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Theories conceived on a train. Selling the car in Paris


The decision to leave Paris to work on the Los Alamos H-bomb
John Wheeler Scientist
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Right, the fall of 1949 or the spring of 1949, there came a call from Washington, right in the midst of dinner with all my French colleagues around. It was Harry Symth, a former chairman of my department here in Princeton, who was a member of the Atomic Energy Commission by this time. He said that the Atomic Energy Commission wanted me to return to the United States and go to Los Alamos and help on the H-bomb project, that it was really urgent and that all the people they tried were immovable. Well, I said something to the effect when I saw Bohr at Copenhagen; I was torn whether to stay on my fellowship in Paris or go back to Los Alamos. This was at breakfast. And he said to me "Do you imagine, for one minute, that Europe would now be free of Soviet control if it were not for the American atomic bomb?" Now, he didn't advise me one way or the other, but that was his way of putting the central point. And when I got back to Paris I talked it over with Janette, with the children around, agonizing, and finally decided to give up what I was doing and go back to Los Alamos.

John Wheeler, one of the world's most influential physicists, is best known for coining the term 'black holes', for his seminal contributions to the theories of quantum gravity and nuclear fission, as well as for his mind-stretching theories and writings on time, space and gravity.

Listeners: Ken Ford

Ken Ford took his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1953 and worked with Wheeler on a number of research projects, including research for the Hydrogen bomb. He was Professor of Physics at the University of California and Director of the American Institute of Physicists. He collaborated with John Wheeler in the writing of Wheeler's autobiography, 'Geons, Black Holes and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics' (1998).

Duration: 2 minutes, 1 second

Date story recorded: December 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008