Posts Tagged ‘Smyth Report’


Solzhenitsyn and the Smyth Report

Friday, February 12th, 2016

The Smyth Report is one of the more improbable things to come out of World War II. It is one thing to imagine the United States managing to take nuclear fission, a brand-new scientific discovery announced in 1939, and to have developed two fully-realized industrial-methods of enriching uranium, three industrial-sized nuclear reactors (plus several experimental ones), and three nuclear weapons by the summer of 1945. That improbable enough already, especially since their full-scale work on the project did not begin until late 1942. What really takes it into strange territory is to then imagine that, right after using said superweapon, they published a book explaining how it was made. I can think of no other parallel situation in history, before or since.

The original press release about the Smyth Report, issued only a few days after the Nagasaki bombing. Truman himself personally made the final decision over whether the report should be issued. Source: Manhattan District History Book 1, Volume 4, Chapter 8.

The original press release about the Smyth Report, issued only a few days after the Nagasaki bombing. Truman himself personally made the final decision over whether the report should be issued. Source: Manhattan District History Book 1, Volume 4, Chapter 8.

I have written on the Smyth Report before, talking about the paradoxical mix of motivations that led to its creation: the civilian scientists wanted the American people to have the facts so they could be good citizens in a democracy, while the military wanted something that set the limits of what was allowable speech. Groves and his representatives (namely Henry Smyth and Richard Tolman) devised the first declassification criteria for nuclear weapons in deciding what to allow into the report and what not to. Groves was concerned about secret details, but not the big picture (e.g., which methods of producing fissile material had worked and how they roughly worked), which he thought would be too easy to learn from newspaper accounts. There were those even at the time who criticized this approach, since it is the big picture that might provide the roadmap to a bomb, and the details would emerge to anyone who started on that journey.

The Soviets, in any case, quickly translated the Smyth Report into Russian. The Russian Smyth Report is a very faithful and careful translation. The American physicist Arnold Kramish reviewed it in 1948, and noticed that the Soviets managed to produce a document that showed they were paying very close attention to the original — specifically, that they had multiple editions of the Smyth Report, and noticed differences. The first edition of the Smyth Report was a lithoprint created by the Army, and only around 1,000 copies were printed and released a few days after the bombing of Nagasaki. A spiffed-up edition was published by Princeton University Press, under the title Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, in September 1945. Most of the differences between the two editions are cosmetic, like using full names for scientists instead of initials. In a few places, there are minor additions to the Princeton University Press edition.1

Now you see it, now you don't... comparing the sections on "pile poisoning" in the original lithograph edition of the Smyth Report (top) and the later version published by Princeton University Press (bottom) reveals the omission of a crucial sentence that indicates that this problem was not merely a theoretical one.

Now you see it, now you don’t… comparing the sections on “pile poisoning” in the original lithograph edition of the Smyth Report (top) and the later version published by Princeton University Press (bottom) reveals the omission of a crucial sentence that indicates that this problem was not merely a theoretical one. (Note: the top image is a composite of a paragraph that runs across two pages, which is why the font weight changes in a subtle way.)

But there is at least one instance of the Manhattan Project personnel deciding to remove something from the later edition. The major one noted by Kramish is what was called the “poisoning” problem. In the lithoprint version of the Smyth Report that was released in August 1945, there was a paragraph about a problem they had in the Hanford piles:

Even at the high power level used in the Hanford piles, only a few grams of U-238 and of U-235 are used up per day per million grams of uranium present. Nevertheless the effects of these changes are very important. As the U-235 is becoming depleted, the concentration of plutonium is increasing. Fortunately, plutonium itself is fissionable by thermal neutrons and so tends to counterbalance the decrease of U-235 as far as maintaining the chain reaction is concerned. However, other fission products are being produced also. These consist typically of unstable and relatively unfamiliar nuclei so that it was originally impossible to predict how great an undesirable effect they would have on the multiplication constant. Such deleterious effects are called poisoning. In spite of a great deal of preliminary study of fission products, an unforeseen poisoning effect of this kind very nearly prevents operation of the Hanford piles, as we shall see later.

Reactor “poisoning” refers to the fact that certain fission products created by the fission process can make further fissioning difficult. There are several problematic isotopes for this. There are ways to compensate for the problem (namely, run the reactor at higher power), but it caused some anxiety in the early trials of the B-Reactor. The question of whether to include a reference to this was considered a “borderline” secret by Groves when Smyth was writing the report, but it got added in. Apparently someone had second thoughts after it was released, and so the sentence I’ve put in italics in the quote above was deleted from the Princeton University Press edition. The Russian Smyth Report claimed to be — and shows evidence of — having used the Princeton University Press edition as its main reference. However, that particular sentence about poisoning shows up in the Russian edition, word-for-word.2

"Atomic Energy for Military Purposes," first edition of the Soviet Smyth Report translation made by G.M. Ivanov and published by the State Railway Transportation Publishing House, 1946. Source.

“Atomic Energy for Military Purposes,” first edition of the Soviet Smyth Report translation made by G.M. Ivanov and published by the State Railway Transportation Publishing House, 1946. Source.

Kramish concluded:

I think it is significant in that here we have evidence that at least one Soviet technical man has screened the Smyth Report in great detail and it is very unlikely that some of the references which we have hoped “maybe they won’t notice” have not been noticed. With particular regard to the statement that fission product poisoning very nearly prevents the operation of the Hanford piles, we must realize that that information most certainly has been compromised.3

This serves as a wonderful example of a very common principle in secrecy: if someone notices you trying to keep a secret, you will serve to draw more attention to what you are trying to hide.

But who read the Russian Smyth Report? I mean, other than the people actually participating in the Soviet atomic bomb project. Apparently it was published and available quite widely in the Soviet Union, which is an interesting fact in and of itself. One imagines that the American works that were chosen to be translated into Russian and mass-published must have been pretty selective during the Stalin years; a report about the United State’s atomic energy triumphs made the grade, for whatever reason.

Solzhenitsyn's Gulag mugshot from 1953. Source: Gulag Archipelago, scanned version from

Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag mugshot from 1953. Source: Gulag Archipelago, scanned version from

Which brings me to the event that got me thinking about the Russian Smyth Report again. For the past few years, on and off, I’ve been making my way through the unabridged edition of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. It’s a long work, and historians take it with a grain of salt (it is not a work of academic history to say the least), but I find it fascinating, at times darkly humorous, at times shocking. Some of the chapters are skimmable (Solzhenitsyn has axes to grind that mean little to me at this point — e.g. against specific Soviet-era prosecutors). But occasionally there are just some really unexpected and surprising little anecdotes. And one of those involves the Smyth Report.

Timofeev-Ressovsky. Source.

Timofeev-Ressovsky. Source.

At one point, Solzhenitsyn talks about his time in the Butyrskaya prison, a “hub” for transferring Gulag prisoners between different camps, albeit one that it was (in Solzhenitsyn’s account) easy to get “stuck” in while they were figuring out what to do with you (and perhaps forgetting about you). Shortly after he arrived, he was approached by “a man who was middle-aged, broad-shouldered yet very skinny, with a slightly aquiline nose.” The man, another prisoner, introduced himself: “[I am] Professor Timofeyev-Ressovsky, President of the Scientific and Technical Society of Cell 75. Our society assembles every day after the morning bread ration, next to the left window. Perhaps you could deliver a scientific report to us? What precisely might it be?” He was none other than the eminent biologist and geneticist Nikolai Timofeev-Ressovsky, a victim of Lysenkoism who had taken up a post in Germany before the rise of the Nazis, been re-captured in the Soviet invasion, and thrown into prison. Timofeev-Ressovsky, though not a name that rolls of the tongue today, was one of the most famous Russian biologists of his time, and one of the world experts on the biological effects of ionizing radiation. And, true to form, he had organized a science seminar in his cell while in Butyrskaya.

Solzhenitsyn continued:

Caught unaware, I stood before him in my long bedraggled overcoat and winter cap (those arrested in winter are foredoomed to go about in winter clothing during the summer too). My fingers had not yet straightened out that morning and were all scratched. What kind of scientific report could I give? And right then I remembered that in camp I had recently held in my hands for two nights the Smyth Report, the official report of the United States Defense Department on the first atom bomb, which had been brought in from outside. The book had been published that spring. Had anyone in the cell seen it? It was a useless question. Of course no one had. And thus it was that fate played its joke, compelling me, in spite of everything, to stray into nuclear physics, the same field in which I had registered on the Gulag card.4

After the rations were issued, the Scientific and Technical Society of Cell 75, consisting of ten or so people, assembled at the left window and I made my report and was accepted into the society. I had forgotten some things, and I could not fully comprehend others, and Timofeyev-Ressovsky, even though he had been in prison for a year and knew nothing of the atom bomb, was able on occasion to fill in the missing parts of my account. An empty cigarette pack was my blackboard, and I held an illegal fragment of pencil lead. Nikolai Vladimirovich took them away from me and sketched and interrupted, commenting with as much self-assurance as if he had been a physicist from the Los Alamos group itself.5

What are the odds of all of this having happened? The Smyth Report itself was pretty improbable. The Soviets deciding to publish it themselves strikes me as unpredictable. That Solzhenitsyn would run across it in a camp seems entirely fortuitous. And finally, that Solzhenitsyn would be the one who would end up explaining it to Timofeyev-Ressovsky, an expert on the radiation effects, seems like a coincidence that a writer would abhor — it’s just too unlikely.

And yet, sometimes history lines up in peculiar ways, does it not? I am sure it never occurred to Smyth, or to Groves, that the report would end up being much-sought-after Gulag reading.

  1. On the publication history of the Smyth Report, see both H.D. Smyth, “The ‘Smyth Report’,” and Datus C. Smith, Jr., “The Publishing History of the ‘Smyth Report,'” both in Princeton University Library Chronicle 37, no. 3 (Spring 1976), 173-190, 191-203, respectively. For a copy of the lithograph version of the report, see the Manhattan District History, Book 1, Vol. 4, Chapter 8, Part 2. A scanned copy of the Princeton University Press edition is available on []
  2. “Несмотря на большое количество предварительных исследований продуктов деления, непредвиденный отравляющий эффект такого рода едва не заставил приостановить работы в Хэнфорде, с чем мы встретимся позднее.” A transcribed copy of the Russian Smyth Report can be found online here.) Cf. Henry D. Smyth, Atomic Energy for Military Purposes (Princeton University Press, 1945), 135, and paragraph 8.15 in the lithograph edition. []
  3. Arnold Kramish to H.A. Fidler, “Russian Smyth Report,” (18 September 1948), in Richard C. Tolman Papers, Caltech Institute Archives, Pasadena, California, Box 5, Folder 4. []
  4. Solzhenitsyn recorded his “occupation” as “nuclear physicist” on his Gulag registration card on a whim, despite knowing nothing about nuclear physics. Elsewhere in the book he refers to nuclear physics as the kind of intellectual “hobby” that one who was not engaged with the world might think about, not realizing the horrors that lurked behind the curtain of Soviet society. The presence of nuclear themes in Solzhenitsyn’s work is probably fodder for a Slavic studies article. []
  5. Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, I-II, Thomas P. Whitney, trans. (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 598-599. []

General Groves’ secret history

Friday, September 5th, 2014

The first history of the Manhattan Project that was ever published was the famous Smyth Report, which was made public just three days after the bombing of Nagasaki. But the heavily-redacted Smyth Report understandably left a lot out, even if it did give a good general overview of the work that had been done to make the bomb. Deep within the secret files of the Manhattan Project, though, was another, classified history of the atomic bomb. This was General Leslie Groves’ Manhattan District History. This wasn’t a history that Groves ever intended to publish — it was an internal record-keeping system for someone who knew that over the course of his life, he (and others) would need to be able to occasionally look up information about the decisions made during the making of the atomic bomb, and that wading through the thousands of miscellaneous papers associated with the project wouldn’t cut it.

Manhattan District History - Book 2 - Vol 5 - cover

Groves’ concern with documentation warms this historian’s heart, but it’s worth noting that he wasn’t making this for posterity. Groves repeatedly emphasized both during the project and afterwards that he was afraid of being challenged after the fact. With the great secrecy of the Manhattan Project, and its “black” budget, high priority rating, and its lack of tolerance for any external interference, came a great responsibility. Groves knew that he had made enemies and was doing controversial things. There was a chance, even if everything worked correctly (and help him if it didn’t!), that all of his actions would land him in front of Congress, repeatedly testifying about whether he made bad decisions, abused public trust, and wasted money. And if he was asked, years later, about the work of one part of the project, how would he know how to answer? Better to have a record of decisions put into one place, should he need to look it up later, and before all of the scientists scattered to the wind in the postwar. He might also have been thinking about the memoir he would someday write: his 1962 book, Now it Can Be Told, clearly leans heavily on his secret history in some places.

Groves didn’t write the thing himself, of course. Despite his reputation for micromanagement, he had his limits. Instead, the overall project was managed by an editor, Gavin Hadden, a civil employee for the Army Corps of Engineers. Individual chapters and sections were written by people who had worked in the various divisions in question. Unlike the Smyth Report, the history chapters were not necessarily written near-contemporaneously with the work — most of the work appears to have been started after the war ended, some parts appear to have not been finished until 1948 or so.

General Groves not amused

In early August 1945 — before the bombs had been dropped — a guide outlining the precise goals and form of the history was finalized. It explained that:

Tho purpose of the history is to serve as a source of historical information for War Department officials and other authorized individuals. Accordingly, the viewpoint of the writer should be that of General Groves and the reader should be considered as a layman without any specialized knowledge of the subject who may be critical of the Department or the project.

Which is remarkably blunt: write as if Groves himself was saying these things (because someday he might!), and write as if the reader is someone looking for something to criticize. Later the guide gives some specific examples on how to spin problematic things, like the chafing effect of secrecy:

For example, the rigid security restrictions of the project in many cases necessitated the adoption of unusual measures in the attainment of a local objective but the maintenance of security has been recognized throughout as an absolute necessity. Consequently, instead of a statement such as, “This work was impeded by the rigid security regulations of the District,” a statement such as, “The necessity of guarding the security of the project required that operations be carried on in — etc.” would be more accurate.1

This was the history that Groves grabbed whenever he did get hauled in front of Congress in the postwar (which happened less than he had feared, but it still happened). This was the history that the Atomic Energy Commission relied upon whenever it needed to find out what its predecessor agencies had done. It was a useful document to have around, because it contains all manner of statistics, technical details, legal details, and references to other documents in the archive.

"Dante's Inferno: A Pocket Mural" by Louis C. Anderson, a rather wonderful and odd drawing of the Calutron process. From Manhattan District History, Book 5, "Electromagnetic Project," Volume 6.

“Dante’s Inferno: A Pocket Mural” by Louis C. Anderson, a rather wonderful and odd drawing of the Calutron process. From Manhattan District History, Book 5, “Electromagnetic Project,” Volume 6.

The Manhattan District History became partially available to the general public in 1977, when a partial version of it was made available on microfilm through the National Archives and University Publications of America as Manhattan Project: Official History and Documents. The Center for Research Libraries has a digital version that you can download if you are part of a university that is affiliated with them (though its quality is sometimes unreadable), and I’ve had a digital copy for a long time now as a result.2 The 1977 microfilm version was missing several important volumes, however, including the entire book on the gaseous diffusion project, a volume on the acquisition of uranium ore, and many technical volumes and chapters about the work done at Los Alamos. All of this was listed as “Restricted” in the guide that accompanied the 1977 version.3

I was talking with Bill Burr of the National Security Archive sometime in early 2013 and it occurred to me that it might be possible to file a Freedom of Information Act request for the rest of these volumes, and that this might be something that his archive would want to do. I helped him put together a request for the missing volumes, which he filed. The Department of Energy got back pretty promptly, telling Bill that they were already beginning to declassify these chapters and would eventually put them online.

Manhattan Project uranium production flow diagram, from book 7, "Feed materials."

Manhattan Project uranium production flow diagram, from Manhattan District History, Book 7, “Feed materials.”

The DOE started to release them in chunks in the summer of 2013, and got the last files up this most recent summer. You can download each of the chapters individually on their website, but their file names are such that they won’t automatically sort in a sensible way in your file system, and they are not full-text searchable. The newly-released files have their issues — a healthy dose of redaction (and one wonders how valuable that still is, all these years — and proliferations — later), and some of the images have been run through a processor that has made them extremely muddy to the point of illegibility (lots of JPEG artifacts). But don’t get me started on that. (The number of corrupted PDFs on the NNSA’s FOIA website is pretty ridiculous for an agency that manages nuclear weapons.) Still, it’s much better than the microfilm, if only because it is rapidly accessible.

But you don’t need to do that. I’ve downloaded them all, run them through a OCR program so they are searchable, and gave them sortable filenames. Why? Because I want people — you — to be able to use these (and I do not trust the government to keep this kind of thing online). They’ve still got loads of deletions, especially in the Los Alamos and diffusion sections, and the pro-Groves bent to things is so heavy-handed it’s hilarious at times. And they are not all necessarily accurate, of course. I have found versions of chapters that were heavily marked up by someone who was close to the matter, who thought there were lots of errors. In the volumes I’ve gone the closest over in my own research (e.g. the “Patents” volume), I definitely found some places that I thought they got it a little wrong. But all of this aside, they are incredibly valuable, important volumes nonetheless, and I keep finding all sorts of unexpected gems in them.

You can download all of the 79 PDF files in one big ZIP archive on WARNING: the ZIP file is 760MB or so. You can also download the individual files below, if you don’t want them all at once.

Statistics on the ages of Los Alamos employees, from Ted Hall (19) to Niels Bohr (59). From Manhattan District History, Book 8.

Statistics on the ages of Los Alamos employees, May 1945, from the young spy, Ted Hall (19), to the old master, Niels Bohr (59). From Manhattan District History, Book 8.

What kinds of gems are hidden in these files? Among other things:

And a lot more. As you can see, I’ve drawn on this history before for blog and Twitter posts — I look through it all the time, because it offers such an interesting view into the Manhattan Project, and one that cuts through a lot of our standard narratives about how it worked. There are books and books worth of fodder in here, spread among some tens of thousands of pages. Who knows what might be hidden in there? Let’s shake things up a bit, and find something strange.

Below is the full file listing, with links to my OCR’d copies, hosted on Again, you can download all of them in one big ZIP file by clicking here, (760 MB) or pick them individually from below. Items marked with an asterisk are, as far as know, wholly new — the others have been available on microfilm in one form or another since 1977. Read the full post »

  1. E.H. Marsden, “Manhattan District History Preparation Guide,” (1 August 1945), copy in the Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, Nevada, accession number NV0727839. []
  2. In fact, I used portions of it — gasp! — on actual microfilm very early on my grad school career, when you still had to do that sort of thing. The volume on the patenting program was extremely useful when I wrote on Manhattan Project patent policies. []
  3. Some of the Los Alamos chapters were later published in redacted form as Project Y: The Los Alamos Story, in 1983. []
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!” []

The End of the Nuclear Age

Friday, August 17th, 2012

In the twentieth century, Americans in particular seemed to have picked up a bug for defining themselves by the technologies they used. We are always apparently living in an “Age” of something. In and of itself, defining your own “Age” while you are living in it isn’t brand new — there was that whole “Age of Enlightenment” thing, of course — but our amazement at the apparently changed pace of life brought on by science and technology has sped this up quite a bit once things really got hopping in the last century.

New York Times Magazine, August 12, 1945.

Starting in August 1945, we officially began living in the “Atomic Age.” Which is to say, really, that people started saying that they were living the atomic age. We did this for awhile, and at some point transitioned to the “Nuclear Age,” the “Jet Age,” the “Space Age,” and so on.

A nice set of historical questions follow: When did those transitions between “Ages” happen? Which “Ages” were more influential, as a term of self-identification? Do “Ages” die, or just fade away?

Google’s Ngram Viewer makes this sort of thing quite fun to track, though the results aren’t necessarily straightforward. Basically the Ngram Viewer can track the usage of specific (case-sensitive) phrases across the Google Books corpus over time, normalizing them to a relative frequency of use (so that the results just don’t reflect how many books there were being published at any given time). It’s a nice way to get preliminary information about linguistic disputes, though it has plenty of obvious methodological difficulties.1

A wonderful case study: when did “atomic” lose traction to “nuclear“? Google NGrams gives a fairly unambiguous, mostly straightforward result:

Click image to see data, details.

In the beginning (1945), “atomic” was king. In 1958 or so, it was surpassed by “nuclear.” This coincides nicely with the startup of the first nuclear power plant in the United States, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station. It’s hard not to conclude that the shift from “atomic” to “nuclear” was caused by the growth of the nuclear power industry (even if Shippingport was itself under “atomic power”).

While “atomic” was on a free-fall from then on, “nuclear” enjoyed two peaks: on in the mid-1960s, then one in the mid-1980s. This maps fairly well onto the cultural history of nuclear weapons in the United States.2 With only a slight understanding of nuclear history, the 1960s (Cuban Missile Crisis, ICBMs, Limited Test Ban Treaty, Non-Proliferation Treaty) and the 1980s (Reagan, Gorbachev, Pershing Missiles, Reykjavik, “Star Wars,” Chernobyl) conjure up periods of high cultural interest in many things nuclear.

Atomic Dining Room, 1952, Augusta, Georgia. Would anybody want to eat in a Nuclear Dining Room?

Interesting side-note: we all know that scientists and other precise-minded people consider “atomic” to be an inferior designation than “nuclear.” The energy we care about is not “atomic” in nature (which also includes the electrons) — it’s specifically involved in the fissioning or fusing of nuclei. And yet, “atomic” was what was even plastered across the official government statements in 1945 — the Smyth Report was originally meant to be titled “Atomic Bombs,” as I discussed on Wednesday. An interesting wrinkle is that Smyth himself hated the use of the term “atomic” when “nuclear” was meant, but was overruled by Groves and others. “Nuclear” just wasn’t a word well-known by the general public in 1945, whereas “atomic” has been common currency for a long time.

During the Manhattan Project, the scientists at the University of Chicago thought that they ought to use a completely new term to describe what they were doing:

We propose to use the word “nucleonics” as a name for this field. Reflecting the modern trend toward close correlation between science and industry, and following the load of “electronics”, we propose that the word “nucleonics” shall refer to both science and industry in the nuclear field.3

“Nucleonics” didn’t really take off, though. It was occasionally used by scientists, and there was a journal with the title, but in the public mind it never had any traction.

Returning to our question about the “Ages,” I ran a whole bunch of “age” phrases through the Ngram viewer. Here are the interesting results, methodological caveats notwithstanding:4

An interesting conclusion: We no longer live in the “nuclear age.” Which is to say, we no longer define our times by the fact of our using nuclear technology — which we still do, in abundance. (The United States still has well over 100 operating commercial nuclear reactors, providing around 20% of the nation’s electricity generation. The world still has thousands of nuclear weapons in it. Nuclear issues still appear on the front pages of newspapers with alarming regularity.) But since the mid-1990s, “information” has defined us overwhelmingly.

Methodological issues with these kind of keyword searches aside, these results jibe with the general feeling that our having specifically “nuclear” technology is not longer a distinguishing — or at least novel — characteristic of the times in which we live, in the same way that calling attention to the engines in our airplanes, or places we visited on a handful of occasions (outer space), soon ceased to be definitional of our times.

There’s an easy narrative one can make about this — perhaps too easy. New, disruptive technologies enter into our world. They seem to change everything. Machines completely changed the way labor worked and the nature of manufactured goods. The atomic bomb seemed to change everything about security, diplomacy, and war. The jet suddenly made distances very small indeed. Nuclear power and nuclear weapons became a mainstay of modern life. And information gradually began more and more to define how we operated in the world.

And yet, not one of these technologies replaced the others. We still have machines. We still have jets. We still have nuclear weapons and nuclear plants. But all of the others have long since ceased to impress us. Information still impresses us — we’re still in the middle of its thrall, we’re still shocked and surprised by the things it does for better and worse. So even though the information age feels a little old hat at this point, as a phrase, it’s still going strong in the zeitgeist. Until the next revolution.

But lest we feel that Information is something terribly new and shocking, take a look at that graph again: none of these, even the Information Age, hold a candle to how people talked about living in the Machine Age. One might be tempted, were one to take a long view of things, to say that the twentienth century was bracketed on one side by Machines, and on the other by Information. In between, we flirted with the Bomb.

  1. Transcription fidelity and dating fidelity are two major systemic issues with the Google Books corpus; the inability to tell what sense a given word is being used is an issue with any kind of “dumb” concordance approach. []
  2. I haven’t separated out “American English” from “British English” on these charts, though Ngrams lets you do it. Frankly, I just don’t trust the results — I don’t know how it is claiming to tell one from the other, and I fear it has to do with publisher location, which is very misleading. In this particular graph, though, there are some interesting differences in the “British English” version from the “English” and “American English” versions, which are basically the same. Specifically, the rise of “nuclear” occurs slightly later, and slower in “British English,” and has a much more impressive peak around 1985. []
  3. Z. Jeffries, Enrico Fermi; James Franck, T.R. Hogness, R.S. Mulliken, R.S. Stone, C.A. Thomas, “Prospectus on Nucleonics,” (18 November 1944), Bush-Conant File Relating the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1940-1945, Records of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, RG 227, microfilm publication M1392, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., n.d. (ca. 1990), Roll 3, Target 4, Folder 17, “S-1 Technical Reports (1942-44).” []
  4. In all cases except Information Age, lower-case capitalization increased prevalence. One might suspect that indicates weird false-positives, but a perusing of the data shows that indeed, people did refer to, say, the “machine age” in lower case: “With the coming of the machine age” … “For the sake of the argument, it may be conceded that the machine age has produced nothing comparable with the best of the painting, sculpture, and architecture of antiquity and the middle ages” … “Further, if we are to preserve our adolescents from the banal mechanizing of a machine age”… and so on. “Motor Age,” “Plastic Age,” anything related to biological sciences don’t really chart compared to the others. “Sex Age” goes about as much as “jet age” albeit a decade later, but sex isn’t exactly a technology, so I’ve left it off. And the biggest difficulty here, of course, is the fact that you can’t tell from word counts whether people are self-identifying — thus a search for “Industrial Revolution” tells you little about how people called themselves at that point, given that the phrase takes off pretty much after the Revolution in question as a way of talking about the period itself. Ditto “Middle Ages,” “Age of Exploration,” and other such phrases which are descriptive of past times rather than present times. Additionally, it should be noted that the dataset only goes through 2008. []

Los Alamos and the Smyth Report

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

Everyone has spent a lot of time talking about the 67th anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But last Sunday (August 12) was also another anniversary: the 67th anniversary of the release of the Smyth Report.

Richard Tolman, advisor to General Groves and one of the security editors of the Smyth Report, and Henry DeWolf Smyth, in 1945

The Smyth Report is one of the great documents of the nuclear age. Written by the Princeton physicist Henry DeWolf Smyth, it was an official history of the Manhattan Project that was released to the public only days after the bombing of Nagasaki. From the very beginning of the document you can tell it is playing a very delicate game with regards to openness and secrecy. Let us juxtapose the Introduction, written by Smyth, with the Foreword, written by General Groves:

SmythThe ultimate responsibility for our nation’s policy rests on its citizens and they can discharge such responsibilities wisely only if they are informed. The average citizen cannot be expected to understand clearly how an atomic bomb is constructed or how it works but there is in this country a substantial group of engineers and scientists who can understand such things and who can explain the potentialities of atomic bombs to their fellow citizens.

Groves: All pertinent scientific information which can be released to the public at this time without violating the needs of national security is contained in this volume. No requests for additional information should be made to private persons or organizations associated directly or indirectly with the project. Persons disclosing or securing additional information by any means whatsoever without authorization are subject to severe penalties under the Espionage Act.

What a fun game, eh? “Here is some important information, because it is necessary for democracy and sound policy. Also, if you go even an inch beyond what is written in here, we’ll put you in jail forever.”

Even the title of the report reflects this push and pull of secrecy. On the face of it, it’s got a dull, boring, bureaucratic title (which matches tone of the report itself, which is no great read):

“A General Account of the Development of Methods of Using Atomic Energy For Military Purposes Under the Auspices of the United States Government, 1940-1945.” It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it? You can see why in the Princeton University Press edition, they dubbed it Atomic Energy for Military Purposes (still a dull title), and everyone just calls it the Smyth Report. (Note: it’s pronounced Smythe but spelled Smyth.)

But here’s a little-known fact: that long, awful title wasn’t meant to be the title. It was supposed to be the sub-title — the actual title was so sensitive that it was going to be stamped on at the last moment before distribution. In the hubbub before its release, the stamp was essentially never used, and the sub-title became the title.

So what was the original title? Recently I found a rare copy in the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress that contains the original title with the original stamp:

The original title was ATOMIC BOMBS, to be applied in a bright red stamp. Now how cool is that? In a way, this is Manhattan Project trivia, but really it points towards a deeper truth about the Smyth Report: every single aspect of it — even its title! — was shaped by the question of secrecy. The story of the Smyth Report is a fascinating one, and I spend the good part of a chapter in my forthcoming book talking about it.1 The idea of its creation, the process of its creation, and the debate over whether it should be released at all, much less the consequences of that release, are all completely vital stories in their own right for making sense of secrecy and publicity in the immediate postwar period.

I want to focus on just one little part of that, though: what Smyth did, and didn’t, write about Los Alamos, the most secret site in a system of secret sites.

On February 1, 1945, Smyth sent the first draft of the history of Los Alamos to none other than J. Robert Oppenheimer.2 (As if Oppenheimer didn’t have enough to do.)

“I am at last ready to send you the first draft of what I have written about the project at Y,” Smyth explained. (Project Y was the official code name for the Los Alamos lab.) In the habit of all academics, then and now, he apologized for being a bit tardy. He explained that it would be swell if Oppenheimer could have Richard Feynman take a look at the draft. He also noted that:

You will notice that I have omitted nearly all numerical values for constants. This is a departure from my original intention, but I do not see that their inclusion would really add much to the usefulness of this document and it might necessitate a complete revision before publication.

This is interesting: Smyth’s “original intention” was to write the entire report without any regard for secrecy. Later, after everyone agreed the draft was more or less correct, he’d cut out all of the secret stuff, once it was decided what the secret stuff would be. In this case, though Smyth has pre-censored himself on numerical constants — but still written it as if he hadn’t. A weird genre of writing, no?

Nobody got back to Smyth on this letter; they were too busy. Smyth wrote Oppenheimer again in April 1945, sending another draft.3

He had heard from Groves and James Conant that Oppenheimer “did not like the chapter as a whole” but “were unable to give any report of specific criticisms.” Smyth asked for any that Oppenheimer had, and noted that: “I have not found the writing or this report an easy assignment.”

Smyth also explained some of the major omissions that had been made from the previous draft:

As I anticipated, the critical comment on the choice of the site will be deleted. I may say that I inserted this comment and similar comment in other chapters with the expectation that they would be removed before publication but with the feeling that it was desirable to record the existence of such opinions in the original draft.

All discussion of ordnance work is also to be removed. There is no objection to including the general statement of the ordnance problem and all the other parts of the problem, but the approaches to solution that have been made will be omitted. On the other hand, the feeling is that there is no objection to including the nuclear physics.

The General believes that the metallurgical work and a considerable amount of the chemistry work should be excluded on the ground that it would be extremely difficult for the average scientist to carry out any of this work without supplies and material which would not be available to him. I am not entirely clear how this criterion should be applied, but it probably means the elimination of the metallurgical work on plutonium and at least of some of the chemistry. I shall simply have to write a revised version and discuss it in detail with General Groves and Dr. Conant.

One other general comment which they made is that more names should be included. While this comment applies more forcibly to some other chapters than to that on Y, it is a point to be borne in mind in criticizing what I have written.

I don’t know what the “critical comment on the choice of site” refers to — except maybe to the fact that Los Alamos is in the middle of nowhere, which has its disadvantages as well as its advantages — but the rest is pretty straightforward. Ordnance — the actual work to design the atomic bomb, esp. relating to implosion — was out. Metallurgy and chemistry? Out and out.4 Basic nuclear physics? In!

So let’s get this straight: out of all of the work done at Los Alamos, all that gets past the censor is basic nuclear physics. And the implications of removing metallurgy and chemistry here probably means almost nothing will be written about Hanford, either. The final report has exactly two paragraphs on Hanford, despite it consuming a fifth of the Project resources. Which also meant cutting out the legions of chemists, engineers, and metallurgists who worked on the project in that capacity.

And so one suddenly sees that there is more missing from the Smyth Report than there is revealed in it.

Oh, but also: add more names of people. Why? Because Groves was afraid that scientists (and contractors) would seek credit after the war ended if they didn’t feel it was properly given to them — and in the act of seeking credit, they might give away secrets.

The Smyth Report as published by Princeton University Press.

Oppenheimer finally did write back to Smyth about this draft, apologizing for never writing back to his first letter, in April 1945.5 Oppenheimer wasn’t particularly pleased with it. What’s interesting about his objections and corrections to it are that they are almost completely concerned with things which were cut from the final draft for security reasons anyway. There’s a lot about implosion (what prompted it, who came up with it, etc.), for example, and implosion was completely omitted from the final Smyth Report.

If you’re interested in Los Alamos project history, you might find Oppenheimer’s comments interesting — Oppenheimer’s history of implosion is from a rather unique vantage point, since they hadn’t actually even tested the bomb yet (“In the past months I think we have had the fundamentals of implosion licked, and the future in this field looks bright“). Oppenheimer’s list of corrections has a lot of interesting bomb arcana in it; a selection here to give a flavor for it, along with some of the more interesting corrections:

Page 2, line 9. “December” should be “October.”
Page 3, line 11 (from bottom). “January” should be “November.” […]
Page 9, line 10. “Mass” should be “radius.”
Page 12. This is the point I have discussed above. The history of implosion is roughly thus:

It was proposed by Neddermeyer at the April conference, and some arguments were given by him to show that it would give a faster assembly than the gun; work was carried out on exploratory basis which gave misleadingly hopeful looking results. The matter was considered again by von Neumann in the Fall of 1943; he expressed the opinion that the implosion would work better with high charge to mass ratio, and might avoid the necessity for extreme purification of plutonium, at least or very small gadgets, because it would give such a rapid assembly. The compression on the material resulting from high velocities was then pointed out by Teller and investigated by Bethe. After much struggle and argument the implosion project was adopted with over-riding priority in late 1943. The later history I have outlined above. […]

Page 25, line 15. I would use the word “surprise” rather than “setback,” but that is a matter of judgment. […]
Page 32, par. 3, line 1. The 3000 ft/sec figure always referred to 49. The 25 velocity was not set until firm limits on the spontaneous fission of the isotopes enabled us to take 1000 ft/sec. This occurred early in 1944. […]
Page 42 line 10. The theoretical behavior is well known, but we are not sure that the theories are right.

The final version of the chapter on Los Alamos, “The Work on the Atomic Bomb,” is comparatively barren, when compared to the nitty-gritty that Oppenheimer went into above. It has a nice, but brief administrative history (why the lab was created, why the site was chosen — no critical comments, who was in charge of it), the world’s most basic discussion of basic bomb design issues (critical mass, tamper, efficiency, and an extremely vague statement on the gun-type design), and then more or less doesn’t advance the timeline beyond April 1943.

Like so many things, it’s clear that Smyth, Oppenheimer, and even Feynman spent a lot of time trying to ferret out all of the facts about Los Alamos — only to see them almost completely, and silently, cut from the final publication.

  1. I should also note here that there is an in-depth study of the Smyth Report which I’ve benefited a lot from: Rebecca Press Schwartz, “The Making of the History of the Atomic Bomb: Henry DeWolf Smyth and the Historiography of the Manhattan Project,” (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, September 2008). Rebecca has actually looked at the original drafts of the Smyth Report, which are kept in the archives of the American Philosophical Society. []
  2. Henry D. Smyth to J. Robert Oppenheimer (1 February 1945),  Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, NV, document NV0125251. []
  3. Henry D. Smyth to J. Robert Oppenheimer (6 April 1945), Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, NV, document NV0125250. []
  4. Rebecca Press Schwartz’ dissertation, cited above, notes that for many years Smyth received angry letters from chemists and metallurgists in particular complaining that they had been cut out of the official history! []
  5. J. Robert Oppenheimer to Henry D. Smyth (14 April 1945), Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, NV, document NV0125249. []