Richard Rhodes: Although again, I was struck in Russia with how different a world that was.
Ted Taylor: Oh, yeah.
Rhodes: How much more closely they were—
Taylor: That is why I am so thankful because in many other places people get shot.
Rhodes: Yeah. We could not even get directions on the street. Nobody wanted to talk to foreigners. Even now, partly, I am sure.
Taylor: Some of that is habit, I think.
Rhodes: Yes, and I am sure they are busy worrying about where to find their next ruble these days, but still.
Taylor: That reminds me. There is one strong image of how dramatic a change it was in the way people could participate in what was going on politically. I was with a couple of people, I was walking along the Arbat in Moscow and there was a big sign, a big sheet of paper, like advertising. In the middle of that, in very big black letters about a foot high, it said “Sakharov.” It went on to say in smaller print that he had given a speech, and you could get a copy of that speech by signing your name and giving your address.
Rhodes: Oh, Jesus.
Taylor: On this little yellow sheet of paper hanging by the street. There were people lined up just to do that. [Inaudible] was the guy I was with and he said, “Look, look at that.” That was absolutely unthinkable a year ago. A Russian, a Muscovite, giving name and address asking for a political speech to be sent to his home? Uh uh. Wow.
Taylor: That exhibited how far creative people can go to get good support. I think most people agreed that what came out of all that made the world more dangerous, not less dangerous. Some of us said, “What a wonderful thing, if we could apply that same kind of process to doing things that are constructive.” I think there was enough of that being talked about, so that there would be strong support for the idea that a decade of creative non-threatening innovation is really called for and is needed, and could succeed in making life much better for many, many people.
Richard Rhodes: Let me just insert on the tape because I did not turn it on—you said that the conclusion of the meeting at Livermore last February was, that that was a unique decade in the history of technology.
Rhodes: What would be necessary to make that kind of thing happen again, though? Would the prestige be there?
Taylor: No, I think to make it happen, it would be necessary for the society—members of the government certainly, but leaders of various kinds—to say, “Yes, this is something that is very important and needed and we should go after it.”
Rhodes: Open-ended, though?
Taylor: Pardon me?
Taylor: Open-ended. But let us start with some collections of people that are appropriately skilled and trained to do this innovation since we do not have an awful lot of time, to the extent that it is financed by government, whether it is through the U.N. or individual countries doing it. Since we do not have an awful lot of time to establish who are the best people to do all this, we will have to make some assumptions at the beginning that have to do with implied trust, of somewhat the same sort as went into the Manhattan Project.
Not this decade, but the Manhattan Project, in which various people, [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt and then [Harry] Truman, said, “Well, I do not understand your physics,” but their advisors said, “These are the most famous people around and they should do it.” [General Leslie] Groves found [Robert] Oppenheimer, but it was easy to find him, because he was so well known. A lot of other people, [Enrico] Fermi and so on and so on and so on.
So something like that would have to happen again. It may be a little harder, because who are the super famous active technologists today? Any way you may want to think about it. Who are the Edwin Lands? An incredibly creative, inventive person. There were mixed reports about how good a businessman he was. Polaroid did pretty well at the beginning.
Taylor: But Fermi, [Hans] Bethe, [Richard] Feynman. Where are those people in physics now? Well, you can tick off a few. Murray Gell-Mann, Freeman Dyson. But they are not well known. How many people have heard of Murray Gell-Mann?
Rhodes: Those are not young men, either.
Taylor: They are not young men at all.
Rhodes: The way the others were relatively young.
Taylor: That is right. But recognized as very special.
Taylor: Now maybe there are people—Stephen Hawking is somewhat younger, not much.
Rhodes: Young, but disabled.
Taylor: Very disabled. I mean, he is admired by a lot of people. I know a couple of very prominent physicists who think his physics is not all that good, but have enormous admiration for him in the way he has overcome his handicap.
There is a question, who are the experts that can be trusted? That was easier to answer in 1939. I am not waiting until ’40, until we entered the war. I mean, before that, and it had nothing to do with war.
That poses a question. Who are the people who are to be entrusted to get things going, to push the limits on how most effectively to clean water, take out radioactive materials, let alone bugs. Supply energy that is sustainable, that does not mess up the planet. Supply food, which is probably—there are people who say the biggest resource problem in the world is providing reliable sources of clean water. That is being said by a lot of people. Most people, Worldwatch or whatever, agree with that.
A much more troublesome question is, how are we going to feed the world in a way that is ecologically responsible? Nobody has any answer to that. Well, there is one answer, as far as I know, and people do not want to accept it: contained greenhouse agriculture. The reason for that is, it has to be intensive, compared to natural production rates. That is clear. Just the numbers are obvious at five billion, let alone ten. So what do you do?
Rhodes: Whether people want to—
Taylor: The Green Revolution. It was a terrible mistake. Overloading soil, ground water, with nitrates, with pesticides, with all those chemicals that are needed to sustain the high yields that went with these enormously productive paddy rice approaches. You cannot do that. You have to keep stuff contained, and the only way to contain it is in something.
Rhodes: Oh, okay.
Taylor: That means greenhouses or the equivalent. Some of us were involved in a very detailed examination of all this.
Rhodes: Why do people not want to accept that approach?
Taylor: Too expensive. It is not high tech, and it has nothing to do with how to feed people in Africa.
Rhodes: Does it not?
Taylor: Not at the moment, in the sense that any African population can pay what now costs $5 a square foot to set up a growing area. Now, that could be how much that could be reduced, how simple the growing area enclosure could be. To what extent it can be open on top but closed on the bottom, growing in areas in which there has been a permanent water, impermeable something, probably plastic. Put in six inches or eight inches or three feet below the surface, and then no airborne pesticides used at all. It gets hard.
Several of us did a very big study for the National Science Foundation of controlled environment agriculture. We spent over a million dollars doing it, and I have the report here. Our conclusion was the environmental effects of modern agriculture—open field agriculture— are unacceptable. Period. What do we do? Here is an alternative. It got extremely interesting in terms of more than the straight cost per ton of wheat. This is growing wheat in greenhouses. People who are growing tomatoes have a great advantage.
Rhodes: Good Lord.
Taylor: Cucumbers, but this is wheat principally and corn. It turns out you could grow all the food necessary to sustain any population anywhere on Earth. The North Pole, the South Pole to the equator. Anywhere. There is enough sun.
Rhodes: Oh, oh okay. That you could have a greenhouse at the North Pole, as it were?
Taylor: That is right. You do not have any production during the winter but in the summer, you can have enormous production. There are fabulous Alaskan cabbages that grow. An Alaskan growing season goes with a bang, and it is because the soil is not depleted and there is a great deal of reliable sun and plenty of water.
Rhodes: What increases the yield in contained agriculture?
Taylor: Sustaining, keeping it at an optimum growing temperature by manipulating the heat balance, controlling all pests, using largely organic but recyclable fertilizers and not letting any of it get away. But mostly providing optimum temperatures for growth. Then not allowing those optimum temperatures for growth of wheat to produce huge infestations of locusts or something like that.
Rhodes: You have to—?
Taylor: Greenhouse agriculture involves a lot of use of what may be possibly organic pesticides, biological pest controls that are not troublesome, with some concerns about—
Rhodes: Well, this is an extension to plants of the factory farming that is going on with animals.
Taylor: Right on. Exactly. The chicken that, from the time it is in an egg to the time it is prepared for marketing, never moves more than two feet.
Rhodes: My farmer friends like to point out that despite all the hostility to raising pigs for example in a barn is, sows lose a lot fewer pigs when they are raised indoors. Right? So the yield is higher, whatever the health conditions are.
Taylor: Well, there are some people around who have had a lot of experience with such things, not just plants, but animals too. There is a fellow that I had quite a lot to do with when I was doing this work in the early ‘70s. His name is Dick Pretzer. He is a greenhouse grower in Ohio, near Cleveland. Inherited a bunch of greenhouses, glass greenhouses, from his father.
I kept labeling him as “the Edison of agriculture.” Incredibly ingenious person who invented all kinds of machinery for everything from packaging lettuce to circulating heat from his Caterpillar gas-driven generators of electricity. He used everything, and he was just a born systems engineer. He, indoors, was getting the highest yields that anybody was reporting of anything. He settled down on various things that were quite unconventional. For example, one of his biggest sources of income became lettuce seedlings he sold to other greenhouse farmers that he brought to the seedling stage where they could then be transplanted, using artificial light twenty-four hours a day.
Rhodes: Good Lord.
Taylor: That is, the lights were turned on on a particular plant for twelve hours and then off and then on. But he discovered that the lights, the capital cost of the lights, were substantial, until he discovered that the lifetime was multiplied five times if he never turned them off. It is the turning on and off that makes the life short of these high, the right spectrum coming out per kilowatt-hour. So he had growth chambers side by side, and the lights would be on this side for twelve hours and then he would move the lights over to the other growth chamber. No one had ever done that.
It is that kind of thing that needs to be pushed to the point where people know from real experience how things work, what the costs are. You never know until the scale of production is big enough so that you really about the economy is a scale that are biggest of all, which are mass production. Not size, mass production. By that I mean, not going to a thousand megawatts for a power plant but going to whatever size is appropriate for making thousands and thousands and thousands of them per year. So you can look them up in the Sears catalog.
Then costs are not reducible. Then you know. So you have to invest many billions of dollars in production units, more than half of which, if you do it right, will fail because they are too expensive. But you will never know the answer until you do that. I think that is the call for getting ourselves into some kind of harmonious relationship with each other and our environment. The call is for high-risk huge investment, and where is that going to come from?
Taylor: That is the question.
Rhodes: This leads me back to one of the things I wanted to ask you about, which is, how was the atmosphere at Los Alamos when you were there different from what you understood it to be during the war? How had it changed?
Taylor: I cannot say very much, because I was not there during the war. Many of the same people were there in 1951 as were there in ’45, but not so much the well-known physicists. There were people there who were experts in high explosive and metallurgy and so on that had been there during the war, like Dick Baker, Duncan MacDougall, and so on. But these are people that by and large the American public has never heard of.
The people that were there pretty much from ’46 on through this like maybe decade or so were often called [Norris] “Bradbury’s second team.” And the people that did most of the work on the design, at least, were in their twenties. They are people who had not been there during the Manhattan Project. People like Conrad Longmire, Marshall Rosenbluth, Burt Freeman, who is another person who would be, I think, worthwhile talking to. He set up the very complicated programs for coupled radiation flow in hydrodynamics that were absolutely essential to the H-bomb, and he actually developed the workhorse programs for doing that. No one has ever heard of him. He and I were classmates at Caltech.
Rhodes: His name is—?
Taylor: Burt Freeman. He is now in La Jolla. He went to General Atomic very soon after I did, from Los Alamos. We were very good friends all along. He played a key role in that Project Orion. We used his codes that he developed at Los Alamos because two-dimensional hydrodynamics was his specialty, along with radiation flow. Those people were quite young and I have an impression, which may be wrong, that there were not very many twenty-five year-olds or twenty-three year-old physicists at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project.
Taylor: They were in their thirties.
Rhodes: Well, the senior ones were, but the average age at Los Alamos during the war was twenty-four. What they had was a big pile, I think, of graduate students.
Taylor: Well, that is understandable.
Rhodes: And post-docs.
Taylor: You know much more about that than—
Rhodes: And recent post-docs.
Taylor: I never looked at that. So far as the excitement, it was not universal at Los Alamos. There were a lot people who did what was sort of called for. The atmosphere for working in some divisions was quite different from T-Division. One of the group leaders, I have forgotten his name, in the Explosive Division was known to sit there in the morning at 8 o’clock with his telescope and see who was coming in at what time and then noting down. Things like that, that were unimaginable in T-Division. Stanislaw Ulam would turn up at ten in the morning and leave at four. And what did he do? Rather a lot.
Taylor: He was one of the laziest people I ever met.
Rhodes: That is what I have heard.
Taylor: But boy, he was a powerhouse of creativity.
Rhodes: Was there any kind of oppressive sense of secrecy at that time?
Taylor: Yes. Not oppressive, just accepted that everything was secret. I think my impression was that we all respected that, and would look around when we were sitting in the [Fuller] Lodge or something to make sure we were not within earshot of somebody when we were talking about bombs or at a cocktail party or somebody’s dinner party or whatever.
Rhodes: But this was very much—
Taylor: I did not find it offensive.
Rhodes: This was in the middle of the worst of the McCarthy era. That is why I am wondering about—did you have a feeling of being watched and bugged and so on?
Taylor: Now, the fact that I could not publish what I was doing—never mind that I never wrote it down—but if I had bothered to write it down, I could not publish it. It would turn into a Los Alamos report. My attention was too narrowly focused on very specific things about specific designs. Then I guess they turned up in reports later, what was being tested in Nevada and so on. But I did find that I thought I was pretty good at what I was doing, because I was told that by people I had very high regard for, and also knew it. I knew that I was good at it.
But nobody had ever run across anything I had done, except a paper with [Robert] Serber while I was at Berkeley. Serber and two of us who were graduate students did a paper with him, which became sort of a classic of physics of that era, on the optical model of the nucleus. [Sid] Fernbach, Serber, and [Ted] Taylor. But that was the only thing anybody had ever run across. What I had done at Los Alamos was, I thought, much more impressive.
So that was one of the major reasons why I left in ’57 to go to General Atomic and work on things that were not secret, which I did for a year. Then I fell back into the secrecy situation of Project Orion, which was very secretive because we were designing nuclear explosives of very special sorts. Directed energy weapons came out of all that.
Rhodes: Yes. Right.
Taylor: So the atmosphere [at Los Alamos] was not oppressive. Once in a while, once every couple of months, I would forget to lock my safe, and then the security guard would find that it was open and close it and leave a note. I would get, supposedly it was supposed to be reprimanded, but never really was.
Rhodes: Was it still a closed community?
Taylor: Oh, yeah.
Taylor: If your mother-in-law wanted to come and visit you, she had to get your permission. You could not get through the gate, which was distressing.
Rhodes: Was there a lot of social camaraderie? Were you all young people raising families?
Taylor: Oh yeah, a lot of social camaraderie, a lot of very heavy drinking, people passing out at New Year’s Eve party at the [Fuller] Lodge.
Rhodes: That was the style everywhere those days.
Taylor: I do not know whether it was any more than elsewhere. A lot of real family problems. I was never actually, among our friends who were basically T-Division people—Conrad Longmire, Marshall Rosenbluth, Roger Lazarus, Carson Cahey, Nick Metropolis, all those people. We would get together quite often. We had bridge and so on.
I do not remember any fooling around with other people’s wives, but I heard about it all the time. I was in the Little Theatre for a while and somehow everybody except me, as far as I knew. I would not have gotten messed up one way or another with other men or women. There were a number of divorces that flowed out of the Little Theatre group. I do not know that it was any different from anywhere else.
There was a consciousness that what we were doing had to do with a lot of violence. I mean, you would hear things going off quite often, big explosions down Omega Canyon or whatever.
Rhodes: Did you actually have hands-on with the weapons at some point? Did you physically have them around and see them? Or was it more something you put on paper and someone else built?
Taylor: Well, it was certainly that. Not that, I mean, I did not work on anything.
Rhodes: But at some point, did you want to go see something that you had designed?
Taylor: Oh yeah, I saw them at Sandia every once in a while. We would go down just mostly out of—oh, I remember one time George Gamow and I, and John Wright and who else, drove down. He drove us down. He was a very scary driver. He just drank all the time. Anyhow, we went down to Sandia to Kirtland Air Force Base, which is right next to Sandia, to look at the B-45 for which a bomb called the TX-5 then the Mark 5 had been designed.
Taylor: No, B-45.
Rhodes: Was there a B-45?
Taylor: Yeah, and it did not last very long. It was a light, you might even call it a tactical bomber. It was designed with the idea of carrying the Mark 5 bomb, which was forty-five inches in diameter. Gamow took out a tape measure and measured it. It was forty-four.
Rhodes: Oh God.
Taylor: It did not fit, and it was pure and simple. The whole thing, well, there were other problems with the B-45. It was abandoned.
Rhodes: Good Lord. That’s extraordinary.
Taylor: That was a mistake.
Rhodes: I am curious, because I have heard that these devices are very elegant mechanisms, beautifully made. Do you have a sense of—?
Taylor: I am trying to think of where, and I did not see any while I was at Los Alamos. I was not terribly interested. I certainly did not hold any plutonium in my hand or anything like that. What I did was all sitting and talking in meetings, or sitting at my desk with a calculator using IBM listings and graphs and graphical methods of calculating things. Bob Serber and Volney Wilson developed a method for quickly calculating the measures of the criticality of something, using what was called the Serber-Wilson method. I used that all the time. Just graphs very quickly, gets what turned out to be pretty good estimates of what would happen.
Rhodes: So when you went out to Yucca Flats—?
Taylor: I did not see the bomb in the tower.
Rhodes: You just saw the explosion?
Taylor: Well, I did one. This was in ’53, I think, ’52, ’53. There was a bomb that I had worked on, but it was put inside a sort of a coffin-like case and some radiation flow measurements were made on it. I saw that physically. The instrumentation I often saw quite a bit, because there were things that I was interested in. I wanted to know how they were doing them, where were the counters that would measure the rate of appearance of gamma rays or neutrons to get the so-called alpha, which was the time constant in the explosion.
Alpha was the reciprocal of the time between fissions at the moment in a bomb, one of the key parameters. If it is negative, it is not critical. If it is positive, it is critical. The bigger it is, the more critical it is. So there were various devices for measuring alpha, as well as the yield. But then when thermonuclear weapons developed, it was important to follow the flow of very high energy— light radiation, thermal radiation, not nuclear radiation.
Rhodes: This is the radiation flow that you were talking about before?
Taylor: Yeah, and that could be typed and measured and photographed and so on and so on. That particular test was of a thing that I had worked on. It was called Scorpion, just a fission bomb. But it was encased in things, and a lot more effort went into measuring the radiation flow through that and outward, and involved pipes that were several hundred feet long, piped right down from the top of the tower down to the ground.
I remember vividly sitting around the control point, three or four o’clock in the morning when we were supposed to fire, trying to induce some mice out of one of the—and I was not doing this, but we kept seeing sort of pictures of mice were in the light path. We called off the shock for a day.
That was very exciting to people, just hearing someone describe what these things were and what they managed to do and how flat the mirrors were and so on and so on. It was very fancy stuff. So that was exciting. But much more exciting to the people who had challenges doing things like grinding the Palomar telescope mirror and things like that, because this was very fine equipment. I mean, it was then blown up. We threw all the coaxial cable away. No one even bothered to test it. So a lot of electronics aficionados got—you could pick up several miles of coaxial cable for nothing, for scrap.
Rhodes: You must have been in the middle of your Los Alamos time when the Korean War began?
Taylor: Yes. Well, it was early. I was there from November ’49 until November ’56.
Rhodes: So early in the time you were there, yeah?
Taylor: It was early.
Rhodes: Well, I should go back and—
Taylor: Well, it was 1950.
Rhodes: Did you pick up the whole debate that was ongoing right after you arrived about the H-bomb?
Taylor: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
Rhodes: Because [Edward] Teller had come down to Los Alamos in October to talk to people about, “Let’s get going on the H-bomb.”
Taylor: Yes. Well Truman gave his—
Rhodes: Truman’s announcement was in January.
Taylor: The announcement was in January, and we went on a six-day week within a very short time after that. George Gamow—who had the office right across the hall from the one that I shared with a fellow named Jack Smith—Gamow had had a sort of running cartoon going of the H-bomb, in which he had photographs of himself—
Rhodes: I have seen that.
Taylor: Stan Ulam, and Teller, and caricatures of their ideas. Stan, for example, had an idea of using a jet to couple to whatever you wanted to burn, and it showed him spitting. So the photographs were modified. Teller’s approach is what is called the gun approach. It showed Teller with two big pistols in his belt. If you have seen that, then you—
Rhodes: I showed it to Ulam, and he would not parse it for me. I was speculating about something or another and he said, “Well, but you see that was not thought of then, so that could not be part of this.”
Taylor: No. Then he added to that. I mean, he started off with that and I remember seeing that in his office when I first met him. That was all that was on there. But then there appeared above it Oppenheimer with a little halo and wings saying—
Rhodes: That is right.
Taylor: And then there was a picture of Harry Truman with his Homburg on, I think, “Go ahead!”
Rhodes: And then he had Teller with some sort of fertility symbol from the Hopis or the Navajos. It was a necklace. He was wearing some kind of squash blossom necklace, too.
Taylor: I do not remember that.
Rhodes: I do not know.
Taylor: So there were various signs of what was going on. Somewhat later, I think it was before the AEC [Atomic Energy Commission] hearings actually, the board hearings actually started. But charges were being made against Oppenheimer. One was that he was not enthusiastic. So one thing that kept appearing all through T-Division was a picture of a Neanderthal looking like man and it said underneath, “Enthuse.”
Rhodes: But now the Oppenheimer business came up quite a bit later. That was ’53.
Taylor: Yes, but the “Enthuse,” I mean, in some contexts, Oppenheimer was being charged with not being enthusiastic, not having or not being, and I forget which, frankly. I think that was after the hearings, actually.
Rhodes: Which hearings?
Taylor: I am visualizing the board—
Rhodes: You mean the security hearings?
Taylor: The security hearings.
Rhodes: Oh, okay. Then that was in ’53.
Taylor: The reason I am visualizing now where that was. It was on the bulletin board in the T-Division office after we moved from the old wartime building to a mile and a half away, to what is now the administration building.
Rhodes: On the south?
Taylor: I think that was where that—I am not sure. It does not matter, except that the point is that there was a lot of consciousness of who was saying what about H-bomb. There was a lot of, a sense that it was something really very new and different that was being worked on.
Then when it did work, that it happened—for example, when Mike was tested, Norris Bradbury was out there to see the test. But Darol Froman and I and three or four other people, a small group of people, were not at the test and had gathered in Froman’s secretary’s office to look at a signal to see if we got any signal of electromagnetic pulse from Mike in Los Alamos.
We knew what the shock time was, and we were in pretty close communication with them out of Darol’s office. We were bent over this thing during the countdown. We did not hear the countdown, but we knew what it was. There was a little blip there, and I do not know that anyone ever really determined that that was the electromagnetic pulse. But very soon after that, I do not know, an hour, we were still in Froman’s office, and a messenger brought from the TWX [Teletypewriter Exchange Service] room a teletype from Bradbury to Froman. It said the equivalent of “Eyes only” on it for Froman.
So Froman went in his office and closed the door. We waited, and after a few minutes he came out holding this thing. He said, “I have never gotten anything like this before. I do not know what to do, guys.”
“Well, what happened?”
“I cannot tell you. I cannot tell you.”
“Well, did it work? Or was it big? Or was it a fizzle?”
“I cannot tell you.”
So this went on for half an hour or so, and then another one came in from Bradbury. Froman said, “Okay. Here is the telegram.” The telegram said tp Froman, “Mike exploded at such and such a time this morning. We estimate the yield at ten megatons. Do not tell anyone, repeat, anyone about this.”
Bradbury was stunned. He was watching it, and the fact that the fireball went on and on and on and on for over a minute. He was used to things coming out very fast. He was stunned, and he just did not want anybody to know. That was a real enough feeling, so that he carried that into the message room. Then he rethought to get that sent to Los Alamos.
Rhodes: When you say the fireball went on and on and on, the fireball expanded? Continued to expand?
Taylor: Expanded and then grew more and more slowly, but was hot to the face and arms.
Rhodes: For that long compared to—?
Taylor: For over a minute.
Rhodes: Compared to a few seconds.
Taylor: Well, ten, fifteen seconds maybe, twenty seconds. It just would not go away, and it got hotter and hotter and hotter, to the point where it hurt. “Is it going to stop? Is Gregory Breit wrong, and did we ignite the atmosphere?” I do not know that that occurred to Bradbury.
So that was the most intense expression of emotion about anything about nuclear explosives that I ever witnessed. A kind of peculiar mechanism.
Rhodes: Did you see or hear this supposedly famous telegram from Teller saying, “It is a boy," because he picked it up on a seismograph at Berkeley?
Rhodes: That is a famous story.
Taylor: Oh really?
Rhodes: I have never actually seen the documentation on it. He was down in the basement at Berkeley at a seismograph with Herbert York and they saw, or at least they thought they saw.