Bill Lanouette is the author of “Genius in the Shadows“, the definitive biography of the Hungarian-born American physicist Leo Szilard. Szilard was one of the most creative and far-seeing minds of the 20th century, imagining before anyone else both the reality of nuclear weapons and the seismic political and social changes that would be needed to contain them. As a multidisciplinary thinker without parallel, he contributed deeply to physics, engineering, politics and biology, while having original opinions on virtually every other subject.
Szilard wrote the famous letter that Einstein sent to President Franklin Roosevelt warning about German’s possible efforts to develop an atomic bomb, started an organization to help Jewish refugee scientist find jobs, tried to argue for international control during his work on the Manhattan Project, went straight to the top to convince leaders like FDR, Truman and Khrushchev to work together to secure the peace and, by acting as an “intellectual bumblebee”, inspired the pioneering work of thinkers as diverse as Claude Shannon, James Watson, Francis Crick and Francois Jacob. If he had lived today, Szilard would have been as much at home in the corridors of power in Washington as in the garage startups of Silicon Valley. He would be what we would call today an “uber-influencer”, in the very best sense of the term.
But, unlike many of his famous contemporaries, Szilard remains the “genius in the shadows”, often ignored in conventional histories and movies about nuclear weapons and the Manhattan Project. Bill and I have a conversation about this remarkable man’s life and legacy and his enduring lessons for our time. For viewers with specific interests, I have broken the video into convenient topical segments which you can view by hovering over them. Read more »
At dawn on February 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation,” in Ukraine—a euphemism for war, if ever there was one. Since that morning, the fortitude of the Ukrainian people has resounded, even as the Middle East vies for our attention. For me, evidence of this grit—as fertile as Ukraine’s soil—arrives weekly, if not daily, in messages from a young woman in a western city. She writes from Ternopil, a relatively safe place. But from her I have heard that no place in Ukraine is truly safe.
I have also heard that its people are determined to stay, survive and rebuild.
My contact is not a war correspondent. She is an English language instructor, a teacher, a college administrator and the mother of two small children. In other words: A regular citizen. Her name is Oksana Fuk and we have been corresponding since hours after that terrifying dawn, almost two years ago, when Russia invaded her country.
We may have met in person years ago, when she was an internationally-recruited counselor at a camp for developmentally disabled children and adults in the upstate New York Catskill Mountains. What we are sure about is that she knows our elder son, Daniel Mulvaney, who has non-speaking autism and attended this camp for many summers.
On February 24, 2022, as I was searching for more news about the invasion—my mother was born in Ukraine—Oksana’s name popped up on my Facebook feed. I saw that she had worked at Dan’s camp.
When we first connected it was 4 p.m. on Long Island where I live. By then the invasion that morning had been front page news worldwide. It was 11 p.m. in Ternopil. Read more »
Reviewing biopics is tricky. On one hand, if you are someone informed about the facts, it’s easy to bring a scalpel and dissect every fact and character in minute detail, an exercise that will almost always lead to a critical and often negative view of a film. On the other hand, knowing that a movie is a medium of expression defined a certain way, one has to allow for creative license and some convenient omissions and embellishments that would be unforgivable in a documentary or historically accurate drama. Thus, the best way to review biopics in my opinion is a middle path, making allowance for artistic interpretations and changes of fact while still holding the movie maker up to high standards in terms of making sure that these changes don’t fundamentally distort the soul of the narrative.
I went into Christopher Nolan’s 3-hour extravaganza keeping this middle ground in mind. Having just written an eight-part series about Oppenheimer and been familiar with his life and work for a fairly long time, I approached the film with fairly high expectations. And I have to say that I was impressed. If one simple metric of a high-quality film is its ability to keep you glued to your seat for 3 hours, “Oppenheimer” delivers in spades. Much of this effect comes from Nolan’s judiciously assembled direction and from outstanding performances by key characters that keep the audience riveted. “Oppenheimer” is an Oliver Stone-like jigsaw puzzle, breathlessly switching between timelines, black and white scenes and pithy character lines interspersed with artistic imagery of crackling jolts of electricity, the shimmer of particles and waves and imagined operatic scenes of stars that signify the deep scientific reality behind our everyday world. Key aspects of the Trinity test like the assembly of the bomb and the details of the fireball are accurately rendered. But first and foremost, it is a drama about J. Robert Oppenheimer. Read more »
This is the eighth in a series of essays on the life and times of J. Robert Oppenheimer. All the others can be found here.
After his shameful security hearing, many of Oppenheimer’s colleagues thought he was a broken man, “like a wounded animal” as one colleague said. But Freeman Dyson, a young physicist who was as perceptive of human nature as anyone, saw it differently: “As far as we were concerned, he was a better director after the hearing than he was before.”
Director of what? Of the “one, true, platonic heaven”, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, a place where the world’s leading thinkers could think and toil in unfettered surroundings. It was here that Oppenheimer entered the fourth and final act of his life, one that was to thrust him on the national and international stages. There is no doubt that the hearing deeply affected him, but instead of dooming him to a life of obscurity and seclusion, it invested him with a new persona, a new role as a public intellectual in which he performed magnificently. Far from being the end of his life, the hearing signaled a new beginning.
It had been an unpromising start. “Princeton is a madhouse”, Oppenheimer had written to his brother Frank in a 1935 letter, “its solipsistic luminaries shining in separate and helpless desolation.” The institute had been set up by funds from a wealthy brother and sister, Louis and Caroline Bamberger who, just before the depression hit, had fortuitously sold their department store to R. H. Macy’s for $11 million. The philanthropic Bambergers wanted to give back to the community and sought the advice of a leading educator, Abraham Flexner, as to how they should put the money to good use. Flexner dissuaded them from starting a medical school in Newark. Instead he had a novel idea. As an educator he knew the importance of pure, curiosity-driven research that may or may not yield practical dividends. Later in 1939 he wrote an influential article for Harper’s Magazine titled “The Usefulness of Useless Research” in which he laid out his vision. Read more »
This is the seventh in a series of essays on the life and times of J. Robert Oppenheimer. All the others can be found here.
The Bohrian paradox of the bomb – the manifestation of unlimited destructive power making future wars impossible – played into the paradoxes of Robert Oppenheimer’s life after the war. The paradox was mirrored by the paradox of the arena of political and human affairs, a very different arena from the orderly, predictable arena of physics that Oppenheimer was used to in the first act of his life. As Hans Bethe once said, one reason many scientists gravitate toward science is because unlike politics, science can actually give you right or wrong answers; in politics, an answer that may be right from one viewpoint may be wrong from another.
In the second act of his life, like Prometheus who reached too close to the sun, Oppenheimer reached too close to the centers of power and was burnt. In this act we also see a different Oppenheimer, one who could be morally inconsistent, even devious, and complicated. His past came to haunt him. The same powers of persuasion that had worked their magic on his students at Berkeley and fellow scientists at Los Alamos failed to work on army generals and zealous Washington bureaucrats. The fickle world of politics turned out to be one that the physicist with the velvet tongue wasn’t quite prepared for. Read more »
This is the sixth in a series of essays on the life and times of J. Robert Oppenheimer. All the others can be found here.
Colonel Leslie Groves, son of an Army chaplain who held discipline sacrosanct above anything else in life, had finished fourth in his class at West Point and studied engineering at MIT. He had excelled in the course of a long career in building and coordinating large-scale projects, culminating in his building the Pentagon, which was then the largest building under one roof anywhere in the world. In September, 1942, Groves was wrapping up and eager to get an overseas assignment when he was summoned by his superior, Lieutenant General Brehon Somervell. Somervell told Groves that he had been reassigned to an important project. When Groves irritably asked which one, Somervell told him that it was a project that could end the war. Groves had learned enough about the fledgling bomb program through the grapevine that his reaction was very simple – “Oh”.
Robert Oppenheimer is the most famous person associated with the Manhattan Project, but the truth of the matter is that there was one person even more important than him for the success of the project – Leslie Groves. Without Groves the project would likely have been impossible or delayed so much as to be useless. Groves was the ideal man for the job. By the fall of 1942, the basic theory of nuclear fission had been worked out and the key goal was to translate theory into practice. Enrico Fermi’s pioneering experiment under the football stands at the University of Chicago – effectively building the world’s first nuclear reactor – had made it clear that a chain reaction in uranium could be initiated and controlled. The rest would require not just theoretical physics but experimental physics, chemistry, ordnance and engineering. Most importantly, it would need large-scale project and personnel management and coordination between dozens of private and government institutions. To accomplish this needed the talents of a go-getter, a no-nonsense operator who could move insurmountable obstacles and people by the sheer force of his personality, someone who may not be popular but was feared and respected and who got the job done. Groves was that man and more. Read more »
This is the fifth in a series of essays on the life and times of J. Robert Oppenheimer. All the others can be found here.
Between December, 1941, when the United States entered the Second World War and July, 1945, when the war ended and two revolutionary weapons had been used against Japan, Robert Oppenheimer underwent an astonishing transformation that stunned his colleagues. From being an ivory tower intellectual who quoted French and Sanskrit poetry and who had led nothing bigger than an adoring group of graduate students and postdocs – not even a university department – he became the successful leader of the largest scientific and industrial enterprise in history, rubbing shoulders with cabinet secretaries and generals and directing the work of tens of thousands of individuals – Nobel laureates and janitors, physicists and chemists and mathematicians, engineers and soldiers and administrative staff. One cannot understand this transformation without tracing its seed back to momentous scientific and political world events in that troubled decade of the 1930s. I can barely scratch the surface of these events here; there is no better source that describes them than Richard Rhodes’s seminal book, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.”
In December, 1938, working at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman found that uranium, when bombarded by neutrons, split into two small, almost equal fragments, a process that came to be called nuclear fission. This transformation was completely unexpected – the atomic nucleus was thought to be relatively stable. While physicists had bombarded elements with neutrons since the discovery of the elementary particle in 1932, all they had seen was the chipping off or building up of nuclei into elements one or two places above in the periodic table; the breaking up of uranium into much smaller elements like barium and xenon was stunning. When Hahn wrote his colleague Lise Meitner – an Austrian Jewish physicist in exile in Sweden – and her nephew Otto Frisch about this result, the two physicists prophetically figured out on a hike that the process would release energy that could be explained by Einstein’s famous equation, E =mc^2. When uranium breaks up, the two resulting pieces weigh slightly less than the parent uranium – that tiny difference in mass translates to a huge difference in energy according to Einstein’s formula. How huge? Several million times more than in the most energetic chemical reactions. Read more »
This is the fourth in a series of posts about J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life and times. All the others can be found here.
Robert Oppenheimer, said Hans Bethe, “created the greatest school of theoretical physics America has ever known.” Coming from Bethe, a physicist of legendary stature who received the Nobel Prize for figuring out what makes the stars shine and who published papers well into his nineties, this was high praise. Before Oppenheimer, it was almost mandatory for young American physics students to go to Europe to study at the feet of masters like Bohr or Born. After Oppenheimer brought back the fire from the continent, they only had to go to California to bask in its glow. Today, while Oppenheimer is most famous as the father of the bomb, it is very likely that posterity will judge his creation of the American school of modern physics as his most important accomplishment.
When he graduated from Göttingen with his Ph.D. in 1927, Oppenheimer’s reputation preceded him. He received ten job offers from universities like Harvard, Princeton and Yale. He chose to go to the University of California, Berkeley. There were two reasons that drew him to what was then a promising but not superlative outpost of physics far from the Eastern centers. Berkeley was, in his words, “a desert”, a place with enormous potential but one which did not have a flourishing tradition of physics yet. The physics department there had already hired Ernest Lawrence, an experimentalist who would become, with his cyclotron, the father of ‘big science’ in the country. Now they wanted a theorist to match Lawrence’s experimental acumen. Oppenheimer who had proven that he could hold his own with the most important physicists in Europe was a logical choice. Read more »
This is the third in a series of posts about J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life and times. All the others can be found here.
In 1925, there was no better place to do experimental physics than Cambridge, England. The famed Cavendish Laboratory there has been created in 1874 by funds donated by a descendant of the eccentric scientist-millionaire Henry Cavendish. It had been led by James Clerk Maxwell and J. J. Thomson, both physicists of the first rank. In 1924, the booming voice of Ernest Rutherford reverberated in its hallways. During its heyday and even beyond, the Cavendish would boast a record of scientific accomplishments unequalled by any other single laboratory before or since; the current roster of Nobel Laureates associated with the institution stands at thirty. By the 1920s Rutherford was well on his way to becoming the greatest experimental physicist in history, having discovered the laws of radioactive transformation, the atomic nucleus and the first example of artificially induced nuclear reactions. His students, half a dozen Nobelists among them, would include Niels Bohr – one of the few theorists the string-and-sealing-wax Rutherford admired – and James Chadwick who discovered the neutron.
Robert Oppenheimer returned back to New York in 1925 after a vacation in New Mexico to disappointment. While he had been accepted into Christ College, Cambridge, as a graduate student, Rutherford had rejected his application to work in his laboratory in spite of – or perhaps because of – the recommendation letter from his undergraduate advisor, Percy Bridgman, that painted a lackluster portrait of Oppenheimer as an experimentalist. Instead it was recommended that Oppenheimer work with the physicist J. J. Thomson. Thomson, a Nobel Laureate, was known for his discovery of the electron, a feat he had accomplished in 1897; by 1925 he was well past his prime. Oppenheimer sailed for England in September. Read more »
This is the second in a series of posts about J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life and times. All the others can be found here.
In the fall of 1922, after the New Mexico sojourn had strengthened his body and mind, Oppenheimer entered Harvard with an insatiable appetite for knowledge; in the words of a friend, “like a Goth looting Rome”. He wore his clothes on a spare frame – he weighed no more than 120 pounds at any time during his life – and had striking blue eyes. Harvard required its students to take four classes every semester for a standard graduation schedule. Robert would routinely take six classes every semester and audit a few more. Nor were these easy classes; a typical semester might include, in addition to classes in mathematics, chemistry and physics, ones in French literature and poetry, English history and moral philosophy.
The best window we have into Oppenheimer’s personality during his time at Harvard comes from the collection of his letters during this time edited by Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner. They are mostly addressed to his Ethical Culture School teacher, Herbert Smith, and to his friends Paul Horgan and Francis Fergusson. Fergusson and Horgan were both from New Mexico where Robert had met them during his earlier trip. Horgan was to become an eminent historian and novelist who would win the Pulitzer Prize twice; Fergusson who departed Harvard soon as a Rhodes Scholar became an important literary and theater critic. They were to be Oppenheimer’s best friends at Harvard.
The letters to Fergusson, Horgan and Smith are fascinating and provide penetrating insights into the young scholar’s scientific, literary and emotional development. In them Oppenheimer exhibits some of the traits that he was to become well known for later; these include a prodigious diversity of reading and knowledge and a tendency to dramatize things. Also, most of the letters are about literature rather than science, which indicates that Oppenheimer had still not set his heart on becoming a scientist. He also regularly wrote poetry that he tried to get published in various sources. Read more »
“Giving up the Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879”, by Noel Perrin
In 1543, a small Chinese pirate sloop with two Portuguese arquebusiers on it sailed into Tanegashima island in Japan. The local feudal lord, Tokitaka, was so impressed when he saw one of the arquebusiers shoot a duck that he promptly ordered two of the guns for a price that was to go down 500-fold over the next seventy years. The same day he ordered his swordsmith to repurpose his skills for manufacturing the new weapon.
That dramatic reduction in price shows the impact the gun had on Japan. In the next hundred years, Japanese gun manufacturing achieved a level of prominence and expertise that in many ways exceeded anything in the West; for instance, the Japanese devised the simple and yet unique expedient of protecting their gunpowder in a water-resistant pouch to prevent a matchlock fizzle, allowing them to take guns into battle comes rain or shine. Japanese metallurgy was also second to none, with cheap and yet effective Japanese copper being the envy of the West. The advantages of the gun became very apparent very quickly; in 1575 at the Battle of Nagashino, for instance, Oda Nobunaga handily defeated Takeda Katsuyori’s cavalry by mowing them down like a scythe with a sophisticated pattern of gunfire. Other engagements followed, including a war with Korea, where the practical utility of the gun was left in no doubt. It looked like, from almost any angle, Japan was set to lead the world in advanced gun warfare for the foreseeable future.
And yet after a hundred years, the reduction of gun warfare was equally dramatic, so much so that the small trickle of Western observers who managed to make it to the island nation after Japan had banned Christians thought that the country existed in a state of primitive ‘Arcadian simplicity’, completely innocent of modern weaponry. Little did they know the history which Dartmouth professor Noel Perrin recounts in this lively volume. Japan remains perhaps the only example of an advanced, intelligent nation that sampled guns and then willingly gave them up for hundreds of years. Perrin explains the why and the how here and speculates on why that might hold some lessons for our own obsession with new weapons and technology. Read more »
During a wartime visit to England in early 1943, John von Neumann wrote a letter to his fellow mathematician Oswald Veblen at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, saying:
“I think I have learned a great deal of experimental physics here, particularly of the gas dynamical variety, and that I shall return a better and impurer man. I have also developed an obscene interest in computational techniques…”
This seemingly mundane communication was to foreshadow a decisive effect on the development of two overwhelmingly important aspects of 20th and 21st century technology – the development of computing and the development of nuclear weapons.
Johnny von Neumann was the multifaceted intellectual diamond of the 20th century. He contributed so many seminal ideas to so many fields so quickly that it would be impossible for any one person to summarize, let alone understand them. He may have been the last universalist in mathematics, having almost complete command of both pure and applied mathematics. But he didn’t stop there. After making fundamental contributions to operator algebra, set theory and the foundations of mathematics, he revolutionized at least two different and disparate fields – economics and computer science – and made contributions to a dozen others, each of which would have been important enough to enshrine his name in scientific history.
But at the end of his relatively short life which was cut down cruelly by cancer, von Neumann had acquired another identity – that of an American patriot who had done more than almost anyone else to make sure that his country was well-defended and ahead of the Soviet Union in the rapidly heating Cold War. Like most other contributions of this sort, this one had a distinctly Faustian gleam to it, bringing both glory and woe to humanity’s experiments in self-elevation and self-destruction. Read more »
On September 19, Donald Trump spoke before the UN general assembly. Addressing the issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, he said that the US "if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, . . . will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea." And of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, he said, "Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime."
There is nothing new about the US president affirming a commitment to defend itself and its allies. What is noteworthy about Trump's remarks is his cavalier talk of totally destroying another country, which implicitly suggests the use of nuclear weapons, and his deliberately insulting–as opposed to just criticizing–Kim Jong-un. He seems to enjoy getting down in the gutter with the North Korean leader, who responded in kind by calling Trump a "frightened dog," and a "mentally deranged dotard." Critics have noted that Trump's language is closer to what one expects of a strutting schoolyard bully than a national leader addressing an august assembly. And one could ask interesting questions about the psychological make-up of both men that leads them to speak the way they do. From a moral and political point of view, though, the only really important question regarding Trump's behavior is whether or not it is sensible. Is it a good idea to threaten and insult Kim Jong-un.
As a general rule, the best way to evaluate any action, including a speech act, is pragmatically: that is, by its likely effects. This is not always easy. Our predictions about the effects of an action are rarely certain, and they are often wrong. Moreover, even if we agree that one should think pragmatically, most of us find it hard to stick to this resolve. How many parents have nagged their teenage kids even though they know that such nagging will probably be counterproductive? How many of us have gone ahead and made an unnecessary critical comment to a partner that we know is likely to spark an unpleasant and unproductive row? And if one happens to be an ignorant, impulsive, narcissist, the self-restraint required in acting pragmatically is probably out of reach. Which is worrying when one considers how high the stakes are in the verbal cock fight between Trump and Jong-un.