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.


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:


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.


A Think Tank and a Bureaucracy

RAND Analyst Herman Kahn, author of On Thermonuclear War

First off, I think I deserve some kudos. I’ve worked on my website and made what I consider to be improvements in its presentation. I beg for recognition of this because I’ve never been good with electricity, which would include computer circuits, like websites. My electricity curse started at a young age when, every year, I managed to electrocute myself putting up Christmas lights on our family Christmas tree. Never failed—I’d touch some stupid single wire Christmas bulb and feel a jolt go through me. I was even once struck by lightning! No kidding, it was during a thunderstorm and I was at Coney Island.


The Super: Onset of a Thermonuclear Age

George Gamow talking to Nobel laureate Wolfgang Pauli.

When we left off on the last blog, we learned that Edward Teller joined with Enrico Fermi and introduced the idea for a Super to Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, when they both worked for Oppenheimer in the Manhattan Project. When the war ended, Oppenheimer canceled the Super project, and Teller left Los Alamos to join Fermi in his new Institute for Nuclear Science in Chicago. (While at Fermi’s institute, Teller teamed with Maria Mayer (neé Göppert) for a short while. Mayer later won the Nobel Prize in physics for her research on the structure of the nucleus.)

Meanwhile, Norris Bradbury had replaced Oppenheimer as the director of Los Alamos, and he offered Teller a contract to continue work on the Super, and he ordered a review of the program with the Super Conference of 1946, which was attended by Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs. We’ll pick up the story from there.


Teller and Fermi’s Idea

Edward Teller in the 1950s

In this, our eighth blog of this series of excerpts from my upcoming book From Berkeley to Berlin, we’re going to introduce a character important to the story, Edward Teller. He was one of a small group of eminent Hungarians who would contribute mightily to our national security in the years following the world war. He established himself early in life, into that select community of physicists who were laying the groundwork for twentieth century physics—quantum physics. His thesis advisor at the University of Leipzig was Werner Heisenberg, who was a huge icon of quantum physics, and may be best known to the public as the man the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is named after. Later, Teller met and befriended Enrico Fermi.

As a young man, Teller suffered from a severe accident in Munich, Germany, when a street car severed most of his right foot. He used an orthopedic insert for the rest of his life, and it left him with a small but distinctive limp. That characteristic of his has led some to claim that the Hollywood movie character Dr. Strangelove was Teller, because Peter Sellers uses a wheelchair and has a limp. Maybe, but Sellers’ use of the word “doomsday” and other references about nuclear war suggest the character Dr. Strangelove was really based on a RAND analyst named Herman Kahn, who wrote the book On Thermonuclear War.


Preparing America

Calutron Operators at the Y-12 Plant

Well, in our last blog we saw how Lawrence reacted to the discovery of nuclear fission; that discovery could give Hitler a weapon of unimaginable power. Lawrence invented a machine, the calutron, that could separate highly fissionable uranium-235 from natural uranium, and a Rad Lab physicist and chemist, McMillan and Seaborg, discovered plutonium. Often acting alone, Lawrence got government officials, especially Vannevar Bush, to start an atomic program to build an atomic bomb before the Nazis could.


Lawrence, uranium, and plutonium

184 inch Cyclotron – the basis for the calutron

In this blog, we’re going to learn how Lawrence got himself involved with starting an American atomic program. But first, in my last blog, I spoke a little about Lise Meitner and her role in starting a nuclear age—by unraveling a mysterious chemistry experiment and coming up with a theory for how atoms split apart, nuclear fission. This presents a good time to talk about another world class physicist who is not well known by Americans, John Archibald Wheeler.


The Discovery That Started It All

Lise Meitner

In this blog in the From Berkeley to Berlin series, we’re going to look back in time to figure out how we got into and out of the Berlin Crisis. That Kennedy could face down a thug like Khrushchev wasn’t a given—it didn’t just happen. Like almost everything in life, it took a lot of preparation so that Kennedy would have the needed wherewithall to stand up to a war ultimatum. That preponderant strength that National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy said was so important in seeing us through a nuclear crisis was created over the course of two decades. The essence of the story in From Berkeley to Berlin is to relate how we as a country developed that preponderant strength, and the story begins a quarter century before the Berlin Crisis.
The hero of this story is going to be, beyond a doubt, Ernest O. Lawrence. Nevertheless, I thought it would be appropriate to highlight this blog with a portrait of Lise Meitner, a world-class physicist who is not a well-known household personality like Albert Einstein or Marie Curie, but she ought to be. That she could decipher a complicated chemistry experiment and come up with a theory for nuclear fission in a matter of days is astounding. The paper she wrote with her nephew launched us into the nuclear age—didn’t know that, did you? Likewise, one of the finest American physicists of the twentieth century, John Wheeler, is introduced through this excerpt taken from my upcoming book.
Like many of you, I’ve read histories of the World War II era about the atomic bomb, and rightfully, many documentaries center the atomic bomb around activities at a remote laboratory called Los Alamos. But are you aware that the discoveries that made an atomic bomb possible occurred in Berkeley? I can only wish I had the time and you had the patience for me to explain why and how those discoveries took place, but perhaps at a later time. Meanwhile, please enjoy these highlights from my upcoming book, From Berkeley to Berlin.