to an "engineer" or "engineering operator." Also in play is the difference between "education" and "training."

    Education (back then at least, not so sure about today) taught scientists to investigate minor deviations thinking they might be important. Training, on the other hand, teaches to operate within a defined set of parameters; in other words, a large "If-then" environment. (e.g. IF (you go outside this parameter) THEN (perform some action).) Machine operators (more engineering than pure science), be they the lathe or nuclear power plant operate in an established control band. As long as the machine is operating within the band, you're fat, dumb and happy. Move outside that control band, and you've got a problem and need to do something.

    The perfect blend in education and training is "Integrated Plant Operations" where you recognize the blend of what, how and why something will occur when you move outside of a control parameter.

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  3. For an interesting alternate read I recommend "Girls of Atomic City"

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  4. Really, science boils down to recognizing patterns and using them to predict results through trial and error. These girls learned, through trial and error, what gave the best results.

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    1. It's a shame technician jobs are now filled with people with 4-year degrees instead of by promoting the best plant workers. I've known some very good chemists who not only made it out of the plant, but also earned promotions above the technician level with just high school diplomas, especially in areas like coatings formulation where most of the learning is on-the-job.

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  5. I am sure that they were women, not "girls." And were any of the scientists "boys?"

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    1. It depends who/where as to whether that's an offensive context IMO. Also, not CJ's words.
      Source: female

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