The Physicist, the General & the Bomb (1945 Revisited)

» Recall from Greek mythology how Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man for human use.

As punishment for this transgression, Zeus, the king of the gods, the guy who has been known to toss a lightning bolt or two, had Prometheus bound to a rock, where each day Zeus's pet-eagle would come feed on his liver (.. which naturally grew back overnight).

Dr. J Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) | Father of the Atomic BombZeus was obviously *not* happy.

In 6th grade I had a class on Ancient History, which included a little Greek mythology.

The obvious question here (which no one thought to ask) » "What's wrong with man having fire?"

Despite my obvious interest in (and fascination with) Nuclear power, I have never delved into the bomb-making aspect.

I figured that a nuclear bomb is merely a commercial nuclear reactor re-configured (re-packaged?) in such a way as to release all the energy AT ONCE (.. with that mesmerizing mushroom cloud) .. instead of over a period of 25 or 30 years.

From the library last year, I checked out an audio book which bore the intriguing title » American Prometheus, subtitled » "The Triumph & Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer" (© 2005).

» Politics Plays a Big Part (Too Big for Me, at First)

Despite the fact that this book won the Pulitzer (2006), and that the authors (two of them) spent an amazing 25 years researching the material ..

.. and that the story deals with the development of nuclear energy, and that I have always loved biographies (.. cuz people are so darn interesting, especially learning what makes them tick) ..

United States Capitol | Washington D.C... I nevertheless could not get into this book ..

.. cuz it starts with so much political stuff ..

.. that surrounded the man, the bomb, the era, especially the post-bomb years.

I have actually checked out the audio book a few times, but could never stomach the political stuff long enough to continue.

I was interested in the technology, the science, the people involved in building the bomb. "Enough politics!" I would cry in frustration. "Let's build the stupid bomb, already!"

Well .. I finally made it past the politics .. and we are now building the bomb. And I can see why the authors began where they did (.. at a point well AFTER the bomb had been built, tested & "successfully deployed") .. because the political aspects (ramifications) paint the scene for the action of the bomb-making.

They set the scene for you before introducing the characters, which enriches the story considerably later on. But you first need to get past the political set-up (.. which can turn your stomach).

American Prometheus | The Triumph & Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer» Perhaps My Favorite Book - Ever (Still Reading)

Truly a remarkably story. My preferences tend to change with mood, but this might be the most interesting story I've EVER read (.. certainly seems that way today).

I am no historian, but I have taken a gander up & down the century .. and I can see no more defining story. Can you?

The bomb is 67 years old .. same year Oppenheimer lived to [1967]. So the bomb is not yet 100 years old. Not yet a single century.

There are people walking the streets today who are older than the bomb .. can remember what life was like back then .. before the bomb. It's story does not represent the most encouraging or uplifting of ideas .. things to ponder.

A story which revolves around a remarkable man .. a "real genius" (.. among other geniuses, including a ridiculous number of Nobelists). I am now surprised at myself that I hadnt looked into this story sooner (.. than last year).

What makes this story so engaging .. is that it 'speaks' on numerous levels .. scientifically, morally, ethically, militarily, politically, industrially, culturally, ethnically, atomically, cosmically, religiously, spiritually, suicidally, etc.

The story itself is so remarkably VAST and sweeping that there is no way I could capture it all in a single entry. [ Nor will I try. You can read the book yourself. ]

But there ARE some key observations I'd like to point out.

••• today's entry continues here below •••

» Remarkable Cooperation Between Two Diametric Opposites

The #1 most salient point I see .. is that it took remarkable COOPERATION between these two guys .. J Robert Oppenheimer & General Leslie Groves .. to get the job done ..

Dr. J Robert Oppenheimer & General Leslie Groves.. two guys who could not be more different from one another .. in just about every way you could possibly imagine (.. including physically).

You'd be hard pressed to pair together two people who grew up in the same country who are more different from each other.

And they actually WORKED WELL TOGETHER .. because they NEEDED EACH OTHER.

Neither could build the bomb solo. Neither could accomplish the feat alone.

[ Our politicians today need to take a page and learn this lesson. If Groves & Oppenheimer could work together, our elected leaders have no excuse. ]

Groves was an asshole. He seemed to enjoy being an asshole. Maybe cuz that's what worked for him. And he could care less about what anybody thought. Or at least that's the way he acted.

Oppenheimer is quoted as saying, "Ah, yes, the General. He *is* a bastard. But a straightforward bastard."

I myself have always had a knack for getting along with assholes. You merely have to be able to see past their asshole-ishness .. and understand it's not a personal thing (.. which is why they are an asshole to/toward everybody).

[ My own personal research suggests that the Asshole adopts his asshole persona as a way of camouflaging an insecurity (.. something which most people have from time to time. And which we all deal with in different and varied ways). ]

General Leslie Groves & Dr. J Robert Oppenheimer working on the Manhattan ProjectNotice Oppenheimer's comment that Groves is a "straightforward bastard." The term 'straightforward' implies that you can easily see:

  1. where he's coming from, and
  2. where he's going / headed.

He is not a secret. Not a mystery. Not an enigma. In other words .. it might not be pretty, but that is something you CAN WORK WITH (.. both practically & figuratively speaking).

Many times I've been paired with "assholes" .. guys who others had trouble working with .. for months at a time. "How can you work with that guy?" people would ask me.

I did not even know that I HAD this knack .. until I was assigned to work with these types of people. But (like Oppenheimer) I am good at what I do and I have confidence in my abilities, my skills, my technical expertise. (I'm talking about approach, not ego .. even tho I *can* talk ego, if need be.)

"We got a job to do," was the mind set, "so let's go do it."

The General possessed the power/authority to choose THE DIRECTOR of the Manhattan Project .. and he picked Oppenheimer .. despite many in the Intelligence community giving Oppenheimer a thumbs-down.

Groves listened for a whle, but finally told them to pack sand and approve Oppenheimer's security clearance .. "regardless of whatever misgivings you might have regarding Dr. Oppenheimer. He is essential to the success of the project." So the General could see.

People mentioned being impressed at how well Oppenheimer "handled" General Groves.

There is a famous quote from Rabi, who later said (after Hiroshima & Nagasaki):

"Selecting Oppenheimer as Director [of the Manhattan Project] was generally acknowledged as a stroke-of-genius on the part of General Groves .. who was not normally considered a genius."


» Germany Surrenders May (1945), Yet Work on the Bomb Continues (Frantically)

Another key item that needs to be pointed out .. is that they were building the bomb NOT because they wanted to build a weapon of mass destruction .. but rather because GERMANY (Hitler, the Nazi's) were reportedly building the bomb.

[ Fission had been discovered in December 1938 by two German chemists (Otto Hahn & Fritz Strassmann) .. by bombarding uranium atoms with neutrons. It surprised me how quickly everybody went from fission to bomb.

Fission = energy released [ Einstein's E=mc² says that a little mass = LOTS of energy. ] If this energy can be released QUICKLY (all at once) .. that would look a lot like a bomb .. went the thinking. ]

But .. [ But! ] Germany was defeated in May of 1945. Do you think that any of these Scientist or Physicists, many of whom held strong moral & ethical principles, stopped to question the continuation of the project at this point? (.. seeing they had since learned that Germany's efforts to build the bomb had failed).

Adolf Hitler (1889-1945)No. they didn't.

In retrospect, this fact seems to have surprised even the Physicists themselves.

So "caught up" were they in the project .. working at such a frantic pace .. that they continued as before ..

.. like nothing had happened. (There's a lesson there for us today.)

The first atomic bomb was detonated on July 16, 1945 (5:30 AM) in the New Mexico desert ..

.. aptly named by the locals » Jornada del Muerto desert, which translates to » "Journey of Death" .. more than 2 months AFTER Germany had surrendered.

[ By contrast, the mountain range adjacent to the remote Los Alamos site where Oppenheimer worked was named the Sangre de Cristo mountains .. translated » "Blood of Christ."

Everyone who worked there at Los Alamos commented on the breathtaking natural beauty .. of a site where a city was built after the school previously operating there was moved. ]

» Uranium Cantaloupe (33 lbs) and Plutonium Orange (11 lbs)

An interesting point for me was also that it took an amount of uranium "the size of a cantaloupe" (~33 pounds worth) to explode the first bomb. If Plutonium was used, they only needed 11-pounds worth .. about the size of an orange.

Is not the associaton of fruit with the thing that makes a nuclear bomb a nuclear bomb .. is that not a curious association?

Most incongruous.

» The Remarkable Transformation of J Robert Oppenheimer

Lastly, one of the most remarkable things to occur during the bomb-making project was the TRANSFORMATION of Oppenheimer the man .. from a gentle, peace-loving, humanitarian physicist .. to an efficient administrator of the largest and most expensive industrial project ever. Period.

Dr. J Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) Smokes a PipeAll of his colleagues remarked at the transformation.

The question for me was » Could another man besides Oppenheimer have done the job, and successfully built the bomb?

This question (so far) has not been addressed in the story (I'm ~ 1/3rd the way into it) .. but there IS an example of one man saying, when Oppenheimer was considering resigning for the job, who said (something like), "But you're the only man who can do it."

Obviously, we will never know, but there is at least one man who was working with Oppenheimer on the project who felt he was the only man.

His professional maturation was all the more remarkable .. given the rather severe emotional problems that plagued him as a youth, especially during his years at Harvard.

I'm referring to fascinating stories there at Harvard that I won't get into here. Suffice to say that J Robert had big demons to fight.

Tho a Jew, Oppenheimer seemed to find answers and solace in the Hindu religion, and oft quoted from it. If you've read the Tao of Physics, then this should not surprise you.

Did I mention that he learned to read sanscrit? (.. the original language in which many of these ancient texts were written thousands of years ago). Few physicists of his generation were able to focus their intellectual powers on anything but Physics.

» Oppenheimer's Amazing Intellect

This leads to a discussion of Oppenheimer's intellectual capabilities, which were mind-blowingly remarkable . He graduated Summa Cum Laude from Harvard, for example, in only 3 years, with a degree in Chemistry (.. before discovering that Physics was what he really loved). But I am not yet ready to discuss his mental faculties at this point.

I found many quotes in the book fascinating and revealing, but one particular stood out. It was a quote from one of Oppenheimer 's coworkers on the Manhattan Project there at Los Alalmos .. who said (paraphrase):

"You felt smarter in his presence. You were able to think more lucidly, more clearly, more deeply. Tho, who when you departed, and went your way, things seemed to return to normal."

This quote suggests that Oppenheimer had some kind of supernatural, energy-giving aura around him. Heck, I feel smarter just reading about him. =)

Instead of digressing into a lengthy Rad analysis of Oppie's remarkable intellect (for which I am unprepared), let me merely provide you with a quote from a man who actually worked with Oppenheimer (after the war) ..

.. » David Lilienthal, chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, among other impressive titles he held (.. obviously no intellectual slouch himself), who said of Oppenheimer:

"He is worth living a lifetime just to know that mankind has been able to produce such a being."

- taken from Lilienthal's diary, as found on disc 12 (of 21) on the American Prometheus audio book

I am trying to make today's entry short-n-sweet, but it is difficult. Very difficult. One last point that needs to be made .. is an observation taken from the perspective (here-n-now) that comes with a distance of 70 years.

» The "Too-Perfect" Scenario Viewed from 70 Years Hence

Notice that Oppenheimer was a Jew. Hilter (for whatever reason) had a thing against Jews. Oppenheimer actually went to Germany for his PhD after graduating from Harvard (..with a degree in » Chemistry) .. even tho Harvard offered him some very nice incentive$ to stay on & help out as staff pick-up.

Nazi Flag with SwastikaAfter completing the degree in Chemistry, he knew Physics represented his true calling.

His decision to go to Germany (in the '20's) was because, at that time, THAT's where the center of the Physics-universe was.

So Oppenheimer had many FRIENDS in Germany, in particular, and in Europe in general. And Hilter was doing very bad things to the Jews, as you know.

I dont know the exact numbers or percentages, but many, if not most, of the scientists & physicists who worked on building the bomb at Los Alamos were Jewish. No doubt they were motivated.

And it JUST SO HAPPENED (coincidence) .. that Germany was the nation that first went to work on building the bomb. Estimates were floating around that Germany had a 2 year head-start.

Tho later, it seems Germany was building a REACTOR, not a bomb. The meeting tho, between Neils Bohr and Heisenberg, where this information came from, is still shrouded in mystery .. with multiple versions out there.

I mean, from a Global/Cosmic perspective (distant), the scenario seemed almost too perfect.

In a way .. Hitler and Nazi Germany are the prime movers, the causal agents that brought the bomb into being. They sit at its source. Think about it .. and what that fact might mply for the future of the bomb [ .. aka "The Future Destroyer" .. the future Eliminator ].

What I'm trying to say is that .. there seems to have been a number of coincidental stars that needed to have fallen into alignment .. for the bomb to have been built .. the elimination of anyone of which could have precluded the creation of the doomsday machine .. for a while, anyway.

» The Manhattan Project | Largest Industrial Project Ever

Okay, one last thing (again) that I need to mention was the SIZE (and co$t) of the project. It was (and still is) the largest and most expensive industrial project ever. In the history of mankind .. taking place at a dozen different sites simultaneously across the country.

The term "Manhattan Project" came from the place (in New York City) where the project initiated.

» Mankind Develops the Capability to Exterminate the Species (Congratulations)

Today's entry could not be complete without making this point » Oppenheimer (unlike Prometheus) gave man the power to destroy mankind.

Trinity Nuclear Test in New Mexico, July 16, 1945 at time = 16 millisecondsCould someone else have done this? (The German's couldnt, and they had a 2-year head start.) Obviously we'll never know, but my impression is » No. At least not in 1945.

The General (Groves) seemed to think so, too .. since he ORDERED Oppenheimer's security clearance approved despite reluctance from the FBI & others in Washington.

"He is essential to the project," Groves said, citing this as the reason for his over-riding order. The word essential seems to mean » Can't-do-the-job-without-him. Does it not?

[ The General even went so far as to request that Oppenheimer avoid flying in airplanes. ]

Everybody has strengths & weaknesses and Oppenheimer was no exception. He was not a detail man, but what he WAS outstanding at .. was seeing the essential part of something and understanding how it related to other parts.

Dr. J Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967)He was definitely gifted in that area, and this is what made him the man for the job.

And this is a big part of why the world forever changed on July 16th .. with a blast so bright that it could've been seen from another planet .. millions of miles away. There's no going back.

[ Note that all this occurred before the transistor-computer had been invented (in 1956).

They DID however, have some form of computing .. in the "Tech Area."

Anybody remember slide-rules? We put a man on the moon with slide-rules. These guys were walking, human computers.

The world's oldest working digital computer was built in 1951, it seems.

The world's first digital computer, the ENIAC -- Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer .. was built in 1946. .. one year AFTER the bomb. ]

I think Oppenheimer himself felt this way .. as tho he was singularly responsible .. when you consider some of his statements and attitudes he expressed afterwards.

» Irony Abounds with Einstein's Boss

Even more ironic .. is that Oppenheimer was educated (.. in his early years) at the Ethical Culture School in New York City. I find that fact deliciously ironic. The Ethical man makes the Bomb .. which destroys the just along with the unjust.

Einstein & Oppenheimer at PrincetonAfterwards he was appointed Director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton (.. '47 to '66) where he became Einstein's boss.

Yes, Einstein was a stud for the first half (30 years) of his Scientific career ..

..  but he spent the last 30 fighting against some of very breakthroughs that he himself produced.

It's almost as if Einstein said, "Uh, I didnt really mean to say what I said .. or find what I found."

Cuz the implications of some of his most revolutionary discoveries (.. such as wave/particle duality properties of light) .. clearly spooked him ..

.. cuz they did away with strict causality & certainty .. which is what he and every other major Physicist were searching for. "Oops .. didnt mean to find that. Sorry 'bout that, Kurt."

I find it curious that Oppenheimer, like Einstein, spent the later decades of his life trying to undo or contain the effects of a breakthrough he himself pioneered. Coincidence?

Update - December 25, 2012 » There is a fascinating story, near the end of the book, of a short conversation, on the street, there at Princeton, between Oppenheimer and Einstein. [ I'm having a deja vu right now, btw. ]

I have been thinking about this. The gist of the story (to save time) goes something like this. The Federal government was screwing with Oppie's security clearance, and Einstein tells him:

<rad_paraphrasing_on> "If the assholes are gonna fuck with you after all you have done for this country .. then fuck 'em. I would let them HAVE my security clearance. They can stick it up their ass." </paraphrasing>

History would prove, once again, that Einstein was right. And this is why, in my mind » Einstein is greater than Oppenheimer. (And always will be.) </update>

» Rabi the Real Hero? | The Just & the Unjust Alike

There IS however, one prominent scientist who said "No," to Oppenheimer, who knew and recruited the finest minds the nation had to offer (.. such as Feynman & Bethe). His name was » Isador Rabi (pronounced "robbie").

"No way, dude," he told Oppenheimer. "Bombs drop on the just and the unjust alike. There's no way to discriminate."

So badly did Oppie want Rabi aboard that he offered him the #2 slot. Rabi did however agree to serve as one of the few visiting consultants, but refused any pay.

Rabi did indeed work to further the war effort by focusing his energies on the development of radar.

So Rabi may be the story's real hero. He continued contact with Oppenheimer and was the only one who could tell Oppenheimer when he was screwing up (.. or maybe the only man Oppenheimer would listen to).

Update - Since reading more I've learned Niels Bohr (Copenhagen, Denmark) was all over the moral aspects. In a big way .. an "irritate the politicans" kind of way.

He would walk up and ring the doorbell if he wanted to talk to a king, or Churchill. He won the respect and admiration of his peers.

An interesting and telling quote from the middle of the book » "Bohr was God and Oppie was his prophet." A statement which places Bohr (1885-1962) even above Oppenheimer. Bohr did not work on the Bomb, but he was at Los Alamos and briefed on everything going on there .. as a representative of the British.

Hiroshima (left) & Nagasaki( right) Bomb Blasts» Hiroshima & Nagasaki

So why did we drop the bomb on Hiroshima & Nagasaki? I bet the conversation went something like this:

"Fuck, we spent all that money. We gotta have SOME thing to show for it. What do you say we show off our new toy to the boys in the neighborhood .. and get us some respect up in here." [ Cue: Aretha ]

And I hear they had a THIRD bomb ready to go, too. Tho I do not know the city, or if they had even selected one as target #3. I mean, they were running out of cities that werent already flattened.

During the fire-bombing of Japan, our government purposefully held off bombing certain cities .. to save them .. in order to show off what the bomb could do. So it seems like they were all primed to "go nuclear" for months (at the least).

But they didnt know for sure that the thing would work until July 16th (1945, 67 years ago). Hiroshima was "nuked" on August 6th (.. with Little Boy, 21 days after the successful test at Trinity). Nagasaki was torched 3 days later on August 9th (.. compliments of Fat Man).

August 15th (today) .. was the day Japan surrendered. Note that it took TWO NUKES to get them to say die. Tough people. "That all you boys got? Two measly nukes? My grandmother hits harder than that. We know you're bluffing about #3. You're not?"

J Robert Oppenheimer died in February, 1967 at age 62. A chain-smoker since youth, he died of throat cancer (.. diagnosed 2 years prior). Hiroshima & Nagasaki were bombed 67 years ago.

» Today's News: Iran, Israel & the Bomb

Back to the future. As you know, Iran is currently in the process of enriching uranium in order to build a BOMB of their own. (Seems they want a little respect, too.) The Israelis already have the bomb, even tho they are tight-lipped on the topic.

Mushroom CloudHere are a few follow-up articles you might enjoy:

Obviously, it would not be very difficult for the situation to get out of hand. Quickly. Will Russia and/or China retaliate? These things are but a phone call away.

We should not ascribe to our leaders more competence than they deserve. It's not like they dont have a track record to which we can refer. Competence is not their strength.

Rather they excel at spending our kids' future .. by running $Trillion dollar deficits 'til kingdom come.

» Hydrogen Bomb = Thermonuclear = Fission + Fusion (the Sun)

Is 'thermonuclear' not one of the coolest words you've ever heard? Rolls right off the tongue. Recall those old Oakley sunglass commercials .. "Oakley .. Thermonuclear Protection."

[ The guy who bought my Porsche was a European dude who worked as a Designer for Oakley. (He paid cash.) ]

Fission releases energy by splittng a relatively LARGE atom (such as uranium or plutonium) into two smaller parts. On the other hand, fusion releases energy by FUSING TOGETHER two relatively SMALL atoms (.. such as hydrogen or helium).

But the bulk of the energy released by a hydrogen bomb actually comes from the fission of Uranium .. not the fusion of hydrogen (.. which is what the SUN uses).

Nevertheless, the technology behind the hydrogen bomb is .. seductively enchanting. (For a geek, anyway.)

Most surprising is that the FUEL used in not Hydrogen gas (.. as one might expect) .. but rather Lithium-6 deuteride. A silvery METAL. Very cool. Lithium itself is 92.5% naturally abundant as Lithium-7, and only 7.5% as Lithium-6. Enrichment time.

Deuteride is a mono-atomic hydrogen atom with an EXTRA NEUTRON .. which they "attach" (like a regular hydride) to a Lithium atom.

Since Lithium is such a light element (atomic number 3, coming after hydrogen & helium), that means a HIGHER PERCENTAGE of the resulting deuteride is » hydrogen. Even without this advantage, Lithium was already the best choice.

In other words, more boom for your fuel-buck/weight. Only the finest of fuels will do for our thermonuclear weapons.

(The neutron was discovered, btw, in 1932 .. less than 100 years ago. Neutrons serve like the fuses for atomic bombs. Neutrons are SUB_atomic particles.)

The end. ■

Update - July 27, 2014 » A new mini-series begins today » Manh(A)ttan. Subtitled » Nuclear. Family.

I have only seen the preview as yet, but I am very impressed. (Boner city.)

The (A) in the title seems to stand for » Atomic.

Update - Dave writes from Texas to say Lithium-7 works just fine (.. is his own backyard experiments) and recommends the title » Dark Sun (1996, 700 pgs) .. a National Bestseller, subtitled » The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb.

For more along these lines, here's a Google search preconfigured for the query » robert oppenheimer physicist director manhattan project los alamos new mexico 1945 atomic bomb trinity test

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