Posts Tagged ‘Klaus Fuchs’


Narratives of Manhattan Project secrecy

Friday, March 29th, 2013

Secrecy suffused every aspect of the Manhattan Project; it was always in the background, as a context. But it's also a topic in and of itself — people love to talk about the secrecy of the work, and they've loved to talk about it since the Project was made public. In the 1940s there was something of a small industry of articles, books, and clichés regarding how secret the atomic bomb was kept. Of course, the irony is... it wasn't really kept all that well, if you consider "keeping the secret" to involve "not letting the Soviet Union know pretty much everything about the atomic bomb." (Which was, according to General Groves, one of the goals.)

It's easy to get sucked into the mystique of secrecy. One way I've found that is useful to help people think critically about secrecy (including myself) is to focus on the narratives of secrecy. That is, instead of talking about secrecy itself, look instead at how people talk about secrecy, how they frame it, how it plays a role in stories they tell about the Manhattan Project.

One of many early articles in the genre of Manhattan Project secrecy: "How We Kept the Atomic Bomb Secret," from the Saturday Evening Post, November 1945.

One of many early articles in the genre of Manhattan Project secrecy: "How We Kept the Atomic Bomb Secret," from the Saturday Evening Post, November 1945.

My first example of this is the most obvious one, because it is the official one. We might call this one the narrative of the "best-kept secret," because this is how the Army originally advertised it. Basically, the "best-kept secret" narrative is about how the Manhattan Project was sooo super-secret, that nobody found out about it, despite its ridiculous size and expense. The Army emphasized this very early on, and, in fact, Groves got into some trouble because there were so many stories about how great their secrecy was, revealing too much about the "sources and methods" of counterintelligence work.

The truth is, even without the knowledge of the spying (which they didn't have in 1945), this narrative is somewhat false even on its own terms. There were leaks about the Manhattan Project (and atomic bombs and energy in general) printed in major press outlets in the United States and abroad. It was considered an "open secret" among Washington politicos and journalists that the Army was working on a new super-weapon that involved atomic energy just prior to its use. Now, it certainly could have been worse, but it's not clear whether the Army (or the Office of Censorship) had much control over that.

Panel from FEYNMAN by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick.

Panel from FEYNMAN by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick.

We might contrast that with the sort of narrative of secrecy that comes up with regards to many participants' tales of being at places like Los Alamos. Richard Feynman's narrative of secrecy is one of absurd secrecy — of ridiculous adherence to stupid rules. In Feynman's narratives, secrecy is a form of idiotic bureaucracy, imposed by rigid, lesser minds. It's the sort of thing that a trickster spirit like Feynman can't resist teasing, whether he's cracking safes, teasing guards about holes in the fence, or finding elaborate ways to irritate the local censor in his correspondence with his wife. All participants' narratives are not necessarily absurd, but they are almost always about the totalitarian nature of secrecy. I don't mean "fascist/communist" here — I mean the original sense of the word, which is to say, the Manhattan Project secrecy regime was one that infused every aspect of human life for those who lived under it. It was not simply a workplace procedure, because there was no real division between work and life at the Manhattan Project sites. (Even recreational sports were considered an essential part of the Oak Ridge secrecy regime, for example.)

So we might isolate two separate narratives here — "secrecy is ridiculous" and "secrecy is totalitarian" — with an understanding that no single narrative is necessarily exclusive of being combined with others.1

"Beyond loyalty, the harsh requirements of security": Time magazine's stark coverage of the 1954 security hearing of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

"Beyond loyalty, the harsh requirements of security": Time magazine's stark coverage of the 1954 security hearing of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

But the Feynman approach looks perhaps unreasonably jolly when we contrast it to the narrative of J. Robert Oppenheimer and his students, for whom secrecy became something more sinister: an excuse to blacklist, a means of punishment. Oppenheimer did fine during the Manhattan Project, but the legacy of secrecy caught up with him in his 1954 security hearing, which effectively ended his government career. For his students and friends, the outcomes were often as bad if not worse. His brother, Frank, for example, found himself essentially blacklisted from all research, even from the opportunity to leave the country and start over. (It had a happy ending, of course, because without being blacklisted, he might never have founded the Exploratorium, but let's just ignore that for a moment.)

For a lot of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, secrecy ended up putting their careers on the line, sometimes even their lives on the line. In response to (fairly ungrounded) suspicions about Oppenheimer's student Rossi Lomanitz, for example, Groves actually removed his draft deferment and had him sent into the dangerous Pacific Theatre. This narrative of secrecy is what we might classically call the "tragic" narrative of secrecy — it involves a fall from grace. It emphasizes the rather sinister undertones and consequences of secrecy regimes, especially during the period of McCarthyism.

The original "best-kept secret" story, released on August 9, 1945 (the day of the Nagasaki bombing).

The original "best-kept secret" story, released on August 9, 1945 (the day of the Nagasaki bombing).

So what other narratives are there? Here is a short list, in no particular order, that I compiled for a talk I gave at a workshop some weeks ago. I don't claim it to be exhaustive, or definitive. Arguably some of these are somewhat redundant, as well. But I found compiling it a useful way for me to think myself around these narratives, and how many there were:

  • Secrecy is essential”: early accounts, “best-kept secret” stories
  • Secrecy is totalitarian”: secret site participants' accounts
  • Secrecy is absurd”: e.g. Feynman’s safes and fences
    • Common hybrid: “Secrecy is absurdly totalitarian
  • Secrecy is counterproductive”: arguments by Leo Szilard et al., that secrecy slowed them down (related to the "absurd" narrative)
  • Secrecy is ineffective”: the post-Fuchs understanding — there were lots of spies
  • Secrecy is undemocratic”: secrecy reduces democratic participation in important decisions, like the decision to use the bomb; fairly important to revisionist accounts
  • Secrecy is tragic”: ruinous effects of McCarthyism and spy fears on the lives of many scientists
  • “Secrecy is corrupt: late/post-Cold War, environmental and health concerns

It's notable that almost all of these are negative narratives. I don't think that's just bias on my part — positive stories about secrecy fit into only a handful of genres, whereas there are so many different ways that secrecy is talked about as negative. Something to dwell on.

What does talking about these sorts of things get us? Being aware that there are multiple "stock" narratives helps us be more conscious about the narratives we talk about and tap into. You can't really get out of talking through narratives if you have an interest in being readable, but you can be conscious about your deployment of them. For me, making sense of secrecy in an intellectual, analytical fashion requires being able to see when people are invoking one narrative or another. And it keeps us from falling into traps. The "absurd" narrative is fun, for example, but characterizing the Manhattan Project experience of secrecy makes too much light of the real consequences of it.

As an historian, what I'm really trying to do here is develop a new narrative of secrecy — that of the meta-narrative, One Narrative to Rule Them All, the narrative that tells the story of how the other narratives came about (a history of narratives, if you will). Part of talking about secrecy historically is looking at how narratives are created, how they are made plausible, how they circulate, and where they come from. Because these things don't just appear out of "nowhere": for each of these narratives, there is deep history, and often a specific, singular origin instance. (For some, it is pretty clear: Klaus Fuchs really makes the "ineffective" narrative spring to live; Leo Szilard and the Scientists' Movement push very hard for the "counterproductive" narrative in late 1945; the "best-kept secret" approach was a deliberate public relations push by the government.)

As a citizen more broadly, though, being conscious about narratives is important for parsing out present day issues as well. How may of these narratives have been invoked by all sides in the discussions of WikiLeaks, for example? How do these narratives shape public perceptions of issues revolving around secrecy, and public trust? Realizing that there are distinct narratives of secrecy is only the first step.

  1. Both of these might classically be considered "comic" narratives of secrecy, under a strict narratological definition. But I'm not really a huge fan of strict narratological definitions in this context — they are too broad. []
Redactions | Visions

Soviet drawings of an American bomb

Friday, November 30th, 2012

The United States government is pretty gun-shy on publishing drawings of nuclear weapon designs, even very crude ones. When it comes to implosion bombs, this is about all that's allowed to come out of official sources:

From the 1977 edition of Glasstone and Dolan's The Effects of Nuclear Weapons. "Then explodes" puts it a little mildly, I think.

Not extremely informative — a ball-within-a-ball — and a heck of a lot less information than you can find from other sources. The reasons for this are ostensibly based in security — terrorists, enemy powers, etc. — though I tend to suspect they are based in the fear of scandal more than anything else. Congressional oversight gets itchy when they see something that looks like a "bomb-making guide," even when it is well-within the limits of security.1 (The basic implosion idea was declassified in 1951 as part of the Rosenberg trial, though there were knowledgable people arguing for it as early as 1945.)

I find the level of abstraction allowed in such drawings to be a little ridiculous, especially when far more detailed technical information is actually declassified. For reasons that I suspect are deeper than mere policy considerations alone, you can write a lot of things down that you can't draw, if you're someone with an actual security clearance. This isn't totally nonsensical: drawings can make immediately clear lots of things that can otherwise hide in technical descriptions, which is one of the reasons that putative drawings of nuclear weapons are one of the topics that originally drew me to the topic of nuclear secrecy.

We aren't really talking about blueprints here — these things aren't usually to scale, they aren't designed for engineers to use. Even if we were talking about blueprints, there are still quite a few steps in between a drawing of a thing and the thing itself. Drawings of this sort could certainly help an incipient nuclear program, but only in the sense that they can guide research questions or general directions. A drawing of an atomic bomb is not an atomic bomb.

But even though the US is fairly tetchy about its bowdlerized bomb drawings, it does better than most other nuclear states. The United States actually publishes things about their nuclear programs. Though the US has a well-deserved reputation for secrecy, they also have put out tons and tons of technical and non-technical information about how their bombs work(ed), how bombs in general work, technical details about the weapons themselves, and so on. Why? It's a legacy, perhaps, of the Smyth Report, Atoms for Peace, and other gestures towards the positive role that nuclear information can play in the public sphere.

Ah, but there is one exception: post-Soviet Russia. The people working at Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear agency/corporation, have been publishing impressive amounts of raw historical documents information about the Soviet bomb project, as part of their on-going series Atomnyi proekt SSSR/Атомный проект СССР/USSR atomic project. The series started in 1998, and the early volumes have gotten a lot of good scholarly attention by folks like Alexei Kojevnikov and Michael Gordin, but only very recently did I find that they've been still publishing them, and from what I can tell, the newer volumes have not been used too much. The most recent volume that I've heard of — volume 3 — was published in 2009. Getting ahold of them is another matter altogether; in the United States, anyway, they're devilishly hard to find to purchase, and even on Russian websites they are pretty rare. The Library of Congress has the first two volumes in their entirety, and I think I've found a source for purchasing the third (supposedly it is on its way), but not without some effort.

Here, for example, is the sort of drawing that the Russians declassified and published in one of the 2007 volumes:

Nuke aficionados will recognize immediately that this is a pretty good drawing of an implosion bomb, especially when compared to the ball-within-a-ball. The labels are pretty straightforward: A– detonator; B– explosive lens (1–Comp. B outer lens, 2–Baratol cone, 3–Comp. B inner lens); C–cork lining; D–aluminum pusher; E–uranium tamper; F–boron plastic shell; G–the Po-Be initiator. The only weird part is that they didn't label the actual plutonium core itself (the cross-hatched sphere that surrounded the G sphere), but I guess it went without saying. Note also that they've indicated how the core can be added in after-the-fact with the removable "trap door" pusher. That's one of those nice little touches that says, "I am not merely trying to explain an abstract concept, I'm trying to tell you how we might build one of these things."

But more awesome than the drawing itself — which you can, incidentally, get on a T-shirt, if you're interested and go for that sort of thing — is its source. It's from the Soviet archives, part of a report dated January 28, 1946, titled "Notes on the design of the atomic bomb: Description of the construction of the 'explosion inside' type bomb."2 Get it, "explosion inside"? They hadn't even formalized their terminology for "implosion" yet and were using a scare-quoted, made-up word in the meantime. As the report makes clear, this is a Soviet description of the American atomic bomb detonated at "Trinity," based on intelligence received from Soviet spies at Los Alamos. (Other reports refer to Klaus Fuchs directly by name, though I'm not sure if the people drawing up this particular report knew he was the source.)

There is no way in heck that the American government would ever allow the release of so "detailed" a drawing from any source that had access to classified information. Granted, it's a long way from being a "blueprint" — something the drawing itself acknowledges; the text at the bottom reads "schematic drawing, not to scale" — but it's still the sort of thing that no weapons lab would want a Congressperson to see them handing out, much less publishing widely. But apparently Rosatom is not as burdened by this — when it comes to publishing pictures of American bombs, anyway!3

Here's another fan-favorite — a series of drawings breaking the final assembled "Fat Man" bomb into its constituent parts, showing how they call go together, IKEA-style (click any of them to zoom):

The outer casing and the placement of the bomb within it. The caption at bottom says, "Bomb used on Nagasaki (Total weight 10,500 pounds – 4,650 kilograms)." I'm having trouble making out the "note" at the top left but it is seems to be saying something is tentative about the drawing.

The first four "spheres": 1–initiator, 2–plutonium, 3–tamper, 4–aluminum pusher. Note that the publishers have omitted the exact measurements and replaced them with ellipses. It seems to indicate that the plutonium core is in "3 parts," which jibes with an earlier post of mine (and indicates that the intelligence source really knew what he was talking about, not that we didn't already know that). Actually, as is pointed out in the comments, if I had continued translating, I'd see that it says the plutonium must have impurities of only 3 parts per million. Still, a nice little detail.

Spheres 5 and 6: a layer of 32 blocks of chemical explosives, and then a layer of 32 blocks of explosive lenses. The detonator is labeled as a "booster" in English, oddly enough.

Sphere 7: the duraluminum casing, with "holes for detonators." Comrade Beria likes his details! Compared with the Trinity Gadget.

Lastly, the overall arrangement of the bombs within the casing itself, with its electrical and detonating systems indicated. (You'll perhaps recognize the first and last images here from another post I did, awhile back, as they are reprinted in a tiny form in another source.)

It's a veritable nuclear Matryoshka doll, is it not? I wish I could make this stuff up, but I can't. My favorite part about this document, though, is the fact that so much of the captions are in English — again, as if any indication were needed about where this information was coming from. The document itself was written by Igor Kurchatov for Lavrenty Beria, dated June 4, 1946.

There isn't anything remotely like a security threat here — you can get better drawings on Wikipedia these days, without the numbers redacted — but to have stuff like this published by an actual nuclear power, based on data they derived in the course of making their own atomic bomb, data taken from a source working in a weapons lab... well, let's just say, I don't think it's going to happen over here anytime soon.

Still, the drawings do have a talismanic power, and the Mandala-like quality of the implosion design doesn't hurt that. It's the bomb, right? And yet, it's really not. It's a drawing. A technically crude one, albeit more detailed than the other "official" releases. It's no surprise, I suppose, how easily we get sucked in by the superficially technical — whether it carries any real power or not.

  1. See, for example, page 70 of chapter 2 of the Cox Report, which criticized Los Alamos for releasing exactly this kind of heavily-sanitized information. []
  2. Заметки о конструкции атомной бомбы. Описание конструкции бомбы типа "взрыва вовнутрь." []
  3. This reminds me of a joke from the Brezhnev-era USSR that a Russian teacher of mine told me: During a visit to the United States, Premier Brezhnev and President Carter happen to see a protest. "No Carter, No Reagan!" the protesters shouted. "You see," said Carter, "in our country we have freedom of expression, something you don't have over in your country." "Ah, Comrade," says Brezhnev, "you are wrong! Come over and see!" So they go to Red Square, and indeed, there is a mob of protesters forming, shouting, "Nyet Carter, nyet Reagan!" []

In Search of a Bigger Boom

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

The scientist Edward Teller, according to one account, kept a blackboard in his office at Los Alamos during World War II with a list of hypothetical nuclear weapons on it. The last item on his list was the largest one he could imagine. The method of "delivery" — weapon-designer jargon for how you get your bomb from here to there, the target — was listed as "Backyard." As the scientist who related this anecdote explained, "since that particular design would probably kill everyone on Earth, there was no use carting it anywhere."1

Edward Teller looking particularly Strangelovian. Via the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, John Wheeler collection.

Teller was an inventive, creative person when it came to imagining new and previously unheard-of weapons. Not all of his ideas panned out, of course, but he rarely let that stop his enthusiasms for them. He was seemingly always in search of a bigger boom. During the Manhattan Project, he quickly tired of working on the "regular" atomic bomb — it just seemed too easy, a problem of engineering, not physics. From as early as 1942 he became obsessed with the idea of a Super bomb — the hydrogen bomb — a weapon of theoretically endless power.

(One side-effect of this at Los Alamos is that Teller passed much of his assigned work on the atomic bomb off to a subordinate: Klaus Fuchs.)

It took over a decade for the hydrogen bomb to come into existence. The reasons for the delay were technical as well as interpersonal. In short, though, Teller's initial plan — a bomb where you could just ignite an arbitrarily long candle of fusion fuel — wouldn't work, but it was hard to show that it wouldn't work. Shortly after abandoning that idea more or less completely, Teller, with the spur from Stan Ulam, came up with a new design.

The Teller-Ulam design allows you to link bombs to bombs to bomb. John Wheeler apparently dubbed this a "sausage" model, because of all of the links. Ted Taylor recounted that from very early on, it was clear you could have theoretically "an infinite number" of sub-bombs connected to make one giant bomb.

A few selected frames from Chuck Hansen's diagram about multi-stage hydrogen bombs, from his U.S. Nuclear Weapons: A Secret History. Drawing by Mike Wagnon.

The largest nuclear bomb ever detonated as the so-called "Tsar Bomba" of the Soviet Union. On 1961, it was exploded off the island of Novaya Zemlya, well within the Arctic Circle. It had an explosive equivalent to 50 million tons of TNT (megatons). It was only detonated at half-power -- the full-sized version would have been 100 megatons. It is thought to have been a three-stage bomb. By contrast, the the largest US bomb ever detonated was at the Castle BRAVO test in 1954, with 15 megatons yield. It was apparently "only" a two-stage bomb.

The dropping of the Tsar Bomba, 1961: an H-bomb the size of a school bus.

We usually talk about the Tsar Bomba as if it represented the absolute biggest boom ever contemplated, and a product of unique Soviet circumstances. We also talk about as if its giant size was completely impractical. Both of these notions are somewhat misleading:

1. The initial estimate for the explosive force of the Super bomb being contemplated during World War II was one equivalent to 100 million tons of TNT. As James Conant wrote to Vannevar Bush in 1944:

It seems that the possibility of inciting a thermonuclear reaction involving heavy hydrogen is somewhat less now than appeared at first sight two years ago. I had an hour's talk on this subject by the leading theoretical man at [Los Alamos]. The most hopeful procedure is to use tritium (the radioactive isotope of hydrogen made in a pile) as a sort of booster in the reaction, the fission bomb being used as the detonator and the reaction involving the atoms of liquid deuterium being the prime explosive. Such a gadget should produce an explosion equivalent to 100,000,000 tons of TNT.2

Teller was aiming for a Tsar Bomba from the very beginning. Whether they would have supported dropping such a weapon on Hiroshima, were it available, is something worth contemplating.

2. Both the US and the USSR looked into designing 100 megaton warheads that would fit onto ICBMs. The fact that the Tsar Bomba was so large doesn't mean that such a design had to be so large. (Or that being large necessarily would keep it from being put on the tip of a giant missile.) Neither went forward with these.

A US MK 41 hydrogen bomb.

But remember that the original Tsar Bomba was actually tested at 50 megatons, which was bad enough, right? Both the US and the Soviet Union fielded warheads with maximum yields of 25 megatons. The US Mk-41, of which some 500 were produced, and the Soviet  SS-18 Mod 2 missiles were pretty big booms for everyday use. (The qualitative differences between a 50 megaton weapon and a 25 megaton weapon aren't that large, because the effects are volumetric.)

3. Far larger weapons were contemplated. By who else? Our friend Edward Teller.

In the summer of 1954, representatives from Los Alamos and the new Livermore lab met with the General Advisory Committee to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Operation Castle had just been conducted and had proven two things: 1. very large (10-15 megaton or so), deliverable hydrogen bombs could be produced with dry fusion fuel; 2. Livermore still couldn't design successful nuclear weapons.

Norris Bradbury, director of Los Alamos, gave the GAC a little rant on the US's current "philosophy of weapon design." The problem, Bradbury argued, was that the US had an attitude of "we don't know what we want to do but want to be able to do anything." This was, he felt, "no longer relevant or appropriate." The answer would be to get very definite specifications as to exactly what kinds of weapons would be most useful for military purposes and to just mass produce a lot of them. He figured that the strategic end of the nuclear scale had been pretty much fleshed out — if you can routinely make easily deliverable warheads with a 3 megaton yield, what else do you need? All diversification, he argued, should be on the lower end of the spectrum: tactical nuclear weapons.

Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi, 1951. Courtesy of the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

When Teller met with the GAC, he also pushed for smaller bombs, but he thought there was still plenty of room on the high end of the scale. To be fair, Teller was probably feeling somewhat wounded: Livermore's one H-bomb design at Castle had been a dud, and the AEC had cancelled another one of his designs that was based on the same principle. So he did what only Edward Teller could do: he tried to raise the ante, to be the bold idea man. Cancel my H-bomb? How about this: he proposed a 10,000 megaton design.

Which is to say, a 10 gigaton design. Which is to say, a bomb that would detonate with an explosive power some 670,000 times the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.3

If he was trying to shock the GAC, it worked. From the minutes of the meeting:

Dr. Fisk said he felt the Committee could endorse [Livermore's] small weapon program. He was concerned, however, about Dr. Teller's 10,000 MT gadget and wondered what fraction of the Laboratory's effort was being expended on the [deleted]. Mr. Whitman had been shocked by the thought of a 10,000 MT; it would contaminate the earth.4

The "deleted" portion above is probably the names of two of the devices proposed — according to Chuck Hansen, these were GNOMON and SUNDIAL. Things that cast shadows.

The Chairman of the GAC at this time, I.I. Rabi, was no Teller fan (he is reported to have said that "it would have been a better world without Teller"), and no fan of big bombs just for the sake of them. His reaction to Teller's 10 gigaton proposal?

Dr. Rabi's reaction was that the talk about this device was an advertising stunt, and not to be taken too seriously.

Don't listen to Teller, he's just trying to rile you. Edward Teller: trolling the GAC. A 10,000 megaton weapon, by my estimation, would be powerful enough to set all of New England on fire. Or most of California. Or all of the UK and Ireland. Or all of France. Or all of Germany. Or both North and South Korea. And so on.

"Don't Fence My Baby In." Cartoon by Bill Mauldin, Chicago Sun-Times, 1963.

In 1949, Rabi had, along with Enrico Fermi, written up a Minority Annex to the GAC's report recommending against the creation of the hydrogen bomb. The crux of their argument was thus:

Let it be clearly realized that this is a super weapon; it is in a totally different category from an atomic bomb. The reason for developing such super bombs would be to have the capacity to devastate a vast area with a single bomb. Its use would involve a decision to slaughter a vast number of civilians. We are alarmed as to the possible global effects of the radioactivity generated by the explosion of a few super bombs of conceivable magnitude. If super bombs will work at all, there is no inherent limit in the destructive power that may be attained with them. Therefore, a super bomb might become a weapon of genocide.

If that doesn't apply to a 10,000 megaton bomb, what does it apply to?

Was Teller serious about the 10 gigaton design? I asked a scientist who worked with Teller back in the day and knew him well. His take: "I don't doubt that Teller was serious about the 10,000 MT bomb. Until the next enthusiasm took over." In this sense, perhaps Rabi was right: if we don't encourage him, he'll move on to something else. Like hydrogen bombs small enough to fit onto submarine-launched missiles, for example.

It's hard not to wonder what motivates a man to make bigger and bigger and bigger bombs. Was it a genuine feeling that it would increase American or world security? Or was it just ambition? I'm inclined to see it as the latter, personally: a desire to push the envelope, to push for the bigger impact, the biggest boom — even into the territory of the dangerously absurd, the realm of self-parody.

  1. Robert Serber, The Los Alamos primer: The first lectures on how to build an atomic bomb (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), page 4, fn. 2. []
  2. Letter dated October 20, 1944 from James B. Conant to Vannevar Bush, Subject: Possibilities of a Super Bomb. Vannevar Bush-James B. Conant Files, Records of the Office of Scientific Research & Development, S-1, NARA, Record Group 227, folder 3. Quoted from Chuck Hansen, The swords of Armageddon: U.S. nuclear weapons development since 1945 (Sunnyvale, Calif.: Chukelea Publications, 1995), III-17. []
  3. Actually, if you take the Hiroshima yield to be 15 kilotons, it comes out to a nice round 666,666 times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb. But the precision there seemed arbitrary and the symbolism seemed distracting, so I'm relegating this to just a footnote. []
  4. Minutes of the Forty-First Meeting of the General Advisory Committee to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, July 12-15, 1954, on p. 55. []

The Faces of Project Y

Friday, August 31st, 2012

Security badges — identification pieces with photographs on them — are one of the more ubiquitous showings of a security state. In Washington, DC, where I live, they are an extremely common sight: a thick plastic card with a photograph and a name of an agency, strung on a garish lanyard around the neck of someone dressed extremely conservatively. Apparently among those inside this world, it is considered a standard practice to subtly glance down at the badges of other people you see around, comparing agencies, clearances, status.

When did identification badges become so common? I'm not sure. Did they have them, say, in the secret facilities employed during World War I? I've never seen one. I've seen non-identifying badges — the equivalent of a police shield — but not ones with individual names and photographs. Presumably they had a way of indicating who belonged inside the secret areas and who belonged outside, but whether that was an identification card, a sheaf of papers, or something else, I've no clue. The photographic identification badge, worn at all times, seems to have come out of nowhere around the time of World War II, like so many things associated with the modern American security state.

At Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project — Project Y, as it was called — badges served multiple purposes. They said who was allowed inside the facility, sure. No badge, no entry. But they were also color-coded to describe the breadth of your access. Yellow meant that you could go into technical areas of the lab, but could receive no classified information — like guards. Blue was for people who needed classified information but not technical information — clerks and warehouse employees. Red was for people who could get some technical information within a highly compartmentalized state — technicians and secretaries.  White was for those who could know it all — everything that was to be done at Los Alamos. Early on, General Groves had wanted Los Alamos to be considerably compartmentalized, but Oppenheimer and others fought it. The result was that white badgers had the run of the lab, more or less, and could attend laboratory-wide colloquia.

The old Los Alamos badges of yore are declassified and have been digitized. They make for an interesting visual portrait of Los Alamos — one that likely nobody expected would ever be compiled and shared widely. They were internal documents for internal purposes, now opened up to history. It's tempting to read the character traits we expect into the expressions on the badges. Look at J. Robert Oppenheimer's badge, above. He looks small and vulnerable — brilliant but wary, burdened by heavy responsibilities.

By contrast, here is the young Richard Feynman, who looks serenely amused at the entire thing, completely unimpressed, a little bit wicked:

And then we have Klaus Fuchs, that cold fish. The spy who nobody suspected, a man whose mildness — even blankness — in appearance concealed a not-inconsiderable-amount of ideological belief and daring. The guy got beat up fighting Brownshirts in the streets of Germany, but you'd never guess it from his Los Alamos persona:

And the other major physicist-spy, Ted Hall, looks just as bored, irritated, and condescending as we'd expect from the boy-wonder Harvard undergraduate who decided that he alone could determine the fate of world affairs:

In case you're wondering whether poor Ted "Theordore" Hall was the only one with a really obvious misspelling on his badge photo, look no further:

General Leslie R. Groves, overall head of the Manhattan Project, originally had "Grover" written on his identification tag. Which was apparently unnoticed until after the tag was glued on to the photograph, at which point it had to be corrected by hand. That's kind of sad. What's being the head of the Manhattan Project get you, if not some respect?

Sometime back, Los Alamos digitized a huge number of these staff photographs, though they are available only in practically microscopic dimensions online. There are some 1,229 badge photographs on the page — some of famous people, some of infamous people, and some of people that nobody has probably heard of since. It's a fun feature, though like most people who look at it, I've spent most my time hunting for the famous names (Fermi, Teller, Bethe) and ignore most of the others.

But it's exactly the others that make Los Alamos so interesting. It wasn't just a small cabal of world-famous physicists — it was a massive collection of physicists, mathematicians, chemists, metallurgists, physicians, engineers, technicians, secretaries, librarians, housekeepers, cleaners, nurses, laborers, and other people who are necessary to make a lab function.

Being a tech-savvy fellow I realized it would actually be pretty easy1 to extract all of the images from the LANL website and turn them into one giant composite image, which I present for you below — click the image to open it up.

You should be able to click on the image to zoom or pan it, or use the controls at the bottom of the screen. It mostly seems to work on the iPad. (It struggles on old computers running old browsers, I'm sorry to say.) I highly recommend the full screen mode, enabled by clicking the little icon in the bottom right corner. The photo names are extracted programmatically from the filenames provided by LANL; there are some obvious typos, mistakes, and so forth that I haven't tried to correct. If it absolutely won't work for you, you can look at the full image here, but I warn you that it's a big file.

They are arranged in alphabetical order. Hunt around and you'll occasionally find a famous person, in a sea of the unfamous. Look at the sheer diversity of age, gender, and appearance. One is artfully blurred; there are at least two duplicate pairs — one is rather plain, while another shows a change in facial hair. (There is not much diversity in race, unsurprisingly. There are groups of Hispanic men in there — e.g., Lopez, Lopez, Lopez, and Lopez — but other than that, Los Alamos as represented here was a pretty "white" gathering. This is in stark contrast with Hanford and Oak Ridge, which used large numbers of African-American workers.)

I thought this was pretty enough to make a mug out of it. For the mug, I picked out 95 faces — including all of the famous and infamous ones, along with some visually interesting ones — and wrapped them around a mug. There's no explanatory text, just faces, with an Oppenheimer and a Fuchs peaking out from among the crowd, plus a few people whose faces you probably don't know, but would be amused to find in there (like Sam Cohen, the "inventor of the neutron bomb").

If the anonymous crowd isn't your thing, there is also a mug of The Big Four of the nuclear scene — Oppenheimer, Teller, Groves, and Fuchs — and, just on the off-chance someone other than me would find wearing a Klaus Fuchs t-shirt amusing, some clothing designs with these fellows on them. All proceeds go towards supporting the blog.

  1. I used DownloadThemAll plus ImageMagick Montage, if you are curious what goes into making this sort of thing. The image viewer was cobbled together from Microsoft's sadly defunct Seadragon Ajax library. []

Rare Photos of the Soviet Bomb Project

Friday, July 27th, 2012

I was recently perusing some Russian-language books on the Soviet atomic bomb project at the Library of Congress, and I stumbled across one that was really pretty amazing. The book itself is a catalog of a big exhibit on the Soviet bomb project ("Atomic project USSR: The 60th Anniversary of the Russian nuclear shield"1 which was held in Moscow in the fall of 2009. Much of the text is a rote repetition of what has been known for years — with some historical weirdness, like repeat using of "we" to mean the USSR, which is not the most encouraging thing for Russians to do — but the images are fantastic, and many of them are quite new.

Calling this "new" is a bit of a stretch, since the book was published three years ago. But it's new to me, and if it's new to me, it's probably new to you! It's definitely newer than most of the Soviet nuclear program photos that are out there, most of which showed up in the early 1990s when the Russian archives (temporarily) became easier to use.

Before I start, I would like to just point out how crazy it is that this book is so well-produced. It's on glossy paper. The design is well done. The pictures are in color! None of this would be remarkable if the book was from the United States or a country in Western Europe, but most Russian-language books that I've seen in this country look like they were mimeographed on recycled newsprint by old Marxists. Somebody spent a comparative fortune on getting this book published. It's a slick book; I wish there were an easy place to buy it online.

The whole thing kicks off with this amazing photograph of Vladimir Putin and a number of Russian Orthodox big-wigs at Sarov, the city that was once known as Arzamas-16, the Soviet equivalent of Los Alamos. Apparently the Soviet bomb scientists liked to call the place "Los Arzamas." Sarov has been the site of a big Russian Orthodox monastery for centuries.

There are some great, rare photographs of key Soviet weapons scientists in the book. From left to right here, we have young, beardless Igor Kurchatov; Kurchatov after he grew his famous beard; a dashing portrait of Georgii Flerov, and finally, Yuli Khariton. Kurchatov agreed not to shave his beard until the enemy was defeated, during World War II, but being "the Beard" somewhat became him so I don't think he ever shaved it off. He looks like such a goofy kid on the photograph to the left, which I think was taken when he was in his early twenties. The beard photo is from the early 1940s.

Flerov is the guy who really got the Soviet project off the ground initially. His story is pretty fascinating. In 1942, he had hoped to get the Stalin Prize for his work on the spontaneous fission of U-238, which would have kept him from the murderous Eastern Front of World War II, but was rejected because his paper wasn't cited by anyone, and thus was judged as unimportant. Flerov did a literature search and realized that nobody was publishing on fission anymore — and indeed, all of those who had been publishing on it had dropped off the map completely. He immediately started writing letters — including to Stalin himself — pointing out that this could only indicate that the United States was working on an atomic bomb. Anyway, this is the most dashing photograph I've seen of him. It dates from 1940.

Khariton was the head Soviet theorist — something of an equivalent to their Oppenheimer. The photo dates from the 1940s. Khariton, oddly enough, has some links to Freud's inner circle. I don't find that changes my understanding of the bomb much, but it's still unexpected. (Hat-tip to Michael Dennis for forwarding that to me.)

Perspective view of a mine at Taboshar, Tajikistan, from 1944.2 Taboshar was one of the few early sources of Soviet uranium, known since the 1920s and mined extensively for uranium since 1945. The acquisition of raw uranium was the key setter of the timetable of the Soviet bomb program. They had very few known sources of the ore at the end of World War II, and the United States and the United Kingdom had worked behind the scenes to attempt secure a monopoly on all other known world supplies. General Groves thought their access to uranium was so bad that it would take the Soviets 20 years to get a bomb — but it turned out that uranium is more plentiful than he realized, and concentrations that wouldn't be economic to mine for the United States turned out to be just fine for Soviet slave labor.

Here we have two diagrams of the Nagasaki atomic bomb (Fat Man) based on information passed on to the Soviets from Klaus Fuchs and other spies. These aren't particularly sensitive today, but would have been Top Secret–Restricted Data when they were acquired. On the right is the basic dimensions of the body of the bomb, and on the left is a more detailed arrangement showing the electrical systems inside the bomb. As anyone reading this blog no doubt knows, the Soviet Union had a number of spies in high places in both the US and UK sides of the Manhattan Project, which they dubbed "ENORMOZ" in their code language.

What I like about these drawings, aside from their novelty, is that the labels are first in English, and then translated into Russian again — betraying their obvious roots in espionage.

There are also some cool documents reproduced in here. This one is from a report written for Lavrenty Beria, dated February 28, 1945, on the "Progress of the atomic bomb abroad." It says that it is expected that the United States will produce a bomb by July of that year, and then explains in very basic terms how it works. I also love the punctuation of the technical terms with handwritten English ("High explosive," "Composition C," "commercial radium tube.") Even without much Russian beyond transliteration, you can recognize a bunch of what's being discussed: the fact that only about 5 kg of plutonium was used in the implosion bomb (actual value was close to 6kg, but who's counting), the discussion of the different explosives involve in implosion, and, amusingly, the term "tube alloy" as a codename for uranium.

The last line, underlined, says "The explosion is expected approximately July 10." As Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago, "the Organs always earned their pay."

A nice spread labeled as "the territory of Laboratory No. 2, 1943." Pretty desolate. Laboratory No. 2 is located just outside of Moscow and was run by Kurchatov, and was the site of the first Soviet nuclear reactor and now the Kurchatov Institute.

This is an outside view of a tent at Laboratory No. 2, also from 1943. Apparently "experiments with uranium" were performed.3

And here is an interior view of the same tent. The stack at the right looks like graphite blocks, which the first Soviet reactor was made out of. (As was the first American reactor, of course.)

Here are three views of the assembly of F-1, the first Soviet reactor. On the left, they are laying the graphite blocks; in the middle, you can see it more completely assembled; on the far right, the diagram of the design. One can easily compare these with the first American reactor design, Chicago Pile-1.

The F-1 reactor in 2009. Fun fact of the day: Reactor F-1 is still a functional, operating nuclear reactor. It achieved criticality on December 25, 1946, and is still using its original fuel load. (It is very low power, so that's not quite as impressive as it sounds.) It's the oldest functioning nuclear reactor in the world.

This is listed a the central hall of Reactor "A" after it received an upgrade, from the late 1950s.4 Reactor A was a military production reactor in Chelyabinsk, running on natural uranium fuel, with graphite as the moderator. It was up and running by June 1948, and provided plutonium for the first Soviet atomic bomb.

In other words, this is something like the Soviet equivalent of the B-Reactor at Hanford, though after the aforementioned upgrade, Reactor A was able to run at 500 MW, about twice what B-Reactor could do.

And lastly... the bomb itself. Well, a model of it, anyway. The caption says this is model of the first Soviet bomb at "the Polygon," which was the code name for the Semipalatinsk test site.5 Somehow it manages to look very futuristic (the big circles, the large poles) and yet quite rustic (the trees, the way in which everything looks like it has been fashioned by hand by some ancient Kazakh craftsman).

(If anyone has any insight into what function the poles and  the big circle have, I'd love to know.)

This is one of the more intimate photographs of the Soviet bomb I've ever seen. Photographs of the Trinity gadget in arrangements like this have been common for a few decades, now, but Soviet equivalents are quite rare.

This may be my favorite photo of the whole set: the most profoundly indicative of the Soviet situation and the most graphically arresting. A bedraggled Russian worker, straight out of Gogol, posing next to a riveted, crude, and terrible atomic bomb. It's a dystopic juxtaposition: the desperate old paired with the horrible new.

The "bomb" appears to be an early bomb casing model used for aerodynamic testing.6 I suspect they used these proto-casing the same way the US did: dropping them endlessly from planes, to make sure they wouldn't spin or pinwheel in unpleasant ways that would rattle the sensitive internal components.

This is from a report on the first atomic bomb test co-written by Beria and Kurchatov for the pleasure of Comrade Stalin. It shows what happened to a Lavochkin La-9 which was 500 meters from the test blast. It's dramatic, all right.

Igor Kurchatov, father of the Soviet bomb, and Sergei Korolev, father of the Soviet ICBM, hanging out in the 1950s. I can't quite tell what Korolev has in his hands — it sort of looks like a giant (Lysenko-enhanced) cabbage, but it also looks somewhat reflective, which most cabbages aren't. Hard to tell, but Kurchatov and Korolev seem rather amused by it. [My father suggests it looks an awful lot like Jiffy-Pop, no doubt acquired through special intelligence sources. Hey, who knows?]

And with a job well done came... an appreciative letter to Stalin. In the Soviet Union, Stalin doesn't thank you when you accomplish something difficult... you thank Stalin!7 OK, in truth, it was them thanking Stalin for giving them awards (and not, you know, executing them) after the successful test. But it's still amusing.

It reads something like this (pardon my likely spotty translation):

Comrade Stalin
Dear Josef Vissarionovich!

We heartily thank you for the high appreciation of our work, which the Party, government and you personally awarded us.

Only the daily attention, care and support that you gave us for those four-plus years of hard work have enabled use to successfully solve the task of organizing the production of nuclear energy and the creation of atomic weapons.

We promise you, dear Comrade Stalin, that we will be working with even more energy and dedication on the further development of the business entrusted to us, and we shall give all our strength and knowledge to justify your confidence in us.8

It's signed by Beria, Kurchatov, Khariton, and a boat load of other Soviet scientists. Was Stalin pleased? Well, no. The note at the upper left is in Stalin's handwriting, and it says, "Why not Riehl (the German)?"9 As in, where is Nikolaus Riehl's signature? Riehl was one of the German scientists who had gone to work on the Soviet bomb after World War II. Ah, that Stalin... never could just take a compliment!

(Riehl's story is an interesting one — he was half guest, half captive. He got many nice things for his work, but was also in a legally ambiguous status. He was not present at the first Soviet test; he learned of it later from listening to British radio. Riehl's lack of signature on the letter probably had less to do with trying to offend Stalin — he wasn't suicidal — but because he had been compartmentalized out of that part of the project.)

Finally, it ends with a picture of "veterans of the first Soviet atomic bomb test," gathered in 1999. I've seen a number of photos of folks with the Soviet bomb, but this one really brought out the fact that it's actually a very large bomb indeed.

  1. "Атомный проект СССР. К 60-летию создания ядерного щита России." All translations are mine with help from Google Translate and an old Soviet technical dictionary. Original Russian will be in the footnotes. I am happy for clarifications and corrections; I acknowledge my Russian is far from perfect. Citation for the book: Atomnii proekt SSSR: katalog vystavki (Moscow: Rosatom, 2009). []
  2. "Axonometric projection of the mines of the eastern section of the field 'Taboshar.' 1944." / "Аксонометрическая проекция горных выработок восточного участка месторождения 'Табошар.' 1944 ." []
  3. "Laboratory No. 2 tent — location of experiments with uranium. External and internal views." [1943] / Палатка Лаборатории No. 2 — место проведения экспериментов с ураном. Внешний и внутренний виды. [1943] []
  4. "Central hall of the reactor "A" after the upgrade. The end of the 1950s." / Центральный зал реактора "А" после модернизации. Конец 1950-х. []
  5. "Model of the bomb at the Polygon. Not earlier than 1948." / Макет установки взрывного устройства на полигоне. Не ранее 1948. []
  6. "Bomb casing before aviation testing." / Корпус авиабомби перед авиационними испытаниями. []
  7. "Letter of appreciation awarded with orders and ranks of academics, specialists, and scientists to Stalin in appreciation for the work in the field of nuclear energy and the creation of atomic weapons. November 18, 1949." / Благодарственное письмо награжденных орденами и званиями академиков и ученых специалистов Сталину И.В. за высокую оценку работы в области производства атомной энергии и создания атомного оружия. 18 ноября 1949. []
  8. Товаришу Сталину И.В

    Дорогой Иосиф Виссарионович!

    Горячо благодарим Вас за высокую оценку нашей работы, которой Партия, Правительство и лично Вы удостоили нас.

    Только повседневное внимание, забота и помощь, которые Вы оказывали нам но протяжении этих 4-х с лишним лет кропотливой работы, позволили успешно решить поставленную Вами задачу организации производства атомной энергии и создания атомного оружия.

    Обещаем Вам, дорогой товарищ Сталин, что мы с еще дольшей энергией и самоотверженностью будем работать над дальнейшим развитием порученного нам дела и отдадим все свои силы и знания на то, чтобы с честью оправдать Ваше доверие. []

  9. "Почему нет Рилля (немец)?" []