In 1943, J. Robert Oppenheimer recruited American physicist Robert Bacher to join the Manhattan Project as head of the experimental physics division at Los Alamos. Bacher directed the bomb physics division at Los Alamos from 1944 to 1945, helping oversee the design of the implosion bomb, known as “Fat Man,” that was dropped on Nagasaki. In this interview, Bacher recalls the initial conference of Los Alamos laboratory leadership in 1943 and describes Oppenheimer’s relationships with Enrico Fermi and General Leslie Groves.
Los Alamos, NM
Martin Sherwin: I’m interviewing Robert Serber at his home in New York City. Date is January 9th, 1982.
Let me just begin at the beginning and ask you, how did you get to Berkeley? Why did you go there?
Serber: I got my degree at Wisconsin with [John] Van Vleck, and that was ’34. You didn’t have very many choices of what you can do. But I got a National Research Fellowship, which, if I recall, there were only five of them available that year. That was a year when the new membership of the American Physical Society was thirteen.
Stanislaus Ulam: You know, after forty-five years in this country, my accent is still very hard.
Martin Sherwin: That’s all right. I still have a Brooklyn accent.
Ulam: Oh, you do?
Sherwin: I left Brooklyn twenty years ago. I think even though I do know a lot of the answers to some of the questions I’m going to ask you from your book—
Martin Sherwin: This is an interview with Professor Joseph Rotblat, R-O-T-B-L-A-T, at his office in London. Well it really was quite a production. Seven hours!
Joseph Rotblat: Yes, oh yes, quite a production.
Sherwin: I thought Sam Waterston played a marvelous part.
Sherwin: The person who played [J. Robert] Oppenheimer.
Joseph Rotblat (1908-2005) was a British-naturalized Polish physicist and 1995 Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Rotblat joined British physicist James Chadwick to work on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos in 1944. Rotblat was opposed to using the bomb or using science to develop such a weapon. He left the Manhattan Project on grounds of conscience in late 1944 when it became clear Germany was not close to developing an atomic bomb. Rotblat was not allowed to reenter the United States until 1964 because of an accusation of spying for the Soviet Union.
Martin Sherwin: The work must have been sort of very frustrating for a while, before that [Stanislaus] Ulam-[Edward] Teller breakthrough [on the hydrogen bomb].
Ed Hammel: Well, sure. There was—
Sherwin: What were you doing at that time?
Hammel: At that point, I continued with having this group in charge of properties of plutonium. But one of the things that we were very interested in was the low temperature properties, the specific heat specifically, of plutonium.
Edward F. "Ed" Hammel was an American chemist.
Martin Sherwin: Martin Sherwin, I am about to interview Dr. Hempelmann at Strong Memorial Hospital.
You know, simply from all of the Los Alamos records, but who told me you were at Strong? That was, I think, Dorothy McKibbin.
Louis Hempelmann: Oh yeah.
Sherwin: No, she confirmed it. She said you were coming out to Santa Fe.
Louis Hempelman was a doctor and radiologist who worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. He was a close friend of J. Robert Oppenheimer, his wife Kitty, and their children.
Martin Sherwin: On June 5th, 1982. Well, now, John, why don’t you start and ask questions about the relationship with Cliff, because I think the [J. Robert] Oppenheimer relationship might be able to go on forever, and we’ll never get to your questions.
John S. Rosenberg: Okay. Well, first, how did you come to meet? What was the nature of your original coming together?