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Henry Frisch’s Interview

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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.

Date of Interview:
November 17, 2016
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly, November 17, 2016, Chicago, Illinois. I have with me Henry Frisch. My first question for him is to say your name and spell it, please.

Henry Frisch: Okay. It’s Henry Frisch, F-r-i-s-c-h.

Kelly:  Why don’t you tell us who you are?

Frisch: I’m a professor of physics here at the University [of Chicago]. This is my 45th year of teaching, actually, here. I’ve been on the faculty 45 years. I’m a high-energy physicist, or really a particle physicist.  

At the moment, currently engaged in instrumentation, which is actually a Chicago tradition that dates back to [Enrico] Fermi, the fact that we build things and we’re very much builders. Fermi represented the highest form of that. He was both a theorist and experimentalist. He didn’t make the distinction. Jim Cronin, who was my mentor, who was the reason I came here, was similarly a builder of things, and a detector developer. So, that’s what I’m doing now.

I should just say at the outset that my only credential to knowing any of this history is very skimpy. I was born at Los Alamos. I’m not a scholar of the era. I’ve heard stories from my parents, who were both there. I sort of grew up with it, but I certainly have never studied it. Everything I know is – not everything, but a lot of it – is second-hand or third-hand and not very well known. Just right at the outset, I’m not an expert. 

Kelly: But your life reflects it. 

Frisch: Yeah, and I’m very interested. I think it’s an immensely important history, and in particular the university’s role is immensely important. I think we’ve lost track of the issues that were most important in the role of the university.

Kelly:  Because this is a program inspired by Chicago’s role in World War II as the host of the Metallurgical Laboratory, why don’t we start with that.

Frisch: Chicago played a very important role. One of the key people, of course, was Leo Szilard, whose idea of the chain reaction was — who lived in the Quadrangle Club until they threw him out for things that can’t be mentioned in public. Not as bad as you might think, but he was upper class Viennese. There were certain things related to daily living that upper class Viennese didn’t do, and they threw him out.

Szilard played an immensely important role, both from the initial idea to some key ideas on CP-1, on the Chicago Pile. Particularly the graphite – getting rid of the boron in the graphite – for example. Then with the famous letter of him and Einstein to Roosevelt, and then to the Franck Report about the use of the bomb, so Szilard is woven through so much of the really important decisions and issues of the history.

He then went into biophysics here and started a third institute. There were three institutes: the Fermi Institute, which I’m a member of, that did particle physics, space physics, astronomy, geophysics; the Franck Institute in material science; and then Szilard’s Institute for biological things, name I forget. Szilard was here and very much important at the beginning.

Arthur Holly Compton was in fact in charge of the Manhattan Project initially, I think, and that was run out of here. He was instrumental in getting Fermi here. Szilard’s idea wasn’t while he was here, but Szilard was here, very influential. Then Compton running it out of here and organizing it. Fermi with the first measurements on the pile.

Interestingly enough, in some ways the most important contribution was the role of the university in getting civilian control versus military control of nuclear things. That was much broader than just the physicists. That was Edward Levi, and other luminaries across the university played a very important role. John Simpson, the astrophysicist, really put his back into it. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists grew out of that at that time. A lot of that was Simpson’s doing.

The Franck Report, which actually I just printed out a copy of – if you look at it, it’s Szilard and [James] Franck and others. This is early. This is before the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, all the questions of first use. Those questions are still really, in a sense, I think, with us, particularly given the recent election. I think our heads are still in the sand in terms of proliferation of nuclear capabilities. It’s not just states, it’s the non-state actors who can get there.

Luis Alvarez claimed that it was so easy to make a gun-style bomb that you could just drop half of a bomb off of a table onto the other half on the floor. Be a lousy explosion, but it’d be enough. Alvarez, by the way, was a graduate student here, and his biography is wonderful reading. He was another Chicago key player in many of these things. Everywhere you look, in fact, you’ll find many Chicago — either alumni or actors one way or the other in this.

The movement by the scientists to try to control access to nuclear material and weapons was an immensely important thing. It sort of has died in a sense. It’s no longer the center. They were also groups at Los Alamos and Hanford and others, but certainly, my readings are—this is partly because I’ve read Alice Kimball Smith, who wrote this up and whose collected works are in the Regenstein Library here. My impression is that a lot of the motive force from this effort really came out of Chicago, John Simpson and others. Franck was a very moral leader in this.

That’s sort of my overview of the role. I think Chicago played an immensely important part in every aspect of the nuclear story. We’re now on the 75th anniversary of CP-1. I think we’ve been very lucky to get through 75 years without another use, but I think the odds are against us.

I tend to view everything in terms of statistical mechanics. You can ask how many ways can something happen and how many ways can it not happen, and the ways for it not happening are shrinking, and the ways for it happening are growing. So I tend to be very pessimistic. I think—going back to read the Franck Report, go back and read some of John Simpson’s early things, the early Bulletins and such—I think we need an effort, particularly in this very rapidly changing political climate. I would hope Chicago could take a lead in this again. I think our history is such that we have both responsibility and a tradition that we should continue. It shouldn’t be over. The story is not over yet.

Kelly:  Can you just tell us what happened here? What was this Met Lab about?

Frisch: I don’t really know beyond CP-1. I know stories of Fermi going back and forth to Los Alamos from here. I know some. Herb Anderson was based here. Fermi would go back and forth, so this still was Fermi’s home. Compton was here. Because my parents were at Los Alamos and Los Alamos was my center of that part of it, that tends to—and, of course, that’s where Trinity, where the bombs were put together. From the spring of 1943 on, my guess is that the center of gravity moved to Los Alamos being fed by Oak Ridge and Hanford and the others. That’s a history I don’t really know of during the war. All the stories I know, of course, are Fermi at Los Alamos, Oppenheimer at Los Alamos.

Roger Hildebrand had some marvelous stories at Berkeley at that time. Berkeley had the calutrons. [Ernest] Lawrence was in Berkeley. I think the really big, important things were before Los Alamos and after for Chicago. But I’m ignorant about the middle.

Kelly:  You talked about Szilard. Did you want to talk about things before the Manhattan Project?

Frisch: Well, it was the pile. I mean, it was Fermi and the measurements, that’s right. I just know from my father. He was a graduate student at Wisconsin, and Oppenheimer moved the whole group — Al Hanson was at Wisconsin with my dad as graduate students. This was early ’43. Los Alamos had just barely been started. They made the first measurements across the neutron cross-sections on plutonium. But the center had shifted.

My dad told a wonderful story of Fermi at Los Alamos. Oppenheimer called a meeting, an all-hands meeting as we call it now, and said that Enrico [Fermi] was going to announce the multiplication factor. Fermi did, but didn’t quote an uncertainty on it. So he stood up, said the number, sat down. Oppenheimer asked him to quote an uncertainty, and Fermi wouldn’t.

So my dad said Oppenheimer got very formal and said, “You know the future of the free world depends on this.” And, Fermi still wouldn’t. Whereupon Oppenheimer said, “Well, if you won’t quote a number, at least give a limit.” And Fermi gave the wrong limit. He said the uncertainty is not smaller than .1, which is the wrong direction, and then smiled, grinned, and sat down.

I’m sure there were immense numbers of things happening here. I think at that point Szilard, Fermi, the people who were here, had done their bit with the pile and the first reactions, and were contributing. But I don’t know what was happening here.

Then, after the war, the cyclotron was built, but at that point, the big effort by Simpson and others to really try to understand what they had done in terms of the future. That is the part that I think we really need to focus on, because I’m very pessimistic.

Kelly:  Is there more that you’d like to talk about?

Frisch: Well, what do you want to hear about? You look at the people who were here, and it’s really a remarkable list of the key players. That first chain reaction, in which Fermi understood exactly what was going on. He called the numbers, right, he had calculated. Compton’s guiding that part of it, you know, the early days. Szilard’s contribution early, and then late, clearly with the support of [Robert Maynard] Hutchins, of the administration here. It was an enlightened administration.

I was told Compton never asked permission to have a reactor, the first chain reaction, on campus. You couldn’t ask for permission, because there’s only one answer, which is no, right? It was never asked, but it was understood. There was an administration that had real guts, right? It was really willing to risk what could’ve been a very serious thing on campus for the greater good.

I think it would be very interesting to know what was done here. I’ve read Alice Kimball Smith, but that’s largely afterwards. I have a lovely graphite block that I found in Fermi’s accelerator building, which I think dates back to the original pile. I have yet to find the time to do something about it. I think that’s enough of a contribution, right? I mean, at some point it went to actually building Gadgets, and that was done at Los Alamos. You had to have input material, and that was commercial things on a very large scale.

I guess there is another role. [Crawford] Greenewalt and others, the industrial magnates, were closely tied. DuPont, these other companies, were a very important ingredient. Some of that was through Chicago connections. Greenewalt was at, I think, the first chain reaction, and he remained a fan all the way through. That’s another important ingredient.

It would be fun to ask Richard Rhodes or Kai Bird these questions and really find out what was going on here. That’s what I know. It’s not much.

Kelly:  You mentioned earlier that one of the things you’re into now is instrumentation or building things. It’s clearly a kind of a legacy of Fermi, who was, you know, such a great experimentalist as well as a theorist. Maybe you want to talk about that aspect of the legacy. In what ways has the Manhattan Project or the Met Lab experience shaped the course of science and engineering and such at the university?

Frisch: Well, it’s always been very much a can-do place, and it’s always had a very strong technical staff. That actually is going away. Partly because finding really talented technical people is harder. Also, a change in emphasis in the administration toward a much faster and higher return on developing kids who develop computer apps. I mean, if you can make a Facebook, you win much quicker than if you make a better refrigerator or even a better kind of detector of any kind. There are very few things that’ll make returns as fast as a winning app.

Simpson had a very long legacy here. Jim Cronin had a very long legacy here. They’re both gone. That was this legacy of having really talented technical people helping, building up efforts to do really innovative kinds of science. One could make experiments that nobody else could make. Alpha scattering off the moon, again, this is [Anthony] Turkevich. These nuclear chemists, [Nathan] Sugarman, Turkevich, the Manhattan Project survivors, veterans, marvelous people. But again, this can-do project.

When you think of what Los Alamos did starting in ’43 to ’45, it’s utterly staggering how much was done in so short a time. Bob Wilson had that legacy. He played a very important role at Los Alamos, and he took that with him back to Cornell and then to the Fermilab. As you probably know, Chicago runs both Argonne and Fermilab. That’s a legacy.

Bob’s style was set by the Manhattan Project, I think, and this can-do attitude, going very fast. No niceties about people, but it was not personal. You went as fast as you could. People got in your way, you either ran over them or around them. Fermi was that way. Wilson was a wonderful person, but it always was the priority on getting things done. That was here for a very long time. I don’t know if we still have that.

The generations go by and I think the world at large, again, it’s hard to find that. The support of science in the U.S. has diminished enormously. The legacy that was left, the awe of nuclear physicists, the funding of high-energy physics, because it was the legacy of the Manhattan Project, as the generations go by, that all fades somewhat. You can see that diminishing, possibly correctly.

It was a very special era of very special people and really remarkable achievements. I think Chicago played a very important role all the way through, from the start to the end. Now we’re in a different game, in the end game, but I hope we can continue.

Kelly:  You are very involved in the Bulletin’s current activities.

Frisch: I was on the board. No, I was very involved. There was sort of a low point and I was sort of called in to help. But it’s going very well now. Rachel [Bronson] is remarkable, and so they don’t need me. I’m a little on the periphery, and I try to help wherever I can, but she does so well that there’s not much for me left to do. And it’s back with the university.

Here’s another legacy, the Bulletin records were kept in a cardboard box in the Physics Department office by Bob Platzman. It was a creature of the Physics Department. The Bulletin, this strong effort to control nuclear energy and the future of mankind, Chicago played a really important role in. In terms of moral leadership, in terms of scientific leadership, political leadership.

Here’s Bob Sachs’s book on the 40th reunion. There was a 50th, we’re coming up on the 75th. I’m on the committee for the 75th. This is of the pile. It should be fun, but we got a lot of work to do.

I also brought just, if you want it, here’s the list of the Franck Committee—this is June 11th, 1945, so this is pre-Hiroshima—talking about the use of the bomb. Just one comment: I think the moral decision to destroy these civilian populations, entire cities, had already been made. The moral questions had already been settled. The answer was you destroyed whole populations.

It evolves to a much more technical argument in my mind, which is, was it good for mankind or not good for mankind to use this new weapon on people? These cities, if they’d been destroyed by firebombing, nobody would say boo anymore. So that moral question was decided wrongly. The second, Nagasaki, is indefensible. That was purely a technical test. One wanted to show that an implosion bomb worked.

But I think that these issues were the issues that Levi and Franck and Szilard – less so Fermi. I think Fermi was very pragmatic. But the university felt a real moral obligation to address these issues. The civilian control is, I think, a university legacy.

Kelly: I think it’s interesting that Edward Levi was a counsel to the committee and just happened to strike it off with John Simpson. The two of them were very—

Frisch: Were very powerful.

Kelly: —very powerful.

Frisch: There was a social scientist, whose name I keep meaning to look up. Very well-known, it’s just slipped my mind. Anyhow, it was strong. I read Alice Kimball Smith’s A Peril and a Hope from cover to cover, which I think I deserve a certain level of credit for. It’s not easy going. That has a lot of the details on this. Her papers are with Dan Meyer in special collections. They will have an exhibit in the future of some of this. That’s a very interesting question. When Los Alamos was running, what was done here. I don’t know the answer.

Okay. Is that—? 

Jeff Nalezny: Can I ask – it sounds like from your scientist’s perspective – though you look back at it with all these mixed thoughts, it was kind of the romantic period.

Frisch: Oh, immensely.

Nalezny: Are you kind of jealous that you haven’t been part of that kind of freedom and effort?

Frisch: No.

Nalezny: Anything like that? No?

Frisch: No. I have been part of that kind of effort. I mean, something like that is internal, right. It’s not external. Just to give you one example, I asked my mother, “What happened after the bomb was dropped?”

She said, “We left.” That’s all.

So, romantic, yes, but there was a sense of both betrayal and others. Also, my dad was from Texas, but still, this was the West, beautiful part of the West, as then unspoiled. I don’t know what you could do. Well, I have an ex-student who’s in the Antarctic at the moment. That’s probably as close as you’re going to get, but it doesn’t have the mountains that you can ride horses in, for example.

So, no, it was an immensely interesting historical era. I am very grateful that I got to meet some remarkable people. I got to meet Niels Bohr, got to meet Oppenheimer as a kid, Otto Frisch. So I’ve met some very, very interesting people, but no, one can’t be jealous of one’s parents somehow. At least, I don’t think so. My kids aren’t jealous of me.

Kelly:  What do you hope might come out of this 75th anniversary?

Frisch: For the 50th, I had proposed that we get the heads of all the nuclear powers here to discuss their ideas on how we get through another fifty years without using the bomb. We had gotten through fifty, and so the question is I would like to hear people talk about what we should do to get through another fifty.

Well, at the 75th, we made it another 25. I don’t know if you can get the head of North Korea, Iran, and others here to talk about it. It seems we’ve made some very bad mistakes in the meantime, and whether you could even have that discussion now, I don’t know.

This was killed off by a single word from Hanna Gray, who was president at the time. My proposal went through the Physics Department, through the Physical Science Division, through the College, or through the Committee of the Counsel of the Faculty Senate and such. Got to Hanna Gray, who said, “No,” one word. No discussion, just no.

I think this is a key thing to discuss. What should we do to make it safe? The only people I think who can really discuss it are the people who have their fingers on the controls. I think we’re beyond having scientists just discussing. My father advocated demonstrations. Every so often we should blow the top off a mountain or vacate a city and just remove the city from the face of the map. The problem is, of course, that’s impossible. I mean, it’s not going to happen.

The question is as that generation dies off and you’re very central in keeping this alive. What should we do to keep it alive in a way that when our president-elect talks loosely about it’s not so bad if other people get nuclear weapons. He could even be right. I mean, one doesn’t know. But it should be something that one really understands the statistical mechanics of the possible ways things can go wrong. I don’t think he does, and I don’t know who is advising him. Many of the actions we take seem to me to be counter-indicated. So these are very good questions. The Franck Committee report, these were real efforts to try to understand and deal with this problem rationally when it could be dealt with. Now, it’s harder.

Kelly:  It is going to get harder or easier if we start building up our arsenal again?

Frisch: Well, you got to remember, Fermi’s argument against seeing life in other planets, right. Fermi’s argument was that civilizations have a very short window between when they develop nuclear explosions and when they destroy themselves. It’s only that very short window in which you can communicate with them. This is other civilizations on other planets. Given that’s a very short window, I mean, in 10 billion years or something, if there’s only 100 years, your chances of finding anybody are reduced by that factor. So Fermi concluded that not seeing other civilizations is an indication that this is probably true.

Nalezny: Is there any concerted effort to try to instill in students today this sense of history and legacy, and help them gain a perspective like the one you’re talking about?

Frisch: No.

Nalezny: Would that be a good idea?

Frisch: Oh, it’s a marvelous idea.

Nalezny: I’m just wondering, as your students wander across these, the sites that have been built over.

Frisch: Well, my students get this.

Nalezny: Yes.

Frisch: Yeah, my students do this, but is there any general effort? It falls in a crack between physics and history and political science and such. The cracks have gotten larger than the islands in between, in academia by and large. So it’s an odd beast. Nuclear physics itself went through a real minimum. We weren’t producing nuclear physicists, really. The nuclear power industry, its problems, don’t do the field any favors either, in that this is not something with a particularly good reputation and a good history.

One can ask and it’s a fair question, how did we screw it up so badly? I mean why wasn’t it possible to follow John Simpson’s incredibly effective and rational leadership as to what should be done? Where did it go wrong? Because if you look at the disaster in Japan at the moment. That’s not going to go away very quickly. They’re stuck with pumping water into the tanks, and it’s really not so good.

So, yes is the answer, but it would take a change in mindset of really major proportions in my mind. I don’t think mankind is particularly good at averting disasters. We wait for them to happen. It’s not built into us, I think, physiologically, to think too much about the very long-term future. That would depress everybody, so we’re constructed not to do that in some deep way.

We try to have colloquia here, we try to have seminars and such. Bob Rosner’s very active across a wide range of things. It’s not at all clear how to really begin. I would argue that where you want to begin probably is with money. If you really want to change the direction of society, it’s got to be financially driven. Educating students is great, but we wear out, basically.

Somehow there’s got to be a financial incentive. To me, there’s an enormous one, because I think it’s probably really bad for the Dow Jones Index or the S&P 500. Use of nuclear weapons would not be good for your retirement account. That’s such an obvious thing to me that I’m surprised when I read about — that would be the tack I would take. What’s going to happen to your investments, given Paris, London, New York all disappearing simultaneously off the face of the earth? My guess is it would not be good.

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