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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Oral Histories

Robert S. Norris’s Interview (2002)

Robert S. Norris is a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists and author of the definitive biography of General Leslie R. Groves, “Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, the Manhattan Project’s Indispensable Man.” In this interview, Norris provides an overview of how the Manhattan Project began, how the project sites were selected, and the role of British scientists in the project. He discusses the fear that many Manhattan Project scientists felt that Germany would develop an atomic bomb first. He explains Groves’ background, why he was the perfect leader for the project, and how he involved industry, especially DuPont, to help with the project. Norris contends that the Manhattan Project was a unique program in American history and would be difficult to replicate today.

Roy Glauber’s Interview

Roy Glauber was just eighteen years old when he was selected to leave his studies at Harvard to join the work of the Los Alamos Laboratory on the Manhattan Project. After the war, he would go on to lead a distinguished academic career, receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2005. In this interview, Glauber discusses his interactions with J. Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos and later at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He explains why Oppenheimer was so admired by the scientists at Los Alamos and the qualities that made him an excellent director of the Los Alamos laboratory. Glauber also recalls Oppenheimer’s successes and challenges as director of the Institute for Advanced Study, his interactions with other scientists and mathematicians, and how having his security clearance revoked appeared to have broken him.

William A. Fowler’s Interview

William A. “Willie” Fowler was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at Caltech, who knew J. Robert Oppenheimer from before the war. In this interview, he talks about how Oppenheimer and his “school” of students and post-docs would travel each year from the University of California, Berkeley to Caltech, where Oppenheimer had an appointment on the faculty. He describes how Oppenheimer’s theoretical knowledge and perspective supplemented the experimental research being conducted at Caltech, including Fowler’s own. He also talks about the lives and careers of other physicists who interacted with Oppenheimer in Pasadena, including Charles Lauritsen, Richard Tolman, and Robert Millikan. The interview concludes with a discussion of Fowler’s friendship with Frank and Jackie Oppenheimer.

Stanislaus Ulam’s Interview (1979)

Stanislaus Ulam was a Polish-American mathematician. He worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos and later helped design the hydrogen bomb. In this interview, he discusses his work at Los Alamos and his relationship with J. Robert Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe, John von Neumann, Enrico Fermi, and other scientists. He also discusses Oppenheimer’s varied reputation within the physics community. In particular, Ulam was frustrated by Oppenheimer’s wordiness, which he and some other scientists perceived as pompous and superfluous. Ulam also explains his thoughts on creativity in math and physics, and why he is a proponent of nuclear power.

The Search for Atomic Power

This 1954 radio program traces the development of nuclear energy from the discovery of the atomic nucleus to the launch of the USS “Nautilus,” the first nuclear submarine. It includes narration, dramatizations with actors playing physicists Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr, and interviews with Arthur H. Compton and Westinghouse Electric Corporation scientists. The program celebrates Westinghouse’s role in producing uranium for the Manhattan Project and details the challenges behind powering the Nautilus.

Haakon Chevalier’s Interview – Part 1

Haakon Chevalier was a French literature professor at Berkeley and close friend of J. Robert Oppenheimer. In this interview, Chevalier discusses aspects of Oppenheimer’s personal life, including his romantic relationships and family, hobbies including Sanskrit, and religious views. He recalls how Oppenheimer became involved in politics on the Berkeley campus. He also discusses who was present for his infamous conversation with Oppenheimer, in which Chevalier told Oppie he knew a way to pass scientific secrets to the Soviets. This conversation played a key role in Oppenheimer’s security trial in 1954.

Charles Critchfield’s Interview

Charles Critchfield was a mathematical physicist assigned to work on the development of gun-type fission weapons, and eventually implosion-type weapons, at Los Alamos. He returned to Los Alamos in 1952 to work on the development of the hydrogen bomb. In this interview, Critchfield explores the personalities of his fellow Manhattan Project scientists, including Edward Teller, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Niels Bohr, as well as their personal and professional conflicts. He also discusses the difficulties he faced first in the design of the atomic bomb, then in the design of the hydrogen bomb, especially regarding the Initiator.

Eugene Wigner’s Interview (1964)

Eugene Wigner was a Hungarian-American theoretical physicist and mathematician and 1963 Nobel Prize winner in Physics. During the Manhattan Project, Wigner led a group responsible for the design of Hanford’s B Reactor. In this interview, Wigner discusses his upbringing and education. He elaborates on his involvement with the Einstein Letter, which Einstein sent to President Franklin Roosevelt urging he begin research into an atomic bomb and led to the Manhattan Project research. Einstein dictated the letter to Wigner, and Wigner was very impressed by Einstein’s ability to dictate such an important letter so quickly. Wigner also elaborates on the personalities of Leo Szilard, Enrico Fermi, and other scientists.

William Lanouette’s Interview

William Lanouette is the author of “Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard, the Man Behind the Bomb.” Lanouette highlights Szilard’s contributions to the Manhattan Project, including his theoretical discovery of chain reaction and critical mass, along with his efforts to curb the use of nuclear weapons after Germany surrendered. He provides an overview of Szilard’s life and his scientific contributions in many fields. Lanouette explains that Szilard’s legacy is not well known due to the vast scope of his work and because his brilliance put him too far ahead of his time.

Eugene Wigner’s Interview (1986)

When Eugene Wigner was 17, his father asked what he wanted to be and Wigner replied, “A physicist.” His father wanted to know how many physicists there were in Hungary. “Four,” Wigner replied. Following that conversation, Wigner studied chemical engineering and after getting his degree worked in a tannery for a time before going to Berlin to teach. Because his mother was Jewish, Wigner was fired from his Berlin position in 1935, after which he became a professor at Princeton. In 1939, Wigner and fellow Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard went to Albert Einstein and convinced him of the need for America to develop an atomic bomb before Nazi Germany. Einstein’s concerns eventually reached President Roosevelt and helped spark government interest and research which evolved into the Manhattan Project. After the Manhattan Project was underway, Wigner, who had done important work earlier on neutron absorption, moved to the Met Lab in Chicago as head of the theoretical physics group. In 1963, Wigner was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics.