Innovation Through Teamwork
MIT History Professor David Kaiser explains how J. Robert Oppenheimer utilized a teamwork structure at Los Alamos in order to build an atomic bomb.
Narrator: The Manhattan Project was studded with Nobel Laureates and scientific luminaries. But the Project’s recipe for success was really more of stew that combined seasoned geniuses with fresh, young upstarts in fields as varied as physicists, engineering, chemistry, mathematics, and machining. David Kaiser talks about teamwork.
David Kaiser: One of the things that Ernest Lawrence was developing well before World War II in his Berkeley setting were large teams. He was building large machines and that went hand in hand with larger and larger teams. And the teams, he realized quickly, had to have many types of expertise. They were building huge atom smashers—huge for their day at least. So, that meant he needed experts in magnets. He needed experts in ceramics, in sort of what we now call material science. He needed experts in electrical engineering and he needed experts in both theoretical and experimental physics. No individual had all that expertise at his or her fingertips. Lawrence would craft these teams and really craft a structure, a teamwork structure, which simply was not sort of the norm in American science before that time.
Oppenheimer had been a professor of physics at Berkeley. He was a colleague of Ernest Lawrence’s before the war. Oppenheimer saw at close hand the kind of synergies that could occur when you had these teams of many types of specialists working toward one common goal. Get them all in the room together, get them to agree on what the overall goal should be, and then let them work out how each component could really kind of move the whole project forward. Oppenheimer was deeply impressed by this and in some sense sort of absorbed that model and brought that with him when he began to set up the Los Alamos laboratory early in World War II.
Physicist John Wheeler remembers when Met Lab Director Arthur H. Compton encouraged teamwork to build the first nuclear reactor and boost morale on the project.
Narrator: Arthur Holly Compton was director of the Metallurgical Laboratory or “Met Lab” at the University of Chicago in 1942. With World War II going poorly for the Allies and the Manhattan Project just getting underway, Compton tried to boost morale by giving everyone some hands-on experience building the reactor in the squash court just under the stadium stands at Stagg Field.
John Wheeler: I remember that Compton decided that something ought to be done for the morale of the laboratory. So what he did was, since it was the time of the construction of the reactor, to get everybody to take a turn in machining the graphite or helping to pile the graphite so that everybody would feel he had a part in it. Well, [Leo] Szilard had thought this was a kind of a cheap trick and he would have nothing to do with it [laughter]. But everybody else did take some pride in it.
At Los Alamos, laboratory director J. Robert Oppenheimer held weekly colloquia to encourage collaboration and sharing of ideas during the Manhattan Project.
Narrator: Innovation required collaboration. At Los Alamos, scientists had to deal with the military’s insistence on secrecy. Oppenheimer had a brilliant solution as discussed by MIT’s David Kaiser and Manhattan Project veteran Ben Diven:
David Kaiser: One of the really fascinating aspects of the Manhattan Project and Los Alamos in particular—the central scientific laboratory for the entire project—was this tradeoff, the tension between secrecy and classification. Clearly, information could not be allowed to travel very far or wide. Yet, many of the scientists really kind of chaffed at what felt like a very unscientific approach to sharing information. Many of the scientists were in the habit of frankly talking all the time. That’s how they felt they learned was talking very freely in open-ended brainstorming sessions with their colleagues, with their students, with newcomers.
I think a real kind of master stroke, a brilliant maneuver that Oppenheimer put in place originally over the objections of some of the military leaders like General Groves—though they eventually came to work it out—was to have a weekly colloquium at Los Alamos for at least all people of a certain kind of training level. Not every single person on the mesaccd could join, but it was open to wide groups of people where there could be some degree of sharing across the otherwise very carefully separated out divisions.
Ben Diven: I think the colloquia were one of the most important things. Everybody who was a staff member at the lab was allowed to come to colloquium. And I don’t know how many people, I suppose it was some hundreds, and Oppenheimer insisted that everything could be discussed there. There were no compartmentalization and it was very often true that people who—well, the idea was to have various group leaders usually describe what the group was working on and what their main problems were, what they were having trouble with. And very frequently then it would turn out that somebody who had not associated with them at all would come up with an idea of something that would actually be important.
Oppenheimer’s colloquia allowed division leaders to share information and exchange ideas to solve complex problems.
Narrator: Openly sharing ideas ideas accross disciplines was vital to breakthroughs at Los Alamos. David Kaiser and Manhattan Project veteran Haskell Sheinberg explain the mechanics of Oppenheimer’s colloquia.
David Kaiser: The colloquium became an enormously important arena for at least the leadership of these different groups to be able to really kind of hang out and share ideas and express concerns. Whereas, otherwise the impulse had been among some of the leaders to sort of keep all the divisions really sort of separated so that no one person could gain too much information about the project as a whole.
Oppenheimer, and I think many of his colleagues, agreed that the opportunity to really make enormous progress by having smart people in the room who could have kind of unfettered discussions—the projects simply could not succeed without that kind of colloquium format built in.
Haskell Sheinberg: The colloquiums, there were primarily speakers from different groups and divisions stating the projects that they were working on and the progress they were making and the lack of progress due to problems. And always ending up with, “These are my major problems and who can help me?” And, of course, the attitude of Oppenheimer was that you talked to anybody in the laboratory who can help you in your work.
And so there was a lot of interchange and interdisciplinary interactions with people. So somebody from one discipline might have a totally different outlook on what his problem really was or the origin of his problem. And sometimes it went back to the basic materials they tried, the properties of the materials that they started with, how you could do it better or different ideas.
So people felt free to say things what they thought about things. And Oppenheimer was the one, I think, that really inspired all of us to interact with everybody else that we needed to do our job better. And he certainly motivated us and the other good thing was that he trusted everybody, I think, to do their best and to do it honestly and help others. And, of course, be safe; he did stress that. So I think everybody tried to adhere to Oppenheimer’s way that he managed the lab. And I think he really knew what was going on in a good part of the laboratory.
Historian Alex Wellerstein and Manhattan Project veteran Larry Bartell explain why Germany failed to develop a nuclear bomb.
Narrator: In the race to create the first nuclear reactors, both the Manhattan Project and their German competitors encountered problems using graphite as a moderator. The Manhattan Project gained the advantage by consulting with chemists about boron and other contaminating impurities.
Alex Wellerstein: The Germans were extremely disorganized. So they didn’t have any sort of centralizing committee that was in charge of everything. They had lots of little teams looking at different aspects of the problem, and some of these teams were very good and some of them came up with the same answers that we came up with in the United States. So they figured out very early on, just as we did, that theoretically, you could make a reactor. They figured out, just as early on as we did, that theoretically, that you could make plutonium with this reactor. In the United States, our chemists and our physicists all worked together, along with the industrial people. In Germany, they didn’t do that.
Larry Bartell: The Germans figured that since physicists are more brilliant than anyone else, they didn’t need engineers or chemists on the job, the very type of people that were necessary for the Manhattan Project. They tried graphite, and it didn’t work. They tried heavy water and that worked beautifully. But heavy water is very expensive to make and can only be made in trickles. They used a hydroelectric plant in Norway, which sabotage kept the Germans from ever receiving large amounts of heavy water. They never even got a reactor started.