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Interview of Lyman Spitzer by Joan Bromberg on 1978 March 15, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4900
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Korean war spurs formation of study group at Princeton University (John A. Wheeler) for military research, 1951. H-bomb division & controlled fusion. Project Matterhorn; the first Stellarator device (Enrico Fermi). Formation of Lawrence Livermore Laboratory (Ernest O. Lawrence, Edward Teller). Plasma confinement problems (Martin Krushal, Martin Schwarzschild, Teller); Jim Tuck. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) arranged meeting between Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (Tuck) and Princeton (Spitzer) groups. British ZETA project and AEC involvement in controlled fusion reactor with strong Strauss support. Later Stellarator models (J. Van Allen); industrial involvement of General Electric Co. & Westinghouse; connections to astrophysics and basic plasma research.
I have a few questions. I just put them together chronologically. In the very early period, the references show that Matterhorn was being set up in the winter and spring of 1951. At least it was formally being set up, according to the correspondence.
Spring of ‘51, yes, that’s correct.
I do have the impression though, both from reading Bishop and from your interviews with AIP, that you were already connected with it somewhat, as early as 1950 - at least in the planning.
Yes. Now, I forget the chronology of the Korean War.
That’s June ‘50.
Yes, and it lasted until when?
‘52, I’m pretty sure.
Well, at the time that the Korean War started, a number of scientists in this country, we were among them, felt that we should get back to some extent into research with military significance, just as we had done a few years earlier in World War II. There was some talk, at that time, of setting up a study group here in Princeton in connection with the hydrogen bomb, and it was for that reason that I stopped at Los Alamos, in December of 1950, on my way back from Pasadena. I used to go to Pasadena to observe with the Mt. Wilson 100-inch telescope every other year, for three or four months. I sort of agreed with Johnnie Wheeler in the late summer of 1950, that I would join him in such a study group here in Princeton in the summer of '51, when he expected to return. In preparation for that I stopped off at Los Alamos, where Johnnie Wheeler was then on leave, to find out something about the hydrogen bomb research that they were carrying out there. Then it was in the late winter following that summer — this is February or March or so — I went out to Aspen, and it was out there that I began thinking about the problems of controlled fusion — partly spurred by the Argentine announcement.
I got interested in that, and when it came time to set up the study group, my interest had shifted from the explosives aspect — I hadn’t been too deeply involved in it anyway — into controlled fusion. So when this program was actually begun, which was in the summer of ‘51, we had two divisions, one on the H bomb and one on controlled fusion.
Did you have any sense that starting to think about the hydrogen bombs had any influence in directing your mind into those channels which led to the Stellarator?
Oh,. I’m sure It had some connection. The scientific interest in the bomb research and my background In plasma astrophysics together made me receptive to the problems Involved in a controlled fusion reactor. When that subject was brought to my attention by the Argentine announcement, I became very, actively interested in it, and decided..! would like to pursue it.
Looking through your papers, it seems as if everything could have come out of the [research on] interstellar matter except perhaps concern with things like deuterium, tritium cross sections. I don’t know if you have any memory after this length of time as to what part of the work might have been influenced by hydrogen bomb problems, and what part might have been Influenced by the astrophysical?
Yes, well, I’m sure that the deuterium and tritium cross sections were... obtained from hydrogen bomb work. I mean, I never became deeply Involved in. such topics, but while I was at Los Alamos for a couple of days, I did go read various survey reports. I knew what was under way, and what the problems were, and deuterium and tritium cross sections were an important element In that picture. And that’s why I’m reasonably certain that I got Information on those cross sections there.
Now, another thing — the record .is very clear that you did the Stellarator de novo, as it were, but it’s not clear whether there was any more general discussion of controlled fusion, for example, with people like Wheeler or von Neumann or Fermi or any ..of these people who had been thinking about it.
Yes. I never talked with Fermi on this problem at all. I learned later that he had been interested in the problem of controlled fusion, and was concerned with the problem of the drifts In a toroidal tube, but I did not know of that work at the time that I was first Interested in controlled fusion research. It was only about six months or a year later that I learned some of this had already been investigated by Fermi and others. I don’t think I talked with von Neumann till quite a late stage. At that time, he was then a member of the Atomic Energy Commission and he was more concerned, with the tritium recovery problem than he was with the plasma problem. He thought that tritium recovery was more likely to be a crucial stumbling block toward a practical reactor than the plasma problem.
It was a problem that wasn’t being pursued, and he thought It should be pursued. And I believe It may have been because of his emphasis on this problem that we got Ernie Johnson, Professor Johnson in the chemical engineering department, to do some work in that field. It looked quite promising. Of course, now many have worked on that field, with results that are reasonably encouraging, about getting the tritium back from the reactions in the mantile of the reactor.
Was the tritium, not the recovery but the production of tritium, a very big emphasis? In the accelerator proposal you say, for example, there are going to be two uses that one can foresee for the reactor. One would be production of neutrons, which would enable you to produce tritium, presumably for bombs, and another would be production of power. And again, it’s very hard to get any idea of the real emphasis, the balance, between those two goals.
Well, my own interests, and I think those of most of my colleagues that I recruited to join me in the program, was in use of a Stellarator as an energy source. It had idealistic appeal. There was, of course, the possibility of using it as a source of neutrons that never excited me very much or any of my colleagues. We put it in because it might have been a possible use that would appeal to the government. Actually, it turned out that the AEC wasn’t much interested in that, but we just put it in as a possibility.
That’s the kind of thing that one can’t find out from reading the proposal.
Do you think that Fermi and Teller and other people who had been at Los Alamos, thinking about controlled fusion, were also doing a certain amount of astrophysics? This is really a question to you as an astrophysicist who was well aware of how the field was developing. It’s in the back of my mind whether the bomb work itself might have exerted any influence, in a very indirect way, by stimulating people like Fermi and Teller to be interested in things like cosmic ray problems. They were close to questions of confinement of particles.
Well, that’s a good general question. I don’t know of any specific connection of this sort. In the particular case that you mention, cosmic rays and magnetic fields, that was not very directly related to the controlled fusion work at that time, because that work (the controlled fusion work at that time) had no experimental aspect. It was entirely theoretical; the magnetic fields were regarded as stationary whereas Fermi’s entire cosmic ray model relies on moving fields, with magnetic lines of force being pushed around by clouds. I’ve never read anything that it when I went to Los Alamos to talk about fusion. I really don’t know what he did, other than what I’ve just said about his becoming familiar with the toroidal drift, He may have done quite a bit of work on magnetic problems at that time, and that may have gotten him interested in the interstellar stuff, but I don’t have any real reason to believe that. Actually, wasn’t his interstellar work a good deal later?
It was in l949.
He must have left Los Alamos in ‘46 or so?
I don’t know. That sounds right.
It was a few years later. There may have been some connection. I don’t know.
Of course, York and Post took those cosmic ray ideas back, and fooled around with moving mirrors at one point.
York’s another little bit of the record that’s missing. He was out here in Princeton some time in 1952, when he was worrying about setting up Livermore, and Lawrence and Teller were worrying about setting up Livermore. There is a reference at one point to the fact that York was stimulated by talking to you, and to Tuck, to set up the Livermore program. There’s very little else. Do you have any memory of your contact with York at that very early stage?
Well, I don’t remember specifically any conversations with York on the Livermore Laboratory. I do with Teller, I remember a lot of discussions on setting up the Livermore Laboratory, but I believe that they were mostly in connection with the hydrogen bomb program, rather than with controlled fusion, I think the discussions that York refers to were discussions he had with me and Jim about the controlled fusion aspect.
It was for that reason that they included those aspects in the Livermore program. But they were a fairly small part of the Livermore program at all times, both in the beginning and ever since The main driving force in setting up the laboratory had to do with work in the hydrogen bomb. I remember some of those discussions with Edward Teller, when they were talking about setting up a laboratory somewhere. There was some talk of putting such a new laboratory in the New Jersey pine barrens, with Princeton possibly having a bigger role in it.
There’s this remark by Thomas Johnson that pops up in the AEC files, that York had been interested by his conversations with Spitzer and Tuck to start the program, but it’s very hard to evaluate.
I think that must certainly have been referring to possibilities of including in Livermore, which was started for various other reasons, a controlled fusion effort, which I guess is what they did, though I don’t remember whether it was right at the beginning. When did Dick Post start in on his work? Wasn’t he at Berkeley first, then transferred to Livermore?
Well, Post started in early 1952, and Livermore was just getting started. It was an idea in January, February, and I think by April or May they had decided to go ahead,
I was wondering whether Post had done any of his initial work still at Berkeley, before Livermore started.
I don’t know. There were people working at I3erkely equally with Livermore.
I don’t think there was any experimental work in controlled fusion at Berkeley at that early date, but there might have been a small theoretical group studying some of the confinement and heating problems. I don’t know.
Well, yes, there was. There was Baker, who actually did a little bit of pinch work and showed some pictures at Denver.
Oh, I vaguely remember, that’s right.
Then there was a good deal of discussion, and there were calculations by Post, as you say.
Those were presented at the Denver meeting, weren’t they?
When was that?
In June 1952.
I think that was the first time I met Dick Post. I remember his getting up and saying his name, R.F. Post, and adding that R.F. stood for "radio frequency" At the time he was Interested In using radio frequency for holding a plasma In a mirror.
That’s right; There was very little mirror and very much radio frequency fields at that meeting. I’ve wondered why they got onto radio frequency fields so elaborately.
At the time, I found it very difficult to go along with anyone who suggested radio frequency fields. It seemed to me a very expensive way of building up magnetic energy density, to put it all in radio frequency fields. You could do it so much cheaper with steady electromagnetic fields.
There is a feeling you get from the Denver meetings that people in Princeton were much more worried about the pink plasma instability, than Tuck and the people at Los Alamos.
Yes. That’s correct. We were sort if each pointing out the motes in the eyes of the other. The meeting at the Atomic Energy Comission offices in Washington is when I first met Jim Tuck. This must have been in the spring of ‘51. Jim pointed out that there were p1asma instabilities that might seriously affect the confinement by a steady. magnetic fIeld. He referred to work by Langmuir and others. I looked up some of the papers. I think in my early papers I mentioned the problem and referred, I hope, to Jim Tuck’s emphasis on the importance of that field; Then he told us about his interests in the pinch.
At that time I was interested in trying to understand these magnetohydrodynamtic phenomena, and I thought a little about the pinch effect and It seemed to me, it ought to be unstable, in the same way that if you have a cylindrical spring, and you push it In along its axis, the spring will tend, to buckle.I discussed this physical problem with Martin Krushal, now in ‘the applied math program here, who was then, ‘I think, the first employee of the Matterhorn Project, and also to Martin Schwarzschild, who was one of the people’ who felt with the others, that he should do something because of the Korean War, and had also joined the group. And I persuaded the two of them to analyze the possible instabilities of the pinch discharge. I told them the reason why I thought it was unstable, and they went through the mathematics and indeed it was. They published a paper that subsequently was shown to be correct by the two Alamos observations.
Well, I’m sure you already know much of that
It turns out from the acknowledgement in Krushal and Schwarzschild ’s paper that you suggested the problem. But again, it’s very hard to know how much of that is polite.
So it’s very useful to have confirmation.
Well, I sort of figured out the instability from thinking about the balance of forces in the pinched discharge. My stock in trade in science, for many years, has been being able to think in terms of physical models, and figure out what would happen in nature, without going through the mathematics. My children asked what I was doing, and I would say I was trying to think what I would do if I were an electron. And being able to think one’s way through physical situations – that has been the thing that I’m best able to do. I’m not so good on mathematical efforts, There are so many other people who are very much better at the mathematics work than I.
How anyone can think his way through what an electron would do in those fields — it’s really marvelous, I find it almost impossible to follow.
Now, what was Tuck doing in May at that meeting? Were you surprised that you should meet with a bunch of AEC officials, and then here was this person from Los Alamos?
Yes. I hadn’t known of the work at Los Alamos. I may have met — no, I don’t suppose I met him when I was at Los Alamos the previous December. As far as I know, the general concept of controlled fusion wasn’t even mentioned In December when I was there. Whether Tuck was even there or what he was doing then, I haven’t any idea. But by May he’d taken a more active interest. Or at least by that time he was talking about an active interest.
I think the Commission found that there were these two independent centers of self-generated activity, one at Princeton and one at Los Alamos, and they said, "Well, maybe we ought to have a meeting and discuss the whole field." So they invited Tuck and me. Who else was there? I don’t remember.
I don’t know, because there’s no record that I’ve seen. You are mentioned and Tuck is mentioned, and there’s mention of "some AEC" people. It might have been Pitzer at that point, who was head of Research. I don’t know. It was just before Johnson came in.
Was it Pitzer? I came to know him quite well at a later stage, but not when he was head of Research at AEC. I don’t remember.
That suggests that they were aware of Tuck’s interest.
Yes. Well, I think maybe he’d corresponded with the Commission, or it may be the director of the laboratory had said he wanted funds for an experimental program on the pinch discharge. I think Tuck’s interest may have been in part a reflection of the interest the British were taking. Of course, he’d been in Britain during the war, isn’t that right?
He’d just come back from Britain. He was in Britain from about ‘47 to — well, he was with Lord Cherwell and then he went to Los Alamos, then he went back to Britain. He was working with Ware and Thonemann.
Oh, yes, he was right In the middle of all that research that culminated in the ZETA program. Now, whether they’d started on that by the time he left, I don’t know.
They had started on quite public toroidal pinches and linear pinches, and…then they moved them from Oxford and London over to Harwell and they moved them to one other place, I don’t remember now. I’m fishing for what it was that might have persuadedthe AEC at this point to start funding, start taking an interest in fusion. It was several years after the British, for example –
I’m a little surprised that there are no minutes. Are there no remarks on that meeting anywhere in the archival material that you saw? I seem to remember that there were some minutes of that early meeting.
Well, then I should look again There’s one comment that I found, but I haven’t found minutes.
My recollection is that the AEC knew that there was internal interest within, this country, and maybe they thought that then was some work going on in these areas in other countries, that they shouldn’t run the risk of missing the boat, and ought to do something.
Do you think maybe the Richter announcement?
The Richter announcement certainly called attention to the whole problem.
But you don’t have any particular memory of them saying, "My God, they’re doing things in Argentina, let’s go ahead."
Oh, I think the Richter announcement was pretty much discredited. People didn’t believe it when it first came out because they thought it .was impossible. How long it was after that that people, various scientists, talked to Richter and found out he hadn’t really done much, I don’t know. But it certainly called attention to the possibilities of research, and that was a useful thing to have done.
What was Teller’s role in all of that? He chairs various committees We’d like to know how large or small a role he really had.
I think he had quite a leading role in the whole hydrogen program, both the bomb and the controlled fusion. Of course, the bomb work I wasn’t so closely associated with. There were a number of meetings of the AEC steering committee for controlled fusion research, which he always attended, and he was always taking a leading role in discussing what the physical problems were. In particular, at various stages he pointed out the importance of various instabilities and that’s quite well documented in various places. I remember his comments at a very early meeting on setting up the Livermore Laboratory and how important that was, or at least on setting up another laboratory, either at Livermore or in the Pine Barens or some place, because of problems at Los Alamos. I think he was the leader just by force of his intellect and his drive, his stature and his interests.
And he had the role then of suggesting problems?
Yes. He had many friends in various places, and he would just push for different things, and people did to some extent follow his lead. Not entirely, of course. He was by all odds the senior scientist who was actively discussing the controlled fusion program. He was a good deal older than I — ten years probably — and much more experienced.
For example, in the meeting of October 1954, there was a very short, very simple paper by Teller on instabilities.
One which doesn’t strike the reader, and yet people speak of that meeting as Teller’s having created a very strong mood of gloom. So that apparently he was much more persuasive than this little paper would indicate.
Well, he talks — have you heard him talk?
No, I haven’t.
He talks with great emphasis, and vigor and force. He did think very imaginatively about these different problems I don’t remember the paper you refer to. By now it probably seems a little pedestrian, but at the time that he was advancing those ideas, they were quite novel And the fact that the magnetic systems would go to states of lower energy, and go unstable in the process, had not been generally appreciated. In fact, in the Krushal-Schwarzschild analysis of the pinch, I don’t think they really talked about going to states of lower energy. As I recall, they just set up the normal modes, followed the motion dynamically, and showed that the motion was unstable.
If you look at the same problem from the standpoint of the energy, this is perhaps more useful, because it’s easier to apply. And the Princeton theoretical group made a big effort in developing the energy principle and applying it to various magnetic configurations. I have a little suspicion this may all have resulted in large part from Teller’s suggestions. I’m not certain of that because we had some pretty creative people in that area too, but I think it may have been his suggestion that one look at it as a problem of going to available states of lower energy that may have been Teller’s contribution. If it was Teller’s, then they almost certainly referred to him in their big paper that Frieman, Krushal, Kuisrud and Bernstein all published together on energy principles. Wasn’t that in the PROCEEDINGS OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY?
I’d have to look at the references in those papers.
I don’t know. But they certainly would refer to Teller, at least I think they would, if his idea had been the genesis of the work, Now maybe they’d gotten it indirectly, through me. Maybe I pushed them after hearing Teller’s talk. I may have had similar ideas to Teller’s at that time. I don’t know, but I certainly didn’t express them, or if I did, I didn’t express them as forcefully, and I guess I couldn’t have appreciated their importance, or I would have done so. Well, I don’t remember
That helps though, because, as I said, there’s very little in the form of Teller’s writings — but there is sort of an aura of influence.
Then I wanted to ask you about Thonemann.
Peter Thonemann? I haven’t seen him for over twenty years, but I used to see him quite frequently in the early days of the plasma program.
I was wondering what happened that led you to take on the job of writing this little paper you wrote in NATURE, that you thought that the neutrons they were finding from the ZETA device were not truly thermonuclear. That was back in January, ‘58, when there was a big fuss over whether to publish or not to publish.
Everyone was trying to get a thermonuclear machine.
Yes. Well, I don’t remember exactly. I know there were a lot of discussions as to whether this country should do anything much in response to the ZETA results. I was sent over there on a rush trip to visit, on orders from on high, by the Chairman of the AEC, Lewis Strauss. He was very deeply interested in this program, and I guess you know why.
No, I don’t know.
Well, Strauss, you remember, had a big battle with Oppenheimer and others about pushing the hydrogen bomb. And he said that in addition to our country needing this for its defense, this same technique might also someday be useful for commercial generation of power, I believe that the scientists he consulted said, "Oh, no, that’s ridiculous, you can’t possibly get power from hydrogen fusion."
So Strauss took a personal identification with the controlled fusion program This is what I’m told I don’t know from personal experience, I can’t vouch for its accuracy. But the fact that he advocated, had advocated pushing fusion research in general and the hydrogen bomb, against the attitude, the recommendations of the scientists, apparently gave him a very strong interest in proving that thescientists had been incorrect when they said that it would never be of any practical use.
It’s certainly very clear that. he was there, from the very beginning — well, from when he came back in ‘53 to the Commission, pushing very hard.
You don’t happen to recollect the people who would tell that little story, that I could ask, for example, about Strauss’ early sense that it would be useful for power?
Well, you might ask Teller. He would be the person I think who would be most likely to be familiar with that episode. He may have been the one who told me that. I don’t know. But I remember well a number of spectacular announcements which Strauss made to various controlled fusion groups.
He said, "Well, now, what would happen if we offered a million- dollar prize to the first person or first group that develops controlled fusion?" And eyes lit up — a million-dollar prize was something pretty spectacular. Well, I don’t suppose it would have been practical. Even if he’d made a strong decision to go ahead with it, I don’t suppose Congress would ever have permitted it. But it shows his own interest in the field.
Then, on another occasion, I remember specifically, he came to visit us at Princeton, and said, "There are going to be heavy cuts in the AEC program. We’ve been cut back by Congress. But there will be no cuts in this program."
On another occasion he said to us, "Well, now, let’s assume for the moment that money is no object. What would you do? How can this program be pushed most rapidly, most effectively? Most energetically? Assume for the moment that you have all the money you want and can ask for."
That was his general attitude, that’s the way he thought of his program, that it should be pushed without regard to the cost. At least that was the impression he gave us.
You were just telling me you were sent over in a big hurry.
Oh yes, that was for the ZETA program, when they first got these neutron results. I don’t quite know what the genesis was of the official exchange between us and the British, but apparently we’d been exchanging information for some time. At least we started interchanging with the British before we did it with the Russians, and –
— this might have been ‘56 that you started [exchanging information].
‘56, just before, just at the time of the ZETA release?
Well, this is at any rate my impression.
that may be possible, because I think we didn’t know much abbut the ZETA machine until they were about ready to publish their preliminary results. They wanted [us] to send over a U.S. delegation to talk with them, and make our evaluation of what they’d done.. I went over and spent a few days there. it was a very hectic few days. I had certain reservations about their interpretation; when they talked about publishing a series of papers in NATURE, I suppose I must have suggested that I write a paper giving some of my reservations. But also, we had some obervations at the Matterhorn Project that bore on this work. These were observations that were made by Tom Stix, and there was some question in the laboratory as to whether it was proper for me to publish those results when they had been obtained by Tom. I had a long talk with Tom Stix about this, how this was sort of the first publication of any of the work that was done at the Plasma Laboratory, at Project Matterhorn, so it was a little different category from people publishing their own work.
In any case, that.was an internal political problem. But it seemed desirable to have in one compact note just a brief discussion, a brief reference to the results that 5th had obtained, sort of a forward reference to results which he then published separately.
Yes. You do refer to that.
As it turned out, the ZETA results did not indicate what the British originally thought they did.
Was Strauss feeling competitive about ZETA?
I don’t remember.
The correspondence is a little divided on that. That is, the correspondence I just saw suggested to me a very simple cooperative interaction with Thonemann and the British. Some of the material at the AEC headquarters does suggest a sense of competition, it’s hard to know what the real—
Oh, I’m sure there must have been some competition. After all, that’s a spectacular field. Even though there is collaboration, there’s also competition, and wanted to get there first. And the British, I’m sure, wanted to have their work recognized.
Possibly especially since they were at it longer, they might have felt.
This really goes back a little bit to the model C and D Stellarators. In ‘53 you started bringing in a number of people from industry, from General Electric, from Westinghouse.
Was that merely a result of the pressure for personnel that you were feeling, or
No, not so much the pressure for personnel. It represented a little bit a result of what we wanted to do, My concept was that we should go ahead and look at what the end result was that we were trying to reach. We were then, I think, building model B, if I remember correctly.
Yes, and thinking about model C.
Model D was the name we gave to the full scale actual reactor, to be used for commercial generation of electric power. To make a meaningful analysis of such a device, its economics, really to do a first class job, meant that we really should get people with entirely different background and experience from anybody we had in our own group. We needed people who were experienced in the overall design of electrical generating plants, and in the cost estimates that you’d get, in lining up the technical problems for over-all electrical generating systems. We had no experience with such problems at all.
So I went around and talked to the directors of these different companies, the directors of research, I guess, or maybe the vice-presidents, I forget now, and got them interested in collaborating in this study by contributing people. As I remember, there were four people from private industry, plus myself as chairman, and we met once a week to outline the problems, and decide who would work on what. Then we would meet on a weekly basis and present results which I would criticize. We wrote a report which we had lots of fun with, and sort of anticipated many of the problems which are now being discussed.
Did that make a big ripple in the fusion community? Or were they not yet ready to consider reactors? Have you any idea?
I think it made a modest ripple. Of course, it was highly classified, so that most of the people who would have been most interested in it didn’t see it. Even today not many people are aware of this early report. Of course, people don’t usually refer to papers that far back. But our model D report was certainly the first systematic study of the problem.
It was something that people at Los Alamos and the other places hadn’t yet graduated to?
I’m reasonably sure they thought it was a bit premature.
That’s what I was really wondering, how other people were feeling.
I can well imagine they thought it was premature. They thought we were trying to forge ahead too fast, probably.
I see. There’s the tiniest indication of controversy and Wigner shows up at one point as possibly wondering about whether the model D study should go ahead.
Well, I had great difficulty here at Princeton in pushing forward with our experimental program at all. Theoretical work, for the first year, 1951-52, nobody objected to whatever. But then when it came to start the experimental program, I encountered various difficulties, In retrospect it’s not too surprising, but I had trouble first with the university. As I recall, Princeton’s Office of Project Research and Inventions had to approve any program. A number of faculty members on the supervisory committee objected to our proposed experimental program in plasma heating and confinement. I forget now what their grounds were. I didn’t get too heavily involved in that argument because we had enough supporters in that commIttee, so our proposal was approved after some discussion.
But then we had trouble with the AEC, because they got in touch with a number of local physicists, in particular Oppenheimer and Eugene Wigner, both of whom thought that it was a mistake to start an experimental program here. I remember very well my talk with Wigner. I went over to his house. He said he was very sorry personally that he was opposing this program that I was supporting, but he didn’t feel that Princeton was the proper place or that I was the proper leader for this research. He said — and in this respect he was quite correct — he said he didn’t think that I would stick with this work indefinitely He said, "You’ll start it and then probably get out of it. In any case, it won’t be needed for 50 to 100 years He had some other arguments against it. In point of fact, I didn’t leave the controlled fusion program until it was going with such strength and with such good people, that whether I was there or not made very little difference any more.
But it took some time to counter that opposition. Oppenheimer told the Commission, I think, that he felt that to start an experimental program manned entirely by theorists was not exactly a wise procedure, a view which, I suppose, one can’t really disagree with as a matter of principle. But for obvious reasons I didn’t agree with it at the time. I told myself that I’d long been interested in certain types of observational work, in addition to theory, but I nevertheless didn’t have the extensive training in observational work that gives confidence to other people.
So the Commission took the line that they would start us off on a small basis for model A, which was done. Actually, the arguments I have described above may have been mostly when we wanted to start on the model B Stellarator, But the Commission said they would not support us for work on model B unless we got somebody to come in from outside who had reasonable credentials, who had a Ph.D. in experimental physics, which I did not. And I phoned around to a number of people, and successfully persuaded Jim Van Allen to come here. We had an entirely different reaction from the AEC after he had accepted our invitation Well, it worked out just great. He is a very capable person and he brought some highly effective techniques and concerns to our group that had not been there previously.
You are sure it was people like Oppenheimer and Wigner who persuaded the AEC to persuade you to have an experimental person hired in that way?
Well, I certainly don’t know that in detail. I would assume that the attitude of the AEC would in part be conditioned by the advice they received. And if they got a negative point of view from a couple of leading physicists, then they would naturally be inclined to go a little slow in supporting us. If they still wanted to support a program, they’d naturally say, "Well, all right, we’ll support it, but under certain conditions," so that then they could have an easier time defending their action to the people who had taken the negative attitude. So I would be surprised, very surprised, if there were no connection whatever between the views of Oppenheimer and Wigner and what the AEC did.
I’m not suggesting that what the AEC did was exactly what these or other physicists may have advised them to do. In essence, the AEC stressed that the Princeton program would be stronger if we had somebody here who had more experience in experimental physics. In that respect, I would agree.
Again, as I said, all I’ve seen is this one little comment by Wigner, so that was very nice to get that filled in.
There was something else I wanted to ask you, going back to Lewi Tonks and Grove and the other people whom you were working with. Do you have any impression as to why General Electric and Westinghouse said yes? There’s a kind of a hassle reflected, in the archives, in the boxes of papers, about how much information was going to be passed back to General Electric and Westinghouse about what people were doing here.
I guess it was classified, so we couldn’t send them anything probably.
Well, it was classified, but industry was complaining that you were getting a lot of valuable industrial know-how, proprietary knowledge from their people, and they wanted something back.
I don’t remember that particular argument. I think the argument that we certainly used, and that we’ve used ever since, and I believe it’s a correct one, is that we train their people, and if the companies later wish to get involved heavily in the field, they have people who are theirs, who are available for preparing proposals, for getting into the programs in a big way. And of course a few years later, the work was all declassified. So it became perfectly possible for their people to send back anything that they wanted, whatever. But that wasn’t true in the beginning.
General Electric did then for a while, in ‘57 go into fusion.
And got out about when you did, I think.
Well, in fact, they bid one of our experimentalists away from us, Len Goldman.
I didn’t know that.
I’d been working with him, one of our first experimentalists. I think GE offered him a position, and he went there. On the other hand, the people that GE sent here, they finally decided that they were going to recall them, but one of their key men, Ken Wakefield, decided he would rather stay here, and .is now one of the leading people at the Plasma Lab.
I see. So it works both ways.
On the other hand, Don Grove has been here from Westinghouse ever since, but he’s still on the Westinghouse payroll; he’s a leading experimentalist at the Plasma Lab, and a very highly regarded one.
I’d like to ask a little bit more on von Neumann and Smyth. You get the sense, which may or may not be true, that Smyth was fitting his duties as a member of Princeton and as a commissioner together without conflict. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. You get no indication about von Neumann, whether he felt there was conflict, between Princeton and —
Well, you see, he was from the Institute for Advanced Study, rather than the university. So I don’t think there would have been any conflict. And I very much doubt whether there was any. conflict of interest in the case of Smyth.
I wanted to ask also about the steering committee. Were their deliberations pretty well routinely translated into actual governance of the program, in your memory? Or was there still another influence being exerted by Washington besides the steering committee?
Well, my recollection is that any major issue, any major decisions that were taken concerning the program, were done in accordance with the votes, with the deliberations, of the steering committee. Of course there were many problems which for one reason or another didn’t get to the steering committee, but which were decided by the laboratory director,’ perhaps in consultation with the AEC. I’m not sure that the steering committee ever had anything but advisory power. On major problems, I believe the AEC really could do anything they wanted to, at that stage. But my impression is that they followed the advice of the steering committee, on the major policy questions, such as whether to put up the Model C for example, things of that sort.
How close was the work you were doing on fusion, during all this time, with astrophysical problems?
It was reasonably close. We had a number of people here as visiting lecturer during this period. Alfvén came for awhile, and Ludwig Biermann from the Max Planck Institute, and Arnulf Schuelter. They didn’t know what was going on out at Project Matterhorn (as the Plasma Lab was called until declassification occurred in l958) We couldn’t tell them. They would give lectures on various problems, on the relations between plasma and magnetic fields, and we would sit and take notes, and then rush them out to Matterhorn.
I wrote some papers for the ASTROPHYSICAL JOURNAL that were somewhat related to the plasma problems we were tackling In the controlled fusion effort. In particular, I considered a number of problems involved in the relationship between gas motions and magnetic fields, especially in star formation and in the equilibrium of magnetic stars.
Did it go the other way, in your memory, that astrophysical problems somehow, that if there was a chance for example, to find out some results from the equipment at Matterhorn which might have been useful for astrophysical problems, and one might decide to do an experiment?
I don’t think we did any experiments for astrophysical purposes. But we did a lot of experiments to understand basic plasma physics. Actually, the field where there’s almost more overlap than anywhere else is one that I myself haven’t worked In, and that is, problems of the magnetosphere, where you have shocks from the solar wind. To understand such shocks, data obtained with laboratory plasmas have been very useful, I’m not thinking so much of Princeton, but other places, where the plasma devices have involved . rapid plasma motions and resultant shocks. And the reverse is true also, that the observations on the magnetosphere have clarified some of the observations in plasma machines.
Hannes Alfvén, in his COSMICAL ELECTRODYNAMICS, talks a little bit about reproducing In a laboratory scale, or what would be the size of what you could do on a laboratory scale, to reproduce cosmic phenomena, and he seems himself to have been doing experiments In Stockholm.
Yes. Those were motivated more directly by understanding astrophysical problems.
Then, there’s a reason I’m asking you this — it’s kind of a rhetoric which I’m hearing a little bit In the Department of Energy, of people who speak of their experiments as really directed towards fusion, with perhaps an implied implication that other people’s experiments aren’t directed toward end use as unilaterally, and so, It led me to wonder whether there was really any bifurcation here — whether some people felt that other people weren’t keeping their nose to the immediate object as much as they ought to.
Well, we have that problem. For many years we’ve had that problem, right within the Plasma Physics Laboratory. We have had two types of experimental work at the Lab. First, the so-called fusion devices, which are the largest, hottest, best confined plasmas which we have at the time. The Model C and the tohamahs and various other things.
Now the TFTR, so-called, which will be even bigger and more powerful, is being built at the Plasma Lab. Second, there are experimental devices which are built solely to produce an understanding of phenomena within a plasma. These are devices that sometimes produce cold plasmas, sometimes do something different, but they’re designed to be simple, primarily so on can hope to understand them most easily. For example, we had a series of plasma devices that used hot alkali end plates for producing a plasma bombarded with a stream of neutral alkali atoms. These have been very useful for studying the properties of waves of different types within a plasma.
You can argue if you wish that experiments of this second type are not really directed toward fusion research as such. On the other hand, you can take the point of view, as I certainly have done since we started, that it’s vital to get basic knowledge on a wide front in this field, to try to get an understanding of nature’s basic laws so that you can plan your experimental Program most effectively.
The main difference between the Princeton Laboratory and the other three main. U.S. centers for many years was the great emphasis that has been placed on theory here; as indicated by the strong theoretical program that we had, and the heavy reliance that we placed on theory in designing the next few stages of our experimental program. The strength of our theoretical program and the reliance we placed on it was, I think, not really matched In any of the other laboratories. They all had some theoretical work, of course, but it wasn’t as closely Integrated with their experimental work. To some extent this emphasis reflected my own personal preferences and predilections because that’s the way I saw the advance of the subject. And others here have felt the same way.
Were there any other differences?
No. I think we were all equally devoted to the main objective of achieving controlled fusion, of getting a practical device.
Classified Conference on Thermo-Nuclear Reactors, held at Denver, on June 28, 1952; WASH 115, A.E.C.
M.D. Krushal and M. Schwarzschild, "Some Instabilities of a Completely Ionized Plasma," Proc. Roy. Soc. A233, pp.348- (1954).
Edward Teller, "Comments on Plasma Stability…," in Conference on Thermonuclear Reactions, Princeton University; October 26 & 27, (1954), WASH 184.
I.B. Bernstein, A. Frieman, M>D> Krushal & R.M. Kulsrud, "An Energy Principle for Hydromagnetic Stability Problems," Proc. Roy.Soc. A244, 17 (1958).
Lyman Spitzer, Jr., "Cooperative Phenomena in Hot Plasmas," NATURE January 25, 1958, pp.221-222.
The ZETA was completed in the summer of 1957, and results were first announced in September. Exchange of information started in 1956, and spitzer's visit was in December 1957.