Cindy Kelly: I am Cindy Kelly, and this is May 9, 2013 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We’re interviewing Lawrence Bartell. Dr. Bartell, can you please say your name and spell it?
Lawrence Bartell: My name is Lawrence Sims Bartell, I am the son of Lawrence Sims Bartell, but I’m not “junior” or “the second” or anything like that. How can that be?
Kelly: How do you spell your name?
Bartell: L – A – W – R – E – N – C – E B – A – R – T – E – L – L.
Kelly: Can you tell us your date of birth and where you were born?
Bartell: I was born on February 23, 1923, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Kelly: Terrific. It’s important for us to get those things at the outset. Why don’t we begin with what kind of childhood you had that led you to be so interested in science?
Bartell: I don’t know about that, but I would like to tell you some stories about Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, and Enrico Fermi. Maybe previous interviews have covered this, but if they haven’t they should be covered.
Kelly: Okay. I want you to talk about yourself. You can talk about them. I want you to talk about them. But would you like to talk about your story, how you got to do the Manhattan Project?
Bartell: I’ll get into that presently. John Wheeler, whom I knew very well, is a part of this story too. Leo Szilard was an imaginative fellow. And one day, when he was crossing the street in London, I think in Bloomsbury, he got an idea at how atomic energy might be extracted. This was remarkable, because you may remember that the person who first discovered the properties of atoms was Rutherford. And when he was asked about extracting all of this atomic energy for use, he said, “That’s moonshine.”
When Enrico Fermi heard the results of the Hahn and Strassmann [fission experiment], he did some experiments and he realized that a chain reaction was possible. And so he and Szilard patented this and gave the patent to the Army. Fermi wanted to build a proof of principle reactor under the West Stands of Stagg Field in Chicago, which has since been torn down. He started piling blocks of graphite moderator; blocks with uranium scattered around, and he invited Szilard to help him. Szilard was a cerebral person, and he actually disdained any physical labor. He always lived in a hotel, and to flush his waste down the toilet was beneath his dignity. So he always let the servants do it for him. That gives you some interesting insight about Szilard. I don’t think I would have liked him.
Fermi was extraordinarily good in his experiments and an excellent theorist. But before Fermi had completed this reactor in the West Stands [of Stagg Field], Eugene Wigner had been given the job of designing the Hanford reactors for producing plutonium. And well before the proof of principle reactor was ever operated, he had essentially completed his design. He was trained as a chemical engineer, and later as a theoretical physicist, so he was probably better able to design something like that than anyone else. When they actually constructed the first reactor in Hanford, he was extraordinarily irritated because the engineers built a frame that was enormously bigger than he’d called for. He was insulted.
So they filled this frame with the amount of uranium he had suggested. The reactor ran fine just as he had predicted for a while, and then it stopped. And then it finally recovered again, and then it stopped. John Wheeler had feared that some fission product might have such a huge cross-section for capturing neutrons that it would stop the reactor, and it turned out an isotope of xenon did. It actually soaked so many neutrons that the reactor stopped. It had a short half-life. When it decayed, the reactor would start again. When the engineers loaded the reactor with as much [uranium] as Wheeler had suggested, it ran fine.
How did I get involved in the Manhattan Project? Late in 1943 in my senior year, I was studying chemistry at the University of Michigan, and I got invited to the University of Chicago to interview. I suspected that it had something to do with the atomic bomb, because there’d been enough hints that such a thing might be made. But when I went early in 1944, I was interviewed by Glenn Seaborg himself. I was too shy to tell him I thought we were going to be working on the atomic bomb and some transuranium element that he had discovered, because I knew something about that. But the interview went well enough and after we had chatted for a while he said, “I’ll give you a job. When can you start?”
I said, “I can start today except for one detail. Next week I have my final examinations in my senior year.”
He said, “Wait here a minute,” and he disappeared. When he came back with a big grin on his face. He said, “I’ve relieved you of having to take any of those final exams,” which worried the heck out of me because one of the courses I took was economic geography to fill some requirement. I hated the course and didn’t even think that I was even passing it. But Seaborg’s story was good enough so I got a “B” in this course. I didn’t deserve a “B” in it for what I’d done. So I did start that day.
The first day I was given a little vial of ten grams of plutonium. I was told that it was worth, in today’s dollars, of something like twelve million dollars. And I was to take one-tenth of this, over a million dollars worth, and use it in my experiments. Now to a twenty-year-old kid just fresh out of college, this was mind boggling.
My job was to test various ways of extracting plutonium from uranium that had been irradiated in a reactor. It was fiercely radioactive. So I tested ways to decontaminate it, so it could be worked on with metallurgists. And that’s what I did.
This is a story that I’ve never told anyone else. I was trained in traditional chemistry, and one of the things that we had to do was to pipette solutions to get the right amount to mix and to precipitate and all that sort of stuff. I pipetted by sucking with my mouth at one end of the pipette. All of the solution was at the other end. One day the pipette backed up and I found myself with plutonium in my mouth. I’ve never told anyone else this story. Plutonium has a reputation of being the most poisonous substance known in man. I felt so stupid that I was ashamed to go to health physics, so I rinsed out my mouth the best I could and went on. And I’m here today. It turns out that plutonium goes through the body fairly fast if taken orally. But if it gets into your lungs you’re in very bad trouble.
Plutonium is an element—94 atomic number, and the isotope that we worked on was 239. So the code name of the Project was “49 4949.” And to keep us young guys healthy, we had a baseball league. I was a first baseman in the Thompson Commando’s, but a group of Californians wanted to call themselves the Forty-Niners. Security vetoed that because it was a secret code name.
When you are working as fast as you can, afraid that Hitler might get the bomb first, silly things can happen. I remember at the end of the hall we had a closet that was kept open by a nice, shiny, aluminum bar. Aluminum is inexpensive. But one day out of curiosity I reached down to pick it up and it was heavy. It was a big bar of pure platinum worth a fortune that was used as a door stop. There are other funny stories like that, but where was I?
Almost everyone knows that uranium-235 is a fissionable element that can be made into an atomic bomb. On the other hand, plutonium was unknown before the project started. And its properties were unknown and it was soon discovered that it was contaminated by plutonium-240, which was spontaneously fissionable. That meant that you couldn’t make an atomic bomb of the gun-type as with uranium-235. You had to have a special implosion technique, which we can talk about later if necessary.
Plutonium was nasty stuff. It had to be extracted in very small amounts from huge amounts of uranium. It was produced by the fission of uranium-235, which is less than one percent of the uranium. [Plutonium] is made by radioactive disintegrations, and the product is fiercely radioactive, believe me, when it comes out. The stuff is very hot. You had to cool the reactor by well-filtered rivers. To manipulate it in big amounts required remote control, because it was so radioactive.
It was an awful thing to deal with. When you made the metal, it was totally unsuitable for making a bomb, because it couldn’t be machined properly in its pure form. So why on earth was there a project to make plutonium instead of just using uranium-235 in the first place? The answer is that U-235 had chemical properties that were nearly identical to those of uranium-238, and so you couldn’t separate the two by any chemical methods known at that time. You had to use a physical method, such as centrifuging, but the people in America messed that up. It turns out to be a good method of use now. So thermal diffusion, or huge mass spectrometers known as known as calutrons were used, but they could only produce the U-235 in a trickle. And so in all that time they had only accumulated just enough U-235 to make a bomb. They hadn’t tested it, because they were so sure it would work.
On the other hand, they weren’t at all sure that plutonium would work, because of this spontaneously fissionable isotope that it was contaminated with. They knew that if the gun-type method that was used for U-235, firing one or two slugs of material into another slug to achieve a chemical mass, the bomb would fizzle out before it would ever really explode. So they came up with an implosion technique.
George Kistiakowsky is a wonderful guy. I could tell you stories about him. He was the one who actually made the explosive lenses that when exploded would push in and compress the plutonium sphere to a critical mass. In fact, Oppenheimer bet Kistiakowsky a hundred dollars that the thing wouldn’t work. Kistiakowsky took the bet, and of course he won. The explosion worked. And that leads to another story I’ll tell later about being arrested as a possible Russian spy.
Kelly: Is it too complicated to explain why Oppenheimer waged against the bomb?
Bartell: I don’t know the full details of the story, but they tried an implosion test a day or two before and it hadn’t worked properly. Kistiakowsky understood why it didn’t work, and he was sure that these explosive lenses that he made by hand chiseling away would work, and that the failure before had been due to some flaw that couldn’t have been foreseen.
Kistiakowsky was a real showman in class. One of the experiments severely burned his hand, but he couldn’t let on to the students that he was painfully burned and he went on with his lecture. Also being Ukrainian, he spoke with a very curious accent. He had a colleague in physical chemistry at Princeton named Hugh S. Taylor, and whenever Kistiakowsky would mention his name it came out, “Huge Ass Taylor.” Enough about Kistiakowsky, where were we on this story?
I think that I already mentioned why U-235 could only be made in a trickle, whereas plutonium, with all of its enormous difficulties, could be made pretty fast. And so we could produce plutonium to make as many bombs as we needed to. And curiously, this implosion technique was so much more efficient than the gun-type, that not nearly as much plutonium was needed to make the bomb and had a bigger yield than the Hiroshima bomb. But I digress from the story.
I mentioned that at the time we worked, our materials were contaminated by so many radioactive elements that we worked with very radioactive substances every day. We worked with gloves on our hands, but even so, before we were allowed to leave the building for lunch or dinner, we had to stick our hands in this counter. If they were too radioactive, bells would ring and lights would flash. And every time I stuck my hands into it, bells would ring and lights would flash. So we had to treat our hands with oxidation reduction cycles until we got rid of all these fission products. That meant rinsing your hands with crystals of potassium permanganate until they were black, and then rinsing them with crystals of sodium bisulfite until they were bleached white. We had to go through these cycles many times before our hands could pass the test. It’s simply amazing the abuse that human skin can take. These hands were radioactive. I loved to eat potato chips. But I couldn’t bear to eat anything from my bare hands for a long time after that.
I had mentioned that graphite was used as a moderator in reactors. A moderator is necessary because when U-235 fissions, it sends out several neutrons. These are fast neutrons, which zip on through the material. And U-238 has a very low cross-section for absorbing fast neutrons. So they had to be slowed down to have a long wavelength. And U-238 has a big cross-section for absorbing slow neutrons, making neptunium, which decays rapidly into plutonium. You had to use a moderator to slow down the neutrons in a reactor, and light water would be excellent, because neutrons and hydrogen atoms have about the same mass. So a lot of collisions would slow down the neutrons, except for one thing. The hydrogen’s would often capture a neutron to become deuterium, and that would soak up enough neutrons so you couldn’t easily make a light water reactor. But heavy water, deuterium oxide, would be excellent.
The Germans figured that since physicists are more brilliant than anyone else, they didn’t need engineers or chemists on the job, the very type of people that were necessary for the Manhattan Project. They tried graphite, and it didn’t work. They tried heavy water and that worked beautifully. But heavy water is very expensive to make and can only be made in trickles. They used a hydroelectric plant in Norway, which sabotage kept the Germans from ever receiving large amounts of heavy water. They never even got a reactor started.
On the other hand, Leo Szilard, an effete fellow who wouldn’t do anything with his hands, realized that the normal way of producing commercial graphite made it contaminated with enough boron to soak up the neutrons and stop the chain reaction. So Szilard arranged to have very pure graphite made that had no boron in it. It was expensive, but it was a lot cheaper than heavy water. It could be made in a lot bigger quantities than heavy water, and it worked.
The Germans incidentally seemed never to have attempted to make a bomb. The German team was led by [Werner] Heisenberg, a theoretical physicist, who was an excellent man. And he didn’t think that there was enough time and energy to separate U-235. He was aware of plutonium, but that was chemistry. When the war was winding down, the Americans sent their men through Germany to pick up all atomic physicists. The American military idea was, “Let’s shoot them all, and then they can’t make a bomb.” But England felt differently. What they did was to put them under house arrest at Farm Hall in England, a little north of London.
When the Germans entered the Hall they said, “I wonder if the place is bugged.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it, because that’s so ridiculous.” But it was bugged, and so transcripts of all of their conversations were made. So we know very well what they intended to do, what they knew, and what they didn’t know.
My wife was no scientist. She didn’t like it. But the Farm Hall transcripts—translations—of what the Germans said were so fascinating that even she loved the Farm Hall transcripts. Let me digress for a minute.
One of the Germans who was arrested and put under house arrest was Max von Laue, a very distinguished theoretical physicist and older man, who was not associated with the atomic bomb project at all. But they arrested him just in case. They put him a room quite far away from the toilet. And being an old man like me, it meant he had needs at night to go from time to time, and the toilet was way down the hall. So he used a vase that was in the room, which he would then dump in the morning. And he had the misfortune of dumping it on one of the soldiers guarding the place. So he got into deep trouble for a while because of this.
There was another atomic project in Germany besides Heisenberg’s. It was run by a guy named [Kurt] Diebner, who had a lot better ideas of how to proceed. But I don’t know very much about that story.
You say I should explain why Germany needed chemists and engineers? Well for one thing to process the plutonium that comes right out of a reactor—you have to process it because it’s so radioactive, you have to get rid of all of that. You need a chemist for that. That’s why I had a wartime job in Chicago. After you’ve gotten rid of all of these fission products and you’ve purified the plutonium, you can fashion it into a metal.
It’s a very strange metal. It has about four or five different crystalline forms that are all stable at room temperature. So if you try to machine this stuff, you can’t machine it with precision because these different phases sort of get in the way. And so it turns out that in order to make machinable plutonium for a bomb, you have to alloy it, I think with indium. Three percent of the bomb material is indium, which stabilizes a form of plutonium that can be machined accurately. Sure, chemists were needed to do the extraction of plutonium. Engineers were needed to work the reactors and to extract the material, which could only be done with remote control because this stuff is so radioactive. I worked with little bits, but when you had big bits, you have to use a remote control.
When I was an undergraduate, I studied courses in radioactivity. I thought absolutely the most fascinating field in science was radiochemistry. And then suddenly I found myself in the field. After pipetting and precipitating and centrifuging and measuring and re-dissolving day after day after day, any aura of mystery or romance evaporates pretty quickly.
It turns out that most of the people on the project in Chicago were young Bachelor’s degree people. They were young enough so the draft boards would try to draft them. And the project was so secret that the draft boards couldn’t be allowed to be told how secret it was. So these people would go into the military, be inducted into the Corps of Engineers, and sent right back to Chicago to do what they had been doing before, which created a very interesting situation because in the military these guys were all enlisted men, not officers. When you have enlisted men, you have to have officers to tell them what to do. Officers didn’t have any Q clearance. They knew none of the secrets and weren’t allowed to know. Every now and then, they wondered what on earth was going on. They tried to pull rank and force an enlisted man to tell them what was going on. And the enlisted men would take great delight in essentially telling them to go to hell. Having been an enlisted man, I can tell you that is a great pleasure. I’ve been up for insubordination, but only once.
When I finally got greetings from the President of the United States telling me to report for military service, it was almost a relief. I was so sick and tired of all of this radiochemistry, but I was the last person from Chicago to be inducted into the military. And I was the first person not to be put back into the Corps of Engineers—the project that I was working on was over.
So I chose the Navy, because muddy trenches didn’t sound very nice. To make a long story short, after nine months in the Navy and in a naval hospital, I was mustered out with a hundred percent disability, and I’m still here. It turns out that most of us on the military base got scarlet fever, and we were sent to the hospital. A lot of us were unlikely not to get one criminally, negligent nurse. What she did was to put us on heavy work detail as soon as we got there. I worked harder than some of my buddies who were falling over. When they’d fall over they were shot full of penicillin and put back on the job. If you know anything about scarlet fever, you’d know the worst treatment is heavy labor because that would develop into rheumatic fever, so all of us caught rheumatic fever in the hospital. And so I was muscled out of the war with a hundred percent disability. But fortunately, my heart was stronger than that of most of my brothers who were ruined for life. I can tell you that hundred percent disability check put me through graduate school very nicely and comfortably. I’m now only ten percent disabled.
Bartell: Let me tell you a little bit about officers. Officers get the feeling of self-importance in war, and enlisted men are supposed to know nothing. I was an enlisted man. And so I was in this naval ward with seventy-five sick sailors. One night the doctor, a woman who was an officer, came through, and one unfortunate sailor made a Donald Duck sound. So what did this doctor do? She was so offended she woke all of us up and scolded all of us. This made me so angry I started chewing her out, telling her how inappropriate what she was doing. So naturally she ordered me out of the bed to follow her. We went down to a little side room at the end of hall to discuss things. It didn’t take her too long to realize that what she had done was quite inappropriate, and that I was an educated person. And so we had a calm discussion for quite a while. What interested me was, she was facing the door and I was facing the window, and you wouldn’t believe how many eyes were peeking through that window to see what was going on. So I was a hero for a day the next day.
I won’t tell you another time I was up for insubordination, but you would have done the same, you wouldn’t have taken all this nonsense.
When I got out of the Navy, I was told not to live life as an invalid but to recuperate in the southwest desert for the winter, to keep me from getting another setback. And so when I went home at Christmas, I met Paul Barker, who was a physicist at Los Alamos. He was an old friend of mine. He didn’t have a ride back so I said, “Paul, I have this little thirty-seven Ford. Shall we drive back together?”
And he said, “Oh great.” We began to think on the way back to New Mexico, “It would be fascinating to see the atomic site where the July test was made.” But he wasn’t high enough up to have been invited to the test. The further we got toward New Mexico, the more enthusiastic we got to see this thing. So we would stop and ask people where it was, and they would point vaguely out into the desert. They would tell us stories about a cow turning white overnight and a blind person saying, “What was that?” which turns out to have happened according to a story that was told in the Los Alamos Atomic museum. And so finally we found ourselves on a dirt road headed out into the desert. Who knows if it was the right road. Then we’d come to a branch and have to decide which branch to take.
Finally we wondered if we were on the right road, until we saw this big sign, “U.S. Government Property – No Trespassing.” So we knew we were on the right road and we went on, of course. You would have done the same. Pretty soon we ran into a roadblock with Jeeps and military policemen. They told us to get the hell out as fast as we could. So we turned around, and then we saw a little road off to the north. Well we had to go north and maybe it was a shortcut to go to where we needed to go, and besides there was a lot of desert scrub and we didn’t think we’d be conspicuous to the military police. So we took it, and we went up to the top of the hill.
And there it was in front of us, a sea of green glass about a half a mile across, surrounded by red desert mud. Now you’re enough of a chemist to know what had happened. The desert mud was red because of ferric iron, and the blast of the atomic bomb had so much radiation and heat that it reduced the iron to ferrous iron, which is green and the surface melted, and then froze to a coating of glass. I have a little piece, but it’s downstairs and I’m not allowed to go down and pick it up for you. I also have a piece of a German V-2 rocket that blew my wife out of bed one morning. She was English. And I will give those both to a museum if they’re interested.
Kelly: So what happened then?
Bartell: What happened was, we felt great. We saw it, there it was. It wasn’t a crater. The ground was just pushed down, because the bomb was set off on the top of a tall tower, which wasn’t there anymore. There was a tent on the opposite side of the blast, and a mounted policeman came over and arrested us. We waited and waited. Nobody would talk to us. But telephone calls were going back and forth madly until finally a big Army truck arrived, and Paul and I were frisked for weapons by a big burly sergeant and thrown into the back of our truck. It was cold. There was snow on the ground, and the cargo section of this truck was metal—no cushions, no blankets for our comfort. We were driven to a nearby military base, but we felt so great that we had been there and we had seen it.
We got to the base and were taken immediately to the commanding officer. He was furious at us. I didn’t mind if an officer was furious at me, it had happened before. He said, “Do you know you’re the first unauthorized people ever to have been to this site?” Our bosoms swelled with pride. “Your vehicle is the first unauthorized vehicle ever to have been here.” I felt very proud of my little ’37 Ford. He said, “Didn’t you see that sign, ‘U.S. Government Property – No Trespassing?’”
I looked uneasily at Paul and he looked at me and he said, “‘No Trespassing – Trespassers will be Persecuted.’” That was so hilarious I burst out laughing and Paul looked like he didn’t want to know me.
This commanding officer wasn’t all bad, he finally realized that Paul was a guy with Q clearance and I was a guy who had had Q clearance. We were just a bunch of smart-aleck young twenty-two year olds. So we were finally driven back to my car and we were followed out of the base by a military vehicle with a cannon pointed right at us. When we got up to Los Alamos we were detained at the gate for a long, long time while the people inside were asked whether they knew if we had any Russian colleagues. So that was a fun start for me.
Kelly: That’s a great story. That’s a wonderful story.
Bartell: Now I might mention that a lot of people later on who worked on the Manhattan Project talked about the terrible guilt they felt for working on a project that killed or maimed hundreds of thousands of innocent people. I didn’t feel guilty for one minute; because anyone who’s remotely thoughtful knows that war is hell. And what the atomic bomb did was to end all the carnage. It had already killed millions of people, who like me had been innocent civilians until called on by the military. And why, when the atrocity of the atomic bombing is mentioned, is it not mentioned that Japan committed the worst atrocities imaginable during the war? In one city alone, Nanking, the rape of Nanking, the soldiers wantonly killed more women, children, and men than were killed by both atomic bombs together. They did it for sport, thought the Chinese were beneath them.
And why isn’t it mentioned that our firebombing of Tokyo killed as many people as were killed by both atomic bombs? Our firebombing of Japan, which laid waste to most of the industrial part—Hiroshima and Nagasaki were set aside so that they would reveal the effect of the atomic blasts. But all these firebombings took thousands of bombers, whereas the atomic bomb only took one. And without this atomic bomb, Hirohito, the Mikado, could never have told the military to accept defeat. It was known by the military that Hirohito was going to give an announcement to the public.
It turned out that there was a meeting; three military people demanded the war go on to the bitter end, and three civilians said, “It’s time to surrender.” So they did a thing that had never been done before, they asked the Emperor, who was supposed to be a god, what his opinion was. He said, “Surrender.” But since he was a god, he wasn’t allowed to speak to the people directly. He had to speak through a recording. And he was so worried that the military might confiscate this recording that was hidden, that he made a second recording hidden in an extremely obscure place so that there would be an opportunity to talk to the people.
The military was so upset by the idea of having failed and having to surrender, that they put Hirohito under house arrest so he couldn’t go out and have any public meetings. And they searched and searched in vain for the recording that they knew had to be. Finally, this military group was overruled by a higher military group, and Hirohito was no longer under arrest. Did you know that he had been put under house arrest? Oh, you read some stories.
The Japanese people hoped, or expected to hear, “Persist, keep on in this war to the very end.” And Japan was prepared to lose twenty million people, if necessary, to stop an invasion.
I was scheduled to be in the first stage of the planned invasion, incidentally, as a radio technician. But then of course the atomic bombs and the rheumatic fever prevented that.
The Japanese people were horrified to hear they were surrendering—“Enduring the unendurable” [spoken by Hirohito in his radio address], and so on and so forth.
It’s not generally known that the Japanese had an atomic bomb project. The only thing was, that the Japanese military was so pigheaded, it wanted all of the resources for themselves. So these atomic scientists weren’t permitted to get the instruments they needed to do the work. But when the first Hiroshima bomb went off, the military went to the atomic bomb people and they said, “We will give you three months to make an atomic bomb.” That was ridiculous; they didn’t have enough resources to make it, even though it was led by the brilliant physicist Nishina. They might even have had some chemists too.
So it wasn’t exactly that the Japanese were lily white when they got bombed, and the bomb did end all this terribleness. And that saved the lives of millions of people, even though it killed or maimed hundreds of thousands. So I didn’t feel guilty, nor should I have. Besides, I did what Seaborg told me to.
I was just a Bachelor’s degree person. Seaborg was a brilliant chemist, and he won a Nobel Prize of course for finding plutonium. He devised the methods that ultimately worked for separating and decontaminating plutonium. So I got directions of what to do, and did it for a year until I was glad I didn’t have to do it anymore.
One of my close colleagues that I’ve corresponded with for a long time was a Bulgarian physicist, a really good guy. Now, I’ve been to Bulgaria, it’s one of the worst countries I’ve ever been to. Russia, which I visited many times, is bad enough. Bulgaria was even worse. Curiously, once in a meeting in Leningrad, I found myself sitting next to this guy after we had cemented our friendship. Then later I found that he’d visited Hiroshima after the war. And I thought, “Uh oh. If he knew what I had written about the Manhattan Project and the justification for setting off the bomb, it might change things.” But I believe in meeting problems head on, which hasn’t always worked. So I sent him everything I had written. He wrote back that I might be surprised to learn that his feelings were exactly the same as mine.
Then he went on to say quite a few things, and he finished with this. He said, “It is even believed that if the bomb had not been dropped, Russia would have invaded Japan. And if only that is true, that is sufficient justification for a nuclear bomb, because I know only too very well what it means to live under Communism.”
Seaborg was a brilliant fellow, and very down to earth fellow. We’d walk down the corridor and chat. And I remember one conversation in which I said, “I understand that when an electron and a positron collide and annihilate each other, something like 200 MeV photons go off in opposite directions.” So I asked him, “What would happen if 200 MeV photons collided? Would an electron and a positron be produced?”
He said that he didn’t know, but that he suspected that such a collision would extremely rarely result in anything. Many years later, when I was invited to a special meeting in physics down in Puerto Rico, the main topic was the collision of photons. Since I’d done some sort of remarkable studies, they asked me if I could study what would happen if two photons collided. I wasn’t going to touch that, for various reasons. But they doubted that anything would happen. And so Seaborg was right on.
My job was to figure out how to chemically extract the small amounts of plutonium from the huge amounts of uranium chemically, by precipitation. Once I had gotten the stuff separated out, it was accompanied by fierce radioactive material that I had to get rid of. These are the methods that Seaborg had worked out, and we just had to get the details done.
And so it meant all of this pipetting, where I had an accident one day. It wasn’t the only accident that I had. But it was boring work, doing all this measurement all the time, precipitating, and getting contaminated every day.
Once I was sent over to the West Stands [of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago], where they built the first reactor. I was told to use the new hot lab they set up and to centrifuge a lot of highly radioactive material. I told you that every time we left the building, we had to stick our hands in this counter and bells would ring and lights would flash if we exceeded [the allowed level of radiation]. When I got back to New Chem, my building, and opened the back door, bells rang and lights flashed from this counter way, way, way down the hall. This had never happened before. I was so radioactive from being in a hot lab that wasn’t quite finished—euphemism—it was totally unprepared. I got stripped of all my clothes and every orifice was swapped out. I was washed everywhere. I’ve forgotten how I got home that night, because I lost all of my clothes. I never was compensated for these clothes.
There was a Coca-Cola machine in New Chem, where we did our Manhattan Project work that gave out bottles. And one time one of the girls, very nice girl, took a swig and turned white. There was a dead mouse in the bottle. She was so upset, she could hardly stand it. And so she sued the Coca-Cola Company—she was persuaded to do it. And the Coca-Cola Company gets a lot of such suits. Some professors would say, “Maybe it tasted musty, but not mousey.” The thing had decomposed so much that by the time the trial came that you couldn’t even tell that it was a mouse. Coca-Cola got off, as they get off in all of their cases.
Kelly: Did you know any other women who were scientists during the Manhattan Project?
Bartell: Oh yeah. I dated one of them.
Kelly: Can you tell us a little bit about her?
Bartell: She was a pretty girl, but she was sort of washed out. Her character wasn’t very feisty. And so after I left the Manhattan Project, I never even saw her again. I suppose there were others.
Among other things, one of the very flighty gals married a very down-to-earth guy. I didn’t think that that could possibly work, they were so different. On the other hand, a very pretty and smart gal married a very handsome and smart guy, and I thought that marriage was exactly right. Well, I was wrong on both accounts. The smart kids didn’t stay married very long, and the total mismatch between the flighty gal and the very down to earth guy are still married today.
One sort of interesting thing was that Johnny Malm was one of my officemates. And one day the Health Physics people went to his house to see if he’d tracked any radioactivity into his house. They found that the dishes were radioactive. They washed them and washed them and washed them, and couldn’t get rid of the radioactivity until they realized it was a uranium glaze and totally safe.
Kelly: That’s a great story. It was the Fiestaware that was so popular at the time.
Bartell: Yeah. Another story that’s sort of interesting: I was unfortunate enough to have Byron Soule in analytical chemistry in college. He was a holier-than-thou, an insufferable type of guy, but I could take that because it was fun to do the laboratory [01:15:00] work. So I didn’t mind. But when I had to take his library course, which is a requirement, it was the dullest course I’ve ever had in my life. He called me in one day and he said, “Bartell, you come in late, you sit in the front row and fall asleep. I don’t think you’re even passing this course.” I ultimately did pass it with a “C,” which is the lowest grade I ever got. My father, who was on the faculty, told me that the smartest chemists were the ones that got their lowest grade in this particular class.
What was it that made Byron Soule so incapable of getting along? He had a brother who was rich—he wasn’t—who had a mansion on the best side of town, and he didn’t. He was the chairman of the bacteriology department, something like that. I don’t quite remember.
One day over the radio we heard that this guy was arrested for having absconded with enormous numbers of university funds, which is why he was rich. When the news broke that he was guilty of embezzling, he went down to the basement, injected himself with a rare snake venom for which there is no known anecdote, and died in pain.
And so Byron Soule must have been aware that his rich brother, who was much richer than he was, was probably doing naughty things. This probably warped his character. Byron had a cottage out at the lake where my parents had a cottage, and he had the people up there call him, “The Professor.” He was never a professor. He was never promoted into a professorship. I don’t think that I told you this story about him. Not many of us get into The New Yorker magazine. But The New Yorker often fills in little spots at the end of an article. Well, Byron Soule made that filler. They wryly quoted from a book he had [01:18:00] written, Uranium Is an Element with No Known Uses.
Kelly: That’s crazy. What other people did you want to talk about? You said that you knew John Wheeler really well.
Bartell: John Wheeler was crazy. He had all kinds of ideas. When I was Visiting Professor of Physics at the University of Texas, I was put in an office just down the hall from him, an office for theorists. It happened to be an office that was available. I was told that Wheeler had some very interesting preprints. I didn’t know anything about Wheeler. I went down and asked him if he had some preprints I could read, and he handed me a fistful of them. Some of them blew my mind like the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox and that sort of thing. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that?
But one of the articles annoyed the hell out of me. It hadn’t been published yet. It was about “The Past and the Delayed-Choice Double-Slit” experiment. I know quite a bit about diffraction of waves, because I made a living with them. Wheeler said that by doing a delayed-choice, you could determine which slit the quantum went through, or determine that it went through both slits. If it went through both slits, we got interference fringes. And if it went through just one slit, you would get an image of this.
Maybe one of the reasons John Wheeler admitted me into his office and listened to me was that I pointed out that he spent several pages in his optical treatment to show how he could measure which slit or both slits. I showed him how he could do it much more definitively and explain it in one short paragraph. He agreed and realized that. But on the other hand, what he said was that essentially you can determine after an event has happened what has happened. Therefore, his biggest claim was—I’m not kidding about this, I can show you in print—he said therefore, “In some way by what we do today determines what happened at Genesis.” And I mean Genesis.
One sort of interesting thing about that was when I went back to the University of Michigan. Incidentally, the University of Michigan was worried because I had replaced Richard Bernstein, who had been a very distinguished chemist. He went to Wisconsin, and then when his laboratory got blown up he went to the University of Texas. When he got an opportunity he went back to Columbia, where he had started. And here I was going down to the University of Texas, and so my department wondered, gee, maybe I would be made an offer like he was. I was, but I had too much going for me at Michigan.
Kelly: You had also mentioned Richard Feynman as someone you knew. You probably didn’t know him on the Manhattan Project.
Bartell: Let’s put it this way, I’d never met him. I knew his professor, John Wheeler, very well, who wrote this article about what we do now may be responsible for Genesis. I tried to convince John Wheeler that it was nonsense, and I could give all sorts of reasons why, physical and philosophical. Finally one day, he realized that I was right. And he wrote me that he was very concerned about it, because he was about to jump on an airplane and go to Europe, where he was supposed to give a talk about “The Past and the Delayed-Choice Double-Slit” experiment, which he no longer believed in. I don’t know what happened there, but it was funny.
He was Richard Feynman’s professor, and Feynman’s thesis had to do with communication of messages that would go backward and forward in time. He made this sound reasonable, while it sounds crazy to you. One of my students went to Cal Tech and pestered Feynman until Feynman autographed his book, “Surely You’re Joking.” So I have an autographed copy. Feynman didn’t happily give out autographs. His autograph said something like, “Congratulations Dr. Bartell, but be careful. You might become famous. If you become famous you might have to write book signatures like this.” He didn’t say “autographs.” He wasn’t articulate. But he was a good communicator, though his English was sometimes awkward—[In his school records he found] he had an IQ of “only” 128. An incredible guy. [Yet he was one of the most brilliant theorists of the most brilliant theorists of the century. An incredible guy. I’m sure that the reason his recorded IQ was not on the genius side was his informal English that deviated from the formal rules. Shows you that IQ is NOT a reliable guide to true genius].
I have led a very eventful life, very interesting life. I’m an old wreck now, but it’s been worth it.
Kelly: Some of what we’re trying to do also is to inspire young people to go into science, chemistry, and other fields. What would you have to say to them?
Bartell: That’s a difficult question because when I was in junior high school, I had to write two essays, each of which would be a choice of what I would do as an adult. And of course what I wanted to do was to be a pilot. I loved airplanes. Incidentally, I have an airplane of my own, it’s an ultralight airplane, but never mind that. So I wrote with enthusiasm what I would do as a pilot in aviation.
The other thing I wrote about was chemistry, because my father was a chemist. And even though I didn’t give a damn about chemistry, I could get the information easily for this essay. I never even had a chemistry course until I went to the University, because I was told—which was right at the time—that if you took high school chemistry you’d have it all over again in your freshmen year in college, and that was a waste of time. I was going to be a physicist, but somehow I got roped into being a chemist. And it worked out that most of the work that I did really was physics, but chemical physics.
So I wasn’t determined to go into science when I was young and foolish. But when I went to the university, my first chemistry course was taught by a professor at the University of North Carolina, a wonderful school. I was taught by a very dear old person that you loved. But it was obvious his grasp of theory was very limited. But his feeling that chemistry is interesting, he got over very well. And I thought, “If this guy is a professional chemist, I can be a professional chemist too!”
And so I became a professional chemist. It was unthinkable that I would become an accountant, or a lawyer, or a librarian, or somebody like that. In science, I had possibilities. I don’t mean to be immodest about this, but I’ve managed to accomplish probably a wider variety of “firsts,” of interesting things in science, than most scientists ever do. I’ve been very lucky.
So once I saw what science was in college, it was the only thing for me, except of course I was a professional sailor earlier for a little while.
Kelly: One other thing that we want to try to draw out is how innovative people were on the frontiers of science. These [Manhattan Project] facilities were a first of a kind.
Bartell: No problem. Seaborg was a brilliant man. I don’t think I ever did anything much that he hadn’t suggested [on the Manhattan Project]. So I didn’t have to be very smart. I just had to be careful, which I wasn’t always careful enough. I went to the fiftieth anniversary of Seaborg’s first visit to Hanford. We had a reunion. Ray Greenley was there and a few other people I knew. But Seaborg was there of course, and then he gave us a little talk and he assured us that his wife would shut him off if he talked too long. He gave a very fascinating talk about [the Project]. [But in my life after WWII, I did manage to carry out cutting-edge science, as mentioned above.]
I had a wife named Joy, who died twelve years ago. We had to leave a little while before the reunion was over, so we went out through the airport. It turned out that Seaborg had to leave a little bit earlier too. And so when Joy and I were sitting in the airport waiting, Seaborg spotted us and came over and chatted with us, charming the bejesus out of my wife. She thought that he was just wonderful.
Seaborg was a great guy. As a matter of fact, I told you that he finally published these accounts of the Manhattan Project in Chicago. One day, I got a telephone call from Seaborg, who wanted to interview me to fill in some facts. I was embarrassed, hearing this important confident of presidents and a Noble Laureate, was wasting his time talking to me when his secretary could have been doing it. I tried to suggest that, but no, he wanted to do it himself and he did it. He was down-to-earth guy, a nice guy, and a very brilliant guy.
Kelly: That’s great. So you mentioned that your father was also a chemist. Is that right, or was he on the faculty?
Bartell: He was. My father was born on a farm in Michigan. He was the first person in his family ever to have gone to college. He went to a small college in Michigan. And then when he got his Bachelor’s degree, he went to Indianola, Iowa, and taught. My father was a fantastic athlete, I have a box full of his gold medals from almost every sport you can think of, even bicycle riding and football. I was never the athlete he was. I was a champion swimmer for a while, but that’s something else. So my father went to Indianola to Simpson College. He was an instructor in chemistry and an athletic director of almost all of the sports. He was so good at it that his women’s basketball team won the state championship in Iowa once. In Iowa, basketball is big stuff, so that gives you a little idea of how extraordinarily talented my father was.
After he had been there for a while, he was made an offer of being Professor of Chemistry, a Director of Athletics, or both. About that time he thought he really should go and learn more chemistry, so he came back to Michigan, where he stayed the rest of his life, except during World War I, when he was a Captain in the Army in chemical warfare. He was a Captain and I was only a Seaman First Class in World War II. He studied physical chemistry under some guy named Bigelow, who convinced him that learning mathematics wasn’t very important for a chemist. My father said that he always regretted that. My father went into colloid chemistry, colloid and surface chemistry, which became a sort of a, “You looked down your nose at” sort of thing. Yet it became a very popular field, because it’s very important in industry.
My father did one other thing as a faculty member here that other faculty members didn’t do. He got industrial grants during the Depression to put his students through college, through graduate school. Everyone else thought that it was beneath their dignity. My Dad was a very special guy. His chemistry was very different from mine—mine was pretty theoretical—because his professor had told him that math wasn’t important. And so my father’s field was very different from mine. How I got roped into chemistry instead of physics is a complicated thing. I don’t remember exactly, but it worked out because I got to do what I wanted to do. Again, I was very lucky.
One day Joy, my wife, who was very pregnant, her water broke. She wanted to go back to sleep and I said, “Joy, we’re going to the hospital.” I finally got her up into the hospital, and her son was born shortly after that. He was brought out so I could see him, and he looked a terrible mess. He hadn’t been washed or cleaned up. I was slated to get on an airplane and go to a meeting in Los Angeles where I was to be interviewed by the University of Southern Cal, which had already made me an offer. I didn’t want to go. Here I had a brand-new baby and a wife in the hospital.
She said, “You go out there,” because she knew I was interested in Iowa State, where I had absolutely fantastic colleagues. If I’d gone to Southern Cal they would have expected me to do something that I was less than fully enthusiastic about. But she wanted palm trees and an ocean instead of cornfields, so I went. But I spent more time with my Iowa State colleagues than I did with my Southern Cal colleagues, which made me feel all the more that I wanted to go to Iowa State. They’re fantastic people. So I actually turned down the Southern Cal offer before I got an offer from Iowa State. But I ultimately was given an offer from Iowa State and I accepted it, which turned out to be pretty hard on me.
Because it happened that also in Iowa State was the head of the Ames Laboratory. He had been the first person to contribute uranium to the Manhattan Project. He was the only person who could at the time. And so as a reward for that, he was given two fantastic buildings. One was a chemistry building and the other was a metallurgy building, filled with all of the wonderful equipment that you could imagine, with lavish resources. People who were there didn’t have to write for grants or anything. They were supported very well.
Frank Spedding, the person who did this wonderful stuff for the Manhattan Project, was also from Ann Arbor from the wrong side of the tracks. And when he learned that the department at Iowa State without his authorization had made an offer to somebody born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he punished the department by refusing to admit me into the Ames Laboratory, where all the physical and analytical [sub-departments] were, with those wonderful resources. Now mind you, I was given fifty dollars the second year and all of the bits and pieces of metal and wood that I needed to make my own instruments, while all of these other guys had everything. And they felt sorry for me. I mean, it was a good time in a way, because we all lived close together and we physical chemists would always meet in Bob Hanson’s office and shoot the bull and have a good time. And they knew the situation I was in and tried to be as supportive as possible, though Spedding wouldn’t have me. But this wasn’t totally bad, because it toughened me up. It didn’t help my marriage at all. I had to make tenure by my own efforts making my own instruments, which meant I could do things that other chemists around couldn’t because the things I made weren’t available commercially, and I did some very interesting things.
Finally, after about seven years, our department chairman, [Charles Goetz], who was a very canny guy, a very down-to-earth guy, but he had been told he had such thick, clumsy fingers, [that weren’t like those who were intellectual scholars]—that really hurt his feelings [But he was a strong leader]. When I did something he didn’t like he would call me in and pound his fists on the desk and shout at me. He knew I could take it, and I would realize I had done something he didn’t like. But not intentionally.
Ernie Wenkrt was an organic chemist, and he was the same age as I was. [Goetz] knew that if he did that to Ernie, Ernie would blow up and quit on the spot. [Goetz] was a smart guy. He figured a way of smuggling me into the Ames Laboratory after I’d been there for about seven years, which meant that I had the best job on campus, because I could keep going out and getting my own grants without the permission of Ames Laboratory. I could hire postdocs. The first one I hired was a world-renowned chemist today from Tokyo. His boss wanted him to go to Brockway, who was the big fish in my field, but Brockway didn’t have the funds that I did. So Brockway suggested that he come to me, so he did. So I could make an offer to anyone I wanted to, because I had funds. Then I’d switch the appointment over to Ames Laboratory, and it worked perfectly. So after some pretty hard years, I had the best job on campus. I could do what I wanted to and pay for it with the Ames Laboratory.
I ultimately got into the Guinness Book of Records by having the world‘s most powerful microscope. I mention that because people seem more interested in that than in the other stuff that I did in chemistry. It’s something that I couldn’t have done without being in the Ames Laboratory, [which constructed the diffraction unit I designed], later I modified it. And it still works today.
Kelly: What kind of microscope?
Bartell: A holographic electron microscope.
I’ve been lucky enough to have had a very eventful, interesting life, including when I was a visiting professor in Moscow at the very height of the Cold War. I mean, getting a visa was interesting. I can tell you why I went, even though all Russian and American agencies tried to keep me from going, except for the State Department.
The thing that made me go was, I had been invited by the President of Moscow State University and I had accepted. And all of these agencies, Russian and American tried to keep me from going, including the National Science Foundation, which somehow found me consulting in a little New Jersey town. I would never gotten a visa if I hadn’t had to go to Washington fairly frequently in those days, and the State Department had been strangely encouraging. They didn’t tell me why. So I went, and what I saw amazed me. I had been used to seeing vicious anti-American signs in every storefront, and an enormous anti-American construction in the lobby of Moscow State University.
When I got to Moscow, it looked cleaner than I had ever seen it before, and I didn’t see any anti-American signs anywhere. But what I soon learned—and you’ll understand why the State Department was encouraging—Nixon was about to visit. And so I called the Embassy in Moscow to find out when he’d come and where he’d come in, but they wouldn’t tell me. But the University had assigned me a Russian gal as a guide. So for example, we went down to the Ukraine and my scientific program there was to go on picnics with the physicists. I was locked into a room with her overnight, because that’s what they did on Russian trains. She wanted to be in the Russian Air Force but they weren’t accepting women at that time, but that gal had guts. She knew when Nixon would come in and where he would come in. So we went out there, and there was a huge crowd who somehow knew. What blew my mind after all of this vicious anti-American stuff I’d read and seen was mile after mile after mile of alternating American and Russian flags. This took my breath away.
Nixon came on a huge avenue. There were a couple of lanes, and then trees, and then many, many lanes, and then trees. The people were kept back by all of the trees, far away from the main highway. And this gal told me, “Look, there’s a bus stop out in the center. Let’s go out there.” We were then followed by a furious militia man who kept nagging us. She said, “We don’t understand Russian. Let’s just keep on going.” We went out there and before he could do anything there was Nixon and Pat, and we waved at them. We got the best place to watch of anybody. Since I’d never liked Nixon, I never thought I’d be going to see him, but I was.
Kelly: Was this 1972?
Bartell: Yes, and then they [two young boys caught up with me in Red Square, I was their first American]. They insisted that I follow them to the mausoleum where Stalin and Lenin still were interred, and there was a big ceremony there. A little girl all dressed in her Sunday best carried a huge bouquet up to the soldiers guarding the mausoleum and there was some sort of a celebration. And what did my little kids do? They wiggled their fingers at their ears in an insulting gesture and said “eselkopfs,” which in German means “donkey heads.” I had worried about how the kids were brought up, and maybe the Russians were brainwashed, but these kids obviously weren’t [brainwashed]. And when I hailed a taxi in 1959, the taxi driver asked me [in Russian] if I was French, German, or English. And when I told him in broken Russian, “No, I’m an American” in, he was beside himself [in happiness]. I was his first American. Everywhere I went despite the vicious anti-American stuff everywhere, I was treated very hospitably as an American. So these people weren’t convinced by all of this propaganda.
Kelly: So what do you think about nuclear weapons and of the whole Cold War and how it’s played out to today?
Bartell: I’ll tell you by beginning how the Russians started. There were two [European refugees in England], Otto Frisch, who was Lise Meitner’s nephew, and Rudolf Peierls, whom I’ve met. Both were theoretical physicists. They got together to figure out as best they could what critical mass of uranium-235 it would take to make a bomb. And it looked like it was feasible to make a bomb. This was the first indication. You know that Roosevelt was warned about the Germans and uranium by [Albert] Einstein. The person who wrote the letter that Einstein signed was Leo Szilard, the guy who wouldn’t even flush his toilets. So of course when he drove out to Einstein to consult him, he [Szilard] wouldn’t drive because it was physical [work], so he got Edward Teller to drive him to Einstein. Einstein was convinced that this was serious enough to be sent to Roosevelt. Only Einstein truly was well enough known [for the purpose], and so [the letter was sent] to Roosevelt, who took it seriously.
What he did was to ask the Head of the National Bureau of Standards [Lyman Briggs] to form a committee to get going. The Head of Bureau of Standards was first of all sort of ill at that time, and second of all, sort of a wimp. So nothing much happened. It was only after Frisch and Peierls figured out that it was feasible to get a bomb that [England] sent a distinguished Australian physicist named [Marc] Oliphant to America to wake up America. He woke up America very effectively, and the rest is history. You probably don’t know that after the war, Oliphant went back to Australia heading a department and designed a huge accelerator, which never worked. So his colleagues called it “A White Oliphant.”
So Peierls and Frisch, who first worked out the feasibility of getting an atomic bomb, weren’t allowed to join the British atomic bomb project, because they were aliens and suspect. Peierls’ assistant was allowed to go to Los Alamos and to become a very effective theoretical physicist. His name was Klaus Fuchs. Does that name ring a bell? It took the FBI a long time to find out that he was a spy, and he was ultimately arrested, finally put under house arrest. But on the other hand, the Rosenbergs and some others in America passed on information to the Russians about what was going on at Los Alamos. They were executed.
The Russians were well aware of what would work and what wouldn’t work. Do you know who the director of the Russian atomic bomb project was? It was [Lavrenti] Beria, who was one of the cruelest Russians. He would torture people until they confessed their [imaginary] sins. He was responsible for the deaths of a lot of people. There was a [Russian] Nobel Laureate who had won the prize for his work in England. His name was Peter Kapitza. I don’t know if you know him. He used to go to Russia on summer vacations, and the last time he went he was put under house arrest by Stalin.
Stalin wanted this Nobel Laureate in Russia. He [Stalin] gave him in a laboratory so he could do good work. But on the other hand, he was told to join the Russian atomic bomb project. He said, “I refuse to join an orchestra where the leader can’t read music.” Beria knew nothing of physics. But it turns out he was a fantastic administrator and passed on the information [obtained by spying] very effectively. And so Russia got the bomb years earlier than they were expected to. [But Kapitza was made to suffer greatly because of his insult to Beria].
But you know, it was inevitable. It wasn’t a secret that an atomic bomb was possible. It was obvious that it was doable. If we’d had the atomic bomb first and tried to use it to threaten Russia—I mean, we did get it first—it probably would have had very ugly consequences. The fact that Russia had it gave a certain parity to the situation. It was absolutely horrible what it would do to people, and made any world war unthinkable. So we’ve gone for the longest time, since World War II, without having another true World War. So the legacy of the atomic bomb so far has been to save a hell of a lot more lives than it caused.