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Jay Wechsler on Otto Frisch

As he waited in alphabetical order to be interviewed for a job at Los Alamos, Jay Wechsler feared he would not get a chance to be interviewed for a good job. When his turn arrived, Wechsler went through what he described as a strange interview with none other than Otto Frisch. In the excerpt below, Wechsler describes the interview and his subsequent work with Frisch.

Document Type:
Otto Frisch

From “Voices of the Manhattan Project,” 2003 Interview with Jay Wechsler

The Ws are pretty far down the alphabet, and I became a little concerned that all the good jobs might disappear. But they finally got to me and I went inside. The person who was interviewing me had a pretty heavy Austrian accent. He asked me about what I like to do. He asked me if I liked music. I told him I played the piano and the trombone, and he seemed very interested in that. 

I thought that this was a very strange job interview. He asked me what kind of pieces I like to play on the piano. I had not been playing much since I joined the army, but I told him some of the things I liked. Then he talked about interests I had in technical things. I was kind of intrigued with him, but I was not sure who he was. 

Finally, he said, “You’re going to work with me. You should be back tomorrow. There will be instructions for you when you show up at the gate.”  I was done with my interview. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into or what I would be doing. 

The only thing I knew was that the name of my new boss was Otto Frisch. I asked some others who this fellow was, and someone suggested, “You probably have access to the technical library. Why don’t you go over and find out who Otto Frisch is?” That seemed like a pretty good idea, so I headed over there.

I looked in the Who’s Who in Physics and found Otto’s name. I read what he was known for in physics, and got very, very impressed.

Back at the laboratory the next day, I was sitting there at my bench looking at Otto. He looked up all of a sudden and said, “What are you looking at?” 

I said, “I’m looking at you.” 

“Why are you looking at me?” 

“Well, I know who you are.” 

He said, “I told you who I was.” 

“Yeah, but I think I know what we are doing, and I think I know what this piece of junk is here that I am working on.” 

And he said, “Well, if you think you know what we are doing, you had better get back to work.” 

That was my introduction to the field of weapons. It turned out I was working on a large fission chamber which had been modified. Otto told me later he had originally worked on it in Denmark, shipped it to England with him, and then over here to Los Alamos. He had had all kinds of people working on it, but it had never quite worked right. He said, “You have a challenge.” I modified the monstrosity, and within a week, I had it working. Otto was mighty impressed and started suggesting other things we would work on.

Otto had so many ideas and regardless of the problem, he could think of a way of approaching it. While he was a great pianist, he was not really skilled with his hands. He wanted me to bounce ideas off of and to be his hands. Although I only worked with Otto for four months, we became very close friends.