Archive for the ‘Visions’ Category

Historical thoughts on Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen

Friday, February 26th, 2016

When I meet new, educated-but-not-academic people for the first time, and the subject of what I study for a living comes up, I almost invariably get two questions. The first is almost always some variant on the question of whether Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary. The second is almost always about Werner Heisenberg.

Werner Heisenberg (at right) with Niels Bohr (center) and Elisabeth Heisenberg (left), 1937. (Victor Weisskopf makes a cameo appearance on the left, in the back.) Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archive, American Institute of Physics.

Werner Heisenberg (at right) with Niels Bohr (center) and Elisabeth Heisenberg (left), 1937. (Victor Weisskopf makes a cameo appearance on the left, in the back.) Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archive, American Institute of Physics.

Did Heisenberg try to sabotage the German bomb project? Does the failure of the Germans to produce a bomb during World War II reflect on Heisenberg’s technical knowledge, his moral choices, or Allied sabotage? What do historians think, in the end, that Heisenberg was trying to do when he visited his mentor Niels Bohr in occupied Copenhagen in the fall of 1941?

These questions, often without saying so explicitly, tend to stem from one source these days: Michael Frayn’s Tony Award-winning play Copenhagen, first performed in 1998 but often re-performed, and having also been turned into a PBS film in 2002.

This pair of questions, as a pair of cities (Hiroshima and Copenhagen), is interesting to me as a historian. These appear to be the touchstone of American intellectuals’ knowledge of nuclear history, broadly speaking. One rooted in a controversial act of war, the other in a controversial piece of theatre. It is, perhaps, more of a testament to the theatre to get people (at least some people) thinking about history than one might typically suspect — that Americans think about Hiroshima is perhaps as it ought to be, that they think about Copenhagen is far more curious.

Michael Frayn's Copenhagen

When I was an undergraduate majoring in the history of science at UC Berkeley in the early 2000s, Copenhagen was very much in the air. It had just come to America (I saw the San Francisco production twice), and it resulted in the early release, in 2002, of several sealed letters in the Niels Bohr Archive relating to Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg’s 1941 meeting. My undergraduate advisor was a Heisenberg scholar, and I took several classes with her that touched very directly on the history of the American and German bomb projects. One of my last acts at Berkeley was to design the cover for an excellent volume of historical essays on the play. So the play has had a remarkably large role in my early interest in nuclear history.

Last fall I was asked to take part in a Q&A about the play at the Central Square Theatre in Cambridge with Alan Brody of MIT, where it was showing. Aside from giving me a chance to visit my old grad school stomping grounds (the first time, I think, since I started my current job), it also gave me a fresh excuse to revisit the play, about a decade after I last spent any real time thinking about it. What follows is based on what I said at the panel.

What did Heisenberg and Bohr talk about in 1941? I think the main response from historians that you are likely to get is: we’ll never know, and it probably isn’t that important in the scheme of things anyways. Which is to say, not much of an answer. All we have to go on regarding that conversation are a few later recollections from the only two people who were there — Bohr and Heisenberg — and all of those recollections have been fairly “tainted” by quite a lot of other events that came afterwards, and do not match up with each other. What I mean by “tainted” is that there became high stakes for both sides for remembering the events in different ways, and the effects of the successful Allied atomic bombs, coupled with the full revelation of the crimes of Nazi Germany, makes it hard for anyone to be anything like objective after the fact.

Niels and Margrethe Bohr, on the motorcycle of George Gamow, 1930. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, American Institute of Physics.

Niels and Margrethe Bohr, on the motorcycle of George Gamow, 1930. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, American Institute of Physics.

The Bohr letters released in 2002 are an example of this. Bohr’s letters to Heisenberg, which are very condemnatory, have been sometimes naively cited as “proof” of whatever took place. They are not. They were written after Bohr had read an account of the German bomb project (Robert Jungk’s Brighter than a Thousand Suns) which implied (in a footnote) that Heisenberg was claiming to have sabotaged the German project on moral grounds. Bohr, infuriated that Heisenberg might be saying such a thing, wrote a strongly-worded language arguing for the opposite. Historians now know — having looked at Jungk’s papers — that in fact Heisenberg’s letter to Jungk was mis-quoted by the latter, missing sentences where Heisenberg clearly backs away from such an implication. In any case, the point is simple enough: Bohr’s letters, written a decade later, were the angry assertions of someone who thought Heisenberg was trying to make a specific sort of claim, and Bohr was intent on disabusing him of the notion. One might also point out (as the play does) that in the end, Bohr was the one who did contribute towards making a weapon of mass destruction, not Heisenberg, and for Bohr to think that Heisenberg was attempting to claim a moral high-ground as a result would have been particularly galling.

It doesn’t mean there isn’t a grain of truth in Bohr’s letters. But decade-old memories conjured up in a moment of anger and misapprehension, at best, are the subjective memories of one individual, and at worst, may be unreliable even as those. And memories are, of course, tricky things, as any psychologist will tell you.

In any case, a historian would probably also argue that this doesn’t matter too much. One meeting is generally not the stuff that history is made of. Even if Heisenberg had said, in the strongest terms, that the Germans weren’t building a bomb, it would have not changed much of history — the momentum was far too great in the Allied project by the time Bohr got to it, and there are few who likely would have believed him without concrete proof.

Allied troops disassembling the German experimental research reactor at Haigerloch, as part of the Alsos mission. Source: Wikipedia.

Allied troops disassembling the German experimental research reactor at Haigerloch, as part of the Alsos mission. Source: Wikipedia.

But it might appear to give an one of those questions that people have been asking since 1945: why did the Germans fail to get an atomic bomb? But here also is where the historians might be annoying and pedantic. There are very few historians who believe that Heisenberg (or any of the Germans working on the project) were actively trying to avoid making an atomic bomb. Frayn’s play in many ways tries to “sit on the fence” on this issue, but in doing so the play ends up creating something of the “false balance” fallacy, giving equal time to a side that is not considered very plausible by most. It leaves up in the air whether Heisenberg was trying to sabotage (consciously or not), making it seem that this is as equally plausible an interpretation as any other.

This can be misleading. Some members of the German atomic program — Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker was the main one — did try to claim, after the war, that the reason the Germans didn’t make an atomic bomb was because they didn’t want to make an atomic bomb. Heisenberg himself generally danced elliptically around this claim, never quite (to my knowledge) advocating it, but also describing his actions during the war with enough vagueness as to leave open the possibility that part of him, perhaps subconsciously, didn’t succeed because he didn’t want to. The “Heisenberg was a saboteur” thesis was given prominence in Thomas Power’s Heisenberg’s War (2000), but other than that, it is not present in the claims of pretty much any other recent history on the topic.1

The reason why is simple enough: there isn’t any proof of it. In fact, it seems to have been offered up, quite post-hoc, as an explanation while the German scientists were being interred at Farm Hall and trying to grapple with the meaning of Hiroshima. It also doesn’t really square with any of the actions of the Germans during the war: they were working quite hard. If one is to assume they did any “sabotage,” it must have been extremely subtle, so subtle as to be indistinguishable from them doing the opposite of sabotage.2

Instead, through many other books (which I have discussed in another post), we have a pretty good picture of the German atomic program, how it was decided that it would pursue reactors, not bombs, and how paltry it was in comparison to the Allied effort. As I have stated elsewhere, the interesting historical question for me is less why didn’t the Germans but rather why did the Americans? Because the American case is the anomaly, not the German case. To decide whether an atomic bomb could be made rapidly with the knowledge available in 1941 involved a non-trivial prediction of the future. The Americans ended up (for various reasons) thinking it could be done; the Germans thought it was not worth the risk and expense. The Americans, in any case, barely pulled it off. Had their schedule been off by a few months, there would have been no atomic bombs ready for use during World War II, and the Manhattan Project still holds the world record for fastest time between deciding to make a nuclear weapon and actually having one.

Heisenberg and Bohr in Copenhagen in the early 1930s. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, American Institute of Physics.

Heisenberg and Bohr in Copenhagen in the early 1930s. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, American Institute of Physics.

But I digress. If Copenhagen errs this is where it errs: it presents, on balance, a case that is remarkably sympathetic to the idea that Heisenberg et al. purposefully sabotaged the German bomb program. This is not what most historians see in the historical record. In its fallback position, the play presents the idea that the German bomb program was a failure on a very basic technical level — that nobody had run the critical mass equation correctly, that nobody had realized a few very basic ideas. And while it is true that there were some errors in the German calculations, they were not nearly so ignorant of these matters as the play would have you believe. They knew what plutonium was. They knew what atomic bombs could be. There were those within the German program (which was not one single program in any case, but several different groups) who knew that the critical mass of enriched uranium would be fairly low (German Army Ordnance thought in 1942 that between 10-100 kg of U-235 would give you a bomb, which is a spot-on estimate). Their problem was not one of basic technical errors. Heisenberg made some technical errors, but he was not the only one on the project.

There are many other, more interesting reasons to attribute the failure of the German bomb project. They lacked the fear of an Allied project that the Allies had of them. They feared over-promising with regards to a risky endeavor. During the later parts of the war, they suffered from supply setbacks due to their being targets of bombing and sabotage raids. They lacked anything like a Leslie Groves or Lavrenty Beria figure who could push the work through, against all odds and setbacks, in the limited amount of time that it might have been successful. But this is an area where I don’t want to overrepresent a historical consensus, though: practically every historian who writes on the topic of the German atomic bomb has a slightly different reason to argue why they didn’t make one. (If you read the volume of essays on Copenhagen I mentioned earlier, Copenhagen in Debate, the overwhelming feeling one gets is that practically every historian in there thinks Frayn is wrong, but they disagree greatly on exactly why the Germans didn’t get the bomb.)

So, does this mean that that I don’t like Frayn’s play? No! I actually like the play a lot. It just shouldn’t be anyone’s primary source for information about what happened during the German bomb project. But I don’t think it’s any worse in terms of confusing people than, say, many History Channel documentaries are. Popularizations of history often get things a bit wrong, sometimes a lot wrong — that doesn’t keep me up at night.

Same scene as above, different moment. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, American Institute of Physics.

Same scene as above, different moment. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, American Institute of Physics.

The moral questions the play raises, the way it encourages people to view historical record as something complex and evolving, and the way in which it emphasizes that changing the questions you ask of history can lead you to see different aspects of it (in a deliberate analogy to Bohr’s Complementarity), are all quite important and interesting things to think about. I think Frayn’s play manages to get a lot right about what history itself is, and how it is formed on the back of inscriptions and memories and uncertainties and understandings that shift over time. In my mind, those are the really important things to get out of a play.

And let’s be honest: how many people — even professional historians! — would care about the ins-and-outs of the history of the German atomic project if not for this play? It raised the awareness of historical scholarship on this question to new heights, even if much of that scholarship is arguing against some of the implications people take away from the play. But it made that scholarship seem relevant. It makes people ask me about Heisenberg. That’s a good thing, and a needed thing. I would much rather people take an interest in this subject, and maybe run the risk of having different views than the majority of historians, than the contrary, which is that they don’t know or care anything about it at all. Of course, there are limits to this sort of attitude.

Frayn’s errors are ones of subtle historical interpretation, and don’t seem (in Frayn’s case) to be motivated by any sort of overarching political or historical agenda. (Unlike the case of von Weizsäcker, for example.) I’m inclined to give them a “pass” for the sake of making interesting entertainment that gets people asking questions. The one error that Frayn’s play essentially avoids is the more common popular error about the German bomb project, which claims that there was a true “race for the bomb” in which the world very narrowly avoided the Nazis getting nuclear weapons before the Americans did. This is a much more insidious sort of erroneous history, in my mind, because it is used to paper over the moral questions on the American side of things, and commits a multitude of factual sins in the process. The question of whether Heisenberg was a saboteur or not is not on that level, even if I think the bulk of the historical profession would not agree with Frayn that it is as likely an explanation for the German failure as any other.

  1. Frayn has always claimed that he was not advocating this thesis explicitly, but in his interactions with historians since writing the play (and it underwent a few revisions), he drew it (and himself) closer to the “Heisenberg was a saboteur” thesis. Perhaps this was a defensive gesture, perhaps he really believes it, perhaps it appeals to him as a playwright (Heisenberg-as-tormented is a much more interesting figure, as far as characters go, than Heisenberg-as-clueless or Heisenberg-as-someone-with-different-priorities). []
  2. Heisenberg’s misquoted letter to Jungk, which set off the Bohr correspondence, was addressing this point — he was implying that under a dictatorship, trying to distinguish between a true-believer and someone who is just-playing-along is going to be almost impossible. However in the sentence Jungk omitted, he makes clear that he was not implying that he was a saboteur. In the edition of Brighter than a Thousand Suns that Bohr read, Jungk quoted Heisenberg as saying that, “In a dictatorship active resistance can only be practiced by people who seemingly take part in the system. When someone speaks openly against the system, he quite certainly deprives himself of any possibility of active resistance.” But Heisenberg then quickly backtracked: “I would not want this remark to be misunderstood as saying that I myself engaged in resistance to Hitler. On the contrary, I have always been ashamed in the face of the men of 20 July (some of whom were friends of mine), who at that time accomplished truly serious resistance at the cost of their lives.” Jungk did not quote the latter. See Cathryn Carson, Heisenberg in the Atomic Age: Science and the Public Sphere (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 402-403. []

Women, minorities, and the Manhattan Project

Friday, November 27th, 2015

One of the things I most appreciate about the writers of the show Manhattan is that they took the effort to get beyond the standard, most common vision of the “Los Alamos scientist.” Several of the leading characters are female scientists, good at what they do, good at navigating a profession dominated by men. In the first season, one of the scientists was Chinese-American, and there is also a recurrent character in both the first and second season who is African-American, played with intelligence, dignity, and self-awareness.

Drs. Helen Prins (Katja Herbers), , and Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zuckermann) at the Oak Ridge X-10 reactor from Manhattan episode 107.

Drs. Helen Prins (Katja Herbers), Theodore Sinclair (Corey Allen), and Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zuckerman) at the Oak Ridge X-10 reactor from Manhattan episode 107.

The textbook version of Los Alamos, and the Manhattan Project as a whole, is a bunch of genius white, male scientists (the Europeans getting the designation of “Jewish” and sometimes another nationality, i.e. “Hungarian”), who have largely been deracinated (not a yarmulke to be seen, not a religious belief to be referenced, except maybe Oppenheimer’s dabbling with Hindu mysticism). Women enter in the picture largely as wives, secretaries, and the operators of Calutrons, ignorant of their true roles. Non-whites are basically eliminated, with the exception of the Indians who served as menial laborers at Los Alamos. This is a view of “who matters” taken largely from the 1940s — it is how the earliest chroniclers of the Manhattan Project saw their world. The one exception to this is Lise Meitner, who was triumphed in the early days of the atomic bomb, largely because of irony in her having had to flee Germany, but also, I suspect, at the irony of her having been a woman.

The historical reality is a much more textured one. There were actually many women contributing to the technical side of the bomb — not just as Calutron operators, either, but as physicists, chemists, biologists, and mathematicians, among other scientific specialities. One of the most overlooked books on the history of the bomb is Ruth H. Howes and Caroline L. Herzenberg’s Their Day in the Sun: Women and the Manhattan Project (Temple University Press, 1999), and it chronicles the lives of many of the women who worked on the project. Along with their stories of individual lives, they also dig into the numbers:

In September 1943, some sixty women worked in the Technical Area at Los Alamos. By October 1944, about 30 percent, or 200 members of the labor force in the Tech Area, the hospital, and the schools were women. Of these, twenty could be described as scientists and fifty as technicians. Fifteen women worked as nurses, twenty-five as teachers, and seventy as secretaries or clerks.

Although many women’s precise job titles at Los Alamos remain unknown, rough numbers show about twenty-five of them working on chemistry and metallurgy, twenty on bomb engineering, sixteen on theoretical physics, four on experimental physics, eight on ordnance, and four on explosives. Two women worked with Enrico Fermi, who had moved to Los Alamos when it opened in 1943. These numbers are given by divisional assignment instead of by job title, so a few of these women may have held clerical jobs, but it’s clear that most of them were scientists or technicians.

The number of women working on the Manhattan Project contrasts sharply with the Apollo Project of the 1960s, which was comparable in size and scope. At its peak in 1965, when Apollo engaged 5.4 percent of the national supply of scientists and engineers, women accounted for only 3 percent of NASA’s scientific and engineering staff.1

The latter part is kind of a kicker for me: more women worked on the bomb than worked on the program to get Americans on the Moon. Why such a disparity? Because during World War II, the need for scientific labor was desperate and spread among many projects. It’s hard to be a bigot when you need every ounce of brainpower and labor you can get, and indeed World War II is famous overall for its movement of women into spaces they had previously been excluded (i.e. Rosie the Riveter). By the late 1950s and mid-1960s, though, the traditional gender norms had been reinstated, and the problem of technical labor shortages had been largely addressed by massive campaigns to increase the numbers of scientists and engineers in the United States.2 As advertisements from the later period suggest, the role of the space-age woman was as the helpful wife — not the person doing the calculations.

A relatively young Katharine ("Kay") Way. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

A relatively young Katharine (“Kay”) Way, one of the many female scientists of the Manhattan Project, and one of the rare few scientists whose work took her to all of the major Manhattan Project sites. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

There are a lot of interesting lives there, generally ignored when we tell these stories. Katharine Way is one of my favorites. She had a PhD in nuclear physics from University of North Carolina, having been John Wheeler’s first graduate student. She worked on neutron sources at the University of Tennessee early in the war, and, hearing rumors of a big project at Chicago, called up Wheeler and talked her way into the Metallurgical Laboratory. There she worked on many topics key to the operation of reactors: neutron fluxes, “poisoning” by fission products, reactor constants, and eventually the Way-Wigner formula for fission-product decay. Her work was important enough for her to warrant visits to Hanford, Oak Ridge, and Los Alamos — a remarkable feat given the high levels of compartmentalization (many of the scientists who worked at any one of the sites were not allowed to know where the other ones were located). Even before Hiroshima, she questioned the morality of the weapon she had helped produce (signing Szilard’s petition against its use), and in the postwar she was a key player in the postwar Scientists’ Movement, co-editing One World or None with Dexter Masters in 1946.3

The Manhattan character Helen Prins, played by Katja Herbers, reminds me of Way, in terms of the arc of her narrative: her gumption (imagine talking yourself onto the Manhattan Project!); the way in which, despite being relatively low in the hierarchy, her work touches on enough key problems that it leads her all over the place (which works well for a plot, but it somewhat true to life as well), and the way in which she, like many others who worked enthusiastically during the war, came to doubts about the uses to which their science had been put.

Chien-Shiung Wu at the Smith College Laboratory in the 1940s, shortly before joining the Manhattan Project. She is working on an electro-static (Van De Graaff) generator. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Chien-Shiung Wu at the Smith College Laboratory in the 1940s, shortly before joining the Manhattan Project. She is working on an electro-static (Van De Graaff) generator. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

There were also minorities on the project in technical roles, though here the lack of equal opportunity is far more stark and evident. Chien-Shiung Wu, a Chinese-born physicist, completed her dissertation in physics under Ernest Lawrence at UC Berkeley in 1940. After receiving a phone call from none other than Enrico Fermi, she was the one who identified Xenon-135 as a fission-product that was causing the Hanford reactors to lose their reactivity over time (this is the so-called “poisoning” effect). She also worked with Harold Urey on the problem of gaseous diffusion while at Columbia University, among other things. She would later become the first female president of the American Physical Society, in 1975.4

The Manhattan Project had very large numbers of African-Americans, but they were mostly working at Oak Ridge and Hanford as laborers or janitors. Peter Hales’ Atomic Spaces: Living on the Manhattan Project (University of Illinois Press, 1999) has a thoroughly interesting chapter on the “Others” of the bomb work, including African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Native Americans, and women. Oak Ridge was rigidly segregated during the war, with crude “Negro hutments” that held five men or six women in a single room (white hutments were similarly crude, but only had four occupants). The history of segregation at Oak Ridge is quite interesting — Groves apparently issued orders for a “separate but equal” set of accommodations, but his subordinates instead clearly saw the goal as creating a “Negro shantytown.” Hanford housing was also segregated, but accommodations were generally better, although in many ways the African-American laborers received fewer perks than the white ones (for example, in terms of recreational facilities built for them). These differences among sites were largely the difference of one being in located in Jim Crow Tennessee and the other in Washington State.5

Met Lab chemist Moddy Taylor (photo from 1960) — not the "typical" image of a Manhattan Project scientist. Source: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History.

Met Lab chemist Moddy Taylor — not the “typical” image of a Manhattan Project scientist. Photo from 1960. Source: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History.

There were a few African-American scientists on the Manhattan Project. Samuel P. Massie, Jr., worked at Iowa State University on uranium chemistry for use in enrichment work. Jasper Jeffries worked as a physicist at the Metallurgical Laboratory, and was one of the signatories of Leo Szilard’s petition to not use the bomb on a city without warning. Benjamin Franklin Scott worked as a chemist at the Met Lab in their instrumentation and measurements section. Moddie Taylor also did chemistry at the Met Lab, analyzing rare-earth metals. There are several others — the American Institute of Physics has a nice compilation of biographies on their website — mostly centered around the University of Chicago. With any kind of “omitted” history of this sort, one wants to honor them without overstating their importance or underestimating the effects of institutionalized exclusion.6

As a side-note, I was asked by a reporter last summer whether there were any known cases of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered (LGBT) on the Manhattan Project. This is a tricky thing to answer. There were some half a million people working on the bomb across all of its many sites — some number of them had to be LGBT based on whatever prevalence one thinks existed in the population at that time. Even if it was only 1% (which is very conservative), that would allow for 5,000 individuals across the entire project. The populations of present-day US states range from around 2% to over 5% in self-identification as LGBT, so that is quite a lot more people (especially if we acknowledge that even at our current point in time, there are certainly many people in the closet or in a state of self-denial). Of course, in the 1940s homosexuality was categorized as a psychiatric disorder and by the late 1940s it was considered a serious security risk (the “Lavender scare”). To be public about such a thing would not be conducive to working on top-secret war work, to say the least — so there had to have been quite a lot of people who were in the closet.

Alumni of the creation of the first nuclear reactor, CP-1, at the University of Chicago's Metallurgical Laboratory. Leona Woods Marshall is conspicuously outside the norm, but there nonetheless. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archive.

Alumni of the creation of the first nuclear reactor, CP-1, at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory. Leona Woods Marshall is conspicuously outside the norm, but part of the crew nonetheless. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archive.

The issue of women and minorities in STEM fields is still a real one. For those who smugly believe that large portions of the population simply don’t have the ability to contribute on technical matters, I have found Neil deGrasse Tyson’s discussions of his own difficulties as an African-American interested in astrophysics to be a useful reference. In the case of the Manhattan Project, there are interesting trends. At times things were more open on the bomb work, for women in particular, because they could not afford to write off brainpower of a certain type. For issues of labor, however, the local cultures — New Mexico, Washington, and Tennessee — all came through largely as you would expect them to.

The initial stories about the making of the bomb, however, largely wrote out all non-male, non-whites from the story. Partially this was a real recapitulation of the the hierarchy in place: there were women and there were minorities, but they didn’t generally get to run things, and the story of making the bomb was often about who was running things. But partially this was about the biases of the time, and what was considered acceptable from the perspective of the storytellers (and, arguably, society itself — imagine if a woman or minority had tried to get away with Feynman’s hijinks, whether they would be treated as amusing or not). There has been a lot of good work expanding our understanding of who made the bomb in the last 15 years, though it has not quite unseated the popular vision of a handful of brainy white men creating a weapon out of sheer cleverness and equations alone.

  1. Emphasis added. Ruth H. Howes and Caroline L. Herzenberg, Their Day in the Sun: Women and the Manhattan Project (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999), 13-14. []
  2. On the latter, see the work of David Kaiser on the booms and busts in the sciences from Sputnik onward. []
  3. Howes and Hertzenberg, 42-43. []
  4. Howes and Hertzenberg, 45-46. []
  5. Peter Bacon Hales, Atomic Spaces: Living on the Manhattan Project (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), chapter 7. []
  6. There is a very nice paper online about African-American scientists and the atomic bomb: Shane Landrum, “‘In Los Alamos, I feel like I’m a real citizen’: Black atomic scientists, education, and citizenship, 1945-1960,” (Brandeis University, 2005). There is a bit of literature on African-American responses to the bomb, as well: see, e.g., Abby Kinchy, “African Americans in the Atomic Age: Postwar Perspectives on Race and the Bomb, 1945–1967,” Technology and Culture 50, no. 2 (2009), 291-315. []

The doubts of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Friday, November 6th, 2015

The latest episode of Manhattan (Ep. 204) pivoted on the internal conflicts of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The standard, popular version of Oppenheimer as Los Alamos Director is one of infinite competence, confidence, and charm. The reality of Oppenheimer as a whole, much less Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, is a far more complex one.

Early on in my education, one of my advisors warned me against careless labeling of historical actors as “complex” or “complicated” without explaining what exactly I meant by that. In this sense, I think what it means is, this is a person who acts in contradictory, not-always-predictable ways — a person who breaks the standard narrative arc we might want to tell about their life. Oppenheimer is someone whose close examination refuses to fit into a simple narrative of heroism, tragedy, or comedy. In other words, he was a real person. And as T.H. White put it: “It is difficult to write about a real person.”

Oppenheimer as rich-rugged-cowboy-Hindu-Jewish-intellectual. At his ranch, "Perro Caliente," with Ernest Lawrence in 1931. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Oppenheimer as rich-rugged-cowboy-Hindu-Jewish-intellectual. At his ranch, “Perro Caliente,” with Ernest Lawrence (cropped out of frame) in 1931. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Oppenheimer’s longtime friend, the physicist I.I. Rabi, later said that the core conflict of Oppenheimer’s personality was a search for identity. It was a perceptive remark. As to which of the many visible Oppenheimers was the “real” one, he suggested that, “Robert doesn’t know himself.” Oppenheimer was, Rabi would later put it, “a man who was put together of many bright shining splinters.”1

Consider the oft-told Oppenheimer biographical details in this light. Oppenheimer grew up on the Manhattan’s Upper West Side, in a family of wealthy, secular, German-Jewish immigrants. This, in and of itself, seems to have driven a lot of Oppenheimer’s initial search for a new identity. He apparently was embarrassed by his father’s hands-on approach to wealth (he was a textile merchant, so nouveau riche of a sort), embarrassed by his father’s approach to secularism (his enthusiastic embrace of Felix Adler’s Ethical Culture philosophy), and simultaneously embarrassed by his Jewishness. He went to Harvard during one of its peak moments of anti-Semitism (the year he started was marked with embroiled public discussions about Harvard’s Jewish quotas), and found himself a socially-awkward exile among blue-bloods from old-American families.

His escape from the identity he was born into was to embrace something entirely different. He found friends who to him represented what a “true American” intellectual might look like — rugged, earthy, wealthy men from New Mexico. Hence Oppenheimer’s great Southwestern obsession, the one that led to the Los Alamos laboratory being situated where it was. What is more of an antonym to “rich Manhattan Jewish German immigrant” than “rugged Southwestern cowboy”? His interest in Hinduism, Sanskrit, and the Bhagavad-Gita might be filed under this antonymic approach to identity as well: leaving behind both the traditional sacred of his heritage (Jewishness) and the Western secularism of his upbringing (Ethical Culture) by embracing the oriental mysticism of Far Eastern philosophy.

Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Ernest Lawrence at UC Berkeley, ca. 1939. Note that Oppenheimer has clearly not yet taken on the identity of Scientific Director yet — too much hair. All three of these physicists would eventually recommend dropping the atomic bomb on a civilian target. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Ernest Lawrence at UC Berkeley, ca. 1939. Note that Oppenheimer has clearly not yet taken on the identity of Scientific Director yet — too much hair. All three of these physicists would eventually recommend dropping the atomic bomb on a civilian target. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

One of the more puzzling episodes in Oppenheimer’s life is related to ones of these identity crises. After graduating from Harvard, Oppenheimer went abroad to continue his physics education as a graduate student. He choose his initial venue poorly: he went to Cambridge, in England, where the kind of physics they were interested in was not to his liking (he was doing experimental physics, and he was terrible at it), and he found British class culture even more exclusive and stifling than Harvard’s had been. Oppenheimer experienced a series of crises and failures. The culmination of one of these involved him rushing back to Cambridge, telling his friends that he had laid a “poisoned apple” on the desk of the physicist P.M.S. Blackett. Blackett represented everything Oppenheimer could not be in England: successful experimentalist, movie-star handsome, and well-integrated into British class society. Was this “poison” real, imagined, or metaphorical? Nobody is quite sure — Blackett apparently suffered no physical ill, in any case.

Oppenheimer overcame this crisis and found a way forward, eventually by leaving England and studying instead on the European continent. There he learned the new theoretical physics (quantum mechanics), which he excelled at and emerged as an admired wunderkind. It was in this period, on the continent, that the character of “Oppie” (originally “Opje” in Dutch) was created: mathematically and physically adventurous, confident, quick-witted, eccentric, intellectually ambidextrous.

This trying-on of identities can help explain some of Oppenheimer’s wartime behaviors as well. Oppenheimer-as-Scientific-Director was on of his most successful costume changes, in retrospect, but it was a daring risk for him. General Groves gave him the job despite the fact that Oppenheimer lacked any real administrative experience, much less any practical experience in building anything. Oppenheimer also had extreme liabilities in his past and present: one of his identities in the 1930s had been of a “fellow traveler” to many Communists and Communist-associates in his life, including, but not limited to, his wife (Kitty), his brother (Frank), his friends (Haakon Chevalier), his girlfriend and later mistress (Jean Tatlock — more on her in a future post), and his graduate students.

Oppenheimer, General Leslie Groves, and University of California President Robert Sproul, at the Army-Navy "E" Award ceremony in October 1945, recognizing the work of Los Alamos in developing the firt atomic bombs. Source: Los Alamos.

Oppenheimer, General Leslie Groves, and University of California President Robert Sproul, at the Army-Navy “E” Award ceremony in October 1945, recognizing the work of Los Alamos in developing the first atomic bombs. Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory.

These liabilities were known by Groves and others in the Manhattan Project security apparatus. They may have been one of the reasons Oppenheimer was an appealing choice for the job — he was moldable, he was relatively compliant, and these liabilities gave them leverage, should they need it. Oppenheimer worked so hard to be successful at this newest identity (creator of weapons of mass destruction for the U.S. government) that he overcame his past hang-up of leaving scientific investigations half-finished. He did have such doubts at times that he considered resigning, but he was talked out of the notion by his friends. He cut his hair, and got the job done.

The only trade-off was that in order to assume this new role, he had to prove his loyalties, and he did that by selling out his friends and colleagues. In many of the lengthy FBI files on his students and friends, one can find, very early in the file, an account of how they got on the radar of the anti-Communist agents of the United States government: they were alerted by J. Robert Oppenheimer himself. To be sure, Oppenheimer usually prefaced his denunciations by saying that these people were harmless, but he named names nonetheless.2

Ultimately it was this conflict of identities, I think, that snared Oppenheimer himself, in the end. His own well-documented downfall in the mid-1950s was in part the conflict of two of his identities. One of them was an eccentric, politically left-leaning intellectual who could be friends with anyone and dared to think and say whatever came to mind. The other was the head of a government weapons laboratory and later top-advisor in the area of nuclear arms. For a brief moment during the Manhattan Project, these two identities could overlap. By the 1950s, they could not — they were mutually exclusive, as distinct as a wave and a particle. Oppenheimer’s attempts to embody both of these at the same time, a sort of Complementarity-of-the-self, resulted in his selling out of the ideals of the former, and being rejected by the fears of the latter.

  1. These quotes are from Charles Thorpe’s Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 16. Thorpe’s book devotes much of its study of Oppenheimer to his quest for identity, and I owe many of my thoughts here to Thorpe’s work. []
  2. To put this into perspective for my students, I tell them to replace the label “Communism” with “terrorist,” and imagine how it would go over with the FBI today if you told them that a friend of yours was a little bit of a terrorist in the past, but had seen the error of their ways and was fine now. Would the FBI be comforted? Of course not. []

Manhattan noir

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015

Season two of the WGN America show Manhattan premieres tonight. I figured this would be a good excuse to plug it, and to talk about the historical consulting I’ve been doing for it.

Manhattan Season 2

The best way I have come up with to describe Manhattan is that it is an alternate-reality version of the Manhattan Project that is heavy on the film noir. Almost all of the characters are entirely fictional, not named after actual World War II figures (there are a couple exceptions to this, that I will come to), and the stories are fictional. However they are set in the same physical universe as ours, and the historical context is based (with some diversions) on the actual one. For Manhattan, the Manhattan Project was not just a specific set of historical events that led to the atomic bomb, but an unfolding historical context that ultimately rendered deep and lasting changes to the United States. It is not so much the story of the creation of a new weapon as it is the creation of a new world.

I was approached about consulting by the head writer, Sam Shaw, last year. I had seen some of Season 1, which took the Los Alamos story up until around the summer of 1944, when the lab had to be radically reorganized to focus on implosion. What I had liked about the first season is that they took something that most people would regard as pretty obscure — the intense effort that had been made for the (eventually abandoned) Thin Man bomb design — and made it into the key pivot around which the drama turned. To me that showed a pretty nuanced historical sensibility, focusing on the “loser” of history (Thin Man) as opposed to the “winner” (implosion).

Posting at the gate of the Los Alamos set — David Salzberg (science consultant), Sam Shaw (head writer), Lila Byock (writer), and myself.

Posting at the gate of the Los Alamos set — David Salzberg (science consultant), Sam Shaw (head writer), Lila Byock (writer), and myself.

The consulting job was for me an unusual one. I have consulted for documentaries in the past, and that is a relatively straightforward gig: they want to know what happened, I want to tell them what happened. Consulting for a fictional show was something else. They did want to know what happened, but less because they were going to replicate it (in many cases, they were not), but because they wanted the “flavor” of it to inform their fictional plots. I can’t go into too many details about what we talked about (not because I am bound to not talk about the show, but because I have been asked not to say anything that might spoil any of this season’s surprises, and I’m not even sure what all of those surprises are), but I found it an immensely fun challenge, trying to give them “options” that would be true to the “color” of the times.

Many of the questions were along the lines of, “we need to do this sort of thing with the story, what were the situations that actually happened that might provide a model for how we could make this happen?” I would sit and scratch my head for awhile and then come up with a plausible narrative or two (taken from actual Manhattan Project events, often quite obscure ones), sometimes providing some documentation that might help the writers get a sense of how it looked back then.

The set of Trinity site base camp while filming the final episode — the rain was fake, but the mud was real.

The set of Trinity site base camp while filming the final episode — the rain was fake, but the mud was real.

The Manhattan crew flew me out to Hollywood for a week last winter, and I spent several days just getting my brain picked by the writing team. It was a fun experience — I have never been in an environment with so many very intelligent people who were completely obsessed with Manhattan Project details asking very good questions and delighting in the answers I could give them. The writing team were already impressively well-informed on the subject of this history before I arrived, and were impressively bright and accomplished people. They had read most of the “basic literature” on the subject, and it gave me the feeling of teaching a “master class.” (Sam Shaw, the head writer, Lila Byock, his writerly wife, and Dustin Thomason, the executive producer, spent years steeped in the historical literature before beginning the show. Sam and Lila are both graduates of the Iowa Writers’ workshop; Sam wrote for Harper’s and Lila was a fact-checker for The New Yorker prior to their moving to Hollywood. These are all very smart cookies.)

After that winter, I got many e-mail queries from writers, and also read over several scripts. In the scripts, I looked for anachronisms, occasional scientific mistakes, or things that were just very big divergences from the actual past. The latter were not so much because they would be removed or changed — again, it is explicitly a fictional show — but because the writers wanted to make sure that if they did diverge that they knew about it. The science consulting was done by David Salzberg, a UCLA physicist who also does the science consulting for “The Big Bang Theory,” so scientific mistakes were extremely rare (and mostly in the category of slight anachronism, such as use of scientific terms that came later than World War II).

A billboard from the "Los Alamos" set of Manhattan. The sets are very interesting to walk around, in part because of the juxtaposition of the faux old (fake signs), the truly old (vintage equipment), and the not-at-all old (modern technology used for shooting the show).

A billboard from the “Los Alamos” set of Manhattan. The sets are very interesting to walk around, in part because of the juxtaposition of the faux old (fake signs), the truly old (vintage equipment), and the not-at-all old (modern technology used for shooting the show).

I was compensated for my work, so I don’t expect you to take my review of the show too seriously, but I will say that my Stevens colleague, the accomplish science journalist John Horgan, watched the first season and enjoyed it, and my wife (who is also a historian of science by training) liked it as well. If you are a buff of Manhattan Project history, you have to accept the show’s central conceit — that it is something of an alternate reality — if you are going to enjoy it, because if you find yourself constantly saying, “well that didn’t happen that way” then you are just going to find it frustrating. Similarly, I know there are many Los Alamos residents who are quick to point out that the area of New Mexico where it was filmed (near Santa Fe) looks very different than Los Alamos did. It’s true, but you either accept it, or you don’t — it is not a documentary, it is historically-informed film noir.

As a historian, I have enjoyed watching the show because I can see lots of very subtle references to things that did actually happen, and I find that fun, as opposed to irritating. But I’m also a big fan of science fiction, so I find the alternate-reality aspect of it pretty fun for that reason as well. The noir/sci-fi axis is where I do much of my reading-for-fun anyway, and does inform some of how I approach the past (my tendencies towards counterfactuals, my interests in the ways in which personal power is expressed and manipulated, my unceasing desire to probe the missing or deleted parts of archival narratives), so I feel like working with them was a good fit for me. But I can also certainly see where those who want a more purist version of the history are coming from, as well. (As a general rule, I don’t watch period dramas set in periods I know a lot about, because I find them frustrating. I think I can sympathize with what Classicists feel when they watch something like Gladiator or 300.) My only caution is that some of the objections I have heard to factual matters are in fact not aware that many of the seemingly fantastical events that take place during the show are based on actual things that happened — the actual history of the Manhattan Project is much more rich, varied, and weird than many of the traditional popularizations indicate.

You can't do the 1940s with a lot of hats. This of course called to mine the famous May 1948 cover of Physics Today featuring Oppenheimer's pork-pie hat.

You can’t do the 1940s without a lot of hats. This of course called to mind the famous May 1948 cover of Physics Today featuring Oppenheimer’s pork-pie hat.

The characters are, as noted, mostly fictional. They are, however, composites of real people. The main character, Frank Winter, has a lot of interesting figures rolled into him, so much that I suggested to the actor, John Benjamin Hickey, that Winter is really not meant to be an individual physicist so much as a stand-in for the physics community. It does not spoil anything to say that he was enthusiastic and worried about the possibility of a German bomb in the beginning, and gradually became suspicious if not outright terrified of what the US government was going to do with the fruits of his labor. At times there are shades of Leo Szilard, Seth Neddermeyer, Robert Oppenheimer, Josef Rotblat, Richard Feynman, and many others rolled into Winter. Winter has his own personality, of course, which makes it fun to watch. You cannot, just from knowing the history, predict exactly what is going to happen next. Sometimes this is just because things happen differently in the show’s universe; sometimes it is done with a winking eye to the fact that not everything that actually happens gets into the historical record.

One of the few characters who is explicitly meant to be directly based on a historical figure is J. Robert Oppenheimer, who is played with haunting resemblance by Daniel London. London’s performance really hit home for me how much artistic input the actors have, well beyond the script and the writers. London’s Oppenheimer is a chilly, cold, somewhat alien figure. He is not the “chummy Oppenheimer” that some fictionalizations give you. I prefer “cold Oppenheimer” as a tonic to the more traditionally chummy ones — the Oppenheimer I spend most of my time working with, in the files, is not an everyman, is probably not your friend (or if he is, he is probably reporting on your “red” tendencies to Army security behind your back), and is under a huge amount of stress. The real-life Oppenheimer could famously be both hot and cold, whereas London’s is mostly cold, but given the way Oppenheimer comes into the plots of the show (usually he only shows up when something is not going according to plan), it fits pretty well.

Posing with the Gadget, in the middle of a desert.

Posing with the Gadget, in the middle of a desert.

This past summer I was invited out to see the sets, see some of the filming of the final episode, meet some of the cast, participate in a press junket, and go to the “wrap party.” The sets were amazingly, lovingly done. Ruth Ammon, the production designer, put a huge amount of passion and detail into them. The main “Los Alamos” set was built inside an abandoned set of hospital buildings from the wartime period, and it is impressively “rich.” Their “Trinity site” is set far out in a desert outside of Santa Fe, made of actual burlap tents and wooden shacks. The sand is real, the bugs are real, the Sun’s heat is real (as I learned while sitting under it for several hours doing press interviews). The rain was not natural, but the mud it created was. The production values are excellent and it makes the 1940s “pop” to life.

I think the approach the writers used on this season is the way that historical consulting for period dramas ought to work. They didn’t just call me in at the last moment to tell them whether this or that hat was the right one to use, or to check if their equations were correct (they actually had a retired Los Alamos scientist do all of their blackboard equations, as an aside). They got me in early, before they started crafting all of the scripts, to help with the big arcs, and then brought me in later to develop the context for smaller (but still important) plot points. That’s the best use of people like me — you can get a lot of people who can do historical fact-checking, but it takes a trained historian to give you that blend of the forest and the trees that makes the period setting be something other than window-dressing.

Trinity at 70: “Now we are all sons of bitches.”

Friday, July 17th, 2015

A quick dispatch from the road: I have been traveling this week, first to Washington, DC, and now in New Mexico, where I am posting this from. Highlights in Washington included giving a talk on nuclear history (what it was, why it was important) to a crowd of mostly-millennial, aspiring policy wonks at the State Department’s 2015 “Generation Prague” conference. A few hours after that was completed, an article I wrote on the Trinity test went online on the New Yorker’s “Elements” science blog: “The First Light of Trinity.”

The First light of Trinity

Being able to write something for them has been a real capstone to the summer for me. It was a lot of work, in terms of the writing, the editing, and the fact-checking processes. But it is really a nice piece for it. I am incredibly grateful to the editor and fact-checker who worked with me on it, and gave me the opportunity to publish it. Something to check off the bucket list.

On the plane to New Mexico, I thought over what the 70th anniversary of Trinity really meant to me. I keep coming back to the post-detonation quote of Kenneth Bainbridge, the director of the Trinity project: “Now we are all sons of bitches.” It is often put in contrast with J. Robert Oppenheimer’s more grandiose, more cryptic, “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” Oppenheimer clearly didn’t say this at the time of test explosion, and its meaning is often misunderstood. But Bainbridge’s quote is somewhat cryptic and easy to misunderstand as well.

The badge photograph of Kenneth Bainbridge, director of the Trinity project. From a photo essay I wrote for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists two years ago.

The Los Alamos badge photograph of Kenneth Bainbridge, director of the Trinity project. From a photo essay I wrote for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists two years ago.

Bainbridge’s quote first got a lot of exposure when it was published as part of Lansing Lamont’s 1965 book, Day of Trinity, timed for the 20th anniversary of Trinity. Lamont interviewed many of the project participants who were still alive. The book contains many errors, which many of them lamented. (The best single book on Trinity, as an aside, is Ferenc Szasz’s 1984, The Day the Sun Rose Twice, by a considerable margin.) A consequence of these errors is that a lot of the scientists interviewed wrote letters to each other to complain about them, which means they also clarified some quotes of theirs in the book. Bainbridge in particular has a number of letters related to mixed up quotes, mixed up content, and mixed up facts from the Lamont book in his personal papers kept at the Harvard University Archives, which I looked at several years back.

One of the people Bainbridge wrote to was Oppenheimer. He said he wanted to explain his “Now we are all sons of bitches” quote, to make sure Oppenheimer understood he was not trying to be offensive:

The reasons for my statement were complex but two predominated. I was saying in effect that we had all worked hard to complete a weapon which would shorten the war but posterity would not consider that phase of it and would judge the effort as the creation of an unspeakable weapon by unfeeling people. I was also saying that the weapon was terrible and those who contributed to its development must share in any condemnation of it. Those who object to the language certainly could not have lived at Trinity for any length of time.

Oppenheimer wrote back, in a letter dated 1966, just a year before his death, when he was pretty sick and in a lot of pain. It said:

When Lamont’s book on Trinity came, I first showed it to Kitty; and a moment later I heard her in the most unseemly laughter. She had found the preposterous piece about the ‘obscure lines from a sonnet of Baudelaire.’ But despite this, and all else that was wrong with it, the book was worth something to me because it recalled your words. I had not remembered them, but I did and do recall them. We do not have to explain them to anyone.1

I like Bainbridge’s explanation, because it doubles back on itself: people will think we were unfeeling and terrible for making this weapon, which makes it sound like the people are not understanding, but, actually, yes, the weapon was terrible. I think you can get away with that kind of blanket condemnation if you’re one of the people instrumental in its creation.

The original map of fallout from the Trinity test. There are several more "hot spots" to the South and West than are in the later more simplified drawings of it. Click to see the entire map at full resolution.

The original map of fallout from the Trinity test. There are several more “hot spots” to the South and West than are in the later more simplified drawings of it. Click the image to see the entire map at full resolution.

I have been thinking about how broadly one might want to expand the “we” in his quote. Just those at the Trinity test? Those scientists who made the bombs possible? All of the half-million involved in making the bomb, whether they knew their role or not? The United States government and population, from Roosevelt on down? The Germans, the fear of whom inspired its initial creation? The world as a whole in the 1940s? Humanity as a whole, ever?

Are we all sons of bitches, because we, as a species of sentient, intelligent, brilliant creatures have created such terrible means of doing violence to ourselves, to the extremes of potential extinction?

This is probably not what Bainbridge meant, but it is an interesting road to go down. It recalls the recent discussions about whether we live in a new era of time, the Anthropocene, and whether the Trinity test should be seen as the marker of its beginning,

  1. Regarding Baudelaire, supposedly, according to Lamont, this was going to be the code that Oppenheimer used to tell Kitty that the test was a success: “If the test succeeded, he would send her a brief message, an obscure line from a sonnet by Baudelaire: ‘You can change the sheets.'” []