The man behind the standoff

-A A +A

Former colleagues describe arrested physicist Richard Morse as brilliant

By Carol A. Clark

Richard Morse sits in a Los Alamos jail cell awaiting transfer to a hospital in Las Vegas, N.M., for psychiatric evaluation following Thursday’s 19-hour standoff with police.
Morse, 75, is a retired physicist. He began his career at Los Alamos National Laboratory as head of the advanced concepts group at TD-8 and simultaneously the laser fusion group at T-6 in 1965.
“I was aware of Richard Morse’s work and while it was controversial, it was considered brilliant,” LANL physicist Morrie Pongratz said. “He certainly was a pioneer in plasma physics.”
Morse said that T-6 started developing the mathematical basis for understanding the thin case problems of the W-76 thermonuclear warhead, an issue that seems to have eaten away at him for the last three decades.
Work continued on the W-76 while Morse and others traveled between Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, LANL and the universities of Arizona, Rochester and MIT in the late ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s, he said.
“Our work was still being used in one of the endless sequence of studies of the thin case problems when I came back to Los Alamos in 1996,” Morse has said in previous interviews.
He recalled his work as a LANL technical staff member in 1965, as deputy group leader in the magnetic confinement fusion theory group and later as group leader in the laser fusion/ICF group through 1975.
Morse was fired in 1976, he said, by LANL Director Harold Agnew, rehired by Director Don Kerr and fired by Director Siegfried Hecker.
“From the very beginning of the case’s concept, I argued, often aggressively with lab hierarchy, that it was too thin,” Morse said.
He recalled leaving LANL and working as a professor of applied mathematics, physics, biochemistry and nuclear engineering from 1976-1992 at the University of Arizona at Tucson.
From 1985-1989, Morse took partial leave to return to LANL to work in group X-1, he said, and returned again from 1996-1997, employed by the Above Ground Experiments program, to assist with the W-76
Morse expressed his concerns about the thin casing for the final time at a meeting March 16, 2004, at NNSA’s Los Alamos Site Office.
“It didn’t go anywhere,” Morse said at the time.
Morse said he has been betrayed, persecuted and harassed since expressing reliability concerns with the W-76.
“My mail goes missing, my phone’s been tapped and my Medicare payments stopped,” he has said in recent years. “Unknown assailants have taken garden hoes to my cats – breaking their small bones on more than one occasion.”
While executing a search warrant at his Bathtub Row home Thursday, police discovered two of Morse’s cats dead in his freezer and seven live cats roaming around inside the house.
Morse often spoke of the death of his 37-year-old son, James Bradford Morse in 1997. Although it was officially recorded as a suicide, Morse said it was related to a plot against him. He’s become increasingly reclusive, not leaving home for more than two-hour intervals.
Physicist John Zinn works as a retired lab associate in the ISR Group at LANL. He knew Morse and shared his impressions during an interview Friday.
“I worked with him in the 1970s and he was a weird guy to deal with from the very beginning – it seemed like everything he did – there was a conflict with somebody,” Zinn said. “He was brilliant and rose fairly high at the lab … worked on bomb design …”
The Los Alamos County Building Official inspected Morse’s ramshackle home filled to the rafters with debris and deemed it unsafe and uninhabitable Friday.
“They turned my home upside-down and inside-out more than once – they know I know too much,” Morse said of all the debris.
The lab does not respond to Morse’s allegations because of employee confidentiality issues.
Morse described his colorful educational background. He was expelled from Flintridge Preparatory School in Pasadena, Calif., he said, during the last week of sophomore classes for having a 25-pound sack of blasting powder and a coil of fuse in his gym locker.
“I had just bought the stuff from a powder magazine in the Mojave Desert to take home for the summer,” Morse said.
He ultimately earned his high school diploma at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., in 1953 and went on to Cal Tech, where Richard Feynman was his advisor, he said.
At Cal Tech, Morse said he was freshman class president, student body vice president, fraternity house vice president and ski club president, and he participated in rock climbing, track and freshman and varsity football.
Morse also attended the University of Colorado at Boulder and spent a brief period at Berkeley.
“I was expelled from Berkeley for putting a pennant on top of the Campanile, a challenging night-time rock-climbing activity,” he said. “When applying later for admission to graduate school at what is now the University of California at San Diego, a computer detected my Social Security number and demanded that I apply for re-admission to the UC system. My thesis advisor-to-be, Marshall Rosenbluth, retaliated by petitioning UC for a certificate attesting that I had been ‘thrown out of Berkeley’ when no offense seemed sufficient.”
Morse said he earned his Ph.D. in physics from UCSD in 1965.
“The subject of my thesis was on certain aspects of high beta plasma confinement,” he said.
Morse served on the National Academy of Sciences Advisory Committee on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and was the coordinator for exchanges on dense plasmas with the Soviet Academy of Sciences and subsequently for the National Science Foundation with the Russian Academy, he said.
Tears welled often in his eyes during a jailhouse interview Thursday in which Morse blamed much of his problems on the NNSA.
When asked over the years why he hasn’t just left town or simply stopped talking about the W-76 issue, which he said is the root of all his problems, Morse said, “I want to but I can’t – I have to see this through.”