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Oral History with Robert F. Christy

Oral History with Robert F. Christy

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(1916- )I
 June 15, 17, 21, and 22, 1994ARCHIVESCALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGYPasadena, California
Subject area
Physics, theoretical physics, nuclear physics, astrophysics
Robert F. Christy was born in Vancouver in 1916, received his undergraduateeducation at the University of British Columbia, and took his Ph.D. degree with J.Robert Oppenheimer at Berkeley in 1941. He was an early participant on theManhattan Project, working with Enrico Fermi at the Metallurgical Laboratory of the University of Chicago on the first atomic pile. In 1943 he went to Los Alamosas a member of the Theoretical Division under Hans Bethe, where he devisedwhat came to be known as the Christy bomb, or the Christy gadget—theplutonium implosion device tested at Alamogordo on July 16, 1945.After the war he returned briefly to the University of Chicago, where heand his wife shared living quarters for a time with Edward Teller and his wife.Caltech was then seeking to build up its theoretical physics faculty, andOppenheimer, who was teaching there part time, recommended that the institutehire Christy. In 1946 Christy accepted Caltech’s offer of an associateprofessorship. He worked chiefly on the application of theory to cosmic-rayexperiments in particle physics, later moving into nuclear physics andastrophysics, including important work in the 1960s on the pulsations of RR
Lyrae stars, which are similar to but smaller than the Cepheid variables used ascosmic yardsticks. In 1967 this work earned Christy the Eddington Medal of theRoyal Astronomical Society.In 1970, Christy became Caltech’s provost, a post he held for the next tenyears. After Caltech president Harold Brown left to join the Carter Administrationas Secretary of Defense in 1977, Christy was also acting president of the institute,until the advent of Marvin L. (Murph) Goldberger a year later. In the mid-1980she became a member of the National Research Council’s Committee onDosimetry, which investigated the radiation effects of the Hiroshima andNagasaki bombs.In the interview Christy recalls his childhood in British Columbia; hisundergraduate years at the University of British Columbia; his graduate work withJ. Robert Oppenheimer at Berkeley; and his work on the Manhattan Project, firstwith Enrico Fermi at the Metallurgical Laboratory of the University of Chicagoand then as a member of the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos. He recounts hiswartime work on the critical assembly for the plutonium bomb (“the Christybomb”); the Alamogordo test, July 16, 1945; the postwar concerns of ALAS(Association of Los Alamos Scientists); his brief return to the University of Chicago and move to Caltech; friendship with and later alienation from EdwardTeller; work with Charles and Tommy Lauritsen and William A. Fowler inCaltech’s Kellogg Radiation Laboratory; Freeman Dyson’s Orion Project; work on the meson and RR Lyrae stars; fellowship at Cambridge University; 1950sVista Project at Caltech; his opposition to the Strategic Defense Initiative; and hispost-retirement work for the National Research Council’s Committee onDosimetry and on inertial-confinement fusion.
Administrative information
The interview is unrestricted. A slightly different version of this interview waspublished in two parts as “A Conversation with Robert F. Christy” in
Physics inPerspective
, 8 (2006), 282-317, 408-450.
Copyright has been assigned to the California Institute of Technology © 1998,2007. All requests for permission to publish or quote from the transcript must besubmitted in writing to the University Archivist.
Preferred citation
Christy, Robert F. Interview by Sara Lippincott. Pasadena, California, June 15,17, 21, and 22, 1994. Oral History Project, California Institute of TechnologyArchives. Retrieved [supply date of retrieval] from the World Wide Web:http://resolver.caltech.edu/CaltechOH:OH_Christy_R 
Contact information
Archives, California Institute of TechnologyMail Code 015A-74Pasadena, CA 91125Phone: (626) 395-2704 Fax: (626) 793-8756Email: archives@caltech.eduGraphics and content © 2007 California Institute of Technology.

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