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The Matterhorn Gang


Setting up H-bomb research at Princeton
John Wheeler Scientist
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I had somehow the idea that the H-bomb was conceptually as clear as the A-bomb. That is, all you needed to do was bring some material together and it would go off. Well, it was nowhere near as simple as that. And as I went around talking to people, I saw that the key factor that was missing was a good idea. It took some time before that happened. One of the things that was so hard to realize was the overpowering effect of Empty Space. Empty space could sop up so much heat radiation that there's no energy left over to do what needed to be done in the way of making thermonuclear reactions take place. How to prevent empty space from sopping up energy. It took a while to realize that that was the central problem and to find a way to overcome that problem. So I can't say that I felt very effective in the first months. But it was a great help to have you, Ken and John Toll there to talk things over with. And after a while, when we realized that it was not something that was going to be done in ten months but it was going to take a much longer time. Then, even more important than the nuclear side was the human side. It seemed to me we were going to have to find a way to have people involved in this over a longer term than we had been planning for. I think I had gone unconsciously with the idea that it'd be one or two years at Los Alamos. When I saw it was stretching out, or would stretch out for some indefinite number of years, I just didn't see where the people were going to come from to push it there. That's when I came to the conclusion that we'd have to find a way to have a substantial number of people take part who would not be willing to move to Los Alamos but who would be willing to move to a place that was a normal research center. And Princeton was the place that obviously met that requirement in my mind. Try to get people to come to Princeton who would not be willing to go to Los Alamos, then they could mix defense work with their normal research work. I tried this out on some of our Los Alamos friends, they seemed to approve of the idea. And I tried it out on some of the Princeton colleagues, and they didn't fall over dead either. It helped that Harry Symth, the Chairman of the Princeton Physics Department was still a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, which had taken on the responsibility of pushing this thing through. And I could put it to him "How would you push it through if you didn't do some of the work at Princeton?"

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: 4 minutes, 35 seconds

Date story recorded: December 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008