How boom times for pure research bred the Bomb

Paul Temple

A recent biography of J Robert Oppenheimer (there have been six since 2004 alone), Inside the Centre: The Life of J Robert Oppenheimer (2012), by Ray Monk, Professor of Philosophy at Southampton University, makes you think about both twentieth-century scientific history and current national policies.

Oppenheimer’s story has much to interest students of higher education. Apart from his time in charge of building the first atomic bomb at the Los Alamos laboratory from 1943-45 – when he showed himself to be an outstanding leader of a disparate group of brilliant egoists – Oppenheimer spent his working life as a university teacher, researcher and administrator, latterly as the Director of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where his staff at one point included Einstein, Bohr and Dirac.

A point of particular interest is that Oppenheimer’s academic career spanned the period during which Europe, as a result of self-inflicted wounds, ceded world scientific leadership to the United States. When Oppenheimer graduated from Harvard in 1925 (in chemistry, not physics – a reminder that the disciplinary boundaries we now take for granted have only recently become so rigid), bright young American scientists wanting to work with the world’s best researchers crossed the Atlantic as a matter of course. In theoretical physics, Oppenheimer’s chosen research topic, the choice was between Germany, particularly Göttingen and Leipzig, and England, particularly Cambridge.

Oppenheimer began with Cambridge, where he was unhappy (though it was not, he wrote, “quite so bad as Oxford”), and then in 1926 went to work with Max Born, one of the leading figures in quantum mechanics, at Göttingen, receiving his doctorate there in 1927 – and no doubt improving the University’s doctoral completion statistics in the process. The international language of science was then significantly German, in which Oppenheimer, from a German-Jewish family, was fluent: presumably other ambitious American scientists learned German as a matter of course, in the way that German academics now learn English. (Oppenheimer was in any case a gifted linguist: he learned Sanskrit in the 1930s in order to read Hindu literature.)

Several factors came together to allow America to build an atomic bomb in a stunningly short period. It took about three-and-a-half years from approval of what became the Manhattan Project to the first use of an atomic bomb, at Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. But the crucial period, from when the first scientists arrived at Los Alamos to the “Trinity” test in the New Mexico desert on 16 July 1945, lasted 28 months: perhaps what you’d allow for the implementation of a modest IT project in a university today. But the Manhattan Project was able to build on the world’s best physics and engineering research, created in American universities in the 1930s – Berkeley and Chicago in particular – largely with public funding for the purest of pure research. Through the 1930s, for example, Berkeley seemed to have no particular difficulty in obtaining funding to build ever more powerful cyclotrons, with no practical aim in view: nobody seems to have asked them for an impact statement.

American universities, and later the Manhattan Project, also took full advantage of talent sucked in from Europe, particularly Jewish refugees from fascism in Germany, Hungary and Italy. Even Britain took in foreigners: Rudolf Peierls and Otto Frisch, both German-Jewish refugees, worked at Birmingham University in the 1940s and made a vital contribution to building the bomb by showing that the amount of uranium-235 needed to sustain a chain reaction was a matter of kilograms, not tons as had been thought. This insight made the bomb a practical proposition – though even America struggled at first to produce even a few grams of the stuff. Around the same time, in one of history’s happiest mathematical errors, Werner Heisenberg (of “uncertainty principle” fame), running the Nazi atomic bomb project, made the same calculations but got an answer in tons, and so abandoned the uranium-235 method. Lucky that nobody thought to check his sums.

A number of things allowed the Manhattan Project to succeed, but large-scale, long-term public funding for blue-skies research, together with a policy of grabbing talent from wherever it could be found, and a strong manufacturing economy, were all crucial. Might there, just possibly, be any lessons from this for policymakers today?

Oppenheimer’s loss of his security clearance in 1954, at the height of the McCarthy witch-hunts, was devastating for a man with a strong sense of national duty. There are several ironies here. One is that, while Oppenheimer’s politics were certainly left-wing, he was notably clear-eyed about the Soviet Union, concluding as early as 1947 that negotiations with Stalin over the control of nuclear weapons would be a waste of time. And, just as past outstanding service to the Soviet state was no guarantee of one’s future safety, so the fact that Oppenheimer had given America the bomb (“What more do you want? Mermaids?” a friend asked at his Security Board hearing) did not help him in countering the FBI’s obsession about his political unreliability. There is a depressing contrast between this cold war paranoia and the open, international scientific culture which Oppenheimer had known before the war. Princeton’s refusal to bow to pressure from Washington to sack him must have been a consolation of sorts. The traditions of institutional autonomy and academic freedom, which had served America so well in the Manhattan Project, came to Oppenheimer’s rescue at the lowest point in his career.

The picture on the dust-jacket of Monk’s book shows Oppenheimer writing equations on a blackboard, cigarette in hand. He died of throat cancer in 1967. He was 62.

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3 comments on “How boom times for pure research bred the Bomb
  1. Jay Derrick says:

    Fascinating post, Paul, raising lots of interesting questions. I wonder how Alan Turing would have got on if he had been from the US? There’s a terrific account of the genesis of the Institute of Advanced Studies in ‘Turing’s Cathedral’, by George Dyson (Penguin 2013), which touches on many of the questions you raise here about publicly-funded bluesky research, though in the end the IAS seems to have been funded mainly through a private trust.

    • Paul Temple says:

      Thanks for this, Jay. As I understand it, the Princeton IAS wasn’t much involved in the Manhattan Project, and only got the big names after the war. Berkeley, where Oppenheimer was before the war, was key, as were private institutions like Chicago – but which got much of their research money from the Feds. I agree, Turing would probably have been given a hard time by J Edgar Hoover once they worked out that he was gay!

  2. […] How boom times for pure research bred the Bomb […]

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