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By Dr. WILLARD F. LIBBY &
IN ALL THE SPAN OF recorded history, one of mankind's more spectacular achievements has been the exploitation of atomic energy. Generations of technical progress have been telescoped into the 17 years since the first crude atomic reactor was assembled, and a firm base has been laid for our entry into an era of applied nuclear science.
Firmly established in the military arsenal, atomic weapons have become a deterrent to international aggression. In defense applications, the atom permits men to travel in submarines submerged for months, at speeds faster than those of surface ships. It gives light and warmth enabling them to live comfortably even in the depths of the Arctic. And, more and more, it is being turned to purely peaceful uses. Homes and factories now are served with electricity from some atomic power stations, and their number will steadily increase.
Yet, power production is only one aspect of the rapid progress in harnessing the atom to man's benefit. Radioisotopes, which are versatile byproducts of reactor operation, are having great impact in accelerating scientific progress, assisting agricultural progress, aiding in medical diagnosis and therapy and contributing to industrial productivity. Even if there were no other benefits from atomic energy, isotopes could, in time, justify much of the effort and funds invested in the nation's atomic projects.
The most sweeping of all the future benefits of radioisotopes may perhaps be found in agriculture. An estimated one-half of the world's
inhabitants now suffer from hunger, and world population is increasing with great rapidity. The ability to increase food production markedly through improved fertilizer practices; to produce more yield per plant and to create desirable new plant strains—that might possibly make now barren regions become productive in the future; to control insect pests that plague animals, destroy growing crops, and consume stored foods these and innumerable other benefits lie within reach through isotopes.
Radioisotopic tracers such as phosphorus 32 are now almost routine tools for precise measurement of fertilizer effectiveness. Tracers permit systematic shortcuts to scientific development of growth stimulants, weed killers and pesticides, and their safe application. Scientists in this country and abroad have successfully used isotope radiation to increase plant mutation rates, developing plants resistant to disease, or with stiffer stems and upright posture that facilitate mechanical harvesting, and fruits with a bearing season better adapted to harsh climates.
Radioisotope radiation has helped wipe out the screwworm fly from Florida and the southeastern United States, where ranchers formerly suffered $15 to $25 million annual losses due to this cattle pest. Similar techniques may be successful against the boll weevil, the mediterranean and oriental fruit flies, the tsetse fly, and perhaps against the varieties of the mosquito that carry malaria and yellow fever.
Radioisotope applications to agriculture hold promise of being, like Fortunatus' purse, inexhaustible in their benefits to mankind.
The medical field has in these new tools a re
rce of truly incalculable value which is now being applied in research laboratories, diagnos
· Dr. Libby served as an Atomic Energy Commission member from June 26, 1956, to June 30, 1959, and is an internationally recognized expert on the utilization of radioisotopes for public benefit. Dr. Libby is now on the faculty of the University of California at Los Angeles.