Author Archives: Tom Ramos

About Tom Ramos

I'm a physicist with a love for history.

Harold Brown and the Linda

#defense #nationalsecurity

Harold Brown

As I hope we’re beginning to see, over the past few blogs including those entitled Legacies and Mr. Innovation, there was a passing of the baton from Lawrence to upstarts of the next generation, physicists like Mike May and Johnny Foster. In this blog, we’re going to see up close one more upstart, and that is Harold Brown. He would become the Secretary of Defense in the Jimmy Carter Administration, but here we’ll be looking at Brown not as a politician, but at what he accomplished as a genuine physicist. Here’s the next blog to highlight a “hopefully” upcoming book From Berkeley to Berlin.

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Mr. Innovation

Johnny Foster when he was DDR&E

It would be easy to imagine that anyone working at the Laboratory in the fall of 1954 would feel depressed. (Just read the previous two blogs to understand this.) Yet, the Laboratory’s upstarts were anything but. Despite having fielded three successive absolute failures in Nevada and the Pacific, they dove into their work with energy. This is where the upstarts, followers of Lawrence, enter center stage into this story.

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Koon: Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse

Ernest Orlando Lawrence

Well, when we left off last blog (see list of blogs in menu), the young upstarts of Livermore had just conducted their first two nuclear tests, the Ruth and Rae events, and they were a bust—fizzles. The physicists had to endure some expected ridicule, mostly because arguments had been made while getting the Laboratory started that the nuclear weapons program of the nation needed new blood, new ideas. After two successive fizzles, LASL director Bradbury quipped, “Where are the new ideas?”

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Oops, Livermore fizzles

Tower holding the Ruth device following the Ruth event

The creation of the Laboratory had been hard-fought in Washington; now it was time to deliver. It was time to show the Washington bureaucracy what Lawrence’s cyclotroneers from Berkeley could do. When Herb York set up the Laboratory’s organization, he put Edward Teller in charge of nuclear weapons design and development. Since Teller was a veteran atomic bomb designer from the Manhattan Project days, this seemed like a logical thing for York to do. (Under this organization, Teller could veto any nuclear design he didn’t like, but it is a blessing of Teller’s personality that he never once exercised his authority to use his veto power.)

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Legacies

Sign posted at the front gate of the nuclear weapons laboratory in Livermore.

The Legacies of Lawrence, von Neumann, and Wheeler

In this next blog, we’re going to see how Lawrence’s passion, combined with a series of events occurring first with the discovery of nuclear fission and culminating with a Soviet test of an atomic bomb, led to the founding of a second nuclear weapons laboratory for the country. If you’re interested, you’ll have to reach back to previous blogs to understand why the laboratory ended up in Livermore. I understand what you’re about to read may differ from histories you may have read before, which makes this blog somewhat controversial, but it is what it is. Here, I am going to highlight just a few of the points I bring out in my “hopefully” upcoming book, From Berkeley to Berlin:

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The Second Weapons Lab

Tom figuring out what to do next

Yes, that’s a photo of me—that’s all you get. No famous world-class physicists today, just me looking like I’m thinking, “Now what do I say?” I’m changing venues a bit. Instead of giving you a short preamble before giving highlights from my upcoming book, From Berkeley to Berlin, I’m going to jump right in to highlight the next part of the story about the onset of our country’s entry into the Cold War. Hey, you want more? Go convince a publisher to print the book, and you can read the whole enchilada at your leisure.

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The New Super – the Mike event

The Mike event, the world’s first test of a thermonuclear device

Well, when we left off last blog, Teller and Ulam wrote a physics paper that laid down the foundation for the hydrogen bomb. It was March 1951. What is painfully obvious to many of us involved in research, it’s one thing to write a theoretical paper; it’s quite another thing to turn theory into reality. To make that happen you need first class people, so we’re going to see John Wheeler pop up again in this story; didn’t I tell you so four or five blogs ago? And now, a word about a man I call Wheeler’s assistant—Ken Ford. 

Ford worked closely with Wheeler through their years at Princeton, and later at the University of Texas. He did the hardcore calculations for the design of the Mike device—the world’s first hydrogen bomb. He wrote his code and did calculations on “antique” computers that looked like something out of the props for the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey—well, lots of buttons and blinking lights but maybe not as sophisticated as Hal. He had to do his calculations at night at IBM headquarters in New York, after IBM closed its offices to its regular employees. Ken is an exceptional world-class physicist, and human being. He won the Oersted Award in 2006 from the Association of American Science Teachers. He’s in his nineties, and he’s still working!

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Computer Science and the New Super

John von Neumann

Years ago, building 113 used to be the Livermore laboratory’s headquarters; the director ruled his domain from its fifth floor. There is a large conference room in B113, and on its front door there is a sign that proudly proclaims the conference room to be the von Neumann Room. I once had an office in that building, and I often wondered why the Laboratory would have a conference room dedicated to John von Neumann. After doing research for this history, I know why.

When I arrived as a physicist at the Laboratory, I was assigned a group leader, much as one is assigned a squad leader when one joins the Army. Kind of like a squad leader in the Army, my group leader squared me away, showed me the ropes, and pointed me in the right direction to start producing some research. My group leader was a man named George Maenchen, he is one of the most outstanding physicists I’ve ever had the privilege to work with in my career. He had a rich Austrian accent, he looked a bit like Santa Claus, he smoked a pipe, and he had tobacco stains running down his shirt beneath his Laboratory badge—which was held together with Scotch tape. I’ll talk more about George in a later blog, and I hope to God he doesn’t read this or he’ll be banging on my front door during this mandatory stay-at-home.

George lectured me right away, “Tom, we are not like Thomas Edison. We don’t test a thousand light bulbs to figure out what is the best filament. Here we model everything first on a computer, then we do a test to confirm what we already know from our modeling.” Upon reflection, I noticed after a while that at Livermore there was what I call a distinct “computer culture” among the Laboratory’s scientists and engineers. That is a legacy of John von Neumann.

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How did Livermore get invloved anyway?

Livermore site with MTA construction in the background.

Two blogs ago I made you read about the creation of the Atomic Energy Commission, the AEC. Almost as a footnote, I mentioned that the act created the General Advisory Committee, the GAC, and Oppenheimer was appointed to be its first chairman. The GAC’s job was to give scientific advice to the commissioners of the AEC. The AEC’s first chairman was a Harvard lawyer named David Lilienthal, who had been co-director of the Tennessee Valley Authority during the Great Depression. Lilienthal and Oppenheimer were both vehement opponents to developing the Super. So you see, we have a readymade story here with a hero, Lawrence, who must overcome obstacles created by villains.

Lawrence’s zeal to overcome challenges would eventually lead him to the town of Livermore, California. Here are some highlights from my upcoming book, From Berkeley to Berlin:

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The Russians Are Coming

Joe 1, the first Soviet atomic test on August 29, 1949. Kind of an unoffical start to the Cold War.

I remember when I gave a classified lecture to a group of nuclear weapons designers a number of years ago. I had gotten to this part of the story when an individual, a wise guy is what we would call him back in my childhood neighborhood of Brooklyn, interrupted my talk and asked, “What about the Russians, what were they doing?” Well, I wanted so bad to answer, “Look buddy, I’m being paid to teach you what we did, not the Russians,” but I didn’t. As if right on cue, the next day, I read a classified interview of a Rad Lab veteran, and he said the main thing that got a nuclear weapons laboratory started in California was when the Russians tested their first atomic bomb.

I was not going to be caught unprepared at another lecture, so I started doing some reading about the Russian nuclear program. Besides, now my curiosity was piqued. If I really wanted to know the inside dirt on the Russian program, I’d better go see an expert—Tom Reed. Tom is an acquaintance and a friend who has retired to the picturesque town of Healdsburg, in the wine country north of Napa Valley. (Sorry for busting your privacy Tom.) He was an Air Force officer assigned as a weapons designer at the Livermore Laboratory back in the 1960s. After leaving the Air Force, he worked on Ronald Reagan’s election campaign for governor of California, and then again for Reagan’s candidacy for President. In the Ragan Administration, he was Secretary of the Air Force.

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