It is a great honor and pleasure to interview Richard Rhodes, author of Pulitzer Prize Winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb
* Parallels between advances in artificial intelligence and the Manhattan Project (development of a powerful, unprecedented and possibly apocalyptic technology under an uncertain arms race)
* Visit hungry ex-Soviet scientists during the collapse of the USSR
* Whether Oppenheimer was a spy, and a consultation on Nolan's film
* Experienced World War II as a child
* Probability of nuclear war in Ukraine, Taiwan, Pakistan and North Korea
* How the US withdrew from such a huge secret wartime science and industrial program
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(0:00:00) - Oppenheimer Films
(0:06:22) - Are bombs inevitable?
(0:29:10) - Incendiary bombs versus atomic bombs versus hydrogen bombs
(0:49:44) - Stalin and the Soviet program
(1:08:24) - Deterrence, disarmament, North Korea, Taiwan
(1:33:12) - Oppenheimer as lab director
(1:53:40) - Advances in Artificial Intelligence and the Manhattan Project
(1:59:50) - Lived through World War II
(2:16:45) - Confidentiality
(2:26:34) - Wisdom and war
(0:00:00) - Oppenheimer Films
Today I have the honor of interviewing Richard Rhodes, a Pulitzer Prize winnermaking the atomic bomb, most recently the authorEnergy, a piece of human historyI am very excited about this. Let's take a look at current events, the fact that a new movie about Oppenheimer is coming out, I know you've been consulted. What do you think of the trailer? What impression do you have?
They do very well, such as the Trinity test rig, which is a sphere covered with several cables. I saw Peaky Blinders, and the actor who played Oppenheimer was there, and he looked a lot like Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was about six feet tall and very thin, not only in weight but also in structure. Some say he can sit comfortably in a high chair. But he never weighed more than 140 pounds, and that quality is in the actor. So who knows? It all depends on how the director decides to tell the story. There are so many facets to the story that you can never cram them into a 2 hour movie. I think we're waiting for a multi-part series that could really tell more of the story, if not the whole story. But it looks exciting. We'll wait. There are some gruesome descriptions of Oppenheimer, some gruesome descriptions of the bomb program. Maybe they'll get it right.
Yes I hope so. It's always great when you find an actor who is very similar to his character. For example, Bryan Cranston, who plays LBJ, has the same physical features of big eyes and big ears. Since we are talking about Oppenheimer, I have a question about him. I know there is evidence that he is not an outright communist spy. But is it possible that he leaked information to the Soviets or helped the Soviet program in some way? He's a communist sympathizer, right?
He worked in the thirties. But it was not so much theory as the actual task of helping Jews escape from Nazi Germany. One of the loves of his life,Jean Tatlock, was also involved in removing Jews from Europe in the 1930s. She was a communist and I think she encouraged him to attend the rally. But I don't see any possibility of him sharing information. He even said he once read Marx on a train ride between Berkeley and Washington and thought it was a bunch of gibberish, which was ridiculous. He is a very smart person. When he reads a book, he reads logic. He thinks it's no big deal. He really knows nothing about people and their struggles. He was born in a fairly wealthy family. His family apartment in New York City is filled with Impressionist paintings. During and before World War I, his father made a lot of money by monopolizing the market for military liners, so there was a lot of wealth. I think his income during the war years and before was about $100,000 a month. That was a lot of money in the 1930s. So he just lived in his head most of his early years, until he arrived in Berkeley to find that his elementary school students were living on cans of horrible cat food because they couldn't afford anything else. Once he understands that there is a lot of suffering in the world, he dives in, which he always does when he is interested in something. So all these things come together.
His brother Frank was a member of the party, as was Frank's wife. I think the whole problem with Oppenheimer lying to security during World War II about who approached him and who tried to get him to sign up for espionage was mainly to cover up his brother's involvement. Not that his brothers revealed any secrets, I don't think they did. But had the military's security services really learned of Frank Oppenheimer's involvement, he could have been transported to the Aleutian Islands or some other distant location during the war. Oppenheimer rightly wanted Frank around. He is someone he trusts.
(0:06:22) - Are bombs inevitable?
Let's start talking about making bombs. One of my questions is, if World War II hadn't happened, would the bomb never have been developed? No one bothered.
That's a very good question, one I've been wondering about for years. But the more I look at the sequence of events, the more I think it's inherently inevitable, though perhaps not such a fast-paced program. Bombs were pushed pretty hard during WWII because we thought the Germans were on to it. Nuclear fission was discovered in Nazi Germany in Berlin in 1938, nine months before the outbreak of World War II in Europe. During the war there was no technical supervision. The only way to find out the truth is to send spies or moles or something. And we don't have that. So we don't know where the Germans were, but we do know that the basic physical reactions that could have triggered the bomb were discovered there a year or more before anyone else in the West even thought about it. The main thing is to stimulate urgency. In your assumptions there would be no sense of urgency.
But once good physicists figured out the reaction that would lead to nuclear fission—a slow, room-temperature, very low-energy neutron hitting the nucleus of a uranium-235 atom—it would cause a gigantic reaction.Rabbi Isidore, one of the greatest physicists of our time, said it was like the moon hitting the earth. As physicists say, the reaction is violently exothermic. It releases much more energy than you used to start it. Once they calculated that, once they figured out how much uranium would be needed in one place to make a bomb or initiate nuclear fission, once they determined that there would be a chain reaction, which means there would be a few neutrons would be made from the reaction of one atom, and those two or three would hit other uranium atoms, and they would split, and then you would get a geometric index. You get 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, and get out of there. For most of our bombs today, the first fission leads to a devastating explosion after 80 generations. Then they had to figure out how much material they needed, something the Germans never really figured out, luckily for the rest of us. They're still working on the idea that somehow the reactor will be something that you build.
When the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr fled Denmark for England and America in 1943, he brought with him a rough sketch,Heisenberg, the lead scientist on the German project, was handed to him while trying to find out how much Bohr knew about what the United States was doing. He showed it to the people in Los Alamos, and one of the great Nobel laureate physicists in the group, Hans Bethe, said, "Are the Germans trying to throw a reactor at us?" You can blow up a reactor, we've seen that. in Chernobyl, but we're not talking about a bomb-sized nuclear explosion here. So when some Jewish immigrant physicists from Nazi Germany were killing time in England after their escape, because they were technically still hostile aliens and therefore couldn't be drawn into a top secret discussion, one of them asked the other : "How much pure uranium-235, this rare chain-reacting uranium isotope, do we need? How much does it cost to make a bomb?" Of course it doesn't stop there He weighs about 125 pounds but that's just a softball That's not that much material Then they calculated the cost of building a plant to extract this rare isotope of uranium from natural metals in which several isotopes are mixed together they don't think it costs more to build a battleship than to build a battleship which isn't much for a country at war of course the British had a large number of battleships at that time So they put all this together, wrote a report, gave it to senior physicists at the University of Manchester where they were, and they quickly realized how important this was.
America is lagging behind because we haven't gone to war yet, but Britain has. London was bombed during the Blitz. So they saw the urgency, first, to eat up Germany, and second, the possibility of building a bomb. In the report, the two scientists wrote that, in their minds, no physical structure could protect against a bomb of such ferocious explosive power. This report dates back to 1940, long before the Manhattan Project began. "The only way we can think of to protect you from a bomb is to have a bomb of comparable destructive power that could be used if the other side were to attack you," they said in the report. That's deterrence. It's a concept that was developed before America went to war. You put all these pieces together and you have a situation where you have to make bombs, because in theory whoever made the first bomb can stop you from making more or stop another country from making bombs and possibly destroying the world. dominate. And the idea of Adolf Hitler ruling the world, a nuclear-armed Third Reich, is horrific. All things considered, the answer is that any country with the technology infrastructure has the potential to build whatever you need to build to get the material for the bomb, start thinking about fusion as soon as it's announced to the world. France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, the United States and even Japan. So I think the bomb will be developed, but probably not that soon.
In the book you say that for some reason the Germans thought the critical mass was about 10 tons and they miscalculated.
You also have some interesting stories in the book about how different countries found out that the Americans were making bombs. For example, the Russians saw that all top physicists, chemists and metallurgists stopped publishing articles. They just went offline, so they thought something must have happened. I'm not sure if you know, but while the making of the nuclear bomb itself is fascinating, this book has become a classic in the field of AI. Are you familiar with this?
The people working on AI now are your big fans. They are the ones who initially recommended this book to me because the way they saw the field progress reminded them. Because you start with these first scientific tips. For example, with deep learning here is something that can teach itself any function, similar to how Szilárd noticed a nuclear chain reaction. In AI, there are scaling laws that say that if you make the model bigger, it gets better at making inferences, predicting text, etc. Then you can extrapolate this curve. You can see we have two orders of magnitude, we have something similar to human intelligence. Anyway, many people who work in AI have become big fans of your book for this reason. They saw many analogies in the years to come. They must have figured out where the Manhattan Project was on page 400.
We'll have to discuss the unintended consequences later. I found this topic absolutely fascinating. I think my next book might be called Unintended Consequences.
You said that a major reason many scientists, especially Jewish immigrants, wanted to work on the bomb was because they feared that Hitler would get it first. As you said sometime in 1943, 1944, it was clear that Hitler, the Nazis, were not close to the bomb. And I believe that hardly any scientist gave up after discovering that the Nazis were very close to us. So why don't more people say -- "Oh, I think we're wrong. The Nazis won't get it. We don't have to work on it."?
Only one man did it, Joseph Rotblat. When he heard in May 1945 that Germany had been defeated, he packed up and left. General Groves, the domineering Army Corps of Engineers general in charge of the entire Manhattan project, was really upset. He's afraid he'll spill the beans. So he threatened to arrest him and put him in jail. But Rotblat was determined not to stay. He is not interested in building bombs to strengthen the United States of America, which is completely understandable. But why is no one else? Let me put it in the words of Victor Weisskopf. He was an Austrian theoretical physicist who, like others, escaped when the Nazis took over Germany and Austria and ended up in Los Alamos. Weisskopf later wrote, "We are in Los Alamos, in the darkest part of our science." They were working on a weapon of mass destruction, which was pretty dark. "It used to be almost a spiritual quest," he said.
It's really interesting how different physics is considered around World War II. Before the war, an American physicist named Louis Alvarez told me that when he got his Ph.D. in physics at Berkeley in 1937 and went to a cocktail party, people would ask, "What degree do you have?" He would say "chemistry" to them. I said, "Why, Louis?" and he said, "Because I don't really need to explain what physics is." So little was known about this science at the time. In 1900 there were only about 1,000 physicists in the world. Much more, of course, in the mid-1930s. They do a lot of nuclear physics and other kinds of physics. But it's still pretty mysterious. They don't feel like they're doing anything mean, dirty, or belligerent at all. They just do pure science. Then came nuclear fission. It is widely publicized all over the world. It's no secret that those born after World War II don't realize this at first. The news first appeared in the German chemistry magazine Die Naturwissenschaften, then in the British magazine Nature and the American magazine. There were headlines in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and around the world.
For a long time people have read and thought about how to extract energy from atomic nuclei. Clearly there is a lot going on there. All you have to do is grab a piece of radium and watch it glow in the dark. The piece of material just sits there, you don't plug it into the wall. If you hold it in your hand, it will burn you. So where does this energy come from? Physicists realized that it all came from the core, which was only a small part of the whole. The nucleus is 1/100,000th the diameter of the entire atom. Someone in the UK described it as about the size of a fly in a cathedral. All the energy involved in chemical reactions comes from the cloud of electrons surrounding the nucleus. But it is clear that the core is the center of great power. But the question is, how do you get them out? Until 1938, the only way to study the nucleus was to bombard it with protons, which have the same charge as the nucleus, a positive charge, meaning they are repelled by it. So you had to crank them up to high speeds with different versions of the big machines we've all known since then. Cyclotrons were mainly built in the 1930s, but there were more. Even then you can at most cut off a small piece. You can change an atom higher or lower in the periodic table. It's certainly a classic metamorphosis of medieval alchemy, but it's not much and you don't get much. So everyone started seeing the core as a little rock that you had to hammer really hard to make something happen because it was so small and compact. That's why nuclear fission, with this slow drift of neutrons, and then the whole thing explodes, is such a shock to everyone. So shocking that when it happened, most of the physicists and others who later worked on the bomb realized they were missing a reaction that they could have performed on a lab bench with equipment on a shelf. There is no need to come up with something new. Again Louis Alvarez, the Berkeley physicist, who said, "I had to get a haircut. While I was reading the paper, I took off my robe, cut off half my hair, ran to my lab and grabbed it off the shelf. gear, put it away, and here it is." So he said, "I found fission, but it was two days too late." And it all happened. People just hit themselves on the head and say, well, Niels Bohr said, "How stupid we all were." So this is a good example of how in science, if you misuse the model, it won't get you any further. The right path.
There was only one physicist who really thought the right way about the uranium atom, and that was Niels Bohr. Sometime in the 1930s, he wondered why uranium was the last natural element on the periodic table? What was different about the others that came later? He imagined the core as a drop of liquid. I always like to think of it as a balloon filled with water. It's wobbly, it's not very stable. The protons in the nucleus are held together by something called the strong force, but they still have a repulsive positive charge that will try to tear them apart if you get enough protons in the nucleus. It's pretty much a standoff between brute force and all cargo. So it's like a wobbly water balloon. Then you can see why the neutrons that just hit the core make it wobble even more, and in one of these configurations it could be shaped like a dumbbell. Then there are actually two charged atoms that are barely connected and try to push each other away. Most of the time they go all out. When they did, the two new elements, which weigh half as much as uranium on the periodic table, reconfigured themselves into two separate nuclei. In doing so, they release some energy. That's the energy of the reaction, and it's a lot of energy. So Bohr was thinking the right way about the model. The chemists who discovered nuclear fusion didn't know what they were getting. They just bombarded the uranium nitrate solution with neutrons and thought, maybe we can make a new element, maybe our work will yield the first man-made element. So when they analyzed the solution after the bombardment, they found the element in the middle of the periodic table. They shouldn't be there. They're all confused. What does this do? Have we contaminated our solution? No, they've been working with a physicist named Lisa Meitner, a theoretical physicist, an Austrian Jew. She had only recently left Nazi Germany. But they still correspond with her.
So they wrote her a letter. When I visited Berlin, I held that letter in my hand and cried. It's not often you get to hold history on this scale. It says in German: “We found this strange reaction in our solution. What are these elements doing there that don't belong there?” She and her cousin Otto Frisch, also a nuclear physicist (Otto Frisch), went for a walk together in a small village in western Sweden. They thought for a while and remembered Bohr's model, the wobbly water-filled balloon. Suddenly they saw what was about to happen. That's where the news comes from, the physics news and not the chemical news of the Germans, which is published in all Western magazines and all newspapers. For years everyone was talking about what you could do if you had that energy. One cup of this material could drive the Queen Mary from New York to London and back 20 times, and so on, and your car could run for months. People wondered what would happen if you had so much energy at your disposal. Of course they have thought of the reactor. Robert Oppenheimer is a professor at Berkeley, and within a week of the news reaching Berkeley, one of his students told me he had drawn a picture on the blackboard, a pretty bad picture of a reactor and a bomb. Again, because the energy is so great, the physics are pretty obvious. Whether it will actually happen depends on a number of other things, such as can you make it have a ripple effect? But essentially the idea was there from the start and everyone bought into it.
This book is actually the best WWII history I've ever read. It's about the atomic bomb, but it's juxtaposed with events in WWII that inspired its creation or release, and why it had to be dropped on Japan given Japan's response. The first third deals with the scientific roots of physics, and it is also the best book I have read on the history of science and its organization in the early 20th century. There's some really interesting stuff in there. For example, there is a paragraph where you say that early science has a true master-apprentice model. If you want to learn how to do these kinds of experiments, you go to Amsterdam, and the master is there. It's more personal.
Yes, the postgraduate study model across Europe is basically made up of wandering scholars. You can go wherever you want and register with anyone who lets you register.
(0:29:10) - Incendiary bombs versus atomic bombs versus hydrogen bombs
But the question I want to ask is, with regard to your general history of World War II, can you think about the atomic bomb in a way that is completely different from any type of weapon that has been developed before. Another way you can think of it is that there is a spectrum with thermonuclear bombs at one end, atomic bombs in the middle, and incendiary bombs for cities like Hamburg and Dresden and Tokyo at this end. Do you think these are completely different categories or do they look like an escalating gradient?
I think until you get the H-bomb, it's really an escalating gradient. Hydrogen bombs can be made any size. The largest ever tested was 56 megatons of TNT equivalent. The USSR tested this. There was a fireball over five miles across, just a fireball. So it's really an order of magnitude change. But the other one actually wasn't, I think that's one of the real problems, it wasn't talked about much, it should be, when US officials went to Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the war, one of the officials later said -- - "I got the plane in Tokyo. We flew over the long green archipelago of mainland Japan. When I left Tokyo, there were gray broken roof tiles everywhere from incendiaries and other explosions. And then all that greenery. When we flew over Hiroshima it was gray, broken roof tiles again.” So in the case of Hiroshima the scale of one bomb wasn't much different from the scale of a fire explosion of tens of thousands of bombs before it the difference is it's just an airplane in fact the people of Hiroshima didn't even bother to go to their bomb shelters because one plane was just a weather plane all along the bombers came to check the weather before they took off so they don't see any reason to hide or protect themselves which is one of the reasons why so many people get killed. The people in Los Alamos were planning to let the Japanese into their bomb shelters. They did everything they could to bomb the bombs as normally as possible. For example, it exploded high enough above the ground, about 6,000 feet, that the fireball of this very small nuclear weapon - by modern standards - equivalent to 15 tons of TNT, would not hit the ground and kick up dirt and damage it Radiates and causes massive radioactive fallout. It never does. They are not sure if there will be any consequences. They thought the plutonium and atomic bombs would now turn to gas over Nagasaki and be blown away. But in fact it is not.
But what people don't seem to realize, and never get enough attention to, is that these first bombs, like all nuclear weapons, were incendiaries. Their job was to start huge fires, like all the 6 pound incendiary bombs that destroyed every major city in Japan at the time. Every major city with a population of 50,000 or more has been set on fire. The only reason why Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed with atomic bombs was that they were not on the target list because General Groves wanted to know what the damaging effects would be. The bombs tested in the desert tell you nothing. It killed a lot of rabbits, knocked down a lot of cacti, melted some sand, but you don't see the effect on buildings and people. So the bombs are purposely designed not to look like gas, for example, because we don't want to get the notoriety that people had in European wars during World War I, where people killed each other with terrible gas. it's just another bombing. So in that sense it is. Of course there is radioactivity. Of course, some people died because of that. But they calculated that people who would have been killed by irradiation (neutron radiation from the original fireball) were so close to the epicenter of the explosion that they would have been killed by the blast or the flash at 10,000 degrees. world. You've seen stories of people with the skin on their arms walking around. I was sunburned almost that bad, but not quite, and it was clear that the skin was blistering and peeling off. That's sunburn from an artificial sun at 10,000 degrees.
So that's not heat, that's just light?
Radiant light, radiant heat. Ten thousand degrees. But the explosion itself just extends a certain distance and is fire. All nuclear weapons ever designed were essentially incendiaries. This is important because after the war, the US military could not figure out how to reliably calculate the effects of the weapon, consistent with their previous experience. They calculate the detonation effect of a nuclear weapon only after the target has been calculated. That's why we have the so-called overkill. Of course we want redundancy, but Moscow's 60 nuclear weapons are far more than it takes to destroy such a large city, because they are just explosions. But in fact, if you detonate a 300-ton nuclear warhead over the Pentagon at 3,000 feet, it will go all the way to the capital, which is not far away. But if you count the fire, it creates a big fire, and then it goes all the way to the ring road, burning everything between the weapons center and the ring road. All organic material is completely burned, essentially leaving only minerals.
I want to emphasize two points you made because they hit me so hard while reading the book, and I'm not sure the audience fully absorbed them. The first is, in the book, the military planners and Groves, they talk about they had to use the bombs early on because they ran out of Japanese cities where there were enough buildings to be worth bombing in Japan number one, how crazy is . Incendiary bombs alone destroyed almost the entire country. The second point is about the class difference between thermonuclear and atomic bombs. Daniel Ellsberg, nuclear planner, authordoomsday-machine, he said, people don't understand the atomic bomb that led to the pictures of Nagasaki and Hiroshima that we see, that's just the detonator of the modern atomic bomb, it's crazy to think about it. So, for example, 10 and 15 kilotons are Hiroshima Nagasaki and the Tsar Bomb, which is 50 megatons. So it is more than 1000 times the original. That's not even as big as they can make. They stopped messing with uranium because they didn't want to destroy all of Siberia. So you get more than 10,000 times the power.
When Edward Teller, the co-inventor of the hydrogen bomb and one of the dark forces in the story, was arguing with our military for his own benefit, he sat down and decided, How big can you build a hydrogen bomb? It came out at 1000 megatons. Then he checked the effect. 1,000 megatons is equal to a fireball 10 miles in diameter. And the atmosphere is only 10 miles deep. He thought it would just be a waste of energy because it would all be blown into space. Of course, some of them will travel sideways, but most of them will go into space. So bombs over 100 megatons are a waste of time. Of course, a 100 megaton bomb would also be a complete waste since there are no targets on Earth large enough to warrant this from a military point of view. During this security hearing for Robert Oppenheimer, whose security clearance was questioned and subsequently lifted as punishment for resisting the development of the hydrogen bomb, interrogators asked him, "Well, Oppenheimer If you had the Hiroshima hydrogen bomb, Dr. Oppenheimer would doing." don't you use it?" Oppenheimer said, "No." The interrogator asked, "Why?" He said it was because the target was too small. I wish that scene was in the movie, and I'm sure it is. will be.
So after the war, when our bomb planners and some of our scientists moved into Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at the time the surrender was signed, they were naturally interested in the magnitude of the destruction. And those two cities looked no different from other cities that had been bombed with small incendiary bombs and ordinary explosives. They go home to Washington, policymakers, and think -- "Oh, these bombs aren't so destructive after all." They are actually advertised as city squatters, but they are not. They didn't completely burn the city down. They were certainly no more destructive than the Molotov cocktails, when everything above 50,000 people was destroyed. When the Soviet Union got the atomic bomb in 1949, this in turn influenced our judgment of what the Soviet Union should do. It's generally accepted that if you can fight a war with nuclear weapons, deterrence or not, you need a lot of them to do it right. And the Air Force, once realizing that it could increase its share of the federal budget by monopolizing the market and supplying nuclear weapons, quickly decided that they were only concerned with blast effects and not fire effects. It's like tying a hand behind your back. Most are fire effects. So here they come with numbers like we need 60 of those numbers to destroy Moscow. The Air Force discovered in the late 1940s that the more targets, the more bombs. The more bombs, the more planes. The more aircraft, the greater the share of the budget. As a result, the Air Force controlled 47 percent of the federal defense budget by the mid-1950s. The other services that had not yet been nuclearized at that time woke up and said we had better use these weapons in our service. So the military felt it needed a nuclear weapon, a tactical weapon for use in the field, fired from a cannon. One was even fired from a shoulder rifle. There was a two-person backpack weighing about 150 pounds that could be used to dig trenches to keep Soviet tanks out of Germany. Of course, by then the Navy had been working hard with Admiral Rickover to build a nuclear submarine that could safely carry ballistic missiles underwater. Once the submarines are quiet enough, no one can track them down. Nuclear reactors are very quiet. It just sits there with the neutrons running around and generating heat. So other services join in, this famous triad, we have to have these three different types of nuclear weapons, nonsense. If we only had nuclear submarines, we would be very safe. And only one or two of them. A single nuclear submarine can destroy all of Europe or the entire Soviet Union.
Because it has multiple nuclear weapons on it?
Because they have 16 ICBMsseveral fighter planesWarheads, at least three per missile.
Wow. I have a former guest, Richard Hanania, who has a foreign policy book in which he argues that the way we think about why countries do what they do is wrong, especially in foreign affairs, because what we think of as individual rational actors are actually these competing factions within the government. You'll actually see this especially in WW2 Japan there's a good book on pre-WW2 Japan where they talk about a branch of the Japanese military I forget which ones need more oil continue their campaign in Manchuria so they forced other branches to escalate. But the funny thing is that the reason we have so many nuclear weapons is because different branches compete for funding.
Airpower theorist Douhet was in the trenches in World War I. Someone (John Masefield) called the trenches of WWI long graves that were dug, because millions were killed and the trenches never moved, one foot this way, one foot one foot there, all these horrors. Douhet came up with the idea that if you could fly across the battlefield to an enemy's homeland and destroy its ability to wage war, the people of that country, he suspected, would revolt, overthrow their leader, and would beg for peace. This became the dream of all air forces in the world, but especially ours. It wasn't known as the United States Army Air Corps until around 1943.
Every Air Force officer's dream is to be free from the military, not just to provide ground or air support for the military as it advances, but to be a fighting force that can actually win wars. And the missing piece has always been the size of the weapons they carry. So when the bombs come, you can see why Curtis LeMay, who led the Strategic Air Command during the service's premiere, is pushing for bigger and bigger bombs. Because if one plane is shot down, but the plane behind it has a hydrogen bomb, it's almost as effective as the two planes combined. So they want big bombs. They went after Oppenheimer because he thought it was a terrible way, because these huge weapons really had no military use. Also, the US has more cities than Russia, more than the USSR. We've made ourselves a better target by introducing a weapon that can destroy entire nations. I used to live in Connecticut and I saw a map of air pollution from New York City to Boston. I thought, well, if that was dust, we'd all be dead in beautiful green Connecticut. That's the size of these big new guns. So on the one hand, some key people in government decided that these guns weren't the war-winning guns the Air Force wanted, and realized they could be. On the other hand, you have the Air Force that monopolizes the market for nuclear solutions. It all started because someone in the trenches in World War I was very scared and theoretical about the possibility of air power. Remember they still fly biplanes.
When H.G. Wells wrote his novel,world freedomIn 1913, he predicted an atomic war that would lead to a world government, and he had the Air Force deliver the atomic bombs, but he forgot to update his planes. Rear-seat bombardiers sat in the open cockpit of a biplane. When the pilots dropped the bombs, they took the idea from H.G. Wells for the atomic bomb and tossed it aside. That's what's happening in post-war Washington. This gave us a very misguided and unfortunate view of how many guns we needed, which in turn led to an arms race with the USSR, which was then thrown out. In the USSR, they had a pragmatic view of factories. Each plant should produce 120% of its target each year. This is considered good Soviet realism. They did it with nuclear weapons. So at the height of the Cold War, they had 75,000 nuclear weapons and no one had ever heard of a nuclear winter. Therefore, if both sides detonate this series of massive traps in our arsenal, it will undoubtedly be the end of the human world.
This raises an interesting question: if military planners thought conventional nuclear weapons were incendiary, would nuclear war be happening right now without thermonuclear weapons, because wouldn't people always think of it as this hard red line?
I don't think so because we are talking about one bomb versus 400 bombs, one plane versus 400 planes and thousands of bombs. That scale is clear. Deterrence is the most important. Everyone seemed to understand that even spies associated with the Soviet Union were great intelligence agents for the USSR. Truman sat down with Joseph Stalin in Potsdam and he told Stalin we had a powerful new weapon, which was hilarious. That's all he wanted to say. Stalin licked it and said, "Very good, I hope you make good use of it against the Japanese." Stalin knew exactly what he was talking about. He had seen blueprints of the Fat Man Nagasaki plutonium bomb. He holds it in his hand because they have spies everywhere.
(0:49:44) - Stalin and the Soviet program
How long would it have taken the Soviets to develop the atomic bomb without any spies?
Probably not anymore.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in the winter of 1992, I ran as fast as I could. In this dilemma between forming a new type of government and stopping some countries from becoming independent and so on, their nuclear scientists, the people who worked on their bombs, were free to talk. I learned about this through Andrei Sakharov's widow, Yelena Bonner, who had connections with people I knew. She said, yes, come here. Her secretary, Sasha, a geologist of about 35, became my guide across the country. We went to different apartments. They were retirees from the bomb program and, as far as I know, lived on beanbags, potatoes and some salt. They have government pensions and suddenly it's worth the money. I bought the photos from them partly because I needed them and partly because $20 was my income for two months at the time. So it's easy for me and it helps them too. They had first-class physicists in the USSR, and today in Russian. They told me that by 1947 they had designed a bomb that they said was half the weight and twice the weight of the Fat Man. The Fat Man bomb is a plutonium implosion, right? It weighs about 9,000 pounds. They had a much smaller, much more capable bomb with a yield of about 44 tons.
Why was Soviet physics so good?
Russian ghost? I have no idea. They learned all their techniques from the French in the 19th century, which is why there are so many French words in Russian. So they have great teachers, the French are top-notch technicians, they're not very good at building things, but they're very good at designing things. There's something about Russia, I don't know if it's the language or the education. They were really well trained, they did. But I remember asking when they were working and I said - on the H-bomb you don't have computers yet. We only have very early primitive computers to do complex calculations about the fluid dynamics of that explosion. I said, "What have you done?" They said, "Oh, we've only used nuclear energy. We've only used theoretical physics. That's what we did at Los Alamos. Some people came in who really understood math and they sat there and did the calculations with the hand. And a woman who makes numbers with an old Marchant calculator. So basically they are just good scientists and they have this new design. Kurchatov, who was in charge of the project, approached the head of the NKVD, Lavrentiy Beria, who in charge of the project, and said, "Look, we can make better bombs for you. You really want to waste time making more uranium and plutonium? Beria said, "Comrade, I want the American bomb. Give me the American bomb, or you and your whole family will turn to dust." I talked to Talking with one of the leading scientists in the group, he said, we value our lives, we value our families. So we gave them a copy of the plutonium implosion bomb.
Since you explained this, when the USSR collapsed, why didn't North Korea, Iran or others send some people to the collapsed USSR to recruit some scientists to start their own programs? Or buy their inventory or something. or she?
The Middle Eastern countries have made some effort to get all the enriched uranium, but they don't want to sell it. These are responsible scientists. They told me - we study the bomb because you have it, and we don't want any country in the world to monopolize it. So patriotic, even though Stalin rules our country, he is a monster. We feel we have a duty to work hard for these things, even for Sakharov. At the end of World War II, German scientists were in a hurry. The Soviets captured about the same number. All leading German scientists, such as Heisenberg and Hans, moved west at the fastest speed. They did not want to be captured by the Soviets. But some people are. They help them work. Los Alamos is believed to be the site of the explosion. Indeed, here at Los Alamos we have the teams that designed, engineered and built the first real weapons. But the fact is that the vital material of the weapon is uranium or plutonium. Years later, a Manhattan Project scientist told me that a high-intensity nuclear explosion could be produced simply by taking two blocks of subcritical uranium, placing one on the ground, and dropping the other by hand from a height of about 1 .8 meters. If so, then all this stuff about secret designs and such is bullshit. What a weapon really needs is a critical mass of highly enriched uranium, which is 90 percent uranium-235. If you understand, there are many ways to make a bomb. We use two completely different methods. The gun is uranium on one side and plutonium on the other because plutonium is so reactive that if you fired the barrel of a gun at 3000 feet per second it would still melt before the two parts could be made. So for that reason they had to invent a brand new technology, which is great work.
From a Soviet perspective, I think that's also unknown, but it puts the Russian experience in better context. As far back as the 1930s, since the formation of the Soviet Union after World War I, they had sent spy agents to get in touch with Americans willing to work for them to collect industrial technology. Not when they were founded. This is a very agricultural country. In that respect, people are still talking about all those goddamned spies stealing our secrets, that's what we did with the British in colonial times. We don't know how to build a channel that won't drain through the ground. The English had a type of clay that they used to make canals, and there were canals all over England, and even in the 18th century the canals were protected from the flow of water. We paid a lot of money for an English engineer to teach us how to navigate the canals we opened up in the Midwest and West. So they do the same. One of the spies was a man named Harry Gold who had worked for them. For example, he taught them some basic techniques of Kodak filmmaking. Harry Gold was the liaison between David Greengrass and an American spy in Los Alamos and the Soviet Union. So it's no different. The model is: never give us something other people dream of, but you know it works. So it's actually a blueprint for the factory, not just a patent.
So when Beria said after the war, give us the bombs, he meant give me the American bombs, because we knew that would work. I don't believe you. Who knows what you will do. Anyway, you're probably too stupid. He is such a person. So for all these reasons, they made a second bomb that was twice as powerful and half as powerful as the first bomb. In other words, it's their new design. So it's ours because the technology is something we knew during the war, but it's still too theoretical to use. You just need to place the core and leave a small air gap between the core and the explosive so that the blast wave has a chance to accelerate through the open gap. Alvarez couldn't tell me what that was, but he said you can take more damage with a hammer if you hit it with something instead of putting your head on the hammer and pushing. It took me years to understand what he meant. I finally understood what he was talking about, the so-called levitation.
As to whether the main difficulty in developing a bomb is refining uranium to U-235 or converting it to plutonium, I actually spoke with a physicist to prepare for this conversation. He explained the same thing, if you put two subcritical masses of uranium together, you wouldn't get the full bomb because it would start splitting itself without messing, but you would still have more than one megaton.
This will be several kilograms. Alvarez's model would weigh several thousand tons, but that's a lot.
Yes, sorry, I meant a thousand tons. One of the reasons we talked so much about Los Alamos, he claimed, was that the government at the time didn't want other countries to know that if you refine uranium, you get it. So they were like, oh, we're doing all this fancy physics stuff in Los Alamos where you don't go, so don't worry about it. I don't know what you think of that theory. It's basically a way to convince people that Los Alamos is important.
I think by that time all physics had been explored by many different countries. Everyone knows exactly what to do to get the bomb. There is a fast fusion reaction instead of a slow fusion reaction, like a reactor. They are resolved. So I don't think it's a real problem. But to this day no one talks about the fact that the real problem is not the design of the weapon. You can make one from a wooden box if you like. The problem is getting the material. That's good because it's so hard to make these things. This is something you can protect.
We also got very lucky, if you want to use that word. I think you mentioned this somewhere in the book, but the laws of physics might be that unrefined uranium ore is enough to make a nuclear weapon, right? In a way, we are lucky that the actual refining and production of raw materials requires national players.
Yes, I was thinking about that this morning. All the uranium in the world has self-destructed. Most people have never heard of the living reactors that developed on African uranium deposits some 2 billion years ago, right? Then there was more U-235 in bulk uranium ore than today because it decays like all radioactive elements. The French discovered it while mining the ore and found that the bed had a very different nuclear signature. They're like, what happened? But Gabon once had natural reactors. They started because some water, a moderator that slows down neutrons, washed away a bed of highly enriched uranium ore than we have today. Maybe 5-10%, not 3.5 or 1.5, whatever that is. They work for about 100,000 years and then shut themselves down when they collect enough fusion products to use up U-235. Interestingly, this material never migrated from the deposit. Anti-nuclear people are saying these days, what are we going to do with this waste? Where are we going to put this garbage? It is stupid.
Push it into a hole.
Yes, actually. That is exactly what we intend to do. Holes deep enough and in beds of materials that hold them long enough to rot everything back into the original ore. It's not a problem, except politically, because nobody wants it in their backyard.
As for the USSR, one of the questions I had while reading the book was, we negotiated with Stalin at Yalta and we gave him most of Eastern Europe in his sphere of influence. Apparently we saw poor people living there for 50 years. Would it have been possible for us to destroy the USSR or at least prevent so many countries around the world from succumbing to communism after World War II, given that only we had the atomic bomb? Is there such a possibility?
When we say we have bombs, we have some partially assembled handmade bombs. It takes almost as long as the battery life to assemble a battery that powers the initial charge that will cause the explosion. This is a big bluff. You know, when they closed Berlin in 1948, we had to fly coal and food into Berlin during the winter and we transferred some B-29s to the UK. The B-29 is a bomber that carries bombs. They are not armed with nuclear weapons. They don't have the same type of bomb-based structure. The weapons dropped in Japan only had one hook to hold the whole bomb. So when the hatch was opened and the hook released, the thing fell out. This is very different from the whole row of small bombs you see falling in photos and film footage. So it was a big bluff on our part. Inevitably, after the war we needed some time to sort things out. This is a completely new technology. This is a brand new weapon. Who's in charge? The military wanted control, and Truman had no intention of the military exercising control. He served as an artillery officer in World War I. He used to say -- "No, that goddamn artillery captain is going to start World War III when I'm president." I grew up in the same city he lived in, so I know his accent. Independence, Missouri. When he was president, he often posed for pictures with tourists on the steps of his house. He went out on the porch and let tourists take pictures. About half a block from the Methodist church where I go to church. Interesting. Interestingly, people think his wife is more socially popular than him. She comes from an independent old family in Missouri. He was a farmer from Grandview, Missouri, just south of Kansas City. values.
Anyway, at the end of the war, the Soviet side made a massive sprint into what was already a zone. There is a Soviet Quarter, a French Quarter, a British Quarter and an American Quarter. Germany was divided into these areas to obtain the remainder of the uranium ore stockpiled by the Germans. There is evidence that somewhere in the middle of it all there are many barrels of the stuff in warehouses. There's also a really interesting story about how the Russians broke in and captured a place full of uranium, these yellow and black things that were actually wine barrels. That same night, just before the wall between the areas collapsed, we ran in from the other side, grabbed some other ores and brought them back to our side. But there was also a large number of expropriations of German scientists. Those who left early made it to the West, but some did not leave and ended up helping the Soviets. They were told, look, you help us build the reactors and uranium separation systems we need. We're going to take you home, back to your family, and that's what they're doing. By the early 1950s, the German scientists who had helped the Russians had returned home. I think our people stayed here and brought their families here, I don't know.
(1:08:24) - Deterrence, disarmament, North Korea, Taiwan
After World War II, before the USSR developed the atomic bomb, is there any chance that the United States will do anything, either somehow enforce a monopoly on possession of the atomic bomb, or failing that, one or other credible gesture, we This knowledge is dismantled, and if you don't work on it, we all take a step back.
Before the war we tried both. General Groves, erroneously believing that there was a finite supply of high-quality uranium ore in the world, formed a company in an attempt to monopolize all available supply in the market. For some reason he didn't realize that a country the size of the USSR would have uranium mines somewhere. Of course there is enough uranium in Kazakhstan to make all the bombs they want to make. But he didn't know and honestly I don't know why he didn't know but I think the use of uranium before World War II was basically as a polish for pottery, the famous people of yellow pottery and orange pottery in the 1930's The 90s have , those colors come from uranium, which is so radioactive that even today, if you wave a Geiger counter over it, something clicks. In some places, they even came in wearing masks and suits, took Mexican pottery and brought it out in lead-lined boxes. People have been very concerned about it, but that's the only use for uranium, and that's to make a special kind of glass. So once it became clear that there was another use for uranium, a much more important one, Groves tried to monopolize the world market, which he thought he did. So it was an attempt to limit what the Soviet Union could do.
The other is to negotiate some sort of agreement between the parties. That was something that never really came to fruition because the German Secretary of State was an old Southern politician who didn't trust the Soviets. He went to his first meeting in Geneva in '45 after the war, sauntered around and said, well, I've got a bomb in my pocket, so let's sit down and talk. The USSR basically said fuck you. We don't care. We're not worried about your bombs. go home. So that didn't work. Then there is the effort to get the UN to work on some international control plans. The plan was originally proposed by a committee formed by our State Department, which included Robert Oppenheimer, and rightly so, as the other members of the committee were industrialists, engineers, government officials and people of various backgrounds on very complex issues. with expertise in technology and science, and of course politics and diplomacy. A few weeks later, Oppenheimer taught them the basics of nuclear physics and what he knew about bomb design, which has basically been everything since he ran Los Alamos. He was a scientist during the war. They came up with a plan. Since then, people have ridiculed what came to be known asAcheson-Lilienthal-planNamed after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But I think this is the only really sensible plan to gain international control without a world government. Each country is open to inspection by an established body. And the controls will not be done at the convenience of the state. But when inspectors feel they need to inspect. So Oppenheimer called it an open world. If you have that, if every country develops its own nuclear industry, nuclear energy, medical applications, etc., and if a country secretly tries to make bombs, you will know that at the next check. Then you can try diplomacy. If that doesn't work, you can try regular war. If that's not enough, you can also start making bombs. At the end of this sequence, long enough, assuming no bombs exist in the world, and the ore is stored in a warehouse somewhere, maybe six months, maybe a year, everyone should expand to a weapons deterrent, in place of deterrence. without weapons and only knowledge.
To me, that's the answer to the whole thing. It probably worked. But there are two major problems. First, no country will allow a monopoly on nuclear weapons, at least not a major country. So the Russians were reluctant to sign in the first place. They just can't. How could they? we will not. Second, Sherman assigned a big mouth, a smart old Wall Street dude, to present the project to the UN. After Oppenheimer and his men studied it, he and Oppenheimer sat down and said, where is your army? Someone there started making bombs. You have to go in and take it out, don't you? He said what would happen if a country started making bombs? Oppenheimer said, well, that would be an act of war. This means that other countries may escalate as they need to protect themselves against a force that tries to overwhelm other countries. Well, Bernard Baruch is the man's name. He does not understand. So when he submitted a revised version of the Acheson-Lilienthal Plan (called the Baruch Plan) to the UN, he included his army. He insisted that the United States not give up its nuclear monopoly until everyone else had joined. So, of course, who will sign the deal?
I think he has a point - World War II lasted five years or more. If we find out that the Soviets are starting to develop the bomb, it's not like they're going to have to start refining the ore in six months or a year. Until we find out they refined the ore, until we start a war and get involved, with all the diplomacy. By then they may have had the bomb. So we were behind because we had dismantled our weapons. Only after we have exhausted these other avenues do we begin to develop our weapons.
not develop. Presumably we will develop. Everyone develops anyway. Another way to think about it is delayed lead times. It takes about 30 minutes to get an ICBM from central Missouri to Moscow. This is the time frame to do anything other than start a nuclear war. So get the warheads off those missiles and move them 10 miles away. Then it takes three hours. You need to put the warhead back on the missile. If the other party is willing to do the same. You can all watch. We have to be open. Bohr introduced a word for the whole. To do this, you must not have any secrets. Of course, over time we have advanced space surveillance, aircraft surveillance, etc. That certainly wouldn't have worked out in 1946. There is no surveillance. But that system is there today. The IAEA has detected the system in air, space and underwater. They were able to detect 50 pounds of explosives going off in the UK from Australia using our existing system. It's technology, not human resources. But it's there. So in theory such a project could start today. Except now, of course, like in 1950, when the world was full of nuclear weapons. Despite reductions since the end of the Cold War, there are still 30,000-40,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Too many.
Yes. It's really fun. What percentage of nuclear warheads do you think the organization is? If there are 30,000 warheads, what is the percentage?
Oh. Real? North Korea has no secrets?
They can carry out inspections anywhere without asking the government for permission.
But probably not North Korea or anything, right?
North Korea is an exception. But it goes without saying that we follow North Korea very closely.
Are you surprised by the success of non-proliferation? The number of countries with nuclear weapons has not increased in decades. Given the facts, as you mentioned earlier, it's just a matter of refining or converting uranium. Is it surprising that more countries don't have it?
That's the really fun part. Again, part of the story that most people never actually hear. In the 1950s, before the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was developed and signed in 1968 and came into effect in 1970, many countries you would never expect were working on nuclear weapons. Sweden, Norway, Japan, Korea. They have technology. They just don't have the material. It's a bit risky what you should be doing. But I interviewed some Swedish scientists who worked on bombs and they said, well, we're just talking about building some tactical nukes that will slow down Russian tanks attacking our country long enough for us to defend ourselves. I said, then why did you give up? They said: when the Soviets developed the hydrogen bomb, it only took two to destroy Sweden. So we don't see much significance. Then we signed the NPT. Our knowledge of making nuclear weapons helps us deal with countries like South Africa, which did make some bombs in the late 1980s. Six World War II style bullets fueled by enriched uranium, as South Africa is rich in uranium mines and produces large amounts of uranium for various purposes. So the effort began. this is where john kennedy got the numbersin a famous speechHe said 10 countries would have nuclear weapons by 1970 and 30 by 1980, which kept me awake at night. That would be a nightmare world, of course, because the risk of someone using a nuclear weapon would increase accordingly.
But after the Cuban Missile Crisis, we and the Soviet Union essentially said, we have to slow this down for ourselves and for others. The treaty that was then drafted and negotiated produced a good deal. It says that if you don't build nuclear weapons, we will give you the knowledge to build nuclear technology so that you can succeed. In the early days of nuclear weapons, it was believed that once a country learned the technology, it would immediately get down to business making bombs. No one really found out. This seems obvious. But this is not obvious. Building nuclear weapons and owning arsenals carries dangers. If you are a small country and you have a nuclear arsenal, you have the potential to destroy a large country, or at least cripple a large country, because you have these extremely destructive weapons. This makes you a target. It means that a great power is watching and worrying about you like never before. Everyone then understood the logic. They get a lot of benefits.
The other part of the agreement, which the nuclear powers have never kept, is the agreement that we will seriously and aggressively pursue nuclear disarmament. We didn't. We just tell them we will. Then sneak around the sides. So much so that with this treaty, since no one fully trusts the whole deal, it is usually signed forever. They have no end date. They continue until someone breaks the rules. But the treaty has a 25-year review period, in 1995, after which it will be suspended if countries choose to abolish it. Anyone can go back and make nukes. It's almost because the major nuclear powers have failed to honor their agreement to begin reducing their nuclear arsenals. It wasn't until the end of the Cold War, until the collapse of the Soviet Union, that we began to reduce our nuclear arsenal. Then we started austerity, just like the former Soviet Union. My friend Tom Graham, one of my diplomats, was instructed by the State Department to go to the countries that would vote on whether or not to extend the treaty and convince them to become leaders. It is not in their interest to abolish the treaty at that point. Tom was on the road for two years. The only place he thought he should be was not the UN, where there was a second-rate diplomat he could talk to, but at home. He has convinced enough countries in the world. He is another hero who has never been properly celebrated. He convinced enough countries around the world to agree to extend the treaty permanently. The condition is that the damn nine nuclear powers are in the process of eliminating their nuclear weapons.
Of course, George HW Bush, bless him or I don't like his politics, but he stepped up and immediately split the nuclear arsenal in two. We have reduced our numbers, much lower than before. He reduced the number of South Korea, which was a major problem for the Soviet Union, North Korea and China, and did much to achieve real reductions in nuclear arsenals. The Russians agreed at the time. That was before Putin came to power. So things are getting better, but unfortunately there are still too many people around. So that's why there are only nine nuclear powers to this day.
How concerned are you about proxy wars between nuclear powers? This makes people worry about the conflict in Ukraine, for example. If we face a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the future, that's something to worry about. I have a friend who knows these things very well, and we fight because I think, listen, if war comes, if there is a risk of nuclear war, let them take Taiwan. We're going to build a semiconductor factory in Arkansas. Who cares, right? He explained, no, you don't understand, because if we don't protect Taiwan, Japan and South Korea will decide to have nuclear weapons, because they are like the United States will not protect us. If they used nuclear weapons, the risk of nuclear war would actually increase, not decrease.
Or they simply decided to form an alliance with China. Yes, because we didn't protect them with our nuclear umbrella as promised.
Oh, I don't think we've committed to Taiwan yet, but I think that's implied.
I think it's implied. Yes. When we say we're going to help defend them, we mean it.
Yes. But anyway, the question is, how concerned are you about a proxy war going nuclear?
There is much debate about whether nuclear deterrence is really effective. The best evidence is that the US has fought many wars on the periphery, starting with North Korea, then Vietnam and a few other smaller things in between, and we were willing to accept defeat. We have definitely accepted defeat in Vietnam instead of using our nuclear arsenal, always because there is a great nuclear power behind those surrounding countries. China and the Soviet Union or something. We don't want to risk nuclear war. So at that level, deterrence seems to work for a very long time. But that has recently changed. I think it's a little scary. The first performance is India and Pakistan. In the late 1990s, they all went fully nuclear. India tested a bomb in 1974 and they claimed it was a peaceful explosion, which it was. But from there they went nowhere. They had already tested their first bomb in China when Pakistan got the bomb from AQ Khan, who was later in Iraq and tried to spread to Iran. But they didn't make many warheads either. Then the characters involved in their conflict or government are mutually exclusive. Each side tested four or five nuclear bombs each around 1997 or 1998. They are now mature nuclear powers on the scale of two regional states. But then, in 1999, there was a border dispute between the two countries. Pakistan presents a whole new argument for nuclear deterrence. Not only can you prevent nuclear escalation, but if you maintain deterrence you can wage a conventional war with another side unwilling to escalate because you still have your nuclear arsenal. And it was very close to a nuclear exchange, we jumped in with both feet, believe me, we talked in both countries, don't do it, don't go that far, they backed off. But Putin or someone in the Russian complex has embraced this new approach. This is what Putin is using now. He's basically saying, I'm fighting a conventional war here. You dare not introduce nuclear weapons, or I will. In fact, if you beat me, I might introduce nuclear weapons. Screw you. I'm going to use my nukes as backup. this is new. It's scary because it's an entirely different kind of deterrent that has the potential to go too far, too fast for you to know what's going on.
In a way, he's bluffing, or so I hope. You can't say that, of course, but hopefully the government won't react to the United States' use of tactical nuclear weapons to destroy Ukraine.
I don't think we will respond to it with a large-scale nuclear strike. But I do think we will respond with some kind of nuclear exchange with Russia or maybe just that part of Russia, I don't know. For a long time we have had a policy called decapitation. A long time ago we could use separate warheads for the personal apartment of this Russian leadership and [unclear]. in the afternoon window, because they are now very accurate and completely hidden. If you think about cruise missiles, we can put one in someone's window, it's a nuclear warhead, not just explosives. They already knew. That doesn't give anyone time to get into the dugout. This has become very hairy. It used to be very simple. Don't bomb us or we'll bomb you. Attack in some neighboring countries, we will not bomb you because you might bomb us. We will lose that little war, but we come from somewhere else. All of these things are complicated enough as it is. But now we are talking about another level.
So in a sense, the idea that we could support conventional forces with nuclear weapons worked. After World War II, the USSR had millions of red troops stationed in Eastern Europe, and we had none left in Western Europe, but we said, listen, if you invade Western Europe, we will respond with a nuclear strike. I think it works.
It worked until August 1949, when the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb. At that moment, panic broke out in Washington. The whole debate continues, are we going to build a hydrogen bomb? In the end, the army prevailed and the chairman agreed. And,Fuchswas revealed, and with such full knowledge the Russians knew a lot, because the Fuchs knew about our early work on hydrogen weapons before the end of the war. We are investigating this possibility. All this was followed by a terrifying moment when Teller's side won. We said let's make bigger bombs, as if that would help. But there is a balance of power, and you're right. There are two million in Europe. We have bombs. When they got the bomb, the balance of power was upset. How do we regain balance? Rebalancing is the hydrogen bomb. Unfortunately, you end up at the end of the world.
I read the acknowledgments and you spoke to Teller when you were writing the book. right?
I did it.
Apparently he was a major inspiration for America's hunt for the hydrogen bomb. How did he feel when you talked to him about it?
(1:33:12) - Oppenheimer as lab director
Early in my research I made the mistake of visiting Taylor at his home in Stanford when I really didn't know who everyone was, what to ask, etc. I sent him an article I had written for a magazine about Robert Oppenheimer, which pissed him off. He's gotten to the point where he tells TV interviewers, asks them how much time he's actually going to be on the air, and when they say three minutes or something, he says, well, I'm not going to answer three questions . He tries to take control because he is sure everyone is cutting stories to make him look bad. He really had a lot of paranoia at that point in his life. So when he read my piece on Oppenheimer, he yelled at me based on that, waving my big, heavy book, one of those big, thick books, at him. I remember thinking, oh my god, he's going to hit me with my book. And then I thought, wait, this guy is 80 years old. I could take it, but in the end he said, well, I'll answer three questions. We sat down and I asked him one and he gave me no interesting answer. I asked him the second question, worth an entire interview. I said, is Robert Oppenheimer a good lab director? I thought, well, here's his chance to cut it. But Oppenheimer's worst enemy told me, "Robert Oppenheimer is the best lab director I've ever known." Bingo, I thought. Then he kicked me out of the house. I walked up the road to a friend's house and got very drunk. Because I was really scared. This is all new to me. But the quote is worth it, because Eisenhower said in one of his memoirs that of all the canonical characters in the army of the Roman Empire, I've always liked Hannibal the most because he appears only in the written memoirs of his enemies. If they think he's a great leader, he must be a terrible leader.
The way the Manhattan Project is organized is interesting because when you think of a Silicon Valley startup, you usually have tech founders and non-tech founders. Non-technical founders are responsible for talking to investors and clients etc. and technical founders who organize technology and engineers. At Oppenheimer you have a guy who knows all about chemistry, metallurgy, of course nuclear physics, and then Groves gets a scholarship, which is an interesting organization. But why was Oppenheimer such a good lab director?
Oppenheimer was a very divided and insecure person. One of his best friends was I.I. Robbie, a very deep and funny guy. I plan to write about him in my next book. I spent some time with Robbie before he died, and he once said of Oppenheimer, "I always felt like he could never decide whether to be president of Columbus [unclear] or [unclear]." of American Jew. The Jews who emigrated to Germany around World War I were Westernized and did not come from the lighter enclaves of Eastern European Jews. They are sophisticated and well trained. They are a very different group and as such they can assimilate quite easily. Oppenheimer was not sent to a Jewish school. He was sent to a prestigious school in New York called the School of Ethical Culture. It is based on the idea of ethical and moral education, not religious education. So his parents found the place for him. As a human being, he never quite got himself together. Like many people with this personality structure, he is a great actor. He could play many different roles, and he did. Women adore him. He was one of the most extravagant courtiers among women. He would bring a bunch of flowers on their first date, which of course was shocking to people at the time. He's just a sweet, well-mannered man. But in class, if someone made a stupid mistake, he would bite the bullet. The physics classes he taught were so advanced that most of the best students took them twice because they couldn't save everything the first time.
He has always been mean to people in a way that bothers a lot of people. Louis Alvarez, who I know very well because I helped him write his memoirs, was one of the main scientists at Los Alamos, and he didn't get along with Oppenheimer at all because Oppenheimer was condescending to everyone. Louis is a bit impatient and doesn't like being condescending. Oppenheimer has never won a Nobel Prize, Lewis has. This layer of Oppenheimer was always wry, it was his insecurities and his insecurities extended to physics. Robbie later said he couldn't sit down and focus on one problem because he always wanted to be someone who knew everything that was going on in physics. You could call him a very sophisticated and knowledgeable scientist, or you could call him a shallow man, and he was shallow. He knows broadly rather than deeply. He and one of his graduate students came up with the basic concept of black holes long before the post-war black holes. They published a paper in 1929 on the nature of black hole physics. But it is not yet called a black hole. John Wheeler coined the term many years later, but Oppenheimer came up with the idea of a sun so big that if it collapsed, it would continue to collapse until nothing, including light, could get out. If black holes had been discovered in space before his death, he would certainly have won a Nobel Prize for this theory. That said, he is still a person who is rich but not good. And he's a very good actor.
General Groves himself has a few engineering degrees from MIT, but he's no slouch. But he's more on the industrial side of everything. How do you build a factory if you don't know what to put in it? He built the Oak Ridge, Tennessee plant to enrich uranium, and began building the early reactors that would later lead to the massive Washington reactor before they even knew what the plant was going to do. He got the order of magnitude, he said, started laying the concrete, we want this big, we want this attached. We need electricity, we need water, we need natural gas, whatever they need. He's one of those great engineers, but he needs someone to explain the physics. At the conference at the University of Chicago, he saw very quickly that they were building the first reactor, the small reactor, and Oppenheimer was very good at explaining things. So he catches him and Groves rides the train back and forth between all these different locations during the war. When he took the train from Chicago to Santa Fe, he had consultants from a stop like Chicago get on the train. Then they would get off and take the next train back to Chicago. Then he picked up people who went with him from Santa Fe to Tennessee, and they drove him around. He got a plane later in the war. But for most of the war he just had people to ride with. Oppenheimer later said, well, I became his idiot expert. Oppenheimer did. He explained all the physics to Groves, because Groves was a little insecure at a table of six Nobel laureates, and he'd say, well, each of you has a PhD, but I think my work at MIT probably equates to about six PhDs , do not you think? They would think, who is this person?
Is he joking? Is that sarcasm or not?
No he is not. He has several degrees. You know how the military works when there's no war. They send their people to schools to train them better. So when it came time to find someone to run for, Oppenheimer had pushed for a single place where scientists could come together and do what scientists needed to do if they wanted to advance their science. That is, talk to each other. The system that Groves has installed in all these factories and all over the country is called a security fence. Essentially it is - you should only know enough to do your job, not the whole picture of what your job could be for. So, for example, the women of Oak Ridge run large magnetic machines that use different magnetic coils to separate uranium-235 from uranium-238, taking advantage of the very small mass difference between these two otherwise identical materials. The women who did it were placed on a board with a large dial and a large arrow from zero to ten or whatever, and they were told to hold the arrow there. They don't know what they are doing. They are very good at turning the knob and keeping electrical processes in this machine at a basic level. So divide the work.
But Oppenheimer said if we were classified as scientists, we wouldn't get anywhere. Science works through the exchange of gifts. I found something and I'll post the results. All other scientists in my field can read it or be told at conferences. They can then take that information and use it to move forward. That's how it's always been done. This is the only way it works. Once you lock people up and tell them they can't talk to each other, it stops because the findings here don't apply to the needs here. simple. Groves reluctantly agreed to keep the case open, as the name suggests. You see the similarities with the open world about bombs. The same. How do you know what's going on if you can't get people to talk to each other? Look what they're doing. But he insisted on putting the entire crew behind a secluded barbed wire fence with no one else around. So they did. Groves had worked with Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer now plays the lab director. He's excellent at it, as Teller's comments on good lab directors will let you know.
On wartime, Hans Bethe told me: “Before the war, Robert was really cruel. He would jump on your mistakes.” Nobel laureate Bethe discovers the sun The reason for the operation. So important, how vital is Bate's work. Beth told me, "Everyone makes mistakes. I made mistakes. If I said the wrong thing, Oppenheimer would accuse me of making a mistake. But before the war, after the war, not during the war." wise lab director. Because unlike most scientists, not only is he a top-notch physicist, but he's really very psychologically astute as a human being, because I think people who are insecure usually are because they need to understand what's going on. Oppenheimer's poems are well written. He is very interested in art. He wanted to read the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit, so he studied Sanskrit. He is smart and of course has a high IQ. Not all physicists who do top-notch work have a high IQ. They also have a number of other qualities. [unclear] Sit in a chair and focus on one thing until you finish it. That's what Robbie said. That's why Oppenheimer never won a Nobel Prize, he said. All in all, Oppenheimer became what these people later called this place [invisible]. Remember they were working on a bomb that would kill hundreds of thousands of people, but this was the weirdest group of people who felt their domain was spiritual before the war. They're in the middle of a war and they're starting to think, okay, maybe this isn't so spiritual, maybe we're doing something really horrible, and when Bohr comes forward and says, wait a minute. At the time, Oppenheimer was somewhat like a student of Bohr's.
Oppenheimer was in charge of recruiting everyone for Los Alamos, but didn't tell them what they would do because it was classified. So he went to a college campus where there was a young physicist he wanted to recruit, and they went for a walk to avoid hidden microphones. Oppenheimer would say: I can't tell you what we're going to do. I can tell you it will definitely end this war and probably all wars. That's enough. I mean, most of them already knew what they were going to do anyway, because when you look at the list of people going there, it's pretty obvious. They are all nuclear physicists.
So Oppenheimer and Bohr brought this idea to Los Alamos and later showed the world that a paradox exists. There are two sides to the bomb and in a way they complement each other because while this is definitely going to be an extremely destructive weapon if all goes well and they try to pull it off it could actually end large scale wars . If you look at the numbers and chart the man-made death toll from wars from the 18th century onwards, it rises almost exponentially by 1943, when 15 million people died between the war itself and the Holocaust. Then it started to take off as the war started to end. The war really happened in 1945. It dropped to about 1 to 2 million deaths and has stayed there ever since. While 1-2 million people die in wars every year is nothing to be proud of, 6-7 million people worldwide die from smoking. So, in a strange way, how the introduction of controlled nuclear energy changed the nature of nation states to such an extent that in extreme cases they could no longer defend their borders with war. They have to find another way, at least when it comes to scale, they have to find another way. I think it's very important because somehow people don't really understand what the turn of the millennium is, the unleashing of nuclear power in the world. As we were talking, I've been thinking over and over about your artificial intelligence question and the whole bigger interesting question, and you can see how that fits into the bombshell story of unintended consequences. All the countries that worked on the atomic bomb to some degree think, oh my god, we're going to have a weapon that surpasses them. One ring binds them all like Lord of the Rings. They think it increases national power, but what it does limits national power. For the first time in world history, war became historical rather than universal. This is impossible. Who did that? Scientists do their silent work, talking to each other and exploring how the universe works.
Paul, one of my favorite people in the world, likes to say that science is not about power over nature as it should be. Science is about gradually removing bias. What he meant was that Galileo and Copernicus changed everyone's view of Earth's place in the universe, no longer the center of the universe, but a planet revolving around a third-rate star. It changes everyone's perception of the whole world. While Darwin clearly established our place in nature as intelligent apes, it still took a while for many to accept it. But little by little, these preconceptions about our place in the world, how powerful we are and what our purpose is, etc. are being dispelled by science. The science of nuclear fission and nuclear power is fading, as is the theory that we have some kind of universal ability to destroy each other and get away with it. But on the other hand, the unintended consequence is that limiting war in this way is only possible by hanging the sword of Damocles over our heads, the possibility of destroying the human world. This is the threat. When people start saying, well, look, if we have nuclear weapons, we can have a conventional war because you're not going to attack us. You would not dare. We will use our nukes on you. All this has recently changed. It's beyond the scope of any of the books I've written. This is something very new. I think you have to study all the combinations like evolution before you can find the ones that really match the reality of the world.
(1:53:40) - Advances in Artificial Intelligence and the Manhattan Project
There are at least 10 different things and I'm thinking about which branch of the tree to explore first. On AI issues, yes, I'm not trying to connect the dots explicitly. Every time I read something in history I think, oh, this is so-and-so. First, the broader profile of the hyper-eclectic group of people who are engaged in this historical pursuit, who understand that it is a historical pursuit, and who see the beginning of it.The penultimate guest is Ilya Sutskever, who is the lead scientist at OpenAI, the big lab that built this. He is actually the Szliard of the AI world, how Szilard discovered nuclear chain reactions, and Sutskever was the first to train a neural network called ImageNet. Anyway, from then on he was one of those scientists who thought you could build a nuclear bomb as soon as it got known. He saw this 10 years ago, scale it up and you have something on the level of human intelligence. I'm reading through the book and a lot of things are coming up. One of them is a good friend of mine who works for one of the companies. They train these models on GPUs, which are computers that can do all these matrix calculations in parallel. I think of these engineers who were scarce during bomb making, assuming they were working on the electromagnetic separation of isotopes. It's something very esoteric, you're a chemist or a metallurgist, or whatever you really need to do it. He's in high demand right now, and he's like the guy who can keep these very special machines running as efficiently as possible. You start looking and there are a lot of analogies.
I don't think it's a big deal that AI is at least as transformative as nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. It scared a lot of people, and a lot of other people stuck their heads in the sand. Others say, let's play by the law, and of course that's what we should do. We tried to do that with nuclear weapons and had some success. But people don't know what to expect, right?
Yes. One thing I want to ask is -- some of these scientists didn't foresee this. I think Fermi said you could never refine uranium to get 235, but then another scientist saw it coming. I was impressed that some of them accurately predicted the year in which we would have the atomic bomb. The other is that Russia is five to ten years behind. So I'm curious what makes some of these scientists so good at predicting the development of this technology and its maturity, and what makes some of them too pessimistic or too optimistic? Do you notice a particular pattern among those who can see technological progress?
That is a good question. My experience of working with scientists, physicists, is that they're not very interested in history or the future. They are interested in the present, where the work is and where the border is. They have to put in a lot of effort to predict the future. Of course there are some. People think of a man who writes science fiction, someone who writes essays, etc. about where we're going. If you ask them, especially later in their careers, when their basic work is done, I remember talking to a Nobel laureate in another field of science, and he said, "I'll never be a Nobel laureate with Nobel laureates, because they've done it best work He's one of them so he's talking about himself too It takes a certain mindset Maybe scientists aren't the best people to do it Alvarez told me he said you know I was always a sniffer, and I'd poke around Berkeley in different drawers on the lab bench. "I was wandering around one day and found this little glass cylinder, about the size of a petri dish, with some wires in it," he said. "I realized this was the first cyclotron," he said. They just put it in a drawer. I asked, where is it now? In the Smithsonian, of course, he said. Where else? I talked to the man who invented the first laser and actually put it in held his hand.He was an engineer for a large telephone company. He said the first laser would be at the Smithsonian, but it didn't. They bought one from the lab and I took my first one home. do you want to see? I said, God, of course. We went to the bookcase in his dining room and he opened a drawer and took out a small box. It was actually an aluminum cylinder about the size of a small film can, and he opened it to reveal a fake ruby cylinder with half-silver ends, surrounded by a very powerful flash. That is it. It's this nice, simple machine. He said they hadn't found the right person. I said why don't you give them the right one? They didn't ask me, he said. Because he was not included in the Nobel Prize, he was angry all his life. The theorist first theorized about lasers, but he built the first laser and there it is.
(1:59:50) - Lived through World War II
When you interview scientists, how many regret their work?
They've been on this path so far, they really don't think that way anymore. All they really think about is that they regret the way the government has done their job. Some people are hawks and patriots, and Alvarez is one of them. But most of them have tried to move in the direction of reducing nuclear weapons and eliminating nuclear weapons in the post-war years. This is a problem for them. After the war, most of these people were graduate students or new doctoral students recruited for the program. The average age in Los Alamos is 27. Oppenheimer was an old man, he was 39 years old. These young people are being taken out of their lives, out of their careers. They want to go back to college and do the work they started with. They generally did, and Los Alamos just emptied out. Terrified, Teller wanted the bomb program to continue because he wanted to build a hydrogen bomb. It will be his bid for history as much as Oppenheimer's bid for history the fission bomb. Counters will be hydrogen bombs. For years after the job was done, he systematically and viciously tried to single out everyone who helped him with the hydrogen bomb. He originally said that it was the Polish mathematician Stanislaw Ulam, whom I also interviewed, who came up with the basic concept of the hydrogen bomb. He took it to Teller, who suggested an improvement. Then they wrote a document together, which was signed by both. But in the 1980s, Teller said, "Ulam did nothing. Nothing." That was not true. That's part of his history, because he was also decentralized and he was primarily doing Nobel-level work. They don't talk too much about their personal guilt.
I am a child of World War II. In 1945 I was eight years old. So many young men were killed on all fronts of the war. It was a strange, peaceful time for the children. Cars don't have tires, they're rationed. Cars don't get gas, it's rationed. So the streets are empty. We play in the street. Meat was rationed, so we lived on macaroni and cheese. During World War II, each person received four ounces of meat per week. It was a lovely and peaceful feeling, with the kids running around in groups and stuff. But at least one house in almost every neighborhood of the city had a black velvet banner or curtain with a gold star hanging from it. It means someone in that family, father, brother, son, has been killed. I was a smart boy and I understood what it all meant. After the war I started reading newspapers when I was six years old. It was the strangest dark and scary time. We didn't know until 1943 if we were going to win the war. A terrible time is coming, the war in Europe. We have put Japan aside a bit. Our government has done this until the end of the war in Europe until we end another war. But it took some time for the US to build industrial plants and produce airplanes at the rate of one or more a day. At the time of Pearl Harbor, Churchill famously said, "God has delivered them into my hands." He later explained that he meant the United States went to war. I know we can win now because America is just one giant factory, much more than the British can put together. So it was a quiet time, but even for a child it was a very dark time. My mother died when I was a baby, so I understand what it's like to die as a relative.
Remember when the bomb fell?
In 1945 we were very angry with the Japanese. We destroyed their air force, we destroyed their navy, we destroyed their army. The worst food the Japanese people eat, buckwheat and weed and whatever they can find, has dropped to about 1000 calories per person. Yet they did not want to surrender. They have a million more in West Manchuria. They only have about a year's worth of bullets left. That's all we know, but that's a long time for a million people. With that in mind, and because they felt the USSR was still neutral on the Eastern Front because it had basically been fighting wars in Europe. We did not win the war in Europe, the Russians did. We didn't fight on the ground until June 1944, when they were already fighting the Germans who attacked them in 1941. But the Japanese simply did not want to surrender. You can read the document about the bomb. General George Marshall, who was leading the war, was in charge of all the troops, and he felt that if we could use these bombs on the beaches before the landings and kill all the Japanese fortifications there, maybe they'd get the news. and be shocked and surrender. But from the Japanese perspective, it was a myth that bombs won the war, as it turned out. They contributed to winning the war, but they didn't win the war. What won the war was that Stalin finally believed there was such a thing as the atomic bomb. He doubtfully believed that this was false information from the United States. We provide the USSR with espionage, through which it wastes a lot of money and time on things that do not exist.
When news of the existence of these things came back from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he called in Igor Kurchatov and famously said, "Comrade, give us the bomb. You have all the resources of the country to use it. Give us the bomb like as soon as possible." But until then he wasn't so sure. He told Truman in Potsdam that they would invade Manchuria on August 15 with fresh Soviet troops. Truman tried to get him to agree to the invasion. When news came out of New Mexico that the bomb worked, in the middle of the Potsdam Conference, Truman tried to get Stalin in as late as possible because he thought the bomb would end the war before Stalin could take over enough of Japan, the way Europe was divided Divide this land. He doesn't want the Soviet zone, the American zone, and the British zone. He knew we could treat the Japanese better than the Soviets. But Stalin learned that the bombs actually worked, pushed back the date of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria to August 8, between Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and pushed the invasion forward. I found it very interesting that on August 14, just after the Japanese negotiated their surrender, our conventional air force launched the largest incendiary bombing raid of the war. The Air Force wanted recognition for winning the war and they wanted to prevent the Soviets from advancing from Sakhalin to the northern islands of Japan and beyond from Manchuria. So our bombardment is in northern Japan. It was a way of saying to the Soviets, back off, man, we're not letting you in. Then the Japanese military leadership, which had insisted on fighting to the last Japanese, what they called 100 million people, turned around and finally realized it was pointless. The new Soviet army force marched into Manchuria and the United States and Britain marched from west to south. They were already surrounded and there was no reason to continue. But the bomb worked.
Japan's emperor has entered politics for the first time in Japanese history, citing the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He has always been a spiritual figure, but he cannot vote or veto political arrangements. He came forward and said we should do this for peace. In his last imperial edict of August 15, recorded by radio and broadcast to the people, he said that a new and very terrible weapon of war has made us think of the unimaginable and that we must now lay down our arms. So the bomb had an effect, but it wasn't what we thought it would be at the time. Many Americans say thank God for the atomic bomb because our children are coming home. My friend is the actor Paul Newman, an 18-year-old bombardier in a two-man Navy fighter-bomber training for the invasion of Japan. He said to me at one point, "Roz, I'm one of those people who said, thank God for the atomic bomb, because if we invaded the Japanese home islands, I probably wouldn't be coming home." Said a million people. that . The truth is that if we invaded, so many Japanese would have been killed that even the killing of two bombs pales in comparison to the killing that took place. For the first time in the history of warfare, more Japanese civilians died in World War II than in any previous war. The war began to become what it is today, a war against civilians.
We were discussing at the beginning whether it was possible that no bombs could be made at all, which was obvious in terms of the nuclear physics involved. But I have a question, looking at the history of this science to see if there was a conspiracy to just stop it, what do you think is the likelihood that a scientist discovered another destructive phenomenon elsewhere? Or the technology that decides that we are not allowed to tell anyone about it. One area that I think is plausible is biological weapons, where they find something and they just shut up. Given the research into this history, do you think this is more or less plausible?
I don't think it is very likely that biological and chemical weapons are used as an example. I remember talking to a biologist who was one of the early DNA researchers, who was a physicist before DNA, and I asked, "How did you get into biology?" He said, "Well, it's the molecule." So from his point of view, it's not much different. But we're just talking about that question you asked, but about biologics. Nature has had millions of years to deal with any combination of the worst things imaginable, he said. The chance that someone in the lab will come up with something worse is very small. I accepted it with great relief. I went home and went to sleep that night. I think he might be right. Evolution has done the job. We are still digging. I mean, it's amazing how much of our technology starts with something in nature and we tweak and simplify and design it so we can make it. This still happens in different ways.
I hope so. I talked to a biologist and he explained to me that if you ever see something like AlphaFold, an AI program that predicts how proteins fold, you can make billions of different permutations of proteins. You can find smallpox, but it binds 100 times better to human receptors or something.
I'll tell you a story, I don't think it's known, I hope so. In the 1960s, the Russians proposed to the United Nations a global public health program to eradicate smallpox. We will provide the vaccine and other countries will provide everything they can, they said. The program starts. It was used up by the World Health Organization from Geneva, by a brilliant American public health doctor, D.A. Henderson, a burly country boy, whom I followed for several months in Geneva and elsewhere. By the late 1970s, the last case of smallpox happened to be a disease circulating only among humans, and thus the most obvious of all diseases to eradicate. Because if there are reservoirs in nature outside the human world, then there is a problem. If it's also something rabbits or deer or other animals are carrying, it's even harder to deal with. But if it's just humans, you just need to identify people who are starting to show signs of smallpox. In fact, you need everyone around them to make sure they don't go anywhere for a while and the disease doesn't spread. This is what they used to eradicate smallpox all over the world. Then, in the 90s, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the D.A., like us, didn't get much publicity, but we found out that a secret laboratory was still operating and that Russia was planning to roll out smallpox vaccinations worldwide. ban. in their country vaccinated for this purpose would not be immune, and bacterial agents such as smallpox could be used as a weapon of war. Prosecutors were outraged. He presented the story to our government and we started an entirely new public health business unit to study biological warfare. The last part of his life he really tried to get through this and that lab, which we hope eventually closes. So this scenario is out of the realm of possibilities. But in general, biological warfare is not very effective, because your own people can also become infected, if not your war personnel, then at least your civilians. Like poison gas, it terrified the one who fired it. It's never been a very good weapon of war. This, combined with Hitler's experience with poison gas in World War I, led to a decision by all sides in World War II not to use it. That's part of it.
(2:16:45) - Confidentiality
Speaking of secret laboratories, you have written so many books, not just about the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb, the cold war, etc. Do you have questions about stories that really interest you but cannot be answered due to confidential information?
It has slowly leaked out over the years. The last thing I found out is that from the beginning our hydrogen bombs were shaped like barbells, more diffused. There's a photo of Kim Jong-un looking at a hydrogen bomb made in North Korea, and it's obvious it's a real bomb because that's how it's configured. I didn't know this until about a year ago. But sooner or later everyone will tell you at least a little bit.
And then there's something you learn that you can't put in your book because it's...
The only thing I didn't include in the book was the dimensions of the fat bomb, which were on the original Fuchs file he passed on to the Russians. When the USSR collapsed and the scientists showed up, I learned that the KGB, in order to promote their services to the country in this new world they were about to enter, published a landmark article about their excellent work in revealing the secrets of bombs to steal the USSR. They also included a sketch by Fuchs showing the dimensions of each shell of the multi-shell implosion weapon, with the numbers in millimeters. When the scientists realized the KGB had released this stuff, they proclaimed it a violation of the Nuclear Non-Pull Variant Treaty. They told us to delete all the issues in that magazine. They did. But I had a very enterprising assistant in Moscow, the geologist I mentioned earlier. I think I know where to find a copy of the diary, he said. Then he got on a night train from Moscow to St. Petersburg and went to a scientific library there. They said, no, of course not. We pulled that. Then he thought, wait a minute, where is the public library? It's across the street. He walks through the public library. They said yes, we have magazines. and pass it on to me. He made a copy and gave me a copy. But when I realized I had this, I never posted that information. That's the only one though.
This is a smart move. One of the last questions. Often people use the phrase, we need X's Manhattan project. If it's a new technology or something. When you hear that, do you think it's a naive comparison? Or does it make sense to use that term?
No, it's been used many times over the years for cancer, for this, for that. But Manhattan is a very special time and a very special problem. Basic science at hand. Oppenheimer used to say in his funny way that between 1939 and 1945 we didn't do any basic science. In a way, this is a huge engineering project. There is some basic physics, but very little. It primarily used Nobel Prize-winning physicists as engineers to develop an entirely new weapon with the precision of a 9,000-pound Swiss watch. Considering the time, place and reason, they did a great job. They solve some problems that I don't know how other people solve. How do you detonate plutonium without a gun? all. But that is not the case for most questions. No one is going to start a startup with an investment from an investment company to make a bomb. It's a government program and it's classified. If you reveal the secret, you will go to jail. Many of the parameters of what they do are carefully kept secret. Remarkably, 600,000 people were involved in the development of the bomb and the secret was never revealed.
You said 600,000?
This is actually one of the questions I want to ask you. Truman, when he became president, he had to be told. He doesn't know about it, does he? I don't know how many people worked on it when he became president, but hundreds of thousands worked on it. The vice president knew nothing about it. He only knew about it as president. So many people are doing it, how can the vice president not know that the nuclear bomb is working? How do they keep it a secret?
One of Roosevelt's vice presidents famously said that the vice presidency isn't worth a bucket of hot piss.
Can you notice that Kennedy has said that I am against all forms of [invisible].
Yeah, well, it's interesting to me. Roosevelt wanted to keep it a secret, and so did Groves. They don't want the word to get out. They don't want the Germans to get ahead of us. What does the vice president do? He sits in the waiting room in case the president dies, and in Truman's case, he hits the jackpot. He came at the right time, as Roosevelt had several vice presidents during his long reign. So from their point of view, he doesn't need to know. Here's another thing you should know, namely division. Of course, after he became president, Groves and Stimson and several others met and informed Truman about it. Truman understood this because he was a wartime senator whose job it was to prevent waste in war. If he heard that an industry was dying, putting money in people's pockets or something, he would visit their factories and call them up. He went to Hanford, Washington and Oak Ridge to see what these guys were doing. But Stimson, the Secretary of the Army at the time, whom he greatly admired and was one of the greatest patriarchal statesmen of his day, said, "Mr. Vice President, please don't go. I assure you that what's going on Go please do not.' He said, "Mr. Stimson, if you say so, I will believe you." So he knew a little bit but not much I don't think it helps I don't know how much Roosevelt understood He's not a scientist Truman didn't even graduate he was self taught A self taught Senator once said that every time i go to the library of congress to get a book truman's name is always there senator said i think he read everything in the library of congress part of that is there's no form of communication other than letters or phone calls, and that you basically don't make long distance calls unless someone dies. Tell someone they made a long distance call and their wife will cry. Or a man, for that matter. You think your son died on Iwo Jima So the communication is definitely more limited, but even then it's extraordinary.
But is the culture different because the thought of leaking something is more unpleasant than it is now?
I can't remember a more patriotic moment in my lifetime than World War II. We kids collected some aluminum foil from the inner lining of cigarette packs, which was probably the only place you could get it back then, and balled it up and took it to school so they could make bombs out of it. We collected this bacon fat from cooking meat in the kitchen and brought it to school in cans because it was useful for making bullets. We collect newspapers for the same reason. During World War II, Boy Scouts made it their special job to collect milkweed fibers, using this small ball that would blow away to collect milkweed fibers, as it was used in place of kapok to make life jackets for seamen's lining. During the war, they collected half a million tons of milkweed fluff. We were all about winning, which, as I said before, didn't seem at all certain until about 1943. Of course there's a black market where people have to meet a farmer and get some steaks so they don't have to live on more macaroni and cheese like we do next month. But despite these changes, the people were very, very patriotic and fought with all their might to win the war.
(2:26:34) - Wisdom and war
Older politicians, by the way. Who has been the wisest political leader since the development of the atomic bomb, not necessarily the United States or even a national leader, but who has contributed most to stability and peace?
It depends on what time period you are talking about. There is no doubt that Oppenheimer's advice to the government after the war was excellent. I don't think anyone other than the Oppenheimer Commission, the Acheson-Lilienthal Commission, has found a better way to think about eliminating nuclear weapons in a world that understands how to make them. That was really Oppenheimer. I'm not saying he lied to anyone. He just led them down the path. All the engineers and industrialists who had been on the committee with him were skeptical people who would not easily believe anything, but he convinced them that this was the right way to go. So until he was forced out of government for making the mistake of not supporting the Air Force's favorite bomb, they found a way to basically destroy him, and they did. A scientist I spoke to, who was his best friend, said that Robert was different after the 1954 safety hearing. After that, he was one of the [unclear] laughing public figures. It really broke him. As a Jew while growing up in America, he had a basic insecurity that stuck with him, and he became Dean of the Institute for Advanced Study and wrote many great papers. But I do not know.
My growing favorite leader is Niels Bohr. He tried to find a way to bring scientific openness to a world without nuclear weapons. He and Robbie taught Oppenheimer what would eventually become the Acheson-Lilienthal Project, and he and Robbie later founded the science lab in Geneva, now CERN, where they built these new giant colliders. Remember, if scientists destroyed Europe, we would at least remember what happened in the former USSR. People lived on crusts of bread and sacks of old potatoes. They really are. Especially those who work for the government because their pension is worthless. That's what I saw when I got back there after the building collapsed in the spring of '92. Money is worthless. Their wages were not paid. In the midst of all this, Europe needs something to sustain it. Of course there was the Marshall Plan, which was absolutely amazing. And how it helped Europe when it needed it most. But Bohr wanted to make sure, and Robbie wanted to make sure, that European scientists had been sent somewhere to build nuclear weapons. They invented this international lab in Geneva and it's still a thriving business where they can do basic physics and get paid for their work and do exciting things that good science doesn't have to do. Getting caught up in the dark side of the whole thing. Let's face it, it sort of worked. The French must have the bomb, you know, because they're French.
They need their lovers, they need their bombs.
The British must have bombs because they know how to make them. They worked with us during the war, then we shut down their uranium supply and all new developments along the way. Most importantly, the British Empire was bankrupt at the end of World War II and Churchill was determined to get the atomic bomb, because without that bomb his country would fall apart and could not stay with the great powers. guys. So the typical reason they get the bomb is because you don't want to be banned because of reputation, or because you have a sworn enemy who has or gets the bomb. That's North Korea, that's Iraq. It tries, it doesn't get there. Those are Pakistan and India. We, because of Germany. The Soviets, thanks to us. In general, countries that do go for bombs end up making bombs because they're afraid another country has one. Everyone took a step back and said well if you protect us with the A-bomb when someone comes to visit in Korea or Germany or whatever we won't build them and share your knowledge on how to get energy getting the A-bomb nuclear power.
I could easily ask you three more hours of questions. I can't say I want to respect your time because I didn't take the extra time, but I don't want to disrespect your time completely. So I think the last question we can discuss is -- what do you think is the probability of a non-test nuclear weapon detonating in the next 50 years?
Launch an atomic bomb in anger? That's how I usually say it. I think it's very likely.
More than 50% in the next 50 years?
I won't rate it, but it's definitely above zero and probably above 10%. If we talk about millions of deaths, that number is already high enough. For a while, people in the field were talking about, well, maybe we'll have a little regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan and it's going to scare everyone so much that they'll realize you have to get rid of these things. Those who did nuclear winter research in the 1980s decided in 2007 to first use today's better computers to study nuclear winter warfare on a global scale. They found that when they only had a one-dimensional model of the atmosphere, things were even worse than they thought. And then they say, well, what would a small regional nuclear war look like? So they simulated a war between India and Pakistan, with each country detonating 50 Hiroshima-sized 15-ton nuclear weapons over the enemy's city. So what's happening? As a result, as the model develops,you can see it online, you can see the development of the graph, even such a small exchange, less than some of our hydrogen bombs alone, about 1 million tons between the two countries, is enough to start enough fires of burning cities to spread around the world to spread smoke and reduce the amount of sunlight. They eventually estimated that 20 million people would have died instantly from the explosion itself and the fire. But in the next few years, as many as 2 billion people will die of starvation because you have the same phenomenon as the world in the 18th century, when there was a fairly cold transition period, the sun went down, New England It was very cold in July and the harvests failed. At that time, a large number of people died all over the world. Like the flu epidemic of 1918, everyone seems to have forgotten about it. I don't know where these things take our memories.
So even a so-called small nuclear war has to involve the whole world, because once it breaks out, we will be involved. So we're still in a very fluid place. As long as any country in the world has nuclear weapons, we will continue to have them. A sword of Damocles hangs above our heads. This is the price of nuclear deterrence. It doesn't have to be the price. Nuclear deterrence is possible without real weapons, but it takes convincing leaders, especially in totalitarian and autocratic countries, that this is the case. So the odds, I don't know, but there isn't a machine that doesn't fail sooner or later. These machines, these weapons that give us such supernatural powers, are just machines. We build, we put them together. We can take them apart. We can put the ore back in the ground if we want. We don't have to live with this. I think we're in a big, broad, long-term transition. Perhaps solving the global problem of global warming will help with that, and working together will help people see that. What I am saying here is that this technique can produce great results. Well, the phone had a good result. TV has a good result, but it also has a dark side, and we will have to learn to deal with the dark side better. Perhaps this is one last thing on this topic.
Yes, this is a closing statement. this book ismaking the atomic bomb.Unfortunately, we haven't had a chance to talk about younew energy book, but when your next book comes out, we'll have an opportunity to discuss the rest that we haven't been able to discuss. It is a real honor and an incredible joy. story, insight. Very good. Thank you for your participation.
Don't mention it.
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