Cindy Kelly: Okay. I’m Cindy Kelly. It’s Monday, February 6, 2017, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I have James L. Smith. My first question to him is to say his full name and spell it.
Jim Smith: James Lawrence Smith, J-A-M-E-S L-A-W-R-E-N-C-E S-M-I-T-H.
Kelly: Great. Thank you. Why don’t you begin by just telling us a little bit about yourself? What your background is, what you studied and so forth, where you were born, in a nutshell.
Smith: I was born in Detroit in 1943, the same year that Los Alamos National Lab was founded. I was educated in Detroit public schools, which at the time were excellent schools. It was the finest school system in the country because of the production from the weapons, from munitions for World War II and for the Baby Boomers buying cars and appliances. It was a terrific school system.
Then I went to Wayne State University, that’s also in Detroit. I started out in engineering and I switched to physics, because they wouldn’t let me take enough French. I switched to the liberal arts program, and became a physicist. There were three physicists on the faculty who had their Ph.Ds. at Brown University. The three of them got me to go to Brown University. They got me a fellowship, so I went off to Brown in 1965 and got my Ph.D.
In the summer of ’69, the job market for physicists dried up, and there were no jobs. I could tell the difference between people who got a job before that summer and after. It took a couple of years to find a job, and so I just stayed as a graduate student.
Then I got an offer from Los Alamos. I had done that by sending in an application. They were hiring so little at Los Alamos, they didn’t bother to interview. But I submitted an application, and I had some particular skills at low-temperature physics that were unusual. I had built a thing called a dilution refrigerator. Somebody at Los Alamos wanted me to cool plutonium down to lower temperatures than it had ever been, plutonium metal. Because of its radiation, it puts out heat, so it’s tricky.
On the phone, I told them I knew how to cool plutonium. You cool it by making electrical contact, and the electrons running across a metal interface will get the heat out. If you try to cool it by submerging it in a cold liquid, it won’t cool, it will just heat. I did get plutonium down below one-tenth of a degree Kelvin.
Kelly: How many years were you at Los Alamos?
Smith: I came in 1973, and I still have a badge. I retired on the seventieth anniversary of D-Day. It was a Friday. I finally picked that day as a historic day, so I retired on June 6, 2014. But I still go to work almost every day, and I spend most of my time talking to young people.
Kelly: That’s great. What we’d like to do is kind of pick your brain about the innovations of Los Alamos, which really were essential to the success of the Manhattan Project, since it was all brand new.
Smith: The innovation at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, there were some—they had to do nuclear physics. You had another cross-section of all kinds of atoms and things. The theorists had been pretty good at figuring this out. They could guess that plutonium-239 would be a proper nucleus for a nuclear weapon. It simply had to be confirmed. It was demonstrated with Glenn Seaborg and others at the accelerators in what is now Lawrence Berkeley Lab, E. O. Lawrence’s accelerators.
They sent these things to the University of Chicago to be analyzed. It was seen that plutonium—it became clear that there were two isotopes that you could use for nuclear weapons: uranium-235, which is difficult to separate from natural uranium, because it’s around 0.3% fissionable. Then you could produce plutonium-239 in a nuclear reactor. That’s what they demonstrated at Stagg Field whenever that was, December 1942.
I knew two people who were there, Herb Anderson and Harold Agnew. Theorists like Edward Teller weren’t there. Edward Teller never wanted to watch an experiment, he just wanted to hear about it and sit and think.
Then they realized that the impurities from plutonium-241 in the reactor fuel would prevent the artillery shell assembly for a nuclear weapon that would work on U-235. They had to invent a way to compress metals to truly extreme densities with shaped explosives. That was one of the things done at the Manhattan Project. I mean, it’s interesting how those have evolved since. This idea that you could take a hemisphere of plutonium and blow it inward to get the density, because you’d think of explosives as ripping things apart. The idea that you could selectively do that was most interesting.
It’s also true that the word “computer” didn’t exist then. They had women doing calculations with hand machines during the Manhattan Project. They also got the first things from International Business, IBM, but these weren’t really computing. They were sorting and doing rather simple things, and there was nothing in the sense of a modern computer. But those women doing those calculations, they called them “computers” during the Manhattan Project.
It was shortly after that that people like John von Neumann, whom I never met, and Nick Metropolis, whom I knew, did get together and make those first machines that would respond to programming and things. They were called MANIAC and ENIAC, and I’m not good at those. My friend, Paul Stein and Nick Metropolis were the first people to play chess with a computer. In order to make the problem mathematically simple, simpler, they used a 6x6 chessboard. They eliminated the bishops, and they called it “secular chess.” It amused them that they had removed religion from the game of chess. There are a lot of pictures of them.
The other thing is that some of those photographs, Paul Stein was also smoking a Lucky Strike. Some of the lab pictures, they airbrushed the smoking out of that picture. Nick never smoked. That was computation.
One of the things that is less obvious is why we got into biology. I hope to get back to this. Los Alamos is a multidisciplinary lab. We kind of touch on everything in science, and there were people, even during the Manhattan Project, worrying about the effects. We knew that a nuclear weapon would kill people from the explosion, but there were questions of the radiation effects on human beings. Los Alamos always has had people doing that.
For example, we had beagles. Beagles have lungs not too dissimilar from human lungs. In a building that’s still up in Los Alamos, they had beagles. They studied the effects of plutonium in their lungs, and deduced that if the particle size is small enough for the plutonium, that it leads to lung cancer. If the particle size is bigger, it doesn’t.
There was a guy named Vernon Struebing, who cast the plutonium for the Trinity shot and what he called in his notebooks “the combat shot.” He worked for me for five years before he retired in 1979. He had what was called one body burden of plutonium in his lungs. It was three micrograms of plutonium-239. At the time, they could measure from the radiation and from density measurements of his lungs how much he had.
That was why he got to work for me, when they finally saw that he had what was called one body burden—a body burden, according to the Atomic Energy Commission at the time, was the amount of plutonium you could have that did not cause cancer. When they realized that he had one body burden, they let him work for me, because I was working on things like uranium and neptunium. They didn’t worry about the additive things, they just said, “If he’s not working on plutonium, he’ll be safe. But it’s okay if he gets uranium and neptunium in his lungs.” So he worked for me.
He said he wasn’t an epileptic, but every now and then he would lie on the floor, and as far as I could tell, he would have an epileptic fit. That had barred him from military service during the war. That’s why he would go to Los Alamos. He had been an undergraduate chemist, and he had been anxious to serve in the military. He couldn’t because of what he said wasn’t epilepsy.
But he did get the plutonium in his lungs, and he was proud of it. He very proudly felt that that was his service for the war. Gee, he also was the guy who made the plutonium for the Trinity shot and the shot on Nagasaki.
He had accepted in the ‘50s $100 to turn his body over to the lab so they could study his lungs. When he finally died in 1980, only a year after he retired, I knew how proud he was of the plutonium in his lungs. His wife had called the division leader, a guy named George Boltz, Boltz, and said that Vern had died. George had to reassure Vern’s wife that they knew why he died—he’d had heart problems—and they didn’t really want his body.
Then I had to intervene, and I got ahold of the funeral home in Santa Fe that had his body and I said, “Don’t embalm it. Give me some time here.” Then I yelled at George Boltz. I was still in my thirties, and it was unusual for me to yell at a rather well-known person at Los Alamos, but I said, “Vern wanted his body to go to science.” Then the lab did send someone down to take his lungs and a couple of other organs so they could track it.
It did turn out that Vern didn’t have lung cancer. The particle size of the plutonium was large enough that he was never going to have lung cancer. In general, the people who worked on plutonium, the 100 or so subjects in the Manhattan Project with doses of plutonium, they have died of lung cancer far below the normal rate. Only the ones who smoked have died of lung cancer. Vern never smoked.
Anyway, the laboratory cared about the effects of radiation, and we had the programs with the beagles that studied lung cancer. But it’s the nature of a laboratory that tries to do all sorts of things in science.
It was probably in the late ‘70s, I had a friend named Dick Keller, who worked in the same building I did, who did molecular beams. He had learned how—you deliver up with a little ionization and some acceleration, he could make a molecule go by, then probe it with a laser, and he could determine what it was. He could measure a single molecule to know what structure it had.
My friend, Dick Keller, was at this party where he met the research M.D., whose name I forget. It could be tracked down. He moved on. But he explained that you could measure the DNA a molecule at a time, that his enzymes could peel things off, and that you finally had the potential, we knew from the work of Watson and Crick, that life as we know it comes from the genome, from the DNA. We finally had a way to map it, which in fact, required to look at a molecule and know what it is.
I believe it was around $10 million, they got the Department of Energy to give them enough money to begin this. In the beginning, they would say, “Gee, we could measure the human genome, but it will take, I don’t know, maybe 100 years.” The number kept going down. Nowadays, we can put it into a machine. This is the progress of science.
By the way, Los Alamos, with the kind of software it takes to do these things by putting it in the machine, is also the kind of work we have done. Until we ran up against Amazon.com, we tended always to have the biggest computer system in the world, or the other weapons labs did, like Livermore. But we were always at the forefront of big machines. That whole business has changed now.
But the human genome became—it’s amazingly important. This is what basic research is. It’s important because we can track genetic diseases. There’s all kinds of things we can do. You can track your ancestor’s nowadays by doing a mouth swipe. They don’t do the full genome, but they can do enough of it to work this out.
This is the importance of basic science. You start with Dick Keller, who is simply trying to identify a molecule going by in his system by probing it with lasers. You end up revolutionizing medicine and biology by being able to measure DNA. This is the nature of how basic research—if we had set out to measure the human genome, I don’t know how we would have done it, but we would have made something even more cumbersome. The value of basic research—at Los Alamos, we’re very good at it.
Let me make it clear. At Los Alamos, we have a mission to provide safety for the world. We want to have a credible nuclear stockpile. We also help in making nuclear reactors safe and making better fuels. Because we are a multidisciplinary national laboratory, we can do a better job on our mission. Incidentally, we have the freedom to explore these other subjects that lead to other things.
This makes the security of the country safer, because we’re a multidisciplinary lab. It makes the quality of life better for Americans, because we’re also doing these things in basic research. This is the strength of a laboratory like Los Alamos, and I hope it continues to be strong.
I love the laboratory. I’ve spent well over half my life there. I don’t always like all of the managers at the laboratory, but as an institution, it is a fantastic place to work, and has always been.
Kelly: Can you talk about kind of the origins of this multidisciplinary approach that occurred in the Manhattan Project?
Smith: I don’t mean to be too chauvinistic, but Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project had the job that required the most creativity. We had to deal, for example, with how we would make a weapon out of plutonium-239, because we had to compress it. We had the best of the scientists. The first reactor was at the University of Chicago, their job—even Ames Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, had a job having to do with uranium and how to produce the metal and the production. But these other places had particular jobs, but we had the best of the intellectual horsepower.
Mind you, that was also at MIT, including different subjects. I. I. Rabi was working on radar at MIT, but he would come to Los Alamos. Indeed, he was here in October 1944, when it was announced that he got the Nobel Prize in Physics. They stopped working on their blackboards and opened a bottle of champagne, drank some, and then went back to the blackboards after they drank the champagne.
The point is, we were the intellectual center. We had the broadest minds. We had more people go back to their universities after the war than the other laboratories. These were people, just as Edward Teller couldn’t help but think about the hydrogen bomb, the next weapon, even though we were working on the atomic bomb. We had people who were wondering about the biological effects. We had people who looked at the weapon work we were doing at Los Alamos from every possible point of view, you see, and how it might affect society. They had meetings even when [J. Robert] Oppenheimer was still here, he was still here in October of 1945. They were starting to worry about—having meetings to discuss the effects on society and things like that.
In that sense, we were the intellectual center. We did know all of that stuff, and the laboratory hung on to the multidisciplinary nature that we had begun. In my mind, historically, that’s why we were the best of the laboratories. I mean, the work they did at the other ones was truly amazing, and they worked very hard. But Los Alamos had more of the Nobel Prizes at our lab, for example. That came later.
I have a couple of other modern things beside the genome. We are doing things with ultrasound, just as you image body parts with ultrasonic, something physicists developed. CAT scans, computer, X-ray tomography was also developed by physicists—not at Los Alamos. This imaging was not done at Los Alamos. But we have people doing ultrasound and we have two interesting things.
Another person also doing ultrasonics, who has done some rather clever work by taking a cube and putting it between transducers. He can measure properties of things, including plutonium and lots of other metals. This is rather impressive work on things like getting young modulus and elastic constants for all kinds of materials. There’s Albert Migliori, who’s also almost my age.
You can use ultrasonics to study things like, are bridges and buildings going to fall apart? You can do visual inspection on a bridge to look for corrosion. But you also might be able to put some vibrations into it and learn a bit about it. There was a bridge in Albuquerque over the Rio Grande that was going to be cut down. It was going to be disassembled, and Albert got at the time, Senator Pete Domenici to get the authority and a little bit of money, so that Albert instrumented this bridge. Then they had a physicist down in Albuquerque telling the guys which beams to cut. He would cut through the beams one at a time, and then follow the bridge as it deteriorated and finally fell down, so that he could get data on a bridge that was collapsing slowly. He spent a few days cutting the bridge apart.
It’s just interesting that while you see buildings blown up on television all the time—and by the way, they’re using shaped charges, and shaped charges were a product of the Manhattan Project. But here in slow motion, we have got to take a bridge apart and study what properties a bridge has when it really was in deep trouble. So instead of using explosives, doing it slowly and monitoring these with ultrasonics. Albert's work is quite impressive on that.
Kelly: That’s great. Part of what we’re trying to do is also educate people. Could you just explain the shaped charges just a little bit? These are the lenses around the plutonium core. How that works?
Smith: How does a shaped charge work? Usually, if you have an explosive, you put a thing on it, a detonator. You can probably do that with a bullet or you can put in a small piece of wire and put a huge voltage on it like 3,000th of an inch gold wire. If you put 20,000 volts on it, it explodes and will set off explosives. When you do that, it propagates outward, like drops of water in a pond. That’s how things go.
So how do I take something that looks like a rock making rings irradiate from a point, how do I, in fact, make the rings come together and focus on a point? The thing we need to do is to have a different velocity. It is how a lens works optically. If you have a lens and you have light coming from the sun, what happens with a curved lens is that the velocity of light is slower inside the lens. You imagine that you have a little thing coming in here and this part of the wave hits the glass first and this one, it goes faster. It points it towards the middle. That’s how a lens steers light.
We have explosives that have different velocities of shockwave velocities. The one way you do that is to make it heavier. If you take a regular explosive and put something like barium in it, it doesn’t participate in the explosion, but it’s a very heavy atom. If I just put heavy atoms—you could use gold or something. Barium’s much cheaper. But there are cheap heavy atoms.
You load an explosive so that when the explosive, if it was coming out in a ring, what you do is you put a curved shape like a lens. I curve it the other way. I have it so then the rings coming out from an explosion hit a peak of a high-density thing, it slows it down and it gives the other ones more time to catch up as it curves. I can make it into a plane wave, and that’s how I can make—a plane wave is a flat explosion going through explosives. If I then made another interface, it had to be this way so that the first stuff out is going slowly. I want the stuff so that the higher velocity coming out on the edges comes in and tips it forward. I then can focus those waves by going from a high-density thing through a lens, and I can make all the explosives arrive at a point. That’s how you do a compression.
We use shaped charges, and we demolish buildings and stadia in the United States. We use shaped charges on the steel beams. Every now and then it doesn’t work real well. Albert Migliori could study this bridge and what cutting what beams made it fall down. Every now and then they will try to blow up a building, and they miss. But most of the time, they use overkill and they use shaped charges, because that way you can get the steel beam without making a big explosion. The point is that, again, it’s the word “focus.” I can focus the explosive power onto to one particular thing like a steel beam, make it disintegrate and fall down without having running big, huge explosions that would affect the neighborhood. That’s what shaped charges are used for.
Kelly: If you could say a sort of summary statement about the shaped charges were first used in the Manhattan Project, something like that.
Smith: It only ran for two years, there was a TV show called “Manhattan,” about the Manhattan Project, and they cancelled it. It did have a pretty good viewership, considering it was started in the summer a couple of years ago. They filmed it near here. The strange thing about that show was that Los Alamos is up on a mountaintop, and it’s obvious you’re on a mountain top if you’re there. This was filmed down in a valley. So it always looked funny to the people who knew Los Alamos, that they were down in a valley. Because we were up on mesas and the terrain looked strange.
But that highlighted the fact that there was great controversy of whether it was possible to make a shaped charge. I would say at least over half of the people during the Manhattan Project considered this impossible. In retrospect, it seems obvious, and the analogy with lenses and light waves is clear. This really was a tricky business. I have used some of these things to make high fields, and I have had the explosive lenses. If you put electric current in a loop and then you compress the loop, the magnetic field goes up. The same kind of technology that I use, that you use, I can make super-high magnetic fields. I’ve done this about eighty times, I’ve had these explosions set off.
If I have electricity running around in a copper ring and I set it in with a compressive explosive, the magnetic flux is preserved. It can’t get past the copper. It would die out in milliseconds, but this is a microsecond explosion. I put a copper running through a ring. It would run it down in milliseconds. However, I set off explosions to compress it. The current goes higher and higher during this explosion, and you get record high magnetic fields, thousands of Tesla. These are the highest fields you can make on earth is by the explosions we do at Los Alamos.
Anyway, some of the time we tried using explosive lenses to make a two-stage thing to compress one, and then have another ring inside. I’ve lifted these explosives and the heavier one is [inaudible] from the barium. It’s true that if, if I drop it, I would die. I set it up onto these pieces of metal. It’s interesting thought that they had me move it. The technicians standing there would say, “Don’t drop it.” But they were standing there with me.
It was also true that I didn’t get it on quite straight, and there were burrs on the metal. What I didn’t know was that if I slid it, is it okay to slide this stuff over a piece of copper with a jagged edge? I didn’t know if that might set it off or not. But I lifted it and I got it centered, and we just eyeballed it by looking. It’s a funny feeling to think, “Gee, if I drop this, I’m gone.”
Because they’re loaded, because they’re lenses, this one was about this big in this thing, it was surprisingly heavy. It was several pounds.
Kelly: A related question to explore would be the innovations they used to get the detonators that were attached to these lenses—was it thirty-two, something like that—to all go off at the same microsecond. Very difficult, that challenge they faced, given the technology of the time. Maybe you can talk about that?
Smith: In the bunkers where I was making high magnetic fields, we have these timing devices left from those days. The most important point was, as I said, if a detonator is, say a 3,000th, very thin piece of gold wire that you put 20 kilovolts on it, the way you do the timing is to make sure the cables are all the same length. I mean, it is the speed of light, but if I made a really long cable running to one of them. They had this thing where you put the voltage into the center and the connections were the same length to feed around to the back of this copper thing. Then you made sure the cables were the same length that go to each of the bits of explosive on the outside of it.
That reminds me: my Ph.D. from Brown University, from 1974, is signed by a guy named Don Hornig, and he was here during the Manhattan Project. He was the guy who sat up in the tower with the first atomic bomb during an electrical storm in the night. I had never met him, but he had signed my diploma. I didn’t walk at graduation, I was already working at the lab. Walking is not a big deal. But, I ran into him, and I used to tell people, “The guy who spent the night with the first atomic bomb signed my diploma!”
The people would say, “Well, why did he—?”Anyway, in Atlanta in 1999, was the 100th anniversary of the founding of the American Physical Society. There was a reception where I wearing a tuxedo, and I ran into Don Hornig and his wife. He was wearing a tuxedo, and his wife was in a wheelchair, but she was dressed fairly elegantly with a shiny dark blue and black dress. She looked terrific. But she was in a wheelchair, and I had no idea why she was in a wheelchair.
Anyway, I go up to Don Hornig and his wife. Lilli is in a wheelchair, and she was dressed incredibly elegantly, in blue and black. But, anyway, the two of them were there at a table. I’m good at making like this sort of boring small-talk. I like to do this and then drop something on them. So, I said, “Oh, oh, Don Hornig, you signed my diploma at Brown University when I got my Ph.D. in physics in 1974.”
He’s going, “Oh, yeah, oh, yeah, yeah, I was president.”
Then I go, “And, then I got a job at Los Alamos, and I’ve been there ever since.”
He’s being polite, you know, “Okay.”
Then I say, “I tell everybody that the guy who spent the night with the first atomic bomb signed my diploma.” I said, “They always say, ‘Well, why did he do that?’” Then I say, “What I always tell them is that you were a chemist, and didn’t know what would happen.”
Then he starts laughing, and then his wife starts laughing. I wasn’t sure if she’d had a stroke or anything. But, boy, was she rocking that wheelchair. The two of them were just, it took them, it took them a good ten seconds to stop laughing. Then he said, “Well, I suppose I’d better tell you the story.”
I don’t read. My wife reads books much more than I. I don’t like to read all that much, and I believe the story has been written down. But I got to hear it from him. He said that Oppenheimer was afraid that someone would climb up in the tower at night and sabotage it. By the way, you can’t sabotage it by disconnecting a couple of wires, because there are tests. You check continuity to make sure nothing had been disconnected. There are a lot of tests you do before you set off an explosion. But somebody advanced enough could have done something. I won’t speculate on how to do that. The point was, Oppenheimer only trusted two or three people completely not to sabotage, and he wanted someone up in the tower.
That was in that “Manhattan” show, too. There was a fight up in the tower [in “Manhattan”] that I recall seemed a little crazy. So Don Hornig—anyway, Oppenheimer trusted him and he asked him to do it, and that’s why he did it. But I still liked the way I made the woman in her wheelchair laugh so much.
Kelly: That’s great. That’s great. They’ll love this. Let’s see, where have we gotten to next? Can you talk about the water boiler reactor, or the developments in the other reactors at Los Alamos, and how it laid the way? What they did, what were they used for?
Smith: When U-235 fissions, that is to say a neutron hits it and makes a fission, you on the average get about three extra neutrons, probably just below. Because it depends on which it fissions into. It fissions into two not usually identical pieces of lighter nuclei, which, by the way, are mostly beta emitters and decay. This is the chain reaction.
It turns out that when that neutron comes out from the fission, it is going too fast to fission another U-235 and you have to slow it down. What they used at Stagg Field was graphite. The graphite is carbon. Ideally, you transfer the most energy to another particle if it’s the same mass. If I want to slow a neutron down, the most perfect thing is a water molecule, because it’s only a proton. The neutron, because it has no charge, penetrates the electrons. It can bounce off the proton in water.
I’m not sure why they chose graphite, because its mass is around 12. It’s not as good as a lighter molecule. It also was quite dirty. They were all black from handling the graphite and piling it. They were amazingly dirty. In the building I work call Sigma Building now we machine graphite in, it’s true, you should see how dirty the guys are when they machine graphite. It gets all over, and it’s slippery. That’s why you lubricate locks with graphite.
It was more obvious that you should moderate a reactor with water than with graphite. It’s easier to handle. Instead of having to stack it up, you could just put a pipe and fill something with water. It needs to be fairly pure. It also turns out the water, though, there’s a reasonable chance that the neutron will stick to the proton. There’s a reasonable cross-section that a neutron hitting a water molecule, a single proton, will make the water molecule into deuteron. Whereas a proton hitting a deuteron will not make it into a triton, won’t make it into tritium. The problem is this loss, because you’re using water, makes water not such a good moderator.
I can’t take, as they did in Stagg Field, regular uranium, natural uranium, and moderate it with water. Enough of the neutrons will stick to the protons in the moderator that it doesn’t work. To make a simple reactor, I have to have slightly enriched fuel, something that the United States can do, because we enrich it a lot to make weapons. We have slightly enriched fuel, and then we can use regular water. Or you can standard natural uranium and use heavy water, which is, for example, the Canadians, the CANDU stands for “Canadian deuterium uranium.” They make a heavy water reactor.
I believe that the first water moderated reactor was built at Los Alamos. In time, there was one down in the canyon called Omega West. But there was another one.
I can talk a bit about looking for nuclear explosions and looking for clandestine special nuclear material coming in the United States. Indeed, it’s my son, works on the satellites. He got his Ph.D. at University of Colorado in Boulder, but he did his research at the lab and he studied lightening.
It turns out that lightning is very similar to a nuclear explosion. There’s a bit energy. He worked in the shortwave radio. Just like lenses curve light and explosives can be curved by different density explosives, there’s a band, a frequency where the radio waves are curved around the earth, that’s shortwave radio, and roughly that’s 2 to 80 megahertz frequencies, and that’s shortwave band. So we can listen to radio stations the other side of the earth. It doesn’t go straight. It curves for the same reason that light—the atmosphere lenses it.
My son worked on this. From Los Alamos with the right antennae, he could track lightning around the world, and he did his Master’s and Ph.D. on lightning. We put up satellites, [inaudible] suggested the first satellite, the Vela satellites for monitoring for nuclear explosions. That was negotiated in the ‘50s in Geneva.
Eisenhower sent a team from State Department to do arms reduction negotiation with the Soviets. It was the first time the State Department took scientists along. One of them was the father of a friend of mine, James. B. Fisk, was the president of Bell Labs and he led the delegation. One of the scientists from Los Alamos was a guy named Stirling Colgate, who in time explained how supernovae work. He went along. During these negotiations and months in Geneva, Stirling realized that we could put up satellites that would detect the pulses from nuclear explosions. That’s a whole story.
These things led to tracking lightning, because such satellites would also track lightening. By the way, there are thousands of lightning strikes an hour around the world, and you have to learn how to tell lightning from nuclear explosions. My son worked on that for his degrees. Now, in our global positioning satellites, we have a 250-pound package that looks at that frequency range shortwave, even though it doesn’t have to curve. Our global positioning satellites are watching for nuclear events.
We also look for them with seismology. That we’ve always known about, that the earthquake detection thing can spot nuclear explosions. Indeed, natural earthquakes and nuclear explosions allow us to learn about the—this is the tradeoff. If you’re doing nuclear weapons and you want to know what the energy of a nuclear explosion was on another continent that somebody else set off, we want to study how the waves turn.
By the way, the waves through the earth are curved by the varying density, just like focusing light and focusing linear waves. We can study what’s in the earth by watching how energy comes from other parts of the world. Last week there was a talk by a lady from Berkeley on these subjects. The point is that we watch electromagnetically for nuclear explosions, for the pulse that comes from them. We also watch with seismology for pulses coming through the earth.
Now, regarding stuff coming into the country. Oh, in order to be a low-temperature physicist, to cool things, plutonium to a tenth of a degree—there are two isotopes of helium. I need them both, helium-3 and helium-4. Helium-4 has two protons and two neutrons, and the nucleus helium-3 is only one neutron. That is what tritium decays into. Remember, there’s hydrogen, deuterium with one neutron, tritium or a triton if it’s a molecule that has two neutrons. One of the neutrons can merge into a proton, giving you helium-3. Helium-3 and helium-4 are very different.
Helium-3 is useful for getting to really low temperatures. [Inaudible] because it’s a fermion and helium-4 is a boson. If I mix the liquids at low temperature, I get powerful cooling. People working at low temperatures use a lot of helium-3. It had gotten cheap, because old hydrogen for hydrogen bombs turned into helium-3, and physicists were glad to have it.
It also turns out that if I want to detect neutrons at a port of entry in the United States, because somebody’s smuggling in uranium-235 or plutonium-239, I want to detect the neutrons. Helium-3 was, at the time, the best way to detect neutrons. I put a cylinder of it, an electrode in, and put a voltage on it. If a neutron comes in and hits the helium-3 it makes a charged particle and I get a pulse across the voltage in this tube, and I say, “Ah, I found neutrons.” I can array them around and begin to map out what pattern I have.
All of sudden, Homeland Security, since 9/11 of 2001, took all the helium-3 in the United States. It’s in great short supply, because we have put it all at the ports of entry. The United States is working very hard to look at nuclear materials coming in. Indeed, I even have a patent on using other things. Mine is for lithium-6 for other ways to detect uranium and plutonium coming in, whether by ships or other ways.
There was muon imaging, I also have that in my magazine. There are something like a million muons coming from cosmic rays. They have a lifetime of around 2.2 microseconds, they’re charged either positive or minus, and there’s like a million of them. Is that a second or a minute coming through us every meter? There are these particles coming, they’re weakly interacting and they don’t dump energy into us. As cosmic rays goes, these things don’t frighten us. But, we can use them for imaging, and we’ve done rather well at Los Alamos. What did we call it? Oh, we call it pRad. We have a facility now with proton radiation. That’s another one.
Anyway, there are different ways to use imaging, and right now we have used these muons to look at one of the great pyramids in Egypt. Right now, Los Alamos is setting up to image what the core looks like in Fukushima in Japan. Because, by the way, even though there are cosmic rays that are coming down, some of them have collisions and go horizontal. You have to have a coincidence, you have to have a detector that saw the muon go by, and then you have to see it go by inside later. So, you have to have an incident detector and an exit detector. The lab is doing—I don’t know if they’ve started yet—but we’re going to image the core at Fukushima, and we’ve looked for empty rooms on the pyramids.
It’s also true that we can do a reasonable job on inspecting containers that come in from other countries on these ships, without irradiating it. We’re not doing anything, we just take the natural radiation that’s raining on down on the earth, and in a minute or two, we can see if something is very heavy inside, which is what you’d get if you had enough uranium or plutonium to make a weapon out of. That is also something we’re doing, besides the neutron detection.
It’s interesting. This imaging that we do, we can do simulated weapons tests with this imaging, the pRad, and we’re doing these things. But there we are in the pyramids in Egypt, and we are in Fukushima, and now we’re going to deal with Homeland Security.
Once again, when we begin to see whether we can image with muons raining down from space, we can’t know what benefit it can have to society, or what benefit it may have for the security of the United States. What I claim is that the best way for this country to do this, is to fund multidisciplinary laboratories like Los Alamos, and to give us the mission of all of these things. That’s what this country needs.
Kelly: Why is science a double-edged sword, and should we be afraid of science?
Smith: I have never thought about that.
Here’s something I’ve not thought about, is science a double-edged sword? Just as fission, we can make nuclear bombs and nuclear reactors, and I can argue that nuclear reactors can be made very safely. But is all science a double-edged sword? If we know a lot about biology—there are various toxins of bacteria in our environment. I can’t remember the names—that can be weaponized and have been. Our ability to modify bacteria and viruses, we can use this to cure disease, and other people can use these to make them into weapons.
Smallpox is a terrible disease. It’s first contagious when you don’t know what it is, and then once you have the pustules it becomes contagious again, so you can spread it around before you’re sick and then when you’re taking care of people. It’s a terrible disease. And yet, we’ve pretty much taken care of it. But I believe that there are bits of smallpox left on earth, and now we’ve stopped vaccinating people.
You see that most things that we can do, we can find bad uses and we can find good uses. This is something people talk about. I guess the most important thing about science is that science is not inherently good or bad. What I do know about science is that it’s endlessly fascinating, and it’s intellectually wonderful to study it. But you need to realize that it’s so many things that humans do. We can go after evil, or we can go after good. Don’t blame science, and don’t blame people for being curious about how things work. It’s not for me to make these decisions. I love science and I love doing it and I love understanding how nature works.
If I have a hobby, the one thing I do is I garden, I like gardening. I think that it’s the contrast to what I do at work. I go to work and I have danger, I have toxic things, radioactive things. I make high magnetic fields sometimes with explosives. I make really high pressures. I go to very low temperatures. I do things at very high temperatures. I feel like at work I’m fighting nature, and then when I go home, I go home and I plant bulbs and I plant seeds. Then I wait, and then nature gives me something beautiful. I think that the reason I like gardening is that I like the contrast, because sometimes I can fight nature and conquer it and make new things and do exciting stuff. The other time, I can just sit and relax and enjoy the nature. I very much like that contrast.
I haven’t talked about Edward Teller. There was a fortieth anniversary reunion at Los Alamos in, I believe, April 1983. A friend of mine and I, Nikki Cooper, crashed the reception on Friday night at the [Fuller] Lodge. There were eight or nine Nobel Laureates there. I saw Edward Teller walk up to people he hadn’t seen for a long, and put his hand out to shake hands with them, and I saw them turn around and walk away. This was because Edward Teller had testified against [J. Robert] Oppenheimer and cost him his clearance in the ‘50s. By the way, the proceedings of those things [Oppenheimer’s security hearing] are available online now and can be downloaded. I’ve downloaded them, but I haven’t read them.
I saw this. I was leaving town at the end of that meeting, and a guy came out with I. I. Rabi and his wife. I. I. Rabi is the one who got the Nobel Prize during the Manhattan Project in October 1944, where they stopped working briefly, had some champagne, and went back to work. He and his wife came out to a little airport in Los Alamos. The guy didn’t want to stay around and he asked if I would watch over them and get them to their plane, because you had to wait. I ended up spending an hour with Rabi and his wife. I don’t know how I got it, but I got him talking about him getting old. I think he was thinking about getting old, but I opened it up. His mind was fine. I had heard him speak.
He was the one who had argued for the first national lab after the Manhattan Project. He was arguing in 1947 to build Brookhaven National Lab, because the country needed accelerators. He was an advisor to presidents through the ’50 and ‘60s. He sat on committees. He’s done all these things, and he says, “Now, I still live in Columbia [University].” He really said this: “I don’t get any respect.” Sounds like Rodney [Dangerfield]. He really said, “The only respect I get is two times and week, Helen and I, we go to the Chinese restaurant by our apartment. When I go in, the guy calls me ‘Grandpa.’” He said, “That’s the only respect I get anymore in life. I once was advisor to presidents, and now this is what I get.”
I get him down and I put him in line on an American flight to Chicago. I go into a TWA flight, because I’m going to Florida and I’m changing somewhere. I look at the line where I put Rabi in. It was a long line. It was a long line. Lines used to be quite long. Then I looked, and there’s Edward Teller, whom I didn’t know, and he’s pacing, he’s pacing, it’s just his nature. He’s just walking back and forth. I’m looking and then here’s Rabi and his wife, and they’re cute and serene and here’s this guy, Teller, you know.
Then I told people about this. It turned out that these things were written up, and that in December of 1983, there was an article about that reunion. The person writing the article was on the plane to Chicago with Teller and Rabi, and said that halfway through the flight—I read this in The Atlantic, Harper’s, no, it was in Harper’s, December. I have a copy of it now. Apparently, Teller, who had just had people not responding to him and he hadn’t spoken to Rabi, according to the writer. Teller walked back and they chatted briefly. Teller stood in the aisle and they talked, and I believe it says that they did shake hands. So this is Edward Teller, he’s famous.
In the fall of 1986, superconductivity, zero resistance, a phenomena we value for magnetic resonance imaging now, MRIs and things when you’re in a superconducting magnet. It’s a fairly useful technology. Still is very promising. That’s what I spent most of my life working on. Superconductivity was discovered above nitrogen temperature around Christmas in 1986, maybe it was January.
Edward Teller didn’t know anything about superconductivity. He’s a fine physicist. He was much more of a problem solver than an original thinker. If you get a Ph.D. in chemistry at Caltech, one of the questions you might get on your oral exam is to name the twelve effects in chemistry named after Teller and explain them. The ones I know are Jahn-Teller and Lyddane-Sachs-Teller in chemistry. He was a great problem solver. Much more than a guy who would invent quantum mechanics, he was the kind of guy who could take quantum mechanics and use it to solve a lot of really useful problems. We’re all different, and we all have our strengths and weaknesses.
Teller wanted to understand superconductivity. He looked around Livermore and Los Alamos and talked to people who knew superconductivity early that year. He picked me to teach him. Sig Hecker, the new director then, he was talking to him, Edward would hang around a lot.
By the way, if Sig was having Teller at his house for dinner, he would always invite me, because Teller made Sig nervous. Teller could be quite forceful. When Edward Teller was at his house, Sig always wanted me there, because I could keep him under control. Whenever Sig was in town, I would spend one to two hours a day with him, and I probably spent over 100 hours. We became friends, because if you think about it, I was probably his last teacher.
Now, I don’t know the equations and theory, I know roughly what they’re about, and that was good enough for Teller. I could explain the phenomenology and the physical properties of stuff, and explain roughly what kind of math they did for the theories. Then he could see the rest of the way through. In the beginning, he kept reinventing the Jahn-Teller effect. He kept trying to figure out why they was superconductivity above liquid nitrogen temperature. It was probably around the summer around ’94 or so, he finally had made enough progress. I was editor of the oldest scientific journal of the time, Philosophical Magazine. Edward finally had a good-enough story that I told him I wanted to publish it and I wanted him to write it up. Then I went off for a while, and he had a stroke, and he forgot that work. I also can’t remember it.
At any rate, he became my friend. He was the kind of guy who, somebody was giving him a ride—he had people watch over him. I got to make two points. He did not understand human behavior once. I believe that Robert Oppenheimer, who was a very complicated human, frightened Edward.
And he didn’t understand Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was a master of human nature, he was charming. He had all of these things, and these were things that Teller—Teller was a great storyteller. The children loved hearing his stories. I can talk about that briefly. But he didn’t understand human nature. I believe that Oppenheimer frightened him, because he couldn’t see what he was doing. He couldn’t see that he was a good man; rather, he simply couldn’t see what was going on.
The other thing about Teller is that he was such a good storyteller that in time he forgot things, that what he remembered was the story that he had told. My wife once asked him about Oppenheimer, and what she got back was like a recording of what you could have read about why he testified against him. His memory were his stories, not the events any more.
I could see this because as I was teaching him science, he once asked me what I did. I said that I was using explosives to make high magnetic fields and the effects of high magnetic fields on metals. Then he said, “Oh, I remember.” I think it was [Werner] Heisenberg, but he was with his adviser in Germany. Edward was in his twenties. Lev Landau was there. They were arguing about when you put a magnetic field on a metal, does the field get bigger or smaller inside a metal? Is the paramagnetic, getting bigger, or diamagnetic, getting smaller?
Now, when Edward’s telling this story, I’m going, “I remember Landau diamagnetism from my books.” I knew the answer. Landau had it right. But these two guys are arguing. Here’s Edward, he hadn’t thought about this for forty or fifty years. You see, I reminded him of a story, and when he was remembering and telling a story that hadn’t crossed his mind, that had never gelled in his head. He also was fun to listen to, but I could tell the difference between one he had told many times and one he was thinking of.
In time, these two famous guys said, “Edward, you work this out and tell us the answer.” Anyway, it was Landau that was right, and Edward explained that he thought about a way with a magnetic field, the thing bouncing around the outside of a metal, and that it was diamagnetic. Then he said, “That was the second paper I published.” At the time, I went to the library and looked it up. But then it was in German, because he spoke German.
But, the point is that Teller didn’t understand human nature, and you couldn’t ask him about Oppenheimer anymore either, because he didn’t remember his motivations. When he wrote his memoirs, all he could remember was the stories he told many times. I like the fact that I could now and then pull up some memory from him that he hadn’t thought about, and it was fun, and I could tell the difference. But he was amazingly charming.
I was babysitting him at a conference in Houston in 1988 and there was a press conference. This is storytelling. It was the summer of ’88.
Anyway, there’s a few reporters. For the most part, they are still using pencil and paper. They say to Teller, because it’s well-known that he’s conservative and he’s [President Ronald] Reagan’s friend. Oh, Teller always said that Reagan and him weren’t as good a friend as everybody thought, but that it was good for Reagan and good for him for people to believe they were good friends, so neither of them argued with it.
They said, “Isn’t there a Democrat who you might find acceptable?”
I’m watching. Teller—I can’t do voices. He says something like, “Well, yes. There is one man.” See, he doesn’t say a name. He goes on for minutes, “A man who—” He makes it into a guessing game.
See, if I asked you, if you ask me a question, I answer it. But not Teller. Then after a while, everybody in the room finally figured out that it’s Al Gore. But, he wouldn’t say the name. He went on for minutes until everybody in the room had figured out that it was Al Gore. This is charm, this is a natural storyteller. He did this instinctively. He was charming, and could bring the crowd along with him.
Later, he had a story that he said, “What were the three disastrous colors of the twentieth century? This was a joke of his well after Gore. He said—and I didn’t agree with this—but he said, “Brown, red and green.” He had considered that the fascism had been bad for the world, and that was brown. Communism was bad for the world. Then the green was that he thought that taking care of the environment was bad for the world. He had come to hate Al Gore by the late ‘90s. I did read that Teller had taken on that guy from Cornell who said a billion, million things, what’s that guy’s name?
Alex Levy: Carl Sagan.
Smith: Yes, Carl Sagan. I believe I read that Carl Sagan and Teller had gotten in an argument about it. Carl Sagan, who was a scientist went out and said a little too strongly that the scientific evidence was clear. There was a debate, I believe, between Teller and Sagan. Where was I reading this? It’s probably in the American Scholar. There is a question, if you think about it, the environmental work in global warming all came from nuclear winter. The possible effects of overdoing nuclear weapons is related to possibly hurting the environment, and this roots of modern climate calculations go back to the Manhattan Project again and the effects on weapons.
Carl Sagan was so passionate and believed he was right, that he came out and said that the calculations and the models were firmer than he had any right to say, and a lot of real scientists got very annoyed with Carl Sagan. It appears that he got in a debate with Teller, and odds are Teller took him apart on that. That it remains true that the scientific evidence is not in. Because, by the way, as you know in science, you can disprove something, but you usually can’t prove something.
Climate change is probably correct, to the extent that science can ever prove it’s true. We should be taking action on it now. But Edward Teller in the ‘90s objected very much to environmentalists, and I felt bad for him. He then had his stroke before we ever talked about it much. But he liked his little joke about brown, red and green.
What was the sin of the Manhattan Project? What sin did the physicists commit? It wasn’t that we had made a terrible weapon that killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians.
By the way, my wife’s father was in the Medical Corps, had gone directly from Germany without stopping in the United States, to the Pacific—he was supply sergeant, not a medic, doctor—to get ready for the invasion. The people, the American soldiers in the Pacific, believed that those atomic bombs were wonderful. My father-in-law loved that I ended up at Los Alamos and that his daughter ran the warehouse. He was a supermarket manager, understood warehouses. He loved the job his daughter had.
The sin that those physicists committed was not that we had made the weapon. The sin was that they enjoyed it, because the science was so fantastic. The challenges that they met, they figured out problems, they solved in a few days. They worked non-stop, they worked round the clock. It was the most exciting period of their lives. They were surrounded by their equals—not equals exactly, it takes all kinds of people to make a team. But it took all of these people working together non-stop, very hard, to do something that worked, something that changed the world. This was their sin.
To this day, people who think about weapons, who work on weapons at Los Alamos never think, “Oh, this kills people.” We are horrified when we hear from ordnance people trying to make exotic things that tear flesh. At Los Alamos, we’re just thinking about big energy things, because it’s fun to make explosions. We believe that if we do a good job, our weapons will never be used. That our job is to make something so horrifying that it will not be used, and we will save lives.
That is how the people at Los Alamos think about their jobs. We never think about killing people, and they didn’t think about it in the Manhattan Project. We love doing science, trying to figure things out, doing experiments to see if it works, to see how it goes. Because most of the time, you think of an experiment and you say, “Ah, I’m going to do this experiment. It will give me this or this. I’ll understand that any new experiment, it gives you a third possibility.”
Most of the time when you’re doing science, it keeps getting wider. It keeps getting more and more complicated and more spread out. It’s only when you begin to get closure that you’re beginning to understand the scope of the problem you have, and that it takes you back to where you were heading. It’s just fascinating. I love it, and lots and lots of people love doing that, and that’s what we do at Los Alamos.
Kelly: Talk about Nick Metropolis and what he did. You can start by just explaining who he was and what he did.
Smith: It’s true—about Nick Metropolis, I didn’t know him well, because he spoke less and less. When they would have a party like for his eightieth party, he would agree to have it only under the condition that he didn’t have to speak. He just didn’t talk anymore, and I’m not sure what was wrong. There was a guy named Jim Louck, a mathematician, who was always taking care of Nick, and knew him.
But I read in Wikipedia that Nick was among the first fifty people chosen. He was probably at the University of Chicago, and that Oppenheimer had picked him among the first fifty, and he was very mathematical. He was Greek, Nick, as you might guess. He had movie star good looks in those days and he dressed well, and he knew he had movie star good looks and he enjoyed that.
He was a fine mathematician. He was involved in the beginning of computing, when they were making MANIACs and ENIACs. I already spoke of him and Paul Stein playing secular chess with the first computer, where they removed the bishops.
There was a thing that is called Monte Carlo technique, that the original paper—I forget who all of the authors were and I forget who was the first author—but both Tellers were on there, Edward Teller and his wife Mici. But there’s something funny about the name. She might have had her maiden name on it, I’m not sure. It may have been an earlier paper, but anyway, at least Edward Teller, Mici Teller, Nick Metropolis and another—there were probably five or six authors—had this technique called Monte Carlo.
There’s a way in mathematics, that if you want to calculate an energy of something, you have a mathematical expression. There are different ways to assemble things. It’s a very complicated process. Imagine you had a solid and you wanted to squeeze it in different ways, and things like that. It has too many dimensions to calculate, even with a modern amazing computer, it’s too complicated.
These people thought of a way to take a random state, just make an average. You’ve got something that you can control, a surface, you just do something, you sample a point, you do something, you sample a point, and you try to get an average. In some sense, it can save thousands of years of computing. It was a way to average something that was too complicated to calculate.
I don’t remember, I didn’t like what Wikipedia said, that Nick had a brother-in-law who liked to gamble or something. I don’t know, that’s not Nick. Nick’s style was that this game of chance, in fact, you deliberately—you must randomly pick things and get them. You pick spots to make an average, and it’s in fact rigorous that you not systematically pick spots. Because if you did it every other something, it’s not random. It must be random. In fact, if you weren’t picking truly random starting conditions, your technique won’t work.
This chance being so important is where Nick—I think it was Nick, not what Wikipedia said—Nick viewed this as Monte Carlo, the gambling haven in the South of France, although it’s its own country. They called it the Monte Carlo technique. It is amazing how important that is in parts of physics. I don’t work in those.
Nick would always eat lunch with Jim Louck in the cafeteria at the lab. I would have visitors and if they were theorists, I would take them up to meet Nick. I would say, “This is Nick Metropolis.” Nick would always shake hands and smile at them, but he wouldn’t really speak. At the time, I wasn’t sure Nick was playing with a full game. After he died, Jim Louck did tell me that Nick’s mind was fine, he just was having a great struggle to talk. But it was still true that I introduced many people to Nick.
One of the things you do, if you have visitors and famous people and you put them together, they start talking and you can’t get them apart. That was why I loved introducing people to Nick, because I would say, “Ah, this is Nick Metropolis,” you know.
They’d go, “Oh, oh, yeah, Monte Carlo, oh, so pleased to me you.” Then there would be nothing, and I would get my visitor back quickly. Nick was a really good guy to introduce to visitors. Never got in a conversation with them.
Kelly: That’s great.
Levy: Do you want to maybe talk a little bit about Mici Teller?
Levy: Yeah, what she was like. Was she a physicist or mathematician in her own right, too?
Smith: Teller’s wife, Mici, she had come to the United States well before he did, probably in the ‘20s, and gotten a Master’s degree, I think at Penn State—I think it was, yeah, not Penn, Western Pennsylvania University [misspoke: University of Pittsburgh]. I think she got her Master’s in geology, and it might have been close to geophysics. But she was somewhat technical in her own regard and somewhat mathematical. She didn’t travel with him that often. When they would be both at our house, we had two boys and they would never come out when we had company, especially when it was Edward Teller. Our neighbors sometimes would look and go, “Look, there’s Edward Teller going into Jim’s house.”
We had these dinners and the phone would ring, and Mici Teller would get tense. As it rang, she would go, “Aren’t you going to answer that?”
I’d say, “No, the kids will get it.” The kids usually got it on the third ring. Mici finally admitted that at her house, at her house the rule was that Edward must not hear the third ring. It wasn’t like, “Or what?” I mean, it was, “Edward must not hear the third ring.” Mici had to get that phone before the third ring. It looked like she was having a heart attack when she would hear my phone ring for the third time. By the way, nobody was calling Teller. This is when we still had landlines, of course.
In the end, though, she got quite swollen. Edward got her in a hyperbaric, some sort of thing where you go at two or three atmospheres in enriched oxygen. Even if she had to answer on the third ring, when she was suffering, his passion for her was amazing.
They really loved each other. It was fun to see them together. Most of the time, she didn’t travel with him. By the way, she let him tell his stories for the most part. She didn’t say much. My wife would get her alone and talk to her.
Levy: How often did the Tellers come to dinner at your house?
Smith: I have a wine log, but it’s not on a computer. At any rate, I should count—I believe that the Tellers came fifteen or twenty times. I would always have a wine, but he wouldn’t drink wine. I’m not sure if it was all his medical conditions. But what I knew was that I’d give him a little bit of wine and he would never taste it, but he definitely believed in making a toast. He liked to make toasts, and he would always take a tiny amount of wine when he made a toast.
The other thing I had learned from teaching him was—he’s Hungarian, and Eastern Europeans like sugar cubes. If you put sugar cubes in front of him, he’s likely to eat one. He wouldn’t drink tea through it, because Russians do that. What I learned with Teller when he was getting fatigued, even though he was probably diabetic and he probably shouldn’t do this, but I would give him this much coffee in a foam cup and put six to eight sugar cubes in it, enough that it was a saturated solution. He would sip it, and he would get his energy back.
They were driving cross-country when they were at Chicago. The Tellers and the Fermis, and Teller liked to drive. They went out to and hung around Stanford and stuff. But, then when they went down to Caltech, [Theodore] Von Karman knew movie stars, and they were going to parties with movie stars. [Enrico] Fermi couldn’t resist, Fermi loved going to this. I never read this in a book. Who told me? Oh, Teller told me.
At any rate, it was hard for the other three of them to get Fermi to hit the road and go back to Chicago, because every night Von Karman would go into parties in Hollywood. Fermi loved going to these parties. But, anyway, that was Von Karman, one of those five famous things, one of their daughters called them “The five Martians.”
Teller, as friends, I think we were sitting in Albuquerque close to the front doors on the benches. I was probably waiting for someone with a wheelchair, I don’t know how you arrange those. But I’m just sitting there with Teller. We’re just making small talk like “Hey, it’s going to rain,” you know. He said, “That lady just said, ‘Here I am’ in Hungarian.” He’s pointing to some lady. Then she’s waving and her husband comes over.
Just for the hell of it, then I go over to the lady, because she’s much older than I am, and obviously, Hungarian, and I go, “This is Edward Teller.” Then they go crazy, these two people. I mean, these two Hungarians, they, “Edward Teller!”
He hadn’t gone back to Hungary for like fifty years. He got an award around 2000 from the Hungarians, but he had not returned to Hungary from World War II until they brought him back when the government had [inaudible]. But this idea, then he thrived on it. You understand, he just said, “Hey, that lady said, ‘Hey, here I am’ in Hungarian.” I go get her and bring them over, and then they chat Edward up for a while.
It was just day to day. I’d go in his room in a hotel to get his teeth for him, his bridge and stuff. No, we were friends. Oh, and he had told me that anything that I needed done at the lab, feel free to say that he agreed with me.