The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Paul Schumann Really great book ‐ a mix of the history of science and technology with personalities and social‐political forces. It reads like a detective story with questions of morality raised but unanswered. The book is long – 886 pages, but it is definitely worth the effort. I’ve collected a few examples from the book that I really liked. I have not put them in quotes but they all come straight from the book. In some cases I’ve added my footnotes to help understand the selection. I hope that someone writes a screen play around the struggles that the emigrant scientists had with politicians and the military when they tried to convey the potential of the atomic and later the thermonuclear bombs, and their impacts on political systems. This is a personal selection of excerpts that appealed to me as I read the book. It’s by no means complete. For an excellent review, read the New York Times book review, “The Men Who Made the Sun Rise” by William J. Broad (‐making.html)

Hungarian Contributors
Out of the prospering but vulnerable Hungarian Jewish middle class came no fewer than seven of the twentieth century's most exceptional scientists: in order of birth, Theodor von Karman1, George de Hevesy2, Michael Polanyi3, Leo Szilard4, Eugene Wigner5, John von Neumann6 and Edward Teller7. All

a Hungarian‐American mathematician, aerospace engineer and physicist who was active primarily in the fields of aeronautics and astronautics. He is responsible for many key advances in aerodynamics, notably his work on supersonic and hypersonic airflow characterization. He is regarded as the outstanding aerodynamic theoretician of the twentieth century. 2 a Hungarian radiochemist and Nobel laureate, recognized in 1943 for his key role in the development of radioactive tracers to study chemical processes such as in the metabolism of animals. He also co‐discovered the element hafnium. 3 a Hungarian polymath, who made important theoretical contributions to physical chemistry, economics, and philosophy. He argues that positivism supplies a false account of knowing, which if taken seriously undermines our highest achievements as human beings. 4 a Hungarian‐ born American physicist and inventor. He conceived the nuclear chain reaction in 1933, patented the idea of a nuclear reactor with Enrico Fermi, and in late 1939 wrote the letter for Albert Einstein's signature that resulted in the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb. 5 a Hungarian American theoretical physicist and mathematician. He received a share of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 "for his contributions to the theory of the atomic nucleus and the elementary particles, particularly through the discovery and application of fundamental symmetry principles" 6 a Hungarian‐born American mathematician and polymath. He made major contributions to a vast number of fields, including mathematics, physics, economics, computer science, and statistics. Von Neumann was a pioneer of the application of operator theory to quantum mechanics, and in the development of functional analysis. He was a principal member of the Manhattan Project and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Along with Teller and Stanislaw Ulam, von Neumann worked out key steps in the nuclear physics involved in thermonuclear reactions and the hydrogen bomb.

2 seven left Hungary as young men; all seven proved unusually versatile as well as talented and made major contributions to science and technology; two among them, de Hevesy and Wigner, eventually won Nobel Prizes. The mystery of such a concentration of ability from so remote and provincial a place has fascinated the community of science. Recalling that "galaxy of brilliant Hungarian expatriates," Otto Frisch remembers that his friend Fritz Houtermans, a theoretical physicist, proposed the popular theory that "these people were really visitors from Mars; for them, he said, it was difficult to speak without an accent that would give them away and therefore they chose to pretend to be Hungarians whose inability to speak any language without accent is well known; except Hungarian, and [these] brilliant men all lived elsewhere." That was amusing to colleagues and flattering to the Hungarians, who liked the patina of mystery that romanticized their pasts. The truth is harsher: the Hungarians came to live elsewhere because lack of scientific opportunity and increasing and finally violent anti‐Semitism drove them away. They took the lessons they learned in Hungary with them into the world. They all began with talent, variously displayed and remembered. Von Karman at six stunned his parents' party guests by quickly multiplying six‐figure numbers in his head. Von Neumann at six joked with his father in classical Greek and had a truly photographic memory: he could recite entire chapters of books he had read. Edward Teller, like Einstein before him, was exceptionally late in learning‐‐‐or choosing‐to talk. His grandfather warned his parents that he might be retarded, but when Teller finally spoke, at three, he spoke in complete sentences. Von Neumann too wondered about the mystery of his and his compatriots' origins. His friend and biographer, the Polish mathematician Stanislaw Vlam, remembers their discussions of the primitive rural foothills on both sides of the Carpathians, encompassing parts of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland, populated thickly with impoverished Orthodox villages . "Johnny used to say that all the famous Jewish scientists, artists and writers who emigrated from Hungary around the time of the first World War came, either directly or indirectly, from those little Carpathian communities, moving up to Budapest as their material conditions improved." Progress, to people of such successful transition, could be a metaphysical faith. "As a boy," writes Teller, "I enjoyed science fiction. I read Jules Verne. His words carried me into an exciting world. The possibilities of man's improvement seemed unlimited. The achievements of science were fantastic, and they were good." Leo Szilard, long before he encountered the novels of H. G. Wells8, found another visionary student of the human past and future to admire. Szilard thought in maturity that his "addiction to the truth" and

a Hungarian‐American theoretical physicist, known colloquially as "the father of the hydrogen bomb", even though he claimed he did not care for the title. Teller made numerous contributions to nuclear and molecular physics, spectroscopy, and surface physics. He was an early member of the Manhattan Project charged with developing the first atomic bombs. During this time he made a serious push to develop the first fusion‐based weapons as well, but these were deferred until after World War II. 8 Wells's first non‐fiction bestseller was Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought (1901). When originally serialized in a magazine it was subtitled, "An Experiment in Prophecy", and is considered his most explicitly futuristic work. It offered the immediate political message of the


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3 his "predilection for 'Saving the World' " were traceable first of all to the stories his mother told him. But apart from those, he said, "the most serious influence on my life came from a book which I read when I was ten years old. It was a Hungarian classic, taught in the schools, The Tragedy of Man9."

At Como10 in pleasant September Bohr11 began with a polite reference to Volta, "the great genius whom we are here assembled to commemorate," then plunged in. He proposed to try to develop "a certain general point of view" which might help "to harmonize the apparently conflicting views taken by different scientists." The problem, Bohr said, was that quantum conditions ruled on the atomic scale but our instruments for measuring those conditions‐‐‐our senses, ultimately‐worked in classical ways. That inadequacy imposed necessary limitations on what we could know. An experiment that demonstrates that light travels in photons is valid within the limits of its terms. An experiment that demonstrates that light travels in waves is equally valid within its limits. The same is true of particles and waves of matter. The reason both could be accepted as valid is that "particles" and "waves" are words, are abstractions. What we know is not particles and waves but the equipment of our experiments and how that equipment changes in experimental use. The equipment is large, the interiors of atoms small, and between the two must be interposed a necessary and limiting translation. The solution, Bohr went on, is to accept the different and mutually exclusive results as equally valid and stand them side by side to build up a composite picture of the atomic domain. Nur die Fulle fuhrt zur Klarheit: only wholeness leads to clarity. Bohr was never interested in an arrogant reductionism. He called instead‐the word appears repeatedly in his Como lecture for "renunciation," renunciation of the‐ godlike determinism of classical physics where the intimate scale of the atomic interior was concerned. The name he chose for this "general point of view" was complementarity, a word that derives from the Latin complementum, "that which fills up or completes." Light as particle and light as wave, matter as particle and matter as wave, were mutually exclusive abstractions that complemented each other. They could not be merged or resolved; they had to stand side by side in their seeming paradox and contradiction; but accepting that uncomfortably non‐Aristotelian condition meant physics could know more than it otherwise knew. And furthermore, as Heisenberg's recently published uncertainty principle demonstrated within its limited context, the universe appeared to be arranged that way as far down as human senses would ever be able to see.

privileged sections of society continuing to bar capable men from other classes from advancement until war would force a need to employ those most able, rather than the traditional upper classes, as leaders. 9 a play written by the Hungarian author Imre Madách. It was first published in 1861. The play is considered to be one of the major works of Hungarian literature and is one of the most often staged Hungarian plays today. a city and comune in Lombardy, Italy. It is the administrative capital of the Province of Como. a Danish physicist who made foundational contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum mechanics, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922.
11 10

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4 Emilio Segre12, who heard Bohr lecture at Como in 1927 as a young engineering student, explains complementarity simply and clearly in a history of modern physics he wrote in retirement: "Two magnitudes are complementary when the measurement of one of them prevents the accurate simultaneous measurement of the other. Similarly, two concepts are complementary when one imposes limitations on the other." Carefully Bohr then examined the conflicts of classical and quantum physics one at a time and showed how complementarity clarified them. In conclusion he briefly pointed to complementarity's connection to philosophy. The situation in physics, he said, "bears a deep‐going analogy to the general difficulty in the formation of human ideas, inherent in the distinction between subject and object." That reached back all the way to the licentiate's13 dilemma in Adventures of a Danish Student14, and resolved it: the I who thinks and the I who acts are different, mutually exclusive, but complementary abstractions of the self. In the years to come Bohr would extend the compass of his "certain general point of view" far into the world. It would serve him as a guide not only in questions of physics but in the largest questions of statesmanship as well. But it never commanded the central place in physics he hoped it would.

Albert Einstein
At four or five the "miracle" of a compass his father showed him excited him so much, he remembered, that he "trembled and grew cold." It seemed to him then that "there had to be something behind objects that lay deeply hidden." He would look for the something which objects hid, though his particular genius was to discover that there was nothing behind them to hide; that objects, as matter and as energy, were all; that even space and time were not the invisible matrices of the material world but its attributes. "If you will not take the answer too seriously," he told a clamorous crowd of reporters in New York in 1921 who asked him for a short explanation of relativity, "and consider it only as a kind of joke, then I can explain it as follows. It was formerly believed that if all material things disappeared out of the universe, time and space would be left. According to the relativity theory, however, time and space disappear together with the things."

Lise Meitner
"I believe all young people think about how they would like their lives to develop," Lise Meitner15 wrote in old age, looking back; "when I did so I always arrived at the conclusion that life need not be easy
an Italian physicist and Nobel laureate in physics, who with Owen Chamberlain, discovered antiprotons, a sub‐ atomic antiparticle. 13 the title of a person who holds an academic degree known as a licence or a licentiate. 14 A novel by Pohl Moller that gained lasting fame. It tells the comedic story of the romantic escapades of an eccentric student and his philosophical musings. Years later it became a favorite book of the Danish physicist and thinker Niels Bohr, who often quoted it during lectures 15 an Austrian, later Swedish, physicist who worked on radioactivity and nuclear physics. Meitner was part of the team that discovered nuclear fission, an achievement for which her colleague Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize. Meitner is often mentioned as one of the most glaring examples of women's scientific achievement

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5 provided only that it was not empty. And this wish I have been granted." Sixty years old in 1938, the Austrian physicist had earned wide respect by hard and careful work. When Wolfgang Pauli had wished to propose an elusive, almost massless neutral particle to explain the energy that seemed to disappear in beta decay‐it came to be called the neutrino‐he had made his proposal in a letter to Lise Meitner and Hans Geiger. James Chadwick was "quite convinced that she would have discovered the neutron if it had been firmly in her mind, if she had had the advantage of, say, living in the Cavendish for years, as I had done." "Slight in figure and shy by nature," as her nephew Otto Frisch describes her, she was nevertheless formidable.

Neils Bohr
The American Embassy quickly passed word that it could guarantee the Bohrs safe passage to the United States. Bohr again chose duty. His immediate concern was to burn the files of the refugee committee that had helped hundreds of émigrés to escape to exile. "It was characteristic of Niels Bohr," his collaborator, Stefan Rozental, writes, "that one of the first things he did was to contact the Chancellor of the University and other Danish authorities in order to protect those of the staff at the Institute whom the Germans might be expected to persecute." Those were Poles first of all, but Bohr also sought out government leaders to argue for concerted Danish resistance to any German attempt to install anti‐ Semitic laws in Denmark. He even found time on the day of the occupation to worry about the large gold Nobel Prize medals that Max von Laue and James Franck had given him for safekeeping. Exporting gold from Germany was a serious criminal offense and their names were engraved on the medals. George de Hevesy devised an effective solution‐literally: he dissolved the medals separately in acid. As solutions of black liquid in unmarked jars they sat out the war innocently on a laboratory shelf. Afterward the Nobel Foundation recast them and returned them to their owners.

Late in life Bohr explained the starting point of his revelation in a single phrase. “We are in a completely new situation that cannot be resolved by war," he confided to a friend. He had already grasped that fundamental point when he arrived at Los Alamos in 1943 and told Oppenheimer that nothing like Hitler's attempt to enslave Europe would ever happen again. "First of all," Oppenheimer confirms, "[Bohr] was clear that if it worked, this development was going to bring an enormous change in the situation of the world, in the whole situation of war and the tolerability of war." The weapon devised as an instrument of major war would end major war. It was hardly a weapon at all, the memorandum Bohr was writing in sweltering Washington emphasized; it was "a far deeper interference with the natural course of events than anything ever before attempted" and it would "completely change all future conditions of warfare." When nuclear weapons spread to other countries,
overlooked by the Nobel committee. A 1997 Physics Today study concluded that Meitner's omission was "a rare instance in which personal negative opinions apparently led to the exclusion of a deserving scientist" from the Nobel. Element 109, Meitnerium, is named in her honour.

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6 as they certainly would, no one would be able any longer to win. A spasm of mutual destruction would be possible, but not war. That was new ground, ground the nations had never walked before. It was new as Rutherford's nucleus had been new and unexplored. Bohr had searched the forbidding territory of the atom when he was young and discovered multiple structures of paradox; now he searched it again by the dark light of the energy it released and discovered profound political change. Nations existed in a condition of international anarchy. No hierarchical authority defined their relations with one another. They negotiated voluntarily as self‐interest moved them and took what they could get. War had been their final negotiation, brutally resolving their worst disputes. Now an ultimate power had appeared. If Churchill failed to recognize it he did so because it was not a battle cry or a treaty or a committee of men. It was more like a god descending to the stage in a gilded car. It was a mechanism that nations could build and multiply that harnessed unlimited energy, a mechanism that many nations would build in self‐defense as soon as they learned of its existence and acquired the technical means. It would seem to confer security upon its builders, but because there would be no sure protection against so powerful and portable a mechanism, in the course of time each additional unit added to the stockpiles would decrease security by adding to the general threat until insecurity finally reveal itself to be total at every hand. By the necessity, commonly understood, to avoid triggering a nuclear holocaust, the deus ex machina16 would have accomplished then what men and nations had been unable to accomplish by negotiation or by conquest: the abolition of major war. Total security would be indistinguishable from total insecurity. A menacing standoff would be maintained suspiciously, precariously, at the brink of annihilation. Before the bomb, international relations had swung between war and peace. After the bomb, major war among nuclear powers would be self‐defeating. No one could win. World war thus revealed itself to be historical, not universal, a manifestation of destructive technologies of limited scale. Its time would soon be past. The pendulum now would swing wider: between peace and national suicide; between peace and total death. Bohr saw that far ahead ‐ all the way to the present, when the standoff has been achieved and maintained for decades without agreement but at the price of smaller client wars and holocaustal nightmare and a good share of the wealth of nations ‐ and stepped back. He wondered if such apocalyptic precariousness was necessary. He wondered if the war‐weary statesmen of the day, taught the consequences of his revelation could he induced to forestall those consequences, to adjourn the game when the stalemate revealed itself rather than illogically to play out the menacing later moves. It was clear at least that the new weapons would be appallingly dangerous. If the statesmen could be brought to understand that the danger of such weapons would be common and mutual, might they not

Latin: "god from the machine"; (plural: dei ex machina) is a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. Depending on usage, it can be used to move the story forward when the writer has "painted himself into a corner" and sees no other way out, to surprise the audience, or to bring a happy ending into the tale.

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7 negotiate commonly and mutually to ban them? In the end would be a warless world either way, but one way with the holocaustal machinery in place and the other way with its only threat considered and understood, what did they have to lose? Negotiating peace rather than allowing the deus ex machina inhumanly to impose standoff might show the common threat to contain within itself, complementarily, common promise. Much good might follow. "It appeared to me," Bohr wrote in 1950 of his lonely wartime initiative, "that the very necessity of a concerted effort to forestall such ominous threats to civilization would offer quite unique opportunities to bridge international divergencies." That, in a single sentence, was the revelation of the complementarity of the bomb.

Science vs. Nation-State
Science is sometimes blamed for the nuclear dilemma. Such blame confuses the messenger with the message. Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann did not invent nuclear fission; they discovered it. It was there all along waiting for us, the turn of the screw. If the bomb seems brutal and scientists criminal for assisting at its birth, consider: would anything less absolute have convinced institutions capable of perpetrating the First and Second World Wars, of destroying with hardware and callous privation 100 million human beings, to cease and desist? Nor was escalation inevitable. To the contrary, it resulted from a series of deliberate choices the superpowers made in pursuit of national interests. But if the arms race is not a creation of science (however much men trained as scientists and applying the discoveries of science may have helped it along), what constitutes that republic's armament in its continuing conflict with the nation‐state? Oddly from the perspective of previous conflicts, science's highly effective armament is the basic scientific principle of openness. Science fights the exclusivity of the nation‐state, an exclusivity that has revealed itself capable of preparing to convert the living world into a dead world of corpses, by sharing its discoveries freely‐in Oppenheimer's words, by "turning over to mankind at large the greatest possible power to control the work and to deal with it according to its lights and its values." That deep trust in the promise of openness to remake the world must inspire even at the brink of the abyss. Science in conflict with the nation‐state demonstrates how an open world could function without chartered violence. The effectiveness of such profound civility is obscured at present because it necessarily operates from within the nation‐state itself. Turning around and looking back across the half‐century since 1945 demonstrates its power: it forced an end to world war, in itself an enormous deliverance. If the arms race now makes that deliverance seem a leap out of the frying pan into the fire, science's response has been to continue to confront the nation‐state with the facts and probabilities it discovers in the course of its daily work. Nuclear winter, whatever its level of severity, is one of those probabilities. Damage to the ozone layer is another. The likelihood of widespread epidemics after a nuclear war and of mass starvation because of disruptions in food transport are two more. The nation‐ states may have understood that nuclear weapons spoil war. The continuing arms race unfortunately demonstrates they have not yet understood that the nationalist system of exclusion and international confrontation has now become suicide. Each new contribution to understanding ‐ more knowledge turned over to mankind ‐ must further erode that stubborn and potentially genocidal ignorance. Paul Schumann, http://insights‐,

8 Additional knowledge will certainly continue to emerge. It is not likely to prove massive armaments a blessing.

Biological vs. Manmade Death
It can be useful to categorize nuclear weapons as a more virulent strain of plague, to consider man‐ made death as a phenomenon that parallels the older phenomenon of biological death that the people of all nations, working in peaceful concert, have brought under a measure of control. Elliot17 draws this comparison productively: “Our societies are dedicated to the preservation and care of life .... Public death was first recognized as a matter of civilized concern in the nineteenth century, when some health workers decided that untimely death was a question between men and society, not between men and God. Infant mortality and endemic disease became matters of social responsibility. Since then, and for that reason, millions of lives have been saved. They are not saved by accident or goodwill. Human life is daily deliberately protected from nature by accepted practices of hygiene and medical care, by the control of living conditions and the guidance of human relationships. Mortality statistics are constantly examined to see if the causes of death reveal any areas needing special attention. Because of the success of these practices, the area of public death has, in advanced societies, been taken over by man‐made death‐‐ once an insignificant or "merged" part of the spectrum, now almost the whole. When politicians, in tones of grave wonder, characterize our age as one of vast effort in saving human life, and enormous vigor in destroying it, they seem to feel they are indicating some mysterious paradox of the human spirit. There is no paradox and no mystery. The difference is that one area of public death has been tackled and secured by the forces of reason; the other has not. The pioneers of public health did not change nature, or men, but adjusted the active relationship of men to certain aspects of nature so that the relationship became one of watchful and healthy respect. In doing so they had to contend with and struggle against the suspicious opposition of those who believed that to interfere with nature was sinful, and even that disease and plague were the result of something sinful in the nature of man himself.”

Open Science
The preeminent transnational community in our culture is science. With the release of nuclear energy in the first half of the twentieth century that model commonwealth decisively challenged the power of the nation‐ state. The confrontation is ongoing and inextricably embedded in mortal risk, but it offers at least a distant prospect of felicity. The different country that still opens before us is Bohr's open world.


Gil Elliot, Twentieth Century Book of the Dead

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9 The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richards Rhodes, Simon & Schuster, 1986, 886 pp

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