Capturing the spirit of Los Alamos

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Essay outlines the hydrogen bomb controversy at an early crossroad

By Roger Snodgrass

Harris Mayer, a Manhattan Project scientist, whose memories of the early days at Los Alamos have become increasingly precious over time, has written an essay in several dimensions.


“An Inconclusive Meeting of the Theoretical Megaton Group,” is the third publication and most recent in the Nutshell Series. It was published in December 2009 by the Los Alamos Historical Society.

While Mayer’s 44-page memoir is nominally about “the path to the hydrogen bomb” and events at Los Alamos in the early 1950s, it is not so much about the historical record as it is a personal interpretation of the “the spirit” of the place that made Los Alamos what it was.

As such, it offers a participatory perspective that will interest both scholars and those who are merely curious about the period and especially those who are interested in how the culture of post-war Los Alamos came to decisions on weighty national problems.

Mayer describes himself as a student of physicist Edward Teller, a dominant presence, in this recollection of a meeting that was both particular and representative during the summer of 1951. There are no records of the meeting; it was not an official meeting and the name of the Theoretical Megaton Group did not come into formal use until several months later.

Two others figure prominently along with many well-known scientists of the time. Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi was also at the meeting; Hans Bethe, the Cornell University professor and authority on nuclear physics was spending his summer in Los Alamos as was his custom; but with his continuing ethical objections to the hydrogen bomb, he was not initially present.

With each of them, Mayer was aware of things that had happened that nobody else could know.

 “I had the good fortune to know some of the great scientists of that time,” Mayer said in a recent interview.  “I worked under them.”

He said it was like being “on the fringes of greatness.”

He had wanted to write, not so much a biography, but something special that involved these three figures

“When I was writing that, I wasn’t interested in history,” he said. Then as he asked for feedback from colleagues, physicist Richard Garwin, one of Fermi’s assistants who was also at the meeting, told him his draft essay wasn’t the way it happened and that he should make sure he got it right. So he beefed up the history.

Even so, he said he was mostly interested in “something else not present.”

“There was an unseen presence at the TMG meeting. It was the special spirit of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory,” he wrote. “The spirit was born of the wartime mission of the lab that resulted in the fission weapon. Now, a second weapon was attempted, the making of the thermonuclear hydrogen bomb.”

The structure of the essay is more literary than a typical history. The author, another example of the renaissance breadth of the Manhattan Project personalities, is a poet as was Oppenheimer. Mayer said he came within a snap decision one day of majoring in English literature rather than physics at New York University

In the passage, “The washed sunlight poured through the open windows of the room, bringing the fresh smell of the distant pine trees that Oppie had forbidden General Groves to bulldoze down,” he sets the stage of the key meeting with the invisible presence the two top leaders of the founding of the laboratory, although they were not there.

Mayer introduces the main characters but then he circles around the larger context, setting up the undercurrents of personal conflicts and subtle influences on the discussion, before returning to the principal players and their roles in the drama.

“Edward (Teller) wanted to tell me about this new idea for a thermonuclear weapon that by-passed the essential difficulties of the classical Super,” Mayer writes. “I knew immediately that this would work; this was the answer.”

In some ways, the story is about the rebirth of the laboratory and a representative moment in which it defined its future as a permanent institution.

Laboratory Director Norris Bradbury chose Marshall Holloway, the lab’s weapons division leader to head the hydrogen bomb program. Teller left to take up residence at a new laboratory in the Northern California town of Livermore. Although the meeting led to no decisive choice, the ultimate direction incorporated the forces and personalities that were present at that time, and it summed up for Mayer a quality that could not be expressed in any other way: “There was just something in the very spirit of the laboratory that was responsible,” he writes.

The first booklet in the historical society’s Nutshell Series was “Los Alamos and the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Program During and After the Cold War,” by John L. Richter, followed by Paul Kraemer’s “An Alternative View of New Mexico’s 1837 Rebellion.”

In a note, accompanying a review copy of the Harris memoir, the series editor Larry Campbell wrote, “It is a window on an exotic and vanished world still within living memory.”

Mayer said 250 copies are printed and given to $100 contributors as a fundraiser for the society.