Q+A With Dr. Mary Jean Scott Silk

By December 1, 2011

In the 1950s, Dr. Mary Jean Scott Silk joined the Federation of American Scientists. She worked at Brookhaven National Laboratories from 1952 to 1958 and graduated from John Hopkins University with a doctorate in nuclear physics in 1958.

1) In 1958, women comprised only two percent of the PhDs in physics. What inspired you to pursue a doctorate in nuclear physics?

I majored in mathematics at St. Lawrence University [in New York] and applied to graduate schools for mathematics. However, once I started doing physics seriously, I found that physics was much more interesting than mathematics. One summer I took some courses at New York University. From time to time the professor would stand back from an experiment, which he had just described, and say: “Isn’t that beautiful? Isn’t that the most beautiful experiment you have ever seen?” His enthusiasm was contagious.

2) How did you get involved in the Federation of American Scientists? Why have you stayed involved with FAS after all of these years?            

I do not remember how I became involved with FAS, but I suspect that it was because I believed in those things for which FAS stood for. I was Secretary Treasurer of the Brookhaven Chapter and often sat on the National Council as a replacement for a senior member who was not able to attend the meeting. I had studied parliamentary procedure as an undergraduate and had it at my fingertips.

At that time, [the members of] FAS were persuading the government that there was a genetic danger from fallout from nuclear tests. I had studied human genetics at Johns Hopkins under H. Bentley Glass.

I was elected to the National Council in my own right just before I left the United States to go to England where I was employed at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment in Harwell.

I have never stopped believing in the goals of FAS.

3) From 1952-1958 you worked as a researcher at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Nuclear power was starting to grow its influence in the United States. What issues from the 1950s resonate today in regard to safety and security issues related to nuclear power?

As I remember, everybody at Brookhaven was very safety conscious, especially with respect to radiation. One time about half of the entrances to the reactor building were closed off to be decontaminated. But as soon as that was completed, the other half was found to be contaminated. It was eventually discovered that the rain had brought down contamination from a bomb test in Nevada, which was being tracked into the entrance.

4) From 1958-1960, you were one of the first Americans to work at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment in Harwell, England. At AERE, what did your work focus on?

I was working on polarization there, but no publications resulted.

5) As a medical physicist at Hillbrow Hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa, what topics have you researched?

As a medical physicist, I did not have much opportunity for research because the hospital was often grossly understaffed as far as physicists were considered. Once, when I was in charge of the Annual Congress of the South African Association of Physicists in Medicine and Biology, I remarked to a visiting physicist that, according to international standards there should have been 8 or 9 medical physicists. However, there was only me and a couple of others. Most of my publications at this time were orientated to clinical situations.

6) What nuclear threats and issues do you currently see the world facing now, and in the future?

Although I have not seen the suggestion in the literature, I suspect that global warming will bring different weather situations than those to which we are presently accustomed. Therefore, the weather threats to nuclear installations will change and will not necessarily be ones which have been taken into consideration in the planning process. This will increase the probability of incidents such as the recent one in Japan.

7) Do you think we will ever reach a point where proliferation isn’t a significant national security concern?

I am sad to say that my answer must be NO! If one looks at the history of humanity, one sees time and time again that whenever a new weapon is produced, it is used to try to achieve control by one group over another group. The fight to limit proliferation will continue and therefore there will be significant security concerns which will continue to arise. The other day, in a TV program called ‘Hiroshima Today,’ nuclear weapons were referred to as: “Weapons of mass genocide.” I concur.

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