Alfred Lee Loomis is not a well-known scientific personality, which is exactly how he wanted it, according to Jennet Conant in her fascinating book, "Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science that Changed the Course of World War II" (Simon&Schuster, $26, 330 pages).
Loomis was a man determined to leave little trace of his life for history to examine. Although his name frequented newspaper front pages during his lifetime, Alfred Loomis rarely gave interviews and destroyed his personal papers before his death.
Loomis was an entrepreneur and financier who made an enormous fortune during the 1920s by investing in public utilities. Successful in business, but his first love was science. To pursue that love, Loomis established a private laboratory in a massive stone mansion called Tower House, located in the wealthy New York City neighborhood of Tuxedo Park.
Working days at his investment house, Bonbright & Company, Loomis devoted nights, weekends and holidays to a wide array of projects in his private laboratory. He carried out this back-breaking schedule for more than 5 years before finally liquidating his assets and turning all his attention to science.
Loomis' wealth allowed him to establish one of the premier physics laboratories in the world, and he also managed to bring together some of the best scientists to help him take advantage of these resources. The scientists were provided with luxurious living quarters, lively meals served in lavish style and some of the world's finest scientific equipment with which to pursue their research interests.
Far from being a mere benefactor of science, Loomis himself became deeply involved in many of the projects underway in his laboratory. As Conant describes his talents, "Working in his laboratory alongside accomplished scientists, Loomis excelled as the innovative designer of precision mechanical devices."
The Tuxedo Park laboratory was the source of several seminal pieces of work in experimental physics, including pioneering work in ultra-sonics, in the development of ultra-precision clocks, and in the study of brain waves and sleep cycles. The most famous work in the Loomis laboratory laid the foundation for the eventual development of both radar and atomic weapons.
Conant does an admirable job of explaining the science behind the projects undertaken in the Loomis laboratory. In clear and understandable prose, she outlines the details of the major scientific contributions that came out of Tuxedo Park and at the same time offers glimpses of the personalities of the lab's many resident scientists and visitors, including some of the greatest minds of the 20th century: Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr and Enrico Fermi.
The book also portrays Loomis' high-rolling years prior to the establishment of the lab. Nearly alone among Wall Street tycoons, he foresaw the stock market crash of 1929 and made a fortune while others plummeted into bankruptcy. During the Great Depression, he was able to maintain a fabulous lifestyle that included racing yachts and purchasing property -- including Hilton Head Island, S.C.
Conant describes Loomis' marriage to a beautiful but troubled woman who suffered repeated hospitalizations, and his clandestine affair with the wife of an associate. His divorce scandalized New York society, drove Loomis into near seclusion and possibly contributed to his obsession for privacy the rest of his life.
Conant herself contributes a unique perspective to the narrative: she grew up with Loomis' children and her grandfather was James Bryant Conant, a president of Harvard University who worked in the Tuxedo Park lab.
The book offers a substantial overview of the politics that served as a backdrop to Loomis' work, particularly the events leading up to World War II. Loomis kept a close watch on international developments and it was news of trouble brewing in Europe that prompted him to turn the whole force of his formidable intelligence to the project of developing the microwave technology that eventually led to radar.
Loomis was honored by and inducted into several scientific organizations during his lifetime, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society, and both the Royal and the American Astrological Societies. Such honors were rare for amateur scientists with little formal scientific training, but Loomis' work and multitude of scientific publications earned him the right to wear the label of "scientist."
Not everyone viewed Loomis or his laboratory with as much veneration as the scientists lucky enough to be invited to work there, Conant writes. In particular, the other residents of the Tuxedo Park neighborhood often were quite annoyed with the activities at Loomis's laboratory and the wide assortment of individuals allowed into the normally exclusive neighborhood.
At one point, Conant reports, "Although they did not have a hand in creating the dark thunderclouds that hung low over Tuxedo's rolling hills, many of the residents reportedly blamed the atmospheric disturbances on the activities up at Tower House."
Loomis dismantled the Tuxedo Park after World War II, but Loomis continued to work behind the scenes with many scientists, particularly Ernest Lawrence at the University of California at Berkeley and his ground-breaking work with cyclotrons.
Unlike other scientists of the time, Loomis never sought a role in Washington as a scientific adviser to the heads of government. He remained out of the public eye, preferring to work as a behind-the-scenes facilitator, helping scientists to obtain funds and collaborators for their research.
Conant ends her book with a quote from one of the scientists who worked at Tuxedo Park: "Alfred didn't take credit for things, that was very characteristic of him ... History forgot him. Well, in a sense he forgot himself, because he didn't care about all that. He wasn't interested in the past. He was interested only in the present and the future."
Despite his wish for anonymity, Conant has provided history with a detailed and thoughtful portrait of this multi-talented man and important historical figure.