Isaac Newton and the Plague of 1665/66: Perhaps the Greatest Year in Science!

Today, we have the Covid-19 virus pandemic which threatens America – indeed the entire globe. Many of us are just now emerging from weeks of “sheltering-in-place” while avoiding the virus and its risks. Virtually overnight, we found ourselves confined to home with copious spare time on our hands, time to do all those “other things” which prove to be so elusive in normal times. Many are the voices which have expressed this as a surprise blessing! Indeed, what have you been able to accomplish using this unexpected windfall of extra time at home?

Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire

The all-time poster-child for shelter-in-place achievers happens also to be the greatest scientist who ever lived, Isaac Newton (yes, even greater than Albert Einstein who holds second position – in my humble estimation!).

As a young, unknown student, Newton had just completed his undergraduate work at Cambridge University in the year 1665 when the fearsome bubonic plague, the “black death” as it was called, swept through London and regions of England. Armed only with the most rudimentary medical knowledge, Londoners and folks in the countryside resorted to the only option available to them: sheltering-in-place to avoid exposure. Sounds familiar, does it not?

 In 1665, despite centuries of recorded plagues and millions of deaths, the origin and transmission of such deadly pandemics were to remain unknown for a surprisingly long time. It was not until 1894 that Alexandre Yersin identified the bacterium responsible for such a horrible affliction. In 1898, Jean-Paul Simond revealed that the bacterium was spread through flea bites. Rodents were identified as the principal hosts and transmission vehicle for these fleas. Although largely treatable and well-controlled, today, “the black death” surprisingly still stalks the earth and its human populations!

The year 1666 is known as Newton’s “annus mirabilis,” the “miracle year” in science due to thought processes and experiments that took place in a tiny manor house in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, near Cambridge. It was there, in his mother’s rustic farm-house, the place where he was born, that young Newton secluded himself from the plague for more than a year of intense contemplation, investigation, and writing.

At Woolsthorpe, Newton formulated three fundamental cornerstones of science and mathematics: first, the foundation of modern calculus, known then as Newton’s theory of fluxions; second, experiments with prisms and light which led to his second masterwork book in 1704, the Optics; and finally, his thoughts on the strange nature of gravitational attraction which led to his ultimate masterwork of 1687, Philosophie Naturalis Principia Mathematica which translates from Latin as: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.

The Principia is universally regarded as the greatest scientific book ever published, being the product of perhaps the most fertile mind in the recorded history of mankind. In the book, Newton combined his prodigious knowledge of Euclidean geometry with fledgling elements of his new calculus to describe mathematically, for the first time, no less than the motion of the planets through the heavens. Also revealed are Newton’s three laws of motion, the basis of modern physics/mechanics, and his notion of universal gravitational attraction.

Newton’s prodigious output during that year-plus of sheltering-in-place at Woolsthorpe is legendary because his investigative conclusions at that time led directly to his later, refined publications and their great advancement of scientific knowledge and method.

In stark contrast to Newton, this writer will be happy to further organize his den, write a few blog posts (such as this one), and clean-out the garage over the next several months. Oh…and I hope to give myself a much-needed haircut, soon! Like Newton, we can all strive, in our own way, to make the best of a terrible situation.

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

THINK. Thinking is Hard Work

The history of IBM, the International Business Machine Corporation is as storied as any the world has seen. In recent times, Apple Computer had its iconic guru, Steve Jobs, to pave its pathway to fame and fortune. In earlier times, IBM’s Thomas J. Watson served much the same role in building his company into the tech giant it was to become. Watson coined the famous admonition, THINK – his way of spurring on the company’s workforce to bigger and brighter contributions. I recall as a youngster seeing his famous single-word motto displayed in such diverse places as banks, schools, and other institutions.

Photo: IBM Archives

IBM headquarters at Endicott, New York, 1935. Note the “THINK” motto emblazoned on the building. Pictured are 25 female college graduates, newly trained for three months as IBM system service women. Their role: after assignment to IBM branch offices, they assisted salesmen in assessing customer requirements and training customers on the use of IBM equipment. Their three male instructors are also pictured.

I find Watson’s admonition at once simple, yet profound. What does constitute the notion of “thinking,” and why is that a very non-trivial exercise? Critical thinking is important across all life-disciplines. I would venture, however, that science and engineering are more viable as gateways to understanding the process of critical thinking than most activities in which we humans are involved. Recall the oft-used phrase: “Its not exactly rocket science!”

My acquaintance with the subject derives from my educational and career background as an electrical engineer, here, in Silicon Valley, California. Anyone who has studied chemistry, physics, and mathematics at the college level can truly appreciate the notion of critical thinking. During my undergrad and graduate level years, I can recall, more than I care to admit, the long hours (even nights) spent on a concept or a homework problem that just would not submit to standard perusal.

Such incidents would call for sweeping aside the current method of attack in favor of a fresh new visualization of the problem. Often, this nasty situation occurred late at night while working under pressure to complete a homework assignment due the next day. The scenario just described demands what Thomas Watson so unabashedly promoted as his corporate motto: THINK. When persistence coupled with a fresh approach saved the day for me as a student, and later as working engineer, the joy of sudden insight and mastery of the issue at hand was sweet, indeed. That very joy and satisfaction serve to fuel the desire of science and engineering students to keep on studying and learning, despite the prospect of new and greater challenges ahead. One soon realizes that learning is primarily about harnessing the ability to think!

Thinking is hard, and most of us do not spend enough time doing it. At my advanced age and despite an active curiosity in earlier years, I still find myself formulating questions about all matter of things which I had never questioned before. Often my questions have to do with things financial. For instance: “Why is a rising stock price beneficial to the corporation involved since the corporation generally does not sell its stock directly to traders and investors? Ordinary folks outside the corporation who own shares as investors would seem to be the primary beneficiaries of such gains, and, yet, the mechanisms of corporate finance somehow bestow significant rewards to the corporation as well. How, exactly, does that work?” For a business major, that probably seems a naïve question, but, then again, how many business professionals have thought deeply about Einstein’s theory of special relativity? For us non-business types, it is quite easy to participate successfully as an investor in the complex equities market without really understanding what goes on “behind the curtain.” Ease of use leads to complacency, and complacency is ever the enemy of informative curiosity, it seems.

I worry about the younger generation, so many of whom seem to be satisfied with accumulating “factoids,” little isolated bits of information from the internet and social media. Thomas Watson understood that “to think” meant forming often non-obvious connections between seemingly isolated concepts and bits of information…and that is the hard part of thinking. The resulting “whole” of the picture which emerges by connecting the dots often proves the key to great scientific progress or profitable business opportunities.

Thinking was hard work even for history’s greatest minds. Isaac Newton stated the belief that his greatest personal asset was the ability to hold a particularly intractable problem clearly in his mind’s eye for days and weeks on-end while his conscious and sub-conscious mind churned toward a solution. Newton was clearly aware that such discipline and capability was not an attribute possessed by the rest of us. While attempting to apply his newly created laws of celestial mechanics to the complex motions of our own moon, Newton confessed to experiencing excruciating “headaches” over his difficulties with the moon’s motion. Thinking was hard, even for the greatest mind in recorded history! Certainly, the problems tackled by Newton were of a complexity far beyond our own everyday challenges. Albert Einstein attributed the essence of his genius to “merely” a combination of raging curiosity and the mule-like persistence which he brought to bear when uncovering nature’s most guarded secrets. Thinking and discovery were hard work for Einstein, as well.

The self-stated attributes of these two towering intellects have, as their common foundation, the willingness and the ability to THINK – to think long and hard about difficult problems and critical relationships in the physical world. I concur with Thomas J. Watson: although operating on a much lower plane than Newton and Einstein, we all need to THINK more deeply than ever about the world around us and about who we are. Consider the legacies left to us by Newton and Einstein – all the result of unbridled curiosity and the willingness to think deeply in search of answers to their own questions.

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.