Archive for June, 2012


Atomic Editorial Cartoons (August 1945)

Friday, June 29th, 2012

The American public reaction to the first atomic bombs was a mixture of exaltation and ambivalence — a relief that science appeared to be a possible deus ex machina that would end the terrible war, an ambivalence about the question as to the morality of the weapon and its implications for what wars in the future would look like. Spencer Weart’s Rise of Nuclear Fear does a great job of talking about that ambivalence, as does the work of the late Paul S. Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light.

There are lots of ways to probe that ambivalence. One interesting way is through the genre of editorial cartoons, which can boil down popular political opinions quite succinctly. I’ve used ProQuest to conjure up quite a few cartoons from August 1945, looking at the holdings of the Atlanta Constitution, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times.

There aren’t as many as you might think — just a little over twenty total for those four papers. Here are a few of the most interesting ones, in order of date.

August 7

Los Angeles Times, August 7, 1945

This was the first one I found. Not a whole lot of content here other than the obvious excitement at the idea of a weapon of such tremendous power. Interesting that the clock motif dates from so early!

August 8

Atlanta Constitution, August 8, 1945

This one is fairly well-known — it makes quite a lot of light out of killing a lot of Japanese. Again, exhaultation and exuberance.

Chicago Tribune, August 8, 1945

The Chicago Tribune produced quite a number of these cartoons, and theirs were often pretty explicitly racist. This one also goes a bit beyond the other two so far in that it’s actually making an argument: the bombs were justified because of Pearl Harbor. To consider the bombs in need of justification of this sort, even at this early stage, is a nice sign of the aforementioned ambivalence.

Chicago Tribune, August 8, 1945

Another from the Chicago Tribune, this one more explicitly ambivalent about what the bomb means for the future. Gotta love the depiction of the long-haired scientist

August 9

Chicago Tribune, August 9, 1945

Hoo-boy — a lot of cultural baggage here! It’s easy to mock the “magic electron” bit, but more reflectively, it’s a sign at how brand-new the scientific terminology would have been to your average journalist, much less layperson. Some information on the science of the bomb had been released to the media this point in conjunction with the publicity efforts, but this is still well before the Smyth Report was released, so some scientific illiteracy isn’t too surprising.

Los Angeles Times, August 9, 1945

The only cartoon I found which makes any reference to the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, which begun on August 9 (the same day as Nagasaki).

August 10

Los Angeles Times, August 10, 1945

Another exultant — and racist — cartoon.

August 11

Chicago Tribune, August 11, 1945

Another science-themed cartoon (from the same artist as the earlier one), but this time a lot less ambivalent.

August 12, 1945

Chicago Tribune, August 12, 1945

Ah, now here’s some of the hard-core ambivalence setting in. Will the crater of the first atomic bomb be the grave of “warfare” or of “civilization”? Note this is the first one with any kind of mushroom cloud, as well. The Smyth Report had been made available to the press on the evening of August 11 (for release on August 12), so it’s possible that the author here had access to slightly more detailed materials on the subject than those previously.

Newark Evening News, reprinted in the New York Times, August 12, 1945

New York Times, August 12, 1945

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, reprinted in the New York Times, August 12, 1945

On August 12, the New York Times print three comics on the subject of the bomb, at least two of which were originally printed elsewhere. The first is mostly positive — the atom will end war. The second is far ambivalent — humanity is but an infant preparing to play with life and death. And the third is, in my reading anyway, hard to parse. Is the new era a good thing? I’m not really sure how to interpret a giant hand jamming a lightning bolts into the planet — a good thing? A bad thing? A very awkward metaphor?

Chicago Tribune, August 12, 1945

This one is just… very odd. I guess it is supposed to be the Japanese Army using Hirohito as its face-saving surrender, because of the bomb? Hm. Not exactly a well-executed message in my view. But check out that dove with an atom bomb strapped to it:

That’s wild.

August 13

Chicago Tribune, August 13, 1945

One thing to note with both this and the most recent comic is their confidence that the war would be ending soon. This was still a few days before the Japanese capitulation — which was not entirely expected. One wonders how the view of the bomb would have changed if Japan hadn’t surrendered and the invasion had begun as planned.

August 14

Chicago Tribune, August 14, 1945

Another justifying cartoon from the Chicago Tribune. I’ve gotta say — I feel a little sorry for Japan in this one. I think the cartoon unintentionally makes them look like the underdogs.

There are a few more in here that I’m skipping, just for space and because they weren’t that interesting. The next one sums up the message of quite a few of them:

Atlanta Constitution, August 20, 1945

Now we’ve really entered into the hand-wringing, what-about-the-UN, can-we-have-atomic-peace stage of things. Clichés abound.

And thus we slide — from the exultation of the bomb towards the “what next?” phase of things. The connection between the explicit racism and the heavy exultation isn’t one that I’d really noticed quite so vividly before — it’s the sort of thing that might be read between the lines of written articles or editorials, but becomes quite obvious when it is being illustrated.

I want to add just one more cartoon here — one which is only tangentially related to the bomb:

Chicago Tribune, August 24, 1945

One could make the argument that this connection between pesticides and WMDs is non-coincidental (the connection between chemical warfare and pesticides is pretty clear-cut), but what I find striking about this particular cartoon is the fact that in many ways it is deeper than it intended to be. Just like the atomic bomb, DDT was initially celebrated by many (most?) — but we’ve now replaced that excitation with at the very least ambivalence, if not abhorrence.


Bethe on SUNSHINE and Fallout (1954)

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

Project SUNSHINE definitely takes the prize for “most intentionally-misleading title of a government program.” The goal of SUNSHINE (co-sponsored by the Atomic Energy Commission and RAND) was to figure out what the impact radioactive fallout from American nuclear testing was on the world population. The initial study was started in 1953, and involved checking biological material for the the radioactive fission product Strontium-90, with an attempt to correlate Sr-90 levels with various known nuclear test series. Not exactly what you think of when you hear the term “sunshine,” eh?

It actually gets much creepier than just the confusing name. The “biological material” they were studying was, well, dead organic matter. What kind of organic matter, specifically? The dataset for a “pre-pilot” study on Strontium-90 intake, was a real witches brew:

  • “Wisconsin cheese (1 month old)”
  • “clam shells (Long Island)”
  • “Wisconsin cat bone”
  • “Montana cat (6 months, fed on milk from free-range cows)”
  • “stillborn, full term baby (Chicago)”
  • “rib from a Harvard man” 

Pardon me while I count my ribs… and cats… and… well… yuck. You can’t make this stuff up. Well, I can’t, anyway. Here’s your creepy meeting transcript of the week, from the planning of SUNSHINE: “Dr. Libby commented on the difficulty of obtaining human samples, and suggested that stillborn babies, which are often turned over to the physician for disposal, might be a practical source.”1

As an aside to an aside, in the full study, they did use samples from corpses — corpses of children in particular seemed of particular interest — in getting their data. It’s a bit gory to read through their data sets as they describe the Sr-90 they found in the ribs or vertebrae of the dead. US scientist Shields Warren in particular seemed to have quite a lot of access to the bones of young children through the Cancer Research Institute in Boston, Massachusetts. Not a job I’d envy.2

Anyway — the document I wanted to share had nothing to do with the sample sources, but I got a little distracted while poking around in the SUNSHINE literature, and couldn’t not pass that on.

Hans Bethe and W.F. Libby

The letter in question comes from 1954, after SUNSHINE had been completed. It’s a request from December 1954 from the well-coifed Hans Bethe to the aforementioned Willard F. Libby, the physical chemist best known as the inventor of radiocarbon dating (for which he would win a Nobel Prize, in 1960), and in 1954 one of the five Commissioners of the AEC.3 In the letter, Bethe is arguing in favor of SUNSHINE’s declassification — and his justifications are not necessarily what you might expect.4

Click to view PDF (yes, it’s in color!)

Bethe started out by noting that even in the summer of 1953, when SUNSHINE was being finished up, they (it seems that Bethe and Libby were both there) thought that it would “be highly desirable to declassify a large part of project SUNSHINE.” Bethe thought the matter has gotten rather urgent:

I still feel the same way about this, and I think the arguments for declassification have become far stronger than they were in 1953. There is real unrest both in this country and abroad concerning the long-range as well as short-range radioactivity, and it would, in my opinion, greatly allay the fears of the public if the truth were published.

There’s the kicker: Bethe was convinced that SUNSHINE will show that fallout from testing isn’t as big a problem as people thought it was. Releasing SUNSHINE wouldn’t be a matter of propaganda (and holding it back wasn’t a matter of covering it up), in Bethe’s mind — it would simply be getting the facts out.

And why might people suddenly be getting concerned about nuclear fallout?

Map showing points (X) where contaminated fish were caught or where the sea was found to be excessively radioactive, following the Castle Bravo nuclear test.

No doubt because of all of the attention that the Castle BRAVO nuclear test had gotten with respects to high amounts of fallout finding its way into all sorts of biological systems far from its source — like the radioactive tuna that was caught for weeks afterwards off the waters of Japan.

Bethe understood, though, that the classification reasons holding back the publication of SUNSHINE were non-trivial. SUNSHINE studies the deposition of fission products following testing, and to make much sense of that, you had to know the fission yields from the tests. If you knew the fission yields, you’d know quite a lot about American nuclear weapons — especially if you knew the fission yield of the Ivy MIKE test, the first H-bomb.

Why? Because knowing the fission component of the first H-bomb test would possibly give away all sorts of information about the Teller-Ulam design. Multi-stage H-bombs have a reasonably large fission trigger that ignites the fusion fuel, which then again induces more fission in a “natural” uranium tamper. In the case of MIKE, 77% of the total 10.4 megaton yield came from the final fission stage. Knowing that would be a good hint as to the composition of the American H-bombs, and was not something they wanted to share with the USSR.

But Bethe thought you could get around this:

I believe the story of SUNSHINE could be published without giving away any information about our H-bombs: it is merely necessary to put the permissible accumulated yield in terms of fission yield rather than total yield.

In other words, if you just talked of fission yield — and didn’t give the total yield — you wouldn’t be able to figure out how much of the yield was not fission, and thus the high disparity (which would be a big red flag for a weapons designer) would be hidden.

Bethe also thought that they should publish the fallout data from the H-bomb tests (likely including those from the CASTLE series). Bethe didn’t think that information would give away any design information, but it was clear that others were suspicious. Bethe put the question to a test: he asked Philip Morrison to try and figure out how an H-bomb worked from just published stories about the Castle BRAVO fallout accident.

A youngish Philip Morrison, courtesy of the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Morrison at that point had no access to classified information. He had been part of the Manhattan Project, and so knew quite a bit about fission weapons, but had been cut out of the classified world by the time the H-bomb had come along. (More on Morrison’s security clearance another time — lots of interesting stories there.)

Morrison’s conclusions (oddly title “FISSION ENERGY IN IVY,” even though it was about BRAVO) are attached to Bethe’s letter. In many ways it is an analysis typical of a somewhat cocky physicist: things are described as “easy” and conclusions are lead to “clearly” and everything is stated as if it is pretty obvious and pretty straightforward. Morrison concludes that the total fission yield of BRAVO (again, misidentified as IVY) is between 0.2Mt and 0.6Mt, and that most of the fission must have been from the fission primary that started the reactions. In reality, 10Mt of the 15Mt total yield was from fission, which is why it was such a “dirty” shot.

Bethe took this as evidence that indeed, looking at just the fallout alone, you couldn’t figure out how much of the explosion was from fission yield, and thus the design information was safe: “As Morrison’s report shows, it seems to be easy to draw entirely wrong conclusions from the fall-out data.”

Why Morrison got this wrong is a little mysterious to me. Ralph Lapp had managed to conclude, more or less correctly, that there was a third “dirty” fission stage, and had popularized the idea enough that it trickled into  Life magazine in December 1955. But Bethe thought Morrison’s analysis was more or less sound, given his lack of detailed information. It’s a weird thing to conclude, based on one study, that some piece of information is fundamentally unknowable, when you already know what the piece of information is.

Life magazine, 1955: not quite right, not entirely wrong.

Speaking of speculating based on missing information, part of Bethe’s letter is redacted, for reasons I do not know. His conclusion makes it pretty clear it has to do with this absolute vs. fission yield/fallout issue, though.

Bethe concludes: “I believe it would greatly improve international feeling about our Pacific tests if we were to publish the correct story of SUNSHINE and of fall-out.”

Libby would come around to Bethe’s position and push for declassification. In Libby’s mind, like Bethe’s, SUNSHINE showed that the world wasn’t going to become mutated just because of a little testing in the Pacific. Furthermore, he also came to believe that you could shut down a lot of the anti-nuclear testing demands by just showing people that you were paying close attention to this sort of thing — by the time of Operation Redwing (1956), he felt that this sort of disclosure had already made the international community more friendly to US testing.

It wasn’t until 1956 that the declassification eventually occurred, however, and even then, a lot of things were removed. (The “Amended*” in the RAND report cover page above is because it was “Amended to remove classified data; otherwise the report remains unchanged and represents the 1953 estimate of the fallout problem.”) Of course, by that point it was clear that the Soviets had already figured out how to make an H-bomb work.

Also! I will be giving a talk this Friday at the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) in Hartford, CT. Just putting that out there.

  1. Minutes of the 36th Meeting of the General Advisory Committee to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (17, 18, and 19 August 1953), copy in the OHP Marshall Islands Document Collection. []
  2. E.g. E.A. Martell, “Strontium-90 Concentration Data for Biological Materials, Soils, Waters and Air Filters,” Project Sunshine Bulletin No. 12, [AECU-3297(Rev.)], (1 August 1956); human bone data listings start on page 29. []
  3. Libby was also the husband of Leona Woods, which I didn’t realize. Marshall was the only woman who had a role in the development of CP-1, the first nuclear reactor, and stands out quite conspicuously in the Met Lab photographs. []
  4. Citation: Hans Bethe to W.F. Libby (17 December 1954), copy in Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, NV, document NV0032161. []

More on Centrifuge History

Monday, June 25th, 2012

I wrote about centrifuges a few weeks ago, and have learned some new, interesting things since then. John Krige, a professor at the History, Technology, and Society program at Georgia Tech, has two quite provocative articles  published about interactions between the US and the UK regarding centrifuges in the mid-to-late 1960s. They are worth your attention.

European centrifuges (URENCO)

Krige’s first article is “Hybrid knowledge: the transnational co-production of the gas centrifuge for uranium enrichment in the 1960s,” just published online (and forthcoming in print, I believe) in the British Journal for the History of Science (BJHS).1 As the title may tip you off, this is an article for a primarily history of science/science studies crowd, and speaks in that idiom. Don’t let the jargon scare you off, though: as far as the genre goes, it’s readable and the underlying point is an important one. It concerns the interchanges of centrifuge information between the US and the UK in the early 1960s, which were done under the 1955 US/UK Agreement for Co-operation on the Civil Uses of Atomic Energy, and their consequences when the UK, Netherlands, and Germany decided to go into a cooperative, profitable effort to produce a commercial centrifuge enrichment plant in 1967. (What eventually became URENCO, I believe.)

The US thought this was a somewhat dodgy enterprise — they really didn’t think centrifuges would be as profitable as gaseous diffusion, their chosen enrichment method, but the UK disagreed — but were happy to support it, so long as the UK didn’t give away any “restricted data” that had been produced by the US. And there’s the rub: the UK and US had been exchanging information for a long time, and the UK really thought that it had produced a completely indigenous design (taking off from Gernot Zippe’s unclassified contributions) without any significant US “data” in it. The US disagreed and threatened to cut off all future US-UK exchanges if the latter didn’t let them verify to their satisfaction that there wasn’t any US data in the design. The UK, for its part, thought that it had a really superior centrifuge design compared to the US, and were worried that if the US claimed parts of it were “theirs,” it would completely muddy up their attempts to get clear of the US monopoly on the enrichment of uranium.

In the end, the US decided the UK design was kosher enough, and all was well with them. But it’s a fascinating (and to me, totally unknown) episode in the US-UK “special (nuclear) relationship,” one which really highlights some fundamentally interesting aspects of both US and UK atomic policy, and the fundamentally transnational (as Krige puts it) nature of modern centrifuge development (an Austrian working in the USSR develops technology that he then further works on in the US and the UK which is then turned into a company with the UK, Germany, and Netherlands, etc.). It also gets into some good history of science questions about how one identifies the source of any given piece of design or machinery — and how difficult that can be.

US centrifuges (Piketon)

The second paper by John is “The Proliferation Risks of Gas Centrifuge Enrichment at the Dawn of the NPT: Shedding Light on the Negotiating History,” just published online (and imminently forthcoming in print) in The Nonproliferation Review.2 This essay was a winner of an annual prize by the journal (one of two) and John gave a presentation on it last Thursday at GWU (which you can watch online — John is the first of the two speakers/winners, after the introduction by Stephen Schwartz).

In this paper, John tackles the question of the apparent ambiguity in the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) about whether centrifuge-style enrichment activities (like that currently pursued by Iran) were considered a protected form of “peaceful use” to be allowed and encouraged. It has been speculated that at the time of the treaty’s writing, the risks posed by centrifuge enrichment — which is a lot smaller scale than gaseous diffusion plants, and thus easier to hide or protect — weren’t considered by the NPT drafters, and thus represent an unanticipated “loophole” in the treaty terms.

What John has found is that while centrifuges were not discussed in the official record, they were discussed extensively on the backchannel by the US and the UK. In particular, the UK was extremely worried about the proliferation potential for the gas centrifuge. They, after all, were pursuing the technology themselves, and knew it could be a potent game-changer in breaking the gaseous diffusion monopoly. They wondered if it would not be the angle pursued by a future proliferating state, and conveyed as much to the US.

The US was itself comparatively unworried. It thought that it (and its European allies) could control the spread of centrifuge technology through classification and export controls, and still were dubious that the centrifuge would play a bit role in world affairs anytime soon. I pushed John on this at the talk (you can hear me asking a rambling question about this at the 1:41:24 mark in the video linked above), and he elaborated in a way that I thought was more compelling: the US was weary about getting the treaty signed (they had finally gotten the Soviets on board, and the NPT treaty process was over a decade old at that point), and were worried that any attempt to modify the treaty at that point would bog it down for years to come. Furthermore, the UK was engaging in said partnership with the Dutch and the West Germans, and the US really wanted to make sure the Germans were still on board with the NPT.

(The West Germans were really not too pleased with the NPT and it was a huge hassle to get them to ratify it; like many nations, they appropriately saw it as an infringement on their national sovereignty and their future security options. Of course today the Germans are big supporters of the NPT — it’s interesting how these things switch around, depending on where you are sitting at the time.)

The UK didn’t push the matter, because it didn’t want to rankle the treaty process, either, and because it too wanted to profit off of the centrifuge. So both the US and UK let the matter slide. (I think John’s work highlights something that I’ve been thinking for a short while now: there’s a lot of potential for a “deep” history of the NPT, one that goes beyond the open record.)

Iranian centrifuges (Natanz)

Whether this affects one’s interpretations of the NPT today — John thinks that there is basically no real legal argument against Iran being able to develop centrifuges, and certainly no argument that the early NPT drafters had left an unanticipated “loophole” in place that anyone is taking advantage of — seems to me, someone not at all versed in international law, to be unclear. (Do off-the-record conversations between two parties count towards later interpretations of a treaty’s intent?) But either way, it’s a fascinating story. The apparent US lack of concern about specifically centrifuge proliferation has come back to haunt it, these decades later.

  1. John Krige, “Hybrid knowledge: the transnational co-production of the gas centrifuge for uranium enrichment in the 1960s,” BJHS (online May 2012). []
  2. John Krige, “The Proliferation Risks of Gas Centrifuge Enrichment at the Dawn of the NPT: Shedding Light on the Negotiating History,” The Nonproliferation Review 19, no. 2 (July 2012), 219-227. []

The Hair of Physicists (1930s)

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

Sam Schweber’s book, In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist (Princeton University Press, 2000), is a classic dual-biography of two physicists close to the dark atomic arts. I read Sam’s book very early on in my bomb-history career, and have also had the pleasure of spending some time around Sam when we shared an office for a year while I taught at Harvard.

Castle ROMEO: Providing cover photographs for nuclear books since at least the 1980s.

Sam’s basic argument, to put it bluntly, is that J. Robert Oppenheimer was terribly inconsistent when it came to acting like an ethical human being, and his attempt to fly as high as possible led to his being burnt. Hans Bethe, on the other hand, did have some moments of considerable ethical wavering (his stance on the H-bomb being the most well-known), but generally speaking stood up for the right side of things and was far more consistent about his ethics.

I think it’s a fascinating book; for me, it helped draw attention to the aspects of Oppenheimer’s actions and character that get lost in the standard “martyr to McCarthyism” narrative. Oppenheimer was kind of a jerk — famously so. And he didn’t really take any kind of principled stand against the military-industrial complex: he was entirely complicit with it and always looking for a way to cooperate. Even his stance against building the H-bomb was 1. conditioned by the fact that he thought it would detract from an amassing a huge tactical weapons stockpile, and 2. dissipated the moment he saw the H-bomb as being technically feasible. This isn’t to say he was the worst of the bunch, but his reputation as principled opposition of the bomb is misattributed.

Bethe, on the other hand, managed to not only be more principled about his opposition to the H-bomb (except when he decided to work on it, but, as Sam emphasizes, this was originally because he hoped to show it was impossible), he also parlayed his security clearance into a life’s work of being an insider critic of US nuclear policies. He was also, by all accounts, not a jerk.

(Interesting factoid I will someday return to: I have a FOIA’d copy of Bethe’s FBI file. It is 500 pages of love from other physicists, plus occasional, accidental security breaches on Bethe’s part. A remarkable document in its lack of innuendo or scuttlebutt.)

Sam compared Oppenheimer and Bethe in terms of their ethics and behaviors. Since this is a blog, and it is Friday, I want to compare them by a different, perhaps more frivolous metric: their hairstyles in the 1930s. Because both young Oppenheimer and young Bethe rocked some considerable hair back in the days before the bomb.

All of the below images come from the amazing Emilio Segrè Visual Archives at the American Institute of Physics — my employer. These are very low-resolution versions of the images in question; the high-res files are impressively detailed. It is one of the perks of the job that I can look through these images; if you’re ever doing anything where you need an image of a physicist, definitely go to the ESVA first.

All right, let’s start with Oppenheimer:

J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1928. Even his hair was left-leaning at that point in time! Har-dee-har-har.

Before he was running the scientific side of the atomic bomb project, Oppenheimer had a pretty impressive mound of hair. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Oppenheimer tried pretty hard to look like a badass theoretical physicist.

“Are you talkin’ to me…. about muons?”

And hey, let’s admit it — he pulled it off. Not even 30, he had two professorships, one at the University of California (Berkeley), the other at Cal Tech. He was one of the only theoretical physicists in the country who was worth a damn at that point in time. He knew his stuff, and he wanted you to know he knew it.

Physicist, horse-rider, and fellow-traveler.

The hair really does work for the image.

Bethe’s hair at the time was also pretty wild. Two of my favorite photos of him, both from a 1935 “Summer School” at Ann Arbor, Michigan:

Edward Condon, I.I. Rabi, Hans Bethe, and unknown; 1935.

Bethe’s hair, at this point, bore a not-inconsiderable resemblance to the mushroom cloud on the cover of Sam’s book up there.

Hans Bethe and Jenny Rosenthal Bramley, 1935.

Bethe generally smiled in his photos, though. He wasn’t broody like Oppenheimer was; one gets the sense that he just didn’t cut his hair as often as he could have, not that he was making a big fashion statement. He looks like he would have been a fun guy to be around; he’s not staring you down in the photos the way Oppenheimer does.

(Jenny Rosenthal Bramley, though, also had some pretty great hair. Let’s give a cheer to a not-very-well-known physicist, one of only a handful of women with physics Ph.D.s in the U.S. at the time. You’d think she’d warrant at least a Wikipedia article, eh?)

Alright, you’re asking — where’s the meaningful historigraphical comment, here? It’s just this: both Oppenheimer and Bethe had some precedence with the “theoretical physicists can have crazy hair” trend, of course. Another guy had somewhat beat them to that punch already:

“Go big, or go home.” — Not Albert Einstein

It would be a bit ridiculous to claim that many theoretical physicists at this time had crazy hair. They didn’t. As far as I can tell, most of the others had pretty conservative hair. Most of them would blend in fine with a business crowd.

But, again, there is some precedence for looking a little wild-eyed in the 1930s — and you could get away with it, because nobody thought theoretical physics was going to add up to much. It was a head-in-a-cloud, never-going-to-be-relevant field of study. Muons and deuterons? What good are those?

Case-in-point, Einstein’s two pre-1945 covers of Time magazine:

On the left is February 1929, on the right is April 1938.

In both of these, Einstein — even then the world’s most famous physicist — is basically sitting around in what looks like his pajamas. He might be thinking deep thoughts, but they’re tagged as deeply irrelevant thoughts.

(One interesting discovery: the ESVA has a copy of the photograph that the painting from 1938 is based on. In the high-res version, you can see that he’s not wearing silk pajamas, as the cover somewhat implies. He’s actually wearing a strange leather outfit. Somewhat unexpected. My wife says, “It’s like a leather Mao jacket.”)

The bomb changed all of this. Theoretical physicists became perceived as unbearably relevant — even deadly. Both Oppenheimer and Bethe started cropping their hair more closely.

Oppenheimer and Bethe ca. 1945

Oppenheimer’s hair would only get shorter over time during his time of government tenure — perhaps a nice visual illustration of Schweber’s thesis of his moral capitulation? Bethe’s varied quite a bit over the years, though it was never quite as voluminous as it was in his more carefree days.

As for Einstein… well, the old rebel’s hair only got more unruly over time. But after the bomb, at least, they did get him to occasionally put on a suit — if only for another cover of Time.


Bethe argues against the MIKE test (1952)

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Hans Bethe's Los Alamos ID badgeTo say that Hans Bethe was a fascinating character would be something of colossal understatement. His stance on the hydrogen bomb is one of the most enigmatic: in early 1950, he strongly lobbied against Truman’s “crash” program. Two weeks after Truman’s announcement on the H-bomb (and the unveiling of Klaus Fuchs, which was almost simultaneous), Bethe wrote to the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Gordon Dean, explaining that:

The announcement of the President has not changed my feelings in this matter. I still believe that it is morally wrong and unwise for our National security to develop this weapon. … The main point is that I can not in good conscience work on this weapon.1

But, for complicated reasons that Sam Schweber has discussed in his classic book, In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist (Princeton University Press, 2000)Bethe eventually changed his position and played a key role in the development of the Super bomb. Why? Initially he hoped that he could prove that it couldn’t be done — which was certainly the case with Teller’s initial “Classical Super” plan that so much effort was expended on. But it was not long until a better way was found. (Sam’s newest book, Nuclear Forces: The Making of the Physicist Hans Bethe, covers Bethe’s earlier years. I’ve no doubt it’s a good read.)

On Monday, I indicated that I really think that US could have not ordered an H-bomb crash program in1950 and come out pretty well on top of things even if the Soviets had roared ahead with their own program. Last Wednesday, I talked about how the test of the first H-bomb in November 1952, Ivy MIKE, leaked out almost immediately, despite attempts to keep it secret.

For today, I want to share a document in between these two dates: a letter by Hans Bethe, written to Gordon Dean, from September 1952. Bethe’s subject: why the US should postpone the testing of MIKE.2

Click for the PDF.

Why would Bethe want the first H-bomb not to be tested? Interestingly, it wasn’t because of any argument about the arms race — perhaps not a surprise, given that by this time, Bethe was firmly of the position that the H-bomb was “inevitable” since it did appear to be workable.

No, it was about Politics with a capital “P.” The Operation Ivy test schedule was for November 1 — just three days before voting day in the 1952 Presidential election. In Bethe’s view, this was too close:

Ever since I came here [Los Alamos] last February, I have been concerned about the choice of the date for the thermonuclear test, November 1. …

The first danger is, of course, that this test might in some manner be injected into the election campaign. I do not believe that the Presidential candidates themselves would do so but there are many others that might, for instance members of Congress or newspaper columnists. If the test is carried out on November 1, if it is successful, and if this fact becomes known, the danger is very great that it will be used as campaign material. 

Now I don’t believe that it will be an effective argument in the campaign; in fact, I think it is unpredictable which party would benefit from it, regardless of how or by whom the topic is raised. But I am worried that some politicians of either party might believe that it would help their side. We all know that emotions run high in a campaign, especially towards its close. Demagogic statements may be made at such a time which the speaker himself will later regret.

But this short term problem was only part of the problem:

The least of the troubles which would arise from such speeches is that they might make atomic energy and atomic weapons a partisan issue. Much more serious is the possibility that the public would be led to believe that the accomplishment of a thermonuclear reaction had made us invincible, that we could now take chances in foreign policy and perhaps even risk a major war. It would take a long time to correct this impression, and in trying to do so, we would be unable to use some of the most potent arguments because they are classified. A few words said in the heat of battle can thus do permanent damage to the public attitude on this matter.

So this is an interesting connection to make: the use of the H-bomb as a talking point in the heat of an election could lead to a complete misunderstanding of the H-bomb itself. Note that it’s not an argument for secrecy: it’s an argument against testing the first H-bomb in the middle of an election. 

Courtesy of the AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives

But “the most important reaction” in Bethe’s view would be that of the international community:

If our test becomes publicly known, and I think the chances for this are enhanced if it is held during the election campaign, it will undoubtedly give food to the Communist propaganda machine. This propaganda is apt to be quite effective because I believe that the knowledge of a successful thermonuclear test will create fear in the countries of Western Europe rather than confidence. A few belligerent or merely incautious remarks by some people in this country will play into the hands of Communist propaganda by convincing many otherwise friendly people abroad that this is an important step towards our starting a war. “Neutralism” will be  strengthened, to an extent that it may influence the policy of European governments and become very hard to deal with. There is of course no guarantee that inappropriate remarks will not be made outside of a campaign, but the danger is much greater during it.

The connection between this and the domestic election, again, is that the election season would make the chances of a leak — and sensationalism — much higher than any other point in time. (Bethe also notes that this isn’t just about the Presidential candidates — there were plenty of Congressmen up for re-election as well.)

Bethe also thought that a leak was going to be likely whenever you had the test, because, frankly, it’s hard to keep something as big as an H-bomb a secret.

If there is no disclosure, the test may still become public knowledge because of large fall-outs, visual observations from Kwajalein, or possibly observations of shock or seismic phenomena. Whichever may be the method of revelation, the evidence of a test with enormous yield combined with a lot of previous discussion in the columns of newspapers will almost undoubtedly lead the public to the right conclusion.

At the very least, Bethe thought it should be postponed until November 5, the day after the election, if not longer. (Bethe’s ideal date was November 15.)

The rest of the letter concerns whether the Presidential candidates should be informed about the prospective test. Bethe figures this should be easy; both Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson were trustworthy figures. Bethe thought Oppenheimer would be a great guy to give them the head’s up.

Bethe could see only benefit to delaying it. Changing the date of the shot might increase the chances slightly of bad weather, but not much. “The effect of a postponement by two weeks or a month on the general thermonuclear program of the Laboratory would be almost unnoticeable.”

As we know, this suggestion went unheededand the news of the test did leak almost immediately to the press.

Well, it was a little conspicuous.

Butsurprisingly, none of the leaks hit the newspapers until November 7, 1952, when a story by Elton C. Fay went out on the AP wire.3 (Eye-witness stories began running on November 8.4)

It’s hard not to see this as anything other than restraint on behalf of those at the press who had known about the success of Ivy MIKE within hours of the test. And here Bethe thought they couldn’t keep a secret! Well, they could keep it for almost a week, anyway.

Curiously, an event did happen in between that time that engendered H-bomb speculation — and it didn’t have anything to do with the election, or even the H-bomb test itself. On November 4, 1952, a massive 9.0 earthquake occurred off of Kamchatka, the Russian peninsula north of Japan. The result was a tsunami for Japan and 13 foot waves in Hawaii. It was the third-largest earthquake of the 20th century, according to USGS.

Kamchatka quake map (Daily Boston Globe, November 5, 1952)

At least one major newspaper’s story about the quake was devoted to speculation as to whether it was a hydrogen bomb or not:

A senior Canadian Government scientist said it is not impossible that the earthquake was in reality the explosion of a hydrogen bomb. “It’s one possibility,” he said, but it’s pretty well down the list. It’s theoretically possible, but pretty hard to believe. I’m assuming it’s an earthquake until something else is proved.”5

Of course, in that instance, it would be far more likely to be a Soviet bomb than an American one (unless the Americans were getting exceedingly bold), but in any case, it’s an interesting coincidence — one that, with a little prodding, could have revealed the fact that an H-bomb had in fact been tested in the Pacific only a few days before.

Read the footnotes to this post to see the leaked, eye-witness account of MIKE…

  1. Hans Bethe to Gordon Dean (14 February 1950), copy in the Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, NV, document NV0125241. []
  2. Citation: Hans Bethe to Gordon Dean (9 September 1952), copy in the Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, NV, document NV0409418. []
  3. The Fay story appeared under different headlines — and sometimes without a by-line — in many newspapers, e.g. “H-Bomb Test Explosion in Pacifc Hinted,” Los Angeles Times (7 November 1952), 1. []
  4. The anonymous “eye-witness account” is pretty wonderful, in and of itself. From a version of the story carried in the Washington Post:

    The blast, the letter said, was viewed through dark glasses and “appeared a huge orange ball, which grew larger and brighter until it appeared as if no dark glasses where there at all.”

    Intense heat was felt almost immediately, the writer continued, adding:

    “The ball of fire started to rise and slowly lose its intensity. We took off our glasses and saw water vapor suddenly form around the column. Then it rushed into the base of the column and up, clearing the air so that you could see countless tons of water rushing skyward.

    “The column went up and up and finally mushroomed. About three minutes later the report, like a nearby cannon shot, hit us and was followed by several seconds of dull rumbling . . .

    “All we could do was stand there and gasp in amazement and awe at the enormous size and force released before us. Typical comment from old timers: ‘Holy cow! That sure makes the A-bomb a runt.’

    “And so I saw the first H-bomb explode.”

    “‘First H-bomb Blast’ Described in Letter,” Washington Post (9 November 1952), M7. []

  5. “13-Foot Hawaii Waves Follow Siberia Quake,” Daily Boston Globe (5 November 1952), 1. []