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Becoming director of the Los Alamos Theoretical Division


Building the laboratory at Los Alamos
Hans Bethe Scientist
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Oppenheimer thought, to begin with, that we... he needed about 50 scientists to accomplish the job. At the end of Los Alamos, there were about 5000 people at Los Alamos. General Groves was very much devoted to secrecy, and was therefore interested in having the lab as a very remote place, whereupon Oppenheimer said 'Well, I know exactly where you would want to go, you want to go to the State of New Mexico, and in New Mexico I want... I know a very good place which has only a boys school in it and has lots of area which could be occupied by the lab.' So, together, Groves and Oppenheimer decided to place the laboratory at Los Alamos, about 30 miles north-west of Santa Fe. And this turned out to be a very good place for it. It was... could only be reached by a winding and rather bad road. And while this was possible to travel by individuals it was very difficult to... to carry big material up that road. The second in command of the laboratory was a Navy captain, Parsons, who insisted, after a short while that we get a decent paved road from Santa Fe up to Los Alamos. Well, the place was shrouded in secrecy from the very beginning, but in April of '43, lots of scientists and then machinists, other technicians, and many soldiers converged upon Los Alamos and the place was built. Well, it... among all these people were many very good scientists and so we had a very productive and very good time there.

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: Los Alamos, New Mexico, Santa Fe, J Robert Oppenheimer, Leslie Groves, General Groves, William Parsons

Duration: 3 minutes, 3 seconds

Date story recorded: December 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008