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Oral History Transcript — Dr. John Wheeler

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Interview with Dr. John Wheeler
By Kenneth W. Ford
At Jadwin Hall, Princeton University
February 21, 1994

Listen to Wheeler describe some of the principal contributors at Los Alamos National Laboratory.


This is one of 22 sessions of oral history interviews with John Archibald Wheeler conducted by Kenneth W. Ford between December 6, 1993 and May 18, 1995. They represent research material for Wheeler’s autobiography, Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics (Norton, 1998).

Session I | Session II | Session III | Session IV | Session V | Session VI | Session VII
Session VIII | Session IX | Session X | Session XI | Session XII | Session XIII – XXII

PARIS, 1949–50

In Paris my great hope was to translate the idea of action at a distance, sweeping out fields between particles, to translate that idea from electric forces to gravitational forces. Well, the field in the case of gravitation is space and time, so what this amounted to was the thought of sweeping out space and time between the particles. I won't go into the details of the idea. I don't think I ever published anything on it. I'm still hoping someday a student will come by who would like to take a whang at it. I would think that the approach of Ashtekhar to treating gravity might give a new flavor to the whole enterprise.

In my proposal to the Guggenheim Foundation, which was financing my stay in Paris, I had put forward the project of treating the physics of pairs, producing pairs of positive and negative electrons out of a vacuum, and the physics of this medium in bulk [4 My thought was to review ideas in that field periodically with Bohr in Copenhagen, but we ended up talking more about trying to reconcile the individual particle picture of nuclei with the liquid drop picture of nuclei. One of the developments that most stimulated thinking along those lines had to do with our German friends—I think it was Haxel and Jensen—[their] measurements of quadrupole moments of nuclei. One had already the thoughts of Mayer and Jensen on individual particle states in nuclei, but how to unite that with the idea of a nuclear deformation? So that's how come we got working on what I later called a collective model of nuclei. At that time, while I was visiting Copenhagen off and on from Paris, the idea I think both of us had was it being a joint paper, in a certain sense like our paper on the mechanism of nuclear fission. That enterprise got interrupted by my going to Los Alamos, and in the end Bohr suggested, since I wanted to get it done, that I publish it without his name on it.

I can't recall whether it was at this time or later that Bohr asked me if I would be willing to accept a position—I gathered as a professor—at Copenhagen. But I felt that with my family I ought to keep my base in America, and so I said no on that. I think that what he really hoped [was] that I would help him formulate his ideas on quantum mechanics. I could imagine a book on what quantum mechanics is and means coming out of that, or maybe some discovery that has still not been made.

Paris itself did not much influence my way in physics. I was grateful to talk to Leprince Ringuet—he was my official host in Paris—at l'Ecole Polytechnique. My endeavors at Princeton in the field of cosmic ray-physics as a tool to study elementary-particle physics made contact with him natural, because he was running balloon expeditions to study cosmic rays and promoting the construction of a cloud chamber which went into operation in the French Alps.


At l'Ecole Polytechnique I met also Bernard d'Espagnat. I loved to walk and talk with him about quantum mechanics. He continues to write on that subject. He published at least two books in the field. Through him I met Fritz London—or, I'm not sure if it was London or Edmund Bauer. I became acquainted with the paper of Bauer and London on quantum mechanics and measurement, and in a much later time in my life, with Zurek, I put together a collection of papers on quantum mechanics as it has to do with the question of measurement, and in that we put an English translation of a little booklet published by London and Bauer.


Maybe this is an appropriate time to tell the story about that. We tried to get their permission to publish our English translation. Later on I learned that at least two other people had made translations and had tried to publish it but had failed because they couldn't get permission from the publishing house. I turned out to be unable to get permission either. The name of the series was Les Actualités Scientifiques et Industrielles, and I had the feeling that the original publishing house was science-minded, if I can use that phrase. But they also, so I have been told, published some books on art. And how does Egypt come into this story? Was it that in Egypt the books on art sold better than the scientific books? Somehow the original publisher dropped out of the scene. I don't know whether it was death or simply sale of the publishing house. The man that came in and ran it was the one who took it over, because he was interested in the art books. My University of Texas colleague, Cecile Dewitt-Morette, had close relations with the world of French science. I asked her what to do about this, and she was kind enough to agree to talk to the publisher on her next visit to Paris. He said that he has told many people they could not duplicate this work, they could not reproduce it either in French or in translation, but he said she was the first person that he was sorry to have to say this to; everybody else he had rejoiced in being able to be negative to. Why? Well, he said, "I'm of illegitimate birth. People treat me like a son of a bitch, so I like to treat them the same way." Anyway, he did not give permission. The only way we managed to get it into the book was through the advice of the lawyer for the Princeton University Press. He said that the copyright that the French publisher held showed that it was valid only in France, so that if Princeton University Press would refrain from publishing the book in France, the publisher would have no recourse. So that's what we did. But part of the idea, Zurek's and mine, had been that every author would get a portion of the royalties in proportion to the number of pages of his contribution relative to the whole book. And the Princeton [University] Press carefully carried out this arrangement every year. But when they sent the portion of the royalties to the French publisher, the French publisher sent it back—sent back the check, saying, "This check does not correspond to any agreement in our files." [laughs]

The only other copyright difficulty I recall has to do with a book that Martin Rees, Remo Ruffini, and I published on black holes and cosmology. At the end of that book, where the text is our own, I reproduced some articles or pieces of articles by others. I don't recall having written for permission on those. At any rate, one of the items is a diagram from a paper by William Press, who is now at the Harvard Smithsonian Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and he said this did not have his permission, and he demanded that we come up with a payment for that—I think it was something like $75 or $85 that we paid, after the event, for having used that.


I had the good fortune in my trip to France to have the company of John S. Toll, then a graduate student at Princeton. I can't recall how we got onto the enterprise in the first place, but it had to do with taking information one might have about absorption of a quantum-mechanical system, an atom or a nucleus, the absorption of such a system for light, and what consequences that has for the scattering of light or a particle by that system. We found ourselves using a relationship that had been derived by H. A. Kramers and Kronig (I've forgotten the first name of Kronig). John Toll found ways to apply this relation to the response of a vacuum to electromagnetic radiation, production of pairs, and the scattering of light.

At the end of the Princeton school year in June of 1949 I had not gone immediately to Paris; instead my family and I went to the south of France, to get a chance to have a quiet summer and to let the children get up to speed on living in a country with a new language. We got a French girl in that place where we were living in the south of France. We lived at St. Jean de Luz. We had a French girl to teach the two older children, Letitia and James, French poetry that they could recite. It would be easy to pick up. But Alison, the youngest, was not enthusiastic, and at lunchtime—it was a long, slow process, lunch (all meals were), at the pension where we lived at St. Jean de Luz—in that long wait at lunchtime we'd fill in with the children reciting their French poetry that they'd learned that day or previous days. But Janette leaned over. What was Alison saying, she who was not keen on French? She was singing happily, "Three bottles of beer on the wall." [laughs] One of them falls.

K: In French?

No, in English. So that was how she entered school in the fall in Paris. John Toll generally had his meals with us, because he was living at the same pension, if I remember correctly, or nearby. John Toll was good enough to drive the family from St. Jean de Luz to Paris at the end of the summer. I wasn't on hand for that because I was off to Copenhagen on a train. Alison's enthusiasm for the new life was indicated by one incident along the trip. The little car, a tiny little car, had stopped at one cathedral that Janette felt the children ought to see. She and the two older children and John Toll went off to look at it. They came back and said, "Alison, you ought to come and see this." Alison, lying on the back seat, looked up and said, wearily, "I've seen it okay from here." [laughs] But when school began at the French school, l'Ecole Alsacienne down the street from where we lived in Paris, it was Alison who learned French the fastest, and she still is the one who speaks French the best.

K: Was John Toll the only student you had with you?

John Toll was the only student.

K: I thought you had mentioned Peter Putnam once, or was that a different time?

That's a good point. Now, was Peter Putnam there in Paris at this time? It was really on a later visit to Europe, to The Netherlands, that Peter Putnam came, and John Toll was not on that visit. That later visit there was with Peter Putnam, Charles Misner, and Joe Weber.

The French community had so many rich possibilities that I feel badly not to have taken advantage of more of them. The mathematical community was famous. There is a series of books associated with the name of Bourbaki where the leading French mathematicians undertook to express all the known things in mathematics in a form compatible with their philosophical ideas. Bourbaki, or Nicholas Bourbaki, however, was a mythical personality as far as the series went. There had been a Bourbaki General in the French army in the Franco- Prussian War, so it was respectable to use the name. I can recall going to a mathematics colloquium with some younger French mathematicians, and them jokingly promising to introduce me to Bourbaki in a break in the seminar. Of course I appreciated the joke, but I never did resonate, I confess, to Bourbaki.

K: John, one thing that stands out about your Paris year is the multiplicity of different things you were interested in and working on then—nuclear structure with Bohr; dispersion relations and pair creation; more on cosmic rays, I think; and then gravitation and general relativity. Was that a kind of a turning point year for you, or were all these threads already active in your thinking?

Well, I had not got involved at this point in general relativity, so the—

K: You mentioned action at a distance translated from electrodynamics to relativity.

Yes. The idea of trying to express gravitation in terms of action at a distance. That was without benefit of any knowledge, in any deep sense, of general relativity. I can't recall anybody really working with me on this action-at-a- distance view of gravitation theory. I got a few mathematical guidelines, I think it was from the mathematician Michael Artin of Illinois, whom I had met through my wife Janette having known his wife, Elsie Doob. But I would be hard put to it now to tell what benefit that was.


I had spoken about being away from Paris, trips to Copenhagen for a week or two at a time to interact with Bohr. I was also away for a period of a week or so for the October 1949 meeting of the American Nuclear Reactor Safeguards Committee with the corresponding British committee, meeting near Harwell, which in turn is near Oxford. I may have already spoken about that, so maybe I shouldn't try to duplicate that, except that I ought to find out if that meeting took place before or after the news came out of the explosion of the first Soviet atomic bomb.

I think I've described how soon I got the phone call at the pension in Paris from Harry Smyth, then a member of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, asking me to go to Los Alamos and participate in the super project there. I can't recall what code word he used over the phone, but I knew what he must be talking about, because Edward Teller, in some earlier encounter, had spoken to me about the importance of the project; and John von Neumann, at a dinner party at the home of Abe Spanel in Princeton, in a break when we were sitting out in the sunshine, spoke to me, he and Wigner spoke to me about the importance of this work. Well, you can see, with the influence of Teller, Wigner, and von Neumann around me, I feel as if throughout my life I have been guided by the stimulus of Hungarians.

K: Was Teller a member of the Nuclear Reactor Safeguards Committee?

Yes. Edward Teller was a member of the Reactor Safeguards Committee, and Richard Feynman was. Also a member was Harry Wexler. I think he was Chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau. And then there was Manson Benedict, I believe of the chemistry department of Washington University, St. Louis, because of his experience with radioactivity and nuclear chemistry. And wonderful Professor Abel Wolman, professor of sanitary engineering at johns Hopkins University, who had great experience in dealing with issues of concern to public health, especially in designing of sanitary systems for cities. [He was] full of wise mottos. I recall his motto of the sanitary engineer: "Pollution plus dilution equals solution."

K: That means you saw Edward Teller in October in Harwell?


K: So he must have spoken to you then also about the super project. That must have been so. I wish I could remember. I have a letter recently from a colleague who is upset that Edward Teller's memory of this, that, and the other thing doesn't agree, he believes, with the facts; therefore I am not sure that I would do any better asking Edward Teller what he might have said to me at Harwell than he would do in asking me what I said to him at Harwell. [laughs] Memory isn't what it used to be for either of us.

One experience of Abel Wolman was relevant to our children's diet in France. We had taken along powdered milk so they would be sure to get milk in their diet without the risks of French milk. Abel Wolman told of how he had been invited along once by a group of French officials to accompany them on their inspection of milk in French farms. There was one farm where the conditions were even more unsanitary than most. The officials insisted that the farmer dump his milk out in a ditch so there would be no risk of his putting it into the market. So the officials went off, but Abel Wolman stayed around to see what would happen. The farmer and his son rushed as fast as they could to a culvert that carried the things in the ditch through underneath the road off to a ditch on the other side of the road, and they put a milk can under the culvert and collected the milk. So we felt justified in sticking to our powdered milk for the children.

Well, after the phone call from Harry Smyth in Washington, and after the experience we had reading in the newspaper day by day [of] the growing crisis as a consequence of the first Soviet atomic bomb, we had an agonizing discussion in the bedroom, with our children dropping in now and again, about whether to stay on as a great opportunity for my work in Paris and Copenhagen, or to accede to Harry Smyth's request to go to Los Alamos, and we decided.

It was at this time that I made my last visit to Bohr in Copenhagen, and it was at breakfast there one morning, discussing the news and probably aware from my looks of my own state of being divided, that Bohr had said, "Do you imagine for one moment that Europe would now be free of Soviet control if it were not for the western atomic bomb?" He may have said American atomic bomb. And I think that was a factor in the discussion Janette and I had. We decided I would go.

About this time there was a call from Frederic De Hoffman of Los Alamos, that he would meet me and talk about the coming transfer, the proposed transfer to Los Alamos. Where would we meet? Well, Janette and I said that we would take a little fling, a little trip, before we parted, because we agreed that we should leave the children in Paris with her while I went to Los Alamos so they could finish the school year. We're talking now about a time in early February. We decided we would drive down to Italy in our little car, and Frederic De Hoffman suggested then that we should meet at the Hotel Negresco in Nice. If I remember correctly, we met him there on the way down toward Italy. Then I got clued in to what the state of affairs was, what the big problems were, what needed to be done. I can't recall whether it was there that I learned anything about how much the Russians probably knew from their espionage, but he, Frederic De Hoffman, had been a member of the declassification committee, the committee deciding what things could be declassified and what things should remain classified, the committee that worked jointly with the similar British committee. So he had some idea of what Klaus Fuchs had had access to. I think I've already described the situation of Klaus Fuchs across the table at the Harwell meeting of the Reactor Safeguards Committee.

K: No, I don't think so. Not on these tapes.

I see. Well, I think the story is told in that book At Home in the Universe. I think it's in the chapter called "Dealing with Risk." But if it's not there, it is surely in that contribution I made to the book of Roger Stuewer, the booklet which I had bound up separately later, a little booklet, maybe 20 copies, called Men and Moments.

K: Do you recall what Freddie De Hoffman 's position was at that time? I recall the following year he served as Edward Teller's assistant, in effect.

I see. Well, I don't really recall his being in T Group [Division]. It would certainly be nice to talk to Francoise Ulam, who lives now in Santa Fe, now that she's a widow. And another person, more authoritative, would be Carson Mark, [who was] the head of the T Division.

I can't recall just how John Toll came. He must have been involved in the discussions I had with Janette about whether to move to Los Alamos, and he must have responded to some of the same imperatives, although he was very much animated, if I remember correctly, by the idea called World Federalism.

Can you remember, Ken, about my talking with you? I must have stopped at Princeton on the way back.

K: Yes. You spoke to me and invited me to consider coming, but it was low key. That same spring, perhaps in March or April, Edward Teller was in Princeton, and he spoke with me in much more aggressive terms inviting me to come.

And when did you finally arrive?

K: In June.

And was John Toll already there?

K: I think so, yes. I recall the date because the Korean War started while I was en route from Princeton to Los Alamos, and I only learned about it after I got there.

Dean Acheson must have felt terrible after that war began, because he had made, some months before, a speech in which he referred to the security perimeter of the free world, and he had not put the boundary between South Korea and North Korea into that speech, so it was not clear to the North Koreans nor to the Russians, with whom they had talked, that we would indeed resist any attempt to move that boundary south.


At Los Alamos, the main thing was to get tuned in on what had been done and what needed to be done. There had been a wartime report, written near the end of the war, jointly by a group of authors—I think they included Freddie De Hoffman, Carson Mark, and Edward Teller. I can't recall whether the authorship included also Klaus Fuchs. [It was] a report on what the hopes were for a super and what ideas would be workable. Looking back on the reports that I read—that report and others—and the discussions I had with colleagues, having tuned in on the project, I can't understand how I could have been so stupid as not to appreciate the central point that the amount of energy that was available in reaction, if applied to heating up the material as it was then conceived, with 100-percent efficiency, wouldn't raise it to a temperature high enough to get a good reaction rate. And why not? Because so much of the heat would go to filling empty space, the empty space between the nuclei with thermal radiation.


K: Can I ask just one question, John, before you get into the work at Los Alamos? Were you personally actively involved in the efforts to bring other senior people to Los Alamos, or did you leave that up to Teller and others?

Yes. I was not involved in the efforts to bring any people. I can't recall who came, in fact.

K: As far as I recall, Lothar Nordheim was the only other senior academic who took a leave to come. But it's my recollection that Teller was very disappointed that he was so unsuccessful in bringing back a big team. I wonder how we would find out about who were sought for Los Alamos? Yesterday, when I was sorting out papers at home, I came across a senior thesis by a history student at Princeton, a thesis about David Bohm and his troubles with the security people and the House Unamerican Affairs [Activities] Committee. I know that Arthur Wightman had tried to find out some facts about Eugene Wigner's history by referring to the Dean of the Faculty file on Wigner, but that was not permitted. Not until after a person has died is anything made available [1. But Bohm has now died, and since I had recruited David Bohm for Princeton from Berkeley, I would be very interested to ask if we could now look at the Dean of the Faculty file on David Bohm and see what had been written about him. Oppenheimer had been somebody who was a promoter of Bohm, and Oppenheimer had wanted him to come to Los Alamos, but the security people wouldn't let that go through.

I would like to find out if Wigner had been asked to come. Von Neumann visited more than once, but he certainly was not there anything approaching full-time. Fermi had come now and again, but he was not there full-time. Teller, wanting to get this, that, and the other person involved, [became] in effect a laboratory leader, but of course the actual laboratory leader was Norris Bradbury, the true Director. I don't know whether it was in competition for people or in competition for priority that Teller first fell out with Bradbury.


I'd forgotten that during this time I was continuing my relationship with Du Pont, as it had grown up in the building of the Hanford piles. Du Pont paid me a monthly retainer, and I would spend two or three days a month, if I remember right, on the average, with Du Pont people. The reactors at Savannah River, South Carolina were the principal topic. I recall it upset Bradbury to have me have this connection with Du Pont along with the connection with Los Alamos, although they were very different in scope, intensity, and what-not. Anyway, I recall his catching me in the corridor one day, drawing me into his office, and there were two or three other of the higher members of the Los Alamos hierarchy there, and he started quizzing me about this relationship with Du Pont—how much time I spent and how much I got paid—which was a little embarrassing for me, and finally insisting that I should give it up, which I did.

My Du Pont friends had a pretty good idea of what I must be doing. Dale Babcock was the member of their staff I was closest to, and I recall one day saying to him, "It's crazy for us to shoot off our atomic bombs as separate things because they're just match sticks to light the real thing and we should think of getting on with something like an H bomb." He was very sympathetic to that, although we certainly didn't talk about any details.


I must have lived at the Los Alamos Lodge during this period, because I can't think of where else I could have lived. Did you move there?

K: No. By the time I arrived, you had moved with your family into the 20th Street house, the Bathtub-Row house.


K: John Toll and I lived first in a dormitory and then moved later to a rented house.

I see, yes.

K: At the end of the last tape you had started to talk about the review of the previous work and reports.

In thinking back on it now, I think I would have done better to just walk up and down, not sit at any desk talking to anybody—walk up and down talking about the general problem of the thing. Then I think it would have been more likely that my colleagues and I would have hit on the idea that eventually was the central idea of Teller and Ulam . . . [Note: I removed here from the written transcript JAW's remarks on the Teller-Ulam idea because he may have touched on material that is still classified. I have not attempted to delete these remarks from the tape. KWF]

If that was one key point that ought to have been sorted out early on, the second one was the nature of the fuel. I should have appreciated all the problems that would go with dealing with liquid hydrogen. You just don't carry liquid hydrogen around in a teacup; you have to have an elaborate thermal insulation; whereas, if one would switch to lithium, you would still have a thermonuclear fuel, but one in a solid form. Especially if one had lithium deuteride. If we had appreciated that point early, the effort to get separated lithium 6 could have started much sooner.

We must have written reports before we moved from Los Alamos to Princeton, but I'll swear I can't remember on what.

K: I recall one very thick report, which I think was referred to as "the phone book," that was trying to pull together everything that was known and what the problems were.

I see.

K: But I can't recall the date. It happened, I think, in the fall of 1950, or maybe the beginning of '51.

This was not the final report of Project Matterhorn that you're speaking about?

K: No, this was prior to Matterhorn. In fact, it was prior to the Teller-Ulam idea.




It interests me how the nature of the work that our Los Alamos colleagues did was attuned to their personalities. Edward Teller, ebullient, breezy; Carson Mark, very much aware of what was going on and very practical-minded with a good sense in assessing how things were; Stan Ulam, imaginative, always looking for something clever or some central principle that he could use, and mathematically-minded. I can't recall that we had any special guidance at this time on our problems by the men who were later to be so important in getting a test, people in the Test Division. I don't know why I can't even now remember their names. And I can't remember Bradbury getting to the technical side very much. Marshall Holloway had had so much to do with tests that he was always a good person to talk with, and Al Graves. Louis Rosen I remember as a dynamic personality, but I can't recall any interaction with him on the problem of the super, although later on I did very much appreciate contact with him on his efforts to build what he called a meson factory at Los Alamos to experiment with this particle that had been only available before in the cosmic rays and in a few nuclear experiments. And there was Harold Agnew; I think he had taken part later on in some of the H bomb testing work.

K: It is my recollection that Carson Mark did an extraordinary job in his role of chairing the so-called Family Committee. He'd bring in all the inputs from different directions—the engineering, the metallurgy, the cryogenics, the theory, the physics experiments.

What was the name of the committee?

K: Family committee.

Yes. Good.

K: Is that your recollection as well?


K: That he played that special role of putting all the pieces together?

And in a very good way. Not interfering with people's zip; in fact encouraging it. But being always very practical. And that word, the Family Committee, certainly expresses well the spirit he gave that we're all one family working for a common goal. [The name may have been based on the idea of a new family of weapons. KWF]


Family life did not begin again for me until the family arrived. I went to New York to meet them coming in on the boat. We took the train from New York to Chicago. At Chicago the brother of my sister-in-law had been good enough to arrange the purchase of a car that we of course paid for. So we got in this car and drove from Chicago to Los Alamos. We arrived in New Mexico a little before lunchtime, and on that June day we got to Taos at lunchtime itself, and we decided to have lunch there. We had lunch at the restaurant that D. H. Lawrence and his wife had made famous, and there we had for wine Meiers Ohio State wine. It wasn't until later that we appreciated the connection of that wine with New Mexico. In the book of Willa Cather, Death Comes For the Archbishop, the story is told of Bishop Lamy, the French Catholic missionary whose first place of duty in what became U.S. territory was in Ohio. He started wine growing on the Isle St. George in Lake Erie, and that's the place where this wine came from. Later he came to New Mexico as Bishop at Santa Fe. A little north of Santa Fe sits Bishop's Lodge, where he liked to go for a retreat, which is now a tourist resort. I think we had had a little problem with the car going at altitude. We had to have the carburetor adjusted in Colorado. I also remember Janette's reaction to the car, this Studebaker car—I can't recall the exact variety of the Studebaker car. She used to call it the "Hollywood hearse." I may have mentioned the problem of selling our car in France. Did I?

K: No, you didn't.

No, I didn't. Because the title of the car was in my name, and France, being so sticky legally as it is, that was not adequate for selling it. So I consulted a lawyer at Los Alamos. I ought to remember his name before too long. He prepared a document by which I transferred title to her. The original form that he had for that purpose transferred title to everything: house, bank account, car, all property. He said, "You don't want to do that, because look: it would allow your wife to go and sell your house. She could go off with your house and all your money." [laughs] I explained to him there was no concern I had on that score. But he had been divorced, so that's why that meant something to him. Then he had to get the document approved by the French Consul in New Orleans, and then I could mail it to Janette so she could sell the car.


I'm not sure that I had sense enough to realize that what was missing was a good idea. For some reason things were dragging along. We weren't getting any H bomb designed. In how large a community did the idea grow that we would get along faster if we had more good people involved? How do we recruit more people? It must have seemed obvious to me that people had been so fed up with war work, and the idea of any association with an atomic bomb had implications so negative, that people who could obviously contribute would be hopeless to get at Los Alamos. I certainly didn't want to spend my life on this project. I think it was along about December of 1949 [slip of tongue; should be 1950] that I came to the conclusion we ought to have a portion of the work in a place like Princeton, where people would be willing to come for the academic attraction of the place as well as for the importance of the work. Smyth must have been back at Princeton by this time, but I'm not sure that he was. At any rate, he was important in the Princeton scheme of things, and I wrote him, if I remember correctly, proposing that we should have a separate center at Princeton working for Los Alamos to get on with this enterprise. I don't know the sequence of events, but somehow Oppenheimer's opinion was solicited either by Smyth or by the President of the University, and that gave a green light.

These letters of mine must have been with prior approval from Bradbury, and I can't recall a thing about consultations with him on this score. But there must be something in the written record. Lillian Hoddeson, if she were only doing a study of the thermonuclear period, and maybe she by now is, would be a great source of information on this. It may be that in my files of correspondence at Philadelphia there is something. I recall that Norris Bradbury was very insistent that the relationship between this upcoming project and Los Alamos should be clearly defined, should be done for Los Alamos, not as an independent enterprise.

I should ask Lyman Spitzer about my conversations with him that resulted in enlisting him for the enterprise. Why not others as well? I talked to people and I wrote to roughly 120 people—I'm sure there are copies available of letters of this type I wrote—but very little in the way of any senior colleagues out of the world of physics being willing to come. One of them, who shall be nameless—but between you and me, it's Bethe—I remember talking with at some length, and in our final conversation we were walking around Palmer Square in downtown Princeton, and he was saying he would "rather be Red than dead." In other words, if the Russians were going to win, okay. In other words, the finality of the proposed weapon was for some people an argument against taking part in the enterprise. It will be so interesting to juxtapose this with selections from the Sakharov book of various people's reactions in Russia about the bomb business—should they take part? And I should go back and read what it says about their appreciating the two key points: (a) [the Teller-Ulam idea—detail omitted in this written transcript], and (b) using lithium instead of deuterium.

K: You recall, in Sakharov's memoirs, he never mentions even that much of the physics; he refers to Idea 1 and Idea 2 and Idea 3, perhaps. It's very frustrating because one doesn't know exactly what those ideas are that he's referring to.

Fortunately these other colleagues that contributed to the Sakharov book, the Sakharov memorial book, reveal more.


Astrophysics makes such use of thermonuclear reactions in accounting for the output of energy by the sun and other stars; that might be why Lyman Spitzer could be persuaded to take part in the new Princeton project. Prior to doing that, it was of course advisable for him to visit Los Alamos. Unfortunately for the thermonuclear [weapons] side of it, on his way to Los Alamos he stopped off in Colorado for a bit of skiing, and that little brief space of time gave him a chance to dream up the idea for how to confine particles in a thermonuclear reactor that would operate under controlled conditions—no runaway, no bomb, just straight power production.


We were sitting at a table in Smyth's office when the question came up what to call the project. Well, Lyman Spitzer liked mountain climbing, and it's not easy to climb the Matterhorn, so why not call it Project Matterhorn? That was his proposal. I reciprocated by giving a name to the controlled reactor that he was thinking about; since it was like a star and yet it was an energy generator, I called it stellarator.

So, from that point dates the division of Project Matterhorn into a Part A concern with the explosion and Part B concerned with a controlled release of thermonuclear energy. [Note: It is my recollection that the Wheeler group was Matterhorn B (for bomb) and the Sptitzer group was Matterhorn S (for Stellarator). KWF] John Toll and Ken Ford had Los Alamos experience, but other people we were able to recruit did not. If I were doing it over again, I think I would realize from the start the people to get are people that you're drawing into a career; not people that you're drawing out of a career.

Schwinger—and I should be anonymous about him, let's call it capital S—at Harvard was one of those to whom I wrote, and I learned later that he had shown my letter to various people around—not so much an example of a need, but as an example of Wheeler eloquence at trying to sell something. It was about the 1st of May, 1950 . . .

K: '51, probably.

1951. What's happened to 1949? I've somehow slipped over a lot then.

K: No, it's okay. A while ago you mentioned '49 when you really meant '50. I didn't pick up on that, but I know what you meant.

. . . by the time that we were together at Matterhorn. By the way, you have a picture, I guess, of the gang.

K: Yes, I think I have it. I hope so.

Peggy Murray, our secretary, lives in a retirement community not too far from Meadow Lake.

At some point along the way—I can't recall whether it was before or after this- -there was a shot at Eniwetok which was to test the idea of using tritium to boost the output of an ordinary atomic bomb. This was a small-scale test of the thermonuclear idea. I don't recall the name of that test, but it was clear by now that the key game was to use an atomic bomb to [stimulate a thermonuclear explosion in accordance with the idea of Teller and Ulam—detail omitted].

There are two points in that: one is the idea of [ignition], and the other is the idea of combustion. In both we required calculation, although a little later on, Bethe, coming to review our results, conceived, as we should have done long before, of a general way to treat these points analytically instead of numerically. But numerical methods were what we had learned from Los Alamos and numerical methods were what we were using. It required use of computers in New York, thanks to IBM; in Philadelphia, the so-called Maniac [should be Univac]; and in Washington, [the SEAC] at the National Bureau of Standards. The coding for the IBM computers in New York was done by John Sheldon and the group associated with him. I was astonished in 1957 to discover that the piece of Maine property that we bought adjoined John Sheldon's place. That was a chance to renew old relations. By then, however, he was out of the computing business.


But would the business work? That was the big issue, and that was a central issue in front of the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission at the time it met in May of 1951—as usual under the chairmanship of Oppenheimer. I can't recall who recounted to us the rumor that Oppenheimer had said about this thermonuclear enterprise, "Let Teller and Wheeler go ahead. Let them fall flat on their faces." But that, true or not, symbolized the impression that I had of his attitude toward it all. By the spring of 1951, at the time I had a discussion with him, the feeling I got was that he thought it couldn't be made to work; or, if it could be made to work, it would be too heavy to cart on an airplane; or, if it could be made to work and were not too heavy to carry on an airplane, it would not be useful. Right or wrong, as descriptions of his attitude, they were what I conceived his attitude to be as I got up to give my report on our work. And as I was describing what we had been trying to do, there came a knock at the window. When I turned, there was Ken Ford. He had a long roll of paper which he handed in to me, and I taped it up on the blackboard. It gave a graphic description of the progress of the burning front [in] the proposed device. I think it was after that that Oppenheimer said the idea was technically sweet.

K: Is that a phrase that he actually used at that meeting, do you recall? I don't remember his using it, but I don't remember much of anything, to tell you the truth. I don't know who else was there who could have remembered, who was on the General Advisory Committee at that time.

All during our calculation period, we had been keeping in touch with the Los Alamos people who would have to build and test the proposed gadget. I recall Edward Teller suggesting at one point that we should use gold as a shield, but I don't recall what it was to shield against.


There were regular meetings with the people who would be building the device, or were building it, meaning trips about once a month out from Princeton to Los Alamos and back. I recall one meeting—I can't recall about what—between Edward Teller and Norris Bradbury. There were six or eight others there. I have never seen Edward's face so black. He had been arguing to go faster on the project. There was obviously a pressure to get going. It is so interesting that, in the end, it was a matter of only a few months that separated the American test from the slightly later Soviet test. Without the pressure to move ahead, the order of events could have been the other way around. I shudder to think of the psychological effect on the world of saying, "Look, the Russians have an H bomb, and the Americans don't."


The test was set for November 1, 1952, at the Elugelab Atoll [Island?] of the Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. One of the companions on the flight out—the flight, of course, on a military plane—was Furrer. He had been a key man at the American Car and Foundry Company, I believe in Wisconsin, and had been called in because of his experience in making castings.

It was an unbelievably heavy rain when we landed at Eniwetok, but that was the tropics for you. From people there we learned about how the island had been used by the Japanese during the war to train their people, having to make their way all around the atoll, running across one of the little islands, swimming to the next, running across it, and so on. I thought it sounded pretty risky after I flew over the atoll in a helicopter.

I can't recall any crises arising during the assembly of the Mike device, but I do remember being on board the Navy cruiser S. S. Curtis, if I remember the name correctly. We were about 35 miles away, if I am correct, when we observed the shot. Dark glass to look through. First a black spot on the horizon, then this opening out of brilliance as if the sun had just come into view. Then this getting covered up by a churning mass of clouds, and the churning mass of clouds gradually winning out and the whole cloud complex rising high in the sky.

Great as the energy release was—and I'm ashamed to say it was about thirty percent more than we figured because we did not allow for supplementary nuclear reactions taking place. It's possible to be conservative in one sense and be off in the other sense.

That shot was November 1, 1952. the American election was, if I remember correctly, the next day. I always thought it was to Truman's credit that he didn't attempt to make any political hay out of the event.

At Matterhorn, we settled down to put together a comprehensive report on H bomb devices, insofar as we had explored them. John von Neumann was a help to us in his inimitable way of taking any discussion and, coming to a branch point, saying if we do so and so, we get such and such, and if we do such and such, we come to this and that. That report, PMB-38 (PMB for Project Matterhorn, Division B) was used, so I've been told, for some ten years after Mike in design work on H bombs at Los Alamos.


I had already anticipated the successful outcome of the Mike shot of November in a discussion of the then-chairman of the Physics Department, Allen Shenstone, in June of 1952, saying to him that I looked forward to getting back to my academic work at Princeton, and was there any chance that when fall rolled around I could teach a course in relativity? I suppose my interest in relativity had been whetted by that 1927 book of Lorentz called Problems of Modern Physics, where the quantum and relativity were the central features. So at the time of the Mike shot, I was already teaching this course in relativity. I gave my students an examination, and I mailed the papers, after I had graded them, back from Honolulu. That was an odd place for Princeton papers to come from.

K: I recall that you sent us a telegram to let us know that the shot had been successful. It was an open telegram, not a classified one, so that you had to word it in a way to avoid revealing anything publicly. You worded it so carefully and so cleverly that we weren't quite sure whether you were announcing a success or not. [laughter] But we thought probably Yes.


K: Is there anything you want to say about your role in the creation of Livermore, the discussions that led to it? I've forgotten just when that happened.

Well, coming back to that discussion between Bradbury and Teller, where Teller's face was so black: I knew he didn't feel that thermonuclear devices were getting a fair shake at Los Alamos. He felt there ought to be a separate laboratory. The Atomic Energy Commission, however, was opposed, in the beginning, to having a separate laboratory. So Edward Teller, capitalizing on his contacts with influential people in the Air Force, got the Air Force to agree to set up a laboratory. I think the first thought was for the Air Force to set it up in Omaha. When rumor of that development reached the Atomic Energy Commission, they decided that it was a good idea after all to have a second laboratory, only it ought to be under their control.

Livermore was the obvious place. Already people from Berkeley had had a center going at Livermore. A number of people from Berkeley had had a very prominent place in devising the test gear that was used to register the shock and the radiation and other features of the Mike shot. So there was a real contact from that California location with the thermonuclear work. And Edward resonated with Ernest Lawrence. Ernest Lawrence was in favor of this business. So Livermore was set up as a separate laboratory, initially under the direction of Herb York, but with Edward Teller being the "preacher in residence."


I don't know whether I have told the story about the loss of a document on a train to Washington.

General James McCormack was director at this time of the Division of Military Applications of the Atomic Energy Commission. He was sympathetic with the work we were doing at Matterhorn. As we started considering lithium, and as lithium gradually became more and more appealing, and the need for separated lithium 6 became more evident, his help was essential in getting production of separated lithium 6 on track, using the facilities at Oak Ridge. Unfortunately, I don't remember the wonderful colleague there who had so much to do with making that go. He later became director of a company, I think in the Boston area.

I've written somewhere about asking McCormack what would happen if he weren't pushing the production of lithium 6, and he said, "The American people would see to it that I was thrown out of office."

Another person who was interested in lithium 6 was Senator Jackson. Being the Chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy, he had been in touch with this program right along and aware of the Mike shot in the Pacific. His right-hand man, his staff secretary, was William Borden. Borden was like the dog of a master who barked louder and bit harder than the master. Borden insisted that anyone holding up the production of lithium 6 was somehow a traitor.

By this time, Eisenhower was President. For Jackson, being a Democrat, any criticism of the Administration amounted to Democratic criticism of Eisenhower, indirectly.

I had written a letter to Borden, or Borden had written a letter to me, about how important it was to get on with this lithium business. It was one of the letters I took with me on the train going to a meeting in Washington. I should not have taken any classified material with me, but it was my chance to read some things that I hadn't had time to read before. So, in my berth on the train, I read that report and at least one other report. In the morning, when I went to get off, I couldn't find the report. I looked everywhere. I looked in the men's room, I looked on the floor. I got the porter enlisted, I asked various passengers. No luck. So instead of going to my meeting when I got off the train, I went to a telephone in Union Station in Washington and phoned Bill Borden's office. He got the security people at work. Then the train was pulled apart and this particular car was rolled back to a place a couple of blocks away, where it could be gone over, item by item, carefully, by the investigating people.

Well, word of this got to Eisenhower, and he blew up. He summoned the Atomic Energy Commission in front of him, according to what Harry Smyth told me, and he didn't let them sit down. He had them standing while he sat, and he lectured them. "You can't allow these security violations to take place." He insisted that I be given an official reprimand.

We never did clear up what happened there. But poor Bill Borden! This brought out into the open his position, trying to indicate that somehow Oppenheimer was soft on the thermonuclear business. It was about this time that he wrote his letter saying that it was more probable than not that Oppenheimer was a spy. That led to the Oppenheimer hearings. Borden, in the end, was thrown out of his office, and he really had his career broken by that incident.

K: And the lost letter, was it ever found?

The lost letter was never found. I can't really recall that it would have had any great repercussions if the Russians had read it the moment I lost it.


Lewis Strauss, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, had been sympathetic to our Matterhorn effort. The property used for the work had belonged to the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. When the Rockefeller Institute Board of Trustees decided to consolidate all their work at New York instead of being divided between New York and Princeton, they left the property vacant and tried to make it easy for Princeton University to acquire the property. That meant making a price that was not the commercial price but less than the commercial price, but still a lot of money to raise. Strauss had been a friend of Forrestal, and he felt that this would be a great memorial to Forrestal if this property could be acquired for Princeton and be called the Forrestal Center. I recall a ceremony where Strauss was greeting all the important people that were coming in, people who had stood in a position to give money toward the gift.

I had seen another side of it, too. The Director of the Institute for Medical Research at Princeton was Carl Ten Broeck, a neighbor across the street at Princeton who had been a great help to my wife and me when we first moved to Princeton. He had not been given even the courtesy of being present at the meeting where this idea—giving up the Princeton center—was bruited and accepted. It was a great sadness to him.

Of course, you can't move people at will. Wendell Stanley, at the Princeton center, had won the Nobel Prize for his work on the tobacco mosaic virus, a system at the border line between animate and inanimate matter. He moved to Berkeley. Other key people moved to other places rather than go to New York. But the move to New York left enough good people in the New York center to make it possible to convert the Rockefeller Center [Institute] in New York to a university. I can't remember for sure who was the first President of Rockefeller University. It may have been Detlov Bronk.

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