Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation and this is Friday, April 10, 2015. We’re at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. I have Hans Courant with me, and the first question for him is please tell us your name and spell it.
Hans Courant: My name is Hans Courant, and it’s spelled C-o-u-r-a-n-t. It’s French for running, Courant, c’est moi.
Kelly: Right. So, are you a runner?
Courant: I have been. I think I did six marathons, but I don’t do that anymore. I now just walk.
Kelly: Well, that’s wonderful. So, tell us what year were you? What was your birthdate and a birthday, if you can tell us.
Courant: October 30, 1924, is when I met my mother.
Kelly: That’s when you met your mother. And, where were you when you met her?
Courant: I was in Gottingen, Germany, which was, well, it’s a university town in Germany, in the middle of Germany, actually, more recently, near the border between East and West Germany. But, now it’s in the middle of Germany.
Kelly: So, was it technically, during the Cold War years, was it East or West?
Courant: It was West.
Kelly: It was West. So, were your parents involved with the university?
Courant: Oh, yes. My father was a mathematics professor, and in fact, when we moved to New York, he became a mathematics professor at NYU. There is now an institute of mathematics at NYU fourteen stories high near Washington Square in downtown New York, which is called the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. But, Papa is no longer living.
Kelly: That’s fabulous.
Courant: Yes. But, he did a lot for mathematics, mainly by bringing people here who helped found the American mathematical community here. If you talk to a mathematician and he says, “I have been to Courant,” that means that he’s been part of this institute. That happens worldwide, so it’s an important place, my father’s, in New York.
Kelly: Oh, my goodness.
Courant: All of that was built, of course, when I was a child.
Kelly: So, did your dad try to instill in you a love of mathematics?
Courant: Not much, no, no. But, he wanted me to become an engineer, an electrical engineer, or he thought that I should be.
Kelly: So how did that turn out?
Courant: Well, I thought I would take electrical engineering and take as much physics as possible, and then I majored in physics, thinking I would take as much electrical as possible. But, I never did the electrical.
I don’t know much about my childhood, but I do know that we had a wonderful house in Gottingen, and my father had visitors to the house constantly, important people, whom I always loved and whom I called ‘Onkel’ this and ‘Onkel’ that. And, then when the Nazi business started to get serious in 1933 or ’32, my father went to England for six months and took my older brother with him and my mother. He planted the other kids, two sisters and me, or one sister and me and planted them with people in Europe.
He sent me to Copenhagen, and there I stayed with a mathematician, whose name was Harold Bohr. He is the brother of Niels Bohr, who is an important physicist and whom I knew from Gottingen, because he came from time-to-time to visit. So I went often during that year to visit Onkel Niels with the kids from Niels’ brother. So, that was a very nice part of my life in Copenhagen.
Kelly: That’s astounding. Did you know Aage and the Bohr children?
Courant: Yes, I did then. And then I went back to Gottingen and my father took a job at NYU and we left in 1934. It was still very doable. My father was Jewish-born. He was not a religious Jew, but he was born a Jew and the Nazis certainly would have done him in if they had, if it was a little later. But, it wasn’t.
So we left in 1934 and my father had a job at NYU. And, I remember that he was able still, he was allowed to use his German money to buy tickets on the railroad to the ship. He bought tickets on the ship, which was a German passenger ship called the Stuttgart, and we all got on that ship and went off to New York. And, in New York, that is really where my life began.
Kelly: So, I’m trying to get now how many siblings did you have?
Courant: Well, I had an older brother and an older sister and a younger sister.
Kelly: The whole family came together.
Courant: That’s right. And, we had a very nice time on the ship, because my father had useless money, German money to buy tickets and to buy things, until we used up all the cash that he had on the ship. So, he went to bursar and he said, “I’d like to withdraw some more money.”
The bursar said, “Oh, well, would you like that in Deutschmark or would you like that in dollars?”
My father said, “Oh, give it to me in dollars.”
He took all the money that he had planted in dollars on the ship, but we never had another bottle of Coca-Cola or whatever the equivalent was in those days. He had been very generous in letting us do anything we wanted and the like. But, once he got that money in dollars, there was nothing. If we could have moved to steerage and gotten the money back for first class tickets, we would have, but we didn’t.
So we lived it out and went to New York where we were met by an acquaintance of my father, who had a very fancy house in Westchester County. We were met by this man’s chauffeur and we were taken off to their house. Then my father fiddled around and looked for houses to live in, and he found a house in a town called New Rochelle, near New York City, about, oh, I guess fifteen miles outside of New York. He commuted to NYU and we lived in that house for as long as I remember, and it was 142 Calton Road in New Rochelle, a wonderful house. And, I’m sure the house is still there. I haven’t seen it again, but it’s still there, I’m sure.
I started in fourth grade in New Rochelle, and it was interesting. I saw a car there most every day in front of the school, and I started to talk to the lady who was in that car driving it. She was waiting for her son, who happened to be in my class. His name was Martin Kruskal and she was his mother. We became very good friends. I loved automobiles and so she had a car. [Laughs]. That was it. But, I also became very good friends with Martin Kruskal, and he became a mathematician, of all things, and was for some time, I believe, at Princeton. I don’t believe he is living anymore, and I know his mother is not living anymore.
We lived in New Rochelle and I grew up bit-by-bit in New Rochelle. We had house visitors from all over the world. I don’t know whether the Bohrs ever came, but there were all sorts of important people who came to visit the house and stayed and had dinner at our house. Or, even made chamber music. My mother organized chamber music for herself and her kids, although I didn’t do it, but the other kids did in the house in Calton Road. Every, more or less every week there was a chamber music get together in our house with a wonderful dinner. Many of the people who came were themselves refugees from Europe, from Germany, and many of them were wonderful musicians, oboe, double bass, violin, viola, cello, all of that happened, and it happened more or less every week in that house in Calton Road. Very nice.
Kelly: So your family left 1934 from there, partly because your father was able to get a new position.
Kelly: Were there restrictions on other family members who stayed behind, or did everyone have a chance to get out?
Courant: No, the only family members behind were my mother’s family, who are not Jewish. So it wasn’t very hard on them. It may have been unpleasant for them in a few ways, but it wasn’t legally hard on them. My mother’s mother lived down the street from us in Gottingen, Germany, and she survived for quite a few years.
I grew up going to school in Gottingen, and I had a lot of good friends. I was always very sociable, but I was never allowed to be part of the Hitlerjugend and I thought that that was because my parents refused to let me. Actually, I probably would never have been allowed to be part of the Hitler Youth, but I had friends who were and I wanted to be with them. But, it worked out all right for me, and I was, after all, only nine and ten. But, the Nazis would’ve done me in, too, for being half Jewish. So, I didn’t stay. Instead, I was in New Rochelle. It was just marvelous for me.
I went to this school, fourth grade, fifth, sixth, and when it came time for the seventh grade, I moved schools. My father had met someone on one of his trips when he was an important mathematician before the Hitler time. And, one of the students who came to Gottingen to the institute where my father was a shot, a bigshot, his name was Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer talked about how wonderful his high school was in New York. So, when we landed in New York, my father went to see the Oppenheimers, to see whether he could find the high school for my brother, my older brother, who was, well, maybe six years older than I, and who needed a good education.
They arranged, or made sure that my father knew about this school on the outskirts of New York called Fieldston School, and it was an upper school for the—what do they call them—the ethical culture movement in New York. The ethical culture movement was mainly by people like my father who had been Jewish, or who were Jewish, and but who were doing New York pretty well and who, they started some schools, undergraduate school or sixth grade school on the west side of New York. And, then the Fieldston School for the upper, and my brother went to the Fieldston School and found it very good, and then went on to graduate school and what-not. My sister, my older sister also went to Fieldston School. So when it was time, I also went to Fieldston School when I went to seventh grade, or first form as it was called in those days. I still am in touch with Fieldston School from time to time.
The war had begun and it was almost over when my father said, “You must go to college,” because I was getting to be sixteen or seventeen, and he still had the idea that people who were at the university would not be forced into the military. That was not the case of this country, but he did say when I was a junior at Fieldston, “You must go to college now.”
And, I said, “Papa, that can’t, that isn’t the way things are done here. You have to go to the senior year.”
He wouldn’t listen, because he was in a very difficult state with the Germany that he had built, that he had worked on, was at war. So I had to apply and I applied at a number of colleges, and I got turned down by some, which is what Fieldston said would happen. But, I got accepted by MIT in Boston, or in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be more exact. And, so I’m a school dropout and I went to Fieldston. After one semester at Fieldston [misspoke: MIT], the Army took me. And, so I went into the Army.
Kelly: After one semester at MIT?
Courant: At MIT, excuse me, yes, after one semester at MIT, which was all quite wonderful for me. I mean, MIT took me, I guess because the war was on and they were having trouble getting applicants. But they did, this applicant didn’t get to stay very long. But, then I had at MIT an “in”, and so when it came, years later, to the end of the war, I was able to say to the people in the Army, “Do let me out. I want to go back to college.”
So I didn’t have to wait for the troop ships to come back with people who had really fought in the war or who had done much more terrifying things, I was allowed to go out and go back to MIT. And so I did and that just worked fine for me. The Army let me out and off I went to college again, and I was at MIT as a freshman, second semester and then third semester, fourth semester, etc. Then people from Los Alamos came to MIT as professors and as graduate students and the like.
I went to work immediately at MIT for a graduate student in cosmic ray studies, who had been my boss at Los Alamos, and who had me building all sorts of electronic equipment for the physicists. So here he was, that was Matt Sands, and he went off to be a professor at Cal Tech after he finished at MIT. I just stayed with Matt Sands, even though he was a grad student and I worked as a technician for him.
So I had a job at MIT as soon as I got there, so to speak, and I had a colleague and a master and helper in all my academic things. And, it was just a wonderful way to get started. I mean, who as a freshman has a job like that? So, that was just very great for me, and I stayed at MIT. Matt Sands went off to California to Cal Tech when he got his degree, and well, I stayed at MIT and eventually did graduate work there in the same group that I had been working for and with as an undergraduate and eventually got my degree, my graduate degree.
Then I went on some things like something fellowship to Paris and stayed there for a year at École Polytechnique, a French polytechnic institute, and that was very good for me, too. In fact, Matt Sands, my boss, was there too for a year when I was there. Then, after MIT, after École Polytechnique, I went back, I went to something called Yale University on the East Coast and I was there for three years or more.
Then I went again to Europe to what was just beginning then, was called CERN, the Centre Européenne de la Recherche Nucléaire, which is just outside of Geneva, and is now a very important and huge laboratory, which was just being built then. Anyway, I visited there.
By then, I had a wife and a couple of kids, and I was at CERN for two, two and a half years. I lived in a nice little village in France just across the border. I crossed the border every morning and every evening. The police there knew me and waved me through, and it was all very, very nice and a very good life for me and for my children and for my wife at that time.
But, then we had the visitor from the University of Minnesota and so I ended up coming here after shipping back to New York and the like. And, I’ve been a professor here ever since.
Kelly: How many years is that, when did you come first?
Courant: I don’t remember the numbers, I’m sorry.
Kelly: In the ‘50s then sometime.
Courant: Yes, must be, must be, yeah.
Kelly: Well, that was quite a life.
Courant: Yes, so far.
Kelly: So far, yes, indeed, terrific. Well, now maybe you can go back a bit in time to when the Army invited you out of MIT when you had finished a semester.
Courant: Yeah, well, the history there was that I was put to the induction center on Long Island, which was then called—anyway, which is now the physics laboratory, Brookhaven. I was there getting my uniform and getting this and getting that, but they didn’t know what to do with me then either. I was there for the better part of a week, which is much longer than most of the people coming into the Army, who just got uniforms thrown at them and then were sent to various places.
Eventually, the Army sent me to Texas, where I was put into a training program to become an anti-tank gunner. That was not a very good profession in the military, because it implied frontline activity. Nevertheless, I was in training at Camp Walters, I believe it was called, in Texas.
I woke up one morning, terrible headache, but I was awake, and I said to the sergeant, “I can’t, I can’t anything.”
He said, “Go to the medical.”
So I went to the medical and sat there while all the other people who were in the waiting room were getting shots and other things that they had to do. Somebody finally, I was shivering from time to time and coughing, and nobody would sit next to me. But, there were many people. But, gradually, fewer and fewer and eventually they came to me and said, “What’s with you?”
I said, “Well, I’m sick.”
They took me away and the next thing I knew, I woke up and I had a disease called spinal meningitis, which is a deadly disease, but which they had just started a new drug called sulfadiazine. I responded well to that drug and eventually got over it, over the disease. And, eventually went back to New Rochelle, where my father and mother lived, and spent three weeks there in the last recovery. Then the Army took me back.
Then the Army, in response to the demand by the colleges and universities for young men, the Army sent me to a place called Baylor University in a program called ASTP, Army Specialized Training Program. There, we marched around with a sergeant ordering us about and then we went to classes, and then we did a few more military things. But, mainly, we were students.
One day, the sergeant hauled me out of the swimming pool and said, “Get your stuff together, you’re being shipped out.” So, I got my stuff together and filled up my barracks bag and was given a ticket to Santa Fe, New Mexico. First, I had to take a train from Baylor to Chicago, if I remember correctly, and then from Chicago to Santa Fe, which didn’t have a railroad station. But, the railroad station for Santa Fe was called Lamy, New Mexico. Then there was a bus that took people to Santa Fe.
I ended up in Santa Fe with my barracks bag, and I said to somebody, “Where is Box 1663?”
That person looked at me and said, “Follow me.”
He took me to one of the back streets, right by the central piece of Santa Fe, where there was a lady who was called Dorothy McKibbin and she said, “You will be sent to—” (what was then going to be Los Alamos).
“Come back in two hours, leave your stuff here, and off you go.”
I left my stuff, wandered about a little bit, got back in two hours and off we drove. I don’t know whether it’s thirty miles or forty miles to Los Alamos, but then I went through the gate and I was in Los Alamos for two and a half years.
I was there with an outfit called the Special Engineer Detachment, SED. There were maybe fifty of us in the barracks, and we were still, we were in Army uniforms. People who were there long before I came had actually been there in civilian clothes, but the military decided to put the military people into Army clothes. I never got to breathe in civilian clothes.
I fiddled around a little bit and they put me into the electronics shop at Los Alamos, the central laboratory. There I was for many years building circuits for one of the young physicists, a graduate student in physics, actually, who was my boss, Matt Sands, who later came to MIT and all that. I worked for him and I built things that he designed and wanted built, and I did that for a long time, for a couple of years, for five and six days a week. I would walk from the barracks where I slept to the tech area and then it was really a very good place to work.
Everybody at Los Alamos was working. I mean a place to spend the war couldn’t have been healthier and better than that. Everybody there was working for the same general aims. So it wasn’t very difficult to work for five or six days a week and work for eight, nine, ten hours. It was just all perfectly normal, and the people there were all quite wonderful, most of them, many of them.
Some of them knew my father, because mathematics was an important subject for many. So I got some pretty good treatment. My colleagues didn’t all get invited to an occasional dinner in somebody’s house as did I, and so I also met people and had friends outside of the military. But, it was a very good undertaking for me, and well, that just went on. Then, finally, well, I tried some other jobs at Los Alamos, but I stayed in the electronics business.
I was finally sent to Alamogordo to install some of the equipment I had made, to measure pressure in case, for the bomb test. So, I worked hard there for a couple of weeks and I was there for the atomic bomb test at south 10,000, I believe its south, south 10,000 yards. It was the nearest open air site to watch the bomb test. That was a miserable morning, miserable night, and then the rain stopped and they said, “Let’s go ahead with the test.”
They needed the test, because the war was having to come to an end and we needed, or we wanted the bomb. So I was there that morning. I forgot the date, but it’s on record. I was given a sheet of cardboard with a hole in it and a piece of welder’s glass to look through, to look toward ground zero, 10,000 yards away. We were supposed to lie down with our feet toward ground zero. But, it was, the ground was wet and it had, it was very cold and clammy, and I knew better. So, I sat on a stump and I held up my shield. Then the countdown began and then the flash. My hands got warm from the heat from the bomb, which just grew and grew, and then eventually started up into the sky. But, I had been sitting there and I thought, “Oh, my God.”
I went splat into the mud to keep watching, but I was following advice. But, I didn’t really, for the moment that the neutrons had to come through. I watched and that was, that was really quite an experience. It was terrible. It all worked and suddenly I realized that next time there would be people under it. It never occurred to me. Well, it was also wonderful. It worked. All of these couple of years of work.
We got put into a station wagon or what was a military truck. There were several of us and we were shipped back to Los Alamos, which was maybe eighty miles away or 100 miles. We were told not to talk about this to anybody from outside. That is, when we went for what is now called a piss stop, where people could relieve themselves.
I got back to Los Alamos, and of course, it was still a really big secret. It had not been announced, and it was really a difficult few days. But, we were also celebrating our success, how we really managed to do this. So, there was a very peculiar mixture of the slaying of many people and then also, “That’ll show them, to dabble with the likes of us.”
Well, then it all came somewhat to an end, and then the bomb was dropped and the war came to an end. I told them I wanted to get out of the Army, I am a freshman at MIT, and they said, “Fine. We’ll let you out. You don’t have to wait for the troop ships to come back from Europe,” and so on.
So, I got some kind of special dispensation because I was already in college. I went back to MIT and I did the second semester and so on and so forth. Then people from Los Alamos started showing up at MIT, including my boss from Los Alamos, Matt Sands, who was a graduate student in cosmic rays. So I worked with him. What a thing. Here is a freshman at MIT, but I had a paid job working for my Los Alamos friend, who knew exactly what I could do and what I should do and what not.
I had him as an advisor and as a colleague and as a boss, and it was just marvelous. He worked in the group of cosmic ray people under Bruno Rossi and Rossi had been at Los Alamos also. I did not know him at Los Alamos, but I, of course, got to know him at MIT. I stayed on when Matt left and I finished school and went to graduate school, staying at MIT. I stayed in the Rossi group and I kept doing the same stuff all the time, I mean, more or less the same stuff, but more physics, I mean more my experiments.
I did my thesis work in Colorado near Denver on a mountain called Mt. Evans, which is just west of Denver, and which is 14,160 feet high. There I ran a cloud chamber for my cosmic ray activities. I don’t know whether Matt was part of that group by then. But, anyway, I did that and eventually went back to MIT with the cosmic ray group.
Then I went to Colorado again, I guess it was again, or maybe, and I stayed in a place called Echo Lake, where there was a laboratory, which we had built for doing cosmic ray research. I operated the cloud chamber there, and that’s where my thesis work was done. Well, then I did that, went back to MIT and turned in my thesis work and what not and what not, and I got my degree.
Kelly: You did a beautiful job describing how you felt at the moment of the Trinity test.
Courant: Oh, yeah.
Kelly: Do you remember the colors, what it looked like?
Courant: Well, it was all colors to me, and it was just terrifying. It was like ten suns or fifty suns, very warm, and getting bigger and bigger before finally rising.
Kelly: How did you feel? What did you say to your companions, or what were their reactions?
Courant: Well, I think everybody felt much as I did. There was Enrico Fermi, who was at the same place as I was and who dropped little pieces of paper from his hand held high, because it was so quiet after the storm. He wanted to measure the displacement, which is the result of the big fireball, which was a kilometer or so in size. When it finally came to south 10,000, he could see what these pieces of paper, how much they were moved by the air. So he was the first one of the gang to say this was equivalent of 10 kilotons of TNT. There was another fellow there, whose name I don’t remember now, but who had set up some posts in the ground and then could watch from a known distance in order to measure the size of the fireball, in order to come up with a number for the equivalent. He also said something between 10 and 20,000 tons of TNT.
Well, so then we continued at Los Alamos for a little while, but it was a whole new spirit, of course. Then I went off to MIT as a civilian, and my friend, one of my close friends at Los Alamos was another guy my age and he was a little older than me and certainly had been in college longer than me, than I. His name was Val Fitch, and you’ve seen him. We’ve remained friends forever.
When I left MIT, when I left Los Alamos, I willed my girlfriend to him, and he married her, and I became best man to their wedding. They were wonderful and have been good friends ever since. Now, they are both dead, but I remember Val very well, and he does me, too, or did.
Kelly: Very generous of you.
Courant: Well, no, I didn’t have anything to do with it, it was just a young guy and his girlfriend and we went often on Sunday afternoons to build a ski hill at Los Alamos called Sawyer’s Hill. We built a rope tow there and then we had lunch together. Somewhere I have a photograph of him and Elise—Elise was the name of my friend, Elise Cunningham—and Val. And, it was just very, very nice.
Kelly: I’ve seen pictures of Hans Bethe skiing down—
Courant: Yes, yes, right, right.
Kelly: Tell us, who else like to ski?
Courant: Oh, all the physicists did, and I knew the Bethes somewhat, because I had known them in New Rochelle, or in New York. So yes, I had some things to do with them, not often, but his wife, he and Rose got married in our backyard in New Rochelle, where I had been brought up. When I was twelve or fifteen or whenever, Rose was a German refugee and lived with us in New Rochelle for probably four months or so. So somewhere I have a picture of Rose Bethe in our backyard having a picnic in New Rochelle, yes. Anyway, yes, all of those things. So, I was an outsider, but an insider.
Kelly: Gottingen was really the heartbeat of physics, or one of the major universities in the world for studying physics, where both Werner Heisenberg and Oppenheimer were.
Courant: Yes, yes, well.
Kelly: When you were only two or so.
Courant: Yes, Gottingen, right. I’ve been reading a book about Heisenberg in German, which is quite nice, quite interesting and well-written. I didn’t get to see much of Oppie, but he knew me and I had had some contact with him when I was at Los Alamos. But, I was an under-underling and he was quite different. General Groves even got pushed around by him, I think.
Kelly: Which was to your benefit, part of the SED, right.
Courant: Yes, and how, and how.
Kelly: Right, no more calisthenics.
Courant: Yes, the SED was, it doesn’t get much mention, but it was an important part of Los Alamos and very effective.
Kelly: How would you describe its role? What did it contribute?
Courant: Well, it contributed me and many of my colleagues and people who were in the Army and the Los Alamos people wanted help and they would say to the Army, “We need someone.”
The Los Alamos people wanted people to come and sweep the floors and what not. And, the Army, however, sent candidates, and the people sweeping the floors at Los Alamos were mainly Indians from a pueblo, which was located just down the hill from us, and it was called San Ildefonso. And, I went there, again, a number of times and heard the son of the important—what you call it when you make things out of?
Kelly: Pottery, at the potter?
Courant: A potter, yeah, potter. She was the chief potter and has been, Maria [Martinez].
Courant: Maria Martinez, and I have pictures of her. But, her son was in the Army at Los Alamos, and so he was one of my colleagues. He did wonderful things, he was also quite artsy, and I have some of his pictures at my house that he made that were made by pictures that were sold by him, or by the pueblo at a later time.
Tony Martinez was his name and we went one time—I have a lot of pictures of them, of that time—to show the Indians about square dancing. I had been going to square dances at Los Alamos once a week, and they also did their—I’m not sure how often they did dances—but, we had, and we were invited down to show them square dances and I went down there with other Los Alamos people when Rico Fermi was one of us. And, so were quite a few of the other gang that did square dancing, had been doing square dancing. So that was very exciting then. But, I didn’t know that Maria would be a famous potter, but she was. Well, I have, I can show you later the pictures that I have of our get-together there.
Los Alamos was just a wonderful place, and maybe because of my name, anyway, I did get to go parties from time to time. [Laughs], I remember—what’s his name, our great physicist from Cal Tech now, the name doesn’t come to me anymore just now. Oh, no, but I have his books, his physics books, and it’ll come to me. He’s very famous and my daughter works for an outfit that has one of his sons working there in the Boston area. And, he was at these parties, and I remember him partly because he fit in so well with the drinking crowd, but he didn’t drink. But he got looser and looser as the evening progressed. Yeah, he managed to look just the way the drunks—not the drinking visitors, no one was really drunk—but, as the evening progressed, there he was getting easier and easier, standing at the bottom of the stairwell drumming his drums and behaving just like the other people there.
Kelly: You mean Richard Feynman?
Courant: Yes, that’s right, that’s who it is. I remember him very well, and I had other things to do with him, but I don’t remember now just what. Oh, yes, well, he liked to play games with the military, and so he wrote—his wife was in a sanatorium near Santa Fe—and, he had communication with her. However, we at Los Alamos, including him, had all of our mail read by professional—what do you call them, the people who read mail?
Courant: Censors, yes. He told them, or told the military that he could get in and out of the Los Alamos without going through the gate, and he could find ways, and he did. But, he was important enough so nothing ever could be done to him or was never done to him. But, he had an easy time of it, except that he had a sick wife, yeah.
Kelly: Did you know Ben Bederson?
Courant: Oh, yes, I have a picture of him. He came to my 90th birthday colloquium here just last year, and so I have him here. Yeah, he’s a good guy, but anyway, he was part of the colloquium, he gave a talk, and a lady from Los Alamos also gave a talk. All of that had been organized by Marv, whom you haven’t met yet, but his office is right down there, yeah.
Kelly: Ben is terrific.
Kelly: He said he had roomed with [David] Greenglass.
Courant: Oh, really?
Kelly: Yes, as well as Ted Hall. I don’t know if you knew any of these.
Courant: I knew Greenglass a little, but I think he was in my barracks at some time or for some time. Greenglass was a machinist and had a regular shift to work, so I didn’t have much to do with him. I think he had to go to do the military exercises in the mornings, and I don’t know whether also in the evenings. But, I didn’t, because I worked at night very often, I mean, I worked into the night very often.
So when I returned to the barracks in the evening at 8:00 or so to go to bed, I would put my name on the list, and the list then gave me time off for the next morning’s exercises and marching around. I didn’t do much of that, because I was able to work any time I wanted for however long it took. So I often, maybe not always, but I often worked after dinner and came back down to the barracks at 8 or 9 or 10 to go to sleep. Then in the morning, people had to get up and go marching around and do exercises for the military, or some of the people in the barracks did, and I didn’t. So, I could go to the mess hall before they came and get my breakfast, yeah.
Kelly: Tell me about Elise, is it Cunningham?
Courant: Yes, Cunningham.
Kelly: What was her job at Los Alamos?
Courant: I think she did secretarial work. She was a civilian. There were a lot of female military, too, but she was a civilian. There were some nice dormitories and not far from the barracks where I was kept.
Kelly: There’s a TV program that played last summer and it’s going to have a second session starting next June, I guess. It’s called “Manhattan” and it dramatizes life at Los Alamos, and it makes it seem rather a lively place with lots of partying and dramatic shuffling of girlfriends and boyfriends and wives and husbands, yes.
Courant: Sure, that’s the age of the people who were working at Los Alamos, so many people. Not the big name physicists.
Kelly: Right, but the younger crowd were really very young, and this was—can you describe, I know you, it sounds like you haven’t actually seen one of these programs.
Courant: No, I haven’t, no. I tried once and decided that it was not the Los Alamos I knew. I remember once being invited to Fermi’s house. He had some daughters in high school then, I believe it was Fermi, yeah. I remember the important thing after some kind of dinner was playing a game called Murder or something like that, where all the young people milled around in a room and the lights were turned out, and one of them had a secret mission to murder someone. The people would go popping around in the dark and then he would say, “You are my victim.” And, then the lights would be put on and the victim would describe what was going on, and the person had to come and ask questions, witnesses, of everybody as to how to identify the murderer. I remember that Fermi was one of the best questioners to identify murderers.
Kelly: Do you remember any parties at the Oppenheimers’ house or spilling over into the lawn?
Kelly: Apparently, he would declare the whole area a secure area, so that people could talk freely.
Courant: Yes, of course, but that was Los Alamos in itself. The tech area was inside, was another super-secret, where the laboratory was, but the dormitory, the housing was all over the mesa. No longer, that now is a mesa for Los Alamos for people living—the scientific work is done on an adjoining mesa. But, at that time, it was all done on the main mesa, where the museum is and so on. Have you been?
Kelly: Of course. So, is, and just again, helping people who will have only seen the movie or the TV series to relate to reality of what it was like, so in the TV series, everyone sort of bustles about and crosses paths. So it was such a small area and that you could’ve run by Enrico Fermi walking down the street.
Courant: Oh, sure, oh, sure, yes, indeed. And, I also knew his daughter, who was a schoolgirl at the time, I believe.
Kelly: Maybe it was George Kistiakowsky’s daughter.
Courant: No, no.
Kelly: No. Because, I thought Fermi had two little girls. No, okay.
Courant: I don’t know, but I was particular friends with Flanders, who was a mathematician and had worked with my father at NYU, but then moved to Los Alamos during the war. He had a couple of daughters, Ellen and, I still know the other one, I see her once every two or three years in New York, and she’s a good friend of my sister’s. So, she must be my sister’s age, a couple of years younger than I.
Well, yes, the Flanders were very good to me and I often got to eat dinner there at their house instead of going to the barracks. But, even going to the barracks was pretty easy, because we didn’t file in as military marchers to the barracks, but we just went in as customers, which was really quite something.
[I had] a very good life, very interesting and important to go on these little trips on weekends occasionally with people, with [inaudible] and other people, with physics or mathematics people, and going for walks in the mountains. That didn’t please the military all that much, but we did, yeah.
Kelly: Why were they unhappy with you taking walks?
Courant: Well, I mean, it wasn’t inside of the Los Alamos. We were allowed out and in the military, often our guys could go, or we could go down to Santa Fe for an evening of beer or whatever. And, I went a few times.
Kelly: Do you remember where you went in Santa Fe?
Courant: No, but I do know that I went to the hotel and we’ve been there since with my wife, the wonderful hotel right on the central place at Santa Fe. I went back a while ago; maybe four years ago, the La Fonda Hotel, it’s called. You know Santa Fe.
Kelly: Yes, the new owner of La Fonda is very concerned to keep it just the way it was, and we’re hoping that we can interpret it, because it was such an important watering hole.
Courant: Yes, yes, it was, and still is.
Kelly: It still is, right. So, did you know the bartenders were security agents?
Courant: No. But, I, it wouldn’t have surprised me. Well, there was one time I was told, “Please don’t mention that name.”
Kelly: Did you go back and do you remember seeing Dorothy McKibbin?
Courant: I did, I think, once or twice, yes. She had a husband at Los Alamos, I believe, but I didn’t go to her during the military time. But, post-military, I think I did meet her again, yeah.
Kelly: So, when you were at MIT and there were all these other people from Los Alamos, did the topic of your experience, did you talk about Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project together?
Courant: Not much, no, that didn’t really come up very often what we did at Los Alamos. We were more interested in cosmic rays and in cloud chambers and stuff like that.
Kelly: Have you thought much about Los Alamos over the last seventy years, is it?
Courant: No. Well, from time to time, and time to time I run into somebody who is there now and I feel I ought to try to visit them when I’m at Los Alamos. But, then I don’t remember when I get there. So, I’m not sure about that.
Kelly: So, if you had a chance to talk to someone in Japan today, whose, let’s say they lost some family members at Hiroshima or Nagasaki, how would you talk to that person?
Courant: I haven’t found that difficult at all. When I came to the University of Minnesota, there came a colleague, whether he was there before me or after me, he was there with me. He was a theoretical physicist, and he had been a young, my own age, and he was on his way and lived in Hiroshima, or outside of Hiroshima. Because, the people, Hiroshima was more or less a military village, but the war was coming to an end and he knew it, and young people like him and me wanted to be there. He was on his way to the main town, main city of Japan, where the war, for the end of the war. He was walking into the train station when the bomb went off, or was walking toward the train station. So, he never got to go there. He did get, well, he turned around got home and then eventually, he did his physics in Japan. His name was Hiroshi Sura, and he retired about the time I did, I guess, maybe a little earlier. He had cancer of the throat, I believe. But, he wanted to go back, and so he went back to Hiroshima and his wife, his widow, is still there, I believe. And, Hiroshi had a couple of kids here and I got to know them, and was invited to dinner at their house a number of times. It was very nice to be together with him. We didn’t really talk about the night of the bomb, but he had been there.
Kelly: Well, that’s interesting.
Courant: He was just down the hall from me where I was in the physics building. That is, his office was two doors down from my office. We often rubbed shoulders, he and I.
Kelly: In looking back, do you have any regrets about working on the atomic bomb?
Courant: No, no. It was very important. Maybe the war was already over before it got used. Maybe, that is, it was unnecessary. That would be awful to believe. But, really, the Japanese were very difficult and they had an emperor, but the emperor had the military and the military would not have given up, I believe. The military had the philosophy that we will die rather to give over the country. So, it may well be that the bomb convinced the emperor that he could say, “I can’t continue, we can’t continue. We must stop.”
So, in that sense, it really did put an end to it. They would have kept fighting, I think, and killing people and themselves. That was the whole military in Japan. So, I don’t think that that has to be regretted, I don’t think so.
Kelly: Looking at today’s world and the arsenals of weapons that both the United States and the former Soviet Union had amassed all those years, and the dangers of proliferation of weapons to other states, I mean, how, what’s your feeling about this situation?
Courant: It’s frightening. It’s frightening, and currently, it’s getting a little more frightening every month. I just got a book from my granddaughter, whose brother wrote this book about the bomb and about the present situation. He had been at her—I met him at her wedding. His name is Schwartz, Schwartz, German for black. Do you know of him? Anyway--
Kelly: I think I do, in Washington, D.C.?
Courant: He had been at Washington.
Courant: He is in Washington, yes, yeah.
Courant: He wrote this book and I’m now in the beginning chapter on it, and it’s, well, it was probably necessary. But, I don’t know. He is more concerned with now rather than then. It’s pretty scary and I don’t know yet what I’m going to think when I’m done with that book.
Kelly: Well, let’s see. Well, what is there that I haven’t asked that I should have? What other things can you think that you might talk about, either about your experiences or funny stories, or--
Courant: No, uh-huh, no, no. I don’t think of anything right now, at least nothing related to that, those years.
Kelly: By and large, it sounds like they had a very positive influence.
Kelly: By and large, your experiences seem to have been very.
Courant: Oh, everything in my life has been very positive, including having to leave Germany. That was very positive. I’m not going to say including Adolf Hitler, but my life in the U.S. has been just marvelous and very positive. I had no serious struggles. It’s ironic to recognize that the spinal meningitis maybe saved me from the military. I mean, who can say that he was saved by spinal meningitis? But, when I got over it, it was a year or two after, no, a year and a half after first coming down with it, the war was almost over. Anyway, the military shipped me around and did wonderful things for me, and I don’t know whether that was all because of the spinal meningitis or with it. But, it certainly is an irony that I can’t really completely omit.