Making of the Atomic Bomb

It is a profound and necessary truth that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because it was possible to find them. Robert Oppenheimer

“That’s impossible,” Einstein said. “This is something that cannot be done.” “Well, yes, but I did it.”

“I took a train from Berlin to Vienna on a certain date, close to the first of April, 1933,” Szilard writes. “The train was empty. The same train the next day was overcrowded, was stopped at the frontier, the people had to get out, and everybody was interrogated by the Nazis.73 This just goes to show that if you want to succeed in this world you don’t have to be much cleverer than other people, you just have to be one day earlier.”

Bohr was an exceptional athlete. The Danes cheered his university soccer exploits. He skied, bicycled and sailed; he chopped wood; he was unbeatable at Ping-Pong; he routinely took stairs two at a time.

We are “suspended in language,” Bohr liked to say,

Bohr was different in another regard as well; he was easily the most talented of all Rutherford’s many students—and Rutherford trained no fewer than eleven Nobel Prize winners during his life, an

“Bohr characteristically avoids such a word as ‘principle,’ ” says Rosenfeld; “he prefers to speak of ‘point of view’ or, better still, ‘argument,’ i.e. line of reasoning; likewise, he rarely mentions the ‘laws of nature,’ but rather refers to ‘regularities of the phenomena.’

He apologized similarly for his tentative, rambling habit of speech: “I try not to speak more clearly than I think.”287

coffeehouses, “the fountain of illicit trading, adultery, puns, gossip and poetry,”

Magyar nobility had managed to keep 33 percent of the Hungarian people illiterate as late as 1918 and wanted nothing of vulgar commerce except its fruits.384 As a result, by 1904 Jewish families owned 37.5 percent of Hungary’s arable land;

by 1910, although Jews comprised only 0.1 percent of agricultural laborers and 7.3 percent of industrial workers, they counted 50.6 percent of Hungary’s lawyers, 53 percent of its commercial businessmen, 59.9 percent of its doctors and 80 percent of its financiers.

Adam sensibly concludes that man will never achieve his ultimate ideals but ought to struggle toward them anyway,

He believed that group was shaped by the special environment of Budapest at the turn of the century, “a society where economic security was taken for granted,” as a historian paraphrases him, and “a high value was placed on intellectual achievement.”

to begin mathematics they looked up figures for Hungary’s wheat production and made tables and drew graphs. “At no time did we memorize rules from a book. Instead we sought to develop them ourselves.”400 What better basic training for a scientist

In 1920 the Horthy regime introduced a numerus clausus law restricting university admission which required “that the comparative numbers of the entrants correspond as nearly as possible to the relative population of the various races or nationalities.”421 The law, which would limit Jewish admissions to 5 percent, a drastic reduction, was deliberately anti-Semitic.

Johnny used to say that it was a coincidence of some cultural factors which he could not make precise: an external pressure on the whole society of this part of Central Europe, a feeling of extreme insecurity in the individuals, and the necessity to produce the unusual or else face extinction.”

And so often with deep physical discovery, the experience was elating but also psychologically disturbing:

At first, I was deeply alarmed. I had the feeling that, through the surface of atomic phenomena, I was looking at a strangely beautiful interior, and felt almost giddy at the thought that I now had to probe this wealth of mathematical structures nature had so generously spread out before me. I was far too excited to sleep, and so, as a new day dawned, I made for the southern tip of the island, where I had been longing to climb a rock jutting out into the sea. I now did so without too much trouble, and waited for the sun to rise.

Oppenheimer wrote Smith in December that he had not been busy “making a career for myself. . . . Really I have been engaged in the far more difficult business of making myself for a career.”

Everyone went to Como except Einstein, who refused to lend his prestige to Fascism.

The reason both could be accepted as valid is that “particles” and “waves” are words, are abstractions. What we know is not particles and waves but the equipment of our experiments and how that equipment changes in experimental use. The equipment is large, the interiors of atoms small, and between the two must be interposed a necessary and limiting translation.

Aston thought hard about J. J.’s discharge tube

Personally I think there is no doubt that sub-atomic energy is available all around us, and that one day man will release and control its almost infinite power. We cannot prevent him from doing so and can only hope that he will not use it exclusively in blowing up his next door neighbor.

He is likely to have been a sickly child or to have lost a parent at an early age. He has a very high I.Q. and in boyhood began to do a great deal of reading. He tended to feel lonely and “different” and to be shy and aloof from his classmates. He had only a moderate interest in girls and did not begin dating them until college. He married late . . . has two children and finds security in family life; his marriage is more stable than the average. Not until his junior or senior year in college did he decide on his vocation as a scientist. What decided him (almost invariably) was a college project in which he had occasion to do some independent research—to find out things for himself. Once he discovered the pleasures of this kind of work, he never turned back. He is completely satisfied with his chosen vocation. . . . He works hard and devotedly in his laboratory, often seven days a week. He says his work is his life, and he has few recreations. . . . The movies bore him. He avoids social affairs and political activity, and religion plays no part in his life or thinking. Better than any other interest or activity, scientific research seems to meet the inner need of his nature.525

It found that scientists think about problems in much the same way artists do. Scientists and artists proved less similar in personality than in cognition, but both groups were similarly different from businessmen.

Dramatically and significantly, almost half the scientists in this study reported themselves to have been fatherless as children, “their fathers dying early, or working away from home, or remaining so aloof and nonsupportive that their sons scarcely knew them.”

Those scientists who grew up with living fathers described them as “rigid, stern, aloof, and emotionally reserved.”528 (A group of artists previously studied was similarly fatherless; a group of businessmen was not.)

The title arrested him. He studied the accompanying photographs and diagrams. They explained enough to set Lawrence off and he did not bother to struggle through the text.

found that “uncommon sensitivity to experiences—usually sensory experiences” is the beginning of creative discovery in science. “Heightened sensitivity is accompanied in thinking by over-alertness to relatively unimportant or tangential aspects of problems. It makes [scientists] look for and postulate significance in things which customarily would not be singled out. It encourages highly individualized and even autistic ways of thinking.”

Were this thinking not in the framework of scientific work, it would be considered paranoid. In scientific work, creative thinking demands seeing things not seen previously, or in ways not previously imagined; and this necessitates jumping off from “normal” positions, and taking risks by departing from reality. The difference between the thinking of the paranoid patient and the scientist comes from the latter’s ability and willingness to test out his fantasies or grandiose conceptualizations through the systems of checks and balances science has established—and to give up those schemes that are shown not to be valid on the basis of these scientific checks. It is specifically because science provides such a framework of rules and regulations to control and set bounds to paranoid thinking that a scientist can feel comfortable about taking the paranoid leaps. Without this structuring, the threat of such unrealistic, illogical, and even bizarre thinking to overall thought and personality organization in general would be too great to permit the scientist the freedom of such fantasying.554 At the

Consider Rutherford playing his thoroughly unlikely hunch about alpha backscattering, Heisenberg remembering an obscure remark of Einstein’s and concluding that nature only performed in consonance with his mathematics, Lawrence flipping compulsively through obscure foreign journals: Were this thinking not in the framework of scientific work, it would be considered paranoid

At the leading edges of science, at the threshold of the truly new, the threat has often nearly overwhelmed. Thus Rutherford’s shock at rebounding alpha particles, “quite the most incredible event that has ever happened to me in my life.” Thus Heisenberg’s “deep alarm” when he came upon his quantum mechanics, his hallucination of looking through “the surface of atomic phenomena” into “a strangely beautiful interior” that left him giddy.

Otto Frisch remembers a discussion someone attempted to deflect by telling Bohr it made him giddy, to which Bohr responded: “But if anybody says he can think about quantum problems without getting giddy, that only shows that he has not understood the first thing about them.”

As Kapitza had settled in at Cambridge he had noticed what he considered to be an excessive and unproductive deference of British physics students to their seniors. He therefore founded a club, the Kapitza Club, devoted to open and unhierarchical discussion. Membership was limited and coveted. Members met in college rooms and Kapitza frequently opened discussions with deliberate howlers so that even the youngest would speak up to correct him, loosening the grip of tradition on their necks.

“I didn’t take Hitler at all seriously at first,” Frisch told an interviewer later. “I had the feeling, ‘Well, chancellors come and chancellors go, and he will be no worse than the rest of them.’

The Institute for Advanced Study would be established in Princeton, New Jersey. Einstein was its first great acquisition. He had suggested a salary of $3,000 a year. His wife and Flexner negotiated a more respectable $15,000.

one of Rutherford’s protégés and a future laureate.

An American physicist who worked with the middle-aged Fermi thought him “cold and clear. . . . Maybe a little ruthless in the way he would go directly to the facts in deciding any question, tending to disdain or ignore the vague laws of human nature.”

I had never done work in nuclear physics before, but Oxford considered me an expert. . . . Cambridge . . . would never had made that mistake

Not even his most important discovery kept Fermi from going home for lunch.

Remembering Rutherford in a letter to Oppenheimer on December 20 Bohr balanced loss with hope, complementarily: “Life is poorer without him; but still every thought about him will be a lasting encouragement.”861 And in 1958, in a memorial lecture, Bohr said simply that “to me he had almost been as a second father.”

Ernest Rutherford unknowingly wrote his own more characteristic epitaph in a letter to A. S. Eve from his country cottage on the first day of that last October. He reported of his garden what he had also done for physics, vigorous and generous work: “I have made a still further clearance of the blackberry patch and the view is now quite attractive

have ruled out breaking up the uranium nucleus. “You know, occasionally Fermi would tell you things, then you asked him, ‘But really, how? Show me.’ And then he would say, ‘Oh, well, I know this on c.i.f’ He spoke Italian.871 ‘C.i.f.’ meant ‘con intuito formidable,’ ‘with formidable intuition.’

“I believe all young people think about how they would like their lives to develop,” Lise Meitner wrote in old age, looking back; “when I did so I always arrived at the conclusion that life need not be easy provided only that it was not empty.

“Physics as soma”

She was already at breakfast and had no intention of discussing magnets:

I remember telling Robert Oppenheimer that we were going to look for [ionization pulses from fission] and he said, “That’s impossible” and gave a lot of theoretical reasons why fission couldn’t really happen. When I invited him over to look at the oscilloscope later, when we saw the big pulses, I would say that in less than fifteen minutes Robert had decided that this was indeed a real effect and . . . he had decided that some neutrons would probably boil off in the reaction, and that you could make bombs and generate power, all inside of a few minutes. . . . It was amazing to see how rapidly his mind worked, and he came to the right conclusions

I was at my piano, attempting with the collaboration of a friend and his violin to make Mozart sound like Mozart,

Incidentally, we are surely not trying to be too clever and will be quite satisfied if only we don’t look too stupid.”

[Wigner] said in his high-pitched voice that it was very interesting for him to hear this. He always thought that weapons were very important and that this is what costs money, and this is why the Army needs such a large appropriation. But he was very interested to hear that he was wrong: it’s not weapons but the morale which wins the wars. And if this is correct, perhaps one should take a second look at the budget of the Army, and maybe the budget could be cut.

In the days before the war, Otto Frisch remembers, in Hamburg with Otto Stern, he used to run experiments by day and think intensely about physics well into the night.

Fermi had concluded, writes Woods, that “tallness and handsomeness usually were inversely proportional to intelligence,”

“As long as I am convinced, as I am, that there are values worth more to me than my own life, I cannot in sincerity argue that it is wrong to run the risk of death or to inflict death if necessary in the defense of those values.”

The race was therefore not merely against Germany. As Roosevelt apparently sensed, the race was against time.

“Seaborg tells me that within six months from the time [plutonium] is formed [by chain reaction] he can have it available for use in the bomb,” was my comment. “Glenn Seaborg is a very competent young chemist, but he isn’t that good,” said Conant.

Segrè writes.1536 “ . . . I thought for a while that this term was used to refer to a source of nuclear energy in analogy with Volta’s use of the Italian term pila to denote his own great invention of a source of electrical energy [i.e., the Voltaic battery]. I was disillusioned by Fermi himself, who told me that he simply used the common English word pile as synonymous with heap” The Italian laureate was continuing to master the plainsong of American speech.

We were reasonably strong, but I mean we were, after all, thinkers. So Dean Pegram again looked around and said that seems to be a job a little bit beyond your feeble strength, but there is a football squad at Columbia that contains a dozen or so of very husky boys who take jobs by the hour just to carry them through college.1541 Why don’t you hire them?

“Fermi tried to do his share of the work,” Anderson adds; “he donned a lab coat and pitched in to do his stint with the football men, but it was clear that he was out of his class. The rest of us found a lot to keep us busy with measurements and calibrations that suddenly seemed to require exceptional care and precision.”

We were very fortunate in getting a sheet metal worker who made excellent solder joints. It was, however, quite a challenge to deal with him, since he could neither read nor speak English. We communicated with pictures, and somehow he did the job.”

“I don’t want to stay in Washington.” “If you do the job right,” General Somervell said carefully, “it will win the war.” Men like to recall, in later years, what they said at some important or possibly historic moment in their lives. . . . I remember only too well what I said to General Somervell that day. I said, “Oh.”

with a thirteen-year-old daughter and a plebe

They were Back of the Yards boys from the tough neighborhood beyond the Chicago stockyards and Zinn improved the fluency of his swearing keeping them in line.

He read Engels and Feuerbach and all of Marx, finding their dialectics less rigorous than his taste: “I never accepted Communist dogma or theory; in fact, it never made sense to me”.

They no longer consider the overall success of this work as their responsibility.

“entirely by large companies”—the Hungarian threnody

the word “unconditional” was discussed but not included in the official joint statement to be read at the final press conference. Then, on January 24, to Churchill’s surprise, Roosevelt inserted the word ad lib:

Churchill immediately concurred—“Any divergence between us, even by omission, would on such an occasion and at such a time have been damaging or even dangerous to our war effort”—and unconditional surrender became official Allied policy.

There was no secretary to whom we could entrust such documents, and therefore I typed them; meanwhile my father darned socks and sewed buttons on for us, a job which he carried out with his usual thoroughness and manual skill.2021

The great and deep difficulty that contained within itself its own solution was not, finally, the bomb. It was the inequality of men and nations. The bomb in its ultimate manifestation, nuclear holocaust, would eliminate that inequality by destroying rich and poor, democratic and totalitarian alike in one final apocalypse.

Notice that Bohr does not propose a world government of centralized authority but a consortium: “An open world where each nation can assert itself solely by the extent to which it can contribute to the common culture and is able to help others with experience and resources must be the goal to put above everything else.”

And most generally and profoundly: “The very fact that knowledge is itself the basis for civilization points directly to openness as the way to overcome the present crisis.”

Concessions would demonstrate goodwill; “indeed, it would appear that only when the question is taken up . . . of what concessions the various powers are prepared to make as their contribution to an adequate control arrangement, [will it] be possible for any one of the partners to assure themselves of the sincerity of the intentions of the others.”

Frankfurter suggested Bohr restate his case in a thank-you note,

How much the world lost that September is immeasurable. The complementarity of the bomb, its mingled promise and threat, would not be canceled by the decisions of heads of state; their frail authority extends not nearly so far.

Nuclear fission and thermonuclear fusion are not acts of Parliament; they are levers embedded deeply in the physical world, discovered because it was possible to discover them, beyond the power of men to patent or to hoard.

He knew how to organize, cajole, humor, soothe feelings—how to lead powerfully without seeming to do so.

Disappointing him somehow carried with it a sense of wrongdoing. Los Alamos’ amazing success grew out of the brilliance, enthusiasm and charisma with which Oppenheimer led it.

For the nominal sum of one dollar the Army contracted to borrow his patented process for Oak Ridge. He never saw the dollar.

Long after mother and daughter had been persuaded from the sidelines Fermi sat unbudging, mentally working out the steps. When he was ready he asked Bernice Brode, one of the leaders, to be his partner. “He offered to be head couple, which I thought most unwise for his first venture, but I couldn’t do anything about it and the music began. He led me out on the exact beat, knew exactly each move to make and when. He never made a mistake, then or thereafter, but I wouldn’t say he enjoyed himself. . . . He [danced] with his brains instead of his feet.”

“I don’t think I shall ever again live in a community where so many brains were,” comments Edwin McMillan’s wife Elsie, Ernest Lawrence’s sister-in-law, “nor shall I ever live in a community so confined that visitors expected us to fight with each other. We didn’t have telephones, we didn’t have the bright lights, but I don’t think I shall ever live in a community that had such deep roots of cooperation and friendship.”

The first man-made nuclear explosion would be a historic event and its designation therefore a name that history might remember. Oppenheimer coded the test and the test site Trinity.

Physically and chemically it resembled bismuth, the next element down the periodic table, except that it was a softer metal and emitted five thousand times as much alpha radiation as an equivalent mass of radium, which caused the ionized, excited air around a pure sample to glow with an unearthly blue light.

compulsively running away from home: “truancy” that “bordered on mania,” his mother told him.2191 “I had to grow older,” LeMay writes, “and be burdened with a lot of responsibilities, and begin to nourish ambition—I had to do these things before I could manage to control my temper and discipline my activities.”

Joliot knew less about German uranium research than anyone had expected.

southwestern Germany in the resort town of Haigerloch

Frisch nearly caused a runaway reaction one day by leaning too close to a naked assembly—he called it a Lady Godiva—that was just subcritical, allowing the hydrogen in his body to reflect back neutrons.

He had served his nation as President for thirteen years.

“The chief lesson I have learned in a long life,” he wrote at the end of his career, “is that the only way you can make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him and show your distrust.”

If the Manhattan Project did not hurry, that is, there would be no cities left in Japan to bomb.

The reputation of the United States for fair play and humanitarianism is the world’s biggest asset for peace in the coming decades.

I was anxious about this feature of the war for two reasons: First, because I did not want to have the United States get the reputation for outdoing Hitler in atrocities;

I went over to the British mission and met Bohr and tried to comfort him; but he was too wise and too worldly to be comforted,

Groves authorized only cold showers for his troops; their isolated duty would win them eventual award for the lowest VD rate in the entire U.S. Army.

“You don’t worry about it,” he adds fatalistically.2382 “I mean, if fifty pounds of explosives goes in your lap, you won’t know it.”

“what son-of-a-bitch could have done this?” Groves had been awarded such scurrilous genealogy before

Chain-smoking as much as meditative poetry drove him through his days.

Richard Feynman, a future Nobel laureate who had entered physics as an adolescent via radio tinkering, tinkered the radio to life.

“I wouldn’t turn away . . . but having made all those calculations, I thought the blast might be rather bigger than expected. So I put on some suntan lotion.”

Teller passed the lotion around and the strange prophylaxis disturbed one observer: “It was an eerie sight to see a number of our highest-ranking scientists seriously rubbing sunburn lotion on their faces and hands in the pitch-blackness of the night, twenty miles from the expected flash.”

At S-10000 someone heard Oppenheimer say, “Lord, these affairs are hard on the heart.”

Before the radiation leaked away, conditions within the eyeball briefly resembled the state of the universe moments after its first primordial explosion.

Had astronomers been watching they could have seen it reflected from the moon, literal moonshine.

Bainbridge went around congratulating the S-10000 leaders on the success of the implosion method. “I finished by saying to Robert, ‘Now we are all sons of bitches.’

“Well,” Stimson remarked to Harvey Bundy with relief, “I have been responsible for spending two billions of dollars on this atomic venture. Now that it is successful I shall not be sent to prison in Fort Leavenworth

They flew into history through a middle world, suspended between sky and sea, drinking coffee and eating ham sandwiches,

Lewis said he could taste atomic fission. He said it tasted like lead.

The world of the dead is a different place from the world of the living and it is hardly possible to visit there. That day in Hiroshima the two worlds nearly converged.

they died because they were members of a different polity and their killing did not therefore count officially as murder;

—running, stumbling, falling, and then running again until in headlong flight we tripped over something and fell sprawling into the street. Getting to my feet, I discovered that I had tripped over a man’s head.2620 “Excuse me! Excuse me, please!” I cried hysterically.

The most impressive thing I saw was some girls, very young girls, not only with their clothes torn off but with their skin peeled off as well. . . . My immediate thought was that this was like the hell I had always read about.

They were all painted with mercurochrome

I climbed Hikiyama Hill and looked down. I saw that Hiroshima had disappeared. . . . I was shocked by the sight. . . . What I felt then and still feel now I just can’t explain with words. Of course I saw many dreadful scenes after that—but that experience, looking down and finding nothing left of Hiroshima—was so shocking that I simply can’t express what I felt. . . . Hiroshima didn’t exist—

Gen. G: Yes, it has been a long road and I think one of the wisest things I ever did was when I selected the director of Los Alamos. Dr. O: Well, I have my doubts, General Groves. Gen. G: Well, you know I’ve never concurred with those doubts at any time.

When the bombs dropped and news began to circulate that [the invasion of Japan] would not, after all, take place, that we would not be obliged to run up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being mortared and shelled, for all the fake manliness of our facades we cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow up to adulthood after all.

the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage,

We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable. .