Fear and Loathing in Los Alamos

John Ziman

  • Bird of Passage: Recollections of a Physicist by Rudolf Peierls
    Princeton, 350 pp, £21.20, January 1986, ISBN 0 691 08390 8
  • A Life in Science by Nevill Mott
    Taylor and Francis, 198 pp, £15.00, April 1986, ISBN 0 85066 333 4
  • Stallion Gate by Martin Cruz Smith
    Collins Harvill, 287 pp, £10.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 00 222727 4
  • Day of the Bomb: Hiroshima 1945 by Dan Kurzman
    Weidenfeld, 546 pp, £14.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 297 78862 0
  • Assessing the Nuclear Age edited by Len Ackland and Steven McGuire
    Chicago, 382 pp, £21.25, July 1986, ISBN 0 941682 07 2

If a speaker at one of his seminars began to explain how he had come by his ideas, the great Russian theoretical physicist L.D. Landau would stop him with disdain: ‘That is only an item for your autobiography.’ Landau died before reaching the age of reminiscence, but Rudolph Peierls was his friend and Nevill Mott was another near-contemporary. Now that they are both about eighty, they may feel able to risk his posthumous scorn. Mott is a sort of father-in-science to me, and Peierls an uncle. Yet it never occurred to me, until I read these memoirs, how very alike their careers have been. They both grew up into theoretical physics just after the quantum breakthrough of 1925, and quickly made their names in exploiting this new instrument of thought to solve a whole range of old problems. They both made outstanding contributions to the theory of metals and other solids. Both of them were professors at Redbrick universities before they were thirty – Mott at Bristol and Peierls at Birmingham. When they came back from wartime research in 1945, each was offered – in due order of age, I suppose – the Chair of Theoretical Physics at Cambridge, and each duly turned it down. Eventually, Oxbridge got them both – Mott as Cavendish Professor at Cambridge and Peierls as head of the school of theoretical physics at Oxford. They were both knighted. They both have strings of honorary degrees. Mott got a Nobel Prize in 1977. They say that Peierls would have got one too, if only his contributions to physics had been concentrated in a narrower field. Neither of them has clambered high up the pyramid of state power, but they have both been active in academic and scientific affairs. They also have one other feature in common: they both gave scientific employment to Klaus Fuchs and worked closely with him for a number of years without the least suspicion that he was not as he seemed.

These memoirs also tell us that Mott and Peierls are alike in being very kind and sociable men, secure in the affections of their families, friends, colleagues and students. It is typical that short periods at Bohr’s institute in Copenhagen inspired each of them separately to build a similar home from home for physicists at a British university. I can confirm, from personal knowledge, that they both succeeded. And yet, as with the members of a real family, I can only think of them as entirely different people. It is not just that Mott is tall and gawky, while Peierls is short and slightly built. Nor that Mott is as much the upper-middle-class Englishman as they make them – deeply unhappy at his public school, and belatedly flirting with Anglicanism – while Peierls, who fled from Hitler through a series of precarious jobs before putting down roots in England, is as much the German Jewish intellectual as they used to make them, and unshakable in his antipathy towards speculative philosophies. As scientists, too, they are utterly different from each other.

In the domain where they have both lived most intensely – the non-material world of theoretical physics – they are as distinct as, say, Michelangelo and Raphael or Dickens and Thackeray. In these non-technical memoirs they cannot go far into the processes of discovery – those items that Landau didn’t want to hear about – but each author does say something about his own style of thinking. Mott says his talent is ‘piecing together experimental facts and interpeting them in terms of simple theory’. His approach is intuitive rather than analytical, often generating quite novel theoretical concepts which stimulate a whole new round of experiments and theorising. Peierls, on the other hand, is provoked into attacking a problem by ‘other people’s attempts that seemed to me wrong or misleading’ and usually finishes up with a clear mathematical analysis which obviously solves it on the spot. Not surprisingly, his department at Birmingham was famous in the Fifties as a rigorous training ground for researchers. Their memoirs report more than what it is like to seek honestly after truth, for, as the ancient Chinese curse has it, they have had to live in ‘interesting’ times. Mott did research on explosives during the war, but the curse fell more heavily on Peierls. First, he had to become a ‘bird of passage’, and then he was caught up inadvertently in the most momentous event of the century. In 1940, he and O.R. Frisch – ironically, both debarred from war research as ‘enemy aliens’ – worked out that a lump of pure Uranium 235 about the size of a loaf of bread would undergo a fission chain reaction of devastating power. Historical determinism then took him to Los Alamos – and into the domain of these other books.

There they all were, some of the best academic physicists in the world, plonked down in a mushrooming encampment in the wilds of New Mexico and told to make an atom bomb. The recollections of participants depict Los Alamos as a prolonged summer school set up to do a very difficult experiment. That tall thin guy with the pipe must be ‘Oppie’ Oppenheimer from Berkeley – clever, of course, but does he have enough ideas? I agree that young Dick Feynman is brilliant, but that’s no excuse for his picking the lock on my safe! What is Bohr doing going around calling himself Mr Baker? Those good, sensible men like Peierls who lived through it could scarcely have realised that they had walk-on parts in a drama worthy of Euripides or Brecht. A conjectured device of god-like power has to be designed and built by mortal men. Ideologies of truth-seeking and love of humanity clash. The principal actors do not have to be invented. Start with a leader – Oppenheimer – twice as smart as paint and twice as nervous as a cat. Give him a vainer, more inventive rival – Teller. Bring on a distant boss – Groves – as tough and proud as a bull, and let the chorus remind us of an even more distant war to be won or lost. And don’t ever forget the villain who is secretly betraying them all.

Martin Cruz Smith is an enthralling storyteller, but uses the authentic drama of Los Alamos only as the dynamic setting for a more earthy melodrama in which the historical characters are little more than cardboard cutouts. Stallion Gate could have been more than a good yarn, but whatever its message was intended to be it is lost in the unremitting coarseness of incident. Perhaps another culture did flourish around the scientists in New Mexico, a culture of hand guns and violent fisticuffs, involving the resident Indians as well as the thousands of technical and military personnel brought in from elsewhere for this secret project. Oppenheimer’s bodyguard/driver might just possibly have been a gigantic Pueblo Indian sergeant who also happened to be a boxing champion and inspired jazz pianist, and it is fun to imagine that he might have saved Fuchs from death at the hands of irate Indians whose sacred place he had accidentally penetrated. But the paranoid security officer obsessed with the notion of Oppenheimer as the arch-traitor is near enough to the truth. It is a pity that he had to be fantasised into a monster to jade the palates of a million hoped-for readers.

What Martin Cruz Smith has got right is that the Los Alamos drama comes to its climax on 16 July 1945, beyond the ‘Stallion Gate’ in the Alamogordo desert. The intended but appalling violence unleashed at the ‘Trinity’ test proved to the physicists that their experiment had succeeded: the scene immediately shifts to Potsdam, where this news was anxiously awaited by Truman and Churchill as they played their diplomatic game with Stalin. Dan Kurzman has read deeply into the memoirs of the statesmen and scientists of the United States and Japan, to reconstruct the monologues and dialogues of a diversity of actors, from the dutiful Emperor Hirohito to the equally dutiful US naval engineer officer who assembled the bomb.

For scientists such as Peierls or Mott, the question that hangs over Hiroshima is whether the path of history needed to pass under that terrible shadow. There is little doubt, now, that the scientists themselves had not imagined the further consequences of their experiment, and could not have prevented them if they had. Their lords and masters, the politicians, treated them as dwarves forging weapons for their high wars. The forces by which they were driven were those of national pride and love of power. The Japanese leaders knew there was no hope of victory, but feared the suicidal patriotism that would not allow them to admit defeat. The American leaders knew that Japan was hopelessly defeated, but feared the intervention of the Russians almost as much as the human cost of a conventional invasion. There were people with clear thoughts and human intentions on both sides, but the rules of historical tragedy could not have permitted them to prevail. We cannot even be sure that the world would be very different if they had. And through it all runs that thread of treachery stitched into the canvas by Klaus Fuchs and pulled adroitly by Stalin to unravel all those shrewdly tailored American schemes.

What do we make of that story now, forty years on? Mott and Peierls have taken it much to heart, and give considerable space in their books to their thoughts and actions on nuclear war. Peierls has long been active in the Pugwash movement, and in the past six months I have heard both of them speak firmly against participation in Reagan’s Star Wars project. The sad thing is that their hard-won wisdom in such matters is by no means common among their younger colleagues. In fact, since Hiroshima, the situation has become much more serious. This is the central theme of Assessing the Nuclear Age. These articles, reprinted from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, do not pretend to offer solutions to the desperate problems of nuclear armaments, but they all agree that the physicists can no longer plead ignorance about the political mechanisms by which their products are deployed for use. It is not simply that they have been co-opted, with far less patriotic justification than during the Second World War, for continuous service in the preparations for war. It is that the time-scales of action have changed, so that the horizons for the procurement of weaponry have been extended to decades, while the period of their potential use has been shortened to weeks, days, hours – even minutes. The decision to participate in such projects may seem quite innocent in the cool light of technical sweetness, financial plenitude and career benefit. Those who take this decision need greater imagination than ever before to see how it will look in the ultimate glare of destruction and death.

Our own times may not look as ‘interesting’ as the Thirties and Forties, but they are just as perilous. The moral standards of the professional classes of Edwardian England and Wilhelmine Germany which have instinctively guided these two excellent men through their long lives are no longer adequate. Despite their wisdom, experience and undoubted influence in higher circles, the elders of the scientific world cannot hope to throw a shield over their particular domain. The ‘item’ I missed in both autobiographies was a sense of the extreme importance of getting to know about other aspects of the world than those explored by the methods of physics. In their different ways, Stallion Gate, Day of the Bomb and Assessing the Nuclear Age open up domains of reality that have to be part of the education of every physicist – especially if he is bound for a Nobel Prize.