Hermann Minkowski, Albert Einstein and Four-dimensional Space-time

Is the concept of free-will valid as it relates to humans? A mathematics lecture presented in September of 1908 in Cologne, Germany by Hermann Minkowski not only paved the way for the successful formulation of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity in 1916, it also forced us to completely revamp our intuitions regarding the notion of time and space while calling into question the concept of human free-will! Some brief and simplified background is in order.

Prior to Minkowski’s famous lecture concerning Raum Und Zeit (Space and Time), the fabric of our universe was characterized by three-dimensional space accompanied by the inexorable forward flow of time. The concept of time has long been a stubbornly elusive notion, both in philosophy and in physics. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, there had increasingly been problems with our conception of “time.” The difficulties surfaced with the work of James Clerk Maxwell and his mathematical characterization of electromagnetic waves (which include radio waves and even light) and their propagation through space. Maxwell revealed his milestone “Maxwell’s equations” to the world in 1865. His equations have stood the test of time and remain the technical basis for today’s vast communication networks. But there was a significant problem stemming from Maxwell’s work, and that was his prediction that the speed of light propagation (and that of all electromagnetic waves) is constant for all observers in the universe. Logically, that prediction appeared to be implausible when carefully examined. In fact, notice of that implausibility stirred a major crisis in physics during the final decades of the nineteenth century. Einstein, Poincare, Lorentz and many other eminent physicists and mathematicians devoted much of their time and attention to the seeming impasse during those years.

Enter Einstein’s special theory of relativity in 1906

In order to resolve the dilemma posed by Maxwell’s assertion of a constant propagation speed for light and all related electromagnetic phenomena, Albert Einstein formulated his special theory of relativity which he published in 1906. Special relativity resolved the impasse created by Maxwell by introducing one of the great upheavals in the history of science. Einstein posited three key stipulations for the new physics:

A new law of physics: The speed of light is constant as determined by all “observers” in the universe, no matter what their relative motion may be with respect to a light source. This, in concert with the theoretically-based dictate from Maxwell that the speed of light is constant for all observers. Einstein decreed this as a new fundamental law of physics. In order for this new law to reign supreme in physics, two radical concessions regarding space and time proved necessary.
Concession #1: There exists no absolute measure of position and distance in the universe. Stated another way, there exists no reference point in space and no absolute framework for determining distance coordinates. One result of this: consider two observers, each with his own yardstick, whose platforms (habitats, or “frames of reference,” as it were) are moving relatively to one another. At rest with respect to one another, each observer sees the other’s yardstick as identical in length to their own. As the relative velocity (speed) between the two observers and their platforms increases and approaches the constant speed of light (roughly 186,000 miles per second), the other observer’s “yardstick” will increasingly appear shorter to each observer, even though, when at relative rest, the two yardsticks appear identical in length.
Concession #2: There is no absolute time-keeper in the universe. The passage of time depends on one observer’s velocity with respect to another observer. One result of this: consider our same two observers, each with their own identical clocks. At rest with respect to one another, each observer sees the other’s clock as keeping perfect time with their own. As the relative velocity (speed) between the two observers and their platforms increases and approaches the constant speed of light, the other observer’s clock appears increasingly to slow down relative to their own clock which ticks merrily along at its constant rate.

Needless to say, the appearance in 1906 of Einstein’s paper on special relativity overturned many long-held assumptions regarding time and space. Einstein dissolved Isaac Newton’s assumptions of absolute space and absolute time.The new relativity physics of Einstein introduced a universe of shrinking yardsticks and slowing clocks. It took several years for Einstein’s new theory to gain acceptance. Even with all these upheavals, the resulting relativistic physics maintained the notion of (newly-relative) spatial frames defined by traditional coordinates in three mutually perpendicular directions: forward/backward, left/right, and up/down.

Also still remaining was the notion of time as a (newly-relative) measure which still flows inexorably forward in a continuous manner. As a result of the special theory, relativistic “correction factors” were required for space and time for observers and their frames of reference experiencing significant relative, velocities.

This framework of mathematical physics worked splendidly for platforms or “frames of reference” (and their resident observers) experiencing uniform relative motion (constant velocity) with respect to each other.

The added complications to the picture which result from including accelerated relative motions (the effect of gravity included) complicated Einstein’s task enormously and set the great man on the quest for a general theory of relativity which could also accommodate accelerated motion and gravity.

Einstein labored mightily on this new quest for almost ten years. By 1913, he had approached the central ideas necessary for general relativity, but the difficulties inherent in elegantly completing the task were seriously beginning to affect his health. In fact, the exertion nearly killed Einstein. The mathematics necessary for success was staggering, involving a complex “tensor calculus” which Einstein was insufficiently prepared to deal with. In desperation, he called his old friend from university days, Marcel Grossman, for help. Grossman was a mathematics major at the Zurich Polytechnic, and it was his set of class notes that saved the day for young Einstein on the frequent occasions when Einstein forsook mathematics lectures in favor of physics discussions at the local coffee houses. Grossman’s later assistance with the requisite mathematics provided a key turning point for Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Enter Hermann Minkowski with Raum Und Zeit

The initial 1909 publication of Raum Und Zeit

On September 8, 1908 in Cologne, Germany, the rising mathematics star, Hermann Minkowski, gave a symposium lecture which provided the elusive concepts and mathematics needed by Einstein to elegantly complete his general theory of relativity. Similar to Einstein’s 1906 special theory of relativity, the essence of Minkowski’s contribution involved yet another radical proposal regarding space and time. Minkowski took the notion of continuously flowing time and melded it together with the three-dimensional coordinates defining space to create a new continuum: four-dimensional space-time which relegated the time parameter to a fourth coordinate point in his newly proposed four-dimensional space-time.

Now, just as three coordinate points in space specify precisely one’s physical location, the four-dimensional space-time continuum is an infinite collection of all combinations of place and time expressed in four coordinates. Every personal memory we have of a specific place and time – each event-instant in our lives – is defined by a “point” in four-dimensional space-time. We can say we were present, in times past, at a particular event-instant because we “traversed-through” or “experienced” a specific four-dimensional coordinate point in space-time which characterizes that particular event-instant. That is very different from saying we were positioned in a specific three-dimensional location at a specific instant of time which flows irresistibly only forward.

What do Minkowski’s mathematics imply about human free-will?

By implication, the continuum of four-dimensional space-time includes not only sets of four coordinate points representing specific events in our past (place and “time”), the continuum must include points specifying the place and “time” for all future events. This subtly suggests a pre-determined universe, where places and “times” are already on record for each of us, and this implies the absence of free-will, the ability to make conscious decisions such as where we will be and when in the future. This is a very controversial aspect of Minkowki’s four-dimensional space-time with distinctly philosophical arguments.

For certain, however, is the great success Minkowski’s mathematics of space-time has enjoyed as a basis for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Most, if not all, aspects of Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity have been subjected to extensive experimental verification over many decades. There is no instance of any validly conducted experiment ever registering disagreement with Einstein’s special or general theories. That is good news for Hermann Minkowski, as well.

Minkowski’s new reality takes us beyond the two-dimensional world of a flat piece of paper, through the recent universe of three-dimensional space plus time, and into the brave new world of not only four-dimensional space-time, but curved four-dimensional space-time. The nature of curved space-time serves to replace the Newtonian notion of a gravitational force of attraction which enables the celestial ballet of the heavens. For instance, the orbit of earth around the sun is now regarded as the “natural path” of the earth through the curvature of four-dimensional space-time and not due to any force of attraction the sun exerts on the earth. According to the general theory of relativity, the mass of the sun imposes a curvature on the four-dimensional space-time around it, and it is that curvature which determines the natural path of the earth around the sun. Minkowski and his mathematics provided the final, crucial insight Einstein needed to not only radically redefine the nature of gravity, but to also successfully complete his general theory of relativity in 1916. Einstein’s theory and its revelations are generally regarded as the most significant and sublime product ever to emanate from the human intellect. Take a bow, Albert and Hermann.

My eulogy to Hermann Minkowski

Albert Einstein is assuredly the most recognized individual in human history – both the name and the image, and that is very understandable and appropriate. Very few in the public realm not involved with mathematics and physics have ever even heard the name, “Hermann Minkowski,” and that is a shame, for he was a full participant in Einstein’s milestone achievement, general relativity. Minkowski’s initial 1907 work on Raum Und Zeit came to Einstein’s attention early-on, but its mathematics were well beyond Einstein’s comprehension in that earlier time frame. It was not until several years later, that Einstein and Marcel Grossman began to recognize Minkowski’s gift to general relativity in the form of his mathematics of four-dimensional curved space-time.

Hermann Minkowski delivered his by-then polished lecture on space-time at Cologne, Germany, in September, 1908. Tragically, he died suddenly in January, 1909, at the young age of forty-four – from a ruptured appendix. His latest findings as presented in the Cologne lecture were published in January, 1909, days after his death, sadly.

The “lazy dog” has the last bark

Albert Einstein and Hermann Minkowski first crossed paths during Einstein’s student days at the Zurich Polytechnic, where Minkowski was teaching mathematics to young Einstein. Noting Einstein’s afore-mentioned irregular attendance at lectures in mathematics, the professor reportedly labeled the student Einstein as, “a lazy dog.” Rarely in the annals of human history has such an unpromising prospect turned out so well! I noted with great interest while researching this post that Einstein long regarded mathematics as merely a necessary tool for the advancement of physics, whereas Minkowski and other fine mathematicians of the past tended to consider mathematics as a prime mover in the acquisition and advancement of knowledge, both theoretical and practical; they viewed physics as the fortunate beneficiary of insights that mathematics revealed.

In the late years, Einstein came to appreciate the supremely important role that mathematics plays in the general advancement of science. As proof, I will only add that the great physicist realized his dependence on the mathematicians Grossman and Minkowski in the nick of time to prevent his theory of general relativity from going off the rails, ending on the scrap heap, and leaving Albert Einstein a completely spent physicist.

Note: For a detailed tour and layperson’s explanation of Einstein’s relativity theories, click on the image of my book: The Elusive Notion of Motion – The Genius of Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein – available on Amazon

“Toulouse Nuts” : Flying the Collings Foundation P-51 Mustang

To celebrate Memorial Day last Monday, I was fortunate enough to fly an iconic World War II warbird, the P-51D Mustang owned by the Collings Foundation. The Foundation’s nation-wide Wings of Freedom tour and its airplanes had landed at Livermore Municipal Airport, in California, for a three-day stay before moving on.


Photo: Collings Foundation

The experience was not only unforgettable, but very meaningful for me. As a student of aviation history, particularly in the World War II time-frame, going up in a P-51 was something I always wanted to do: more accurately, something I had to do!
What finally moved me to act was a quote by the author Mark Twain which I recently heard and (loosely) paraphrase here: You will regret most the things in life you did not do, not the things you did.

Many are the accounts of young farm boys in middle America scrounging a quarter and going up for the first time in the rickety biplanes of traveling “barnstormers” back in the mid-nineteen-thirties. For many of those boys, that experience led ultimately to flight training in the Army Air Force during the prelude to war. This adventure of mine felt somewhat like my own, personal, modern-day version of the barnstormer ride, but more costly and with no future flight training likely!

That’s me (bluejeans) with the father of my young pilot (he also flies)

The P-51 Mustang was the greatest fighter plane in World War II, bar-none. For that, and for so many other reasons, it is the one airplane I wanted to fly and experience. It is often claimed that the P-51 won the war for us. Most certainly, without its introduction to combat in 1943, many more B-17 and B-24 bomber crews would have lost their lives to enemy fighters which flew up to intercept the “heavies” on their bomb runs over hostile territory. The P-51 was the first fighter with the fuel-range capable of escorting our bombers all the way to their targets in Germany and back to their bases in England and Italy.

P-51s also proved their air superiority over the best the Germans had to offer. When enemy fighters came up to attack our bombers, the P-51s excelled in the oft-times, close-quarter aerial dogfights with their German Me 109 and Focke-Wulf 190 counterparts. The Mustang quickly won the hearts and gratitude of the brave men who flew her and survived the war along with their indelible memories of combat. As for the bomber crews who were such vulnerable targets, they universally referred to the P-51 escorts as their “little friends.”

Heading out to the taxi-way prior to take-off

Toulouse Nuts is a rare variant of the Mustang which features not merely a seat behind the pilot, but a second full set of instrumentation and controls like the pilot’s. For a good portion of my half-hour flight, I was in control of the airplane from my rear seat vantage point. For the rest of the flight, my young pilot performed some textbook aerobatics per my request: wingovers, aileron rolls, etc. He began by pointing the nose of the airplane up a bit and then partially rolling the airplane into a dive while 90 degrees to the horizon. After a few warm-ups (for my benefit), we nosed up, “came over the top” while rolling into a fully inverted flying position while diving and leveling out. That uneasy feeling one gets when a Southwest Airlines 737 banks into a steep turn with “wing way down” is but prelude to the feeling of doing wingovers in a P-51! I now have some inkling of what combat maneuvers in a life and death dogfight with a German Me 109 must have felt like to our pilots.

Steep climb and sharp bank at take-off (runway in the background)

I have read many memoirs of World War II aces who survived, thanks to luck and skill, to tell their stories. In recent years, much of my time and library acquisitions have been devoted to learning more about the histories of the men and machines who defeated Hitler’s Luftwaffe. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I cannot conceive of more daring and dangerous, yet adventurous endeavors than those experienced by the bomber and fighter crews of World War II. A quote from one of the best, Clarence “Bud” Anderson, a triple Mustang ace (16.25 air victories) who flew 116 combat missions out of England, is embedded in my consciousness:

Staying alive was no simple thing in the skies over Europe in the spring of 1944. A lot of men couldn’t. It was a bad thing to dwell on if you were a fighter pilot, and so we told ourselves we were dead men and lived for the moment with no thought of the future at all. It wasn’t too difficult. Lots of us had no future and everyone knew it.

I wanted to experience, as best I could, what it must have felt like to ride out to the flight-line in a far-away place on a cold, early dawn, to greet your crew-chief who got up even earlier to prepare your plane, and then to clamber into the cockpit for yet another mission over Germany. Your crew chief helps you strap-in and briefs you on the status of your airplane. You look at him and he looks at you, briefly, each realizing that you might not come back from today’s mission. Then you close the canopy to form an eerie silence, and your crew-chief slides off the wing to the ground – perhaps the last human you will see…at least for several hours. At your touch of the starter, the big four-bladed propeller slowly turns, and turns some more, and turns some more, and finally the powerful, twelve-cylinder Rolls-Royce/Packard Merlin engine coughs and belches its way to life, shaking the cockpit in the process. In a matter of seconds, the big Merlin engine settles into a smooth, steady cadence and you are set to face the great unknowns that await all pilots on such missions.

To capture some essence of that scenario in a real P-51 Mustang is what drove me to do what I did last Monday. What better way to pay tribute to the memory of our flyers than to take to the skies over Livermore in a vintage airplane on an absolutely gorgeous, cloud-free day like Monday, May 28, 2018. It was everything I had hoped it would be, and more. I will never forget the experience.

I was supposed to fly at 11:00 am on Monday. I did not get airborne until 3:00 that afternoon. A problem with the fuel pressure gauge surfaced on the flight before mine. As Linda and I arrived at the field, I saw the airplane head off to the taxi-way for the 10:00 flight scheduled before mine. In less than two minutes, my heart fell as I saw the airplane taxi back to its parking position on the apron. I knew there must be some problem. Soon, pilot and passenger were out of the plane and the engine covers were off the nose of the airplane. The pilot and several others were all over the front portion of the plane. The previous flyer, an older fellow like me named John, stood around for at least three hours as did Linda and I. He indicated he would wait it out because, for him, the experience was “now or never.” By the time the crew had the airplane ready to go after heroic efforts on their part, John had given up, cancelled at the desk, and gone. The flight crew told me, “You are next-up,” to which I retorted, “Let’s go, then!” The fellow who flew after me was also older – at least my age. I sense that there are many older guys like me who feel the significance surrounding this airplane and its historic role while confronting the approaching decision point for themselves: to go do it or not.

I had written an earlier post on the Collings Foundation and their older P-51C, Betty Jane. She is currently undergoing a ground-up restoration/overhaul. The tour introduction of their newly restored P-51D Toulouse Nuts occurred in 2016. Technically, she is known as a TF-51D, being a rare, two seat, dual-control airplane. “T” for trainer and “F” for fighter, I believe, is the way it works. The “P” in P-51 is an outmoded reference for “pursuit,” nomenclature which was commonly used early in World War II and prior. Toulouse Nuts represents the “D” evolution of the airplane’s design, its ultimate configuration during the war. For pilots and would-be flyers/passengers like me, the bubble canopy of the “D” offers a superior visual experience compared to the birdcage structure of the earlier “C” models like Betty Jane.

An amazing, unforgettable experience!

Toulouse Nuts is one of three original TF-51Ds remaining in the world. She is painted in her original markings of the West Virginia Air Guard, 167th fighter squadron.

B-24 Liberator Bomber, Witchcraft – the last one flying of over 18,000 built!

My Father’s Enduring Legacy: A Love of Aviation…And a Prized Painting on Glass

My father was a most remarkable man. Today, at seventy-seven years of age, I have surpassed his longevity by one year. Even at this advanced age, my appreciation of him and his legacy continues to grow with passing time. There is much I could say about my father’s innate personal honesty, integrity, ambition, and commitment to excellence in all things, but I choose to dedicate this post to one particular aspect of his life and passion: His love of aviation and airplanes.

Here is the most important, early manifestation of that legacy for me, personally: a painting of his which is prominent in my earliest recollections of childhood.

I can still visualize this painting hanging on my bedroom wall in Chicago, Illinois when I was a youngster of six or seven. Today, this brilliantly created image hangs proudly in my den, high on the wall. Often, when in a pensive mood, I look upward and turn toward this painting for reflection, inspiration, and a renewed sense of longevity and permanence, qualities so absent in today’s peripatetic world. Few memories of mine go further back in time than this depiction of a furious World War I dogfight painted by my teen-age father around 1934/35. Correspondingly, few “things” in my life have been with me for as long as this little gem, painted on the back of glass using ordinary house-paints! My father’s family had no money for artist’s materials, so he did the best he could with what he had. His life-long ability to produce exceptional results in any endeavor is already evident in the clean, precise lines and brilliant images he produced while painting on the back of glass – a very difficult medium, indeed.

A Longing on My Part for “More”

As I matured into my teen-age years, I quizzed Dad about the painting – how old was he when he painted it, where he got the idea, etc. He told me that the individual images he painted were taken from “aviation pulp magazines,” inexpensive adventure accounts of the colorful aviators who flew in World War I, typically printed in slim, inexpensive monthly issues. These were targeted at and very popular with young boys in the nineteen-thirties. In my middle-age years, prior to the advent of the internet in the nineteen-nineties and prior to Google, I could only wish that I also had in my possession the original magazine issues whose colorful, eye-catching covers were depicted on Dad’s painting. Alas, even with the growth of computer technology and improved search engines, the dream seemed beyond the pale of possibility so many decades after the fact. Of all the depictions Dad chose for his picture, the brilliant red German Pfaltz airplane in the lower right-hand corner always intrigued me most as a youngster. A close examination reveals a trail of bullet-holes in the side of the red fuselage from the machine guns firing below. Clearly, the German pilot is “dramatically dead” based on the trajectory of fire!

Even though World War I aviation with its colorful dogfighting occurred well before Dad entered his teen-age years in 1929, he knew the stories and he knew about the aces and heroes, men like Captain Eddie Rickenbacker flying for the Allies, and “The Red Baron,” Manfred Von Richtofen, on the German side. Along with millions of Americans, Dad was captivated in 1927 by young Charles Lindbergh and his daring trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris. Lindbergh was clearly both a catalyst for my father’s life-long interest in aviation and an inspiration to him. Dad was eleven years old in 1927, and Lindbergh epitomized what an underdog can accomplish through intelligent dedication to a clearly defined goal. And dad did begin life as a definitive underdog, necessarily dropping out of high school after one year to support his struggling parents and siblings during the Depression. It was in the early nineteen-thirties when my father began to compile his aviation scrapbook, a serious collection of magazine and newspaper articles covering all aspects of the subject, meticulously assembled – as usual. Many of the entries have notable historical significance in aviation history: General Billy Mitchell’s analysis of the autogiro is present as is a photo/clipping of Jimmy Doolittle standing next to his bumble-bee-like Gee-Bee racer after setting an astounding new world speed record of 309 miles per hour! Dad had told me of his scrapbook early-on in my youth, but it had not been seen for decades, apparently lost in our move to California in 1948. “If only Dad’s scrapbook were not lost,” I often mused.

The Scrapbook Surfaces and Dad’s Aviation Legacy Grows

Miraculously, that very scrapbook surfaced in the early nineteen-sixties. I detailed the circumstances and the scrapbook itself in an earlier post which I attach in its entirety at the end of this post. Amazingly, loosely tucked between the pages were the pulp magazine “cutouts,” the very images Dad used for his dogfight painting on glass. These were taken directly from the aviation pulp magazine covers that he owned. For me, this was a dream-come-true, to possess not only this scrapbook, but the actual image-sources used for my prized painting.

 

It eerily seemed almost pre-destined that this should happen, that these objects, so strongly coveted in my imagination, should materialize out of the blue like that. Pasted within the book itself, are several other cut-outs from aviation magazine covers similar to those depicted in my painting.

Noteworthy, and not surprising given Dad’s aptitudes, many of the newspaper and magazine articles chosen for the scrapbook focus on technical aspects of the newest improvements in aviation and aeronautical engineering. The choices Dad made for inclusion in his book clearly reflect his early interest in mechanical engineering. In 1943, he left the production lines of the Schwinn bicycle company in Chicago to join United Air Lines as a draftsman and, later, as an employee in United’s Radio Laboratory. I recall him telling me many years ago that he just wanted to be around airplanes and the airline industry in some capacity or another – even if it meant washing airplanes!

Dad was transferred by United Air Lines in 1948 from Chicago to United’s maintenance base in San Francisco, California. My first-ever airplane flight was on a United DC-4 which took several hours to fly our family of four to SFO. As teenagers around our family dinner table listening to our parents re-living their day, my younger sister and I learned first-hand of the many workplace experiences (and frustrations) Dad encountered at United as he worked his way up through the ranks from draftsman to mechanical design engineer and ultimately to hands-on engineering manager of a ground-equipment design group in 1969. Achieving corporate recognition of his talents by United in the form of that last promotion was Dad’s ultimate professional goal. From 1969 until his retirement from United in 1981 after thirty-eight years, he was responsible for major portions of the ground equipment required to support United’s flight operations. He did major design work and structural analysis on jet engine maintenance scaffolding, food trucks, lavatory trucks, and baggage transporters used to efficiently load and unload United’s “Mainliners” on the tarmac. Quite a remarkable achievement for a self-motivated man who only had one year of high school! The lack of a college degree in aeronautics or engineering was a show-stopper at United even back then for anyone with significant engineering design aspirations. I often wonder how many of Dad’s colleagues, who realized he had no engineering degree yet came to appreciate and respect his mechanical engineering aptitude, had any idea of his lack of even a high school education! With each promotion and advancement, Dad had to prove and re-prove himself on the job, over and over again. Night classes in calculus, physics, and engineering at the local College of San Mateo fortified his innate abilities and enabled him to ultimately achieve the position and recognition he deserved at United. Dad was also very good at expressing his logical thought processes in clear, tautly-written memos – a must for any managerial candidate. Where he acquired his fine ability for written expression is still a puzzlement.

A few weeks ago, while cleaning out some cabinets, I came across a photo album which I had practically forgotten. The nicely displayed photos and memorabilia therein were of my father’s retirement party from United in 1981. My wife and I were present that night as were many of Dad’s colleagues and close friends from United. Some of the friendships present that evening spanned most of Dad’s thirty-seven years at United. What a contrast to today’s workplaces!

I noticed two UAL envelopes tucked into the front of the album. The typewritten, personally signed letters inside were on UAL letterhead stationery and dated 1969. One was from the corporate vice-president of base maintenance at UAL/SFO who knew Dad and took the time to personally congratulate him on his appointment in 1969 to engineering design manager. He knew and appreciated what Dad had achieved and how deserving he was of the promotion.

The other letter was from a long-time friend and colleague of Dad’s from the early Chicago days at UAL. Like my father, Duane Buckmaster was deeply rooted in aviation and on a steady-track of self-improvement. I will never forget the time he came out from Chicago to SFO on UAL business and came by our little San Mateo home to join the four of us for a home-cooked meal. This was around 1956/57. Dad gave me a heads-up prior to Mr. Buckmaster’s arrival that evening. He said, “You should know that Duane flew B-24 Liberators over Germany on bombing raids during World War II. His plane was shot down on June 6, 1944 (D-day) by German fighters during the famous Ploesti oil field raids. After parachuting with the rest of the crew from the doomed plane, he was captured by the Germans and held prisoner. He eventually escaped and found his way back across the enemy lines.” I recall Buckmaster’s story that evening and his detailed responses to the many questions from myself, my sister, and my parents. Needless to say, I was mesmerized by his story, and I have never forgotten that evening over all these years. Here is his congratulatory letter to Dad, dated July 7, 1969:

I especially appreciate his vivid comments about “our mutual struggles with the calculus” during “those nights at College of San Mateo.”

Duane Buckmaster was a good friend who, like Dad, also left his mark on United Air Lines, eventually becoming Executive Vice-President of Human Resources based in United’s Chicago offices. Predictably, Duane Buckmaster made it a point to be here, in California, to honor Dad at his retirement party in 1981.

United Air Lines runs deep in my veins for so many obvious reasons. It was and is a major part of my father’s aviation legacy. Dad and “Buck” Buckmaster worked for the airline during its glory days, days when flying was more than merely a quicker option to get from point A to point B. From United’s inception in 1926 and well into the nineteen-sixties, flying the “Friendly Skies” meant just that – an enjoyable, special experience – an event. Times and circumstances change, however, and not always for the better. United’s foundational president, W.A. Patterson ran United with a sure and steady hand for many years.

Patterson always valued United’s employees and their contributions as evidenced by the book High Horizons which he commissioned and gifted to every employee in 1951, on United’s twenty-fifth anniversary. The book is a revealing, well-illustrated history of United Air Lines over its first quarter-century. I remember my father’s copy which arrived at our house in 1951 and remained housed in our small dining room bookcase for many decades. Alas, it disappeared after my parents died. Such is the importance of United Air Lines and aviation in my life and recollections that I recently searched for and found a like-new copy of High Horizons on the internet. It arrived in the mail just days ago. Tucked inside is the original silver card insert that carried president Patterson’s personal thanks and best wishes to each employee – a class act. Employee regard for W.A. Patterson was high for obvious reasons. Patterson made United a great airline.

My father’s retirement years were heavily tinged with his continuing love of aviation. He obtained his private pilot’s license and became heavily involved with building and flying radio-controlled model airplanes. I have written about his RC flying in previous blog posts about him and his dedication to excellence. He and my mother, who was always by his side through forty-nine years of marriage, spent several very happy years enjoying the retired life together before she passed away in 1989. Life was not the same for Dad or for us after she was gone; he followed her in 1992 leaving my sister and I and his grandchildren a fine legacy of remembrance, a special part of which I highlight, here, in this post/tribute.

The aviation bug, planted by my father, has been in my system for as long as I can remember. It periodically goes dormant for a while when one of my many other interests flares up yet again to reclaim its periodic turn in the spotlight of my attention. However, none of these is as deeply rooted in my consciousness as is aviation, thanks to Dad.

Pushing Hard to Complete the Arc of Dad’s Legacy

Two weeks ago, and after all these decades, I resumed my quest to learn still more about the aviation painting that hangs in my den. What were those magazines whose covers are depicted? Enlisting the aid of Google search, I was finally able to identify the specific aviation pulp magazines whose covers grace my father’s painting. Furthermore, I found the actual 1931 August and September issues of Battle Aces for sale on the internet. The cover artwork of the September issue carries the red German Pfaltz airplane so dramatically pictured by Dad in his painting. The August issue’s cover is not depicted in the painting; the July issue is.

 

This, and the image which follows are two of the covers which captured my father’s fancy as a young man. Finally, after decades of mystery and intrigue, my quest to intimately know the details pertinent to my prized painting has been satisfied. The cover art on all but four of the twenty-seven issues of Battle Aces which ran from October, 1930 through December, 1932 were painted by Frederick Manley Blakeslee at the beginning of his notable career as illustrator for early aviation publications, and later, railroading magazines.

As a final chapter to this part of my story, I also discovered that the original Blakeslee oil painting commissioned for the September, 1931 issue of Battle Aces was sold at auction in 2012 for $2200! The only thing better than having the magazine cover would be to own the original painting commissioned for it!

In 1988, my dad created an oil-on-canvas re-visitation of his early painting on glass. A few aspects of the aerial battle were modified in his new effort, but the red Pfaltz was depicted as before, only headed now in the opposite direction!

Aviation in World War II: The Latest Installment of the Legacy

There is one final chapter (at least for now) of the aviation legacy I inherited from my father. Conditioned by my lifelong involvement with Dad’s legacy and artwork which began with World War I, I have more recently taken note of today’s many fine artists and their fabulous work portraying airplanes and aviation history in the World War II theatre. I find particularly interesting the stories of wartime flyers like Duane Buckmaster who have incredible tales to tell. Fascinating, too, are the aces and the airplanes they flew that saved the western world from Hitler’s Germany and the Luftwaffe.

One of my earliest literary entries into World War II aviation is represented by this excellent book on the Air Force and air power published by Martin Caidin in 1957. I was a high school junior at that time, well into my aviation legacy and already a veteran when it came to building model airplanes. I recall seeing this book displayed in the window of a small bookshop in downtown San Mateo. When I asked to see it, the ten-dollar price on the jacket meant leaving without it, but the photo/text of the book proved fascinating. Every time I passed that bookstore window, the book beckoned. Finally, I had mowed enough neighborhood lawns to save the ten dollars and the book was mine. It seemingly was meant to be that I should have this book. In fact, at the very moment I write this, it occurs to me that perhaps Duane Buckmaster’s visit to our house in the month’s prior precipitated my burning desire to have this book – very possible, even likely, and interesting to contemplate! Today, I have assembled a small but meaningful reference library on aviation, airplanes, and aces – a collection which began with Caidin’s book, Air Force.

I published a previous post (see my archives) highlighting the fascinating story of A Higher Call, as portrayed in the book of the same title and depicted by the artwork of Florida artist, John D. Shaw. Shaw recently completed his most recent artistic rendering of the event in a new limited print edition titled Prey for Mercy.
Shaw’s artwork gives us a wonderful portrayal of the opening moments of a most improbable and unforgettable interaction between a B-17 bomber pilot and crew and a multiple ace of the German Luftwaffe on the threshold of earning the coveted Luftwaffe Flying Cross, needing just one more “kill” to his credit. I was taken with this limited-edition offering and recently received my print along with accompanying material and the actual signature card of the German flyer who was involved, Franz Stigler. Shaw’s earlier artistic rendering of the event is also beautifully done, but long sold-out and very hard to find on the secondary market.

The Legacy Continues!

My enthusiasm for aviation is hardly satisfied at this late date; there are still so many books on my shelves and stories waiting in the wings. Most significantly, both my curiosity about and my fascination with this life-long legacy of aviation gifted to me by my Father, Alfred Chester Kubitz, are still running strong. Time is running short, now, but the skies still beckon!

Martha

Nothing defines who we are as individuals more than the essence of our natural mothers and fathers. We each come into this world preceded by one father, one mother and two grandfathers and two grandmothers who also influence our being. The lucky ones among us descended from men and women of fine character and ability. Those of us fortunate enough to have truly known and experienced all six of these key individuals while maturing into adulthood are additionally blessed. A few weeks ago, I was combing though some family photographs and came upon this one, a scarce image of my paternal grandmother, Martha Koss Kubitz. I possess few images of her and this is the most personal of those, taken late in life.

I “knew” and remember both sets of grandparents, but only through the gauzy veil of childhood memory given that our family of four left its Chicago roots in 1948 when we moved to California. I was then eight years old. Gazing at my grandmother’s image both fortified my distant memory of her and caused me to contemplate, yet again, the fleeting nature of our existence on this earth. Our own four young grandchildren have no real knowledge of Martha and her husband, Elmer, my grandfather. Nor are they likely ever to express the degree of curiosity which cares to know what kind of people their great-great grandparents were. It seems almost certain that today’s third generation removed will not be interested in their family roots beyond their own grandparents – and that seems such a shame. The connection between one’s own grandparents and grandchildren, a separation of four generations, seems palpable and significant to many of us in the middle of that generation span who are now in the later stages of life. I can see personality traits and physical resemblances that are recognizable across those four generations, but I know that once my time is up, those connections could easily be lost forever unless recorded somewhere. Martha and Elmer Kubitz would typically become merely names on census rolls and other archived documents in the years ahead. This written blog post about my grandmother Martha is my humble and personal attempt keep her memory alive in a medium separate from the vanishing recollections of her descendants. It was only within the last twenty years that I learned the bulk of what I know about Martha. Nancy, my childhood Chicago cousin, furnished much of that information via her handwritten letters from the East Coast.

I had earlier heard conjecture that Martha Koss emigrated to America from Hamburg, Germany which turned out to be partly true. Once here, she eventually found her way to the Chicago area where she met my grandfather, Elmer Chester Kubitz. Through internet perseverance, I was able to locate the immigration paper documenting her family’s arrival in New York aboard the ship Moravia on March 10, 1890. The ship’s ledger lists her father Anton Koss, her mother Marie, sisters Mathilde and Pauline, and brothers Auguste and Franz. Martha is the middle child at age 4. This document lists her hometown in Germany as Bolchau, not Hamburg, but the Moravia’s port of embarkation is noted as Hamburg/Kerre.

A 1910 U.S. census report from Chicago shows Elmer and Martha Kubitz residing with four-month old first child, Elmer Junior, and living next door to Martha’s parents and her brother Frank (formerly Franz). I have a photo-copy of Martha’s certificate of marriage to Elmer C. Kubitz in Michigan, dated July 17, 1909 – courtesy of my cousin Nancy.

Such documents gleaned from the internet that illuminate the family’s history are very special to me. There are no letters, original documents, or mementos of any kind in my possession that relate to my paternal grandparents save a few notes from my grandmother sent to me from Chicago in the 1960’s, long after my father was transferred to California by United Air Lines in 1948. Even during a time when sentimentality, a sense of personal history, and the luxury of introspection and perspective often played second fiddle to the urgencies of getting on with daily life and living, the dearth of things-saved with respect to both sets of my grandparents is sadly unusual.

My grandmother Martha was a dutiful wife and mother, raising four sons and one daughter while eking out a living in a small West Chicago storefront which was divided into a candy/toy store run by Martha and Grandpa Elmer’s radio repair shop. My grandparents lived in the back of the same building, just behind the storefront curtains, in spartan quarters quite devoid of natural light as I recall. It was only last year that I came upon a photo of that Diversey Avenue storefront circa 1950 with Uncle Elmer Kubitz Junior standing out-front, thanks to second cousin Mary.

I wish I had known my grandmother and grandfather better. There are so many things I would like to know. Throughout my youth, my father always spoke well of them both given the underlying tone that life was not easy for the family of seven. My grandfather was reportedly an intelligent, amiable man with a great sense of humor and an innate honesty. Despite his amiability, Grandpa Elmer believed in discipline when appropriate for his children. My father, and consequently I, both were raised to respect adult authority. My grandmother was a stoutly-built, caring woman who stood by her husband’s side through thick and thin during some very hard financial times. Doctor’s visits to the Kubitz household were virtually unknown due to the lack of money: Home remedies were the order of the day for any ills. Warm Castor oil in the ear was administered by Martha when my father had one of his frequent severe ear-aches. One of these bouts left him with a punctured ear-drum. I recall that my grandparents often retired to a local tavern after the day’s work was done, their way of dealing with life’s demands. I can picture the scene with Elmer calling out to Martha: “Hey Mart (he called her that), let’s go down for a beer!”

My dad, Alfred, attended only one year of high school at Chicago’s Austin High in order to work and contribute to the family’s support during the lean depression years. Despite Dad’s meager early education, he became the quintessential life-long learner who studied his way to a long and successful career in mechanical engineering at United Air Lines.

Dad’s mother was barely literate in the written English vernacular as evidenced by the few letters I received from her during my college years and after graduation. This language challenge was palpable despite her life-long residence in the United States after coming to America at age four. Nevertheless, my grandmother’s offspring all did well for themselves as career-oriented adults with families. Somehow, my grandparents managed to pass the torch of opportunity and achievement to their children despite their own humble beginnings. While writing this blog post, I retrieved from my files the cache of four items sent to me by my grandmother which I have fortunately retained. This excerpt from one of the letters she wrote to me in 1966 sums up my fondness and respect for my grandmother. Using some license in translation, page three reads:

“…that sweetheart of yours [my young wife, Linda] sure is pretty. You sure know how to pick them. I am glad that you like her…Linda looks to be a very nice girl. You bet she is pretty. So you had a good time together [in Hawaii]. This place here [probably her daughter’s house] was so dry – no beer, only Nehi Root Beer. Well, you can keep sober with that. Your Mother-Dad-Karen sure is a family to be proud of. I have four daughter-in-laws. I like them all: They’re are all good to me and they’re all good-looking. My sons know how to pick ‘em. Well, Alan, a simple letter: Really isn’t very much, but when it’s so sincerely said, it has a special touch and when it goes to someone who’s very dear to me.”

Grandma Kubitz
who loves you
and always will

What can I say? Thank goodness that I have a few such letters in my possession which shed light on the earthy and perceptive lady who was my grandmother. They, my dim recollections, and letters from cousins who knew Martha well are my sole substitute for all the years of isolation from my grandparents and other Chicago roots.

Despite my grandmother’s limited ability with written English, her son Alfred, my father, was surprisingly fluent with the written word given his truncated early schooling. This ability of self-expression was complemented by his fine aptitude for engineering and things mechanical. I still retain several tautly written letters by my father eloquently expressing displeasure over poor service or unreliable products he had encountered as an adult. One of these was addressed directly to Roger Smith, the past CEO of General Motors, expressing displeasure over some negative aspect of Dad’s Oldsmobile that was not adequately addressed by previous letters to GM’s lower management. Dad was very good at going right to the heart of the matter at hand and succinctly stating his case, reminiscent of an experienced attorney but without the legalese! Alas – predictably, Dad never heard from Mr. Smith… which frustrated him no end! I still marvel at his ability with the written word, and I wonder where in the world it came from and just how it blossomed in him as he matured. I wonder about that and so many other things connected with my grandparents and ancestors. As I write this, there is currently much discussion in the United States about “merit-based” immigration into this country – a policy which would give heavy preference to those applicants who already have resources and a solid education. While the proposal has some merit, I cannot help thinking that so many multi-generation success stories in the United States had their roots in seemingly unexceptional immigrants who came to America in crowded shipboard steerage with little to their name. Most likely, that was the case with Martha’s father, Anton Koss, who is listed in the 1910 U.S. Chicago census as a “hod-carrier” working on “new buildings.”

I sum up my feelings about my grandmother, who I barely knew, as follows: Martha, you and Elmer did good – real good – in passing the torch of opportunity to your offspring despite the great difficulties you both faced along the way. This is my acknowledgement of same and my personal tribute to you. Rest in peace…you are loved and remembered.

The Lawrence Welk Show: Forever Young – “Wunnerful, Wunnerful”

Watching the old Lawrence Welk television shows on PBS is like traveling through a time-machine for those of us who grew up during the era of the nineteen fifties, sixties, and on into the eighties.

Last night, as so often is the case, I went to my DVR and brought up recorded episodes of the Lawrence Welk show which still regularly play on PBS television. Experience has taught me that there is no better way to “wind-down” before bedtime after a hectic day than reliving music from that magical era, courtesy of Mr. Welk and his “Champagne Music Makers.” Sadly, today’s generation, by and large, would find watching and listening to Lawrence Welk quite beyond the pale. It is a shame that the concepts of “music” and “talent” have become so degraded in this day-and-age of uber-amplified sound and slurred, unintelligible lyrics.

I was in my early teens in 1955 when the Lawrence Welk show debuted on that also-adolescent medium called television. For twenty-seven years, the Lawrence Welk show came into our living rooms on Saturday night, sponsored first by Dodge, then Geritol (don’t laugh!), and later, via syndication. Now, in 2017, sixty-two years later, we can still watch the old shows on PBS. How many television shows have lasted that long on network reruns besides “Lucy,” or perhaps Dick Van Dyke/Mary Tyler Moore?

  

Last night, on my selected show from 1974, Mr. Welk proudly exclaimed that the “big-bands” were reportedly staging a comeback, quickly adding that “we never left!” Indeed, Lawrence Welk had been in the big-band game since 1924 when he left the farm in North Dakota to seek success in the music business. In the end, he outlasted all the big names including such luminaries as Benny Goodman, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, and Artie Shaw – all of whom are among my all-time favorite purveyors of jazz/swing. I love the big-band sound, and aside from periodic doses of schmaltz, Welk’s band could and did deliver. The group was comprised of seriously fine musicians, many of whom were with Mr. Welk for ten, twenty, even thirty years. The band could swing and did swing often on the great numbers made famous by Goodman, James, Dorsey and Shaw. It has always fascinated me to observe the pure joy of Welk’s musicians when the play-list presented them with the opportunity to “cut-loose” from an otherwise scripted, sometimes staid program. No, Welk’s fine musicians were not cut from quite the same cloth as a Benny Goodman or a Harry James, but the group played those great swing/sweet band numbers with virtuosity and enthusiasm.

Welk had many singers and dancers as well with which to front the band. All were excellent and versatile entertainers. As good a female singer as any I have ever heard was Ralna English whose distinctive, effortless vocals soared as she visibly sparkled in the intimate camera close-ups which were hallmarks of Welk telecasts. Although always the gentleman, Lawrence did like the pretty girls! Ms. English and then-husband, Guy Hovis, performed many memorable duets as well – across the full musical spectrum. Gail Farrell, Mary Lou Metzger, and “Champagne Lady” Norma Zimmer sparkled and shone with their wholesome beauty and talent. Several of the musicians were regular soloists: Bob Ralston on piano, Henry Cuesta on clarinet, and Myron Floren on accordion were as good as it gets as musicians. One of my favorites was trumpet man Johnny Zell who combined a showman’s flair with his obvious virtuosity. And finally, the dance duo of ex-Disney Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess and partner Cissy King was always a treat to behold. Their versatile dance routines with the band solidly behind them were, in a significant way, pioneering dance performances on early television.

Even the Great Harry James?

Auditioning and winning a performing spot in the Welk family required tremendous talent…and versatility – even as a musician. The reed section of the band which normally plays saxophone is often seen doubling on clarinet or even flute and piccolo! Harry James who went from lead trumpet with the great Benny Goodman band of 1937/38 to front his very own band for many years once auditioned with Mr. Welk prior to that time. Harry James was a prodigy, a virtuoso trumpet player as a youngster capable of handling lead trumpet with any top jazz/swing band in the early days, yet he did not receive an offer from Mr. Welk – ostensibly because the only instrument he played was trumpet! James went on to become a music legend in the 1940’s and 50’s – in my opinion, the finest, most versatile trumpet player, ever.

Lawrence Welk’s 1903 Birthplace: Strasburg, North Dakota

I suspect there may have been a personality/life-style disconnect between Harry James and Welk who tended to favor musicians with mid-west roots and attitudes – especially those from North Dakota, his home state. Lawrence Welk radiated conservative, middle-of-the-country attitudes, and to some viewers, seemed too “square.” He did have considerable trouble with his accent which produced such parodies as “Turna offa the bubble machine,” in reference to the “champagne music” bubbles which often floated among the musicians as they musically bounced their way through some bubbly, flagship-style musical arrangement. Welk was known for his staple responses to his performers such as, “Wasn’t that just wunnerful?” And then there was, “Wunnerful, wunnerful.” Yes, it seemed somewhat staid and square even back then, but in the harsh glare of today’s attitudes, watching Welk and his shows is a timeless reminder of a simpler time, a time when true talent and professionalism made an impression on audiences. I always liked and respected that about the Welk show.

Make no mistake about it: Lawrence Welk, himself, could really “swing out” on some of the legendary big-band numbers. My favorite images are of him in front of the band playing a swing classic like Woody Herman’s “Woodchopper’s Ball,” baton on the beat and hips and feet moving in sync – just letting it all hang out! The joyous grin on his face completed the picture of a man lost in his music, oblivious to everything else.

Time Stands Still and We Are Forever Young!

Lawrence Welk passed away in 1992, ten years after the last installment of “The Lawrence Welk Show.” Mr. Welk left behind a considerable organization and fan-base which still thrives today, sixty-two years after his television debut in 1955. That is quite a tribute to the man and his impact on America. Then there is the great music he played and the way he and his musical family presented it. Today, watching his shows which replay annually on public television is the only real big-band experience left to us. The music of the great composers and song-writers should never be lost. Nor should the fabulous performances of the big-band era. Thank goodness for the PBS re-runs. It is always my hope that today’s youngsters might push aside cynical attitudes and recognize the quality entertainment that Lawrence Welk provided America for so many years.

Many of the musical stars in the Welk family that we grew up with are now gone. Through the miracle of television, we can still see and hear them perform once again, forty, fifty, or sixty years later, just as they did “live.” The graceful athleticism of dancers Arthur Duncan, Bobby Burgess, Cissy King, and Mary Lou Metzger is undiminished by time. The fresh, wholesome beauty of Welk’s female performers and the musical artistry of accordionist Myron Floren and all the other musicians still shine.

Watching the Welk show after all these years is akin to entering a time-machine tunnel and emerging to once again experience performers forever young…and so are we!

Keep a Song in Your Heart! Good advice.

J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb: Triumph and Tragedy

J. Robert Oppenheimer: Along with Albert Einstein, one of the most interesting and important figures in modern history. Although very different in world-view and personality, the names of these two men are both linked to arguably the most significant human endeavor and resultant “success” in recorded history. The effort in question was the monumental task of the United States government to harness the energy of the atom in a new and devastating weapon of war, the atomic bomb. The super-secret Manhattan Project was a crash program formally authorized by president Franklin Roosevelt on Dec. 6, 1941. The program’s goal: In a time-frame of less than four years and against all odds, to capitalize on very recent scientific discoveries and rapidly develop an operational military weapon of staggering destructive power.

Albert Einstein and the Atomic Bomb

Albert Einstein, whose scientific resume ranks just behind that of Isaac Newton, had virtually no role in this weapons program save for two notable exceptions. First and foremost, it was Einstein’s follow-up paper to his milestone theory of special relativity in 1905 which showed that, contrary to long-standing belief, mass and energy are one and the same, theoretically convertible from one to another. That relationship is expressed by the most famous equation in science, e = mc2, where e is the energy inherent in mass, m is the mass in question, and c is the constant speed of light. One careful look at this relationship reveals its profoundness. Since the speed of light is a very large number (300 million meters per second), a tiny bit of mass (material) converted into its energy equivalent yields a phenomenal amount of energy. Note that Einstein had proposed a theoretical, nonetheless real, relationship in his equation. The big question: Would it ever be possible to produce that predicted yield of energy in practice? In 1938, two chemists in Hitler’s Germany, Hahn and Strassman, demonstrated nuclear fission in the laboratory, on a tiny scale. That news spread quickly throughout the world physics community – like ripples on a giant pond. It now appeared feasible to harness the nuclear power inherent in the atom as expressed by Einstein’s equation.

In August of 1939, alarmed by the recent news from Germany, Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard asked his colleague, Albert Einstein, to affix his signature to a letter addressed to President Roosevelt. The letter warned of recent German scientific advances and Germany’s sudden interest in uranium deposits in the Belgian Congo of Africa. Einstein, a German Jew who fled his homeland in 1932 for fear of Hitler’s growing influence, dutifully but reluctantly signed his name to the letter. Einstein’s imprimatur on the letter was Szilard’s best hope of affixing Roosevelt’s attention on the growing feasibility of an atomic bomb. Einstein and many other European scientists were, from personal experience, justifiably terrified at the prospect of Hitler’s Germany acquiring such a weapon, and the Germans had first-class scientific talent available to tackle such a challenge.

Einstein, one of history’s great pacifists, was thus ironically tied to the atomic bomb program, but his involvement went no further. Einstein never worked on the project and, after the war when Germany was shown to have made no real progress toward a weapon, he stated: “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger.”

Stranger Than Fiction: The High Desert of Los Alamos, New Mexico

By early 1943, peculiar “invitations” from Washington were being received by many of this country’s finest scientific/engineering minds. A significant number of these ranked among the world’s top physicists including Nobel Prize winners who had emigrated from Europe. These shadowy “requests” from the government called for the best and the brightest to head (with their families in many cases) to the wide-open high desert country of New Mexico. Upon arrival, they would be further informed (to a limited extent) of the very important, secret work to be undertaken there. I have always believed that fact is stranger than fiction, and much more interesting and applicable. What transpired at Los Alamos over the next three years under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Army General Leslie Groves is scarcely believable, and yet it truly happened, and it has changed our lives unalterably.

One of my favorite narratives from Jon Else’s wonderful documentary film on the atomic bomb, The Day After Trinity, beautifully describes the ludicrous situation: “Oppenheimer had brought scientists and their families fresh from distinguished campuses all over the country – ivied halls, soaring campaniles, vaulted chapels. Los Alamos was a boom town – hastily constructed wooden buildings, dirt streets, coal stoves, and [at one point] only five bathtubs / There were no sidewalks. The streets were all dirt. The water situation was always bad / It was not at all unusual to open your faucet and have worms come out.” Los Alamos was like a California gold-rush boom town, constructed in a jiffy with the greatest assemblage of world-class scientific talent that will ever be gathered in one location. General Groves once irreverently quipped (with humor and perhaps some frustration) that Los Alamos had the greatest assemblage of “crack-pots” the world has ever known.

As improbable as the situation and the task at hand appeared – even given an open check-book from Roosevelt and Congress – Groves and Oppenheimer made it happen. I cannot think of any human endeavor in history so complex, so unlikely…and so “successful.” The triumph of NASA in space comes in a close second, but even realizing JFK’s promise of a man on the moon by 1969 cannot top the extraordinary scenario which unfolded at Los Alamos, New Mexico – all largely shielded from view.

The initial (and only) test of the atomic bomb took place on July 16, 1945, on the wide expanse of the New Mexico desert near Los Alamos. The test was code-named “Trinity.” The accompanying picture shows Oppenheimer and General Groves at ground zero of the blast, the site of the high tower from which the bomb was detonated. Evidence of desert sand fused into glass by the intense heat abounds. The test was a complete technical success – vindication for the huge government outlay and the dedication on the part of so many who put their lives on hold by moving to the high desert of New Mexico and literally “willing” their work to success for fear of the Germans. By July of 1945, however, Germany was vanquished without having made any real progress toward an atomic bomb.

The World Would Never Be the Same

That first nuclear detonation signaled a necessary reset for much of human thought and behavior. Many events quickly followed that demonstrated the power of that statement. Of immediate impact was the abrupt termination of World War II, brought about by two atomic bombs successfully dropped on Japan just weeks after the first and only test of the device (Hiroshima, August 6, 1945; Nagasaki, August 9, 1945). The resulting destruction of these two cities accomplished what many thousands of invading U.S. troops might have taken months to complete – with terrible losses. The horrific effect of these two bombs on the people of Japan has been well documented since 1945. Many, including a significant number of those who worked on the development of these weapons protested that such weapons should never be used again. Once the initial flush of “success” passed, the man most responsible for converting scientific theory into a practical weapon of mass destruction quickly realized that the “nuclear genie” was irretrievably out of the bottle, never to be predictably and reliably restrained. Indeed, Russia shocked the world by detonating its first atomic bomb in 1949. The inevitable arms race that Oppenheimer foresaw had already begun… the day after Trinity.

The Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Man

J. Robert Oppenheimer had been under tremendous pressure as technical leader of the super-secret Manhattan project since being appointed by the military man in charge of the entire project, Army general Leslie Groves. Groves was a military man through and through, accustomed to the disciplined hierarchy of the service, yet he hand-picked as technical lead for the whole program the brilliant physicist and mercurial liberal intellectual, J. Robert Oppenheimer – the most unlikely of candidates. Oppenheimer’s communist wife and brother prompted the FBI to vigorously protest the choice. Groves got his way, however.

Groves’ choice of J. Robert Oppenheimer for the challenging and consuming task of technical leader on the project proved to be a stroke of genius on his part; virtually everyone who worked on the Manhattan Project agreed there was no-one but Oppenheimer who could have made it happen as it did.

“Oppie,” as he was known and referred to by many on the Manhattan Project, directed the efforts of hundreds of the finest scientific and engineering minds on the planet. Foreign-born Nobel prize winners in physics were very much in evidence at Los Alamos. Despite the formidable scientific credentials of such luminaries as Hans Bethe, I.I. Rabi, Edward Teller, Enrico Fermi, and Freeman Dyson, Oppenheimer proved to be their intellectual equal. Oppenheimer either already knew and understood the nuclear physics, the chemistry, and the metallurgy involved at Los Alamos, or he very quickly learned it from the others. His intellect was lightning-quick and very deep. His interests extended well beyond physics as evidenced by his great interest in French metaphysical poetry and his multi-lingual capability. Almost more incredible than his technical grasp of all the work underway at Los Alamos was his unanticipated ability to manage all aspects of this, the most daring, ambitious, and important scientific/engineering endeavor ever undertaken. People who knew well his scientific brilliance from earlier years were amazed at the overnight evolution of “Oppie, the brilliant physicist and academic” into “Oppie, the effective, efficient manager” and co-leader of the project with General Groves.

Indelibly imprinted upon my mind is the interview scene with famous Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe conducted by Jon Else, producer of The Day After Trinity. Bethe was Oppie’s pick to be group leader for all physics on the project. The following comments of Bethe, himself a giant in theoretical physics, cast a penetrating light on the intellectual brilliance of J. Robert Oppenheimer and his successful role in this, the most daring and difficult scientific project ever attempted:

– “He was a tremendous intellect. I don’t believe I have known another person who was quite so quick in comprehending both scientific and general knowledge.”
– “He knew and understood everything that went on in the laboratory, whether it was chemistry, theoretical physics, or machine-shop. He could keep it all in his head and coordinate it. It was clear also at Los Alamos, that he was intellectually superior to us.”

The work was long, hard, and often late into the night at Los Alamos for its two thousand residents, but there was a social life at Los Alamos, and, according to reports, Robert Oppenheimer was invariably the center of attention. He could and often did lead discussions given his wide-ranging knowledge …on most everything! Dorothy McKibben (seated on Oppenheimer’s right in the following picture) was the “Gatekeeper of Los Alamos” according to all who (necessarily) passed through her tiny Manhattan Project Office at 109 East Palace Avenue, Santa Fe, New Mexico. There, they checked-in and collected the credentials and maps required to reach the highly secured desert site of Los Alamos. Ms. McKibben was affluent in her praise of Oppenheimer: “If you were in a large hall, and you saw several groups of people, the largest groups would be hovering around Oppenheimer. He was great at a party, and women simply loved him and still do.”

The Nuclear Weapons Advantage Proves to be Short-Lived

What was believed in 1945 to represent a long term, decided military advantage for the United States turned out to be an illusion, much as Oppenheimer likely suspected. With the help of spies Klaus Fuchs at Los Alamos, Julius Rosenberg, and others, Russia detonated their first atomic bomb only four years later.

Oppenheimer knew better, because he understood the physics involved and that, once demonstrated, nuclear weapons would rapidly pose a problem for the world community. When interviewed years later at Princeton where he had been head of the Institute for Advanced Studies (and Albert Einstein’s “boss”) he is shown in The Day After Trinity responding to the question, “[Can you tell us] what your thoughts are about the proposal of Senator Robert Kennedy that President Johnson initiate talks with the view to halt the spread of nuclear weapons?” Oppenheimer replied rather impatiently, “It’s twenty years too late. It should have been done the day after Trinity.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer fully appreciated, on July 16, 1945, the dangers inherent in the nuclear genie let loose from the bottle. His fears were well founded. Within a few years after Los Alamos, talk surfaced of a new, more powerful bomb based on nuclear fusion rather than fission, nevertheless still in accordance with e = mc2. This became popularly known as the “hydrogen bomb.” Physicist Edward Teller now stepped forward to promote its development in opposition to Oppenheimer’s stated wish to curtail the further use and development of nuclear weapons.

Arguments raged over the “Super” bomb as it was designated, and Teller prevailed. The first device was detonated by the U.S. in 1952. A complex and toxic cocktail of Oppenheimer’s reticence toward development of the Super combined with the past communist leanings of his wife, brother Frank, and other friends led to the Atomic Energy Commission, under President Eisenhower, revoking Oppenheimer’s security clearance in 1954. That action ended any opportunity for Oppenheimer to even continue advising Washington on nuclear weapons policy. The Oppenheimer file was thick, and the ultimate security hearings were dramatic and difficult for all involved. As for the effect on J. Robert Oppenheimer, we have the observations of Hans Bethe and I.I. Rabi, both participants at Los Alamos and Nobel prize winners in physics:

– I.I. Rabi: “I think to a certain extent it actually almost killed him, spiritually, yes. It achieved just what his opponents wanted to achieve. It destroyed him.”
– Hans Bethe: “He had very much the feeling that he was giving the best to the United States in the years during the war and after the war. In my opinion, he did. But others did not agree. And in 1954, he was hauled before a tribunal and accused of being a security risk – a risk to the United States. A risk to betray secrets.”

Later, in 1964, attitudes softened and Edward Teller nominated Oppenheimer for the prestigious Enrico Fermi award which was presented by President Johnson. As I.I. Rabi observed, however, the preceding events had, for all intents and purposes, already destroyed him. Oppenheimer was a conflicted man with a brilliant wide-ranging intellect. While one might readily agree with Hans Bethe’s assessment that Oppenheimer felt he was “giving the best to the United States in the years during and after the war,” there is perhaps more to the story than a significantly patriotic motivation. Oppenheimer was a supremely competent and confident individual whose impatient nature was tinged with a palpable arrogance. These characteristics often worked to his disadvantage with adversaries and co-workers.
Then there was the suggestion that, in addition to his patriotic motives, Oppenheimer was seized by “the glitter and the power of nuclear weapons” and the unprecedented opportunity to do physics on a grand scale at Los Alamos, and those were also major motivations. Other colleagues on the project later confessed to feeling the glitter and power of nuclear weapons, themselves. A brilliant man of many contradictions was Oppenheimer – that much is certain. Also certain is the likelihood that the man was haunted afterward by misgivings concerning his pivotal role, whatever his motivations, in letting loose the nuclear genie. The sadness in his eyes late in life practically confirms the suspicion. That is the tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Triumph has a way of extracting its penalty, its pound of flesh. I can think of no better example than Oppenheimer.

Immediately upon hearing of the bombing of Hiroshima, Hans Bethe recalled, “The first reaction which we had was one of fulfillment. Now it has been done. Now the work which we have been engaged in has contributed to the war. The second reaction, of course, was one of shock and horror. What have we done? What have we done? And the third reaction: It shouldn’t be done again.”

Nuclear Weapons: The Current State and Future Outlook

In the headlines of today’s news broadcasts as I write this is the looming threat of North Korean nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. The North Koreans have developed and tested nuclear warheads and are currently test-launching long-range missiles which could reach the U.S. mainland, as far east as Chicago. Likewise, Iran is close to having both nuclear weapons and targetable intermediate-range missiles. Nuclear proliferation is alive and well on this earth.

To illustrate the present situation, consider one staple of the U.S. nuclear arsenal -the one megaton thermonuclear, or hydrogen, bomb with the explosive equivalent of just over one million tons of TNT. That explosive energy is fifty times that of the plutonium fission bomb which destroyed the city of Nagasaki, Japan (twenty-two thousand tons of TNT). The number of such powerful weapons in today’s U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles is truly staggering, especially when one considers that a single one megaton weapon could essentially flatten and incinerate the core of Manhattan, New York. Such a threat is no longer limited to a device dropped from an aircraft. Nuclear-tipped ICBMs present an even more ominous threat.

The surprise success of the first Russian earth-orbiting satellite, “Sputnik,” in 1957 had far more significance than the loss of prestige in space for the United States. Accordingly, the second monumental and historic U.S. government program – on the very heels of the Manhattan Project – was heralded by the creation of NASA in 1958 and its role in the race to the moon. President John F. Kennedy issued his audacious challenge in 1963 for NASA to regain lost technical ground in rocketry by being first to put a man on the moon …in the decade of the sixties – in less than seven years! Many in the technical community thought the challenge was simply “nuts” given the state of U.S. rocket technology in 1963. As with the then very-recent, incredibly difficult and urgent program to build an atomic bomb, the nation once again accomplished the near-impossible by landing Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon on July 20, 1969 – well ahead of the Russians. And it was important that we surpassed Russia in rocket technology, for our ICBMs, which are the key delivery vehicle for nuclear weapons and thus crucial to most of the U.S. strategic defense, were born of this country’s efforts in space.

“Fat Man,” the bomb used on Nagasaki – 22 kilotons of TNT

Photo: Paul Shambroom

B83 1 megaton hydrogen bombs…compact and deadly

The above picture of a man casually sweeping the warehouse floor in front of nearly ten megatons of explosive, destructive power, enough to level the ten largest cities in America gives one pause to reflect. On our visit to Los Alamos in 2003, I recall the uneasy emotions I felt merely standing next to a dummy casing of this bomb in the visitor’s center and reflecting on the awesome power of the “live” device. Minus their huge development and high “delivery” costs, such bombs are, in fact, very “cheap” weapons from a military point of view.

One conclusion: Unlike the man with the broom in the above picture, we must never casually accept the presence of these weapons in our midst. One mistake, one miscalculation, and nuclear Armageddon may be upon us. The collective angels of man’s better nature had better soon decide on a way to render such weapons unnecessary on this planet. Albert Einstein expressed the situation elegantly and succinctly:

“The unleashing of [the] power of the atom has changed everything but our modes of thinking and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophes.”

Under a brilliant New Mexico sky on October 16, 1945, the residents of the Los Alamos mesa gathered for a ceremony on J. Robert Oppenheimer’s last day as director of the laboratory. The occasion: The receipt of a certificate of appreciation from the Secretary of War honoring the contributions of Oppenheimer and Los Alamos.

In his remarks, Oppenheimer stated: “It is our hope that in years to come we may look at this scroll, and all that it signifies, with pride. Today, that pride must be tempered with a profound concern. If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima. The peoples of the world must unite, or they will perish.”

In today’s world, each step along the path of nuclear proliferation brings humanity ever closer to the ultimate fear shared by J. Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein. The world had best heed their warnings.