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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Oral Histories

Phillip Broughton’s Interview

Phillip Broughton is a health physicist and Deputy Laser Safety Officer at the University of California, Berkeley. In this interview, he describes how he became a health physicist and the kind of work he does at Berkeley. He provides an overview of the buildings at Berkeley where Manhattan Project scientists worked during the war, and discusses some of the key scientists such as Glenn Seaborg. Broughton also recounts experiences from the year he spent working at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica, where in addition to serving as the science cryogenics handler, he also became the Station’s bartender.

Margaret Norman’s Interview

Margaret Norman is the eldest daughter of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ernest O. Lawrence. In this interview, Norman describes her father’s childhood, including the importance of her father’s Norwegian heritage and values, and how her parents met. She recalls what it was like to grow up as the eldest daughter of six children, and how Ernest passed his values on to them. She describes visiting the laboratory at Berkeley where her father worked, and finding out about the atomic bombs and Ernest’s involvement. Margaret also recalls her father’s friendship with J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, and other scientists, and explains that he could never really relax because he was always thinking about science.

Harold Cherniss’s Interview – Part 1

Harold Cherniss was an American classicist. He initially met J. Robert Oppenheimer at Berkeley in 1929, and they reconnected after the war in Berkeley and later at the Institute for Advanced Study. In this interview, Cherniss reflects on his friendship with Oppenheimer and his experience with others who knew him. Among other subjects, he discusses Oppenheimer’s personality, intellectualism, friendships, and political leanings. He recalls Oppenheimer’s interest in literature, especially French poetry. Cherniss explains how and why Oppenheimer became interested in studying Sanskrit – because Oppie loved a challenge.

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.

David Hawkins’s Interview – Part 1

David Hawkins was a philosophy professor who became the administrative aide at the Los Alamos Laboratory in 1943 and the Manhattan Project’s historian in 1945-46. In that role, he had free access to all the top people involved, including project director J. Robert Oppenheimer and physicist Edward Teller. In this interview, Hawkins describes his encounters with lawyer Cliff Durr after the war, when he, like Oppenheimer, was facing suspicion from the U.S. government for his involvement with the Communist Party. The rest of the interview is a discussion of the nature of the Communist community in Berkeley before the war. Hawkins describes a familial group of intellectuals from a plethora of disciplines, and recalls some of his friends who were Communist Party members, including Frank Oppenheimer and Phillip Morrison. He recalls ideological debates and distinctions as well as the eclectic personalities of some of the era’s key players. Hawkins also describes Oppenheimer’s remarkable ability for getting people to agree with each other, as well as his wide-ranging interests and need for one-upmanship.

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.

Donald Ross’s Interview

Donald Ross worked on the Manhattan Project at the University of California-Berkeley and the Y-12 Plant for Tennessee Eastman. In this interview, Ross discusses supervising “Calutron girls” at Y-12. He explains how the electromagnetic separation process for separating uranium isotopes work, and recalls the tight security at Oak Ridge. Ross also describes the social life at Oak Ridge, meeting his wife, and the terrible food in the mess halls. He discusses his views on dropping the bomb on Japan and how his thoughts have changed over time.

Clarence Larson’s Interview

Dr. Clarence Larson, a chemist, began working under Ernest O. Lawrence in his lab at the University of California, Berkeley in 1942. In 1943, he moved to Oak Ridge and was appointed head of technical staff for the Tennessee Eastman Corporation. He later served as director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and as a commissioner on the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. During the Manhattan Project, Larson designed a process to recover and purify uranium deposits from the walls of calutron receivers at the Y-12 Plant. In this interview, he explains the importance of this innovation in producing enough enriched uranium for an atomic bomb. He also describes the challenges encountered in the Y-12 Plant’s early days, as well as Lawrence’s leadership skills and unyielding confidence.

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.

Philip Abelson’s Interview (2002)

Philip Abelson first became involved in uranium enrichment while a graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley, working with cyclotrons under Ernest O. Lawrence. He explains how he came up with the idea that liquid thermal diffusion could enrich uranium-238 to U-235, how this process was implemented first at a factory at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and later at the S-50 Plant in Oak Ridge, and the important role the S-50 Plant played in the uranium enrichment process. He recalls his encounters with Lawrence, J. Robert Oppenheimer, William “Deak” Parsons, Edwin McMillan, Luis Alvarez, and other Manhattan Project leaders.