Nathaniel Weisenberg: My name is Nate Weisenberg. I’m here with Harris Mayer in Los Alamos, New Mexico. It’s October 11, 2017. My first question: if you could just say your name for the camera and spell it, please.
Harris Mayer: My name is Harris Mayer, H-a-r-r-i-s M-a-y-e-r.
Weisenberg: Thank you. I know you had a story that you wanted to begin with, so I will let you go ahead.
Mayer: Thank you very much. I appreciate the time you have spent with me. I’ve spent some time thinking about this. But I’ve spent my life living it. I will start reading a little bit, and then we can go into conversations. The title, Tidbits of Past and Future: The National Laboratories, Los Alamos and Livermore, and Personal Friendships, for the Atomic Heritage Foundation, and my name, Harris L. Mayer, and this is October 11, 2017. I’ll start.
The Hiroshima nuclear explosion:
We were standing in the corridor of the old chemistry building at Columbia University, waiting for the elevator to take us out for lunch on August 6, 1944 [misspoke: August 6, 1945]. I, Harris Mayer, remember the date, for it was the birthday of my sister, Blossom. I was with my coworker, Boris Jacobson. We were led by the head of our opacity group, Maria Goeppert-Mayer, later in 1963, Nobel Physics Laureate.
Suddenly, Professor Harold Urey, head of the Chemistry Department, and close friend of Maria and her husband, Joe Mayer, appeared from his nearby office. He told us with satisfaction in his voice that the uranium fission weapon had just exploded over Hiroshima.
Not physically present then, but much in my mind, was Professor Edward Teller. He was the one who had arranged that the opacity work of Los Alamos lab be done by Maria Mayer at Columbia. Then, she would not have to leave her husband to come out to New Mexico. Edward Teller became like a father to me, and influenced the rest of my life.
Even more important than a second father, remaining behind in the opacity group was a very young woman, Rosalie Ann Holtsberg. I can imagine Edward and Maria talking to each other about our group, wondering when the two, Harris and Rosalie, would get together. Later, on October 30, 1946, she became my bride.
Next, a very short thing about the universities.
There could be no nuclear weapon without the fantastic capacity of the United States industry. But, they needed the creativity to envision one, and the scientific knowledge of what was required to bring that vision to reality. Whence came the scientists from the great universities of Europe and the United States.
The main universities of Europe were Cambridge of England, Copenhagen of Denmark – that’s Niels Bohr – and Leipzig, that’s [Arnold] Sommerfeld and [Werner] Heisenberg. And Gottingen [University]; that’s the mathematician, [David] Hilbert and Max Born, the physicist. From the United States, Harvard [University], Columbia [University], [University of] Chicago, and the University of California at Berkeley, were the organizations responsible for getting the nuclear weapon together and actually making it.
Weisenberg: Harris, you were going to tell me about one of the nuclear weapons test or “shots” that you witnessed.
Mayer: Very good. Now, the [Operation Greenhouse] George shot on Enewetak Atoll was a test of the probability of a successful thermonuclear weapon. At that time, a thermonuclear weapon was a very firm idea in [Edward] Teller’s mind, but he didn’t have a successful one in his mind. Well, there was a great deal of preparation for the shot, and I was involved in the preparation.
This preparation was for me, an introduction, to some of the most important people in the rest of my life. I didn’t know it at the time. But there I met Ernie Krause and Herb York. You may know the numbers. I made lifetime friends. We’ll talk about the friends later, but they are even more important than the work.
Well, I was young at the time and one engine out of four stops. That’s nothing. Then someone comes in and says, “The other right engine stopped.” I am so clear about that, everything is fine.
Somebody comes from the front of the plane and says, “You all got to get in the back to get the weight.”
Now, we have two colonels, who are very great flyers, and they say, “We ought to take care of this plane.”
One goes up front and he comes back. “It’s all right, I know this pilot.”
The plane turns around and we land. I got out, and there are four fire engines waiting for us. This seems just fine.
Now, fifteen years later, I tell this story, just as I’ve just told you, to a good friend of mine. He’s a pilot. He said, “Harris, you had just one chance. If he did it wrong a little bit, you were lost.”
I got so scared. Now, this is fifteen years after this happened. I trembled, and for about half an hour, I couldn’t get myself together.
Weisenberg: Oh, my goodness.
Mayer: It’s so wise to know that you don’t know. [Laughter] Well, the plane takes off, it travels at 7,000 feet altitude, because in those days, they had no over pressure. It’s a long, long flight, and I have in mind now the difficulties of flying. I know naught about flying, but I know physics and geometry. And it’s all clouded up. There were no radars at that time in the area. That pilot had to be an expert, and he had God with him to give him the light. As we came, the sun came out. And there’s the island around it with the purple lake in the middle, Enewetak.
We land, and they come, and you have to be called off. They call off, and we had a great group of important people around. [J.] Carson Mark comes off, he was the head of the theoretical division, and a wonderful man. And a friend for life, but he was a friend for many. He comes off, and everybody gets off the plane but me.
Carson comes back, and he said, “You’re not on the list, but I’ll talk to them.” He talked to them, and he convinced the military that Harris Mayer was essential. They couldn’t let me go back on the plane, they would have to have me. And he arranged to have me.
I had to take the secrecy test all over again there. I got on the island. But they didn’t know that I was coming and there was no place for me. When we get on Parry Island, well, of course, we know what to do. There was a man there who went home for three weeks. You could just stay in his place. So I slept in his bed. I must say that the second time I came out to the island, I was very much well-treated.
Well, let’s get back to the island and the shot. The shot goes off. It was a very, very big shot, it was deliberately promised to be that. It was supposed to be a test for the thermonuclear weapon, and there was a little bit of thermonuclear weapon there. And this was the pet of Edward Teller.
By this time – Edward Teller was, how to put it. He was a great friend. The fact was he was 13 years older than me only. My father was 25 years older than me. He was like my physics father, and he was so for the rest of my life. There is a whole story about the rest.
I was talking with him now out at the island. The shot was supposed to be the shot which would be the forerunner of the thermonuclear weapon.
He [Teller] said to me, “I have this idea about thermonuclear weapons.”
I said, “Edward, this is the idea. Well, we don’t have to have the shot.”
He said, “Harris, let me tell you some things. You must learn about life. It’s not only physics. If we don’t do the shot, they’ll say ‘why did you have to have it? Why did you prepare for it?’ Let’s have the shot and we won’t be told we were fools for preparing for it and not doing it. And you know, we might learn something.”
We had the shot. It went off, and we did learn something.
Mayer: Let’s go back to the George shot, and its preparation. I was very much involved in the preparation. I worked with Ernie Krause, taught him all he needed to know for the experiment. He became my friend for life, and it was important later on.
Of course, Berkeley was involved, too, and Herb York was the young scientist in charge of a group. A fantastic group. Seven people and, you know, seven great people there. I’ll tell you a little about it. I, of course, had a hotel room. Edward Teller was not there at the time. I was working with Herb York, and Harold Brown, and Mike May, and so on. They didn’t know anything about nuclear weapons, and they knew very little about everything else, except the science that could be.
They were all great people. I started talking with them and trying to teach them things. Well, teaching these people was just wonderful. We sort of all learned together. Harold Brown was under Herb York. But I saw in Harold Brown the most brilliant person I had seen before, among the young people. He would ask the most important questions. Well, okay. So I met these people and Herb York, Harold Brown, Mike May were friends for the rest of my life and influenced me in very many ways.
Let’s get back to – I’m on the island, the shot is fired. Louis Rosen had an experiment there, and he needed to get his film. Well, I went along with him. Now, I have to tell you something. Both Rosalie and I, oh, we were married by this time, married very well, and we were at Los Alamos.
It turned out that we could not have children. It was both Rosalie couldn’t have the children and I couldn’t have children. So we were a perfect couple. When it came to go in radioactive places, you know, it didn’t matter with me. I couldn’t have children anyway. I went with Louis through the radioactive areas to pick up his material, and brought them home.
Incidentally, the boat ride there was—that was the place where there was the most trouble, and the most possibility of having accidents in my life, than the whole nuclear explosion stuff.
Weisenberg: Just because the water was so choppy?
Mayer: It’s not that the water itself was so choppy, but the landing. The safety engineer—I forget his name for the moment, we were great, great friends—said, “The thing you have to worry about is you’ll break your leg when you go off and are smashed into deck.” That was the risky thing out there, not the bomb.
Well, we come back, and Louis Rosen goes into his little laboratory, which was an accessory to, essentially a room where people could sit. People sitting and waiting, and I was there. Next to me, Fred Reines, and next to him, Louis Rosen and George Cowan, the four of us. We were, again, great friends and great friends for life. All of these people made wonderful lives. That should be, you know, four stories in themselves.
Anyway, here we are sitting, waiting for Louis to go through his films, and we’re waiting. You know, five minutes passed, we say, “It didn’t go. He’s worried about it and he doesn’t know what to do.” One hour passes, and this is not an estimate, it’s a fact.
He comes out, and he says, “I have it!” That devil, he had stayed in there, he saw that he had the right picture. He took out the microscope, he tested it, he found out what it is. He came out not with the film, but with the answer. I never forgave him.
Weisenberg: This was proving that the test had worked in the way you wanted it to work?
Mayer: It’s very much more complicated. But his experiment turned out right. Well, here, the results are unnecessary. At that time, Teller had gotten his idea for the real bomb that could work. And, as I told you before, he told me that we should do the experiment anyway. Well, we became lifetime friends, Herb York, Louis Rosen, George Cowan, Fred Reines.
Weisenberg: How did you get involved in the testing in the Pacific?
Mayer: You have to know everything about how the Los Alamos laboratory worked at that time. It had nothing to do with organization, and nothing to do with what anybody outside would feel. And this was wonderful.
We in the theoretical division – at least, the group of people who were older, not in age, but in being there. Fred Reines was an example of this. A little later than this time – let me go ahead for a moment – after Fred had done this wonderful work, he had the idea. Since this was about T Division, this is important. He had an idea. He had become the person who was in charge of the theoretical aspects of the nuclear tests. He, indeed, left T Division and went to the special group. They had a fancy name. He came back and went to – Carson Mark and Pogo [codename for the Pacific testing staff], and this was very good.
All right. Now, let’s start about this, because it’s Carson Mark and he works with T Division. But it’s very important, because it combines two wonderful persons, Fred Reines, who was my closest friend for life. The families were together. Rosalie and I, Sylvia and Fred, throughout our life. We exchanged houses together, to see how each other’s worked. He came, Fred, and went.
I was trying to give a talk at one of the special things in the life of my son. I was failing. He stood up and did it for me. There were many things that I did for him when his child, Robert, was in the Army. This was way after the war. I arranged that I could get Robert a position, actually, right near here, for his stay, a very good position.
This is Carson Mark, for the moment, and Fred Reines. Now, Fred was head of the Pogo staff, and in my mind, he would’ve become the next director of the laboratory. Fred came to me and said, “You know, it’s time for me to do some scientific work.” He went up to Carson Mark and said, “I don’t want to do anything now but think about science.”
He [Mark] said, “Fred, you deserve it, from all you’ve done.” Fred sat for one year thinking about science and what he should do. And out came the neutrino.
Mayer: The Nobel Prize for that was given to him too late. He did the experiments in 1954 and 1955.
In 1954, he said, “Probably there’s a neutrino.” In 1955, there is a neutrino. In 1995, he got the Nobel Prize. At that time, Fred was ill. He was really unable to really appreciate the prize. In 1998, he died. Now, I was with him through this whole time. He had a wonderful life. There’s no question about it. He should have gotten the Nobel Prize, so that he could enjoy it before. But the money helped his family. The Nobel people should learn about it.
Mayer: He [Frederick Reines] died in 1998. This is almost 20 years, isn’t it?
Weisenberg: Yeah. I believe the Los Alamos Historical Society has his Nobel Prize. Is that right?
Mayer: Oh, I didn’t know that, but–
Weisenberg: I think they have it in an exhibit now.
Mayer: Oh. Well, Fred never had a lot of money, and the Nobel Prize was – his half was $400,000, I believe. And that just helped Sylvia, not Fred. He should’ve gotten that Nobel Prize when it could have helped him in life, not as a symbol.
Maria [Mayer] is a different story. She got the prize in 1963, and she lived quite a bit after. But she was frail at the end.
Okay. Now, that’s sort of a diversion, but it says something about Carson Mark, and how he treated T Division. And I’ll say something about that. Take as an example, in my case – now this goes back in the time of T Division, and we’re talking about, what is it, 1950-something, rather early. This is a time when Edward Teller had gotten his ideas. I wanted to go along with the old idea for the Super, and not the thermonuclear weapon.
I said, “There’s something about this Super, which we should learn about.” This was Edward’s prize, before he got the right idea. I want to follow up on that idea.
He said, “Harris, by all means, do.”
So the Super did not die. I did work on it, and I didn’t keep that promise of mine. I worked on the new thermonuclear weapon again, as well. But as I understand it – and I never had the special things you need with Livermore – I will say that someone told me the Super could go many years later.
I had been working on the Manhattan Project, first of all, in Columbia. Then when Columbia disappeared in just the end of 1945, we were transferred to the University of Chicago. And there, Teller took me with him. Actually, the whole group from Columbia, of the theoretical division people, moved – and the opacity group moved with Teller, and Maria Mayer, Joe Mayer. Harold Urey came along with us, too. So we had a very good time at the University of Chicago.
When Teller asked me to work on the opacity project in 1944, I said, “I can’t. I have to get my Ph.D.”
He said, “I’ll give you a Ph.D for this work.” So, okay. I worked with Teller and it comes out that I was with him working when Hiroshima came.
When 1946 was about to come, two things happened. First of all, the project disappeared in Columbia, and moved to Chicago. I moved along with it, but I wanted to wait a little while, because I was with my sister as a chaperone, going on Christmas vacation with Rosalie. That’s the time I asked if she would marry me, and she said yes. Then I get a call from home. “You have to get out of here and get to Chicago. Otherwise, you’re going to be drafted.”
I left my sister with Rosalie in the Adirondacks, ran down to New York City, got on a train out to Chicago for Teller and Maria Mayer. So I didn’t get drafted, and I left the woman who had promised to marry me behind. Now, of course, Edward Teller and Maria knew all about what I was doing and helped me very much along. They had gotten just what they wanted. They wanted to see Rosalie and I get married. It took a little time. In October of 1946, I went from Chicago back to New York, got the license, married her, and took Rosalie with me back to Chicago. Now, none of this would have been possible without Edward Teller. When I say he was like a father, he was
Okay. Going back, I am visiting Los Alamos for the first time in my life. This is where I want to be, because that’s the future. Columbia was gone, I needed to get my Ph.D. at Chicago now, and that was guaranteed by Teller. But there’s all the red tape that’s necessary, and I’ll go back later.
I am going to Los Alamos to see what it is, and it’s all gone. It really died, and it was revived. Everybody was leaving, and they couldn’t leave quickly, so the professors began giving classes to all the younger people, so it would help them when they left.
Now, clearly, I knew the name Feynman. I knew what he had done, but I’d never met him. I’m with a group of people from Columbia, who had left Columbia, and I didn’t know where they went. Here they were, all my friends from the physics department. Even though I was in the chemistry department, my heart was with the physics department. There they are, and they were all sitting at a table. A young man comes running towards us. It’s Dick Feynman.
He says, “I’ve just found out something. I taught my class how to integrate, they can integrate any function.”
We all laughed. We know you can’t integrate any function.
He said, “I’ll show you how. I taught them the numerical method.”
We said, “You jerk, you fooled us! That’s not integration.”
He says, “You’re darn sure it is.” That’s how I met Dick Feynman.
He became a special kind of friend. I did not spend many times, but only about five or six times in my life with him.
When Feynman left Los Alamos, well, Feynman had gotten along with [Hans] Bethe. That was wonderful. You could hear the laughter in them. I wasn’t there, but everybody could tell Bethe and Feynman.
Bethe said, “Come along to Cornell with me.” Well, at Cornell, he had to have a place to live.
It turned out that he lived in the same big house that a person who became one of my very good friends, Bob Frank, and Evelyn Frank. Well, Bob Frank comes to Los Alamos, and I’m a very good friend with him. Later on, his daughter has to get married, and of course, Rosalie and I went to the marriage. And who’s there? Dick Feynman. He is a good friend of Bob Frank’s.
Many other times I met Bob Frank, and one of the times was when I met Feynman. One of those times when Bob Frank’s daughter died of a bullet wound, and we don’t know how that happened. Feynman came to help the family. Rosalie and I – by that time, we’d been married for a long time – very good friends with the Franks, we came also. This was all that was there.
Feynman took charge and he stayed for three days with us. He arranged, how to put it? Make the Franks feel sorrow, yes, but that life was still valuable. He met with Rosalie now and I, and by that time, from other cases, we were friends. He took care of everything and also, he knew that Bob and Evelyn Frank should be alone at times, so he spent time with Rosalie and me. And we talked about everything. Feynman was not only interested in art, but he was actually a very capable [artist].
I was not at the laboratory during the war. I know a great deal about it from history, and it was an amazing thing.
What was the spirit in the laboratory? Now, I was not there, but I learned about it in the future. I will say it in a simple way: Get the bomb before [Werner] Heisenberg does it. See, all the scientists knew Heisenberg, they knew him very well. They knew his capabilities. They didn’t know what he would be allowed to do in Germany. We couldn’t find out. And there was fear in their eyes when they came.
I wasn’t there, but I knew Teller very well and I knew him all the time through that, because he came back to help in our work on the opacity project. The opacity project started in June 1944, and kept on forever. It’s still there now. Edward would come, and he would certainly tell Maria everything, because she had the clearance. So we knew, and he knew, and he was worried about Heisenberg. And so that’s how I felt. We have to get a bomb before Heisenberg.
Weisenberg: Were you at SAM [Substitute Alloy Materials] Labs at Columbia?
Edward said he would get me his Ph.D. But how do you get a Ph.D. in a university? They have to have a document. Well, we had 150 pages on the opacity project. No, they can’t use it.
So we said, “Okay, we’ll give them something.”
So Rosalie and I sit down and we tell about the hydrogen and helium things in the sun. We write a paper together, and it’s ten pages long, and we give that to the University. That’s what’s in the laboratory for my Ph.D., and Rosalie and I wrote it. She did the actual typing also.
Teller, of course, said, “Sure.”
Now, the opacity paper is now declassified, and you can read the 150 pages if you want to. We violated all the laws without breaking the rules. I’ll tell you about the way the Ph.D. was actually given.
Now, this work was completed in 1955– in 1945. And, I’m told they’re ready to give my Ph.D. examination. It is 1947, Christmastime. I’m already out at Los Alamos. Well, I get on a train and come there, and they welcomed me. There’s a little office there that I go to. I opened the door. Who’s there? There’s Edward Teller. There’s also Maria Mayer.
Enrico Fermi, and who is it, Robert Millikan. [Robert] Millikan and [Enrico] Fermi have their Nobel, Maria’s going to get it, and Teller can’t get it, because of the Oppie [J. Robert Oppenheimer] affair. So there are really four Nobel Prize people there.
I come in and they say, “Harris, welcome. Have a nice trip? How do you feel?”
So they start asking a question. Fermi, of course, asks a question. It’s a question about opacities. That’s the question I never could understand. I had worked on it, and I did the practical thing. I knew how to bypass it. Edward starts talking, and he tries to explain to Fermi what it’s about. They’re having a wonderful conversation. I’m learning all this stuff.
Okay. They decide what the answer is to the question. Now, they try to teach it to Maria. She listens. Now, she’s very good, but she’s not Fermi, she’s not even Teller. So they explain it to her. She understands it.
They say, “Fine. That’s great. Harris, we have to decide on your examination. Would you please step outside?”
Now, I have spoken no word on this topic. The doors on the University of Chicago’s, that is a very thick, heavy thing. They opened the door and I go out.
The door is not closed, and they say, “Harris, come in.”
Edward said to me, “Now, you are a Ph.D., and you must call me Edward, not Professor.”
Frances Richey: It’s called the brotherhood.
Mayer: I got it for a paper that Rosalie and I wrote on the opacities. The important problem on what was in there was solved by Fermi and Teller on my examination. And I got the credit. Okay. Now, this was how Edward Teller helped me in life.
I must tell you another thing that has nothing to do with physics. This is to do with Frances Richey. I’m working with Frances Richey, and now this was in 1961 or something like that. And I have a problem. I don’t tell her about it, but this is something that’s just worrying me. I happened to have a trip up to—I’m living in Los Angeles, working there.
Richey: We just met in 1960.
Richey: September 1960.
Mayer: She is a very good worker. So I happened to be going up to Livermore, and I see Edward Teller.
I say, “Edward, what can I do? Here’s this” – I’ve always said girl, not woman – “This girl I’m working with, and she’s very, very good. But she’s so stubborn about this.”
He said, “Harris, you have to learn. You know your physics, but you must learn about life. You mustn’t get angry at her. You mustn’t try to convince her. This problem that you’re talking about, it’s absolutely trivial. You’re talking about that she says three-quarters and you say one, numbers. You must just leave that. As a matter of fact, when you work with her, you should make some mistake, so that she feels good about this.”
I take her advice very well, and we get along. We get along very much better. She becomes, not merely my helper, but my companion.
Marshall and I get together and say, “They’re together.” At the same place, at the same time.
Richey: Do you have a date on this?
Mayer: Something around 1960, I don’t remember the date.
We decide, let’s get these two together. Both of us knew both of them. I’m the one to see Bethe. Marshall comes back and says Teller is certainly willing to make amends. I have this information, and I go to see Bethe.
Hans Bethe says to me, “Harris, you are such a wonderful man.” You know, that’s ridiculous, of course. He says, “You have so much kindness in you, and you can forgive Teller. I cannot.”
That’s the story, but it’s not the end. The end is not nice. Marshall and I knew both of them. You know, we knew them, we knew them well. We knew them not merely as scientists, we knew them as friends. Certainly, Bethe and Teller both helped me in my life, and knew everything about it. So we gave up. This was, of course, about the Oppie affair that Bethe couldn’t forgive Teller.
But I must say something more. There was a difference between these two men, and this Oppie affair, I think, accentuated the difference. They kept apart in making commendations and suggestions about significant things in the military and other parts of life. I’m watching these two people, and this is in—I have to get this exactly right—this is one of the military affairs in aircraft in combat.
It’s the very large bombers and Edward said, “They will be able to do it.”
Bethe says, “No, they won’t.”
I know about all of this. I know about all these things. At that time, it could not be done. Edward had an idea that it would be done in the future. So they were both right. At that time, it couldn’t be done, and in the future, it could be done. Bethe said it couldn’t be done. Teller said it will be done.
The Oppie affair was behind—look, those two men were so smart that they could certainly see that not now, but in the future, is trivial. But the Oppie affair means they must be apart. So knowing both of these men and essentially worshipping both of them, I could not get them to say yes together.
I have had a full and in a way a blessed life. Let me say some things about it. I’ll go a little further back. When I was 15 years old, I had been friends with a boy, and he had a younger sister. I knew her a little bit, and when she became 14, she was a woman. I fell in love with her, I fell in love. She fell in love with me. It was and is a great love. We went together in that special way, but it was clear to both of us that it was not a marriage. We kept knowing and being with each other, and indeed, I was a week with her before she got married. We were very close. She got married. That was my first love.
Now, that was when I was 23. I meet Rosalie. Now, this is a nice person, and after a while, I knew her well enough and we got married. As I’ve told you before, I guess, that we were a very good match. Neither of us could have children of our own, so we adopt three children, and have a very special life after that.
After 40 years or so, more than that – but in the meantime, I know Frances and work with her. And Rosalie dies and after a while, I know her so well.
Did I tell you this before? So I say, you know, “Why don’t we get married?”
She says, “Do you think I’m crazy? I’ve been married three times before and it was terrible.”
I said, “All right. Let’s live together.”
And after four years, I say, “Frances, you know, if we get married, we can save some money on income tax.”
She said yes. We got married, and that was in 1994. Now this is a woman who I know since 1960. We finally get married and we’re living well forever after.
Well, you know, what I wanted to say at the beginning of this: I want to talk to you as physicists, and we’re people, too.