The Manhattan Project

Stirling Auchincloss Colgate's Interview

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Stirling A Colgate

Stirling Auchincloss Colgate was a student at the Los Alamos Ranch School when the site was chosen for use in the Manhattan Project, and he describes the visits of J. Robert Oppenheimer and other project leaders. Mr. Colgate left Los Alamos to go to college and study physics, later working with many of the renowned scientists from the project.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
November 16, 2005
Location of the Interview: 
Los Alamos
Transcript: 

Stirling Auchincloss Colgate: I’m Stirling Auchincloss Colgate.  And the first name is spelled with an extra “I,” S-T-I-R-L-I-N-G. My middle name is Auchincloss, A-U-C-H-I-N-C-L-O-S-S. And that last name is Colgate, and when I was around ten or eleven years old or somewheres like that, I changed my name and chose that myself, so I’m happy about that name. I like it.

Most kids don’t change their name. They should change it. They should all get their names assigned with their parents and who else. You know, when they’re, you know, eleven—ten or eleven years old. And that’s what the Indians do; they all assign their names then. I must’ve picked it up, and it happened.

Kelly: Okay. Good. So tell us about the Los Alamos Boys Ranch School here.

Colgate: Well, I got here because my brother went here, and he got here because he had asthma. And it was the practice in the east, if you had anything wrong with you, to ship you away somewheres, but especially in a healthful environment.

And the Ranch School here was established for boys to learn to ride and be, if not cowboys, at least highly educated cowboys, and have a feeling for the outdoors, and pack trips, and riding a lot. And many sports, but not any team sports.

And this—the education here was extraordinarily intense. And, quite frankly, because of the money that went into this Ranch School—it was a rather expensive place, and you had to have reasonably wealthy parents, though there were a few scholarships, and my—certainly, my best friend here was here on a scholarship. But because of that, the quality of the teachers, the number in classes, and the intensity of the education was just beyond comparison.

When I first went to Cornell when I was seventeen, just seventeen, when we were kicked out, I literally didn’t have to crack a book for anything but one course, and that was in mathematics, in integral calculus, which the school didn’t teach, but should have. Nowadays, you learn integral calculus anywheres, but I didn’t do that here. But otherwise, the education was so intense that you just could coast after that.

And I loved it. And it was just what I needed, and it was what my brother needed too. It was the kind of environment that—where the boss man, A.J. Connell, extraordinarily able man at running the school—he had been a forest ranger or something like that, and rose to the top of that, and then managed a boys’ school. And he was just an extraordinarily able man with boys and students and so on.

And he just made us all feel that everything we did was our own responsibility; learning, as well as all our relationships and everything else. There was no such thing as blaming anybody else. You just couldn’t do it; you weren’t allowed to. And I liked that because everything else had been, “rah-rah team sports,” and I don’t fit into that.

Kelly: What were some of your most memorable adventures?

Colgate: Here?

Kelly: Yes.

Colgate:  When Cecil Wirth, the math professor, became ill with cancer, prostate cancer, nothing was done about it for a long and serious time. And that’s because he had been—he was immersed in a situation of religious science. And when it finally became very serious, and he finally went to Sloan-Kettering in New York, when it was terminal, he stayed with me and with my parents in New Jersey.

And going through the process of him dying of cancer, and then that last semester before the termination of the school, teaching his math courses; as a sixteen year-old, that was memorable.

Now, that doesn’t make horseback riding trivial. It doesn’t make ice skating and—not at Ashley Pond but down in the canyon—trivial; it doesn’t mean—make hiking up through all the caves and everything else.

I remember one—Flint Breeze  was a young student here, one time got us all to—got a batch of the students – I don’t remember whether—I don’t think I was part of it—to build a sort of fake pueblo in a cave and put a lot of smoke in it and cover it. This was one of the Indian caves.

And that was—that fake construction of a pueblo by the kids was later found, I understand, by some of the scientists here. And they thought it was a great archaeological find for a while ‘til someone did some carbon dating. [Laughter.] But this was the other side.

But, to me, my hero was Cecil Wirth, the math professor. And I soon learned from that the value of separating church and state, and that was very intense.

Kelly: Yes. Can you tell us a bit about the day which some visitors came, you know, the Groves-Oppenheimer visit.

[Interruption over squeaky shoes.]

Colgate: Before any of the really important visitors arrived, the decision had been made that this would be a laboratory. And so there—what we sort of described as a “mega bulldozer” came through the place—that is, tremendous effort in construction and redoing things, roads and everything else, happened some months before. And I can’t remember exactly how months—how many, but I think something like a month and a half or two. It was done at a tremendous rate. And I’ve always referred to it as a “mega bulldozer” came through the place.

And there were four of us who were seniors, and, as I say, I was teaching the math courses as a sign of a measure that we knew the school was going to be closed because of the war. I mean, we—you just felt it. You knew, regardless, that—before they did all the reconstruction, you knew that it was kind of—there was no way this sort of thing could go on during the war very well.

And so we’re all speculating—what—you know, I mean, how useless can it be to put—do anything up here on the Mesa? It’s so hard to get water, there’s no transportation, naturally, railroads and so on. It’s just a crazy place to do any war thing.

Secrecy, my God, you do much better—you know, if secrecy is what you want, you do it in the middle of a military organization in a compound, if—just anything else. So, you know, we used to kid, even from the very beginning, that—what kind of image have we got, a science-fiction type, sci-fi hero with white-coated scientists?

But—so this was all a background in our sort of speculation kidding the previous month or two before these two guys show up, one wearing a porkpie hat and the other—it was my memory, always, that he was wearing a fedora. And a fedora was uniquely E.O. Lawrence. Of course, the porkpie was—there was just no question that, after about half an hour or an hour, that this was Oppenheimer.

But we knew enough about the issue of the day, whether fission could be used to make a chain reaction, an exponentiating reaction by the neutrons, or whatever, by the neutrons particularly. And we all knew that as some, you know, kids doing a physics class. And it was on the headlines of papers in those days.

But the burning question was, is whether, in the fission of uranium—in this case, the isotope 235, because even that was known in those days, before the bomb—would it emit enough neutrons to support a chain reaction?

So when those two showed up and this place had already been overrun by a “mega bulldozer,” there was absolutely no question in the minds of a couple of us smartass kids that this meant that the fission ratio was greater than two, and therefore, without question, they would be making a nuclear bomb. We didn’t misname it an atomic bomb, we called it a nuclear bomb.

And so when we did leave the Mesa, there were at least half a dozen of us who knew exactly what they were doing and a few of us who knew exactly how to do it without ever—you know, it—physics is physics. You don’t—it doesn’t—it isn’t that big a deal. But we all agreed to shut up about it, that is, not to say a word, because the whole thought of our getting free of the Mesa for the war was too good to be true. And we didn’t want to stay and we thought, you know, imagined we would be in some kind of, if not quarantine, whatever.

In retrospect, that was about the stupidest thought that I could have ever done, along with my colleague, because if I had indicated my knowledge and awareness and the kind of ability to be teaching the math classes and know the physics and everything else, I’m sure, in relatively short order, I would have been integrated into the operations here, and had an education in physics that I never could have achieved any other way.

So this, you know, smartass sci-fi kid thing was a stupid thing to do, because imagine being—going from the Ranch School into finding somewhere with people like that. Because, you know, they all would have wanted to extend that memory, but they couldn’t, you know, I didn’t let it happen. I took off and went to college instead. So I have no idea. You know, you can only say, “What if?”

But I don’t think anyone else particularly here—my colleague was an engineer—he became an engineer, and actually a leading engineer of one of the major petroleum companies in the country. But physics—I think I was the only one out of many students here who ever became a physicist. And that was only many years later, when I had been in—a merchant marine during the war, stuff like that.

When Oppenheimer and what I believe was Lawrence—and some people—I think it was questioned whether that was really Lawrence here. I think it was. I ended up later working for him in Berkeley, well, really in Livermore [Laboratory]. And it just seemed to me that that was so natural because I remembered the fedora and the image, but maybe I was all wrong.

But, at any rate, when they arrived they were surrounded with a coterie, a complete—well, we had some politically impolite words to describe it, but a group of senior military people and other people feeling even more important. Who they were, I don’t know. But there was an immense feeling of importance and future about this visit.

We were continually astonished, as kids, why they would want to put a facility here with that much importance because secrecy was—hell, we already knew within a half hour that the fission ratio was greater than two, and what that meant, and how to do it, and everything else, you know, what needed to be done. And so it just seemed absolutely absurd.

And, of course, it’s a lovely place. I’ve spent most of my life here now and my creative work is here, and it’s great that it happened. But really, in times of war I think it was a questionable decision, and it put a great deal of romance around something that was frighteningly serious for mankind. And I think that how frighteningly serious that is should not be confused with the romantic notion of small boys’ school on the Mesa. Two different universes, totally different universes.

Of course, everyone was—particularly A.J. Connell was totally broken up by having his life’s work moved. But he made us all understand how extremely serious this was without knowing himself. He—the word fission, I don’t think, ever was in his vocabulary. And I don’t think it was in any of the masters’ or the teachers’ who were left here except possibly one, and that was Doctor Church . But nobody else would have known the word. 

And only younger people—it’s one of those things you learn out of it, that if you’re going to fool someone, it’s best to choose someone older than yourself, not younger than yourself. Because the names, Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones, that they went under, the senior—what I was—certainly Mr. Smith was Oppenheimer, but Mr. Jones, I thought, was E.O. Lawrence, and I still feel so but, you know, maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know. That—well, I felt that the guy I thought who was Lawrence was extremely embarrassed about using a Mr. Jones—a pseudonym, and I could not feel that same sense of embarrassment on Oppenheimer’s part.

Oppenheimer gave a superb talk at our commencement. We did not get our degree from Oppenheimer; we got our degree from Los Alamos Ranch School. But he stood in front of the fireplace here, in the lodge [Fuller Lodge], and graced this project with a set of words that I wish were recorded. I have never seen them but it was an extraordinary talk that he gave about closing the Ranch School. And the—far greater—

[Tape switch.]

Colgate: And Oppenheimer, as I say, gave the commencement talk to us standing in front of the fireplace here at the Lodge. And it was an extraordinary thing. I remember just enough to be impressed from what had previously been a rather skeptical position. And he made us all realize the tremendous importance of what he felt was going to happen here.

I must say, I never ever got to the point of feeling that this was a decision that perhaps might have better been made in a more industrial context for the country because, much as I have enjoyed immensely—and all of us scientists have enjoyed this environment, as well as the very many other people that support that operation.

It still is frighteningly expensive compared to doing the same thing, let us say, in Albuquerque or in wherever, like Sandia or whatnot. It’s much more expensive just simply moving all this stuff up here. Imagine getting a cyclotron to work in Los Alamos. Ah!

So, later years, it turned out, I ended up working for people like Bob [Robert] Wilson, who spent his time here, and I knew some of [Richard] Feynman, and certainly I worked with [Hans] Bethe a lot. So all of these people who were working here, I could have been working with much sooner maybe.

Kelly: You certainly would have been the youngest one. Of what I hear about what went on on weekends, you’d probably feel a little—or you would grow up fast.

Colgate: [Laughter.] Well, maybe not. I don’t know that I would have grown up fast. I think I’ve always, in the words you’re using, been very much behind, at least twenty years. Certainly in the merchant marine, I looked and behaved at least fifteen years younger than I was, which was exceedingly embarrassing.

And I don’t know—no, I can’t do any more what ifs, but all I do sort of convey about it is that—how deeply serious everyone took what was going to happen here at the time. And how, if, I would say, the younger people here had been let in a little more in terms of what was so obvious to all of us, there would not have been what might have happened, a serious breach of security.

Even though it was tried to impress on us that it was going to—that we shouldn’t talk about what happened here, and, certainly, I never did. Although, after the first nuclear bomb was used in Hiroshima I did give a little talk aboard ship about it and how it worked and so on, but—having had no experience whatsoever, not even going to college in physics yet, or a little bit of it. But the point was that I think people could have been told a little more about how this was so important for the security of our country that no discussion of who they saw here, during the time of the closing of the school, should ever be referred to.

And I—in retrospect, I feel this sort of almost patronizing view of younger people, that they don’t know enough. And that, of course, can get you in a lot of problems in life. And I just feel that could have been handled more maturely, and certainly should have been handled more maturely by the military people here, that were part of that visit. Because forty-four kids left this place, in time of war, knowing quite enough in one way or another to have given the Soviet Union, particularly, the image that this was the critical facility.

And so I think it was very—a big mistake not to have brought the students of this school, all of whom would have been, and were in their subsequent lives, overwhelmingly patriotic, and would have cooperated, and did, evidently. But I think it could have been more serious. That’s retrospect.

Kelly: What else would you like to talk about? What have I not asked you that may be, you know, a great connection between the Ranch School and physics, or your views about how important it is to preserve this history and the properties associated with it?

Colgate: I think the history that’s so important is the one of—with all of our angst about the use of nuclear weapons or the exist—and especially now the existence of nuclear weapons, and the absurd number of weapons that we still keep because our ally, the Russians, have a large number of nuclear weapons. All the angst and guilt that is—and the worry that this is, as Oppenheimer said, “We have known sin,” or whatever it is—I’ve forgotten the exact words—is not facing the fact.

As humans, we’ll always do what can be done. We don’t—we’re not built with the restraint not to do what can be done. And nature, for whatever, or—I think you can only call it nature—has handed us this wild card that a tiny fraction of uranium that is left is fissionable and you can do these things with it.

And to say that we’re sinful for having discovered it, I think, is blindsiding the issue. We’re always going to be faced with the ability to destroy ourselves in many, many ways, and that’s only one of them. And to exaggerate the existence of the possibility of a nuclear bomb outside of the context, now, of what we can do to ourselves biologically, or even with conventional weapons, or any other way—the ability of the human species to take advantage of what can be done is depressing and possibly heroic. I’m not sure which. 

But to single out the nuclear phenomena outside of the context of all the other ways we can destroy ourselves, hopefully we won’t. But I think it blindsides the issue. What can be done, humans are likely to do, without it being singularly, you know, evil, singularly malevolent, from day one. It is what is possible. And humans will always go to the limit of what’s possible.

Kelly: Well said, well said. I mean, there already are people who are at various universities, and emeritus professors, saying we shouldn’t preserve this history, like it didn’t happen, like it’s the most evil thing.

Colgate: Okay, well—

Kelly: So it’s good. You’ve given me a nice line. [Laughter.]

Colgate: I thought you might like that.

Kelly: I did like it very much. That was excellent.

Colgate: The irony of all of this is—well, there are many, many ironies, but when I—after the war I went back to Cornell and became a physicist and, as I say, I worked with all these people that had worked out here.

And they always would ask me about this cave or that cave or this path—this hike, or Camp May, or wherever, where we used to go on horseback up there, and climb the mountain and ski it. And then they would talk about Sawyer Mesa, and I couldn’t remember where that was, and, of course, that’s where they put up a ski hill, a ski tow. It was far enough away. 

But they were always asking me—you, know, they—the most exciting part of their lives had been lived here also. And I always tried to down-pedal it because I wanted to be a scientist in my own right like they were, and not a kid from the Ranch School. 

And so I was very fortunate, how things worked out for me. As I say, I ended up doing my degree for Bob Wilson. I then ended up working with E.O. Lawrence, and then at the start of the Livermore Laboratory, and having a major role in the tests in Enewetak and Bikini, all at a very young age. And just mind-blowingly rapid, you know, going from an electrician in the merchant marine to that, which—very rapid, a major step.

But, in the process, I got to know [Edward] Teller very well, I suppose because of the skepticism of—that I think A.J. Connell, in this school here, imbued us with, that you don’t follow a leader, you are a leader yourself, to yourself. That we—I never could get into the notion of talking about the Ranch School a great deal with these people, frankly: Phil Morrison, and Bethe, and Bob Wilson, and Feynman, all of whom were at Cornell, and all of whom would be asking me.

And always I would avoid it as fast as I could because I did not want to be a sycophant of the Ranch School. I wanted to be a scientist, and therefore I was very fortunate that this happened in my life. But I needn’t have been so damn rude about it. [Laughter.] An instinct of youth at that time.

Kelly: That’s great. Well this has just been perfect. This is just what we need.

Colgate: It’s what you need?

Kelly: Well, just don’t get up because you’re miked. Is there anything else that you want to add?

Colgate: Yes. I guess I could say something about Teller. That same—that’s where I was when I got sidetracked.

Just like I didn’t want to be a sycophant of these other scientists relative to the Ranch School, I also didn’t want to become a sycophant of Teller, so I always maintained a distance. But I respected him greatly and I deeply understood, or felt I understood, the feeling he had when Hungary was overrun by the Soviet—the then-Soviet empire, and how this would drive this mania to defend ourselves.

And in retro—as we learned in those years, if he hadn’t been pushing the hydrogen bomb, the Soviets were. And we just did it better, and if we hadn’t have, I think we would have had to have, certainly, backed out of Europe, and whether we would have had to allow the Soviet hegemony over us in this country, I don’t know.

But the restraint that this, our culture, has shown, in having the power, to me, is one of those extraordinarily fortunate things. And the restraint that has been shown about many of Edward’s fut—subsequent ideas, that we don’t want to go in that route, is also a tribute to us and our culture. But we need them all, and we need this constant exchange of ideas, and the vetting of these ideas, to find out what is sort of right, what fits our culture, how we can do this thing without destroying the world.

And then, of course, it was the extraordinary ability of the sequence of chairmen in the Soviet Union, and the sequence of presidents of the United States, and, going backwards, the sequence of presidents of the United States, and the chairmen of the Soviet Union, who collectively kept us from a nuclear war.

I think that’s all.

[End.]