IO, TELLER, FERMI E LA BOMBA H - INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD GARWIN
Originally published in Tuttoscienze of LA STAMPA, 24 November 2004
Some years ago, to test the lucidity of an elderly patient a nurse asked him: “are you the famous Edward Teller?”. “No, I am the infamous Edward Teller”, he promptly replied. Last September 9th , physicist Edward Teller died at the age of 95. Beloved by conservative circles, he was a Cold War icon and the father of “Star Wars” and of the hydrogen bomb, or H-bomb, a nuclear weapon which when successfully tested on a Pacific island in November 1952 released an amount of energy equal to 10 million tons of TNT_roughly 500 times that of the Hiroshima bomb_ and vaporised the island. Because of inventions like these, the Nobel Prize laureate Isidor Rabi said: “it would have been a better world without Edward Teller”. Nonetheless, the fatherhood of the H-bomb has fueled a long lasting controversy and only recently Teller had confessed: “the first design was made by Dick Garwin”. We asked Richard Garwin to tell us about both the bomb and Doctor Strangelove.
Professor Garwin, how did you find yourself involved in building the bomb?
I was Fermi’s assistant at the University of Chicago, I was working with liquid hydrogen and in 1950 I had to find an occupation for the 3 months of the summer that Chicago did not pay my salary, Fermi suggested that I might find it interesting to work at the Los Alamos lab. In 1949, the Russians had detonated their first atom bomb. Nobody expected the Russians to obtain their atomic bomb only 4 years after the Hiroshima bomb and this gave a telling argument to the people who like Teller sustained the necessity of building a hydrogen bomb. At that time, nuclear weapons were under the responsibility of the Atomic Energy Commission, which had a consultant committee: the General Advisory Committee (GAC), chaired by Oppenheimer, which had headed the development of the first allied atomic bomb, and of which Fermi e Rabi were members, but Teller was not. The GAC recommended against the building of the H-bomb and Fermi and Rabi recommended against it not only because of the technical problems, but also because they considered it “inherently evil”, as its destructiveness was potentially unlimited. However, the US president Truman decided to proceed with the development of the hydrogen bomb, and at that point Enrico Fermi decided to help to build it, because that was the policy of our nation and he felt he should do his part, even if I can imagine he hoped in his heart that the bomb would not be possible. It was at Los Alamos that the bomb was built and there I arrived in the summer of 1950.
Did you know what was waiting for you?
No, Fermi did not tell me anything in advance, because everything was secret and required a clearance, that is an authorization to gain access to secret material and research. Once I got it, I began to receive information. I shared my office with Fermi, and he and the mathematician Ulam did calculations and calculations, they gave them to Mrs Caldwell, who was in charge of the computers which crunched calculations all night. Nonetheless, results were very discouraging: nobody knew how to build that bomb. I went back to the Los Alamos lab in the summer of 1951, Ulam had pinpointed a promising road and Teller asked me to devise an experiment to verify if it could work. Basically, I was the architect, putting together well-known principles. And in two weeks time I went back to Teller with the first project for the hydrogen bomb.
You mentioned that the first Soviet atomic bomb catalyzed the building of the first American H-bomb. Did you work on it for political reasons?
Definitely not, I am an apolitical person and at that time I could not have had any political influence: I was 22! I was interested in physics and I was very familiar with the technical aspects involved in the building of the H-bomb, all of them were very intriguing physics matters. And I was not repelled by working on it either, because I knew that politics was inWashington. I was a technician. I believed that as physicists it was our duty to inform politicians if the bomb was feasible and what its impact would have been, and then, if politicians in Washington decided to build it, it was our task to build it.
And were you not scared by its destructiveness?
I knew it was a very powerful weapon and instead of killing 200,000 people, like the Hiroshima bomb did, it could kill 20 million people, if launched on large enough cities, but at that time there were not such large cities and the idea was that the bomb would have been built but it would not have been used.
Therefore, you conceived it as a deterrent?
Yes, but as I already told you, at that time I was involved in the technical matters.
Did you speak with Fermi about the decision to work on it?
No, Fermi was an extraordinary physicist and a lovely and unassuming person, but I was a young physicist and he was a top dog, he had access to information I was not authorized to know, because the nuclear weapons policy matters were kept apart from technical matters.
What kind of experience did you have with Teller?
He was a very creative, energetic and mercurial person, and like the mathematician von Neumann he was a strong anti-communist, but we never spoke about this, probably because of my lack of interest in politics. He was politically motivated and driven by a technological imperative: he felt that all things that can be created through science and technology should be created, no matter what the consequences, a position he maintained throughout his life. He used his intellect and energy on the political front, lobbying in Washington for what he thought was right and if someone got in the way, as Oppenheimer did, well, that was too bad for him.
Do you refer to the famous 1954 trial in which Teller testified against Oppenheimer?
Yes, and that was a bad story. Teller was not honest: he said he did not take any initiative against Oppenheimer, whereas information which has come out indicated he did. He resented that Oppenheimer was against the Super and I think he resented his political influence as well. He thus worked with Lewis Strauss, head of the Atomic Energy Commission, to bypass him. He spoke with the FBI and people like those and referred his suspicions to them about Oppenheimer’s family and some of his friends, who may have been communist. The burocratic machine started up thus resulting in a trial. But I think the thing got out of hand, I do not think Teller wanted to arrive to point of bringing Oppenheimer to court nor that he be denied his clearance. However, Oppenheimer was so arrogant! He felt himself an untouchable.
What was the atmosphere like in Los Alamos?
It was not an atmosphere imbedded in politics, there was rather a big involvement on the technical matters concerning nuclear weapons. There were such fascinating intellects and they were so different from each other! Those differences were also fascinating. For example, Fermi was very clever and sure of himself, but he was not quick. Once, while he was solving a problem on the blackboard, von Neumann passed, took a look at it and gave him the answer immediately. Fermi told me: “that man makes me feel I know no mathematics at all”.
During this conversation, you stressed many times your lack of interest in politics during the years you worked on the bomb. However, throughout your life you became interested in it, since in matters of national defense you advised many administrations from Kennedy to Clinton. Today, you are considered an insider of the Washington circles.
I began to be interested in nuclear weapons policy in 1953, I was no longer in Los Alamos, but I was involved in projects in which I did not follow an isolated technical problem but rather defensive strategies. We did briefings in which the Washington agencies brought us data about the possible consequences of nuclear attacks and thus I watched things from above: numbers and scenarios came out. I realized what a huge number of bombs thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb could mean. While working on the Super, I did not realize that we would have had so many bombs and that the H-bomb itself would have encouraged nuclear proliferation, because it is much less expensive than the atom bomb and safer to handle. In addition, in 1954, Fermi told me on his death bed that he wished he had payed more attention to arms control, which certainly took me towards a more public role. I began to work on arms control in 1953 and since then I have never stopped working on it.
Concluding, today there are 30,000 H-bombs in the world, you said that if you could wave a magic wand, you would make your creation go away…
I have never regretted having worked on the bomb: with or without me, they would have done it. But if I could make it go away, I would.