Physicist is remembered

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By The Staff

The Los Alamos Historical Society is pleased to announce the publication of “The Forgotten Physicist: Robert Bacher, 1905-2004” by Los Alamos National Laboratory historian Alan B. Carr.

The book describes the life and career of a man frequently mentioned in other books about the Manhattan Project but whose importance to that project and the atomic era has not been presented in depth until now.

During an interview in 1993, Hans Bethe described Bacher as “the most important person (at Los Alamos) next to Oppenheimer.”

The book presents the early years of Bacher's life in Ohio and continues through his education as a physicist at the University of Michigan and Harvard. His professional career began in 1934 in New York at Columbia, but he soon accepted a position at Cornell to join “one of the nation's burgeoning physics departments.”

There he met Hans Bethe and M. Stanley Livingston, and the three made strides in exploring the atom and nuclear research. With the approach of World War II, Bacher was recruited to work at the RadLab at MIT, which put him in a position to be noticed when the Manhattan Project was being developed. In 1943, he was recruited by J. Robert Oppenheimer to join the effort at Los Alamos.

At first, Bacher was reluctant to join a project under military control because, as he said, “science does not mix with military management, and while I do not object to joining the Army, I would at present not do so as a scientist.”

But Oppenheimer could be persuasive. Bacher's first role at Los Alamos was as leader of the Experimental Physics Division. As his friendship with Oppenheimer grew, the men supported one another in areas where each felt inadequate, and at various times, when Oppenheimber seriously doubted his ability to lead the project, Bacher played a critical role as Oppenheimer's most trusted associate.

Upon completion of his work at Los Alamos in 1945, Bacher looked forward to a quiet professorship at Cornell, but instead he was asked to serve at the United Nations where his expertise was needed to forge an agreement on the control of atomic energy. From there he was given a leading role in the creation of Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island and then was summoned to serve on the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission. His administrative and technical skills were widely recognized and recruited, and by the time he finally had the opportunity to return to academia, it was to be at Caltech rather than Cornell. Under Bacher's leadership, Caltech was to become one of the premier physics schools in the nation.

Bacher's contributions were many, from his service as science advisor to the White House to his dropping of the tip that aided the British investigation and led to the arrest of Klaus Fuchs, one of the Cold War's most notorious spies. “The Forgotten Physicist” includes many photographs from the LANL archives and others from the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee, Caltech, and the American Institute of Physics.

The Los Alamos Historical Society preserves topics of Los Alamos history in a collection of books called The Los Alamos Story. “The Forgotten Physicist” is Monograph No. 6 in that series.