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Ulam's calculations showed faults in our approach to the Hydrogen bomb


President Truman's decision and other scientists' views on this
Edward Teller Scientist
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When I arrived at McBain's office he told me- Here is the recent report of the advisors to the Atomic Energy Commission. I am not misquoting. McBain said- Here is the report. It makes me sick. Can the hydrogen bomb be made? I did not have to convince him. He was convinced, but he did not know what the subject was. I told him, I told him in detail and within a few weeks President Truman's decision was made public early in 1950, January 1950- Go ahead with all forms of nuclear explosives, including the so-called super-bomb. I think even today it is very interesting to see the record of the reaction among scientists and that record is explicitly available. A periodical had been started, "The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists", in which at that time I collaborated. It was from Chicago, but it really tried to get all opinions on nuclear energy. I believe I am talking about the issue of April 1 of The Bulletin. There may have been something in there a month earlier. The most important article there was by Einstein- This is a terrible thing. If the military will work on the hydrogen bomb, that is the decisive step that will lead to Fascism in the United States. Oppenheimer wrote, in very soft terms, essentially not giving an opinion. Harold Urey wrote- Regrettable as it is, we ought to go ahead. I wrote, I don't think very convincingly. I believe however that that contemporary document is worth reading today and there is no question that among scientists Einstein's very explicit and very strong opinion had the greatest influence. In Los Alamos itself there was a very clear difference between the way people in general thought and in the way how Bradbury's leadership acted. The main point, it appears, in Bradbury's mind was- We must not get out of step with the best of scientists. We should not go ahead too fast. We should not undertake anything that will not succeed. There was not a very explicit, not very strong statement against the hydrogen bomb. In the rank and file it was I believe difficult and I can best describe that feeling by saying; to the average worker in Los Alamos the opposition of hydrogen- to the hydrogen bomb appeared in this way; if we make a little progress toward more, more effective nuclear explosives, that is what we should do. If we take- make a lot of progress, that is wrong. And that to the average worker at Los Alamos did not make sense.

The late Hungarian-American physicist Edward Teller helped to develop the atomic bomb and provided the theoretical framework for the hydrogen bomb. During his long and sometimes controversial career he was a staunch advocate of nuclear power and also of a strong defence policy, calling for the development of advanced thermonuclear weapons.

Listeners: John H. Nuckolls

John H. Nuckolls was Director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory from 1988 to 1994. He joined the Laboratory in 1955, 3 years after its establishment, with a masters degree in physics from Columbia. He rose to become the Laboratory's Associate Director for Physics before his appointment as Director in 1988.

Nuckolls, a laser fusion and nuclear weapons physicist, helped pioneer the use of computers to understand and simulate physics phenomena at extremes of temperature, density and short time scales. He is internationally recognised for his work in the development and control of nuclear explosions and as a pioneer in the development of laser fusion.

Duration: 6 minutes, 3 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008