Sunday, July 30, 2023


I'm still going frequently to the Menlo Festival - more on that later, when my paid reviews begin to come out - but on Friday I took in (via Zoom, which was the better way to do it) a panel discussion at UC Berkeley on Robert Oppenheimer's years at the university (he was a professor of physics there in 1929-43), geared to the new movie though not all the panelists had seen it.

There were professors of journalism (Jon Else, creator of the documentary The Day After Trinity), history, theoretical physics, and nuclear engineering, all at Berkeley, and a weapons physicist at the Los Alamos lab (where Oppenheimer was famously the director who made the A-bomb in 1943-45). The last made frequent references to interesting documents he'd found while rooting around in the Los Alamos archives. "Of course, that's still classified," he would add.

Little of what they said was new or original; its value came in its endorsement by their considered opinions. Only about a quarter of what was said related to Oppenheimer's pre-war physics work: he did some of the earliest work applying quantum theory and was the first person to theorize the concept of what were later named black holes, but though his physics was original and valuable, it wasn't at Einstein level; Oppenheimer's true worth came in his creation of the first major US school of theoretical physics here at Berkeley, one which - his successor proudly informed us - maintains its leading status to this day. That Oppenheimer had an equally brilliant experimentalist in Ernest Lawrence to collaborate with was an important factor. And he did all this while still in his 30s.

Most of the discussion focused on what made Oppenheimer a great lab director at Los Alamos, some of which tied in to the characteristics that had made his physics leadership at Berkeley successful. His wide knowledge; his ability to learn, understand, and communicate new material; his organizational ability - he would reorganize lab departments as circumstances changed; his reliable intuition for making necessary decisions in the absence of experimental data; his insistence on allowing open interchange of ideas among the scientists. You can't generate the spark of creativity to get the job done if you try to bottle up info for security reasons; the way to respond to security concerns is to run faster.

It was Lawrence who convinced the scientific directors of the Manhattan Project (Compton & Bush) to consider Oppenheimer as a candidate for lab director. It was his post-war change to opposition to bomb work, as much as his pre-war flirtation with communism, that was probably responsible for the loss of his security clearance in 1954. Meanwhile, the growth of Berkeley physics after the war (both theoretical and experimental) was generated by government funding that built on the reputation of the Manhattan Project.

The panelists also noted the short amounts of time involved. It was only 7 years from the discovery of the neutron to its use in creating generated nuclear fission. The a-bomb was tested and then dropped within weeks. The real time crunch for making the bomb was not the design process at Los Alamos but the production of plutonium and enriched uranium elsewhere in the project.

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