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Elmhurst Man Tapped for His Physics Knowledge to Work on Manhattan Project

Murray Peshkin was one of 10 young physics students that secretly worked on creation of an atomic bomb for the U.S. government.

Elmhurst resident Murray Peshkin was only 19 when he was tapped by the U.S. government to work on the Manhattan Project.

He was studying mathematics and physics at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., when his professor approached him and nine others about the secret government project.

“The professor called it the mystery program,” Peshkin said.

He was told that should he decide to accept the offer, he would be in the U.S. the entire length of his service, that he would not see his family until the war was over and that he would contribute technically to the war effort.

Peshkin and two others from his class agreed to participate.

“There were guys my age dying in trenches all the time,” Peshkin said. “The offer seemed like a dream, and was made to us by a person we respected.”

Peshkin was told to tell no one about the mystery program, to enlist in the Army like any other new recruit and that someone would contact him.

He did, and a few months later, he was pulled out of basic training and sent on a train with sealed orders to a secret laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M.

“I was too naive to be afraid,” Peshkin said.

He was initially assigned to the theory division, led by Hans Bethe, who later won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of how stars generate their energy; but Peshkin was later selected to assist renowned physicist Richard Feynman.

“I was a young student and they were the educators,” Peshkin said.

A couple of months into the project, Peshkin realized they were working on the development of the atomic bomb.

“In all the time I was there, I never heard an inkling that we shouldn’t be doing it,” Peshkin said. “We were building the bomb to get ahead of the Germans.”

Peshkin and his fellow project mates celebrated the success of their mission when the bomb, dubbed Little Boy, was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, at 8:15 a.m. Aug. 6, 1945. Three days later, Fat Man, a second bomb, was dropped on Nagasaki.

“It may have been the worst decision made by a well meaning president,” Peshkin said in a 2005 article he wrote for the Chicago Tribune titled, To Be Young, Gifted and Building the Bomb.

After the war, Peshkin completed his education by earning a doctorate in physics from Cornell University. 

“A doctorate is a visa into the scientific community,” Peshkin said.

He taught physics at Northwestern University, where he met and eventually married Frances, one of his former students, and in 1959 he went to work as a physicist for Argonne National Laboratory near Darien.

An educator in her own right, Frances taught in Hebrew school until their first child was born.

The Peshkins chose to settle in Elmhurst because of the library and the schools.

“Our three children had almost all their school years here, and received an excellent education at York High School,” Murray said.

“York gave our children a good launch,” Frances added.

And, indeed, the Peshkin children and grandchildren have followed in their parents' footsteps.

Their son Michael is a physics professor at Northwestern. His office is only 100 feet from where the senior Peshkin’s office was. His daughter, Sharon, teaches journalism at Columbia College in Chicago. His son Joel is an electrical engineer, and his granddaughter, Ariana, was just accepted into a biophysics graduate program at Princeton.

The Peshkins seldom spoke to their children or grandchildren about Murray’s involvement with the Manhattan Project.

“It was just a casual point of life,” Frances said.

But now that Murray is almost 86 years old, his thoughts are turning towards his legacy, his mark not only on his family, but on others who are interested in his life’s work and in science in general.

Peshkin has given some talks about his experience at Los Alamos to other physicists and physics students, but his real passion is speaking to churches and community groups about the conflict over the teaching of evolution in public school biology classes. (More information on Peshkin's talks can be found by clicking here.)

Peschkin and his wife belong to a local synagogue, but they say they are not religious.

“A Jew is defined by membership in a Jewish community, not by faith in a deity," he said. "I am a secular Jew.”

"Science and religion in the U.S. are approaching a collision that will severely damage our country's future scientific and technological excellence if we don't avert it," Peschkin said.

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