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Meeting the leaders of the Soviet H-bomb project: Zeldovich and Sakharov


Witnessing the explosion. Edward Teller's seismograph
John Wheeler Scientist
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We knew that the explosion would, if it succeeded, develop pressure so great that none of us on any of the little islands could possibly survive it. I was actually on a battle cruiser about thirty miles away when it went off. We've all read the descriptions of such a thing, but I hadn't realized what a slow motion picture it would be. Black cloud opening up, this blaze of light from the center. And then that blaze of light gradually being covered over by the debris from the little island and all this going up into the sky I came to realize, though, that even the energy of an H-bomb, huge as it is, is less than the energy of a hurricane or an earthquake, the Earth is still ahead of us. That island, on which the 60 tons of equipment had gone off, called Elugelab, disappeared in the explosion. Of course, its top was cut off so it's really down underwater now. Edward Teller did not go out to the shot. He was smart enough to realize that the earthquake, if there was one, and if the shot was successful, would go through the Earth, and he could pick it up on a seismograph nearby, where he was, in California. And sure enough, the signal came through and he could report success to Los Alamos sooner than it could hear that news by the normal channels.

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: 3 minutes, 20 seconds

Date story recorded: December 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008