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Computing and the H-bomb. Marshall Rosenbluth, John Sheldon


The new research site at Princeton. Fire in the Rabbit building
John Wheeler Scientist
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The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research had had two installations, one at Princeton and one at Rockefeller University in New York. And the board of trustees had decided to concentrate it all in New York, move it away from Princeton. And that left buildings vacant. The Rockefeller Institute wasn't about to give the property to the university because, philanthropic though it is and was, that would have meant too big a slice of its endowment going for purposes other than the medical research. But they did make an offer to the university of a price for the property that was well below the commercial price. Could the university raise this money? Well, this was about the time that James Forrestal, the Secretary of Defense, a former Princeton man, had committed suicide. And his friends and admirers collected together and put up the money to buy the place. I remember so well that group of friends assembling at what came to be known as the Forrestal Center, on the day of celebration of the transfer of title from the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research to the university. We were so fortunate, as you know, to be able to use the building that seemed most appropriate. It's not often that somebody can go round, look at existing buildings, designed for research and empty, say "Well, I'd like this one and I'd like this one." But I guess it was security reasons that made us think that the Rabbit building would be as good a building as any to start with. This was a building which had a metal outside wall and metal inside. In-between the two was some insulating packing to keep the cold outside from seeping in to the inside. But security demanded that the doors be welded shut except for one door that could be supervised. So the welders were around one day, and that welding operation heated our metal sheet to a point where it started a fire going in the insulating packing. We didn't know about that. But Janette, at this time, and the children, were still in Los Alamos. I was still going back and forth between Los Alamos and this new site. So I was having to have a place to sleep and had a cot there in the Rabbit House. And also John Toll did there too. Well, in the middle of the night, we were awakened by the smell of smoke, here was all this smoke in the Rabbit House, and naturally, we called the fire engine. Well, the poor devils that came with their hoses didn't have any place to direct the water, no visible flame, because all the burning was going on in this invisible space between the metal sheets. But obviously they needed help, and what kind of help did they get, they called other neighboring fire departments, so pretty soon we had the Hightstown Fire Department and the Princeton Fire Department, the Pennington Fire Department, and these poor devils, with their hoses, not getting anywhere putting out the fire. And finally, we saw them attacking the metal with their axes, chopping it open so they could get water in.

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: 5 minutes, 17 seconds

Date story recorded: December 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008