Cindy Kelly: I am Cindy Kelly, the date is June 6, 2013, and we are here with Dr. Roy Glauber. And your first question is to tell me your name and spell it. Tough one, start with a tough one.
Roy Glauber: I probably can even spell it! I am Roy Glauber and that is spelled G-L-A-U-B-E-R, and that is a good old German name.
Well, I was born in 1925 and that will have a certain bearing I imagine presently. I was born in New York, but my father was a travelling salesman who felt prematurely grounded by marriage and my mother’s pregnancy. And he was itching to get back on the road, which he could not really do before I was about two years old. So from the age of two to six, we rarely spent more than two days in any one town, mostly in the eastern US. And my only playmate, my only companion most of the time, was my mother, who had problems trying to keep me amused.
And the habitual way of doing that turned out to be to visit the local police department and the fire department, particularly. I would get shown the brass poles the firemen slid down and any number of such wonderful things. And then we would shop in department stores. And walking around town, I got to know what was in most of the store windows in a greater many Midwestern towns.
So that went on until two things happened. One, I was approaching my sixth birthday, but just before that my mother gave birth to my kid sister, and that was the end of my father’s traveling days, at least for a considerable time. And I had to go to school, beginning in New York. And settling in New York was a very different experience from just living in a car on the road. In those days what were called tourist houses. Because motels and the like were very scarce, there was not any such thing as a motel in those years; it was a succession of shacks on a lot by the side of a major road. There we occasionally stayed in hotels in the cities, but more often than not we had to stay at farmhouses that took in tourists, they had a sign that said “Tourists,” or perhaps “Guests,” and it was a high-class farmhouse.
So I got to see a fair amount of life really out on the farm, and in those days very few farmhouses had running water, for example. So that made various problems as well.
Well the first place we stayed was with my father’s mother in the apartment she had in what is now called Washington Heights, the upper end of Manhattan. And the population density was just much higher than any I had known to that point. And it was very difficult making friends, I was already years behind in that. The experience was mostly going to the first grade. The classes were 1A and 1B, and I remember the teachers I had pretty well and not liking the particular sort of regimentation that was involved, or the strange red-haired woman who shouted from a stairwell. She was the principal, and she conducted fire drills and there was never a fire drill which she did not use as a platform for “Oratory and a great central well in this ancient school.” I do not know why that particular memory comes back to me at this point, but I must say it was striking.
We were only a year in Manhattan; we then moved to a much more agreeable place to live in Long Island City, a community called Sunnyside which consisted mostly of low houses. We lived in the only apartment building there actually. And I went to school, it was a bit of a hike but far more progressive, and I would not say very permissive, but it was a relatively new school and the teachers were mostly young, and that made an enormous difference.
So I was caught up in model building and painting, soap sculpture, clay modeling, things of the sort, it was all a question of doing things with my hands in those days. And I fancied I might be an artist one day until in about the sixth grade I decided that I was taking drawing and what I ought to draw and what I ought to portray, I was taking it so seriously that I was having a terrible time deciding what to do. And I felt that somehow just wrong, that anybody that was going to be an artist ought to be a great deal more spontaneous about it than I was. So I moved on and did other things.
We lived only five years or so in Long Island and moved back I am afraid to the Bronx again, a very crowded community and not one I enjoyed at all. And that is when I started reading seriously. But there was nothing scientific on my mind at all until around about the time I was ten, I would say, and I then began reading about the astronomy, and before long developed a passionate interest in astronomy. Tried building telescopes according to diagrams that I saw in the encyclopedia and they gave impossible images with rainbows around the fringes and whatnot. I learned pretty quickly you are not supposed to be there, and that a good solution to this kind of problem was to build a reflecting telescope.
And by that time, we had moved back to a more agreeable neighborhood next to Inwood Park, again in upper Manhattan, in the Inwood area. And I went through a very elaborate procedure, it took the better part of a year to build, to grind my own mirror and then build a reflecting telescope. And by heaven, it really produced wonderful images and I was able to do terribly exciting things with it over the next year or two. And I decided to build other telescopes and other optical instruments.
And I had made a visit or two—yes, I spoke at a science congress, it was called, this was an activity run by an organization that wanted to foster science clubs. And they held a science congress at the Museum of Natural History in New York in December, it must have been December of 1937. And at first it was supposed to be adult scientist who would attend our talks, these were ten or fifteen minute talks given by the kids. I had done a lot of reading about the 200-inch telescope and remember giving a talk about the proposals for it. There were terrible troubles creating the mirror for the 200-inch telescope, which had lasted—the process had lasted for years, and I said by the time I was building my own I could see why.
A woman attending the conference with an elderly man—the elderly man turned out to be the curator of the planetarium, Clyde Fisher, who really knew next to nothing about astronomy but was called the naturalist. His assistant, who was a woman, Dorothy Bennett, who was a remarkable spirit.
And the first thing after hearing my talk, the first thing she did was persuade me that I had to attend a club, of which she was the mentor, called the Junior Astronomy Club, which met every two weeks at—not the Hayden Planetarium but actually the museum, the Roosevelt Memorial Hall in the Museum of Natural History. And that was a revelation. There were real lectures given by astronomers to the kids. and I really took that up as energetically as I could. And before long I was an officer, and a few years later I was moved to president of this organization of kids.
The remarkable thing about it was really this woman, Dorothy Bennett, who put together a book called The Handbook of the Heavens, which she got a number of kids to collaborate on as well as some trained astronomers, that was in the libraries, I was just amazed it was in all the public libraries.
I could just add a word about her because she was really a bit of an influence in my life. She was a lecturer at the planetarium the first years it was open, then went back to the University of Minnesota, I think, to work at the press. But somehow or other Simon and Schuster got a hold of her and made her the editor of The Little Golden Books, I do not know if those mean anything to you. But they were mostly sold in subway kiosks and newsstands, and they were the most extraordinary little books and this was her really her pet project for years. I looked her up in later years after I had been in Los Alamos, and she was in fact living in New Mexico near Taos, and was a truly extraordinary spirit.
Anyway, yes, I did a lot with other kids in this organization centered in the Museum of Natural History. And my passionate interest then and through a lot of high school was in astronomy. But along the way I started building other instruments, improving the spectroscope, and I thought sure that I was somehow or other going to be an experimenter. But my interest broadened considerably. And I guess I have not mentioned yet that a new high school was started and I was in the first entering class that Bronx High School of Science, it became known as. And it was a very small school at first, and it had an ancient, rather decrepit building full of or was used as kind of Siberia for the [DeWitt] Clinton high school.
And so the kids like me were brought up very differently at a rather difficult time as a tiny minority in that building, until the school expanded and built a building. And I gather it has moved elsewhere, I have not seen the building it moved in. But that was a bit of a change. As a high school it did not do very much for science, they were not that well developed yet, but there were young teachers and again that made the difference.
There was one young teacher who saw these things I had done or was doing and told me I am going to need mathematics and there is no reason why I should not learn calculus. Well, calculus is sort of quite a source of fear among high school students in those days, and completely unheard of to teach calculus in high school. They had a good program, the New York State Regents syllabus in the high school, and the thing that made this high school unique was that it taught all of it instead of just the two or three elementary elements. But what that meant was just still more plane geometry and still more elementary algebra and trigonometry. This teacher telling me that I ought to learn calculus took a book out of the library and put it in my hands and said, “Here, go read this.”
Well I did, and I managed to take calculus aboard while I was in high school still. And that was when I had skipped a couple of grades, so I was younger than would be the legal age or whatever, I was two years younger. And then when I applied to college, again Harvard did not know what to make of this school and certainly what to make of me. But they admitted me.
And I was in a way I would have to say now, somewhat out of place among these guys who were not just two years older than I was but acted ten years older in general, my classmates. That certainly isolated me a bit, but I had the advantage that I was able to start with relatively advanced calculus where the mathematics standards in general were not very strong in Harvard. Most of the kids who followed the normal path would have to go two years before they got where I was. So that certainly kept me busy and out of mischief. The fact that these guys were all living in a different world did not quite make so much difference.
When the war began, when America entered the war in the end of ‘41, the deans told me I probably could not think of going to summer school because I would never—the war would be over before there would be any question of my entering. So I did not. Somebody found me a job for a month in an engineering company in New York, and that was very quick introduction to the fact that that was not what I ever wanted to do.
And then back at school they began to announce that they were giving the advanced courses perhaps for the last time “for the duration,” was the phrase. And it seemed somewhat pointless to take these intermediate courses anyway, so I started taking the more advanced courses. Then in the following summer I did stay here [at Harvard] and get in what amounted to an extra semester.
So by my eighteenth birthday, which was in September of ‘43, I faced registering of course with the draft board, which had an infinite number of young people unregistered. I faced the likelihood of going into the service. Pretty soon, they gave me a job teaching. They were very short of teachers here. And I asked for a deferment. And it happened that the man who was in charge of relations with the draft board, who did not know me personally at all, who was master of Lowell House, where I was, he came in one day and told about a session that he had just had with the draft board trying to persuade them that this eighteen year old, who needed deferment because he was helping the war effort, they were not going to buy it. I did not introduce myself, just stayed out of that, but there had been an appeal from Washington for people with technical training to sign up with something called the National Roster of Scientific Personnel.
So I sent them a postcard, and they sent me a questionnaire asking all the courses of training that you have had. I did send that back. The next thing that happened was when I was supposed to start teaching, I got chicken pox and I was suddenly out of commission for about two weeks. And then here in class, still with varying scabs I think, and it was during that week or the week following the class that I was teaching, which was in the Army’s Specialized Training Program, wanted its grades. So I remember leaving the class for a few minutes to go and get their grades. Well, while I was going upstairs there was a man dressed rather formally in a dark suit who introduced himself and seemed to know who I was, and asked if he could talk to me. And I assured him he could but I would not be able to talk to him until I had given their grades to my class.
Well I went back, and he had recognized me and known just who I was, that was not in fact such a secret because the students were all identified by photographs on wall panels. But he was evidently seeking me out and he wanted to talk to me very privately. We went into a room which had been used by the faculty and the door virtually sealed as far as I could see for the weeks I had been watching it. In fact it was a rather dark room, the shades drawn, and he drew me into it and said he wanted to know if I would be interested in going to a place where they did very important work. And he would not give me the tiniest hint of what it was or dealt with, and about the only thing I learned from this was that it was a place out west. Now he had brought along PSQ, the Personnel Security Questionnaire, laid it out on the table and turned the lights on, and I asked him if I should fill that out for him.
Okay, I filled it out which was not at all difficult because for all the pages that they devoted to all your past addresses for, I cannot remember what the interval was but it was quite large, but I had not had any. So with no background at all it was very easy to fill out his questionnaire. And he really would not say anything more than that I might hear from him. That was the end of that. And in fact I do remember his name, it was [M.H.] Trytten, T-R-Y-T-T-E-N but I cannot for the like of me remember his first name. He, I gathered later, was really functioning as a kind of procurer, if that is the right term, for the project running around following up all the leads he could.
I did run eventually into quite a number of people whom he had seen. There were others at Harvard, there was a group of four young people. By the way, here I have even a conflicting story, because there were some other young people he spoke to at Harvard, I found out. And then there were four of us, who went there over the space of about two weeks at the end of the year, beginning, I guess, just beginning of the fourth quarter. Now the conflicting story is that—while a very exciting question, let me just add here, was, what in the world might they be working on?
The burning question, of course, was, what in the world would they be working on out west? And I had a few tiny pieces of evidence, and eventually I accumulated quite a bit of evidence. The first piece of evidence, of course, was I had been reading the newspapers. I knew of the discovery of fission, or the explanation of fission, not only its discovery, and a certain amount of speculation that was in the press over the course of just a couple of weeks, and it had vanished. It had been stamped out completely, that was perhaps the most convincing single piece of evidence I had.
There were a few other hints, the absence of particular individuals. Now I knew I had never met Professor [Kenneth] Bainbridge in Cambridge, I had never met him because he was already I think working at the radiation lab when I came and of course he was at Los Alamos at that time. I assumed—naturally he was famous for mass spectroscopy and who, as a matter of a fact, that he was MC¬2 by the mass spectroscopy. He was at Los Alamos and he insisted that he had sent the word back that they really needed help out there, and anybody who had the right kind of training should be made available by the physics department at Harvard. So that of course I had no knowledge of. I heard Ken [Bainbridge] say that a number of times later. So he thinks that the essential element was he was having—was shaking things up a little bit. What were the other evidences?
Well I knew Harvard had a cyclotron and somehow it was gone, and there were several absolute indications I picked up, which turned out to be wrong. For example, Life Magazine would run photos; I remember one article they ran on America’s scientific assets and showing a picture of Enrico Fermi and saying he was out west. He was not; he was later, about a year later he went to Los Alamos. There were such hints, many of them wrong, but in any case I went.
And it was a very exciting trip, further west than I had ever been. And having gotten to Chicago, we were just told first of all, the most ridiculous thing you are told is pack up anything you want to send, but the address is P.O. Box 1663 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was not clear how, if you filled a steamer trunk with things, that was going to end up in a post office box, and that became a standing joke. Once in Santa Fe I tried looking in the post office for a Box 1663 and that evidentially upset the security authorities. There must have been quite a few security people in Santa Fe at that time.
We were told to call a phone number in Chicago and somebody would appear at the LaSalle Street Station. That is what happened, and said, “Take a taxi to Dearborn Station.” There was no transcontinental railroad, there still is no transcontinental railroad. And I tried looking for Dearborn Station recently and there isn’t one, or anything of that sort really either; it has been completely torn down.
The trip was overnight and but it did not get colorful until one got somewhere around Kansas, and then all kinds of people started coming on the train dressed bizarrely as Indians or literal Indians laden with silver jewelry.
And the one thing that struck me on that trip was the name Fred Harvey, I saw it all over the place. Now do you have any acquaintance with Fred Harvey? Well Fred Harvey apparently established a chain of restaurants, but there got to be accommodations of all sorts labeled Fred Harvey and in the course of that single day, I saw the name a dozen times. And I became aware somehow that these Indians who came on the train selling jewelry were Fred Harvey Indians. Now that name just stuck with me because the hotel in Santa Fe, what was its name again? The La Fonda, was a Fred Harvey hotel. And all along the Santa Fe line there were such things.
Because when I got to Lamy of course, which is as close as you get to Santa Fe, and there was I think a wooden platform, a sort of boardwalk along the route there, there was a guy dressed in blue jeans with a checkered shirt, literally a ten gallon hat. And suddenly I went, “My God, this is a Fred Harvey cowboy!” But it was somebody who came from Los Alamos to pick up not me but a man in a blue overcoat walking down the platform with me, who introduced himself as Mr. Neumann and who turned out to be John von Neumann.
And this Fred Harvey cowboy had a car and drove us to 109 East Palace Avenue. And I must say that Dorothy McKibbin was a very sweet and helpful lady; I saw a good deal of her later on. She ran that office, which was an obscure office. You had to go into a courtyard and then it was a door to the right. And it was there that I saw Neumann sign his famous name in the register and discovered who Mr. Neumann was.
Well then we got in his car, to drive up the Hill, and that was an extraordinary experience and one I will just never forget. Partly of course because of the geography, we passed the camel going north on the highway. The bridge over the Rio Grande had been washed out. The name of the settlement or whatever it was where the bridge was slips me at the moment.
Glauber: Pojoaque, no, no, was in fact a little—the bridge had a name, but it was washed out and we had to drive north to Espanola. For some weeks after that, one had to go by Espanola and back down, and that meant then getting a long view of the Black Mesa and the whole valley. That was fantastic.
But the most remarkable thing by far was the conversation that took place between my cowboy friend and Mr. Neumann, because they had the fear that anyone had there, of saying the wrong things in front of people whose clearance was questionable. I was there, so they were going to talk anyway. Von Neumann asked how things are going on the hill and the cowboy says, “Not very well.” And then he started explaining why things are not going very well. They used terminology that was only used in the relativity theory, ordinarily. “We are having trouble with the integration.”
“What is wrong?” von Neumann asked.
He said, “Well the world lines are intersecting.” That would be a terribly disturbing thing in the real world, in the worldwide trajectories.
And then Neumann says, “Well, does that mean that it is going off?”
And the cowboy says, “Well, matter is disappearing.” Matter is disappearing? That is impossible.
And Neumann says, “You can correct that by putting in a source.”
Of course, I had not the tiniest hint that this was mathematics that they were talking about. As a matter of fact it was one of the—they had invented a model of the implosion, which they thought they could handle on hand computers. What they were discovering was that they could not, and this thing was going crazy. It was a model in which matter had two phases and an infinite compressibility, which separates them one from the other. And so they were talking about infinite compressibility and matter disappearing.
And I was hearing all of this while going up the Hill. You know, the knife-edge road in these fantastic canyons and geography I had only seen in National Geographic. By the time I was up there, I was absolutely bewildered.
Of course, we went through the gate and I was put up at something called the Big House, which was one of the first buildings to disappear. It was a log building that the ranch school kids had slept in. It had an interior room with no light. The kids mostly slept in porches I gathered, screen porches, they were literally outdoors.
It was too late to go into the technical area so that waited until the next day, and immediately an interview in the office of Robert Bacher. I was allowed in the Tech Area, I was given a badge, I had been cleared apparently, there was not really anything to clear. And Robert Bacher said flat out, “You know, we are working for the bomb.” I was amazed at that because I had taken it for granted that we were going to be working on getting a chain reaction built, and he dismissed that, saying that had already been in late 1942, something over a year earlier. And that was a shock. I must say the notion that it was a past reaction, a bomb they were—was really rather shocking, and it did take me some weeks to accustom myself to that.
At first it was suggested that I join the group of Bruno Rossi, which was quite a good experimental group and in fact was charged even then with measuring the fission cross-section accurately. And that was the task it thought I should work and it was a man named Koonez, K-O-O-N-E-Z, I can’t remember his first name. I did talk to him for a couple of days and I asked a lot of questions, but I got upset eventually by the fact that the experimenters were not in general a very sophisticated bunch. They were very good at maintaining a vacuum and building the equipment that was needed, but they had almost no theory background. And he started asking questions and you tended to get no answers, which I guess is not at all inappropriate for what they were doing, but I felt I was going to have a problem.
After a few days I asked if I could maybe find a position in the theory group, which was directed by [Hans] Bethe, and I think I may already have heard him talk. Bethe was just unbelievable. Bethe was fantastic as someone to answer questions and someone who seemed really to have command of all of the knowledge required to calculate absolutely anything. It was nothing too ridiculous but Bethe to make a wise estimate.
So I was transferred to the theory division and sat in an office. There was, I must say, even a little sensitivity on the part of one or two people. But one of the first things I noticed was in the office, this was, I cannot remember, was the main street of Los Alamos did not have a name in those days, I think it has been called Trinity since then. The Tech Area was the one side, eventually somewhat built up on the other side as well.
There was an office next to the one I was supposed to sit in, which had the name “E. Teller” chalked on the Masonite paneling next to the door, and there was nobody in that office. One of the people who was in the office that I was supposed to occupy, and I was supposed to be sharing, was a man named [William] Rarita from Brooklyn College. I noticed after a while that he was not sitting at the desk in the office that I was supposed to be in. I discovered later that he was actually occupying the office next door labeled “Edward Teller.” What I learned presently, the first and most obvious thing was that Rarita was literally incensed by sharing an office by someone eighteen years old. He had moved out into a vacant office.
That office, “Edward Teller,” was vacant because Teller was himself so incensed a month or so earlier at not being director, not having a group to run and not being director of the theoretical division, that he had simply walked out and absented himself for over a month. I think he went back east. Teller, I must say, later appeared but on the condition that he have a division of his own with the exclusive assignment of working on the “Super,” as he put it, entire “Super,” the hydrogen bomb, and that indeed is what ensued. Teller began to gather people, many of whom were in their own way quite remarkable. One of the earlier members of his group was a man with an extraordinary mathematical background, Stanislaus Ulam.
Ulam and some others of us organized the math club in the evenings at Los Alamos, talking about problems in mathematics. [Richard] Feynman gave a talk or two, and Feynman’s talk I remember was entitled, “Famous Numbers I have Known,” and a kind of ridiculous potpourri of mathematical tricks and things that Feynman was able to do.
I mention this particularly about Ulam because Ulam was the purest of mathematicians and had had no experience whatsoever with this sort of thing that we were learning to do as our profession, namely real physical problems about the diffusion of actual particles, neutrons, and physical processes of any sort. And when asked Ulam in those days what he was doing, he would say he did not think we were doing anything of any value at all, because no one had ever proved the ergodic theorem. So the ergodic theorem was a sort of perennial quest among mathematicians for proof that a configuration, a mechanical configuration of enough complication will go through every conceivable phase at any moment of time. It is a mathematical existence, proof I should say, more than anything of any practical value at all, and it has never been proved. Even Teller, I think, made it clear that for all that he was brilliant, Ulam had no usefulness, no practical usefulness in his division at all at that stage. Now I mention that simply because of the conflict we know of later in the development of the hydrogen bomb, in which it turns out the person who made the key contributions was probably Stan Ulam.
Well what was it that we actually settled on as work? I was in a group associated with Robert Serber. Serber had been a professor at the University of Illinois and was an old Oppenheimer student; several of the people there had been students of Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer, I must say, if you look at his list of students it had a number of rather successful students, in American terms.
I say “American terms,” because I would have to say that America was in the prewar years not a very strong country in theoretical physics. We had a handful of people who had learned quantum mechanics when quantum mechanics was being developed in Germany. The number of such people—the only ones that come to mind are Oppenheimer, who was kind of late addition. Oppenheimer only got there as the whole story was being sewn up and he did, as a student with Max Born, help sew it up. We had [John C.] Slater of MIT, and only a couple of other people who had any true deep acquaintance with quantum mechanics. We had some people who had learned the subject in America, but not from the masters. I did not know anything of Oppenheimer before I went there. His name was new to me; he was not a terribly well known theorist in those days except among theorists. He had quite a deep understanding of physics and a marvelous facility in expressing himself. This went to a point eventually where he was not satisfied except to speak prose, and this was later, in the postwar years.
Oppenheimer commanded not just the loyalty but the respect, the deep respect of everybody who was at Los Alamos, and I cannot think of anyone else who would have succeeded as he did in that sense. We had some number of capable division leaders; I do not think any of them would have made out as well as Oppenheimer. Of course, you have to lay down one constraint, the leader of the project had to be an American, and that was, I am sure, a constraint that General Groves created, but it was probably a wise one. In fact, the choice of Oppenheimer was one of the very few really wise moves I would say I can remember with the general. He probably lived to regret it, it is not altogether clear. I mean, he remained supportive of Oppenheimer at a time years later, of course, when he was subject to all sorts of threats for having done just what he had done in appointing Oppenheimer.
Now let’s see, I want to get back to the story of the bomb, what was it that Serber’s group did. It was one of half a dozen groups in the theory division. It dealt with the neutron diffusion in the explosion process in the sense that the neutron density would be increasing exponentially. It did not deal with the hydrodynamics and the various other things that followed, a great many things followed, which we did not study. So our work was strictly neutron diffusion but we became quite good at it. It took rather some time and a great deal of maturing in mathematical terms, but it took us the full two years that I was there, I would say, to get over that problem and really be able to handle it adequately. Did the project literally depend on that? I would have to say, I do not think so because most of the decisions were made on the basis of empirical evidence that did ot have anything to do with the finer points of how in the world we were able to calculate precisely what was going on.
So that is what I worked on for two years there, and I got to do a few other things in the last months and to learn a bit more. Was the work that I did very educational? I would say, only up to a point and that point was reached rather early, probably. Fortunately, we had a great deal of help in doing calculations. We had in the theory division a calculating group, which was run by a wonderful mathematician from NYU named Donald Flanders. He had somehow or the other picked up the nickname “Moll,” and he just understood that that was his nickname I think not just at Los Alamos but elsewhere, he had a large family. He was very musical, he directed the choruses, the singing groups, and he was a very colorful man.
The group he presided over was about as bizarre of a group as you could imagine. Many of the people in the group were housewives who were working part-time, some of them full-time, pounding Marchant computers doing the various computations that we needed to have done. And it was an odd group.
Of course, the whole project as you know, was peppered with military people who were not very military, the so-called “SED people” in the Special Engineering Detachment, who were required to wear a uniform and to live in—compactly in dormatories, to get up and do calisthenics for some period of time before they went around to the technology areas. No amount of complaining would satisify these people. In a sense, they realized that they had—relative to the guys who were fighting on the front—they had a relatively soft berth, but that did not stand in the way of quite a bit of complaining. And several of them worked in the computing division, again punching Marchant machines.
I do not know why it suddenly occurs to me—mentioning housewives. There was a phenomenal birth rate, of course, at Los Alamos. The military doctors, I think, had some right to wonder why it was that their principal task as Army doctors was delivering babies. The local hospital delivered quite a few children. There really did not seem to be much else to do.
There were some aspects of life in the place that were in a curious sense ideal. If you would design the ideal republic, what would it be like? All of the menial things would be done by others, you would have no menial duties yourself. You would be fed relatively well for no labor that you carry out at all. Your associates would all be reasonable, intelligent people, many are very well educated. It had some eutopian qualities, this life, although it was one hundred percent artificial. It was, of course, very well guarded, there was no criminality to speak of in this place. We did not have any intruders. One of the wonders, of course, is that we had maintained a civilian—an active civilian life, and were not in unfiform. I was not around when these decisions were made, some months earlier.
There really had been some contention over how much information should be shared, and the information sharing was almost total within the technical area. Eventually there were specific things about bombs and bombing and then specific schedules and things of the sort, which were not circulated even within the technical area, I gather. But darn near everything else was discussed quite openly in the colloquia that we held one evening a week every week. That was in the great wooden gymnasium, where they would send in the MPs [Military Police] to clear this big gym out and put out the seats, I suppose.
And the discussions that took place there involved, as well as I can tell, nearly every detail of the entire project. And it included lectures on the theory and practice of bombing by people like Luis Alvarez and others who had had a good deal of experience with the Battle of Britain. There were several people who had experience with the Battle of Britain who were in fact telling us this whole story, and it was quite harrowing. Lord William Penney, Bill Penney, was one of those people, and he had a rather high-pitched, somewhat singsong English voice, which was very hard to listen to describing some of the goriest things you ever heard. Well, I do not want to lose the track completely, but I wanted to cover some more of the color of it and of the experience.
Part of the story was the governance of Los Alamos itself. Of course, there was none. Initially, it was Colonel—I think his name was Ashbridge, Colonel [Whitney] Ashbridge, had charge of the place, and one never heard anything from him. It was all managed very well.
There did get to be a problem after a time with the mud that we had to walk through. There was no paving whatever. General Groves, I think, had in the forefront of his mind the Congressional investigation that was going to take place when the whole thing failed, which was always a possibility. There were many openings for that, and many ways in which we adhered the whole business was ready to go down the tube because of surprises in the nuclear parameters in the line, things that were never anticipated. Anyway, General Groves I think must have seen himself as being crucified by none other than Harry Truman, whose reputation, whose political esteem was based on his uncovering corruption, including in military bases that the General had been involved in building. There was supposed to be a golf course that was put on an extra lawn much earlier, I have no idea whether that is true. But the result was that the whole thing was run as economically as the General could manage, and that included no sidewalks and our marching through the mud. So there was a certain amount of complaint about that.
And eventually there was a town council created, and there was no mayor but the chairman of the town council, who was in lieu of a position of mayor, was Vicky Weisskopf. Now, I do not know whether you heard much about him. He was a very good theorist who was second-in-command of the theory division, but he had a personality that at least sounded very congenial and permissive and tolerant and wise, and so he was chosen as the first long-term director of the project in Europe after the war. He was made a professor at MIT, and he was in some ways the leader of the theory profession in Cambridge, including even Harvard, in all of those years. He then went to CERN and he was back at MIT. He was a prominent, I would not say a dominant figure, but certainly the most prominent of figures here in Cambridge for many years.
That deals with town government, that wasn’t much. I do not know what am I leaving out, I think lots, but there were many, many strange and a few wonderful things that went on there. I do not know whether you have managed to record all of them or whether I am just repeating, or what.
Kelly: No, this is wonderful. Everybody is interested in spies, and I understand you knew Ted Hall, was he—?
Glauber: Well I certainly did know him. He was one of four people who went out there at roughly the time I went out there from Harvard. I had known him here. I have talked about him a good deal with people investigating. I do not know what ever has been released of all of that or has not been. I am nervous about talking about that sort of thing, because I just do not even know the state of revelation of what he did or was involved in. I never understood it.
Kelly: Were you aware that he had sympathy to the Soviet Union, having information about the bomb at the time you were in Los Alamos?
Glauber: No. I must say I had as I knew him previously at Harvard, he seemed to me to be contemptuous of the Soviet Union. There was a prior history before Stalin, and I do not know what mythology went on, but there were many people who seemed to have more respect for that and no respect for Stalin. I would sooner have identified him with that, but I do not know.
Kelly: Just curious. I think there were a couple of others that you knew. David Greenglass?
Glauber: I never—
Kelly: You did not know him.
Glauber: I did not.
Kelly: Klaus Fuchs?
Glauber: Fuchs I knew, but nobody knew him very well. I do not know anybody who was close to him. The only thing I really knew, I think he may have had a car and Feynman borrowed his car to visit his sick wife in Albuquerque, I think I recall that. I do remember Fuchs as a—he had a sort of hoarse voice, and evidently he was one of the people who worked in a very scholarly way on problems that were called hydrodynamics and which had to do with the shock waves and the literal explosion, not the nuclear part but what follows in the air. He seemed to become an expert on that.
It was close somehow to Peierls, Rudy Peierls and his wife. And his wife Genia was one of the landmarks of Los Alamos. A woman with a thick Russian accent and stentorian voice and a really voluble manner. And for some reason or other she sang in the singing group, she was among the sopranos, who occasionally under Moll Flanders missed their cues, their points in the Messiah, which we were performing, where you have to remain—you create a cadence by remaining silent for one whole measure or something. And there were occasions in which her—she would break that silence with that characteristic raucous voice, I will never forget. Peierls eventually were knighted and more than deserved it, he was elite among the Brits. He moved to Oxford, of course. They were of course bowled over by Fuchs.
The great difference is that Fuchs knew I think knew the story from top to bottom. I have no notion of whether the way in which he tried communicating, it had any effect or not, I do not see how you would communicate to someone who is not technically trained in all of these details. I cannot believe that the Russians ever got the story straight as it was transmitted from Los Alamos. I have no idea. The things the Russians have said about what they got are in conflict, and some people seem to say that they were helped, others say they were not.
Kelly: Okay let’s see, what else do you remember about Los Alamos, life in Los Alamos?
You were a bachelor?
Glauber: Yes, that was not much of a life I must say. We lived in dorms that had two stories and a long hallway with ten or so rooms on either side of the hallway and a large lavatory in the middle of the floor somewhere. It was not an uncomfortable life, that. We held dorm parties every once in a while. There was a fair amount of social life on the Hill, but it did not involve the bachelors very much. There were essentially no—there was one dorm, one such dorm, a small old one in which women lived, but there were very few unmarried women, and they did not stay unmarried for long.
Kelly: Now was your dorm the one that is now a Unitarian Church?
Glauber: It was I think called T-236 or something. It was over near the edge of Pueblo Canyon. That was not the first one. The first one was in the—I was just a couple of weeks there and then moved to this was a new one. And I did eat at Fuller Lodge, which was important. The food was very good, the company was excellent. There were I think at least six people to a table, maybe eight, but one did sooner or later get to meet everybody in the place. That really had its virtues; it was like being part of the upper crust. What else?
Kelly: In reflecting back on the Manhattan Project, I think you have touched on this, but maybe you could sort of sum up what you thought was unique about—people talk about, “Let’s have another Manhattan Project for this or that problem.” What is it that made it work, or was special about it? Could we do it again?
Glauber: Well, it was sufficiently well-defined problems. The extraordinary thing, which one would probably never be able to do again, was—first of all, if you had to do something, which was the next thing to impossible, and in many stages and in many ways, and it was necessary to branch out in so many directions in order to accomplish this, and several of them in fact succeeded, that was the extraordinary element. Yes, one can put together a project to do one rather circumscribed thing. This was not anything that was so easily circumscribed. It involved isotope separation on an unbelievable scale, creating reactors, and creating a new chemical element, and handling unbelievable amounts of radioactivity. It involved theory, which stretched off in areas nobody had ever been in before. That was one of the less unusual elements of the whole thing. Actually doing all of these things was extraordinary.
Suppose we set ourselves the task of going not any place within the solar system, but to the nearest star. Now the nearest star is four light-years away. That would be more than an ordinary undertaking. As a matter of a fact, it is a safe bet that it would not be done in the next several hundred years. In miles and in terms of attainable speeds—attainable by people, that is, it would be a simply unbelievable accomplishment. If you were to say, “Let’s have a Los Alamos project to go to visit the planets around Alpha Centauri,” it would certainly take a bit of a Los Alamos project to do that. It would involve the lifetimes of generations in succession, I think, to get there.
I do not know. I mean, there are things which can be ii getting a lot of talented people to set their efforts to doing it. But if you would have asked me—and I was not in the position to make such judgments really in 1939—but if you had asked the person who was my age at that time, what the likelihood was of putting together a large project that would accomplish all of this, I would have said, it really did not amount to much. The Germans in effect had that decision to make and made it exactly that way. The Japanese never even got to that stage.
Kelly: So how do you think the Manhattan Project changed American science or science of all of the scientists in society? This is sort of like two questions.
Glauber: I am afraid it did create the impression that we can do the impossible. One unfortunate effect is that it really looks as though there are some parts of science that one might have to hold in secrecy. I hate to think of any such thing, but we are very apt to make discoveries that would put power in the hands of a small number of desperate people. It is sad to think that there is such a danger, but look around these days at what you have been seeing. What else?
Kelly: One of the things that people bring up—not necessarily scientists but lets say the humanists—they talk a lot about the moral decision, the moral dilemma, of working on a project that whose ultimate goal is this weapon of mass destruction.
Glauber: I do not know the answer to that one. That is very difficult, and of course bears on what I was just saying a moment ago. We are playing with much larger horses these days than we ever were in earlier times, and it may just be that we are protected only by how enormously expensive they are, in some discoveries ever made. Which make any of these things at all affordable, there are a lot of nasty elements in the world who will afford them, I am afraid. I think that is a serious danger, and it maybe would hint that we all ought to grow up and realize how much science has changed the world.
These dangers exist; not only the enormous destructive power of nuclear weapons, but perhaps even more so in the study of bacterial agents of microbiological agents of all sorts. Once could do terrible things with those, and much less expensively. I do not know. Perhaps those problems are more easily solved but I do not think so, and then possibly not before an enormous damage is done. Science has made the world a much safer place to live in, in a way, and it has also made it implicitly or possibly a much more dangerous place.
Clear to me what decision would have been made regarding use of the bomb had we been three months earlier. We missed the target at the end of the European war. If we had had the bomb several months earlier, the decision might not have been made differently, but I can assure you that the thought that went into it would have been different because all of the people involved had come from European background themselves or their families had a generation or two back.
Now, I do not think the ultimate outcome would necessarily have been different. The bomb might have been used in the very same way, but the fact is that in Japan, the city of Hiroshima had been set aside for this purpose from prior bombing efforts, and the city in the north, Kokura, I think, had been as well. Nagasaki was an afterthought to some degree; I do not know the details of these things at all, of course. But there was not a moment’s hesitation about using the bomb on Hiroshima, which was not a name that we had known before. We were told what the dimensions of such a city were and what its population was likely to be. Of course, they had not ever identified the target to us.
But if we had been, let’s say, half a year earlier in generating the Trinity test and what followed, I think the decision might have been made in a different way. I do not know. I would hope it would have, frankly. But once the military were given this weapon, and particularly in the context of all of the things that had preceded it, they would have considered it disloyal to make any other use of it. There was the question of course of the forthcoming American invasion of the southern islands of Japan. I do not know. It is a terrible story. It may be just as well that that problem—what would we have done six months earlier—that that problem never be solved.
Kelly: Great. Well you have been fabulous, this has been a really good interview and lots of different respects. Is there anything else before we let you go?
Glauber: No, look I could go on for ages, particularly reminded of various things. The big issues were, nobody could believe that we made the revelation that the Smyth Report made, because it seemed to tell the entire story from top to bottom. Well, it did not. There was a certain number of surprises along the way, which were left buried for others to discover if they wanted to follow a similar path. Now those things are all known now, and I can tell you what some of them were.
For example, when the nuclear reactors were first turned on at full power, or at least almost full power, in Hanford, Fermi was present and a number of dignitaries. And the power in the reactor proceeded to decrease and eventually to either turn off completely or something close to it. And Fermi, in his rather remarkable way, surmised what the problem must be, that there were fission fragments present in minute amounts, minute percentages that had never been detected before. And that it might just be that some—one of them has an absorption cross-section which is vastly larger than had ever been seen, had ever been known of before.
And that turned out to be true. It was shown presently that there was a rare isotope of xenon, which had a cross-section, an absorption cross-section, thousands of times larger than had ever been known. In the unit that was used then, it ran into the millions, millions of barns, it was called. Had the reactors been designed less extravagantly, had they been less overdesigned, those reactors in Hanford would never have worked. That was a total surprise, and it was left unmentioned.
Of course it was left unmentioned except that when the nuclear people saw this, they immediately added it to an enormous table of the nuclides, a chart, a wall chart which was about eight or ten feet long, which was about the biggest sort of thing ever turned out by the blueprint people of Los Alamos. I had a copy of that thing, and indeed it would have covered the entire wall of this room.
When I was leaving the project in December of ‘43 , I started folding the thing up and by the time I got it down to the point at which it would fit into one of the crates they had given me—it was a remarkable crate, it was clear knotless pine, three-quarters of an inch thick, it was produced in a shop to order—but by the time I got this chart folded down to be able to fit into the crate, it was already the thickness of a deck of cards. So I took the thing back to the technology area, and just left it there, I think, in a trash pail.
And that was interesting, because about three months later when I was back at Harvard, a security man of some sort knocked on my dormitory room door and asked if I happened still to have that isotope chart. They realized that this isotope chart contained not only that isotope discovered in that awful way, but even the value of its absorption cross-section so that was the ultimate breach of security, and I had to explain to the guy that I had never taken the thing with me. He seemed happy enough with that. But then I told him, “But I have a photostatic copy of the thing with me,” which was made much more compactly. It was only about a foot across, and you had to look at it very carefully to see the numbers. I had this photostatic copy, which had been made at Los Alamos, would he be interested in taking that? And he said oh no, he was just interested in the wall chart, and went off.
Whatever it may be as a story, a true story, was one of several examples of ultimate secrets which were left out of the revelation and which would have stood in the way of—very likely—of anybody wanting to create a bomb project.
Kelly: Interesting, I understand somebody else mentioned to me they also do not mention much about the chemists or these various other people who contributed, because of secrecy, which has given all years the impression that it was really a project of physicists.
Glauber: Well, it was an awful lot that went on. There were several other such secrets and there are corresponding stories to tell, but it was not a very straightforward procedure, the whole business. Of course, Edward Teller considered it all a foregone conclusion and had lost interest already in 1943. He was on his thing, the “Super.” Well, there were so many things. But look, we were dealing with remarkable extremes all the time.
I suppose we have condensed our couple of years into these few stories. There are others. Come around again, and I will produce the others.