Archive for the ‘News and Notes’ Category

H-bomb headaches

Friday, March 27th, 2015

Once again, the US government has gotten itself into a bad situation over the supposed secret of the hydrogen bomb. As The New York Times reported earlier this week, the Department of Energy (DOE) censors demanded that the physicist Ken Ford heavily redact a manuscript he had written on the history of the hydrogen bomb. Ford, however, declined to do so, and you can buy the unexpurgated text right now on Amazon in Kindle format, and in hardback and paperback fairly soon.

Ken Ford by Mark Makela for the New York Times.

Ken Ford by Mark Makela for the New York Times.

Ford was a young physicist working with John A. Wheeler during the 1950s, and so a lot of his book is a personal memoir. He is also (in full disclosure) the former head of the American Institute of Physics (my employer from 2011-2014), and I was happy to give him some assistance in the preparation of the manuscript, mainly in the form of tracking down declassified/unclassified sources relating to his story, and helped him get solid citations to them. Ken actually just recently came to Hoboken so we could iron out a few of the final citations in a Starbucks near my apartment. I knew he was having some issues with classification review, but I didn’t know he was going to play it like this — I am impressed by his boldness at just saying “no” to DOE.

Nothing I saw in his work struck me as anything actually still secret. Which is not to say that it might or might not be officially classified — just that the technical information is much the same kind of technical information you can find in other, unclassified sources, like the books of Richard Rhodes and Chuck Hansen, and people on the web like Carey Sublette, among others. And therein lies the rub: is information still a secret if it is officially classified, even if it is widely available?

This has been a tricky thing for the government to adjudicate over the years. The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (and its revisions) charges the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and later the Department of Energy, with regulating “restricted data” wherever it appears, wherever it comes from. According to the law, they don’t have any choice in the matter. But over the years they changed their stance as to the best way to achieve this regulation.

One of the earliest decisions of the Lilienthal AEC was to adopt a “no comment” policy with regards to potentially sensitive information published by people unassociated with the nuclear weapons complex. Basically, if someone wanted to speculate on potentially classified topics — like the size of the US nuclear stockpile, or how nuclear weapons worked — the AEC in general would not try to get in their way. They might, behind the scenes, contact editors and publishers and make an appeal to decency and patriotism. (Sometimes this got expressed in a comical fashion: they would have “no comment” about one paragraph but not another.) But they generally did not try to use threat of prosecution as the means of achieving this end, because they felt, correctly, that censorship was too blunt an object to wield very effectively, and that telling someone on the outside of the government that they had hit upon classified information was tantamount to revealing a secret in and of itself.

Howard Morland then-and-now. On the left, Morland and his H-bomb model, as photographed for the Washington Post in 1981 (at the time his book account of the Progressive case, The Secret that Exploded, was published). At right, Morland and me at a party in Washington, DC, just before I moved to New York. He is wearing his H-bomb secret shirt he had made in 1979 (which he discusses in his book). I felt very honored both to see the original shirt and to see the pose he imagined he might do with it before the press, to reveal the secret to the world.

Howard Morland then and now. On the left, Morland and his H-bomb model, as photographed for the Washington Post in 1981 (at the time his book account of the Progressive case, The Secret that Exploded, was published). At right, Morland and me at a party in Washington, DC, just before I moved to New York. He is wearing his H-bomb secret shirt he had made in 1979 (which he discusses in his book). I felt very honored both to see the original shirt and to see the pose he imagined he might do with it before the press, to reveal the secret to the world.

There were a few instances, however, where this “no comment” policy broke down. The best-known one is the case of United States v. Progressive, Inc. in 1979. This is the famous case in which the DOE attempted to obtain (and was briefly granted) prior restraint against the publication of a magazine that claimed to contain the “secret of the hydrogen bomb,” written by the journalist/activist Howard Morland. The DOE convinced a judge to grant a restriction on publication initially, but in the appeals process it became increasingly clear that the government’s case was on fairly shaky grounds. They declared the case moot when the researcher Chuck Hansen had a paper on hydrogen bomb design published in a student newspaper — in this case, it looked like an obvious attempt to back out before getting a bad ruling. Morland’s article appeared in print soon after and became the “standard” depiction of how the Teller-Ulam design works, apparently validated by the government’s interest in the case.

In this case, the issue was about the most egregious incursion of the Atomic Energy Act into the public sphere: the question of whether the government could regulate information that it did not itself play a part in creating. The “restricted data” clause of the Atomic Energy Act (after which this blog is named) specifies that all nuclear weapons-related information is to be considered classified unless explicitly declassified, and makes no distinction about whether said information was created in a laboratory by a government scientist or anywhere else in the world by private citizens. Thus nuclear weapons information is “born secret” according to the law (unlike any other forms of controlled national defense information), which in cases like that of The Progressive puts it in direct conflict with the First Amendment.

Ford’s book is something different, however. Ford was himself a government scientist and had a security clearance. This means he was privy to information that was most definitely classified as both “restricted data” and national defense information. He worked on Project Matterhorn B at Princeton, which was part of the hydrogen bomb effort in the early 1950s. He signed contracts that governed his behavior, both while working for the government and later. He agreed to let the government evaluate his work for classified information, and agreed he would not give away any classified information.

At left, the redacted Bethe article as published in Scientific American, April 1950. At right, the original draft, redacted by the Atomic Energy Commission (photograph taken by me at the National Archives, College Park).

At left, the redacted Bethe article as published in Scientific American, April 1950. At right, the original draft, redacted by the Atomic Energy Commission (photograph taken by me at the National Archives, College Park).

There is a historical parallel here, and a better one than the Progressive case. In 1950, the magazine Scientific American ran a series of articles about the hydrogen bomb. The first of these was by the gadfly physicist Louis Ridenour. Ridenour had no connection with nuclear weapons work and he could say whatever he wanted. But the second was by Hans Bethe, who was intimately involved with classified nuclear work. Bethe obviously didn’t try to publish anything he thought was secret. But the AEC got several passages deleted from the article anyway.

The passages removed were extremely banal. For example, Bethe said that it seemed like they would need to use the deuterium-tritium reaction to achieve fusion. This level of basic information was already in the Ridenour article that was published a month before. So why delete it from the Bethe article? Well, because Bethe was connected with the government. If Ridenour says, “tritium is necessary,” it doesn’t mean that much, because Ridenour doesn’t have access to secrets. If Bethe says it, it could be potentially understood by an adversary to mean that the deuterium-deuterium reaction isn’t good enough (and it isn’t), and thus that the Los Alamos scientists had found no easy short-cut to the H-bomb. So the same exact words coming out of different mouths had different meanings, because coming out of Bethe’s mouth they were a statement about secret government research, and out of Ridenour’s mouth they were not. The whole thing became a major publicity coup for Scientific American, of course, because there is no better publicity for a news organization than a heavy-handed censorship attempt.

I have looked over a lot of Ford’s book. It’s available on Amazon as a e-book, or as a PDF directly from the publisher. I haven’t had time to read the entire thing in detail yet, so this is nothing like a formal review. The sections that I imagine drew the ire of the DOE concern some of the early thinking about how the Teller-Ulam design came about. This is an area where there is still a lot of historical ambiguity, because tracing the origins of a complex technical idea is not straightforward even without classification mucking things up. (I am working on a paper of this myself, and have a somewhat different interpretation than Ken, but that is really neither here nor there.)

Ken Ford Building the H-bomb

There’s nothing that looks classified in Ken’s work on this to me. There are references to things that generally don’t show up in government publications, like “equilibrium conditions,” but the existence of these kinds of technical issues are common in the open literature on thermonuclear weapons, and a lot of them are present in the related field of inertial confinement fusion, which was largely declassified in the late 1990s.1

So why is the DOE pent up over Ford? It is probably not an issue of the content so much as the fact that he is the one talking about it. It is one thing for an unaffiliated, uncleared person like me to say the words “equilibrium conditions” and talk about radiation implosion and tampers and cryogenic cooling of plutonium and things of that nature. It’s another for a former weapons physicist to say it.

It’s also related to the fact that because Ken was a former weapons physicist, they have to review his work. And they have to review it against their official guides that tell them what is technically secret and what is not. And what is allowed by the DOE to talk about is not the same thing about what people on the outside of the DOE do talk about. So, for example, this is pretty much most of what the DOE considers kosher about thermonuclear weapons:

  • The fact that in thermonuclear (TN) weapons, a fission “primary” is used to trigger a TN reaction in thermonuclear fuel referred to as a “secondary.” 
  • The fact that, in thermonuclear weapons, radiation from a fission explosive can be contained and used to transfer energy to compress and ignite a physically separate component containing thermonuclear fuel.  Note: Any elaboration of this statement will be classified.
  • Fact that fissile and/or fissionable materials are present in some secondaries, material unidentified, location unspecified, use unspecified, and weapons undesignated. 

Now you can find a lot more elaboration on these statements in the works of Chuck Hansen, Carey Sublette, and, hell, even Wikipedia these days. (Fun fact: Howard Morland, of The Progressive case, is an active Wikipedian and contributor to that page.) And in fact there is a lot that has been released by the government that does lend towards “elaboration” of these statements, because it is impossible to full compartmentalize all of this kind of information in such neat little boxes.

But the job of the DOE reviewer was to sit down with the guide, sit down with Ken’s book, and decide what the guide said they had to do regarding the book. And in this case, it was about 10% of the book that the guide said they had to get rid of. And in this case, they are bound by the guide. Now, at a certain point, one has to say, if the guide is saying that lots of stuff that is already in Richard Rhodes’ Dark Sun, published 20 years ago, still needs to be kept under lock and key, well, maybe the guide needs to be changed. But there is arguably something of a difference between Rhodes (an outsider) writing things, and Ford (an insider) writing the same things. But it’s hard to see how any of this is going to matter with regard to national security today or in the future — it doesn’t seem like these kinds of statements are going to be what enables or disables future proliferators from acquiring thermonuclear weapons.

"How institutions appear / how institutions are." From one of my favorite comics published on Subnormality, by Winston Rowntree.

“How institutions appear / how institutions are.” From one of my favorite comics published on Subnormality, by Winston Rowntree.

What’s amazing, again, is not that the DOE told Ken to delete things from his book. That is somewhat expected given how the classification system works. What’s amazing is that Ken told them to shove off and published it anyway. That doesn’t happen so often, that a once-insider won’t play ball. And it has no doubt put the DOE in a tough situation: they’ve set things up for a good story (like the one in the New York Times) about the silliness of government secrecy, and as a result have probably resulted in a lot of book sales that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. In this case, their attempt at preserving some form of secrecy has certainly resulted in them just calling more attention to the work in question.

What can they do to Ken? Well, technically, they probably could prosecute him under the Atomic Energy Act, or potentially the Espionage Act. But I’m pretty sure they won’t. It would be a public relations nightmare for them, would probably result in the release of even more information they deem sensitive, and Ken is no rogue agent. Which just goes to highlight one of the points I always make when I talk to people about secrecy: from the outside, it can look like government institutions are powerful and omnipotent with regards to classification. But they are usually weaker and more frail than they appear, because those who are bound by secrecy usually end up losing the public relations war, because they aren’t allowed to participate as fully as those who are on the outside.

  1. The Teller-Ulam design is perhaps better called the Equilibrium Super, to distinguish it from the Non-Equilibrium “Classical” Super design. In a basic sense, it refers to the fact that they were trying to achieve conditions that would result in a lot of fusion all at once, as opposed to a traveling “wave” of fusion along a cylinder of fuel. []

Public lecture: “The Secret Histories of Laser Fusion”

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Sorry for the radio silence last week! A lot has been going on over here. More on all that pretty soon. Tomorrow morning I will be putting up a post on the death of David Greenglass.

I wanted to let people in the greater New York City metro area know about a public lecture I am giving on Wednesday, October 29, 2014, as part of the New York City History of Science Society Consortium, at Columbia University.

Meeting of the New York City History of Science Society Consortium

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014, 6:00-7:30 PM

Faculty House, Columbia University, 64 Morningside Drive

Wellerstein - Laser fusion talk

“Clean, Limitless, Classified: The Secret Histories of Laser Fusion”

Alex Wellerstein, Stevens Institute of Technology

The invention of the laser and its proliferation in scientific settings created a unique problem for the United States government starting in the 1960s. The Cold War regime of nuclear secrecy had required an absolute legal distinction between “peaceful” civilian technology and “dangerous” military technology: the former needing wide dissemination and development by the private sector, the latter being tightly regulated under penalty of imprisonment and death. But the emergent technology of laser fusion began to challenge and blur these Cold War categories. For its proponents, which included both international scientists and private entrepreneurs, laser fusion held out the hope of clean, limitless power generation during a time of increasing energy instability. But at its heart was a form of physics that was, for government censors, far too near to the methods used in the design of advanced thermonuclear weapons. This talk will use newly declassified files to tell the international history of laser fusion in the 1960s and 1970s as a case study for looking at the unusual classification problems of late Cold War nuclear technology. 

This is a very fun talk, one I’ve been working on (and workshopping on) for a few years now. It is based on interviews with some of the pioneers of laser fusion technology, and a whole lot of documents I got declassified by the Department of Energy relating to the declassification of laser fusion technology in the 1970s, the KMS Fusion affair, and international development of inertial confinement fusion. In a world where some new fusion hype seems to be bursting out (or petering out) on a weekly basis, this is a history with more relevance than ever, and has some moments in it that are sure to shock and delight. For those who are more interested in the weapons side of the nuclear picture, there’s a lot going on related to that in this as well, in describing the back-and-forth between the work of H-bomb designs and the work on “civilian” applications, and the complete mess that this put the Atomic Energy Commission in as they tried to figure out their classification policies and priorities. There’s a lot going on in this one.

All are welcome — there doesn’t seem to be a need to RSVP. I don’t know if it is being recorded. I don’t think it is being streamed.

John Wheeler and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Monday, July 14th, 2014

Just a quick plug: as noted previously, I’m moving out of the Washington, DC, area very soon, to start a new job at the Stevens Institute of Technology in the New Jersey/NYC area. My last talk as a DC denizen is going to be next Monday, July 21st, at the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Maryland, from 12-1:30pm.


Here’s the information:

The AIP History Programs invites you to an ACP Brown Bag Lunch-Time Talk:

John Wheeler’s H-bomb blues:
Searching for a missing document
at the height of the Cold War

by Alex Wellerstein, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for History of Physics

Monday, July 21, 2014
12–1:30 pm

Conference Room A
American Center for Physics
1 Physics Ellipse
College Park, MD 20740

There’s never a right time to lose a secret document under unusual circumstances. But for the influential American physicist John Archibald Wheeler, there might not have been a worse time than January, 1953. While on an overnight train ride to Washington, D.C., only a month after the test of the first hydrogen bomb prototype, Wheeler lost, under curious circumstances, a document explaining the secret to making thermonuclear weapons.

The subsequent search for the missing pages (and for who to blame) went as high as J. Edgar Hoover and President Eisenhower, and ended up destroying several careers. The story provides a unique window into the precarious intersection of government secrecy, competing histories of the hydrogen bomb, and inter-agency atomic rivalry in the high Cold War. Using recently declassified files, the AIP Center for History of Physics’ outgoing Associate Historian will trace out the tale of  how Wheeler ended up on that particular train, with that particular document, and the far-reaching consequences of its  loss—or theft—for both Wheeler and others involved in the case.

It’s a very fun paper, drawing heavily on John Wheeler’s FBI file, and one that I will be turning into an article fairly soon. It is open to the public if you RSVP. If you’re in town and want to see me before I go, please feel free to come! To my knowledge it will not be live-streamed or recorded or anything like that.

Changing venues: from DC to NYC

Friday, May 16th, 2014

I haven’t posted as much as I’ve wanted to this month. The main culprits have been teaching, grading, writing, and a week of stomach flu. All of which are pretty OK by me except the last one, which was the exact opposite of pleasant. But I’m better now. But one of the other things that has been brewing has been me finalizing and preparing for a new job. As many of you know, for the past three years I’ve been the Associate Historian at the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics, in College Park, Maryland, which is just outside of Washington, DC.

Where I've been for the past three years: the American Institute of Physics.

Where I’ve been for the past three years: the American Institute of Physics, in College Park, MD. 

The position was a postdoctoral fellowship. It gave me the flexibility to start the blog, to make the NUKEMAP, to do a lot of talking with people in DC, to write whatever I wanted, and to teach at Georgetown in the Spring 2014 semester. It has been a wonderful place for me to explore what kind of work I wanted to produce, and one couldn’t ask for a better incubator for someone who was recently out of grad school and was still figuring out exactly what I wanted to be doing.

But it was always a fixed-term (3 year) position, destined to end in the late summer of 2014. So I’ve spent some time over the past eight months or so thinking about what I wanted to do next, and see who would take me. It was important to me that wherever I landed that I be allowed to continue the kind of scholarship that I’ve been doing for the last few years, including the digital projects. Aside from the professional benefits it has conferred upon me from the increased exposure (I’m plugged into communities now that never knew I existed before), it has helped me develop my writing (my “voice”) and helped me to think about ways to use the unique benefits of the web (e.g. interactive data visualization/manipulation that is massively scalable and distributable) to further public understanding of issues I care about.

So I’m excited to announce that I have accepted, a tenure track position as an Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. It’s a small engineering school with a lively humanities division, and they’ve made it clear that they like what I do as I’ve been doing it and want me to do even more. This is a huge draw for me, because I knew that my Internet-related activities, however hard this may be for any of my readers to fathom, would not be a great fit with many more traditional academic departments. And hey, they want me to teach a class on the past, present, and future of nuclear technology my first semester there — what’d I say about a good fit?

Also, the location is pretty impressive. This is my obligatory, “where is this place” photograph, taken from one of their promotional brochures, of course:

Stevens Institute of Technology

Where I’m moving to: the Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, NJ, just outside of NYC.

Stevens are the buildings above and to the right of the main athletic field above. The body of water is the Hudson River; the skyscrapers on the other side are midtown Manhattan. The big one is the Empire State Building. So basically I’m going to be a short ferry across (or train/bus ride under) the river from New York City. So you could call this my Manhattan Project, if you wanted to be punny about it. My wife has also managed to find a good job in the area, too, which is one of the things I was waiting on before announcing this. She is going to be teaching at one of the best prep schools in the country out there, which I think is going to be a great fit for her. We are feeling exceptionally fortunate.

As with all job changes and moves, there is a bittersweet aspect to this. I’ve really enjoyed living in Washington for the last three years. I thought it was a fun, exciting town, and there’s probably no better place in the world for people who study secrecy and nukes. So many interesting people, so many interesting talks, so many interesting events. Fortunately the train ride from New York to DC is very pleasant, so I hope my DC friends and acquaintances will consider me not too far away. Or, as I like to put it, you’ve got another friend in the NYC area.

I’ll be moving there over the summer, sometime in late July or early August. Don’t worry, the blog is going to keep chugging along — during and after the move. Now that teaching is done I want to squeeze in a few more DC archive research trips while I still live a few blocks from the Library of Congress, and I have a few blog posts I’ve been working on for awhile. The visualization/app work may even be accelerated in the years to come, because at Stevens they want me to try and teach students how to do similar things, and that always leads to more little inspirations. Keep an eye on this space. I thank you, and AIP in particular, for the support that made this possible.

Webcast: “What’s become of our nuclear golden age?”

Monday, September 9th, 2013

A 1959 advertisement for Union Carbide in the Saturday Evening Post.

We no longer live in the nuclear age, or, at least, we don’t think we do — so I concluded awhile back. But that won’t stop me from talking about it! This Wednesday, September 11th, 2013, I will be participating in a live webcast at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia:

On Sept. 11, 2013 the Chemical Heritage Foundation will present a live online video discussion, “Power and Promise: What’s become of our nuclear golden age?” Guests Alex Wellerstein and Linda Richards will take stock of our turbulent nuclear past and look at how it has shaped our current attitudes, for better and for worse.

Some say we are on the verge of a bright nuclear future in which nuclear power will play a major role in responding to climate change. Others say that we should expect more Fukushimas. Whichever way our nuclear future goes, there will be energy and environmental tradeoffs. On CHF’s blog you can decide on the tradeoffs you are willing to make. Tweet to vote your choices. Viewers can also tweet questions to the guests before or during the show by using the hashtag #HistChem.

“Power and Promise: What’s Become of Our Nuclear Golden Age?” will air at 6 p.m. EST.  Watch the livecast episode at

Guest Bios:

Alex Wellerstein is an associate historian at the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics. He holds a Ph.D. in the history of science from Harvard University and his research interests include the history of Cold War technology, including nuclear technology. He blogs at

Linda M. Richards is a former CHF fellow and will be returning in 2014 as a Doan Fellow. She is working on a Ph.D. on nuclear history at Oregon State University. Her dissertation is titled “Rocks and Reactors: The Origins of Radiation Exposure Disparity, 1941-1979.” In 2012 she received a National Science Foundation grant that took her to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, UN agencies and archives in Geneva, and to North American indigenous uranium mining sites.

About the Show:

#HistChem is a monthly interactive livestreamed show produced by the Chemical Heritage Foundation. It features topically compelling issues that intersect science, history and culture. Hosts are Michal Meyer, editor of Chemical Heritage Magazine, and Bob Kenworthy, a CHF staff member and chemist. The first episode, “How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Zombie Apocalypse,” debuted in August, 2013. Follow the show and related news at

About the Chemical Heritage Foundation:

The Chemical Heritage Foundation is a collections-based nonprofit organization that preserves the history and heritage of chemistry, chemical engineering, and related sciences and technologies. The collections are used to create a body of original scholarship that illuminates chemistry’s role in shaping society. In bridging science with the humanities, arts, and social sciences, CHF is committed to building a vibrant, international community of scholars; creating a rich source of traditional and emerging media; expanding the reach of our museum; and engaging the broader society through inventive public events.

This should be a fun thing, as Linda and I take somewhat different approaches (both interesting) to many nuclear issues, and the CHF team asks great questions. You can Tweet in questions for the show with the right hashtag (#HistChem) and it may somehow magically get to us while we’re talking. And hey, I’ll be wearing a suit!

Update: The video has been posted online, enjoy!