The Manhattan Project

Ted Taylor's Interview - Part 2

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From 1948-1956, Ted Taylor worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, developing fission bombs of minimal size and maximal capacity. Later in life, while working for the Defense Department, Taylor began to realize the real-world implications and consequences of the bombs he developed. In this interview, he discusses the team feeling of developing the H-bomb after the war and during the Cold War arms race, and the role of people he terms “weaponeers” had in driving the development of the H-bomb. Taylor then turns his attention to discussing how his mindset changed in the 1960s and why he began to support the total abolition of atomic weapons. He explains why he thinks nuclear weapons should be globally outlawed, much like chemical and biological weapons.
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Richard Rhodes: You said [Richard] Courant’s work added realism?

Ted Taylor: Yeah.

Rhodes: How so?

Taylor: By going over various tricks for dealing with the discontinuities, the singularities in the hydrodynamics. I had the impression that he was very helpful to people like Bob Richtmyer. I don’t know that Richard himself came up with anything all new and different, I don’t know. But he was very articulate and active.

Now, just so we don’t forget, there were some key people outside of—so far, we’ve just talked about T Division, which is where I think the conceptual work really largely started. Not absolutely all of it, but a lot of it. The other person who had a lot to do with actually getting things done was Duncan MacDougall, who was held of the Explosive Division, so-called the TMX division. I think he was there during the war, but I’m not positive.

But he was the chairman of what was called the Fission Weapon Committee that met periodically and made the actual decisions about where laboratory resources, on a substantial scale—more than somebody just piddling around with our desks—those decisions were made by the Fission Weapon Committee. He was the chairman. Norris Bradbury, the director; Darol Froman, the associate director; Al Graves and Bill Ogle always, both of them, the test directors; Carson Mark; the head of the chemistry and Metallurgy Division, Eric, Eric Jette, J-e-t-t-e, who died some time ago. But with Bill Baker—Dick Baker, who then took over the Chemistry and Metallurgy Division, he was on the committee. Dick Taschek, who was the head of the Physics Division, and then miscellaneous people kept coming in.

I went to most of the meetings, because I was usually involved with something that was an interest to them. This was strictly fission weapons, not thermonuclear weapons. Those people—Baker, for example, did the actual fabrication of the Trinity core himself, with his own hands. He was a wonderful person to be associated with, because he’d say, “Gee, you guys, how thin a shell can you make? Blah, blah, blah.” Then six months later he’d turn up with something that went way beyond in whatever terms were important, and say, “Look, yeah, we can do that pretty good.”

So, the laboratories— the vision of the laboratory really being a big, huge team effort in which people found each other. It wasn’t Bradbury and Darol Froman saying, “Okay, you do this, you do this, you do that,” and we’ve got a big organization chart and so on. People go, went down the hall, up the stairs, talked to each other, with a freedom that was magic. The best people, in our view, all of us there, the best people for that particular job of developing bombs were there. No compromise. Money—no object. If a test was delayed, it was our fault; it was never Washington.

It was a time of immense—funny figure of speech, but the creativity was like nothing I’ve ever seen before or since anywhere. In terms of really far-out ideas that got funneled through, so that the sorting that went on put in a note of realism in the sense of reality. Not of, “Well, now, let’s be realistic, you can’t really do that,” which was sort of, that was the way I kept reading Oppenheimer. This was realism in the sense of the truth. “What can we do? Well, this and this and this, maybe. Well, let’s see.” So there were tests of things that were never intended to go in the stockpile. We just looked at what the upside, the downside limits were on various things.

Rhodes: It sounds as if, in a way, this was self-generating.

Taylor: Yeah.

Rhodes: You were getting weapon requests from Washington.

Taylor: Well, we were later on. But Raemer Schreiber, who was head of the weapons division at that time. He then became—I think he took Darol Froman’s place as associate director. Anyhow, Schreiber would every once in a while come back from Washington and give a talk at staff meeting, not a theoretical division small meeting, but a staff meeting, twelve hundred people there. He showed slides once of a military requirements. He said, “You know, it’s pretty simple.” He used two equations. First equation is M=0. Second equation, Y=infinity. M being the mass and Y being the yield. And that’s it.

There was a lot going on with Sandia Laboratories, were involved in it, a lot of us at Los Alamos weren’t aware of, that had to do with making things fit in an airplane and so on, and be reliable and take very high temperatures, very low temperatures, and so on. That was not easy.

Rhodes: But you were doing this work at a time when I had the impression the military still hadn’t quite figured out what the hell to do with these things.

Taylor: I think that’s true, except for [inaudible].

Rhodes: Yes, well, the Air Force was clear about that, but the Army didn’t know what to do with them.

Taylor: Well, drop them on aircraft carriers, but then you drop one on their aircraft carrier, then they’ll come and drop one on ours and so nobody wins, and it’s a terrible loss.

Rhodes: Was it self-generating, because it was such a neat problem?

Taylor: In terms of the pressure to continue to develop new and more weapons, that pressure came not, certainly in the ‘50s, not from the military, but I think from Los Alamos and from [Lawrence] Livermore [National Laboratory]. Sort of, “Well, gee, if you can do it—all the numbers are so big, if you can make something that can withstand being dropped on concrete and penetrate 300 feet and then go off with a nuclear yield, what might you use that for?”

“Well, knocking out submarine pods and so on,” without giving it much thought. I think, actually, the whole thing is silly, when you begin to look at the whole thing in a lot of detail. But it was enough to get things moving, and then pretty soon the Air Force wanted it to destroy the Soviet navy, the submarine maintenance facilities, and so on.

I think that the main thing that stimulated the arms race at that time, I think, was the weaponeers. Not the president, not the chairman, but the weaponeers, by always holding out the possibility that the other side would get this before we do and then would be terrible calamity. What made us work on that—I never had the sense that either Conrad Longmire or Marshall Rosenbluth or George Bell or Arthur Gold or all of those people were working on that because they’re saying, “Well, this is dirty work, but somebody’s got to do it. I guess I’ll volunteer.”

It wasn’t like that at all. It was extremely exciting rubbing shoulders with the most famous scientists in the world that were all accessible during the Cold War on a very direct, personal basis, in ways that had to do with life and death decisions somehow going on in the background. But mostly, “How do we get that mass point that’s three millimeters from the center to turn around at the right time,” to talk about it. And then, “Eureka, eureka, eureka!” It was just, life was full of that, all the time.

I think it was not Harry Truman and the White House that got the H-bomb going. It was Stan Ulam and Edward Teller. I don’t think it really changed very much from the time when Truman announced that we were going on a six-day week in a crash program.

I know one result of the six-day week, perhaps the most striking one that I was exposed to, was that we modified what we used to call “afternoon tea.” George Gamow and Conrad Longmire and John Reitz, who was another one I should have mentioned, the theorist, who did an awful lot in support. He’s now retired from the Ford Motor Company. Anyhow, with George Gamow sort of leading this, we would all congregate, I think it was Wednesday afternoon at five o’clock, and have tea. There was tea in usually, John Reitz and Conrad Longmire’s office. We went on a six-day work week and tea changed to Saturday, because we got to working Saturdays, and it turned from tea into martinis.

Rhodes: With Gamow in the lead.

Taylor: With Gamow in the lead. I’m sure there were other things that went on. Of course, the project itself, Project Panda, which was the H-bomb project, didn’t get going until a lot of people had—outside of the laboratory—decided it was a good thing to do, and money had been appropriated and so on.

Rhodes: Meaning—?

Taylor: But that was after we knew how to do it.

Rhodes: The Teller-Ulam—?

Taylor: After, yeah.

Rhodes: Oh, okay.

Taylor: Following Teller-Ulam at that famous meeting and the “Eureka” and all that, I don’t know how long it was, you may know. But it seemed like a few months, to the point where the project got set up and a lot happened and made a lot of people angry. Marshall Holloway was appointed director of the thermonuclear bomb development project, Project Panda. Teller was absolutely furious at not being put in charge of it himself.

Rhodes: Oh, really, once again.

Taylor: Oh, he was furious.

Rhodes: Once again. He had that problem during the war, too, you know.

Taylor: Oh, yeah, yeah. Well, he was the project, and as far as he was concerned, Ulam really had nothing to do with the invention, which I don’t think was true. I did, a few years back, try to think through and talk to people about who really should get the credit for the H-bomb, and I decided it was a waste of time.

Rhodes: Françoise [Ulam] sort of, would rather her husband wasn’t remembered for that part of his career. She says, “He did such good math.”

Taylor: In fact, some of that I’m just now finding out about.

Rhodes: To go back to something you said a moment ago. You said, “The weaponeers would say, ‘Look, our counterparts over there could do this,’ to Washington.” Was that “Could do this, so therefore we should this,” was that done cynically, or was it really believed? When you came up with a really good idea, did you think—?

Taylor: I never had to say, “Look, we better do that or the Russians will get us.” But I understood that that had to be sort of continually said, that if we can do it, the Russians can do it, and if they do it first—certainly on the H-bomb, that was the central part of the controversy.

Rhodes: Sure, that was the central argument.

Taylor: I think, generally, on tactical weapons, I mean, if we get tactical nuclear weapons—if we don’t, and the Russians do, then they could get at us both ways. Nuclear deterrence of the second kind, that is, the one that is not bombing cities because our cities had been bombed, a nuclear deterrence against using armies, ground armies in a big way.

Rhodes: You know, [Andrei] Sakharov makes it clear that they started work in ’48, and I’ve lately seen a document that was prepared in ’46 and sent to [Joseph] Stalin by [Yulii Borisovich] Khariton, who later ran the program, and three other physicists, [Yakov Borisovich] Zel’dovich, guys who were major contributors, suggesting to Stalin—this was 1946—that thermonuclear could be designed. It seems to have gone to him before the thermonuclear conference, which [Klaus] Fuchs attended. The response from Stalin’s group was, “Don’t bother us with that. Give us the atomic bomb.” So their physicists were thinking about that possibility, possibly because they saw it as a way of getting cheap, big weapons. That argument was used in ’42 here.

Taylor: One argument that I remember using in reacting to my mother’s expressed feelings about when I was in the specialty, and only for that. My wife didn’t like what I was doing, but that became sort of a family skeleton in the closet. I was doing well in terms of being well-thought of at the laboratory, and she’d see me go off in a huddle, saying secret things to [Enrico] Fermi or somebody, and she felt secure. How much of that was real pride, I don’t know.

But my mother, mostly because these were letters, in which she’d have time to think about what she wanted to say, and I then had time to think about how to respond. I kept using the same answer that the purpose of the bombs, their function in this world was to abolish war, to lead to the abolition of war. She was the only person I had to deal with on that. I mean, everybody else, the President of the United States, the Congress, everybody around at the laboratory and people that came in and out, and the press, all patting us all on the head. “Go for it.” No reluctance at all that I could perceive.

Rhodes: You mean she was the only one you had to deal with in the sense of someone who questioned the project?

Taylor: Well, she said, “Why are you working on a project the purpose of which is to kill as many people as possible?”

“Oh, well, we and our counterparts in the Soviet Union now are the world’s peacemakers, the front line of peacemakers. We’re making war impossible.” Never mind that here comes the Korean War and the rumblings of the war in Vietnam and then the war in Vietnam itself. I am sitting here drawing circles on 500,000 Chinese troops. Well, what’s all that?

Rhodes: Yet, at the extreme limit, it does seem to have put an end to world-scale war.

Taylor: Well, world-scale war has come to an end. I think it will be debated from now until the end of the time, why.

Rhodes: But one can point to specific historic incidents from ’40, from ’50.

Taylor: Where people back off because of the bomb.

Rhodes: Yeah. Sometimes, with good documentation.

Taylor: Well, some of those, the Cuban Missile Crisis, was walking away from the bomb for fear of walking into the bomb.

Rhodes: That was right at the center of the implosion. That was terrifying.

Taylor: Yeah, but the thing is, are there documented situations where people had said, “Yes, we would have invaded West Germany, if it weren’t for the fact that the U.S. has nuclear weapons,” or anything like that?

Rhodes: I think on the American side, there are some indications that we might have gone—well, China is a good example.

Taylor: Oh, that we would have—

Rhodes: The question was, “Do we take on the Chinese with nuclear weapons?” That’s the way Eisenhower framed it in his national security discussions.

Taylor: Because at that time, the Russians were friendly, because China didn’t have any bombs until ’64. So we went all the way through the the Korean War and, and we didn’t use the bomb on the Chinese.

Rhodes: Right, but we did consider it. Eisenhower considered it and his staff and security people and [John Foster] Dulles all said, “No, no, no.”

Taylor: Because, the Russians would then—

Rhodes: I think so. I think that’s—

Taylor: Yeah, that’s what, that’s the impression I got.

Rhodes: In fact, and Eisenhower said something that struck me as so ironic. He said, “What worries, what bothers me so much is to think about those Russian bombs dropping on Japanese cities.” Because he saw them as attacking where we were, of course, staging the war. Japan was our warehouse at that time. But, this image of Russian bombs on Japanese cities would have been one of the darkest ironies of history, after our bombs had already fallen on Japanese cities.

Taylor: Well, we wanted to get into this a little bit—just one more thing on this matter of abolition. My argument for abolition immediately, unilaterally if necessary, but with as much pressure as to make it bilaterally, is not a matter of technical analysis or anything else. It’s strictly simple, basic problem of morality. To be prepared and supportive of, under any circumstances, killing millions of people who are absolutely innocent of any wrongdoing is wrong. It’s evil. It’s the work of the devil. We must stop acting as though there are just reasons under which we might be able to do that.

I come to the same conclusions, and have since ’65. As the Council of Methodist Bishops has said with no reservation, “Nuclear weapons need to be outlawed immediately, and nuclear deterrence is evil, period.” That’s the Council of Methodist Bishops. Catholic bishops, Episcopal bishops, just war, they put it in—they find it detestable, it’s awful, but.

Rhodes: I remember that.

Taylor: But, but, but. Now, that argument is not an argument, it’s just a statement of conviction. And it doesn’t work in Pugwash [Conferences on Science and World Affairs]. As far as I know, I know of no one of military experience of any kind, military R&D, no analyst of some kind, who has flat-out come out for total abolition, very fast. By very fast, I mean still before the year 2000. I mean that in September 1992.

Rhodes: [Mikhail] Gorbachev, no?

Taylor: Well, he’s not an analyst.

Rhodes: No, I know, but—

Taylor: I have run into not a single Soviet analyst who supported that, not one, at all.

Rhodes: It struck me as strange, curious, that he would have made that argument.

Taylor: Well, I think he, he’s making an argument—I mean, he made a lot of arguments based on his sense of what was reasonable and rational. I think he’ll go down in history with enormous credit being due to him for that.

Rhodes: I agree with you, yes. Even though the Russians at the moment aren’t going to, don’t like him.

Taylor: I have extremely strong—have had recently, extremely strong arguments with Dick Garwin, with Hans Bethe, with Carson Mark, with everybody in Pugwash. Joe Rotblat is not quite ready to let go of some kind of deterrent, which he’s willing to see be in the hands of the U.N. I can’t abide that.

Rhodes: That’s a terrifying thought. One world superpower? No, thank you.

Taylor: But we both want the same thing. I mean, he iss really trying to go after—

Rhodes: And why draw the line at nuclear weapons?

Taylor: Pardon me?

Rhodes: Why do you draw the line at nuclear weapons?

Taylor: Because they’re special.

Rhodes: Are they more special than bacteriological weapons? Chemical weapons?

Taylor: Not more special. In fact, maybe even less special than bacteriological weapons of certain types that one can—or biological weapons, I’d say not necessarily bacteria.

Rhodes: Bu, biological—

Taylor: But biological weapons, in which a release does—I keep asking geneticists when I run into them, molecular biologists, is it completely crazy to imagine that somebody could come up with a DNA recombinant that would kill only blacks? The answer is no.

Rhodes: No, no.

Taylor: It’s not crazy. Those are being forbidden. I mean, there’s a great deal of momentum. Dick [Garwin], all these people I mentioned are strongly in favor of banning chemical and biological weapons, but not nuclear.

Rhodes: I have, let me finish this—

Taylor: Sid Draw, for example.

Rhodes: I have a friend who’s on the science staff at the White House. He whispered to me recently that Iraq had biological weapons, anthrax. That the Soviets have some that they’re not letting us look at. And that we have some, too, of course, though we say we don’t.

Taylor: Well, I say, in that context, I would ask the question: if Iraq has anthrax, should we have anthrax so we can bombard the Iraqi population with anthrax germs? My answer is no!

Rhodes: Here your argument is demonstrated, I think, that we aren’t, at least officially, giving up biological weapons. So are the Russians.

Taylor: That’s what they keep saying.

Rhodes: So that we won’t have these clandestine questions.

Taylor: Right.

Rhodes: There it’s not a question of—

Taylor: And we forbid them. I mean there’s a lot, in the chemical and biological weapon abolition treaties and so on, there are extremely severe sanctions that people are now discussing seriously, that are not in kind.

My question to Sid—Sid’s a dear old friend, but we have parted company on this particular thing. I asked him, “Why is it you’re supporting abolition of biological weapons, but not nuclear weapons?”

He said, “Because nuclear weapons are absolute weapons.” He’s never been able to explain to me what that means.

Rhodes: What that means, yeah.

I guess I was still trying to understand the degree to which this was technological exuberance and the degree to which it was mirror imaging of the Russians. Seems like both, huh?

Taylor: I think what guided what we did at Los Alamos was that we thought we were secure actually, job-wise. Many of us doing just what we wanted to do and finding it extremely exciting in that the answers were spectacular, big, big numbers. What we were doing then was exposing human beings to the manipulation of things that capitalized on these huge numbers. So there was a sense of personal power, individual personal power over big events, like global war. We felt real important. My ego had suffered sharply when I was told that I couldn’t continue graduate school. It went into orbit and it’s been there ever since, after two months at Los Alamos, and never come back down.

Rhodes: There’s another sense that’s straightforward and historical, though. All of this technology was blooming from what in 1938 had been a beaker of uranium nitrate in Otto Hahn’s laboratory. Therefore, a whole new energy source for which devices to generate it and use it had not been developed.

Taylor: And in many ways changed the world.

Rhodes: Most of all, changed the world, yes.

Taylor: Now, a thing that you’ve captured in what I’ve seen, in the book on the bomb itself, this extraordinary situation where in January, fission was discovered, in February ’39, Leo Szilard had a sense of a chain reaction and a bomb.

Rhodes: Yes, right.

Taylor: In September, he and Teller—

Rhodes: Went to [Albert] Einstein.

Taylor: —got Einstein and got him to write a letter. By the end of 1939, a picture of what to do and what to be afraid of and what to worry about was there. As I see it, maybe, I’m curious about your reaction, then as Trevor Gardner once put it, nothing much happened except travel until early 1942 or late 1941. So that the Manhattan Project had a gap in it. From the sending of Einstein’s letter, for about two years, nothing happened. Do you think that’s a fair statement? Not much happened?

Rhodes: Yeah, no, not much happened.

Taylor: Or, was it a necessary time to get it to sink in?

Rhodes: The picture that always sticks in my mind is these three Hungarians going to Washington to talk to the Uranium Committee—an Army general, a Navy admiral, some scientists who were pretty conservative Americans. These guys just barely spoke English, right. I mean, Merle Tuve called them “The Hungarian conspiracy.” These guys come to town and said, “We cana makea a littlea bomba, like this, and it will blow up a whola city.” I mean, I’m not surprised people thought it was bizarre, and it took a while to sink in.

Taylor: It may have been necessary.

Rhodes: It did take a while to sink in, I think that’s clear, to sink in to the whole apparatus, small though it was in those days, of government.

Taylor: Well, in a way, it’s a quibble. A certain fundamental physical process discovered in January of ’39, and then by August 1945, which was six years later, the world turned upside down.

Rhodes: Had generated an industry that Bertrand Goldschmidt estimated to be approximately the size of the U.S. automobile industry at that point. In those six years.

Taylor: That’s interesting. Then look what happened between 1948, and say toward the end of the Sandstone and the Bikini test, ’48 to ’55, ’56, another seven years. The world turned upside down again. This with really pushing some things that were vaguely understood at the beginning, and that were then not only made commonplace, but in an engineering sense went to the stage of mass production. Six years.

So, when somebody says to me, “It’s going to take forty years to learn how to make solar hydrogen,” I say, “Maybe it will. If it is, it’s because sitting with our thumbs up our asses not doing anything.”

If nothing else, the Manhattan Project with a very narrow focus, and then the sort of second, the Golden Age, where there weren’t these conditions that had to be set and finished by a certain time because the war is on. We now have a much bigger enemy, potentially, that sort of helped drive things. But let’s see how far we can go with this. I don’t think it’s ever been done with that degree of support of the creative process to do something new and different and never done before, that involved so many different subjects. I don’t know of any.

So I think it was a Golden Age of technology, with a horrible result. I think I wish we hadn’t done all that. But it was a Golden Age of technology.

Question: can we apply that to something now, for which the result would be wonderful? My answer is yes. It’s quite clear. You can describe in detail how to do it, let’s do it. I think that’s a message about the future, that anyone who starts off a statement that “It’s going to be a hundred years before blank,” I don’t care what it is. It can’t possibly be defended as a statement, political, military included. Look what’s happened to world politics—

Rhodes: I was going to say, yes, exactly.

Taylor: —in the last year.

Rhodes: “It’ll be a hundred years before the Soviet Union breaks down.” I mean, that’s the sort of number.

Taylor: Maybe a hundred years before people figure out what to do.

Anyhow, I think there is a message that’s not just getting history straight of that period of nuclear weaponeering. There is a message for the future that has a very positive—that can interpose some real positive action that everybody will be glad happens, or most people will be glad happens, on all sides of all issues. So I guess, I just ask, what’s wrong with this? Why don’t we just do these things? What are we waiting for?

Rhodes: I had such a strong sense in visiting Russia for the first time, and especially, I went on to Bulgaria. I went to Kozladuy [Nuclear Power Plant]. I visited those reactors there, talked to the people in the town of Kozladuy who worked there, who had literally never spoken to an American in their lives. I chaired a town meeting and gave them civics lessons. They wanted to know how a labor union worked and how towns could—I mean, it was extraordinary.

But I had such a vivid sense that the bosses, as they called them, were properly the subject of some new branch of parasitology. They had exploited those reactors, which were designed to run nice, quietly for years and years. They’d run them into the ground and not fixed them up. That’s one of the reasons they’re not in good shape. They had exploited the people, they’d worked them twelve-hour days and paid them very little and given them no hope for the future. That exploitation, that parasitizing of the world—that you and I envision as ought to be normal—seems to be part of the problem. It’s some pathology tucked away in there.

Taylor: Well, I think it’s a matter of abuse of power.

Rhodes: Yes.

Taylor: One of the things that’s wrong now, I feel quite sure, is that in the United States, we’ve made it too easy to abuse power. We made it too easy for a small number of people to abuse power with great leverage. There’s a ring of totalitarianism that I see in what is now going on, and it’s our fault.

Rhodes: Absolutely.

Taylor: One thing I like to do is to paraphrase Pogo [a comic strip], say, “Not we have met our enemy and they is us. We have met our leaders and they are us.” If we really meant that—and [Alexis de] Tocqueville thought we did 150 years ago—but we don’t any more as a population. It’s they, it’s they did this, they screwed up on this.

Rhodes: Oh, oh, yes.

Taylor: It’s not we, it’s they messed things up.

I’ve done my part. What do I do? I vote. I voted on every election since I became voting age. When was the last time you devoted six hours of a week to local political activity? Go back and read the funeral oration, Pericles, telling the Athenians about liberty and the responsibility that we have for being free. Never mind women and slaves, set that aside for a moment. How did he put it? In effect, he who doesn’t spend at least eight hours a week working for the good of the polis is useless.

The idea that you’d devoted your time at no pay, because your number came up—no one was elected in those days. You did what you did because your number came up, you did it willingly, and your number was bound to come up quite often, because there were lots of—I mean, the Council of 100, Council of 300, each year out of 50,000 people. They came up and they asked for help and so on. We don’t do that at all. When was the last really full across-the-board town meeting in Old Lyme, Connecticut?

Rhodes: I know, I was just thinking of the same thing, because Madison is a town of 16,000 people.

I don’t think there’s been a town meeting in Madison with more than thirty people attending for the last five years. The people who live there don’t feel somehow—

Taylor: Empowered.

Rhodes: —empowered. Of course, part of it has to do with these weapons, you know, part of it has to do with a pervasive sense in the world that things are much, much larger up there.

Taylor: Way up there.

Rhodes: Then one reads in the recent review of the new [Henry] Kissinger biography, Henry Kissinger’s chilling statement that, “I finally came to understand that power in the United States goes to those who take it, who want it.” And it’s of course absolutely true.