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Stanislaus Ulam’s Interview (1979)

Manhattan Project Locations:

Stanislaus Ulam was a Polish-American mathematician. He worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos and later helped design the hydrogen bomb. In this interview, he discusses his work at Los Alamos and his relationship with J. Robert Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe, John von Neumann, Enrico Fermi, and other scientists. He also discusses Oppenheimer’s varied reputation within the physics community. In particular, Ulam was frustrated by Oppenheimer’s wordiness, which he and some other scientists perceived as pompous and superfluous. Ulam also explains his thoughts on creativity in math and physics, and why he is a proponent of nuclear power.

Date of Interview:
July 19, 1979
Location of the Interview:


Stanislaus Ulam: You know, after forty-five years in this country, my accent is still very hard.

Martin Sherwin: That’s all right. I still have a Brooklyn accent.

Ulam:  Oh, you do?

Sherwin: I left Brooklyn twenty years ago. I think even though I do know a lot of the answers to some of the questions I’m going to ask you from your book—

Ulam:  Yes.

Sherwin: I think it would be useful in terms of putting it on tape and perhaps getting some other kinds of responses that aren’t in your book, just to sort of start from the beginning.

Ulam:  All right, fine. You want to have a copy of my book? I have it here.

Sherwin: I have a copy.

Ulam:  Well, yes, but I mean, if you have questions.

Sherwin: Oh, no, that’s okay. I know what I’m going to ask. I would like to know when you first met [J. Robert] Oppenheimer.

Ulam:  Here.

Sherwin: When you first, well, any time?

Ulam:  Here, here in Los Alamos. End of 1943 or first few days of 1944, when I came.

Sherwin: Now, did he recruit you?

Ulam:  No. It was [John] von Neumann and Bethe, Hans Bethe. No, von Neumann wrote me a letter saying that Hans Bethe—you know Bethe?

Sherwin: Oh, sure, sure.

Ulam:  He and some other people would like me to come. It took two months before all the formalities and, you know, during the war, reservations on the train and all kinds of sort of bureaucratic things.

Sherwin: Right. Where were you at the time?

Ulam:  I was a young assistant professor in Wisconsin, Madison. The University of Wisconsin.

Sherwin: Right. When you got there, you worked in the Theoretical Division?

Ulam:  Yes, right.

Sherwin: Okay. You worked on what?

Ulam:  Well, in the beginning, I just discussed things with many people here. At first I worked on something connected with thermonuclear reactions. Then I worked by myself on probability problems, namely branching processes in general.

Sherwin: Now, I have a list here from the Manhattan Project records, a collection of the papers of the different division heads or group heads.

Ulam:  Yes, right.

Sherwin: Did you work under? In Bethe’s division?

Ulam:  Bethe’s, Bethe’s division. There was a group of [Edward] Teller’s.

Sherwin: Right.

Ulam: Oh, you have the things?

Sherwin: Right.

Ulam: Well, I don’t know, there are some reports I wrote. But I don’t think that would be here.

Sherwin: This is Teller’s, for example.

Ulam: Teller, yes, reports. Here is [Robert] Bacher, with somebody else’s division. Ulam’s, you don’t have it here, but I had written some reports.

Sherwin: Oh, you were a division leader at the time?

Ulam: No, I was not, no.

Sherwin: Now, in terms of just glancing through people down the Teller list then, two or three—

Ulam:  Yes, yes. Uranium, Columbia, Hans Bethe, [Robert] Christy. What does that mean?

Sherwin: These are just the—

Ulam:  Oh, joint papers. Oh, no.

Sherwin: No, these aren’t—

Ulam:  These are the problems, yes?

Sherwin: These are the titles of folders.

Ulam:  Oh, folders, yes.

Sherwin: Right. Do you recognize anything that you might have worked on?

Ulam:  Well, thermonuclear reactions and the questions of radiation. Certainly I worked—there are some reports. You can find them—I don’t know, they are non-classified, some of them, and some of them may be classified—with [David] Hawkins, on probability. There is branching process, like one neutron makes few more and these make few more and so on, the mathematics of that. But that has nothing to do with Oppenheimer.

Sherwin: No, not yet. But, I’m, in certain ways—

Ulam:  That was during the war. After the war, of course, I worked on all kinds of problems, hydrodynamics and the H-bomb and so on.

Sherwin: Right, right. No, I’m familiar with that. Now, when did you first run into Oppenheimer?

Ulam:  Second day I was here, [inaudible].

Sherwin: In his office?

Ulam:  Socially, yes. I don’t know, in the corridor, socially, in somebody’s office, von Neumann. Because von Neumann was an old friend of mine, and we worked together before. We talked about all kinds of problems. It was great excitement here, of course, and nobody knew for sure what would happen out of this thing. There were many technical difficulties and problems of whether the thing will go at all.

Sherwin: Right.

Ulam:  How to assemble the bomb and neutron problems, purely experimental physics problems. Lots of theory, too.

Sherwin: How involved was Oppenheimer with your work?

Ulam:  My own, he wasn’t. I mean, I don’t how many people were, certainly over a thousand. So, he wouldn’t know every single thing. But he was incredible. He really had an idea of what’s going on, what the main problems are, the status, and every sort of colloquia, where the overall picture and the status of the work was described, oh, every week. Then there were seminars in addition.

Sherwin: Do you remember the first seminar that you went to, a colloquium?

Ulam:  No. It was very, very high level, of course, scientifically, and the atmosphere was informal. Oppenheimer would make comments on technical points throughout. He was incredibly quick, that was his main characteristic, I would say. Anticipating, in a conversation, he was anticipating what the other person would say. He was not, probably, as great a physicist as [Enrico] Fermi at all, or [Niels] Bohr or [Albert] Einstein. There is no real question of that. But a very, very good physicist.

Sherwin: Would you say that—

Ulam:  I mean, it’s hard to make comparisons.

Sherwin: No, I know, but I would like to hear you try anyway.

Ulam:  Yes. Yes.

Sherwin: How would you differentiate them as physicists?

Ulam:  Well, I’ll tell you. Or let me ask you first, what kind of book are you writing?

Sherwin: It’s a biography.

Ulam:  His whole life?

Sherwin: His whole life. But it’s not going to be a day-by-day account of what Robert Oppenheimer did. In a sense, I want to use him for a springboard for understanding the transition of science from the ‘30s through the ‘50s.

Ulam:  Yes.

Sherwin: Especially in relation to politics.

Ulam:  Yes. Have you seen such books as Laura Fermi’s?

Sherwin: Oh, sure.

Ulam:  Visitors and—

Sherwin: Yes.

Ulam: Because there was a change due to this influx of all kinds of scientists in many fields.

Sherwin: Right. Well, the first change is due to political occurrences in Europe.

Ulam:  Yes.

Sherwin: That was the change in America. The second change is because of nuclear weapons and the Cold War.

Ulam:  Radar also.

Sherwin: Radar, right.

Ulam:  These were the two big projects. But already in World War I there were mathematicians, physicists, and chemists engaged, of course, in all kinds of research.

Sherwin: But after the war, they are not politically important, politically visible.

Ulam:  That’s right.

Sherwin: That’s what the big transition is from World War I to World War II.

Ulam:  Yes, and space and so on.

Sherwin: That’s right.

Ulam:  It’s all very scientific.

Sherwin: Yeah. Another thing that interests me very much is the McCarthy period.

Ulam:  Yes. 

Sherwin: Of course, Oppenheimer, given the circumstances of his relationship with the AEC [Atomic Energy Commission], etc., is a very good vehicle for that. So that’s the kind of book that I would like it to be. Therefore, I’m interested, naturally, in not only personal aspects of Oppenheimer’s character, I’m also interested in the quality of his mind, of his leadership. But I’m also interested in the scientific environment in which he worked.

Ulam:  Yeah, well, you can write volumes about it.

Sherwin: Yes, I know, and I have to keep it—

Ulam:  I didn’t know him terribly well at all. During the war, occasional visits, and after the war more. But I formed a very early opinion of him after hearing his talks in the colloquia and conversations.

Sherwin: How would you describe that opinion? He was quick?

Ulam:  Very brilliant. I will say brilliant person, whatever, you know, the general meaning of the word is as accepted. If I say, he has done some very nice things before the war in theoretical physics. Of course, after the war, he was so engaged politically that he didn’t have time.

Sherwin: Right. Very few post-war—

Ulam:  Yes. There was a lesson I remember, he took part in technical discussions at the Institute [for Advanced Study] when I was visiting there several times. He kept abreast. He tried to be—well, I hate this word, but to describe it to you—sophisticated.

Sherwin: Do you think that was—

Ulam:  He did not have the simplicities of Fermi, not to mention somebody like [George] Gamow, who was always very elementary and non-mathematical. He was very good in mathematical techniques, Oppenheimer was.

Sherwin: [Emilio] Segre, I think it was, who told me the story that Fermi passed on to him. That he went to a seminar at the Institute, and he said he didn’t understand a word of what was being said.

Ulam:  Fermi didn’t?

Sherwin: Yes.

Ulam:  Well, if Fermi didn’t, it didn’t make sense in that case.

Sherwin: He didn’t understand anything. He said, ‘The only thing I understood was at the very end, the very last sentence. Oppenheimer then said, ‘This is Fermi’s theory of so and so.’” That’s a story Segre always tells in order to show how complicated Oppenheimer was often making things that should have been described in a much more simple—

Ulam:  Well, very few people had the talent, genius of Fermi for doing things in the natural, simple way. Fermi could use all the mathematics he wanted to, but when it wasn’t necessary, he wouldn’t. Some other people, you know, liked to, well, show the techniques. But the gist of the matter is something else.

Sherwin: Now, do you recall any of Oppenheimer’s papers from the 1930s, any of his work?

Ulam:  Well, some very famous work on, I think, leading to the theory of, yes, neutron stars. Neutron stars first and ultimately black holes. He had some joint papers and very good technical papers, but no great discovery comparable to some of [Werner] Heisenberg, [Julian] Schwinger, or Fermi, I would think. But I’m not a physicist, really.

Sherwin: What you say fits in with—

Ulam:  What other people say, yes.

Sherwin: What others have said. Did you ever discuss—

Ulam:  He tried to be sophisticated and use complicated language, similes, which I reacted to rather—I mean inwardly, privately—perhaps negatively. I myself prefer simplicity and natural description, if possible.

Sherwin: Do you think that that’s a sure way not to accomplish what you’re capable of accomplishing?

Ulam:  No, it’s not a sure way not to do it, but it certainly doesn’t help. Because it puts you on tangents, then on the form or appearance of things, it might, it might. But I think he was a very good physicist, no question about it, and had very good students. I think that perhaps is his main achievement. He, I think, was one of the first, or the first, to show the new quantum theory in this country, in the—

Sherwin: Yes, late ‘20s and early ‘30s.

Ulam:  Yes, exactly. He was precautious, perhaps. I don’t remember exactly when he started this. 

Sherwin: Yes, he came here, well, in the late— 

Ulam:  He came from Göttingen, I think. 

Sherwin: That’s right.

Ulam:  He was a very curious person, very curious.

Sherwin: In what ways?

Ulam:  Well, some of his characteristics didn’t match his technical brilliance, in my opinion. For example, giving colloquia to the general public, he would use, I would say, to my taste, too much phraseology and expression. Sometimes, you could have suspected, I don’t think it was quite right, to sort of snow people. But not the really extremely well-educated ones, but sort of medium-educated people.

Sherwin: Well, one thing that you might not know that is perhaps some of the source of the nature of his language. 

Ulam:  Yes? 

Sherwin: He was very much a poet as a youngster, wrote beautiful poetry. 

Ulam:  Oh, really? Yes, so that would be very nice.

Sherwin: Very extensive, both in French and in English.

Ulam:  Yes.

Sherwin: I think kept it up all his life.

Ulam:  Now that surprised me, because in his speech, I would say it was almost the opposite. It was the sounds of things, and not evoking really any deeper things. You understand that?

Sherwin: But in the construction of the sentences, one of the things that you notice is a meter, that they have a structure.

Ulam:  Yes. Now, have you read some of his lectures? How are they called? They are named after somebody, several lectures in London.

Sherwin: Well, there’s one—

Ulam:  In England, and then—

Sherwin: Oh, the Reith Lectures.

Ulam:  The Reith Lectures and so on.

Sherwin: Yes, yes, I have.

Ulam:  Now, I would say the content doesn’t quite match the—I don’t know how you feel. 

Sherwin: Well, that’s interesting. You see, I’m not a scientist.

Ulam: You react to the—

Sherwin: I read them many, many years ago, even before I read the book.

Ulam:  Oh, people are fascinated in the colloquia by his delivery and general presentation of things. I had not such a terribly deep impression of it.

Sherwin: Now, did you feel that what he was doing was skirting around the issues, rather than coming to grips with them?

Ulam:  No, it’s not the right expression, skirting around.

Sherwin: What I’m trying to do is get a sense of—

Ulam:  It was frosting on the cake in some way, often. But sometimes, occasionally, there would be some very nice.

Sherwin: Yes. He certainly lived in two different worlds. One, a professional physicist, another, the public figure.

Ulam:  Yes, he became—I didn’t know him before.

Sherwin: He never really presented himself to the public as—

Ulam:  He had admirers.

Sherwin: Yes, he did.

Ulam: You know, students. But mixed, sometimes, feelings. Of course, I understand, I had no direct evidence of it, but he would be sometimes very rough with some students in conversation, or impatient.

Sherwin: He could be impatient with just about anybody.

Ulam:  He was terribly quick. That was, of course, [inaudible].

Sherwin: Now, do you remember any of the occasions at Los Alamos where you were in direct discussion with him?

Ulam:  Very short. It was purely technical ones.

Sherwin: Yeah. You worked with Teller on thermonuclear issues?

Ulam: Yes. In his group at first [inaudible].

Sherwin: Okay. Now, what was the relationship between Teller and Oppenheimer during the war?

Ulam:  Well, it had ups and downs. Of course, Oppenheimer appreciated Teller as a scientist, but Teller tried some of the things which were not in the mainstream of the work, and that created difficulties. Also, in some sense, it was sort of in discussion of the conflict, it was unfair, because Oppenheimer was a good actor, and it was much easier for him to, you know, react. It was unfair, slightly, on Oppenheimer’s part, since he was not really the—not supervisor, but you know?

Sherwin: Yes.

Ulam: As it were, over Teller. So Teller also became irritated, I think, on occasions. It was very complicated, the relation.

Sherwin: I’m trying to come to grips with that relationship, which is obviously an important one.

Ulam:  Teller tried very much to do some things of his own, as it were.

Sherwin: Well, as I understand—

Ulam:  Teller also changed, according to Gamow, as I mentioned in my book, changed very much after coming to Los Alamos and becoming involved in some of, more than was purely scientific, but wider import in public affairs.

Sherwin: He often talked about his concern with too much secrecy, for example. That was one of his—

Ulam:  Yeah, I don’t know how that was really mirroring of what he really thought, or was it—I have no idea.

Sherwin: Well, why do you say that? That’s interesting.

Ulam:  I don’t know, since I have no proofs of anything.

Sherwin: Because I have come across several letters in the Los Alamos files and in other files where Teller writes that he’s very concerned with the amount of secrecy that’s involved. After the war, he often talked about that. On the other hand—there always seems to be an “on the other hand,” you know, the Soviets are—

Ulam:  Yeah. I think Teller thought that some of his ideas might become better known, or could get support, if they were told to other people or other groups or other influences, on one hand. On the other hand, he, of course, felt that if he points out the dangers, the things that he had in mind might be pushed more, or he might be given more influence.

Sherwin: Now, in Teller’s insistence on working on the hydrogen bomb during the Los Alamos period, did he insist on that from the beginning, as far as you know, in the time in which you knew him?

Ulam:  I think, yes, that, actually, his group was finally sort of separated.

Sherwin: Separated from—

Ulam: He went to Fermi’s division, out of Bethe’s division. He worked, because he had more influence with, could be more to his, I’ll call it credit, on, the actions involving deuterium.

Sherwin: Now, was that something that was really off the track? 

Ulam:  In the beginning, certainly, yes.

Sherwin: Yes. During the war.

Ulam:  Also, even for the fission project, he tried some slightly different approaches, to push some slightly different approaches.

Sherwin: Approaches that would—

Ulam:  Well, I cannot tell you, because it’s probably classified.

Sherwin: No, no, I understand. I’m not concerned about the details of the approaches, but I’m interested in how they fit into the big picture.

Ulam:  Well, they were somewhat outside the main line to the fission bomb itself [inaudible], and the way it was actually made.

Sherwin: Now, was he pushing it because it was scientifically interesting?

Ulam:  Well, certainly scientifically interesting, and it was more something that he was working on.

Sherwin: Was interested in.

Ulam:  Yeah. Well, that’s natural.

Sherwin: Could you say then that Teller could have been—and I’m trying to understand the relationship between Teller and Oppenheimer, not only during the war, but later.

Ulam:  These are questions of personality. Characters, not so much scientific realms as personal ambitions, personal tastes, plays a tremendous role in all science, even in abstract science. It’s not just a unique unavoidable direction, it’s very much influenced by personal habits and experiences.

Sherwin: How would you compare Teller and Oppenheimer as scientists?

Ulam:  Well, it’s hard.

Sherwin: I don’t mean one better than the other, I mean their characteristics, what their strengths are.

Ulam:  Now, I think Oppenheimer was more mathematical. Teller had the sort of engineering imagination, if you want. I would say it’s about the same, or roughly—

Sherwin: But their personalities—

Ulam: Oppenheimer was slightly—

Sherwin: Were very different. How did that affect their science?

Ulam:  It’s hard to say. You can’t compare. It’s personalities, a result of experiences, chance events in your life, and people you talk to. Influences; fathers, and so on. It has tremendous effect on the actual scientific output. In music, it might be similar. You can’t really compare the pianists who are good, saying that one is—

Sherwin: But their techniques, you can hear the difference.

Ulam:  Yes.

Sherwin: But their personalities—

Ulam:  But technique is not—

Sherwin: Sometimes are involved with their music.

Ulam:  Right, but in music it’s not the technique that really matters, it’s the musical feeling, I am told. I’m not very much a musician at all myself. But I am told that it’s the musical value for them, which depends on the technique but is not the same as good technique. There are some good technicians who are sort of cold or not terribly inspiring. There are others who perhaps have a little less technique, but are inspiring. I don’t know.

Sherwin: Well, I’m making that analogy because the personality is often reflected in the work. In a sense, you can listen to certain kinds of music and make a good guess.

Ulam:  Well, they are both good scientists. Of course, Teller also, after the war, was so much involved in politics and organization and projects that he didn’t do as much physics as he would have otherwise. Maybe as a professor, I suppose.

Sherwin: Yeah. Could you retell the story for me that you tell in your book about the development of the hydrogen bomb technique that you—

Ulam:  Well, what can I say in addition to what was written down there? There are these accounts of—what are these names—[Richard G.] Hewlett and [Francis] Duncan.

Sherwin: Hewlett and [Oscar E.] Anderson?

Ulam:  Some others, yes.

Sherwin: Right. You think that they are quite accurate?

Ulam:  Well, those that I have seen are more or less accurate, it seems to me.

Sherwin: Did you have any discussions with Oppenheimer around that period of time, ’49, ’50, ’51?

Ulam:  Oh, yes, in Princeton, we were visiting often. Once I was in Princeton for nine months, and Fermi was there, and then we went to the Institute and Oppenheimer was there. People discussed technical prospects of the H-bomb.

Sherwin: Do you remember when that was?

Ulam:  I don’t know. It was probably around 1949 or ’50, something like that.

Sherwin: I’m sure it would be after ’49, because it’s in ’49 when—

Ulam:  Right, right, the decision was made to—

Sherwin: The decision’s made in January 1950.

Ulam:  Yes, right.

Sherwin: To go ahead and do it [develop the hydrogen bomb].

Ulam:  Yes.

Sherwin: How would you describe the general sense of the attitude towards the prospects that Oppenheimer had of the H-bomb working out?

Ulam:  It’s hard for me to tell. I said something in my book and even mentioned the fact that this was partly not quite a joke. But that the revolutionaries, if you could consider him as a revolutionary by being the director of the project and uses of nuclear energy. Revolutionaries often don’t like subsequent revolutions.

Sherwin: Right. Well.

Ulam:  But, that’s, of course, a purely personal, and speculative remark, since I really don’t know. How can you tell other people’s motives, what they really are? You can’t.

Sherwin: Aside from the motives, there’s a sense in terms of when people view a problem that may or not work, sometimes if you’re involved with them enough in a discussion, you can see that there are just basic assumptions they have that will not let them see a resolution to the problem, or that they don’t want to.

Ulam:  You mean there is the prejudice or bias emotionally?

Sherwin: That’s right.

Ulam:  For or against something.

Sherwin: That’s right.

Ulam:  But to what extent it will influence what you finally see, is impossible to tell.

Sherwin: Right.

Ulam:  That is a question of psychology. Psychology is not very exact science.

Sherwin: No, it’s not, but neither is history.

Ulam:  Right, yeah. No, history is—

Sherwin: Writing about these things.

Ulam: Nice stories, yes.

Sherwin: Yes.

Ulam:  It’s more or less, as you say, image, which gives an idea of what really happened. I say that, because what really happened also doesn’t have a precise meaning. That’s the whole point, that it’s impossible to say what it is 100% truth historically.

Sherwin: It’s also impossible to say what’s happening.

Ulam:  Bare facts, bare facts, yes.

Sherwin: Yes.

Ulam:  But not the succession of events, and certainly not the motives. I mean, in history, I suppose you are interested in motivations and consequences of ideas.

Sherwin: Absolutely.

Ulam: These are impossible to really delve into too much. So the so-called “real truth” is hard to define.

Sherwin: Yeah. It’s not impossible to delve in too much. But what is true is that there’s no 100% absolute answer. What you present are analyses and arguments and points of view supported by evidence, which comes out as stories, facts.

Ulam:  It’s something you look through lenses or mirrors or distorting fogs often, that’s not as bad.

Sherwin: Yes.

Ulam:  The actual thing—well, in quantum theory, we know you cannot define—

Sherwin: Complementarity.

Ulam:  Exactly. So, some people, of course, try to make out of complementarity—well, Bohr, as you know—

Sherwin: Yes.

Ulam:  A great philosophical principle and he applied it to almost everything, to my mind a little [inaudible] for common sense sort of interpretation.

Sherwin: Oppenheimer was taken a bit with that.

Ulam:  Yes, he was, yes.

Sherwin: I think perhaps that was because he was also so enamored with or influenced by Bohr. Does that fit in with your—

Ulam:  He was, yes.

Sherwin: Did you ever see them together?

Ulam:  Yes, several times. But it was always a mixed relation, you know. He probably felt that mathematically he is better trained than Bohr. That sort of might have consoled him for the fact that he admired in Bohr the simplicity of how he had results without seemingly much technical work, but by intuition, which was not his greatest forte with Oppenheimer.

They are sort of similar in a way, isomorphically speaking, mathematic, to the relation between Gamow and Teller. Gamow was full of qualitative ideas and they came to him easily without complicated technical processes.

Sherwin: Einstein was like that, too, wasn’t he?

Ulam:  Einstein, yes, learned some mathematics, but a little later in his life. When he tried to develop general relativity beyond what was now known and tried to make more unified theories, he learned a lot of mathematics. But in reality he was a physicist, not a mathematician. He learned too much mathematics and sort of diminished, it seems to me personally, it seems to me his purely physics creativity.

Sherwin: His intuitive ability.

Ulam:  Yes. Of course, he was older then also.

Sherwin: Yes. Well, he wasn’t all that old when he started to try and—

Ulam: No, no, no.

Sherwin: Get [inaudible].

Ulam:  He’s done unbelievable things as a very young man, at the age of twenty-six or whatever it was, three famous papers.

Sherwin: Right. 1905.

Ulam:  The special relativity, yes, right, so you see [inaudible]. 

Sherwin: When the Oppenheimer hearings came about—now, I don’t remember whether you mentioned anything about this in your book.

Ulam:  I don’t know, I don’t remember it, either.

Sherwin: Yeah, I know.

Ulam: But I remember some discussions with Fermi in France. We were together in France,  driving south from Paris, and discussed these hearings.

Sherwin: Do you remember what was said?

Ulam:  Well, it was a very, very strange thing to me. He [Fermi] was already apparently sick. He knew that, but outward signs were very few. But we were in the [inaudible] one evening, at a place where we stopped in some valley. It was a hotel and there were stars in the sky and we were looking and sort of talking about it and he says, “Well, he’ll be able to tell more about the whole story when he’s up there.” It sort of gave me a little shock, because I suddenly felt that he thought that he may not live to see the end of the affair.

Sherwin: Now, he died in what, ’55 or ’56?

Ulam:  ’54, I think.

Sherwin: That soon?

Ulam:  Yes, ’54.

Sherwin: The hearing was in—

Ulam:  ’57?

Sherwin: April ’54.

Sherwin: You saw him in the hospital?

Ulam:  Yes, right, two times. He went very quickly. It was esophagus cancer.

Sherwin: But he didn’t say anything else, besides this ominous comment?

Ulam:  Yeah, well, right.

Sherwin: Well, when you came back to the States—

Ulam:  I don’t know. Maybe you have other information of the relation between Fermi and Oppenheimer, or do you?

Sherwin: No, I actually don’t.

Ulam:  Why don’t you talk to Segre about it?

Sherwin: I have.

Ulam:  He didn’t tell you how Fermi felt about Oppenheimer?

Sherwin: He told me a lot about how he felt about Oppenheimer.

Ulam:  It was probably the same.

Sherwin: Personally, he was not very warm to Oppenheimer. He felt that he was—this is my wording, not his, I think—something of a fraud. Segre is very strong about the—he respects his science, but he didn’t like him personally.

Ulam:  Well, I don’t know. He, in general, reflects, Segre, Fermi’s views.

Sherwin: Yes.

Ulam: I mean, there’s no doubt that Oppenheimer was a good scientist.

Sherwin: Yes, yes.

Ulam:  But how good is another question. Fermi must have felt that way.

Sherwin: Yeah.

Ulam: Talk to [Victor] Weisskopf.

Sherwin: I have talked to Weisskopf.

Ulam:  Because Weisskopf has some comments by [Wolfgang] Pauli that he wouldn’t tell you about.

Sherwin: About?

Ulam:  About Oppenheimer.

Sherwin: Well he’s told me a lot of things. Along what lines?

Ulam:  Oh, about science and so on. I don’t know.

Sherwin: We had sort of half an interview about Oppenheimer. I have talked to Weisskopf on several—

Ulam:  Weisskopf rather liked him.

Sherwin: Yes, very much, very much. I think he was involved in sort of several ways, both politically and scientifically.

Ulam:  Yes, right. Liberal, very liberal views.

Sherwin: Yes, yes. Well, when you got back to the States, after the Oppenheimer hearings, these had already been published. The various testimonies were public, and there was already that tremendous division within the scientific community between—

Ulam:  Why? There were hardly any people who were against Oppie, except maybe Teller.

Sherwin: Well, Teller. 

Ulam:  Well, so it is not much of a division.

Sherwin: Teller on the one side, and people who supported Lawrence, and Lawrence was dying, or almost dead. [Luis] Alvarez, the Berkeley group.

Ulam:  Yeah. The majority of the physicists, the overwhelming majority of physicists, thought that these hearings were unnecessary, some thought unfair. It has nothing to do with the character of Oppenheimer as a person or his scientific ability, but rather about his involvement or guilt [inaudible] of what he was accused. For example, von Neumann didn’t especially like Oppenheimer, but gave a tremendously objective and correct testimony.

Sherwin: Do you have any recollections of the kinds of discussions that you ran into when you got back to the States, about the Oppenheimer hearings?

Ulam:  Yes. Almost everybody thought it was an idiotic thing to do.

Sherwin: Yes, but also people were troubled by things that were even perhaps more serious than the idiocy of it. The impact that it might have on the relationship between science—

Ulam:  Oh, McCarthyism, yes, of course. I mean, this is quite independent of whether you liked Oppenheimer as a person or not, or whether you admired him very greatly as a philosopher.

Sherwin: Did you ever talk to Teller about this?

Ulam:  At that time, a few things. Well, not too much, no.

Sherwin: Afterwards, when—

Ulam:  Teller did himself tremendous harm by that, as you know. Because in expose, martyrs are always right. It’s very dangerous to sort of contribute or attack martyrs, no matter what. 

Sherwin: That’s a very interesting point. In a sense, Teller came out as, I suppose, the Judas of—

Ulam:  It’s exaggerated, but he claims that he actually said innocuous things, Teller did. But, not too innocuous, the way they could have been interpreted.

Sherwin: Yes.

Ulam:  Then there are some letters or some other things, which were not so much public. You must have read about that, [inaudible] of Teller to somebody, I don’t know.

Sherwin: Well, there are some FBI interviews.

Ulam:  Yes.

Sherwin: Stuff like that.

Ulam:  Yes, so I know nothing about the letters.  

Sherwin: When were you at the Institute?

Ulam:  First time? Oh, when I came to this country. This was January 1st, 1936.

Sherwin: Okay.

Ulam: When I arrived. At least, it was something like that.

Sherwin: Oppenheimer became director [of the Institute for Advanced Study] in ’47. 

Ulam:  Yes.

Sherwin: When was the first time after that—

Ulam:  Well, I visited off and on, just for a couple of days, a few times.

Sherwin: You didn’t spend a year there?

Ulam:  No, no. I spent four months when I first came, but otherwise only very short visits.

Sherwin: I see. Okay. So, you didn’t have a sense of his directorship there?

Ulam:  No.

Sherwin: How he was running it.

Ulam:  Towards the end, I understand mathematicians were mad at him.

Sherwin: Very.

Ulam: Without reason, in my opinion. Mainly, they wanted to have an appointment made of somebody who couldn’t be appointed because he was a professor at Princeton, and there was a written agreement between the Institute and the university that they will not hire somebody from the university. So it wasn’t his fault, but some mathematicians thought that he could have done it, and they were sort of irritated by him. That’s what I understand.

Sherwin: Yes. I heard recently from one of the mathematicians, a young visiting mathematician, who knows some of the people who have been around for a long time, that there was a great deal of hostility towards Oppenheimer. That they felt that he had ruined mathematics there and made a mess of physics, etc., etc. I haven’t yet had a chance to trace this.

Ulam:  Well, you can find out. I think mathematicians are also, you know, often a little bit crazy.

Sherwin: Yes. Well, we are all a little crazy, in our particular way.

Ulam:  Us too, indeed.

Sherwin: Yes. Now, did you know Oppenheimer socially very well?

Ulam:  Yes. During the war, often we were having, it was very pleasant dinner at Mrs. [Edith] Warner’s, Miss Warner’s. You should write about this. He arranged weekly, often bi-weekly, dinners with a small group of people down at the Rio Grande in a house belonging to Miss Warner.

Sherwin: How do you spell that?

Ulam:  W-A-R-N-E-R. That is something worth writing about, because it’s a colorful thing. She was a lady that lived—I wonder where you could read about Miss Warner. But she was an older lady at the time, and Tilano, an Indian chief, would serve the dinner in her house. He lived in her house, and it’s a very romantic little story. You can find out from Mrs. [Dorothy] McKibbin about that.

Sherwin: Oh, good.

Ulam:  They were very nice dinners, very pleasant occasions during the war here.

Sherwin: Now, who was invited to those?

Ulam:  Some people who—

Sherwin: Was it a different few people each week?

Ulam:  Some were different, but often the same. I think Weisskopf was there, and I remember a few times von Neumann once or twice. We were there a few times.

Sherwin: Bethe?

Ulam:  Bethe.

Sherwin: Teller?

Ulam:  His friend, [Robert] Serber. Teller, I don’t remember he was there, he might have been at some dinners. But Mrs. McKibbin will tell you.

Sherwin: Okay, good. Could you describe your recollections of one of—

Ulam:  Pleasant, intelligent conversation.

Sherwin: About?

Ulam:  Everything.

Sherwin: Problems that were going on, or about culture?

Ulam:  No, this was everything. Not terribly technical, because the wives were there and theoretically, at least— 

Sherwin: I see.

Ulam: In fact, they were not supposed to know these classified problems. There were very good desserts, I remember.

Sherwin: For example?

Ulam:  I don’t know. It’s brown chocolate cakes or something like that. But some kind of foods I didn’t know too well, which were a little bit New Mexico. Served by this old man, Tilano, the Indian chief, who was a Pueblo, who at one time was in Europe at the Paris World Exhibition in 18-something as an Indian chief or something like that, which was very amusing to meet him. Don’t forget to ask Mrs. McKibbin about Tilano, his dinners and his world.

Sherwin: I will.

Ulam:  Mrs. McKibbin lived in Santa Fe. She managed this office, it was just like in an English [inaudible] book, you know, a detective story. Very inconspicuous, two small rooms, [inaudible], secretary, also, they would write some little piece of paper. It was very romantic. There was a tablet there.

Sherwin: She’s writing a book about that.

Ulam:  She’s writing a book about Los Alamos, yes?

Sherwin: Yes, the Santa Fe office.

Ulam:  She and a lady helps her.

Sherwin: Right.

Ulam:  Yeah, yes. She’s a tremendous admirer of Oppenheimer. Idolatry, maybe, you see.

Sherwin: Right. Oh, I, oh, I see what you wrote. Yes, yes, yes. Idolatry.

Ulam:  Idolatry, yes.

Sherwin: Idolatry. She idolizes him.

Ulam:  Yes.

Sherwin: Yes. Did you ever consult with the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission?

Ulam:  No. I knew some people that talked to them, but no. No formal arrangement.

Sherwin: Okay. As far as the H-bomb decision is concerned—how do you feel about [Herb] York’s book? I noticed that you have that on your shelf.

Ulam:  Yeah, well, this whole shelf is full. York’s book, it seems factual, very factual. Dry, it’s a little dry.

Sherwin: No, but I meant the facts. There is nothing that you know that contradicts—

Ulam:  That is wrong? No, no.

Sherwin: Any of the issues.

Ulam:  No, no. Teller wrote a book, too, you know. Teller.

Sherwin: Yes. [Stanley A.] Blumberg—

Ulam:  There’s a book about Teller.

Sherwin: Yeah, Blumberg and—

Ulam:  By two guys, I wonder how this came to be written. Because for two professional writers to do something which may sell 10,000, 20,000 copies and work for two years, it’s very strange.

Sherwin: Well, I think they were hoping—

Ulam:  They were hired?

Sherwin: No, I think they hoped it would sell more.

Ulam:  Well no, no. I think they think—

Sherwin: It was not a very good book.

Ulam:  I looked at it.

Sherwin: But, biography for a guy like Teller, if it was a good book, it might have had a chance to really—because, he’s a very public person.

Ulam:  I don’t know, yes, because—

Sherwin: One of them is a—

Ulam:  You see, I completely agree with him 100% on the reactors, and building reactors for power stations. There’s an interview, maybe you have seen it, in the August Playboymagazine.

Then I sort of completely disagree with him in the second half or the second one-third. The last one-third of the article is about shelters, which seem to me to be completely futile and nonsense. But reactors, I must say, I feel good.

Sherwin: What does he argue?

Ulam:  For building the reactors.

Sherwin: Which kind?

Ulam:  Well, any kind that would give us energy.

Sherwin: Yeah. Of course, some kinds are more problematical than the others.

Ulam:  Well, yeah, but it’s [inaudible] engineering, technical questions. But I feel we should start building 200 reactors, mainly in states like Utah, Arizona, in these horrible deserts. If you can build them there, we have power brought by lines, wires, which we lose very little over even a thousand miles, you lose some 10%. There is absolute no danger around, because within 50, 100 miles, nobody lives there. I’m surprised that people don’t do it. Also, the problem of waste seems to me exaggerated. But, you may, I sort of gather, have different feelings.

Sherwin: I think the waste disposal problem is just not solved.

Ulam:  I don’t think it exists. Why not dig? There are already holes in Nevada for the testing of bombs. Just dump it two miles down. The volumes are small of the waste, relatively.

Sherwin: Yeah, but ultimately the stuff can seep into the water table.

Ulam:  How? It doesn’t go up. How does it come up? Three miles, it’s in the desert.

Sherwin: They seem to have to found no way, given the kind of half-life plutonium has, to make sure that—

Ulam:  No, but it’s so deep down! So what can it do? I don’t know what’s [inaudible,] because it seems to me by common sense it’s not really a problem at all.

Sherwin: It sure seems to be.

Ulam:  It seems to be, yes.

Sherwin: Yeah, right.

Ulam:  Well, transportation of it, but even so, it’s nothing explosive.

Sherwin: Oh, no, I know, yes. No, that’s not the problem. It’s whether or not it could—

Ulam:  What is effect? Because all these anti-nuclear demonstrations involve a lot of guitar-playing people, who know nothing about it. They have a good time, listen to songs, and create a great—

Sherwin: Do you know Ted Taylor?

Ulam:  Oh, yes, very well. He worked on this Orion business, which I actually started. I started that, you know, yeah, as you can read in not only my book, but in [John] McPhee’s book.

Sherwin: Yes. That’s right. Well, I’ve read it, yes, The Curve of Binding Energy.

Ulam:  Yeah, right.

Sherwin:  Right. I’d forgotten the name of the project.

Ulam:  Orion, yes. I knew him after the war [inaudible] very well. Then he left and started working on this Orion business. You see him now in Princeton, perhaps?

Sherwin: Yes. I was with the Center for Environmental Studies this year, and he’s a consultant there. Do you know Frank von Hippel, any of his work?

Ulam:  Oh, a biologist from Chicago?

Sherwin: No.

Ulam:  No?

Sherwin: He’s a—

Ulam:  There was an astronomer by that name.

Sherwin: Well, it could be. The family is—

Ulam:  Yeah, big family.

Sherwin: Yeah. A lot of physicists, and that type. But he’s a physicist at the Center, and writes a lot about this stuff.

Ulam:  Environmental?

Sherwin: Yeah. My sense of it is, that these people are very concerned about these problems, and they’re not guitar-players.

Ulam:  They are what?

Sherwin: They are not guitar-players.

Ulam:  No. Of course, you should be concerned, but also, it’s their business. It’s a new profession. Immediately in this country, people get into new professions and new jobs just—the day after Sputnik, [0:12:00] the day, suddenly there appears in the United States 1,000 space scientists.

Sherwin: Yes, right.

Ulam:  Well, you see, that’s the same, of course. Environmental, it’s a business.

Sherwin: Did Oppenheimer—

Ulam:  No. In those days, I don’t think it was discussed very much. Everybody saw that nuclear energy—my guess, purely guess, is that Oppenheimer also found that it would be a source of power and a very good thing.

Sherwin: Everybody certainly hoped it would be.

Ulam:  Yes.

Sherwin: I mean, that was the promise.

Ulam:  It should be, it could be. It’s just politics, which I don’t think it’s as innocent as it appears on the surface. I think various groups try to weaken the West in general.

Sherwin: How about the solar potential for the West?

Ulam:  Zero. [Inaudible], maybe couple percent. It certainly cannot make any difference.

Sherwin: I see.

Ulam:  A few percent by year 2000, what does it mean? Nothing.

Sherwin: Because solar just doesn’t have the potential to provide enough energy?

Ulam:  No, there is no way. I mean, you can have a few mirrors, heat houses, but you are not going to run big plants. The French have a few big mirrors, and you can in a couple of decades supply a few percent. You might as well forget about it for the next five, ten years.

Of course, the danger is the OPEC, the immediate danger to United States, right now. What the speech of—

Sherwin: [President Jimmy] Carter?

Ulam:  Carter. I like it, although he didn’t say enough. $140 billion does not strike me as very much, for ten years. You know, it’s like $100, less than $100 per person per year. We really should start going, even with coal. Of course, coal environmentally is worse than nuclear energy, by far.

Sherwin: Do you think there’s any chance of developing scrubber that would—

Ulam:  Oh, yes. They say that can be done to diminish the—but saying that the country will be scarred is another nonsense. It’s also inferiority feeling. People don’t understand the science of nuclear energy, so they feel irritated.

Sherwin: Well, I think that there’s something to that. But there’s also an analogy that should be made. People get irritated at big corporations and big companies because they don’t trust—

Ulam:  Right, okay.

Sherwin: They don’t trust them and they have evidence why they shouldn’t— 

Ulam:  The government should supervise it, that’s something else, but they don’t say that. They are just against them. Okay, you can be against big corporations, but what do you do about automobiles? They are made by three big corporations.

Sherwin: Now, in terms of Oppenheimer, I suppose that there was nothing in terms of these modern issues that he was really involved in? All that came too late.

Ulam:  You mean the reactors?

Sherwin: Environmental stuff and reactors.

Ulam:  Yes, yes. Although [inaudible] was there, and all the factories were there.

Sherwin: Sure.

Ulam:  It’s just made up artificially now a little bit. The only thing that I see that is nice is that some streams are clean. In England, for example, the Thames River is now much cleaner. Of course when coal was used, [inaudible] bleak, dark.

Sherwin: Yes.

Ulam:  That is an improvement. I don’t know. This country is so vast that I think there’s plenty of environment.

Sherwin: You live in a different environment than I live in. You can see the sky from one end to another.

Ulam:  Princeton for me, climatically was a hell when I first arrived. I don’t even see how people live there during the summer. It’s humid.

Sherwin: Yeah, humidity.

Ulam:  Heat, there’s some, and it’s unlivable.

Sherwin: Everybody’s packed in together. I live a lot of my life in terms of—

Ulam:  It’s the climate.

Sherwin: How I think about problems. It’s very related to New York City.

Ulam:  Yes. But, still it’s an interesting—it’s nice to be there for a week or two.

Sherwin: Oh, it’s wonderful, no, but what I’m saying, I’m talking about environmentally.

Ulam:  But take Italy.

Sherwin: Okay.

Ulam:  The packing of people there is much greater than—or Holland. It’s just the climate that is so unpleasant here. Summer, heat. Hot humid summers, which to me—

Sherwin: Intolerable.

Ulam: Intolerable.

Sherwin: Yes. No, but what I’m thinking about is when you talk about environmental issues. One of the things that struck me about your point of view had to do with a sense of how vast the country is.

Ulam:  Yes.

Sherwin: The large deserts.

Ulam:  New York State.

Sherwin: You’re surrounded by space.

Ulam:  Well, go in New York State, fifty, sixty miles north.

Sherwin: Sure.

Ulam:  Marvelous woods.

Sherwin: Oh, it’s wonderful.

Ulam:  Yes.

Sherwin: But, as you’ve probably read in the Times about three or four weeks ago, there was a series of stories about pollution up in New York State.

Ulam:  Yes, but it’s chemical. It’s not nuclear.

Sherwin: Yeah.

Ulam:  That is something new and getting worse, the chemical pollution.

Sherwin: It’s getting terrible.

Ulam:  Yeah, but it’s the effect of ten thousand times worse than any possible nuclear thing. Now, there are no demonstrations with guitar-players, is there? Could somebody just tell me why?

Sherwin: I think that the danger was not— it sort of snuck up on you. There was no drama involved.

Ulam:  People are not that irrational that they have to have a drama, some slogans or catchwords like nuclear [inaudible].

Sherwin: Yeah.

Ulam:  Because it really is, literally, thousands of times worse. You don’t see any demonstrations.

Sherwin: I think that there will always be a hostility to science, or a certain dimension of it.

Ulam:  There used to be admiration of science in this country, in the population.

Sherwin: It’s cyclical. It’s really cyclical.

Ulam:  They were this, at one time, you’re right, there’s no-nothing groups who—

Sherwin: That’s right, it goes up.

Ulam:  So now there’s the same thing again.

Sherwin: Yeah, and now science is—

Ulam:  Evil.

Sherwin: Coming up against a lot of criticism.

Ulam:  Yes, because of this feeling that people don’t understand it, so they are against it.

Sherwin: Yeah.

Ulam:  But on the other hand, maybe so many think of going to a dentist now and 300 years ago having—

Sherwin: Oh, wow.

Ulam: No operations or painkillers, everything. That’s right. 

Sherwin: One of the things that I think, to a certain degree, science is responsible for some of the reaction to it. Because the public figures in science have often put science forward as being something that will solve all problems. Then when people—

Ulam:  Still have problems.

Sherwin: Expect those problems to be solved, and new problems develop as a result of efforts to solve A. You try to solve A and you end up with problem B. In fact, you might solve A, but people get very angry that B occurred.

Ulam:  Yes, some people, or many people, yes. Not everybody.

Sherwin: No, but even some scientists. One of the things that’s interesting—

Ulam:  Well, those that feel not so successful start making, as I said, business out of various things.

Sherwin: But of course, one of the things that’s interesting to me in terms of studying science in the political environment is that science has become much more interesting. Because—

Ulam:  The impact on your life.

Sherwin: Well, also the science community is a more general reflection of the whole spectrum of American political life now. It used to be, when science was smaller and more progressive, that all scientists thought alike for the—

Ulam:  Yes. Oh, yes, now there are disgruntled ones, of whom there must be many.

Sherwin: There is. 

Ulam:  Take off and join these protestors.

Sherwin: Yeah.

Ulam:  Just because they are disgruntled scientists.

Sherwin: But there are a lot of—

Ulam: I’m unfair to a few.

Sherwin: I think so.

Ulam: On the whole it’s correct.

Sherwin: Well, I think that you find now a lot of young physicists getting very involved with environmental questions and other things, even before they had a chance to fail.


Ulam:  But what does it mean, getting involved? What do they do? 

Sherwin: Well, they become interested in questions that—

Ulam:  I know, but has anything been done to improve it or help? I don’t see it, you know. It’s all so natural for young people to be against the previous generation.

Sherwin: Yes.

Ulam:  All of us, this is very natural.

Sherwin: Yes. That’s a very healthy thing.

Ulam:  Yeah, the grandchildren—I remember when I was very young, certainly less than ten. Some old relative, uncle, great-uncle, my father was telling us a joke and I overheard it: “Why do you like grandchildren so much? Because they are enemies of our enemies.”

Sherwin: Yes. That’s very good. I love that. That’s very, yes. I think that’s probably a very good note to end on, sums up.

Ulam:  But unfortunately, I didn’t know Oppenheimer enough to tell you more.

Sherwin: As I said, I enjoyed reading your book very much.

Ulam:  Well, thank you.

Sherwin: I’m delighted to have a chance to talk to you.

Ulam:  No, no, it’s a pleasure for me.

Sherwin: Freeman Dyson said that reading the book was just like hearing you talk.

Ulam:  Is that good or bad?

Sherwin: No, it was good! That it was very much you.

Ulam:  He [Oppenheimer] realized that his creativity was not quite what he would wish to be.

Sherwin: The creativity?

Ulam:  In physics.

Sherwin: In physics does not match the—

Ulam:  The intelligence, the quickness, the brilliance.

Sherwin: Do you think that was involved in—

Ulam:  I felt it, but this was a pure guess, as I think, a gratuitous guess on my part.

Sherwin: Other people have said that. I think that—

Ulam:  No, I was saying that, but people must have read what—

Sherwin: People who read it—

Ulam:  Yes, maybe, I don’t know. As I say, it’s a gratuitous guess.

Sherwin: Do you think that has something to do with personality?

Ulam:  Oh, yes, with philosophy, political views, social views.

Sherwin: What’s your sense of creativity in science? What is its origin?

Ulam:  If I knew it, I would be creative. 

Sherwin: I’m sure you were creative. Do scientists talk about those sorts of things?

Ulam:  Very little. Sometimes, mathematicians, for example, will discuss the sort of [inaudible] [0:25:28] who is better than who, which is on the whole meaningless, unless you say it with, okay, on the whole, Einstein was better than some young instructor in some simple college, that much you can say. But almost rigorously, and otherwise it’s—

Sherwin: But they never talk about the—have you ever read a book by—

Ulam:  No, books about the nature of creativity in mathematics by [Henri] Poincaré. I love books with articles. [George] Polya, you may have heard of him, a mathematician who is now ninety years old, wrote a very nice series of essays and mentions in his books. [Jacques] Hadamard, the famous French mathematician, wrote something about the nature of creativity.

But really little, because people don’t know. You cannot explain how a chess player really thinks. There are many books written by the chess champions, but they cannot explain how they really think or react or [inaudible]. 

Sherwin: I think it’s probably a good thing.

Ulam:  Probably [inaudible]. 

Sherwin: Then they would make a business out of creativity.

Ulam:  Exactly, immediately, there would be—

Sherwin: Well, very good.

Copyright 2005 Martin J. Sherwin. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of Martin J. Sherwin. Rights granted to Atomic Heritage Foundation.