Lewis Worth Seagondollar, who witnessed the testing of the first atomic bomb as a scientist on the Manhattan Project before becoming head of the physics department at NC State, died in Raleigh on Friday. He was 92.
Seagondollar joined the faculty at NC State in 1965, serving as head of the physics department from 1965-75, and as a physics professor until his retirement in 1991. He had worked as a professor at the University of Kansas before coming to NC State.
Seagondollar began his career as one of the youngest scientists to work on the Manhattan Project to figure out how to create the first nuclear bombs as part of a secret arms race with Germany during World War II. He was part of a three-man team, known as the W Group, that did experiments at Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory that verified the critical mass of Plutonium 239, a fissionable material that is used to create a nuclear chain reaction and create a blast. As the team’s junior member, Seagondollar worked an overnight shift beginning at midnight, but also had the chance to encounter notable scientists such as J. Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi.
As part of his work on the Manhattan Project, Seagondollar was one of a handful of people who witnessed the first test explosion of an atomic bomb, at a bombing range south of Los Alamos, New Mexico. Seagondollar described the Trinity Test in a 2010 article in The News & Observer and in a 2007 speech at the American Center for Physics.
Seagondollar and other observers were stationed nine miles from the bomb site and, according to the story, told to look in the opposite direction of the blast. Seagondollar was wearing the darkest lenses he could find, the dark blue glass used by welders. But even with their backs turned, the assembled scientists were startled by what they witnessed.
“The amount of light that I saw there was the most intense light I have ever seen in my life, and I hope to God I never see another thing like that,” Seagondollar recalled in his 2007 speech. “There were mountains in the distance, and they actually seemed to mechanically jump forward.”
After counting to 15, Seagondollar turned to see the explosion. He initially thought he had forgotten to wear his dark glasses. “I was looking through the blue glass, but it was just pure white light coming through,” he said in the newspaper article.
Seagondollar described what he saw as “the proverbial mushroom cloud.” “It was not particularly loud, but it was heavy rolling thunder,” he said.
One of Seagondollar’s colleagues invited him to return to the site 30 days after the explosion to check on some experiments. Seagondollar said in his 2007 speech that he was struck by how small the hole from the blast was – about 30-40 feet wide. “Outside of that crater, though, it was really horrifying,” he recalled. “The desert floor had simply melted and was green glass. It had begun to break up into chunks about so big, and it was quite radioactive.”
Years later, after giving a speech at NC State about his work on the Manhattan Project, Seagondollar was forced to confront the reality of how the atomic bomb had been used in Japan. During his speech, Seagondollar had said that the bombs had been effective and positive in bringing the war to an end. After he was finished speaking, Seagondollar noticed a member of the audience approaching him. It was a professor visiting from Japan, and he used his cane to whack one of his own legs. It made a hollow sound.
“He told me that he had lost his leg at Hiroshima, and that he agreed that what happened was beneficial to both the Americans and the Japanese,” Seagondollar recalled in the newspaper account.
Throughout his career, Seagondollar sought to support and honor other physicists. He was active in Sigma Pi Sigma, the national honor society for physics, including a stint as the organization’s president. In 1999, Sigma Pi Sigma established the Worth Seagondollar Service Award in recognition of outstanding service to the organization.
Seagondollar, who died peacefully in his sleep, had just celebrated his 71st wedding anniversary. He is survived by his wife, Winifred; their three children, Bryan, Laurie and Mark; and by four grandchildren and two great grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at a later date.