Pandora's Keepers

Nine Men and the Atomic Bomb


By Brian Van DeMark

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There Were Nine of Them: men with the names Oppenheimer, Teller, Fermi, Bohr, Lawrence, Bethe, Rabi, Szilard, and Compton-brilliant men who believed in science and who saw before anyone else did the awesome workings of an invisible world.

They came from many places, some fleeing Nazism in Europe, others quietly slipping out of university teaching jobs, all gathering in secret wartime laboratories to create the world’s first atomic bomb. At one such place hidden away in the mountains of northern New Mexico-Los Alamos-they would crack the secret of the nuclear chain reaction and construct a device that incinerated a city and melted its victims so thoroughly that the only thing left was their scorched outlines on the sidewalks. During the war, few of the atomic scientists questioned the wisdom of their desperate endeavor. But afterward, they were forced to deal with the sobering legacy of their creation. Some were haunted by the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and would become anti-nuclear weapons activists; others would go on to build bigger and even deadlier bombs. Some would remain friends; others would become bitter rivals and enemies.

In explaining their lives and their struggles, Brian VanDeMark superbly illuminates the ways in which these brilliant and sensitive men came to terms with their horrific creation. The result is spectacular history and a moral investigation of the highest order.




IN RETROSPECT (with Robert McNamara)


Copyright © 2003 by Brian VanDeMark

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First eBook Edition: September 2009

ISBN: 978-0-7595-2807-9



ANYONE WHO DID physics before the discovery of fission could remember what that world was like. Pre-fission physics was a beautiful, intimate subject that simmered with purpose. It was attractive, awe-inspiring, and deeply satisfying. Physicists worked in an atmosphere of intellectual and emotional excitement. Things were new, there were surprises, they were turning corners. Physics had no object other than satisfying the human spirit of intellectual adventure. Through every experiment and theory coursed an aesthetic pleasure and the moral uplift of pursuing the truth. More than other scientists, physicists prided themselves that their science did not have any practical use.

Physics was a personal undertaking. A physicist enjoyed autonomy. He chose what work to do. His subject for research was his own. Physicists viewed their work as a calling, as an enlargement of their lives, not just as a career. It meant something to them personally, in the same sense that art or literature did to others. The study of physics was noble, enlightening, and constructive, a model of how life should be lived. And the scientific method was an anchor of predictability and precision in a chaotic and uncertain world. Nature was profound, yet its secrets could be unlocked. The joy of insight, physicist Victor Weisskopf once said, was "a sense of involvement and awe, the elated state of mind that you achieve when you have grasped some essential point. It [was] akin to what you feel on top of a mountain after a hard climb or when you hear a great work of music." 1

Just as physics existed outside of political and moral concerns, physicists lived on a plane above the nation-state. They eschewed politics; they shunned chauvinism and racism (though not, in many cases, sexism); they preferred cooperation and collaboration. They were cosmopolitan. Language posed no barrier because facts and concepts were communicated by mathematics. Steeped in a common culture of rationalism and humanism, they believed there was one supreme reward for their work: the sense of sharing in the building of knowledge. From this idealism, physicists derived the belief that their true identity was not as a member of a nation or a class but as scientific searchers speaking to other searchers. They believed physics could flourish only in an atmosphere of openness and freedom.

The personal ties among physicists were extraordinarily warm and close. Indeed, they were attracted to the discipline in part because each of them enjoyed being engaged in a collective enterprise. The community was small enough, and intimate enough, that everyone knew everyone else. They all hungrily read the latest scientific journals, but they learned more from talking among themselves, and when not together they communicated constantly by mail and telegram. A physicist could do his work in any country; and when he published the results of his work, they were read all over the world.

It was a time of great opportunity and optimism for all of the sciences, but physicists sensed it was an especially fertile moment and harbored grand expectations of discoveries to come. Nuclear physics, especially, was a beehive of exuberant creativity. The powerful new theory of quantum mechanics, developed by Werner Heisenberg, Pascual Jordan, and Paul Dirac in the 1920s, had given the structure and behavior of the atom a mathematical base. Excitement grew as physicists applied the analytical force of quantum mechanics to a wide variety of physical problems. The theory was such a departure from approaches of the past and shed so much new light that it was as if explorers lost in the desert had been given a map, compass, and water.

Curious, intelligent, and ambitious, physicists journeyed from one research center to another in Europe: Berlin, Cambridge, Copenhagen, Göttingen, Hamburg, Leipzig, Leyden, Munich, Rome, Zurich. A physicist simply decided where he wanted to go and showed up there, unannounced, to witness discoveries and learn insights that excited and inspired him. In 1927 I.I. Rabi spent several weeks at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge observing the work of Ernest Rutherford, then went on to Copenhagen, where Niels Bohr had his Institute for Theoretical Physics. When Rabi arrived in Copenhagen, he walked to the institute, rang the bell, and said to the secretary who answered the door, "My name is Rabi; I've come to work here." 2 In this informal way, physicists learned new experimental techniques, absorbed new ideas, and made new friends.

This mixing of people and ideas brought European and American physicists into close contact with one another. The peregrinations of one physicist, Hans Bethe, illustrate how the process worked. Funded by a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship in 1931–1932—which bestowed a generous stipend during the hard times of the Depression — Bethe traveled first to the Cavendish, then to Rome to study with Fermi. Bethe had been a graduate student at Munich in 1927 when Rabi spent the summer there. While in Europe, Rabi met Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller. Rabi and Oppenheimer formed a bond of friendship that grew stronger with the passing years. (Between each of them and Teller, however, existed a subtle friction that would later become the stuff of high drama.)

These transatlantic relationships were cemented through guest lectureships at American universities by distinguished European physicists such as Bohr; pilgrimages that young American physicists made to the great European centers of physics; the prestigious Solvay Conference held in Brussels, where the world's top physicists gathered annually; meetings of the American Physical Society at the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C.; and a summer symposium on theory at the University of Michigan, attended by such rising stars as Bethe and Fermi. Through such personal contacts, a powerful network formed.

As things were, no one had the time to do it all himself. But these close international links stimulated the interplay of ideas, producing one of the most creative atmospheres that had ever existed in physics. Physicists seemed to know when someone was doing interesting work, and almost every idea occurred to several scientists simultaneously. Physics attained a richness and variety of approach — and most important, an expansion of knowledge — that it never would have attained if it had been the work of isolated scientists. It was an immensely exciting time. Few noticed the shadows and thunder in the distance.

When the Nazi attacks on academics came, they initially affected the humanities more than the sciences. The exchange between a professor of physics and a professor of literature at the University of Stuttgart in 1932 captured the mood of academics in Nazism's early days. "Well, Herr Pongs, how are you?" the physicist Paul Ewald asked. "How should I be?" the literature professor answered. "I'm not a physicist. We have to 'relearn' our entire field, looking upon everything 'unter dem Evoelkischen Gesichtspunkt' [under the racial point of view]." "I really pity you," said Ewald. 3

Yet if physicists lived under the illusion that politics would never reach into the isolated realm of physics, it did not last for long. Shortly after Hitler came to power, the Nazis issued an edict that the greeting Guten Tag (good day) be replaced by Heil Hitler! Jewish physicists saw their academic colleagues ridicule the edict at first. Then their colleagues began making a sloppy Hitler salute, and gradually it became more formal. After a while their colleagues started crossing the street to avoid greeting them. Physicists were no longer able to keep politics at bay.

The university community was changing, too. Studenten Verbindungen (fraternities) were increasingly nationalistic and anti-Semitic—foreshadowing the growing Nazi movement that would come to power in a few years. Members of these fraternities spent their free time roaming the streets, where they could be heard howling anti-Jewish slogans late into the night. They regularly searched out and beat up Jewish students or those who looked Jewish. Before long, Jewish physicists became one of their favorite targets because physics was so dominated by Jews. Such insults and coercion were part of the Nazis' plan to "free" German education from the Jews' "destructive yoke." The Nazi Party took control of universities and appointed dozentenschaftsfuerhers (faculty leaders) who would assemble physics professors and lecture them that there was no such thing as "objective" science, that science was an outcome of "national feeling." A vise was slowly closing.

The vituperation of Nazi academics toward Jewish physicists became increasingly aggressive and outlandish. "German physics?" asked Herr Lenard of Heidelberg University. "'But,' it will be replied, 'science is and remains international.' It is false. In reality, science, like every other human product, is racial and conditioned by blood." Herr Tomaschek of Dresden's Physics Institute went further. "Modern physics," he wrote, "is an instrument of [world] Jewry for the destruction of Nordic science…. True physics is the creation of the German spirit…. In fact, all European science is the fruit of Aryan, or, better, German thought." And then there was Herr Mueller of Aachen's Technical College, who in a book titled Jewry and Science described a worldwide Jewish plot to pollute science and thereby destroy civilization. 4

American physicists had an inside view of the tragedy befalling Jewish physicists in Germany. The physics grapevine carried vivid accounts of Nazi persecution, dramatic stories of hasty departures, and desperate inquiries about faculty positions outside of Germany. "We have been three days in Göttingen and the rest in Berlin, and had time to see and appreciate the effects of the present German madness," wrote one American physicist to a colleague back home. "It is simply horrible. In Göttingen, it is quite obvious that if these [Nazis] continue for only two more years (which is unfortunately very probable), they will ruin German science for a generation—at least." Hitler didn't care. He reportedly said: "If the dismissal of Jewish scientists means the annihilation of contemporary German science, then we shall do without science for a few years." 5 (The irony of fate is that Hitler's actions removed the one group of people who would have been able to provide him with the instrument for the world dominance he so eagerly sought.)

One result of all this was the exodus of the cream of European physicists, the prominent and the promising alike. Eleven Nobel laureates in physics left Germany in 1933 alone; one was Albert Einstein. They could not yet imagine the evil of the Holocaust and it was not German anti-Semitism per se that drove most of them away; they had long been used to subtle prejudice in Germany and elsewhere. Instead, it was more the fear, the expectation—almost the certainty—that the Nazis would get into a war and that the physicists caught in Germany would have to work for Hitler. That idea was too much.

These years and exile did not destroy the physicists' intellectual and emotional bonds to the best of German culture, which was deeply ingrained in their thinking and feeling, but did profoundly, personally demonstrate to them that unfathomable evil could take hold of a civilized society. They had gone into physics to escape, and now they had to escape to do physics. And it was still not clear whether they had escaped the hangman's noose, or whether the rope had just temporarily loosened.

Leo Szilard lived on the edge of the maelstrom as a researcher in nuclear physics at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in the Berlin suburb of Dahlem. A brilliant, sensitive, and intuitive genius who imagined things no one else had imagined before—and could peer into the future as few others could—Szilard was in Dahlem when Hitler took power as chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. With the coming to power of the Nazis, Szilard sensed a new chill more potent than Germany's damp and biting winter air. As the situation for Jews in Europe grew darker, the streets of Dahlem seemed to him more and more like a maze, a trap.

Szilard's ideas often appeared bizarre and remote from reality because his thinking was so far ahead of others'. Such foresight was not restricted to physics. His colleagues at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute thought civilized Germans would not tolerate anything really rough happening under Hitler, but Szilard was not so sure. One night he saw a Nazi torchlight parade end in a square near the institute. A huge pile of books gathered there was put to the torch, and as the flames engulfed them, more books were thrown on the pyre. Among the books tossed into the flames were works of "Jewish physics" by Einstein. As Szilard watched the barbaric spectacle, he remembered that a century earlier the great German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine had written, "Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings."

Szilard possessed a rare combination of concentrated thinking—often about the future—and readiness for immediate action. He reacted to the rise of Nazism by packing his suitcases and keeping them close at hand. He was used to picking up and leaving when things fell apart: he had grown up a Jew in early-twentieth-century Hungary.

Szilard was born in 1898 in the Garden District of Budapest, a neighborhood of wealthy Jewish merchant families who stood just one step below the Magyar nobility in the hierarchy of Austro-Hungarian society. Budapest was one of Europe's most cosmopolitan cities; it had the second-largest Jewish population, after Warsaw. Horse-drawn droshkies carried silk-gowned women and their counts in red uniforms and furred hats to the grand palace of Emperor Franz Josef while coffeehouses teemed with intellectuals espousing socialist revolution. The Hapsburg Empire's official tolerance and rich mixture of nationalities had allowed Jews such as the Szilards to find a home, but beneath the cosmopolitanism lurked a powder keg waiting to explode.

Szilard's mother, Tekla, was a frank and honest woman who taught her son to be candid. "I made up my mind" at an early age, he later wrote, "that if I had to choose between being tactless and being untruthful, I would prefer to be tactless." 6 As an adult, his outstanding characteristic was not to be deterred by conventions of the time. Although Szilard's mother was Jewish, she practiced what she called her "natural religion," which was loosely based on the teachings of Jesus and which she conveyed through vivid parables. As a result, her son developed a strong moral and ethical sensibility, and a deep aversion to violence. He later said that his "predilection for saving the world" was traceable to the stories his mother told him. 7

Tekla and her husband, Louis, argued often in front of their son, who increasingly exhibited a trait quite likely fostered by their chronic disagreement: a tendency to worry. Playmates kidded Szilard for worrying too much, but he seemed unable to stop thinking about dangers. Intensely inquisitive, and perhaps a bit terrified about endings and abandonment, he was always jumping ahead to the next assignment in school. Most boys his age strove to fit in, but Szilard was—and would forever be—independent and irreverent. His sense of humor also helped him alleviate tension and neutralize opponents, and he cultivated an ironic wit.

Szilard's interest in physics surfaced when he was a teenager. At about the same time, he found himself drawn to politics as well. "Ever since I was 13," Szilard recalled later, "I was interested in physics and in public affairs but I kept these two things in water-tight compartments and it never occurred to me that these two interests of mine would ever meet." 8

In 1916 Szilard began riding the streetcar from his home, over the ornate Franz Josef Bridge spanning the Danube River, to the Technical University just below Gellért Hill, where he attended classes and discussed with fellow students the Great War raging across Europe. Szilard was drawn into the war the next summer when he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army and sent to officers' school, where he acted impertinent and nonchalant. He believed that Austria-Hungary and its ally Germany would eventually lose the war—and said so. He had little patience for what he considered mindless military discipline. His belt buckle was always tugged to one side, his boots always needed a shine.

After the war ended, Szilard returned to the Technical University, where revolutionary turmoil swirled around him. Students, artists, and intellectuals debated issues of the day in sidewalk cafés. Szilard thrived as the gadfly who asked the uncomfortable questions that others avoided. He was sympathetic to the communist regime that had come to power in Hungary at the end of the war under Béla Kun but recoiled at the brutalities that Kun inflicted in the name of the people and feared a conservative backlash. Szilard felt this backlash personally when he was confronted by angry students at the university who shouted, "You can't study here. You're Jews." 9 They rushed Szilard, hitting and kicking him. The blood, bruises, and shame left Szilard with a fear of anti-Semitism that he would carry for years to come.

Realizing that, as a Jew, he was in personal danger, Szilard decided to leave Hungary for the University of Berlin. He arrived in Berlin in 1920 and took the university by storm. Berlin's physics faculty included giants such as Einstein, Max Planck, and Max von Laue, and Szilard sensed new developments in the air. In 1932 British physicist James Chadwick discovered the neutron. The neutron had no electric charge, which meant it could pass through the electrical barrier surrounding the atom and penetrate the nucleus. Szilard saw in the neutron's ability to easily penetrate the nucleus the possibility of eventually releasing the vast store of energy contained within the atom.

The same year as Chadwick's discovery, Szilard moved from the University of Berlin to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, where he continued his experimental work in nuclear physics. As he probed the mysteries of the atom within the institute, he grew edgy as he observed what was happening outside its walls. Szilard noticed that most Germans stood passively watching the growing Nazi threat. When he asked his German friends, "Why don't you oppose Nazism?" most of them shrugged and muttered, "What good would it do?" Szilard concluded that Hitler would gain power not because Nazism was so appealing to Germans but because so few Germans would resist it.

Unlike most physicists during these years, Szilard had no illusions that things would get better. He saw Nazism for what it was: an evil force that spelled disaster for Germany and all of Europe. Months before Hitler came to power, and years before he engulfed Europe in a bloody war, Szilard's assessment of the problems brewing for Jews in Germany led him to grave predictions. He shared them in a letter to Rabi, whom he had met and befriended in the late 1920s. "As far as the fate of Germany is concerned," Szilard wrote Rabi, "I always was very pessimistic, but I range now with the optimists. (You know, an optimist is a man who jumps out of the window of the 22nd floor and who says smiling when he passes the 10th floor, falling down: 'Well, nothing happened to me up till now.')" 10 Szilard's sarcasm belied his deep pessimism and despair.

On the night of February 27, 1933, Nazi saboteurs set fire to the Reichstag, Germany's parliament. Hitler blamed the arson on a Jewish-Communist plot and bullied Reichstag deputies into granting him dictatorial powers. On April first the Nazis directed a national boycott of Jewish businesses and beat Jews in the streets. On April seventh thousands of Jewish academics lost their positions in German universities. Szilard was particularly incensed by the prohibition against teaching "Jewish science"—any theory, even Einstein's profound theory of relativity, that had been developed by a Jew. He decided the time had come to get out. He grabbed his suitcases and took the night train to Vienna. The following day Nazi border guards stopped the same train and held back everyone whose passport was stamped "non-Aryan." This close call so traumatized Szilard that, forever after, he kept two suitcases packed and close at hand wherever he lived. 11

In Vienna Szilard called on Western embassies and warned them that the Nazi assault on Jews was just beginning. The diplomats listened politely but said, and did, nothing. So Szilard decided to leave the Continent for the greater safety of Britain. He sought a permanent academic position there, but Depression-era Britain had only a limited ability to absorb refugees—there were neither enough positions nor enough money to fund them. Unable to secure a university appointment, Szilard decided to camp out in a modest hotel in London while he contemplated his next step. For the moment, he lived on the income from his patent licenses and money he had saved from tutoring fees.

Szilard was an idea man par excellence. Each day for months he strolled London's busy streets and beautiful parks pondering nuclear physics and his fears for Europe's future. One afternoon, while walking on a sidewalk in Bloomsbury, he had a fateful idea. He later recalled:

As the light changed to green and I crossed the street, it suddenly occurred to me that if we could find an element which is split by neutrons and which would emit two neutrons when it absorbed one neutron, such an element, if assembled in sufficiently large mass, could sustain a nuclear chain reaction. I didn't see at the moment just how one would go about finding such an element or what experiments would be needed, but the idea never left me. 12

Szilard imagined that if a neutron struck a nucleus and split the atom, the breakup might release the binding energy that holds the atom together. Some of that atom's neutrons might in turn be released, which could hit and split other atoms. If more than one neutron was released from each split atom, the process could expand exponentially. "One neutron would release two, which would each strike an atomic nucleus to release four… and so on. In millionths of a second, billions of atoms would split." 13

Suddenly Szilard remembered the H. G. Wells novel he had read a year earlier. Published in 1914, just before the outbreak of World War I, The World Set Free prophetically described a conflict in which cities were destroyed by atomic bombs. "Of course," Szilard wrote a friend to whom he sent a copy of the novel, "all this is moonshine, but I have reason to believe that the forecast of the writers may prove to be more accurate than the forecast of the scientists." 14

Szilard stood alone in his belief in a chain reaction. At the time, his mentor and friend Einstein—the world's preeminent theoretical physicist—told reporters that such an effort would be "fruitless." 15 Attempting to unlock the energy of the atom by neutron bombardment, said Einstein, was likely to enjoy about the same chance of success as "shooting birds in the dark in a country where there are only a few birds." 16 A doyen of the scientific establishment, the great experimentalist Lord Ernest Rutherford dismissed the prospect of a chain reaction with devastating British understatement: "The outlook for gaining useful energy from atoms by artificial processes of transformation does not look promising." 17 With comments like these the order of the day, it is easy to appreciate Szilard's difficulty in getting support for exploring the possibility of a nuclear chain reaction.

It was not an idle joke. Recognizing that the days of peace in Europe were numbered and that the future of Western civilization and modern science would depend on the degree of support that could be mustered in the New World, Szilard decided to emigrate to America. About Christmastime 1937 Szilard attended a dinner at Magdalen College in Oxford, where a fellow of the college told Szilard that he was leaving soon on a visit to the United States. "Buy a one-way ticket," Szilard advised him. 18


On Sale
Jun 1, 2003
Page Count
432 pages