Posts Tagged ‘Manhattan Project’

Meditations

A bomb without Einstein?

Friday, June 27th, 2014

If Albert Einstein had never been born, would it have changed when nuclear weapons were first produced? For whatever reason, I’ve seen this question being asked repeatedly on Internet forums, as odd as it is. It’s kind of a silly question. You can’t go in and tweak one variable in the past and then think you could know what the outcome would be. History is a chaotic system; start removing variables, who knows what would happen. Much less a variable named Albert Einstein, one of the most influential physicists of the 20th century, and whose importance extended well past the equations he wrote… and those were pretty important equations, at that!

1946 - Einstein Time magazine - detail

Einstein’s 1946 cover of Time magazine. The mushroom cloud is a beautifully executed combination of the Trinity and Nagasaki mushroom clouds.

On the other hand, this kind of science-fiction counterfactual can have its usefulness as a thought experiment. It isn’t history, but it can be used to illustrate some important aspects about the early history of the atomic bomb that a lot of people don’t know, and to undo a little bit of the “great man” obsession with bomb history. Albert Einstein has been associated with the bomb both through his famous mass-energy equivalence calculation (E=mc²) and because of the famous Einstein-Szilard letter to Roosevelt in 1939. On the face of it, this gives him quite a primary role, and indeed, he usually shows up pretty quickly at the beginning of most histories of the Manhattan Project. But neither E=mc² nor the Einstein-Szilard letter were as central to the Manhattan Project’s success as people realize — either scientifically or historically.

In terms of the science, E=mc² gets a lion’s share of attention, most perfectly expressed by Einstein’s portrait on the cover of Time magazine in 1946 (above) with his equation emblazoned on a mushroom cloud. A lot of people seem to think that E=mc² played a key role in the development of the bomb, that the weapon just falls out of the physics. This is wrong. The equation can help one understand why atomic bombs work, but it doesn’t really tell you how they work, or whether you would expect them to even be possible.

The way I like to put it is this: E=mc² tells you about as much about an atomic bomb as Newton’s laws do about ballistic missiles. At some very “low level” the physics is crucial to making sense of the technology, but the technology does not just “fall out” of the physics in any straightforward way, and neither of those equations tell you whether the technology is possible. E=mc² tells you that on some very deep level, energy and mass are equivalent, and the amount of energy that mass is equivalent is gigantic. But it says nothing about the mechanism of converting mass into energy, either whether one exists in the first place, or whether it can be scaled up to industrial or military scales. It gives no hints as to even where to look for such energy releases. After the fact, once you know about nuclear fission and can measure mass defects and things like that, it helps you explain very concisely where the tremendous amounts of energy come from, but it gives you no starting indications.

Eddington's famous plate of the 1919 solar eclipse, which helped confirm Einstein's theory of General Relativity. Very cool looking, and interesting science. But not relevant to atomic bombs. Source.

Eddington’s famous plate of the 1919 solar eclipse, which helped confirm Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. Very cool looking, and interesting science. But not relevant to atomic bombs. Source.

What about the rest of Einstein’s main theoretical work, both Special and General Relativity Theory? They are pretty irrelevant to bomb-making. The physical processes that take place inside atomic bombs are what physicists call “non-relativistic.” Relativity theory generally only shows its hand when you are talking about great speeds (e.g. large fractions of the speed of light) or great masses (e.g. gravitational fields), and neither of those come into play with fission bombs. You can neglect relativity when doing the math to make a bomb.1

An intelligent follow-up question might be: “well, just because relativity theory didn’t play a role in the bomb process itself doesn’t answer the question of whether it started physics on a path that led to the bomb, does it?” Without getting into a long timeline of the “science that led to the bomb,” here, I think we could reasonably summarize the situation like this: Einstein’s 1905 papers (of which E=mc² was one) did indeed play a role in the subsequent developments that followed, but perhaps not as direct a one as people think. E=mc² didn’t inspire physicists to start looking into processes that converted mass to energy — they were already looking into those through an entirely separate (and earlier) line of development, namely the science of radioactivity and particle physics. The fact that huge amounts of energy were released through nuclear reactions, for example, had already been studied closely by the Curies, by Ernest Rutherford, and by Frederick Soddy prior (but only just) to 1905.

Arguably, the most important work Einstein did in this respect was his work on the photoelectric effect (for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1921), which helped establish the physical reality of Max Planck’s idea of a quantum of energy, which helped kick off investigations into quantum theory in earnest. This had a big influence on the later direction of physics, even if Einstein himself was never quite comfortable with the quantum mechanics that developed in subsequent decades.

The Hahn-Meitner-Strassman experiment apparatus, at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. My own photo.

The Hahn-Meitner-Strassman experiment apparatus, at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. My own photo.

Did any of the relativity work lead, though, down the path that eventually arrived at the discovery of fission in 1939? I don’t think so. The experiments that Hahn, Meitner, and Strassman were doing in Berlin that lead to the discovery of fission in uranium were themselves careful replications of work that Fermi had done around 1934. Fermi’s work came directly out of an experimentalist, nuclear physics context where physicists were bombarding substances with all manner of subatomic particles to see what happened. It was most directly influenced by the discovery of the neutron as a new sub-atomic particle by Chadwick in 1932. This came out of work on atomic theory and atomic modeling that was being done by Rutherford and his students from the early 1910s-1920s. And this early nuclear physics came, most directly, out of the aforementioned context of radioactivity and experimental physics of the late 19th century.

None of which has a strong, direct connection to or from Einstein’s work in my mind. They have some overlaps of interest (e.g. Bohr was a student of Rutherford’s), but the communities working on these sorts of experimental problems are not quite the same as the more theoretical circle that Einstein himself worked in.2 If we somehow, magically, removed Einstein’s early work from the equation here, does the output change much? There would be some reshuffling, probably, but I sort of think that Rutherford would still be doing his thing anyway, and from that much of the other work that led to the bomb would eventually come out, even if it had a somewhat different flavor or slightly different timeline.

My least favorite way of depicting the fission process, where energy (E) is a magic lightning bolt coming out of the splitting atom. In reality, most of the energy comes in the form of the two fission products (F.P. here) repelling from each other with great violence. Source.

This is my least-favorite way of depicting the fission process, where energy (E) is a magic lightning bolt coming out of the splitting atom. In reality, most of the energy comes in the form of the two fission products (F.P. here) repelling from each other with great violence. Source.

Do you even need to know that E=mc² to make an atomic bomb? Perhaps surprisingly, you don’t! There are other, more physically intuitive ways to calculate (or measure) the energy release from a fission reaction. If you treat the fission process as being simply based on the electrostatic repulsion of two fission products, you get essentially the same energy output in the form of kinetic energy. This is how the physics of fission is often taught in actual physics classes, because it gives you a more concrete indication of how that energy is getting released (whereas E=mc² with the mass-defect makes it seem like a magical lightning bolt carries it away). There are other more subtle physical questions involved in making a bomb, some of which have Einstein’s influence on them in one way or another (e.g. Bose–Einstein statistics). But I think it is not totally crazy to say that even if you somehow imagine a world in which Einstein had never existed, that the physics of an atomic bomb would still work out fine — Einstein’s specific technical work wasn’t central to the problem at all. We also have not brought up the question of whether without Einstein, relativity in some form would have been discovered anyway. The answer is probably “yes,” as there were people working on similar problems in the same areas of physics, and once people started paying a close attention to the physics of radioactivity they were bound to stumble upon the mass-energy relationship anyway. This isn’t to denigrate or underestimate Einstein’s influence on physics, of course. What makes Einstein “Einstein” is that he, a single person, pulled off a great number of theoretical coups all at once. But if he hadn’t done that, there’s no reason to think that other people wouldn’t have come up with his theoretical insights individually, if slightly later.

A postwar re-creation of the genesis of the Einstein-Szilard letter.

A postwar re-creation of the genesis of the Einstein-Szilard letter.

What about Einstein’s most direct role, the famous Einstein-Szilard letter of 1939 that influenced President Roosevelt to set up the first Uranium Committee? This is a tricky historical question that could have (and may at some point) an entirely separate blog post relating to it. Its writing, contents, and influence are more complex than the standard “he wrote a letter, FDR created the Manhattan Project” understanding of it that gets boiled down in some popular accounts. My feeling about it, ultimately, is this: if the Einstein-Szilard letter hadn’t been written, it isn’t clear that anything would be terribly different in the outcome in terms of making the bomb. Something like the Uranium Committee might have been started up anyway (contrary to popular understanding, the letter was not the first time Roosevelt had been told about the possibility of nuclear fission), and even if it hadn’t, it isn’t clear that the Uranium Committee was necessary to end up with a Manhattan Project. The road from a fission program whose primary output was reports and a fission program whose primary output was atomic bombs was not a direct one. By early 1941, the Uranium Committee had failed to convince scientist-administrators that atomic bombs were worth trying to build. They had concluded that while atomic bombs were theoretically feasible, they were not likely to be built anytime soon. Had things stayed there, it seems unlikely the United States would have built a bomb ready to use by July/August 1945.

The “push” came from an external source: the British program. Their MAUD Committee (an equivalent of the Uranium Committee) had concluded that a nuclear weapon would be much easier to build than the United States had concluded, and sent an emissary (Mark Oliphant) to the United States to make sure this conclusion was understood. They caught Vannevar Bush’s ear in late 1941, and he (along with Ernest Lawrence, Arthur Compton, and others) wrested control of the uranium work out of the hands of the Uranium Committee, accelerated the work, and morphed it into the S-1 Committee. The name change is significant — it is one of the more vivid demonstrations of the increased degree of seriousness with which the work was taken, and the secrecy that came with it. By late 1942, the wheels for the full Manhattan Project were set into motion, and the work had become a real bomb-making program.

Einstein wasn’t involved with any of the later work that actually led to the bomb. He almost was, though: in late 1941, Bush considered consulting Einstein for help on the diffusion problem, but opted not to push for it — both because Einstein wasn’t regarded as politically reliable (he had a fat FBI file), and his approach to physics just wasn’t very right for practical problems.3 Bush decided that Einstein would stay out of the loop.

Usual, rare anti-Nazi propaganda postcard from 1934, showing Hitler expelling Einstein from Germany, titled "The Ignominy of the 20th Century." It is one of the most blatant visual renderings of Einstein as a "scientific saint." Source.

Unusual, rare anti-Nazi propaganda postcard from 1934, showing Hitler expelling Einstein from Germany, titled “The Ignominy of the 20th Century.” It is one of the most blatant visual renderings of Einstein as a “scientific saint.” Source.

Let’s sum it up. Did Einstein play a role in the creation of the atomic bomb? Of course — his physics isn’t irrelevant, and his letter to Roosevelt did start one phase of the work. But both of these things are less prominent than the Time-magazine-cover-understanding makes them out to be. They weren’t central to what became the Manhattan Project, and if you could somehow, magically, remove Einstein from the equation, it isn’t at all clear that the atomic bomb wouldn’t have been built around the time it actually was built. I don’t think you can really credit, or blame, Einstein for the atomic bomb, in any direct fashion. Einstein did play a role in things, but that role wasn’t as crucial, central, or direct as a lot of people imagine. If you could magically drop him out of history, I think very little in terms of atomic bombs would have been affected.

So why does the Einstein and the bomb myth persist? Why does everybody learn about the Einstein letter, if it wasn’t really was sparked the Manhattan Project? There are two answers here, I think. One is that Einstein was, even before the war, one of the best-known, best-recognized physicists of the 20th century, and was synonymous with revolutionary science and genius. Having him “predict” the atomic bomb with equations in 1905 — 40 years before one was set off — is the kind of “genius-story” that people love, even if it obscures more than it enlightens. It also has a high irony quotient, since Einstein was forced to flee from Germany when the Nazis took power.

But there’s another, perhaps more problematic aspect. In many early copies of the Smyth Report that were distributed by the government, copies of the Einstein letter were mimeographed and loosely inserted. The magnification of Einstein’s role was purposefully encouraged by the government in the immediate period after using the weapon. (And it was even a convenient myth for Einstein, as it magnified his own importance and thus potential influence.) Hanging the atomic bomb on Einstein’s head was an act of self-justification, of sorts. Einstein was the world’s greatest genius in the eyes of the public, and he was a well-known pacifist, practically a scientific saint. After all, if Einstein thought building a bomb was necessary, who could argue with him?

Notes
  1. As Robert Serber puts it: “Somehow the popular notion took hold long ago that Einstein’s theory of relativity, in particular his famous equation E = mc², plays some essential role in the theory of fission. Albert Einstein had a part in alerting the United States government to the possibility of building an atomic bomb, but his theory of relativity is not required in discussing fission. The theory of fission is what physicists call a non-relativistic theory, meaning that relativistic effects are too small to affect the dynamics of the fission process significantly.” Robert Serber, The Los Alamos Primer: The First Lectures on How to Build an Atomic Bomb (University of California Press, 1992), 7. []
  2. For a good, non-teleological, non-bomb-centric approach to the context of 19th- and 20th-century physics, Helge Kragh’s Quantum Generations: A History of Physics in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 2002), is excellent. []
  3. Einstein wasn’t entirely a head-in-the-clouds physicist, of course. He worked at the patent office, and as Peter Galison has written about, even his famous thought experiments were often motivated by experience with practical problems of time synchronization. And he did help invent a refrigerator with Leo Szilard. But his work on diffusion physics was too abstract, too focused on first-principle analysis, for use in producing a practical outcome. []
Meditations

Feynman and the Bomb

Friday, June 6th, 2014

Richard Feynman is one of the best-known physicists of the 20th century. Most of those who know about him know he was at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project — some of the best “Feynman stories” were set there. But Feynman’s own stories about his wartime hijinks were, like most of his stories about himself, half just-for-laughs and half lookit-mee! Feynman’s always got to either be a lucky average Joe, or the one brilliant mind in a sea of normals. His Los Alamos antics are mostly just tales of a genius man-child running around a secret laboratory, picking safes and irritating security guards. They aren’t very good gauges of what he actually did towards making the bomb. So what did Feynman actually do with regards to making the bomb? And does it matter, for thinking about his later career, especially the work that won him a Nobel Prize two decades later? 

Los Alamos colloquium from 1946, featuring (foreground, from left-to-right), Norris Bradbury, J. Robert Oppenheimer, John Manley, Richard Feynman, and Enrico Fermi. This version is cropped from the scanned copy at the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives. I will note that unlike the more common copies of this photo that have circulated, you can actually get a sense for how many other people were in the room — it looks like a really packed house.

Los Alamos colloquium from 1946, featuring (foreground, from left-to-right), Norris Bradbury, J. Robert Oppenheimer, John Manley, Richard Feynman, and Enrico Fermi. This version is cropped from the scanned copy at the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives. I will note that unlike the more common copies of this photo that have circulated, you can actually get a sense for how many other people were in the room — it looks like a really packed house.

Feynman’s own stories of his wartime work are centered around things other than the work itself. So he describes doing calculations, but doesn’t really say what they were for. He describes going to Oak Ridge, but only as a pretext for a story about dealing with generals and engineers. He describes the Trinity test, but a lot of that is about his claim to being the only person who saw it without welding glass on. And so on. These give glimpses, but not a very complete picture.

The historian of physics (and my advisor) Peter Galison wrote an article on “Feynman’s War” several years back, looking closely at what it actually was that Feynman was doing at the lab, and how it played into the style that he later became famous for in physics.1 Galison argues that Feynman’s postwar work is uniquely characterized by being “modular, pictorial, and proudly unmathematical.” He contrasts this with the work of several of his contemporaries, including Julian Schwinger, who came up with equivalent solutions to the same physical problems but through a very different (much more mathematical) approach. Feynman’s famous diagrams, which had a huge influence on the teaching and practice of postwar physics, exemplify this approach. What in Schwinger and Tomonaga’s hands (the other people Feynman shared his Nobel Prize with in 1965) was solvable only through massive, lengthy, laborious math could, in Feynman’s hands, be solved through a series of clever diagrams which came up with equivalent results. Feynman’s solutions to quantum electrodynamics weren’t the only way to do it — but they were easier to comprehend, to teach, and to apply to new questions.

The first Feynman diagram, published in R. P. Feynman, "Space—Time Approach to Quantum Electrodynamics,"Physical Review 76 (1949), 769-789, on 772.

The first published Feynman diagram, from Richard P. Feynman, “Space-Time Approach to Quantum Electrodynamics,”Physical Review 76 (1949), 769-789, on 772.

OK, so what does this have to do World War II? Well, Galison’s argument is that you can see the same sort of thinking at work in what Feynman did at Los Alamos, and he argues that it is during the war that he really started applying this mode of physics. He divides Feynman’s work into several “projects.” They were:

  • Neutron measurements for determining critical mass (including the famous “tickling the dragon’s tail” experiment” involving creating brief, barely-subcritical masses)
  • Work on the “Water Boiler” reactor at Los Alamos, which provided further data on nuclear chain reactions
  • Work as a safety supervisor at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, at Oppenheimer’s request (which in his own writings is distilled down to a single humorous anecdote where Feynman is simultaneously clueless and brilliant)
  • Developing formulae relating to criticality and implosion efficiency (including the Bethe-Feynman formula)
  • His work on the hydride bomb, an abortive, Teller-inspired approach to make a “cheaper” fission weapon which involved devilishly difficult calculation (because not all of the neutrons produced in the weapon would be of the same energy)

Galison argues that in each of these instances, you can see the germs of his later approaches. He credits this to both Feynman’s own personal scientific style and inclinations as a theorist (Feynman didn’t seem to like to work with fundamental equations, but with “shortcuts” that lead to quicker, more efficient solutions, for example), but also to the requirements of the wartime goal, where theorists had to come up with tangible, practical results in a very short amount of time.  For example, Galison notes that the formulae relating to how the implosion bomb worked “brought the abstract differential equations to the bottom line: how hot, how fast, how much yield?” The practical needs of the war favored a particular “theoretical style” in general, Galison argues, one that could be most easily meshed with engineering concerns, rapid prototyping, and the lack of time to ruminate on fundamental physics questions.2

The "Water Boiler" reactor at Los Alamos. Source: Los Alamos Archives (12784), via Galison 1998.

The “Water Boiler” reactor at Los Alamos that Feynman worked on. Source: Los Alamos Archives (12784), via Galison 1998, p. 404.

Galison’s article is fairly technical. He goes through Feynman’s work (what of it that is declassified, anyway) and tries to follow his thinking in a very “internal” way, and then match that up with the requirements imposed by the specific wartime context. If you are well-versed in physics you will probably find the details interesting. I’m more of a big-picture person myself, and I like the structure of Galison’s argument even if I don’t feel fully capable of digesting all of the physics involved. One small example of Galison’s work can probably suffice. Feynman was sent to Oak Ridge, as noted, to serve as a safety supervisor. He was taking over for Robert Christy, who got pneumonia in April 1944. The safety question was not a general one, but a very specific one: how many barrels of uranium (in various degrees of enrichment) could be safely stored in a room without running a risk of a criticality accident? Feynman himself relates the problem like this in his famous bit, “Los Alamos from Below” (reproduced in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman):

It turned out that the army had realized how much stuff we needed to make a bomb — twenty kilograms or whatever it was — and they realized that this much material, purified, would never be in the plant, so there was no danger. But they did not know that the neutrons were enormously more effective when they are slowed down in water. In water it takes less than a tenth — no, a hundredth — as much material to make a reaction that makes radioactivity. It kills people around and so on. It was very dangerous, and they had not paid any attention to the safety at all.

In Feynman’s account, he more or less walks in and figures out what the problems were and how to fix them. The story is about ignorance — in particular systemic ignorance due to secrecy — and Feynman’s attempts to cut through it.

Feynman's diagrammatic sketch of storage of barrels of uranium at Oak Ridge, prepared for his "Safety Report." Source: Galison 1998, p. 408.

Feynman’s diagrammatic sketch of storage of barrels of uranium at Oak Ridge, prepared for his “Safety Report.” Source: Galison 1998, p. 408.

Galison’s account is more technical. Feynman told them that pretty much any amount of unenriched uranium could be stored safely in the facility, but that 5% enriched and 50% enriched had to be handled fairly carefully. 50% enriched uranium in water, for example, would dangerous at a mere 350 grams of material unless there was a neutron absorbing material (cadmium) present. Feynman developed a series of safety recommendations for all grades of enrichments, and had to use reasonable safety margins to make up for potential errors in the calculations. He became the “point man” for safety questions involving fissionable materials, and developed (as Galison puts it) “visualizable” methods for answering basic (but important) questions about hypothetical systems (e.g. for “Gunk storage tanks,” whether they had to be coated with cadmium or not). His methods, Feynman himself emphasizes, were “only approximate, as accuracy has been sacrificed to speed and simplicity in calculation” — the kind of computational “short cut” that was both needed for the practical requirements, but also was common to Feynman’s general approach to physics. Galison concludes the section thus:

The admixture of approximation methods, neutron diffusion, nuclear cross sections, floods, fires and wooden walls marked Feynman’s correspondence with the Oak Ridge engineers. From April of 1944 to September 1945, whatever else Feynman was doing, he was also deeply enmeshed in the barely-existing field of nuclear engineering. Out of this interaction came characteristic rules and modular reasoning: visualizable, approximate, from-the-ground-up calculations applied to neutrons, pans, sheds and sludge. Visionary statements reinterpreting established laws of physics ceded to the exigencies of living in a world he had to reach outside the home culture of theoretical physics as he knew it before the war. Now a billion dollar plant was churning out U-235, and only a calculation stood between thousands of workers and nuclear disaster.

Which is a lot more serious-sounding that Feynman’s own somewhat jokey accounts of the work. In the latter part of the article, Galison connects all of these methods for thinking — and sometimes even the specific problems — with Feynman’s postwar work, showing the influence of his time at Los Alamos.

Diagram of neutron fluctuations from a report by F. de Hoffmann, R.P. Feynman, and R. Serber. Galison notes: "Significantly, Feynman and his collaborators captured the situation in a spacetime diagram drawn with time in the vertical direction and space horizontal. Such an image must be kept in mind when viewing Feynman's early postwar spacetime 'Feynman diagrams,' where again particles are absorbed, emit other particles, and scatter as reckoned by a concatenation of independent algebraic rules." Galison 1998, 405-406.

Diagram of neutron fluctuations from a report by F. de Hoffmann, R.P. Feynman, and R. Serber. Galison notes: “Significantly, Feynman and his collaborators captured the situation in a spacetime diagram drawn with time in the vertical direction and space horizontal. Such an image must be kept in mind when viewing Feynman’s early postwar spacetime ‘Feynman diagrams,’ where again particles are absorbed, emit other particles, and scatter as reckoned by a concatenation of independent algebraic rules.” Galison 1998, 405-406.

Feynman stayed at Los Alamos until the fall of 1946, when he relocated to Cornell University. He never worked on weapons again, but he never took a particularly strong stand on it. What did Feynman think about nuclear weapons, and his role in making them? There is some evidence in his private correspondence, much of which was published not too long ago,3 but it is scant. Most of his responses to inquiries were along the lines of “we feared the Nazis would get one first.”4That’s it. No comment on their use at all, or the end of the war, or any of the other common responses from Los Alamos veterans. When asked in the 1970s about his thoughts on nuclear weapons in general, he demurred: “Problems about the atomic bomb and the future are much more complicated and I cannot make any short  statement to summarize my beliefs here.”5

Feynman gave an interview in 1959 where he was asked directly about the bomb. His response was a little lengthier then, but still said very little:

Now, with regard to our own things as human beings, naturally—I myself, for example—worked on the bomb during the war. Now how do I feel about that? I have a philosophy that it doesn’t do any good to go and make regrets about what you did before but to try to remember how you made the decision at the time. …if the scientists in Germany could have developed this thing, then we would be helpless, and I think it would be the end of the civilization at that time. I don’t know how long the civilization is going to last anyway. So the main reason why I did work on it at the time was because I was afraid that the Germans would do it first, and I felt a responsibility to society to develop this thing to maintain our position in the war.6

This, of course, ignores the question of “so why did you continue when the Germans were known not to have made much progress?” and much more.

Charles Critchfield, Richard Feynman, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and an unidentified scientist, at Los Alamos. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, via Los Alamos.

Charles Critchfield, Richard Feynman, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and an unidentified scientist, at Los Alamos. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, via Los Alamos.

During the interview, Feynman was asked, point blank, whether he worked on any secret projects. Feynman said no, and that this was “out of choice.” Pushed further, he elaborated:

I don’t want to [do secret work] because I want to do scientific research—that is, to find out more about how the world works. And that is not secret; that work is not secret. There’s no secrecy associated with it. The things that are secret are engineering developments which I am not so interested in, except when the pressure of war, or something else like that, makes me work on it. … Yes, I am definitely anti-working in secret projects. … I don’t think things should be secret, the people developing this. It seems to me very difficult for citizens to make a decision as to what’s going on when you can’t say what you’re doing. And the whole idea of democracy, it seems to me, was that the public, where the power is supposed to lie, should be informed. And when there’s secrecy, it’s not informed. Now, that’s a naive point of view, because if there weren’t secrecy, there’d be the Russians who would find out about it. On the other hand, there’s some awfully funny things that are secret. It becomes secret that we know what the Russians are keeping secret from us, for instance, or something like that. It seems to me that things go too far in the secrecy.7

After that point in the interview, he steered away from political opinions, explaining that he had strong ones, but he didn’t think they were any more valuable than anyone else’s opinions.

There were those, of course, who did try to recruit Feynman for military work. John Wheeler, his doctoral advisor at Princeton, and the man who had roped him into Los Alamos in the first place, appealed to him strongly to join the Princeton work on the hydrogen bomb (Matterhorn) in late March 1951. Wheeler had heard the Feynman was trying to spend his sabbatical in Brazil, but Wheeler thought the chance of global war was “at least 40%,” and that Feynman’s talents might be better spent helping the country. It was a long, emotional letter, albeit a variation on one that Wheeler sent to many other scientists as well. Wheeler tried to win him (and others) with flattery as well, telling Feynman that “You would make percentage-wise more difference there than anywhere else in the national picture.” In response to Wheeler’s long, many-pointed letter, Feynman simply responded that he didn’t want to make any commitments until he found out whether the Brazil idea would work out. End of story. Nothing specific about the hydrogen bomb one way or the other.

High resolution detail of Feynman's Los Alamos security badge photograph. A this resolution you can see a lot more strain on his face than the one I posted awhile back. Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory Archives.

High-resolution detail of Feynman’s Los Alamos security badge photograph. At this resolution you can see potentially more strain on his face than the one I posted awhile back. Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory Archives.

What should we make of this? Feynman is a complicated man. Much more complicated than the zany stories let on — and I suspect the stories themselves were some kind of defense mechanism. As Feynman’s friend Murray Gell-Mann said at Feynman’s memorial service, Feynman “surrounded himself with a cloud of myth, and he spent a great deal of time and energy generating anecdotes about himself.” They were stories “in which he had to come out, if possible, looking smarter than anyone else.”8 He was not a moralizer, though. His work on the bomb fit into his stories only as a context. He no doubt drew many lessons from his work on nuclear weapons, and he no doubt had many opinions about them in the Cold War, but he kept them, it seems, much to himself.

Oppenheimer famously said that, “In some sort of crude sense, which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin…” Perhaps Feynman agreed — perhaps no more humor could be wrung out of the bomb after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Maybe it’s harder to write a zany story about the hydrogen bomb. And maybe he was just truly not interested in them from a technical standpoint, or, as he said in 1959, just didn’t think his opinions on these matters, one way or another, were worth a damn, going against the notion held by many of his contemporaries that those who made the bomb had a special knowledge and a special responsibility. To me, he’s still something of an enigma, just one that wrapped himself in jokes, rather than riddles.

Notes
  1. Peter Galison, “Feynman’s War: Modelling Weapons, Modelling Nature,” Stud. Hist. Phil. Mod. Phys. 29, No. 3 (1998), 391-434. []
  2. This is an argument that Galison also makes at length about wartime work in his 1997 book Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics, both for Los Alamos and for the MIT Rad Lab, which if you’re interested in this kind of thing, is a must-read. []
  3. Michelle Feynman, ed., Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman (Basic Books, 2005). []
  4. See e.g., Ibid., 268: “I did work on the atomic bomb. My major reason was concern that the Nazi’s would make it first and conquer the world.” []
  5. Ibid., 305. []
  6. Ibid., 421. []
  7. Ibid., 422-423. []
  8. James Gleick, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (Pantheon, 1992), on 11. []
Visions

Silent Nagasaki

Friday, February 7th, 2014

Teaching and other work has bogged me down, as it sometimes does, but I’m working on a pretty fun post for next week. In the meantime, here is something I put together yesterday. This is unedited (in the sense that I didn’t edit it), “raw” footage of the loading of the Fat Man bomb into the Bockscar plane on the island of Tinian, August 9th, 1945. It also features footage of the bombing of Nagasaki itself. I got this from Los Alamos historian Alan Carr a while back. I’ve added YouTube annotations to it as well, calling out various things that are not always known.

You have probably seen snippets of this in documentaries and history shows before. But I find the original footage much more haunting. It was filmed without sound, so any sound you hear added to this kind of footage is an artifact of later editing. The silent footage, however, makes it feel more “real,” more “authentic.” It removes the Hollywood aspect of it. In that way, I find this sort of thing causes people to take the events in the footage more seriously as an historical event, rather than one episode in “World War II, the Movie.”

I posted it on Reddit as well, and while there was some share of nonsense in the ~700 comments that it accrued, there was also a lot of expression of empathy and revelation, and a lot of good questions being asked (e.g. Did the people loading Fat Man into the plane know what they were loading? Probably more than the people who loaded Little Boy did, because they knew what had happened at Hiroshima). So I think some learning has happened, and I think the fact that this has gotten +100,000 views in just a day is some sign that there is quite an audience out there for this sort of stripped-down history.

There is also Hiroshima footage, but it isn’t quite as good, on the whole. It is largely concerned with the crew of the plane taking off and arriving. Which is interesting, in a sense, but visually doesn’t mean much unless you know who everybody is.

There is a lot of Trinity test footage as well which I will upload and annotate in the future as well.

Until next week!

Meditations

The trouble with airbursts

Friday, December 6th, 2013

Both the Little Boy and Fat Man atomic bombs were detonated high in the air above their target cities. That they did this was no accident — specialized circuitry, some invented just for the atomic bombs, was used so that the bombs could detect their height off of the ground and detonate at just the right moment. Little Boy detonated 1,968±50 feet above Hiroshima, Fat Man detonated 1,650±10 feet above Nagasaki. At least as early as the May 1945 Target Committee meeting at Los Alamos, “the criteria for determining height” of detonation had been agreed upon: the goal was to maximize the 5 psi (pounds-per-square-inch) overpressure blast radius of the bombs, with a knowledge that this was going to be a tricky thing since they weren’t really sure how explosively large the bombs would be, and a bomb either too big or too large would reduce the total range of the 5 psi radius. At the time, they estimated Little Boy would be between 5 and 15 kilotons, Fat Man between 0.7 and 5 kilotons — obviously this was pre-”Trinity,” which showed the Fat Man model could go at least up to 18-20 kilotons.

I was on the road quite a lot the last month, so I apologize about the radio silence for the past couple of weeks. But I’m happy to report to you that I managed to recently update the NUKEMAP’s effects code in a way I’ve been meaning to for a long while: you can now set arbitrary heights for detonations. I thought I would explain a little bit about how that works, and why that matters, in today’s post.

The 1962 edition of Glasstone and Dolan's The Effects of Nuclear Weapons and the Lovelace Foundation's "Nuclear Bomb Effects Computer."

The 1962 edition of Glasstone’s The Effects of Nuclear Weapons and the Lovelace Foundation’s “Nuclear Bomb Effects Computer.”

Why did it take me so long to add a burst height feature? (A feature that, to both me and many others alike, was obviously lacking.) Much of the NUKEMAP’s code is based on the calculations that went into making the famous Lovelace Foundation “Nuclear Bomb Effects Computer,” which itself were based on equations in Samuel Glasstone’s classic The Effects of Nuclear Weapons. This circular slide rule has some wonderful retro charm, and is a useful way of boiling down a lot of nuclear effects data into a simple analog “computer.” However, like most nuclear effects calculations, it wasn’t really designed with the kind of visualization that the NUKEMAP had in mind. For something like the NUKEMAP, one wants to be able to plug in a yield and a “desired” overpressure (such as 5 psi), and get a measurement of the ground range of the effect as a result. But this isn’t how the Lovelace Computer works. Instead, you put in your kilotonnage and the distance you want to know the overpressure at, and in return you get a maximum overpressure in the form of pounds-per-square-inch. In other words, instead of asking, “what’s the distance for 5 psi for a 15 kiloton surface burst?,” you are only allowed to ask, “if I was 2 miles from a 15 kiloton surface burst, what would the overpressure be?”

For surface bursts and a few low height (400 feet and under) airbursts, the Lovelace Foundation did, in a separate report, provide equations of the sort useful for the NUKEMAP, and the NUKEMAP’s code was originally based on these. But they didn’t allow for anything fancy with regards to arbitrary-height airbursts. They let one look for pressure information at “optimal” airburst heights, but did not let one actually set a specific airburst height. For awhile I thought this might just have been a strange oversight, but the more I dug into the issue, I realized this was probably because the physics of airbursts is hard.

Grim geometry: calculating the ground range of the 500 rem radiation exposure radius for a Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapon set off at the height of the Hiroshima bomb. Most objects roughly to scale.

Grim geometry: calculating the ground range of the 500 rem radiation exposure radius for a Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapon set off at the height of the Hiroshima bomb. Most objects roughly to scale.

There are three immediate effects of nuclear weapons that the NUKEMAP models: thermal radiation (heat), ionizing radiation (radioactivity), and overpressure (blast). Thermal and ionizing radiation pretty much travels in a straight line, so if you know the slant-line distance for a given effect, it’s no problem figuring out the ground distance at an arbitrary height through a simple application of the Pythagorean theorem, as shown above. The report the Lovelace Computer was based on allowed for the calculation of slant-line airburst distances for both of these, so that was a snap to implement. Somewhat interestingly, the ranges of the “interesting” thermal radiation categories (e.g. burns and burning) are so large that except with very high airbursts one often finds almost no difference between ground ranges computed using slant versus straight-line distances. Ionizing radiation, however, is relatively short in its effects, and so the height of the burst really does matter in practical terms for how much radiation the ground receives. This has a relevance to Hiroshima and Nagasaki that I will return to.

But this isn’t how the physics of blast pressure wrks. The reason is somewhat subtle but important for understanding nuclear weapons targeting decisions. The pressure wave that emerges from the nuclear fireball does not stop when it hits the ground. Rather, it reflects — bounces upward again — like so:

Reflection of the shockwave of a 20 kiloton nuclear explosion exploded at 1,770 foot altitude. Via Wikipedia.

Reflection of the shockwave of a 20 kiloton nuclear explosion exploded at 1,770 foot altitude. Via Wikipedia.

You don’t have to take my word for it (or Wikipedia’s, for that matter) — you can actually see the reflection of the shockwave in some nuclear testing photography, like this photograph of Shot Grable, the “atomic cannon” test from 1953:

Shot Grable, Operation Upshot-Knothole — a 15 kiloton nuclear artillery shell detonated at an altitude of 524 feet.

Shot Grable, Operation Upshot-Knothole — a 15 kiloton nuclear artillery shell detonated at an altitude of 524 feet, with the reflection of the blast wave clearly visible under the fireball.

The initial blast wave is the “incident” or “primary” blast wave. The bounded wave in the “reflected” wave. When they touch, as shown in the Wikipedia diagram, they combine — which dramatically increases the overpressure at that location. So, referring the Wikipedia diagram again, by the time the primary shockwave was at the final radius of the diagram, it would have lost a considerable amount of energy. But when it merges with the reflected shockwave, it forms a single, vertical shock front known as the “Mach stem.” In the diagram above, that has an overpressure of 15 psi — enough to destroy pretty significant buildings. If the shockwave did not work in this fashion, the primary shockwave would itself be considerably less than 15 psi at that point.

So the overall point here is that blast reflection can dramatically increase the blast pressure of the bomb at the point where it occurs. But the location at this point varies depending on the height of the bomb detonation — so you can use the choice of bomb detonation altitude to maximize certain pressures in particular. So this is what the Target Committee was talking about in May 1945: they wanted to maximize the radius of the 5 psi overpressure range, and they recognized that this involved finding the correct detonation height and knowing the correct yield of the bomb. They knew about the reflection property and in fact referred to the Mach stem explicitly in their discussion. Why 5 psi? Because that is the overpressure used to destroy “soft” targets like the relatively flimsy houses used by Japanese civilians, which they had already realized would be much easier to destroy than German-style houses.

For the NUKEMAP, this reflection made the modeling difficult. There are lots of models out there for calculating overpressure based on altitude, but they all do it similar to the Lovelace Foundation’s “Computer”: they tell you the maximum overpressure at a pre-specified point from ground zero. They don’t let you ask, “where would the 5 psi radius be for a blast of 15 kilotons and a height of 1,968 feet?” Which was inconvenient for me. The data is out there, though — just not in computational form. Graphs of pressure ranges plotted on axes of ground range and burst height are quite common in the nuclear literature, where they are sometimes known as “knee curves” because of the characteristic “bulge” in ground range produced by the aforementioned Mach reflection, the spot where the pressure range dramatically enlarges. Glasstone and Dolan’s 1977 Effects of Nuclear Weapons contains three of these graphs for pressure ranges between 10,000 and 1 psi. Here is the “low-pressure” graph showing the characteristic “knees”:

Glasstone and Dolan Fig 3-73c - Peak overpressures

Reading these is fairly straightforward once you understand what they show. If you want to maximize the 2 psi pressure range, find the point at which the “2 psi” curve is as far to the right as possible. Then look at the vertical axis to find what the corresponding height of burst is. Or, if you want to know what the pressure will be on the ground at a given distance from a bomb detonated at a given burst height, simply figure out which pressure regions that point is between on the graph. The graphs are always given for 1 kiloton bursts, but scaling from these to arbitrary detonations (with the caveat that very high and very low yields can sometimes be a little different) is pretty straightforward according to the scaling laws given in the text.

I searched high and low for a computational solution to the airburst question, without much luck. I had attempted to do polynomial curve fits on the graphs above, and just found them to be too irregular — the equations I was able to produce made huge errors, and splitting them up into sub-curves produced a mathematical mess. The only other computational solution I found was someone else who had done curve fits and also come up with equations that produced relatively large errors. I wasn’t happy with this. I discussed my frustrations with a few people (let me do a shout out to Edward Geist, currently a Stanton Fellow at the Rand Corporation, who has been doing his own modeling work regarding Soviet nuclear effects handbooks, and to Alex Montgomery at Reed College, both of whom were extremely helpful as people to talk to about this), and gradually came to the conclusion that there probably wasn’t an obvious analytical solution to this problem. So I did the next-best thing, which was to take samples of all of the curve values (less tedious than it sounds because of a little script I whipped up for the job) and just set up some tables of data that could then be sifted through very quickly by the computer. In other words, the way the NUKEMAP’s code works is pretty much the Javascript equivalent to consulting the graphs in Glasstone and Dolan’s book — it treats it as a simple interpolation problem between known values. Which turns out to give results which are no worse than those involved with using the book itself:

The NUKEMAP's overpressure data, graphed using R. Point samples are represented by circles, lines connect given pressure ranges. Color corresponds (logarithmically) with pressure ranges from 1 to 10,000 psi.

The NUKEMAP’s overpressure data, graphed using R. Point samples are represented by circles, lines connect given pressure ranges. Color corresponds (logarithmically) with pressure ranges from 1 to 10,000 psi. Unknown points on the graph are interpolated between known values.

The end result is that now the NUKEMAP can do arbitrary-burst height airbursts. In fact, the NUKEMAP pressure model goes all the way up to 10,000 psi — a pressure zone equivalent to being 4 miles under the ocean. Yow.

With this data in hand, and the NUKEMAP model, let’s go back to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki question. They knew about the Mach reflection, they knew about the height of the burst. It’s not clear that their assumptions for how this would work would line up exactly with those in Glasstone and Dolan, since those were modified according to actual empirical experience with airbursts in the kiloton range, something that they did not have on hand in 1945, even if they intuited much of the physics behind it. What can we say about their knowledge, and their choices, with regards to what they actually did with selecting the blast heights?

The Hiroshima yield has been calculated as about 15 kilotons, and the Nagasaki yield was about 21 kilotons. According to the Glasstone and Dolan model, to optimize the 5 psi pressure range for each, you’d want a burst height of ~2,500 feet for Little Boy and ~2,800 feet for Fat Man. Those are significantly higher altitudes than the actual detonation heights of 1,968 and 1,650 feet. The Target Committee meeting shows that they were assuming that 2,400 feet was the correct height for a 15 kiloton bomb — which is about right. Which means either than the detonating circuitry fired late (not impossible though I haven’t seen it mentioned), or they changed their blast range criteria (for a 15 kiloton bomb, 1,940 feet maximizes the 9 psi radius rather than the 5 psi radius), or that they were being very conservative about the yields (a 1,960 feet burst height corresponds with maximizing the 5 psi radius of a 7 kiloton burst, whereas 1,700 feet corresponds to a 5 kiloton burst). My guess is that the latter was what was going on — they were being very conservative about the yield.

The net result is that at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you had lower burst heights than were optimal. The effect on the ground is that while the 5 psi blast radius didn’t go quite as far out as it might have ideally, the range of radiation effects and radiation around Ground Zero was significantly increased, and the maximum overpressures around Ground Zero were substantially higher. Overall, it is interesting to see that they were apparently, even after Trinity, still being pretty un-optimistic regarding the explosive yields of the bombs, calibrating their burst heights to half or even one quarter of what the actual blasts were. For a “soft” targets, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this doesn’t matter too much, as long as the fireball is above the altitude which produces local fallout, but for a “hard” target, where the goal is to put a lot of pressure in one spot, this would be a serious miscalculation.

Meditations

Liminal 1946: A Year in Flux

Friday, November 8th, 2013

There are lots of important and exciting years that people like to talk about when it comes to the history of nuclear weapons. 1945 obviously gets pride of place, being the year of the first nuclear explosion ever (Trinity), the first  and only uses of the weapons in war (Hiroshima and Nagasaki), and the end of World War II (and thus the beginning of the postwar world). 1962 gets brought up because of the Cuban Missile Crisis. 1983 has been making a resurgence in our nuclear consciousness, thanks to lots of renewed interest in the Able-Archer war scare. All of these dates are, of course, super important.

Washington Post - January 1, 1946

But one of my favorite historical years is 1946. It’s easy to overlook — while there are some important individual events that happen, none of them are as cataclysmic as some of the events of the aforementioned years, or even some of the other important big years. But, as I was reminded last week while going through some of the papers of David Lilienthal and Bernard Baruch that were in the Princeton University archives, 1946 was something special in and of itself. It is not the big events that define 1946, but the fact that it was a liminal year, a transition period between two orders. For policymakers in the United States, 1946 was when the question of “what will the country’s attitude towards the bomb be?” was still completely up for grabs, but over the course of the year, things became more set in stone.

1946 was a brief period when anything seemed possible. When nothing had yet calcified. The postwar situation was still fluid, and the American approach towards the bomb still unclear.

Part of the reason for this is because things went a little off the rails in 1945. The bombs were dropped, the war had ended, people were pretty happy about all of that. General Groves et al. assumed that Congress would basically take their recommendations for how the bomb should be regarded in the postwar (by passing the May-Johnson Bill, which military lawyers, with help from Vannevar Bush and James Conant, drafted in the final weeks of World War II). At first, it looked like this was going to happen — after all, didn’t Groves “succeed” during the war? But in the waning months of 1945, this consensus rapidly deteriorated. The atomic scientists on the Manhattan Project who had been dissatisfied with the Army turned out to make a formidable lobby, and they found allies amongst a number of Senators. Most important of these was first-term Senator Brien McMahon, who quickly saw an opportunity to jump into the limelight by making atomic energy his issue. By the end of the year, not only did Congressional support fall flat for the Army’s Bill, but even Truman had withdrawn support for it. In its place, McMahon suggested a bill that looked like something the scientists would have written — a much freer, less secret, civilian-run plan for atomic energy.

So what happened in 1946? Let’s just jot off a few of the big things I have in mind.

January: The United Nations meets for the first time. Kind of a big deal. The UN Atomic Energy Commission is created to sort out questions about the future of nuclear technology on a global scale. Hearings on the McMahon Bill continue in Congress through February.

Igor Gouzenko (masked) promoting a novel in 1954. The mask was to help him maintain his anonymity, but you have to admit it adds a wonderfully surreal and theatrical aspect to the whole thing.

Igor Gouzenko (masked) promoting a novel in 1954. The mask was to help him maintain his anonymity, but you have to admit it adds a wonderfully surreal and theatrical aspect to the whole thing.

February: The first Soviet atomic spy ring is made public when General Groves leaks information about Igor Gouzenko to the press. Groves wasn’t himself too concerned about it — it was only a Canadian spy ring, and Groves had compartmentalized the Canadians out of anything he considered really important — but it served the nice purpose of dashing the anti-secrecy lobby onto the rocks.

Also in February, George F. Kennan sends his famous “Long Telegram” from Moscow, arguing that the Soviet Union sees itself in essential, permanent conflict with the West and is not likely to liberalize anytime soon. Kennan argues that containment of the USSR through “strong resistance” is the only viable course for the United States.

March: The Manhattan Engineer District’s Declassification Organization starts full operation. Groves had asked the top Manhattan Project scientists to come up with the first declassification rules in November 1945, when he realized that Congress wasn’t going to be passing legislation as soon as he expected. They came up with the first declassification procedures and the first declassification guides, inaugurating the first systematic approach to deciding what was secret and what was not.

Lilienthal's own copy of the mass-market edition of the Acheson-Lilienthal Report, from the Princeton University Archives.

Lilienthal’s own copy of the mass-market edition of the Acheson-Lilienthal Report, from the Princeton University Archives.

March: The Acheson-Lilienthal Report is completed and submitted, in secret, to the State Department. It is quickly leaked and then was followed up by a legitimate publication by the State Department. Created by a sub-committee of advisors, headed by TVA Chairman David Lilienthal and with technical advice provided by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Acheson-Lilienthal Report argued that the only way to a safe world was through “international control” of atomic energy. The scheme they propose is that the United Nations create an organization (the Atomic Development Authority) that would be granted full control over world uranium stocks and would have the ability to inspect all facilities that used uranium in significant quantities. Peaceful applications of atomic energy would be permitted, but making nuclear weapons would not be. If one thought of it as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, except without any authorized possession of nuclear weapons, one would not be too far off the mark. Of note is that it is an approach to controlling the bomb that is explicitly not about secrecy, but about physical control of materials. It is not loved by Truman and his more hawkish advisors (e.g. Secretary of State Byrnes), but because of its leak and subsequent publication under State Department header, it is understood to be “the” position of the United States government on the issue.

April: The McMahon Act gets substantial modifications while in committee, including the creation of a Military Liaison Committee (giving the military an official position in the running of the Atomic Energy Commission) and the introduction of a draconian secrecy provision (the “restricted data” concept that this blog takes its name from).

June: The Senate passes the McMahon Act. The House starts to debate it. Several changes are made to the House version of the bill — notably all employees with access to “restricted data” must now be investigated by the FBI and the penalty for misuse or espionage of “restricted data” is increased to death or life imprisonment. Both of these features were kept in the final version submitted to the President for signature in July.

June: Bernard Baruch, Truman’s appointee to head the US delegation of the UN Atomic Energy Commission, presents a modified form of the Acheson-Lilienthal Report to the UNAEC, dubbed the Baruch Plan. Some of the modifications are substantial, and are deeply resented by people like Oppenheimer who see them as torpedoing the plan. The Baruch Plan, for example, considered the question of what to do about violations of the agreement something that needed to be hashed out explicitly and well in advance. It also argued that the United States would not destroy its (still tiny) nuclear stockpile until the Soviet Union had proven it was not trying to build a bomb of their own. It was explicit about the need for full inspections of the USSR — a difficulty in an explicitly closed society — and stripped the UN Security Council of veto power when it came to enforcing violations of the treaty. The Soviets were, perhaps unsurprisingly, resistant to all of these measures. Andrei Gromyko proposes a counter-plan which, like the Baruch Plan, prohibits the manufacture and use of atomic weaponry. However, it requires full and immediate disarmament by the United States before anything else would go into effect, and excludes any international role in inspection or enforcement: states would self-regulate on this front.

Shot "Baker" of Operation Crossroads — one of the more famous mushroom clouds of all time. Note that the mushroom cloud itself is not the wide cloud you see there (which is a brief condensation cloud caused by it being an underwater detonation), but is the more bulbous cloud you see peaking out of the top of that cloud. You can see the battleships used for target practice near base of the cloud. The dark mark on the right side of the stem may be an upturned USS Arkansas.

Shot “Baker” of Operation Crossroads — one of the more famous mushroom clouds of all time. Note that the mushroom cloud itself is not the wide cloud you see there (which is a brief condensation cloud caused by it being an underwater detonation), but is the more bulbous cloud you see peaking out of the top of that cloud. You can see the battleships used for target practice near base of the cloud. The dark mark on the right side of the stem may be an upturned USS Arkansas.

July: The first postwar nuclear test series, Operation Crossroads, begins in the Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands. Now this is a curious event. Ostensibly the United States was in favor of getting rid of nuclear weapons, and in fact had not yet finalized its domestic legislation about the bomb. But at the same time, it planned to set off three of them, to see their effect on naval vessels. (They decided to only set off two, in the end.) The bombs were themselves still secret, of course, but it was decided that this event should be open to the world and its press. Even the Soviets were invited! As one contemporary report summed up:

The unique nature of the operation was inherent not only in its huge size — the huge numbers of participating personnel, and the huge amounts of test equipment and number of instruments involved — it was inherent also in the tremendous glare of publicity to which the tests were exposed, and above all the the extraordinary fact that the weapons whose performance was exposed to this publicity were still classified, secret, weapons, which had never even been seen except by a few men in the inner circles of the Manhattan District and by those who had assisted in the three previous atomic bomb detonations. It has been truly said that the operation was “the most observed, most photographed, most talked-of scientific test ever conducted.” Paradoxically, it may also be said that it was the most publicly advertised secret test ever conducted.1

August: Truman signs the McMahon Act into law, and it becomes the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. It stipulates that a five-person Atomic Energy Commission will run all of the nation’s domestic atomic energy affairs, and while half of the law retains the “free and open” approach of the early McMahon Act, the other half has a very conservative and restrictive flavor to it, promising death and imprisonment to anyone who betrays atomic secrets. The paradox is explicit, McMahon explained at the time, because finding a way to implement policy between those two extremes would produce rational discussion. Right. Did I mention he was a first-term Senator? The Atomic Energy Commission would take over from the Manhattan Engineer District starting in 1947.

A meeting of the UN Atomic Energy Commission in October 1946. Bernard Baruch is the white-haired man sitting at the table at right behind the “U.S.A” plaque. At far top-right of the photo is Robert Oppenheimer. Two people above Baruch, in the very back, is General Groves. Directly below Groves is Manhattan Project scientist Richard Tolman. British physicist James Chadwick sits directly behind the U.K. representative at the table.

A meeting of the UN Atomic Energy Commission in October 1946. At front left, speaking, is Andrei Gromyko. Bernard Baruch is the white-haired man sitting at the table at right behind the “U.S.A” plaque. At far top-right of the photo is a pensive J. Robert Oppenheimer. Two people above Baruch, in the very back, is a bored-looking General Groves. Directly below Groves is Manhattan Project scientist Richard Tolman. British physicist James Chadwick sits directly behind the U.K. representative at the table.

September: Baruch tells Truman that international control of atomic energy seems nowhere in sight. The Soviet situation has soured dramatically over the course of the year. The Soviets’  international control plan, the Gromyko Plan, requires full faith in Stalin’s willingness to self-regulate. Stalin, for his part, is not willing to sign a pledge of disarmament and inspection while the United States is continuing to build nuclear weapons. It is clear to Baruch, and even to more liberal-minded observers like Oppenheimer, that the Soviets are probably not going to play ball on any of this, because it would not only require them to forswear a potentially important weapon, but because any true plan would require them to become a much more open society.

October: Truman appoints David Lilienthal as the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. Lilienthal is enthusiastic about the job — a New Deal technocrat, he thinks that he can use his position to set up a fairly liberal approach to nuclear technology in the United States. He is quickly confronted by the fact that the atomic empire established by the Manhattan Engineer District has decayed appreciably in year after the end of the war, and that he has powerful enemies in Congress and in the military. His confirmation hearings start in early 1947, and are exceptionally acrimonious. I love Lilienthal as an historical figure, because he is an idealist who really wants to accomplish good things, but ends up doing almost the opposite of what he set out to do. To me this says a lot about the human condition.

November: The US Atomic Energy Commission meets for the first time in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. They adopt the declassification system of the Manhattan District, among other administrative matters.

December: Meredith Gardner, a cryptanalyst for the US Army Signal Intelligence Service, achieves a major breakthrough in decrypting wartime Soviet cables. A cable from 1944 contains a list of scientists working at Los Alamos — indications of a serious breach in wartime atomic security, potentially much worse than the Canadian spy ring. This information is kept extremely secret, however, as this work becomes a major component in the VENONA project, which (years later) leads to the discovery of Klaus Fuchs, Julius Rosenberg, and many other Soviet spies.

On Christmas Day, 1946, the Soviet Union’s first experimental reactor, F-1, goes critical for the first time.

The Soviet F-1 reactor, in 2009. It remains operational today — the longest-lived nuclear reactor by far.

The Soviet F-1 reactor, in 2009. It remains operational today — the longest-lived nuclear reactor by far.

No single event on that list stands out as on par with Hiroshima, the Cuban Missile Crisis, or even the Berlin Crisis. But taken together, I think, the list makes a strong argument for the importance of 1946. When one reads the documents from this period, one gets this sense of a world in flux. On the one hand, you have people who are hoping that the re-ordering of the world after World War II will present an enormous opportunity for creating a more peaceful existence. The ideas of world government, of the banning of nuclear weapons, of openness and prosperity, seem seriously on the table. And not just by members of the liberal elite, mind you: even US Army Generals were supporting these kinds of positions! And yet, as the year wore on, the hopes began to fade. Harsher analysis began to prevail. Even the most optimistic observers started to see that the problems of the old order weren’t going away anytime soon, that no amount of good faith was going to get Stalin to play ball. Which is, I should say, not to put all of the onus on the Soviets, as intractable as they were, and as awful as Stalin was. One can imagine a Cold War that was less tense, less explicitly antagonistic, less dangerous, even with limitations that the existence of a ruler like Stalin imposed. But some of the more hopeful things seem, with reflection, like pure fantasy. This is Stalin we’re talking about, after all. Roosevelt might have been able to sweet talk him for awhile, but even that had its limits.

We now know, of course, that the Soviet Union was furiously trying to build its own atomic arsenal in secret during this entire period. We also know that the US military was explicitly expecting to rely on atomic weapons in any future conflict, in order to offset the massive Soviet conventional advantage that existed at the time. We know that there was extensive Soviet espionage in the US government and its atomic program, although not as extensive as fantasists like McCarthy thought. We also know, through hard experience, that questions of treaty violations and inspections didn’t go away over time — if anything, I think, the experience of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has shown that many of Baruch’s controversial changes to the Acheson-Lilienthal Report were pretty astute, and quickly got to the center of the political difficulties that all arms control efforts present.

As an historian, I love periods of flux and of change. (As an individual, I know that living in “interesting times” can be pretty stressful!) I love looking at where old orders break down, and new orders emerge. The immediate postwar is one such period — where ideas were earnestly discussed that seemed utterly impossible only a few years later. Such periods provide little windows into “what might have been,” alternative futures and possibilities that never happened, while also reminding us of the forces that bent things to the path they eventually went on.

Notes
  1. Manhattan District History, Book VIII, Los Alamos Project (Y) – Volume 3, Auxiliary Activities, Chapter 8, Operation Crossroads (n.d., ca. 1946). []