Next Stop: Radiation Lab

Victor Hess performed background radiation experiments in the 190 Street subway station on the A line

By Salimah Ebrahim

During the summer of 1947, passengers entering and exiting the downtown subway cars at the 190 Street IND Station, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, could be forgiven if they didn’t notice a slight, unassuming man in a three-piece-suit. He spent most days at a small wooden desk-like structure in an unobtrusive corner at the platform’s northern end.

The 190th Street subway station today. (Photo by Salimah Ebrahim)

The 190th Street subway station today. (Photo by Salimah Ebrahim)

To the few who did notice the man with bright blue eyes and shock of white hair, Victor Hess likely seemed someone from the Board of Transportation—not the world famous scientist that he was. For more than two months, the 64-year-old Nobel Prize winning physicist was able to enjoy relative anonymity, coming and going from his subway workstation with ease. Which served his efforts—and those of modern science—very well. Hess’s experiments that New York summer, conducted 11 stories below street level, led to discoveries that today inform our understanding of particle radiation, and prompted his later research into how the effects of radiation are understood and tested in the human body.

Hess was born in Austria in 1883 to a prominent Roman Catholic family that supported his dedication to physics at the University of Graz, where he received his doctorate in 1906. His seminal work on radioactivity and his landmark discovery of cosmic rays—high energy radiation originating from outer space—earned him the 1936 Nobel Prize in Physics. Everything seemed to be going well for Hess. He was distinguished in his field, he had married his great love, Maria Breisky, and he had become one of the most popular professors at Graz.

In 1938 Hess’s life took a dramatic turn. A former student of his, who had become member of Hitler’s Gestapo, broke rank, risking his own personal safety to get word to his former professor that Breisky’s Jewish heritage had been uncovered. Seeking to ensure Breisky’s safety, the couple emigrated to the United States in 1938. Hess accepted a professorship in the physics department at New York’s Fordham University.

Settling into life in America, Hess continued to pursue his research in nuclear physics and after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, he became particularly concerned about radiation exposure. He wanted to better understand the differences in exposure between natural and artificial sources of radiation.

A photo of Victor Hess published in 1936, when he won the Nobel Prize in Physics. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

A photo of Victor Hess published in 1936, when he won the Nobel Prize in Physics. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Hess purchased a 300-pound slab of granite from Quincy, Massachusetts, and went about constructing a structure on Fordham’s campus in which he and his graduate students could test the rock for radioactivity. It soon became clear that even four-inch steel plates could not protect his rock sample from the interference of cosmic rays. So Hess set out to find a space sufficiently shielded from the rays.

Hess learned that the 191 Street station on the Broadway line (now the No. 1 line) was situated 180 feet below street level–making it the deepest in the subway system. He immediately wrote to the New York Board of Transportation asking for permission—which he was quickly granted—to use the station as a site for his experiments.

However, according to Metropolitan Transportation Agency historian Joe Cunningham, the narrow platforms at the 191 Street station led Hess to choose the 190 Street station instead. Approximately 140 feet below street level, 190 Street was the only second deepest station in the system, but had the added benefit of being better shielded by thick rock on both the Hudson River and Broadway sides. Hess and a several city laborers moved his equipment and rock samples from Fordham to the station and he began his experiments during the first week of July 1947.

Six weeks later the results were in: new radioactive rays had been discovered. Hess’s hypothesis had been right. The ionization meter recorded substantial radiation. In an article appearing in The Fordham Ram on November 20, 1947, reporter Patricia McGowan highlighted the result of Hess’s experiments, crediting the physicist with having proven that “ordinary blocks of granite emit gamma rays of the same type that atomic bombs give off when exploded.” Cunningham notes that when Hess wrote to thank the Board of Transportation for their generous donation of space, he included a check for his electricity use and labor costs.

Since his death in 1964, Hess’s unique use of the New York subway system during July and August of 1947 has largely gone unrecognized. Cunningham hopes that the city will erect a historic plaque at the site, but nothing has yet happened.

Visitors to the station today, hoping to scope out a bit of New York science history, won’t be able to find any actual remnants of Hess’ worksite. But the process of taking the elevator deep down through the exposed bedrock that frames the inside of the station, and walking to the platform’s northern downtown end does engender nostalgia, helping to ensure—even if unofficially—that Hess’s summer and the spirit of discovery live on.

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