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Why Oppenheimer was the ideal leader of Los Alamos


Edward Teller's ideas for a fusion bomb
Hans Bethe Scientist
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Teller suggested that we... we put our attention to a more difficult problem, because after all it was obvious one could make a uranium or plutonium bomb, and so one should now see how to go on from there. And in a conversation with Fermi, Teller had been stimulated to the idea that once you had an atomic explosion you would develop very high temperature and that high temperature would be enough to... to initiate nuclear reactions between light nuclei; just like there are in the stars. And so most of the time of this study group in Berkeley was devoted to studying what we called the 'Super', that is the device in which deuterium would be initiated and would be set to react and you would get a big cylinder of deuterium to explode. The energy set free per unit mass in deuterium is much bigger than it is in uranium or plutonium, and also it was... it seemed that this was an unlimited possibility. Well, we soon found that it wasn't all that easy, first there were troubles from the fact that you would excite a lot of radiation and that radiation would then keep the temperature low. And, after many, many years, by 1949, it was pretty clear that indeed this scheme would not work, but it was our main... main idea at the time.

The late German-American physicist Hans Bethe once described himself as the H-bomb's midwife. He left Nazi Germany in 1933, after which he helped develop the first atomic bomb, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1967 for his contribution to the theory of nuclear reactions, advocated tighter controls over nuclear weapons and campaigned vigorously for the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Listeners: Sam Schweber

Silvan Sam Schweber is the Koret Professor of the History of Ideas and Professor of Physics at Brandeis University, and a Faculty Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is the author of a history of the development of quantum electro mechanics, "QED and the men who made it", and has recently completed a biography of Hans Bethe and the history of nuclear weapons development, "In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist" (Princeton University Press, 2000).

Tags: Berkeley, Edward Teller, Enrico Fermi

Duration: 2 minutes, 42 seconds

Date story recorded: December 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008