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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Oral Histories

John Adams’s Lecture

John Adams is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer of contemporary classical music. Known for his operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, as well as for multiple orchestral works, Adams speaks here about Doctor Atomic, his 2005 opera set at Los Alamos in the weeks leading up to the Trinity Test. He describes the creation of the work and why he was initially hesitant to develop an opera around J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. He discusses its unusual libretto, which uses only words actually spoken or written by the people depicted in the opera, such as J. Robert Oppenheimer, General Leslie Groves, Leo Szilard, and Edward Teller.

Theodore Petry’s Interview

Ted Petry was recruited for the Manhattan Project after graduating from high school. He worked as a lab assistant at the Chicago Met Lab and witnessed the Chicago Pile-1 going critical for the first time. In this interview, Petry discusses his experience working at the Met Lab, and working under Enrico Fermi. He explains how the crew planed graphite blocks, and worked on the Chicago Pile operations. He reflects back on the twentieth anniversary celebrations of the Chicago Pile-1 and meeting President John F. Kennedy at the White House at the time.

William J. Nicholson’s Interview

William J. Nicholson grew up in Chicago, with a strong interest in aviation and aeronautics. During the Manhattan Project he worked as an assistant at the Met Lab. He then served in the Army Air Force. In this interview, Nicholson discusses his childhood and school years spent in Chicago. He then explains how he joined the Manhattan Project out of high school. He recalls the secrecy of the work, and describes working with and machining uranium and other metals. Nicholson remembers Edward Creutz, Enrico Fermi, Walter Zinn, and other scientists he worked with. He explains why he wanted to leave Manhattan Project work to join the Air Force, and describes flying bombers over Europe and being shot down by the Germans. He ends by discussing his life and career after the war.

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.

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.

Henry Frisch’s Interview

Dr. Henry Frisch is a professor of physics at the University of Chicago. He is the son of David Frisch, who worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. In this interview, Frisch discusses the University of Chicago’s role in the Manhattan Project and how leading figures at UChicago advocated for civilian control of atomic energy. He also shares some of his father’s stories from Los Alamos, and reflects on the challenges of addressing nuclear weapons today.

Peter Vandervoort’s Interview

Peter Vandervoort is an American astrophysicist and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. In this interview, Vandervoort shares stories about the university’s role in the Manhattan Project. He describes in depth how different buildings on its campus were appropriated for the project. He later discusses his interactions with the university’s distinguished physics faculty members after the war, such as Nobel Prize winner Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who was Vandervoort’s Ph.D. advisor in the 1950s. Vandervoort also talks about the university’s community outreach efforts through the years. He concludes the interview by discussing the contributions of women to physics.

Kennette Benedict’s Interview

Kennette Benedict is the Senior Advisor to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. She served as the Bulletin’s Executive Director and Publisher from 2005 until her retirement in February 2015. In this interview, Benedict discusses the history of the Bulletin. She recalls the scientists and staff involved with the Bulletin over the years, and describes the role the magazine has played in providing scientists with a platform to inform the debate on nuclear policy and other global security issues.

Julie Melton’s Interview

Julie Melton is an author and expert on civil society, development, and democratization. She is the daughter of Manhattan Project historian David Hawkins and Frances Hawkins, the founder of the nursery school at Los Alamos. During the Manhattan Project, her family lived in the same four-family house as Victor and Ellen Weisskopf, who became some of their closest friends. In this interview, she shares her childhood memories of Los Alamos and anecdotes about prominent Manhattan Project scientists. She also describes her parents’ involvement in the Communist Party at Berkeley, where her father met J. Robert Oppenheimer. She concludes with a brief reflection on the frustrations of being a woman at Los Alamos.

Baldwin Sawyer’s Interview

Dr. Baldwin Sawyer was a metallurgist who worked at the Chicago Met Lab during the Manhattan Project. He got involved with the Manhattan Project through his father Charles Baldwin Sawyer, who conducted important research into beryllium. In this interview, Sawyer recounts his experiences during the war. He describes the challenges of developing the uranium canning process for the reactors at Hanford, the project’s sense of urgency, and the boardinghouse he lived in on the South Side of Chicago. He also explains his postwar work with quartz and the pioneering research he conducted into silicon at Bell Laboratories.