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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Oral Histories

David Holcomb’s Interview

David Holcomb is a nuclear engineer who specializes in instrumentation and controls for the molten salt reactors at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In this interview, Holcomb discusses his background as a scientist, and recalls his interaction with great minds that worked at Oak Ridge. He explains the differences between molten salt reactors and traditional light-water reactors, and advocates for increased usage of the molten salt reactors in the future. Holcomb closes by promoting nuclear energy on a worldwide scale, discussing the positive benefits it can bring to impoverished nations.

Samuel Beall Jr.’s Interview

Sam Beall is an American nuclear engineer. During the Manhattan Project, he worked for the DuPont Company at the Chicago Met Lab, Oak Ridge, TN, and Hanford, WA. After the war, he stayed at Oak Ridge and ultimately became head of the Reactor Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). In this interview, Beall discusses his involvement with various nuclear reactors at Oak Ridge and recalls his friendship with former ORNL director Alvin Weinberg. He also describes his childhood in Richland, Georgia.

Milton Levenson’s Interview

Milton Levenson is an American chemical engineer and former president of the American Nuclear Society who has worked in the nuclear energy field for more than 60 years. During the Manhattan Project, he worked at Decatur, IL, and Oak Ridge, TN, where he was a supervisor at the X-10 plant. In this interview, he describes how he joined the Manhattan Project and his experiences at Oak Ridge, including his memories of segregation there. Levenson then talks about his post-war career as an expert on nuclear safety, including his role in responding to the SL-1, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl accidents. He also recalls having to tell Enrico Fermi that he could not perform an experiment for safety reasons.

Roger Fulling’s Interview (1986) – Part 2

Roger Fulling served as a division superintendent in DuPont’s War Construction Program. In this interview, he discusses the priority that the Manhattan Project received in the industrial sector, especially with materials like aluminum. He talks about coordinating production with the armed forces, including General Douglas MacArthur. He explains how General Leslie R. Groves would intervene if a company was having difficulty acquiring materials or producing products to certain specifications. Fulling also mentions meeting some of the top scientists, including Eugene Wigner, who thought that scientists alone, not DuPont and their engineers, should work on the project, and how DuPont persuaded them otherwise. He remembers his interactions with General Groves after the war, and explains why Groves chose DuPont to work on the Manhattan Project.

Peter Lax’s Interview

Born in Budapest, Hungary, Peter Lax fled Nazi persecution and came to America with his family at the age of 15. Drafted into the Army when he was 18, he joined other émigré scientists and mathematicians in Los Alamos to work on the Manhattan Project. In this interview, Lax discusses his work as a member of the Manhattan Project’s Special Engineer Detachment and his mathematical contributions to the challenges of neutron transport, fluid dynamics, and shockwaves. He vividly describes what life was like at Los Alamos and offers keen insights on the revolutionizing development of scientific computing and atomic energy. He also recalls the many contributions of the Hungarian mathematicians and scientists at Los Alamos, who were nicknamed “the Martians.”

Colonel Franklin Matthias’s Interview (1965) – Part 2

Colonel Franklin Matthias was the officer-in-charge at the Hanford site. In the second part of his interview with Stephane Groueff, Matthias describes the personalities of the men he worked with, including Enrico Fermi and DuPont’s Granville Read. He recalls a visit by Fermi and Eugene Wigner to Hanford, and explains why Read got along well with General Leslie Groves. Matthias discusses the safety measures at Hanford, and recounts how a Japanese fire balloon temporarily knocked out power to the plant. He also explains how scientists conducted tests on salmon to assess levels of radioactive contamination in the Columbia River.

Ralph Lapp’s Interview

Ralph Lapp was completing his PhD in physics at the University of Chicago when he joined the Manhattan Project. After the war, he worked for the War Department and served as a scientific advisor there before leaving the government to start his own firm. Lapp went on to write several books and advocate for peaceful uses of nuclear energy. In this interview, he discusses how he stumbled upon Enrico Fermi’s team working under Stagg’s Field in December of 1942, and was hired on the spot to work on the development of the atomic bomb. Lapp recalls witnessing the 1946 Bikini nuclear tests, and discusses the controversy over the Lucky Dragon boat, caught into the fallout of one of 1954 Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb test. He examines how nuclear weapons have changed the course of human history.

Robert Christy’s Interview

Robert Christy studied under J. Robert Oppenheimer at the University of California, Berkeley while earning his PhD in theoretical physics. He joined the Manhattan Project in February 1942 at the University of Chicago, and later relocated to Los Alamos when Oppenheimer personally recruited him on a visit to Chicago. At Los Alamos, Christy worked on the design of the water-boiler reactor. He was then recruited into the implosion group, where he designed the Christy gadget, the solid-core design of the plutonium bomb. He also witnessed the Trinity test. In this interview, he recalls what Oppenheimer was like as a professor and lecturer, his love for martinis, and his relations with graduate students. Christy discusses Oppenheimer’s role in the field of physics as a stimulator of ideas, and how it changed after his security trial. He also discusses Oppenheimer’s impact in emphasizing the value of theoretical physics in America. Christy remembers sharing a house with Edward Teller in Chicago and working with Klaus Fuchs and Rudolf Peierls.

Robert Nobles’s and William Sturm’s Interview – Part 2

Robert Nobles and William Sturm were physicists at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory. They contributed to the creation of experimental nuclear reactors, including the world’s first heavy water reactor, the Chicago Pile-3. In this interview with author Stephane Groueff, Sturm and Noble discuss the security of the bomb project in Chicago, and the movement of scientists between the different sites. They also recall Eugene Wigner’s graciousness, Leo Szilard’s excitability, and Walter Zinn and Enrico Fermi’s leadership styles. They praise the scientific community for its embrace of international cooperation and respect.

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.