Friday, July 08, 2005

A Tragic Life: Oppenheimer and the Bomb

Book Review by Peter J. Kuznick
History is never so simple as we think. Who are the good guys in the history of nukes? Oppenheimer? Teller? Truman?

Here is an excerpt from Kuznick's book review:

Although it would be some time before Oppenheimer discovered how this dramatic competition to achieve geopolitical goals formed a backdrop to the use of the atomic bombs, he, unlike Truman, felt an appropriate revulsion at what he had helped achieve. When Oppenheimer met Truman for the first time on October 25, 1945, Truman asked Oppenheimer to guess when the Soviets would develop a bomb. When Oppenheimer said he did not know, Truman shot back that he did: “Never.” Unnerved, Oppenheimer said at one point, “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.” The president, furious at Oppenheimer, informed David Lilienthal, “I told him the blood was on my hands—to let me worry about that.” Apparently relishing this story, Truman later offered alternative versions. He told Dean Acheson, “I don’t want to see that son of a bitch in this office ever again,” and another time called him a “cry-baby scientist.”

The difference is that Truman actually fought battles with real bullets, while Oppenheimer largely lived in a blue-blood fantasy world.
Another difference is that Oppenheimer was a genius and Truman failed at every job he ever had before entering politics.
Make that; Truman failed at every job he every had, before and after entering politics. The man had the soul of a haberdasher... the Cold War and the Korean War are but two of his failures. And the H-Bomb of course.
History treats this bit player far too kindly. We are still paying for his mistakes. Another, close to Truman, who had a largely ignored role is James Byrnes, who pushed Truman to drop the atomic bombs. Then there was Truman's appointment of Baruch negotiate nuclear arms control. Oppie was in despair over that one...
The result, a nuclear arms race, flogged by LANL and others, which cost this country about $7 trillion and made the world a dangerous place. And they are not done yet.. Good old Harry!!
The similarities are that both men were giants within their respective destinies.

Oppenheimer's genius lead to the development of a weapon that was so destructive that he argued against its use to buttress Western Civilization. His position ultimately allowed lesser men to drive a wedge between him and his accomplishments, a fate that the University of California with its silence continues to condone and encourage even until this day.

In contrast, Truman's steel resolve and courage led him to command the use of the weapon to save thousands of lives American and Japanese by ending World War II. His political genius led to his use of the weapon to help encircle, contain, and ultimately strangle the Bolshevik Tide that had swept over Eastern Europe and much of Asia.

The point is that I don't think it necessary to denigrate the accomplishments of either man.
Truman was the real genius. He is only surpassed by Reagan and Bush.
These are the greatest people the world ever saw. They could build a bomb, lead a country and save some souls. God Bless the people in the United States that God deems to bless. You know who you are.
Yeah definitely, it took only 45 years to strangle that Bolshevik Tide.
Some people attribute a near-God-like status to Oppenheimer. In reality, The Manhattan Project probably still would have been completed even if he wasn’t involved.

When I first came here, there were still some people here, who had known Oppenheimer personally. At times, he supposedly could be quite elitist, arrogant, and very patronizing. He regarded only the PhD Physicists as even being close to his equals, but he even looked down on most of them. If you had a PhD in another field, such as chemistry, he regarded you as being an inferior. If you were an engineer, even with a graduate degree, he regarded you as a barely-educated tradesman. If you were a non-degreed technician, even if you were very skilled, you were just an uneducated peasant.

This attitude has pervaded the lab to this day. There is a definite ‘chaste system”, with the PhD physicists being the “Brahmins”. (And, I have seen incidences in which the status was richly UNdeserved.) This elitist attitude demoralizes many people who work here. It discourages skilled people who might otherwise want to work here. And notably, it gives a bad impression to people watching us from the outside. A preferable situation would value everyone’s skills. Oppenheimer’s legacy to the laboratory is not necessarily good.
Poster 1:32pm,

Look in a free market you have live by the rules. If you are good you get rewarded. If you have a Ph.d in physics you are very very smart and worked really really hard. Well that is if you got a Ph.d from a real school. You have to put up with them if you want them to work. If not they will leave for other jobs. This is the reality. Now if you are an engineer that is fine but unless you got your degree abroad most lickley you suck. You need to sit down, shut the f up and do your jobs. You are luckly that you work at LANL.

By the way we need only about 1500 people at LANL, not 11000. The worst peole, and I do mean the worst, at LANL do not have degress in physics. Look at N, NMT, X, DX, and D. Tell me what fields they are in. By the way B disvision is very good and they do not do physics yet they are one of the best groups at LANL so do not get on my case that I am all for physics. I am for just having good people that you can have respect for. Respect is something you earn from very hard work and ability. You do not get respect for who you vote for, which God you worship, which sex you sleep with, what kind of car you drive, or who you fool. It is earned. All you fakers out there. We know who you are.
I'd guess you have a Ph.d in Physics, from a real school too.
2:57. You're a pretty amusing person, even with your poor English. A few questions for you, if you care to answer them.

Can you tell me what schools are "real schools"?

Also, can you tell me why no US schools apparently fit the bill in engineering? As in ... "Now if you are an engineer that is fine but unless you got your degree abroad most lickley you suck."

Who is/are "we"? As in ..."We know who you are."
Does everyone call you Dr. Anonymous? Wow!
So 7/10/2005 02:57:21 PM - So you are a PhD Physicist? It is easy to tell by your arrogance. You think you are the only worthy person in the lab. I doubt you could survive very long at all with that kind of attitude in private industry. (Including Lockheed or Bechtel…)

Maybe a PhD is an accomplishment – if you actually did work hard – BUT WORKING HARD AT ANYTHING FOR FOUR YEARS SHOULD BE ACCOMPLISHMENT. Getting a PhD is not the only thing in life that makes you a worthy person. You are not morally superior to anyone else. You are in the end just another human being, and will die like anyone else. Believe what you want, but I think you will then be judged by how you treated other people. Arrogance towards others certainly won’t win any points. I don’t think the degrees you might happen to have are going to have much influence on the final outcome…

(No, I don’t consider myself a Jesus Freak. Maybe you’ll get to talk to Buddha, I don’t know; does anyone really know? Please DON’T BOTHER telling me if you think you do -Please.)

(Signed - Just Another Peasant)
How can you recognize a LANL PhD physicist? They are the ones with spadex shorts, screaming white legs, black socks hiked up to their knees, while riding a bicycle to TA-3.
Poster 1:32pm-

I wouldn't brag too much. Nanos had a PhD in physics. Enough said.
...A PhD from Princeton nonethless. Isn't that considered a "real school?"
About Nanos.

No he did not get a real Ph.d from Princeton. It was part of some army/navy program they had back them with Princeton where the army/navy paid for it. None of those people ever went on to do real research or go to
a physics department as faculty. I do not think they even spent much time in Princeton. They got rid of that program. Nanos by the way has only one paper with few citations.

But you are right there are centainly plenty of bad people with Ph.d's in physics. They can be just bad at science and graduated for some political reason. They can also be corrupt. One thing you need to remeber what you do as a human being and what you do as a working Ph.d in physics are very different. You can be a great human being and kind to others. Anyone can do it that is why all people can contribute in life.
However work is a different matter and you have to have standards. There are people at LANL who are simply some of the worst people
I have ever seen and they should have never been hired. This does not mean they are bad people. Two different things.
I beg to differ. The physics department at Princeton did not give out "Army/Navy" degrees during the early 1970's or any other part of the 20th century. Your disdain for Nanos is causing you to delude yourself.
Only at a university, or at a National Laboratory run by a university, do you see such obsession over what someone did or did not accomplish in school. When I look at the qualifications of a mid-career individual for a position, I could care less what they did twenty or thirty years ago in school. I am more interested in their professional accomplishments over the course of their career and what that tells me about their ability to perform on the job.

Hopefully, this preoccupation with accomplishments back in shcool days will diminish under new management.
Poster 10:20

You do not know what the f you
are talking about. Princeton did have a specific program for people in the navy and Nanos was part of that program. Why do you say they did not have this program? By the way I know a classmate of his. He said he did not see him much and they thought it was odd that these Navy guys where in graduate school during Vietnam.
As someone who was there at the time, I never saw the Princeton physics department create a special class of graduate students who were able to get a doctorate of philosophy degree in physics without satisfying the same requirements as the rest of the class. If you have information to the contrary, be specific about your sources.
Poster 8:12

I am calling you on this. You where not at Princeton at the time. Do not try this bs on this blog. Name your source also name some classmates. I know many and will contact them about this. Princeton did in fact have a specical program for these people and you would know this if in fact you where at Princeton during this time. By the way how many years did it take for the people in this program to get Ph.ds compared to the rest of the class? Come on tell me. Who was Nanos advior. Where is the advisor now? Hell, why not ask Nanos himself about the program. He is actually very honest about it.
Yo poster 8:12

Not rising up to the challenge.
As I said do not try this bs on this blog unless you know your facts. You where never at Princeton.

Word up B
You know folks, for a bunch of reputed "PhD's from real schools" you sure are terrible writers.

One would hope that before you submit your esteemed "papers", you have at least allowed one of those "peasant" Tech Writers to check your spelling and edit your garbled syntax.

I'm pretty sure that even Princeton has an English Department. I suppose you were so preoccupied with developing your own interpretations of the laws of the universe that you slept through your English classes (if you even bothered to take any).

Maybe you regard the mere practitioners of the written language in such lofty disdain that attendance in their classes was beneath your ennobled consideration.

For God's sake, at least learn to spell!!! Because if you can’t even effectively communicate in this forum, how much “technical merit” will your precious papers have?

Maybe it doesn’t really matter, because they will probably only be read by about five people on earth anyway, and they more than likely write (and read???) as poorly as you.

Do you really believe that there are people who come to work at LANL in the morning with the intention of doing a bad job? If so, maybe it’s time for you to find a happier (less paranoid) home.

The bottom line in all of this discussion is that there are many kinds of people required to run any large-scale organization. It does the organization no good if the work-force creates its own implicit strata, defined by the TECHNO-BIGOTS “at the top”.
I looked at the only paper that Pete Nanos ever published ("Polarization of the blackbody radiation at 3.2 centimeters," The Astrophysical Journal, volume 232, pages 341-347, 1 September 1979) and compared the people named in the acknowledgements with the current staff listing for the Princeton University physics department. By this method I identified Edward Groth as someone who might shed light on the nature of the graduate work that Nanos performed. I sent the following message to Edward Groth (identifying details are deleted).

Dear Edward,
I am a graduate of the (department deleted) in (year deleted) and a (number deleted)-year staff member at Los Alamos. Recently there have been claims regarding our former director, George Peter Nanos, that he did not receive a legitimate degree from Princeton but instead received some kind of special treatment under a junior officer's program. His only publication mentions your name. Can you shed any light on this question? I will not make use of your name but would like to post your reply on the Los Alamos web log if you are willing.
For background see postings near the bottom of this URL:
(name deleted)

I received the following prompt reply.

From: Edward Groth
Subject: Re: Princeton physics department in 1974
Date: Wed, 13 Jul 2005 09:46:04 -0400
To: (address deleted)
X-Proofpoint-Spam: 0

(name deleted) -

Revisionist history is just wonderful!

You may use my name.

My wife and I were good friends with Pete and his wife when Pete was a graduate student here.

He was a couple of years behind me in graduate school. We both worked in the same group (the Gravity Group) and had the same thesis advisor, the late Dave Wilkinson. His thesis was the first attempt to measure the polarization of the microwave background. He only achieved an upper limit - most CMB experiments in those days were upper limits or had big error bars. In fact, CMB polarization has only been detected in the last few years.

It was a fully legitimate thesis - he built the hardware, ran the experiment (on the roof of Jadwin Hall) and analyzed the data.

He went through the program just like any other grad student - spending the first year working in the lab (where he helped on my project) and then studying for and passing the general exam before working on his thesis.

So far as I know, he did not receive any special treatment from Princeton. In those days - Vietnam War era - military people were not held in high regard on college campuses.

The junior officer program paid for him to go to graduate school. He went to Annapolis, then served on a ship, then came to graduate school. I believe the deal was that he owed the Navy two years of service for every year they paid for him to go to graduate school.

The NSF paid for me to go to graduate school. So far as I know, no one has accused me of not having a legitimate degree.

(end of response)

In summary, the cost of the graduate education that Pete Nanos received from the Princeton University physics department was paid by the Navy in return for additional years of commitment but he was not treated differently from any other graduate student. In my own experience, the Princeton preliminary and general exams were highly rigorous.
Back to the original thread:

The preceding posts illustrate what I have always considered to be a source of significant tension at LANL --- between the "pure" intellectual disciplines such as physics and the perceived "dirt under the fingernails" types such as chemists, metallurgists, mechanical engineers, etc. The source of this tension, I believe, is largely twofold:

- what have turned into the disciplines of chemistry, metallurgy, engineering, etc., began as the assortment of trades and professions largely focused on supporting armaments and war --- we (and I is one)have always been employed to make improvements in new and better ways to give our military an edge (pun intended). The physics types, in contrast, were until the dawn of the nuclear age largely focused on more intellectual pursuits; they seldom got their hands dirty in developing beter ways to kill people. An interesting outgrowth is that at LANL (my perception only) there is a lot higher proportion of physics types who like to pretend that they really aren't working on weapons of mass destruction, even when they are funded entirely by Defense Programs --- a luxury that those of us working with weapons components and explosives can't have. To summarize: Oppenheimer freaked out when he realized he had blood on his hands; chemists and engineers have always known it's part of the deal.

- the second aspect, probably related to the first, is that LANL, and its sister institutions such as LBL and LLNL, represent a very large fraction of the total job market for PhD Physicists -- not so with chemists and engineers. A corollary is that for these non-physics personnel, the lab must compete (read this as pay) agressively to get these people to choose LANL from a host of other job options. For Physicists, it doesn't get a lot better than the lab; academia is always there, but has become a tedious treadmill for many.

That being said, as someone who is now on the outside looking in, I wish you all would realize that everyone brings something to the table -- you need each other to get done what the country is paying you to do. And as a parting shot, don't confuse yourself: the country pays you to make the biggest, baddest, most effective weapons on the face of the Earth.
All of the above comments must be taken with a huge grain of salt, as none of them gave their name. Neither will I.
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