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.

Nuclear Weapons: Is Civilization Going “Critical?”

While traveling through New England just two months ago, Linda and I made it a point to drop into any bookshop that looked interesting – our usual mode of operation. In the back room of a rustic little shop in Lenox, Massachusetts, I found a small, unassuming little volume titled simply, “Hiroshima.” Because of my interest in the science and history of nuclear weapons, I recognized the title as a possibly important one. It was published by John Hersey in 1946, the year after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is a bookplate on the inside cover, and the book’s fine condition suggests it had been cared for over the years. Hersey’s piece, an expose of the horrors of nuclear weaponry, was first published in the “New Yorker” magazine. My little book is an obvious first book edition.


Today’s “Wall Street Journal” Bookshelf (Aug. 6, 2014) under its byline, “A Decision and It’s Fallout,” reviews a new book by Paul Ham titled, “Hiroshima Nagasaki.” The book review mentions Hersey’s book as the best representative of the first wave of moral revulsion over the decision to use atomic bombs on Japan. Indeed, Hersey’s accounts of specific bombing victims and the general aftermath in Hiroshima paint a stark and gloomy picture.

With the specter of nuclear weapons ever-lurking in the shadows, the warfare currently raging on several world stages along with these specific recent reminders of Hiroshima prompted me to write this blog-post.

I cannot think of a more important question for us, the denizens of this planet, to ask ourselves than the one posed in the title of this post: “Is Civilization Going Critical?”

What does that mean? In nuclear weapons parlance, “going critical” refers to the condition whereby enough radioactive material is effectively combined to enable a nuclear “chain reaction.” A chain reaction occurs during the “fission” process whereby atoms are split apart releasing both energy and enough free neutrons which act as new “bullets” to split yet other neighboring atoms in a rapidly cascading scenario.


When the state of criticality is met, runaway fission occurs, accompanied by a tremendous, almost instantaneous release of nuclear energy in accordance with Einstein’s most famous prediction that e = mc2. A nuclear chain reaction can be controlled and sustained in a lab environment without catastrophic results as demonstrated by Enrico Fermi and his team of physicists. They were an advanced “arm” of the Manhattan Project, the government’s crash program in World War Two to build the first atomic bomb. Fermi and his team demonstrated the feasibility of a nuclear chain reaction on Dec.2, 1942 while working under the old football bleachers at the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field. In contrast with Fermi’s ability to moderate his chain reaction, in a nuclear weapon once criticality is reached in the bomb’s radioactive core, the reaction is unstoppable and virtually instantaneous.

There is no going back. It is that statement which frightens me about the state of world affairs, today. Are we, the societies which comprise our earthly civilization, approaching a point of criticality in our global relationships, and, given our powers of mutual mass destruction, risking a point of no return? Is a flash-point possible which triggers a chain reaction of events from which there is no turning back? I fear that is so.

Here are several questions which deserve serious consideration:

-When any country announces that it will do whatever it needs to do to protect its people, that is precisely what its citizens expect. But how far does that policy extend, and at what point are a country’s citizens deemed to be in mortal danger to the point where all options should be on the table?

-What would happen to any state or region of the globe deemed “responsible” if even a crude nuclear device were detonated in or over the financial center of New York City? While at this time, only Russia and China have nuclear arsenals large enough to truly destroy the United States in a physical sense, the damage inflicted by a single, small nuclear strike on New York City to this country’s economy and our way of life, would constitute a “virtual destruction” of the country as we know it. The retaliatory price to be paid would, almost certainly, be massive for the actual or perhaps even for a “perceived” perpetrator. And then what follows?

-What about an unintentional or unwarranted nuclear first-strike? Never say “impossible” – extremely unlikely, yes, but once nuclear-tipped missiles are launched, they cannot be called back – a necessary “precaution,” if you will. One thing is certain: The brilliance of the scientific/engineering community in decoding the laws of physics and fabricating such powerful weapons will never be matched by a similar competence and capability of the bureaucrats who control them. Perhaps you have heard the news of our recent missile silo problems in that regard.

-And finally: At what point will the common framework of “humanity” supersede the more secondary distinctions which so prevail today – nationality, race/ethnicity, religion, tribal allegiances, etc.?

Are Humans Capable of Managing
the Technologies They Create?

Increasingly, the evidence says no. Look at the recent reports of massive cyber-theft. Do you recall the live smallpox virus recently found in a cardboard box at some abandoned health facility? By long-standing international agreement, there are only two designated sites on the planet which are authorized to possess live smallpox… under lock-and-key: Russia and here, in the United States. These two examples illustrate the overriding fact that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link – a truism that will always haunt our efforts to manage technology. There will always be weak links and vulnerabilities! On a more benign level, many of today’s roads cannot handle the ridiculous commute traffic we have created, a legacy of that truly wonderful engineering triumph, the automobile. Say, wasn’t the automobile supposed to free us from our shackles?

Back to the Real Question

The real question is, of course: What policies will govern the possible use or non-use of acquired nuclear weapons? Implicit in any such discussion is the whole concept of “civilian casualties” in warfare, a topic so often pertinent to the conflicts we hear reported every day. There seem to be no satisfactory answers to that issue and to the even larger questions – and that is very troubling.  As the “Wall Street Journal” book review reported, “Dutch” Van Kirk, the last surviving crew member of the B-29, “Enola Gay,” which bombed Hiroshima, died last month. His view of modern warfare discounted any application of moral logic: “It’s really hard to talk about morality and war in the same sentence.” As General William T. Sherman so aptly stated and demonstrated in Georgia during the U.S. Civil War, “War is hell,” and there is no other way around it. The world had better think long and hard about that reality, for the potential stakes today are immense, and there is no room or time for second-thoughts.

A Postscript:

Two years ago, Linda and I toured Hyde Park on the Hudson in upper New York. We found it fascinating, and the more we learn about Franklin Roosevelt, the man and the politician, the more we want to know. As our little tour group assembled in front of the venerable old mansion which was Roosevelt’s family home for generations, our middle-aged tour guide with a back-east accent said something unusual, something which certainly struck a chord with me.

NY 2012_150_AlanPS“See that door over there at the right-corner of the house?” he asked. He went on to explain that is where Franklin Roosevelt and long-time friend and White House advisor, Harry Hopkins, made the most important decision of Roosevelt’s long career. In that little corner office, they set in motion the Manhattan Project, the full-out, no-expense-spared effort to develop the atomic bomb – before Germany could do it. The nuclear race was on. “A most unusual opening remark for a tour guide,” was my first reaction. My long interest in the Manhattan Project and all that it signifies, however, made me nod in agreement. Our guide had obviously studied his history and had similar viewpoints on that particular matter – very interesting!

For readers who would like to know more about the Manhattan Project and the ramifications which stem from its success, I whole-heartedly recommend the documentary film by Jon Else, “The Day After Trinity.” It is the best of the many and varied fine documentaries I have in my video library. It is a film which everyone should watch, and one which no one who does watch will forget. It is not a film about bombs, or science, or merely history – it is first and foremost a human story, centered on J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant principal architect of the bomb. The story, as related by many of the key players on the project, delivers a message for all humanity. Oppenheimer’s eyes on the DVD cover convey a message about the truth he had quickly recognized: The nuclear genie is loose, and it is already too late to control it.

IMG_1376PSDespite my enthusiastic testimonial for this film, I have no connection whatsoever with its sales or marketing. My mission here, as always, is to pass along something that I deem special to the readers of my blog.

The Pleasanton Antique & Collectable Fair: A Day Well-Spent

Yesterday was a gorgeous weather day, so we hit the road early and drove to the town of Pleasanton, California – some forty-five minutes away. We wanted to arrive there early for two reasons: First, to get a good parking space, and second, to get an early look at the goodies available from the many sellers at the bi-annual, one-day Pleasanton Antique & Collectable Fair.


Pleasanton has a wonderful Main Street that conveys the small-town ambience typical of smaller, mid-west towns. The line-up of sellers stretches for several long blocks – making the Pleasanton Fair one of the largest and finest in the whole central region of California. We went two years ago and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, indulging in early-morning coffee, a nice lunch, and hours of leisurely browsing under a bright blue sky and warm sun. Did we spend lots of money yesterday? No, but we did find some inexpensive little treasures just as we did two years ago. Although the thought of finding some blockbuster item at a bargain price may linger in the innermost recesses of our minds, it is the little surprises which inevitably provide the most pleasure. That kind of browsing experience meshes perfectly with one of my favorite personal mantras:

Think big thoughts, but relish small pleasures!

The last and perhaps my only truly great find in antique stores and at fairs was the excellent 1934 Ingersoll Mickey Mouse wristwatch which I purchased from a small antique shop in Fillmore, California, several years ago. Although it was not a steal, the price was very good, especially since the completely original, working watch was consigned by the local granddaughter of the man who originally purchased it at the Chicago World Fair of 1933. For more on that, see my post of September 8, 2013, A Rare Antique Shop Find: A 1934 Ingersoll Mickey Mouse Watch, available in my blog archive.


Yesterday, Linda found the “twin sister” to the little flower-vase figurine she purchased at Pleasanton two years ago. She hesitated to buy that first one until I told her to “go ahead and make an offer.” As I recall, she paid the same reasonable price for it as she did for her new twin yesterday. Linda was, once again, a happy camper yesterday as the seller carefully wrapped her treasure.

My eye is attracted to anything that is important, interesting, or artistically pleasing. That encompasses a wide range! Price/affordability and my wife’s usual injunction, “Where are you going to keep it?” are two factors which weigh heavily on anything under consideration! Accordingly, paper items are great because they are inexpensive and require little space. I bought this, yesterday, for a few dollars not even knowing what it actually was until I paid the seller. It is an antique blotter from the days when fountain pens ruled and ink dried slowly. I thought the artwork was fabulous.


I found the following image two years ago, a wonderful reminder of early commercial aviation when the Douglas DC-3 ruled supreme in the late thirties and early forties.

DC-3 Narrow

One “Small” Purchase Evoking “Big Thoughts”

The only other purchase I made yesterday caught my eye standing on the sales table all by its lonesome. It speaks for itself;  note the printing date of 1950 – one year after Russia surprised the world by detonating its first atomic bomb.

Atomic Attack

Those of us well over sixty years of age can recall the cold war and the school drills in case of nuclear attack which required us to get under our desks and keep our heads down! That had always seemed such a simplistic measure in the face of such destructive power, but what else was there to do? I found it fascinating that the booklet asked, “What about super bombs?” While not denying their possibility, it cautioned, “Don’t be mislead by wild talk of super-super bombs.” The text went on to state, “Do not be mislead by loose talk of imaginary weapons a hundred or a thousand times as powerful [ as the 20,000 tons of TNT explosive equivalent yielded by the first atomic bombs].” Seemingly to discourage public despair, the thirty-one page booklet argues that the destructive power of such “imaginary” bombs would not necessarily be a hundred or a thousand times greater than that of the first atomic bombs. The aforementioned  “imaginary weapons” of immense power were not long in becoming stark realities.

By 1950, when this U.S. Government booklet was reprinted by the State of California, Russia had just entered the atomic age and the first “super” or thermonuclear weapons were under development by the United States. The first such bomb, popularly known as the hydrogen bomb, was detonated in 1952 by the U.S. The Russians detonated theirs a mere one year later, to the horror of many.


When Linda and I vacationed in New Mexico a number of years ago, we visited Santa Fe and Los Alamos where the first atomic bomb was developed from 1941-1945. I recall standing amid displays of nuclear weapons showing their evolution  through the decades since 1945. The exhibit which sticks in my mind to this day displayed the casing for a modern one megaton (one million tons of TNT equivalent) thermonuclear bomb, a weapon capable of vaporizing the heart of a large city like New York. What impressed me so: The (dummy) device, slightly raised from the floor and lying right next to my feet was missle-shaped – roughly, a mere 13 feet long and two-and-a-half feet in diameter – truly sobering.

When I am thinking “big thoughts,” I often ponder what the future has in store for an increasingly nuclear world, one in which the deterrent effect of such weapons, which served to keep the peace during the cold war, may no longer be so effective. The pure atomic science which underlies nuclear energy along with the history of America’s Manhattan Project which birthed the bomb in 1945, and the geo-political ramifications of the nuclear age – these all combine to make fascinating reading and food for thought.

Despite the reminder imposed by that little booklet titled, “Survival Under Atomic Attack,” the day spent at Pleasanton presented the perfect opportunity to retreat from “big thoughts” and enjoy “small pleasures.”


 Some new sheet music!


The End




The Affordable Care Act Website Disaster: A Management Lesson from the Manhattan Project

The recent website disaster of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) resonates with those of us who come from engineering backgrounds. Engineers appreciate and quickly learn to anticipate what can go wrong…in any situation. I like to think of it as the “engineering mentality.” The recent ACA website problems seem to validate the scarcity of that mentality in Washington.

Murphy's Law_2

I wish to state up-front that my comments, here, have nothing to do with the inherent merits (or not) of the legislation itself or the politics that surround it.

I am interested specifically in what went wrong with its website implementation – not from a software developer’s technical point of view, but from a program management standpoint.

 What went wrong is abundantly clear: No specific person was designated to coordinate the effort who possessed the necessary independent authority and the technical competence to make the correct and necessary decisions. The task clearly required someone’s full-time attention to the effort because of its scale and importance. Furthermore, the Washington bureaucracy involved in the project failed to sufficiently monitor those upon whom they depended – specifically, the three or four major contractors.

Management and tracking of the website’s progress, even by the Washington folks with a huge vested interest like Health and Human Services (HHS) and the president himself, seems anemic at best. It appears they thought since the project is being handled by a “bunch of professionals,” everything will turn out to be just fine. A “bunch of professionals” is a useless entity for assuring true accountability and effective program coordination.

Capitol Building

Washington seems quite unfamiliar with the cornerstone of the engineering mentality – Murphy’s Law – which states, “If anything can go wrong, it will !”

 The Manhattan Project and the Development of the Atomic Bomb:
The Primary Take-Away Lesson for All Large-Scale Programs

The number-one lesson: Have a focused responsibility for overall program coordination and accountability – like the Manhattan Project during World War Two, which was even more demanding than “rocket science.”

 Let us look back at that program, its management, and its accountability/visibility. As I pondered the stinging review of the website fiasco in Peggy Noonan’s Wall Street Journal column this past week, the focus of my mind’s eye settled on two individuals who were critical to the Manhattan Project and its successful development of the atomic bomb – a really difficult challenge. Those two individuals were the catalyst which made the technical effort at Los Alamos, New Mexico, the success that it was. The project mandate and schedule were of a scale and complexity never before attempted.

The original charter behind the Manhattan Project was to save the world from a potentially nuclear Germany during World War 2 by developing a weapon first. Albert Einstein, pacifist though he was, nevertheless signed that famous letter to Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 which hinted at the possibility that Germany might attempt to develop a nuclear device; his signature on the drafted letter reflected Einstein’s concern about Hitler and served to raise Washington’s awareness of the potential problem. Other than his purely scientific role in 1905 in formulating the basis of nuclear energy, the famous equation e = mc2, Einstein had no further role in nuclear weapons development. The day before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt approved the Manhattan Project.

In Charge and Accountable!
General Leslie Groves and Robert Oppenheimer

The government’s point-man in-charge was one Leslie Groves, a general from the Army Corps of Engineers. History proved him a fortuitous choice in many ways. His most important and telling decision was one of his first, the appointment of a brilliant Berkeley physics professor to be the technical point-man for the entire scientific/engineering effort – reporting directly to Groves. His name: Robert Oppenheimer, a certified liberal whose close circle included ties to the communist party – not exactly the choice a top-secret program would espouse during an era when the motives of Russia as an ally were highly suspect.

Despite protests from those in charge of government security, Groves had a hunch about Oppenheimer and pushed through the appointment – a most improbable one at the time. Oppenheimer knew physics, no doubt, but he had no management experience. Program management ability and brilliance in nuclear physics are not common bed-fellows, to be sure, but Groves had the management foresight and the people-skills necessary to recognize that Oppenheimer was not to be so easily pigeon-holed by conventional wisdom.

Can One Person in Charge and Accountable Forge
the Success of a Major Program? The Answer is Yes.

Quite likely, there has never been anyone so “in the right place at the right time” as Robert Oppenheimer. Imagine being put in charge of a huge, all-out scientific program with dire national security implications. Imagine having to start from scratch by recruiting numerous Nobel Laureates in Physics and Chemistry and relocating them and their families from idyllic college campuses across the United States (and abroad) to the empty high-desert of Los Alamos, New Mexico. Imagine trying to make a practical “gadget” (as the bomb was called) which depended upon scientific findings only discovered within the previous few years. Imagine the immense pressure of staying ahead of often ego-centric Nobel Laureates and earning their respect while coordinating their efforts over several major technical disciplines. Finally, imagine the pressure of possibly failing – producing a “dud” or perhaps nothing at all while ever-mindful that Germany might get there first and threaten world-dominance.

In the end, Germany did not succeed, and the very first and only test shot of the “gadget” in July of 1945 was a complete success. Japan would experience first-hand the next two detonations, unfortunately. Whatever one’s feelings are about the use of these weapons, they did abruptly end the war while illustrating that mankind should never again use them. The program to develop the bomb was an undeniable management success, and that is the central point to be made, here.

The other pertinent point is this: Many who were at Los Alamos subsequently said after the war that the whole endeavor could not have happened without Oppenheimer at the helm…and they sincerely meant it.

This relatively young Berkeley Professor of physics, although immersed among Nobel Laureates who were some of the world’s most eminent theoretical scientists, reputedly had the quickest mind of them all. I recall listening to the venerable physics laureate, Hans Bethe, recount, after working under Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, that he had never met anyone quite so quick-of-mind, so able to quickly assimilate complex ideas and information as Oppenheimer. Most who were there agreed that he was deeply involved in the scientific and engineering work that was conducted during the four year effort, much of it at a detailed technical level, both as overseer and contributor.

Incredibly, this brilliant physicist, a scholar who spoke multiple languages and reveled in 16th century French poetry, morphed into an equally capable administrator, able to orchestrate the entire technical effort. Despite Oppenheimer’s various faults, he turned out to be a superb but initially most improbable choice by General Groves to lead the technical effort. By way of comparison:

Who was the Point-Person Accountable for Coordinating
the ACA Website Development? Apparently No
One with the Necessary Authority and/or Capability.

Despite the relative complexity of the ACA website, it is not rocket science, and it certainly is not nuclear weapons technology as was the Manhattan Project. Neither did it require such a rare duo such as General Groves and Robert Oppenheimer to insure a successful, timely result.

What it did require was a software development guru/manager who, like Oppenheimer in the world of physics, had been there before and understood the work at eye-level – one with a complete understanding of how to manage individual contractors while melding their contributions seamlessly into a working site. An effective coordinator must possess the widespread authority necessary to make large and inter-related program decisions, largely free from bureaucratic gridlock. The list of qualified candidates almost assuredly could not have included anyone in the Washington ranks.

When Groves had a technical question or issue, he went to Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer rarely had to go hunting for the answer among the Nobel Laureates; he knew who was doing what, he understood the details, and he could articulately explain it all to a technical layperson like Groves who then effectively interfaced with Washington.

Not Every Race-Horse Can Be Secretariat, but At Least
Find A Horse Who Can Cover the Ground!

Someone like Oppenheimer is a rare breed, like the great race-horse Secretariat, so I cite him as the quintessential, extreme example of how the right person in management can directly induce success, even in an undertaking of enormous proportions like the Manhattan Project.

Surely someone with solid personal credentials and a proven track-record in website development could have been separately contracted by the administration to be their independent point-person and chartered to coordinate the various vendors who each claim to have produced modules which work just fine …therefore  the problem is someone else’s responsibility! A person with the required competence imbued with the necessary authority to make decisions could have assumed total responsibility and prevented many of the mistakes which now appear evident.

Embarrassing, and not acceptable at any level! Washington should have known better than to depend on its bureaucrats to indirectly “manage” a project of this complexity! The message to them? Review the history of successes like the Manhattan Project and NASA’s space program, and re-learn how to manage government programs. It is not nuclear physics or even rocket science! It is actually just common-sense.

Postscript: I highly recommend the following DVD documentary on Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, The Day After Trinity. It presents the history of the Manhattan Project, one of mankind’s most remarkable and controversial achievements, while spotlighting the fascinating persona of the main protagonist, Robert Oppenheimer. My sole personal motive for citing this documentary, here, is to share with you my opinion that it is the most interesting and thought-provoking story in my extensive documentary collection. Those who relate the story in the film were participants – there when it all happened.

Day After Trinity