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Building the laboratory at Los Alamos


Why Oppenheimer was the ideal leader of Los Alamos
Hans Bethe Scientist
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The work at Berkeley made it clear that one couldn't assemble an atomic bomb. And it was decided then by the leaders of the project that a special laboratory should be built to assemble a nuclear weapon. The overall leader of the uranium project was General Groves, and he selected Oppenheimer as the director of the laboratory. This was a very surprising choice because Oppenheimer had been a pure theoretical physicist, much purer than either Teller or I. Not that we wanted that job, but there were many other physicists who had been much more on the practical side than Oppenheimer. But it turned out that Oppenheimer was clearly the ideal leader of a laboratory. He was qualified for that by his very quick understanding of anything. He could understand the gist of an explanation long before the other person had finished his explanation. And he could then draw the conclusions of what... what to do next, until everybody at Los Alamos was conscious that Oppenheimer understood everything much better. And we were very happy to have him as a director.

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, Los Alamos, Manhattan Project, J Robert Oppenheimer, Leslie Groves, General Groves

Duration: 2 minutes, 9 seconds

Date story recorded: December 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008