A 1.6 Megaton Terrible, Monstrous Sight

The Soviet Union tested a two-stage, lithium-deuteride-fueled thermonuclear device on November 22, 1955, dropping it from a Tu-16 bomber to minimize fallout. It yielded 1.6 megatons, a yield deliberately reduced for the Semipalatinsk test from its design yield of 3 MT. According to Yuri Romanov, Adrei Sakharov and Yakov Zeldovich worked out the Teller-Ulam configuration in conversations together in early spring 1954, independently of the US development. “I recall how Andrei Dmitrievich gathered the young associates in his tiny office,” Romanov writes, “… and began talking about the amazing ability of materials with a high atomic number to be an …

What More Do You Want from Dr. Oppenheimer?

Robert Oppenheimer was predictably devastated by the withdrawal of his [security] clearance. “I think it broke his spirit, really,” [Robert] Serber reflects. “He had spent the years after the war being an adviser, being in high places, knowing what was going on. To be in on things gave him a sense of importance. That became his whole life. As [I.I.] Rabi said, he could run the Institute [for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey] with his left hand. And now he really didn’t have anything to do.” [Hans] Bethe felt “he was not the same person afterward.” Of the hearing …

A Realistic View of the Way Power Gets Used by Governments

But whatever the technical originality of the idea [Stanislaw] Ulam and [Edward] Teller developed together in February 1951, John Manley concluded, the political effect was electrifying. “Teller and Ulam really won [the argument about building the thermonuclear bomb] by figuring out how to do it… You don’t really want to work on something that you don’t know how to do.” Los Alamos radiochemist George Cowan enlarges shrewdly on Manley’s point: Knowing that it was going to work sure encouraged those people to go ahead and do it. Particularly because now, whether you believed that it was a good idea or …

An Arms Race is a Hall of Mirrors

But [Enrico] Fermi and [Isidor Isaac] Rabi also condemned their friend Edward Teller’s Super [hydrogen bomb design] in the strongest language that appears anywhere in the nine pages of the GAC [General Advisory Committee] report. “Necessarily such a weapon goes far beyond any military objective and enters the range of the very great natural catastrophes. By its very nature it cannot be confined to a military objective but becomes a weapon which in practical effect is almost one of genocide. “It is clear that the use of such a weapon cannot be justified on any ethical ground which gives a …

Why Should He Presume He Could Fix the World?

If the atomic bomb had shocked the Japanese, it had also shocked America. Materializing from secrecy to such conquering effect, it seemed a mysterious and almost supernatural force. It was a new fact dropped into the world- “a new understanding of man, which man had acquired over nature,” as I. I. Rabi called the first explosion at Trinity- and no one at first knew quite what to do with it. The discovery of how to release nuclear energy was a technological revolution, most of all a revolution in war; like all revolutions, its meaning would not necessarily accord with hopes …

A Nuclear Hammer

Regarding the design of a nuclear fission trigger that ignites a fusion bomb. Levitation gave the imploding shell time to acquire momentum before it hit the core. Nuclear-weapons designer Theodore B. Taylor explained the principle to the writer John McPhee once without naming it: “The way to get more energy into the middle was to hit the core harder. When you hammer a nail, what do you do? Do you put the hammer on the nail and push?” The solid Fat Man core had been pushed; levitation hammered. And because it increased efficiency, levitation also made it possible to design …