The Manhattan Project

Geoffrey Chew's Interview

Printer-friendly version

Geoffrey Chew's Interview

Geoffrey Chew was an undergraduate studying physics at George Washington University when he assisted Washington Post journalist (and future children’s novelist) Jean Craighead in writing an article on atomic weapons. His professor, George Gamow, recommended that Chew join Edward Teller’s team at Los Alamos. At Los Alamos, Chew witnessed the Trinity Test from a nearby mountain and worked on Teller’s ideas for developing the hydrogen bomb. In graduate school, Chew was supervised by Enrico Fermi. In this interview, Chew recounts his unique entrance to the Manhattan Project and his relationship with Edward Teller. He also recalls an incident when Fermi had trouble playing a game at a party, his conversation with an intelligence man on the Craighead article, and serving as John von Neumann’s “human computer.” Finally, Chew discusses his current research on the Big Bang.
Date of Interview: 
August 9, 2016
Location of the Interview: 
Berkeley
Transcript: 

Cindy Kelly: Okay, I am Cindy Kelly. This is Tuesday, August 9, 2016 in Berkeley, California. I have with me Dr. Geoffrey Chew. My first question to him is to say and spell his name.

Geoffrey Chew: Geoffrey Chew, G-E-O-F-F-R-E-Y C-H-E-W.

Kelly: Very good, so now we will move on to some harder stuff. If you could tell us when you were born and where, and a little bit about your own childhood.

Chew: I was born in Washington, D.C., on June 5, 1924. I was the fourth child in a family where the father was fully English. The mother was already one-quarter Burmese, which means that I am one-eighth Burmese. But the Burmese connection was concealed from all the children, until later in life the oldest of the four children made a trip to Europe and uncovered this fact, which was held to be something that shouldn’t be known. The mother, my mother, refused to admit this when her daughter came back. But further investigation has established that it’s true. So I guess her ancestry puts her one-fourth Burmese, one-fourth French, one-fourth German, and a little bit English. [Laughs] I didn’t learn any of this until I was an adult.

My father, when I got to communicate with him, I discovered that he treated all his other three children rather roughly and disrespectfully, but he treated me very well. He took me on many business trips with him. He was employed at the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. He regarded himself an intellectual, which I guess was okay, was a reasonable statement.

He was self-educated. He came first to Canada when he was seventeen without any even high school education. He educated himself and eventually became a newspaper reporter while still in Canada, which is where he met my mother. Eventually, they moved to the United States where all four of the children were born. I think it’s true that my oldest sister was born already in the United States. I am not quite sure, it might have been in Canada. That’s sort of where I started.

I got a lot of favorite treatment from my father, although I didn’t much like my father because he treated my brother and sisters rather roughly. But he was a pretty smart guy. He wrote a book about the importance of agriculture to the First World War. I think it was titled something like Ploughshares into Swords, or something like that.

Eventually, I got a scholarship at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. I remember my father wanted me to take an engineering degree, because this was still during the Depression. He never heard of anybody who called himself a physicist. I didn’t really know what physics was at that point. But he wanted me to do something economically useful in order that I could have a decent job. Jobs were so much on the minds of everybody still at that point, because of the Great Depression. The closest I could come was chemistry. It was agreed that chemistry was sufficiently important to business that if you had a degree in chemistry, you would probably be able to get a job.

At George Washington University, I had the extreme good fortune, probably in my junior year, of taking a course from George Gamow, who was a Russian theoretical physicist who had escaped to the United States a few years earlier and who had a gift for teaching physics. I enjoyed his courses more than any of the chemistry courses that I had. I continued to suppose that I was going to get a degree in chemistry, but I kept on taking physics courses because they were more interesting.

Then somewhere during the first half of my senior year that was in 1942, no, ’43, a curious event occurred that all my students subsequently have claimed that this was crucial to my career, although I can’t be sure. I will tell the story.

So one of my sisters was aspiring to a career in art, commercial art, but she had a friend who had a college degree of some kind, who was a newspaper reporter for the Washington Post. The name of this friend was Jean Craighead. Jean Craighead had been investigating as a feature story in the Post, various cases coming before the special board which had been set up. The war had begun at that point, that’s important. So it was in the early part of the Second World War for the United States.

There was a board that was set up to consider possible increases in salary. All salaries had been frozen for the period of the war, but there were exceptions made for special cases. This reporter, Jean Craighead, was getting interesting material for a possible story. She had come upon a young physicist, an experimental physicist graduating from, I think, the University of Washington in St. Louis. He had applied to this board for an increase in salary. As a graduate student, he had been getting some relatively modest salary. Now, he had his degree and he was applying for an increase, probably a substantial increase.

What caught the attention of this reporter, Jean Craighead, was that he was a nuclear physicist. She wondered why anybody doing nuclear physics would be considered important to the war effort because like my father, physics was not considered economically relevant. People who studied physics were not contributing to the general economy. They were doing something very abstract, interesting, but not useful, let’s say.

So Jean Craighead was puzzling over this question: why would a nuclear physicist be considered important to the United States’ war effort? She mentioned this to her friend, my sister, whose name was Ruth, Ruth Chew. Ruth Chew said to Jean Craighead, “Well, of course, I have no idea. But I have a brother who is taking a course in nuclear physics at George Washington University. Why don’t you call him up and ask him?”

Now, it happened that shortly before I received this telephone call, a class given by George Gamow—and by the way, George Gamow was never involved in any of the atomic projects, which came to be called the Manhattan Project and all of that. Why? Because he had left behind his family in Russia when he escaped. The United States intelligence, Army intelligence, inferred—correctly, it turned out—that Gamow would be subject to pressure from the Soviet intelligence. At that point, United States policy was not to let the Soviet government know anything about the Manhattan Project. Of course, I knew nothing of this at the time. 

George Gamow was giving a class in nuclear physics, which I attended, and explained that this process called nuclear fission had been discovered just a few years before, and that it opened the theoretical possibility of an atomic weapon that would be much more powerful than any that had heretofore had been possible. He said that it was probably good for the world that such a weapon was not practical, because it required an isotope of uranium that was extremely rare, that the common form of uranium did not undergo fission and that it didn’t seem as if there was going to be enough of this fissionable uranium to ever build anything practical.

When Jean Craighead called me on the phone and asked me if I had any idea about why the United States would consider nuclear physics relevant to the war effort, I told her what Gamow had told us. Then I forgot about it.

But shortly thereafter on a Sunday morning, I remember, I got a telephone call from someone who wished not to be identified, who said that he would like to have a confidential meeting with me. He didn’t want anybody else in my family to know about it. Of course, this was completely astounding to me, but I said, “Okay. If you come to the front door of the house, on such and such a time, I will let you in and then I will take you upstairs to my bedroom. We can talk up there. The rest of my family need not know that you are in the house.”

This was what happened. We started talking in my bedroom upstairs. At first, he was trying not to reveal anything to me, but just to find out whether—I later figured it out, that morning the Washington Post had carried a feature story by Jean Craighead, with a drawing going at the beginning of the story which showed an atomic bomb exploding over Berlin. He had called—the Army intelligence had immediately called Jean Craighead and asked her how she got this information. They were presumably assuming that somebody within the Manhattan Project had given her the information. She said oh, no, she had just based it all on this conversation she had with a brother of her friend.

At the beginning of the conversation with the Army intelligence man, I could tell he was skeptical of what she was telling, because I was nineteen years old and obviously had no contact with anybody in the Manhattan Project. But I told him, “Well, whatever she had to say about nuclear fission in the article was accurate and it was consistent with what George Gamow, my teacher, had told his class. That was the information I had passed on to her.”

I remember that when I realized that her article had appeared in the morning paper, I went downstairs leaving the Army intelligence man upstairs in my bedroom, looking for the article and trying not to let anybody else in my family know what I was interested in. Eventually, I located a copy of the article, brought it upstairs, and I read it in front of him, the intelligence man. I said, “Yes, that is consistent with what I told her and with what Professor Gamow had told us.”

Well, that was the end of that story, as far as I was concerned. I never heard anything more directly about it. But shortly thereafter, George Gamow took me into his office. He said—and I can’t remember the precise sequence of this—but he said, “I have a friend who is a faculty member here at George Washington until recently, whose name is Edward Teller, who has written to me asking if there were any graduating seniors who might be suitable for coming to work for the project that he is working for.”

At that point, I had already, without understanding what I was doing, accepted an offer from another branch of the Manhattan Project, which was in New York and I think related to Columbia University somehow. I told Gamow this. He said, “What Teller is doing is much more interesting than whatever is going on in New York.” He said, “You should by all means go and work with Teller.” Well, at that point, I was nineteen years old. I accepted Gamow’s recommendation. I can’t remember exactly what I had to do to accept it officially.

Anyway, as soon as I finished the work for my degree, which was the middle of the year because I had been taking more classes than needed to build up the credits. Just at the end of 1943—I wish I could remember the details—but I was put into communication with somebody at the University of Chicago. The instruction was that I would take a train from Washington to Chicago. I was not told where I would end up, but I would wait in the railway station where the train deposited me. Somebody from the University of Chicago would come and give me a ticket that would take me to my destination, which was not Chicago, but I was not told where it was. I can remember sitting in that railway station for several hours, nothing happening.

Then eventually, somebody came over to me and said, “Is your name Geoffrey Chew?”

I said, “Yes.”

He said, “Oh, I was looking for a Chinese person.” It turned out he had been waiting there for two hours, because he assumed that anybody with the name “Chew” was Chinese.

He handed me a ticket. The ticket was to take me on the Santa Fe Railroad to a station called Lamy, which was not Santa Fe itself, but a short distance away from Santa Fe. So I got on this train. I can’t remember whether it took—at least one night was spent on the train. I think there was at least two other young men, I think coming from Harvard, on the train with me and also descending from the train in Lamy.

When I got off the train in Lamy, I was met by somebody that I had never seen before, who introduced me to himself as Edward Teller. So that was my first encounter with Edward Teller, getting off the train. It was pretty late in the day. It was dark. He then drove me to Los Alamos. I can remember being very nervous, because the road crossed some precipitous terrain along the sides of cliffs and so on.

This individual, whom I had never met before, who was speaking with an accent that was not anything I had ever heard before, and was intense. He was trying to bring me completely up to date during that drive on what had happened up until then in the Manhattan Project. I can remember that he scared me, because he would keep looking at me while driving. I was afraid he was going to run over the side of a ravine, but he didn’t.

During this drive from Lamy up to Los Alamos, one of the points that he emphasized—well, he tried to give me the whole story, just during that drive. He said that the big emphasis just at that time was on an idea that was related to another Hungarian mathematician named [John] von Neumann. I had experienced contact with Von Neumann in Washington, DC earlier. But that contact had nothing to do with the Manhattan Project. What I was told by Edward Teller was that largely because of Von Neumann’s influence, a way of exploding a nuclear-fission based weapon was being emphasized at Los Alamos. This was the Fat Boy [misspoke: Fat Man] or something, where you implode circularly. So I encountered Von Neumann’s name for the second time in my career during that scary drive from Lamy up to Los Alamos.

At Los Alamos, I was working as an assistant to Teller. I didn’t know this at the time, but he was pursuing an idea that emphasized not nuclear fission, but instead fusion. The director of the laboratory, [J. Robert] Oppenheimer, had decided that the idea of fusion was too far distant. It was so undeveloped that it wouldn’t compete for priority with nuclear fission. But he allowed Teller to carry on research on the fusion possibility with a team of which I was one member. The other two members were also students from George Washington University, but ones who had known Teller. Teller himself was a teacher there. So his little team at that point consisted of these three students from George Washington University. We sat and just punched hand computers. The electronic computers didn’t exist at that point. So that’s how I got introduced to the Manhattan Project. 

Now, during the remainder of my time at Los Alamos—I guess I stayed there until spring of 1946. I was there for a little more than two years, I guess. My assigned jobs were always just punching hand calculators. I didn’t really learn any quantum theory until the war ended. The last four months or so at Los Alamos turned that place into a university. They had probably the most distinguished physics faculty of any school in the history of the world, which included Enrico Fermi.

I had the good fortune to be Fermi’s teaching assistant, which was crazy because he was teaching a class in nuclear physics. I had never had a class in nuclear physics, but I was supposed to be grading the papers of the other students. Of course, I was just as much of a student as anybody else.

I had gotten to know Fermi during my two years in Los Alamos. That turned out to be crucial to my career because after the war, there was no question that I was going to be following Edward Teller to the University of Chicago. He was not going to return to George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He was going to go to the University of Chicago. Fermi already had a connection with Chicago. He was going to be the big star of their physics faculty.

When I arrived at the University of Chicago in 1946, although I was predominantly Teller’s student, a little bit later, not very much later, Teller came to me one day and said, “Fermi, because the new cyclotron here in Chicago isn’t going to be ready for him to use for another year, that he wants to take on a couple of graduate students and catch up on various developments in nuclear theory.” Teller said, “Would you be interested in switching from my supervision to his supervision?” I was overjoyed because for various reasons at that point, I was uncomfortable with Teller as a teacher. I had had enough experience with Fermi as a teacher to know that he was far, far superior in that capacity.

So I switched over Fermi. That ended my formal connection to Edward Teller, but there is no doubt that the foundation of my career in physics began with Teller and of course depended on his relationship to Gamow. So it was Gamow to Teller to Fermi, so far as I was concerned. Fermi was an unbelievably talented, effective teacher. I was just lucky. The sequence of developments just were wonderful for me. That’s the end of my direct connection with Los Alamos.

There is one story—I remember this keenly, which probably is irrelevant to all of this. It is that in July of 1945—I am not sure whether I have been keeping my dates correct. All of this has been happening during the mid-‘40s. I got to the University of Chicago in ‘46. I got my PhD in ’48. Then I came back to Berkeley in ’48, I guess, in the fall of ’48.

Two-thirds of the way through the Los Alamos period, because Oppenheimer had a policy, which was quite remarkable, that anybody in the lab who had a white badge was considered okay to—there was no information withheld from anybody who had a white badge. I had a white badge.

I went to lots of meetings and heard about how things were developing, even though the stuff that Teller was assigning to his three assistants had nothing to do with the first atomic weapon. I heard at these meetings what was going on with the development of the first nuclear fission device, and knew the date of the test in July of 1945, which was in between the end of the European war and the Pacific war. The war was still going on, it was still security, but it was all the white badge people at the lab knew when the first test was going to be made. I was not involved in this actual first test, but extremely curious, of course, about whether it would work or not.

A group—these three assistants to Edward Teller and maybe one or two others that we were close to—we arranged on the evening before the test, to drive to the top of a mountain close to Albuquerque, which was still about eighty miles north, I think, of the site where the test was to be held. But there was a mountain there. I forget the name of the mountain, but it was a popular tourist site. You get a beautiful view of all the surrounding country from the top of the mountain.

So we drove there with our camping equipment, bedrolls and so on, the evening before. We knew the scheduled time of the test which was, I don’t know, 4:30 in the morning, or something like that. I remember that on the top of the mountain, we were not the only ones from Los Alamos coming to see the great event, or the hoped-for great event. The funny thing was that this group of people from Los Alamos camping on the top of that mountain on that night were being scrutinized by security officials, who came around and checked with everybody there that they had the appropriate Los Alamos white badges. It was really a weird situation.

It became even weirder. We got up very early because of the scheduled time of the test, and all sat in a row looking toward the direction where the test was to be held. The scheduled time, whatever it was, 4:30, came and went. Nothing. So we waited for at least another hour, hour and a half. We didn’t know what had happened. Finally decided, “Oh well, I guess it didn’t work, or something went wrong.” We did not know. So we started putting our sleeping bags, packing them up, getting ready to go back to Los Alamos.

I think my back was turned to the south when suddenly the sky lit up. There was this incredible flash. Of course, everybody turned around and watched and saw this mushroom cloud business, which has become so famous. Then I forget how long it took, but the sound, it took quite some time to get there. I could figure it out, but it was a very significant interval before the sound of the explosion reached us.

I remember after we had packed everything up and gotten back in the car and started down the mountain, we started to speculate about the impact on the world history from this. We were very much aware that it was an important development in the history of the world.

Kelly: Everybody is always interested in Oppenheimer. Do you remember being in one of the colloquia with him and what he was like? Or any others of them?

Chew: At that point in my life, I can’t claim to have had direct contact with Oppenheimer. I did not know that conflict between Oppenheimer and Teller had already begun. I don’t know the details, but Oppenheimer distanced himself from Teller, I believe, partly by allowing Teller to have his own little group of assistants. Then Oppenheimer pretty much ignored whatever that group did. He did not consider it significant. It was just an administrative device to get Teller out of his hair. 

After the war, I had gone through a sequence of personal displacements that didn’t have any direct connection with Teller. But they brought me back close to the University of Chicago, not in Chicago, but in the middle of the state of Illinois at the University of Illinois. I spent six years there after having first been appointed here in Berkeley in 1949. I left Berkeley and went to Illinois not because of Teller, because Teller was not in direct contact with me at that point, but because the physics faculty here at Berkeley became badly split over what is called the loyalty oath controversy.

During this period, there were all sorts of ugly things going on. There is one little relevant—one of the Soviet spies inside Los Alamos, whose name escapes me at the moment but he is famous.

Kelly: Fuchs?

Chew: Fuchs, yeah, Klaus Fuchs. He actually lived in the same dorm in Los Alamos that I did. I had no direct contact with Fuchs. I knew he existed. I heard his name. But I don’t know what he did when he was at Los Alamos.

 Well, I was just using his name to characterize this painful period after the end of the Second World War, when there was this intense anti-Soviet feeling in the United States. I saw Klaus Fuchs. I may have even spoken to him, but I have no recollection of that or of anything, any meaningful exchanges between us. I was, of course, as unaware as anybody else in Los Alamos who was not actually in contact with the Soviet intelligence, of the fact that there were Soviet agents there. 

Now, I am trying to connect this confusion in my mind. I was for most of this period at the University of Illinois. I went there in I guess 1950, and I stayed until 1956. I was there for six years. During a large part of this period, I remember continuing to hold the security clearance which was essential to the people working at the Manhattan Project. There were occasions in which Edward Teller took advantage of that clearance to have me accompany him to various other related activities. I can remember, let’s see, three I can remember perhaps. 

One was when—I think largely because of his efforts—Livermore Laboratory became established, he had me spend a large portion of the summer working at Livermore. I can’t remember what it was that I worked on at that point. There was another occasion in which he took me with him to a location in Florida, where a missile was to be launched for some reason. I can’t remember the details of that. I can remember that there was an extension of my security status that allowed me to see occasional glimpses of the activities that were obviously being directed to a possible war with the Soviet Union.

Then, there was another somewhat more pleasant summer that somehow also involved Livermore, where I was involved with two colleagues, one of whom had been—well, he was the second theoretical physics student that Fermi took at the University of Chicago, which I was the first and this man, whose name was Marvin Goldberger, was the second. Then there was another man who, I think, was four years older than me. Goldberger, I think, was one year older than me. This other man was four years older than me. He had nothing to do with the Manhattan Project at all, but he had been in the regular Army during the Second World War.

The three of us got involved in a summer project that was somehow related to Livermore. It had to do with the controlled fusion energy, not as a weapon but as a source of energy that might be competitive with other energy sources. I guess because Teller’s name and Livermore were closely associated in my thinking, I somehow involved Teller’s name in that summer also.

But what I do remember is that Teller was always—Teller himself had moved from Chicago to California. I think he was on the regular faculty here, but he devoted more and more of his attention to Livermore. He was constantly trying to get me to come back to Berkeley.

I can remember being uncomfortable always because of the conflict that had come to public attention between Oppenheimer and Teller. During this postwar period, I had had contact with Oppenheimer, which I did not have at Los Alamos. But after the war at the Institute for Advanced Study, I did have some contact with Oppenheimer. Somehow the publicized conflict between Oppenheimer and Teller rankled me more and more.

I just did not enjoy contact with—or enjoyed it less and less, as time went on. I felt embarrassed by it, because Teller had always been very kind to me, never done anything to hurt me. Always seemed to be anxious to do the best for me, but his conflict with Oppenheimer made me uncomfortable. Of course, I was getting less and less interested in weapon issues and more and more interested in really more foundational scientific issues. Anyway, during that six-year period when I was at Illinois, Teller was constantly trying to get me to come back to California. I was always finding excuses not to, because I did not want to get back into the position of being a protégé of Teller.

Then finally in 1957, I took a sabbatical leave from the University of Illinois and spent half of it here in Berkeley. During that period, I discovered that there were many members of the Berkeley faculty here who shared my uncomfortable feelings about Teller, sort of wished that he would go away because he was so political. Academic issues were what they interested in. Anyway, they organized, without Teller’s knowledge, my return here in 1957. There was a period when we overlapped here as members of the faculty. I can remember that I was always uncomfortable about that.

I never was in a close personal relationship with Oppenheimer. He was interested in some of the ideas that I was proposing. I suppose the relationship to the Manhattan Project was the main thrust of this set of reminiscences.

I have a vague recollection of some occasion after the war, not terribly long after the war. I can’t remember exactly how long, of a celebration at Los Alamos of some kind in which Teller showed up. Another theoretical physicist whose name I momentarily cannot resurrect, but one whom I had gotten to know pretty well, also showed up.

I can remember being present as what was really a social occasion in which this other guy refused to speak to Teller in a public situation. It was the strongest example I ever saw directly of the antipathy tow Teller that had developed in the scientific community. I can remember being terribly embarrassed because the idea of refusing to speak to Teller was something I couldn’t do. This other guy, I was on friendly terms with him. To see him in public exhibit this anger, I guess you would say, anger toward Teller was shocking to me.

Kelly: Was this after the security trial, the security clearance trials? This was after that?

Chew: Yes, it was after that, yes. I have had a very confused relationship with Teller.

Kelly: At the  University of Chicago, where you got your Ph.D., you were Enrico Fermi’s student?

Chew: I began as Teller’s student, but I did not get my degree as somebody supervised by Teller. I switched to Fermi. Fermi was also at Los Alamos. I don’t know to what extent you are interested in recollections about Fermi.

Kelly: Sure.

Chew: I remember already at the Los Alamos period, that Fermi had an unusual personality, very, very different from Teller. Totally different from Teller. But an example of it, he was tremendously competitive in all ways.

An embarrassing occasion was that in this intervening period between the end of the European war and the ending of the Pacific war, I got married. I brought my wife to Los Alamos. We were given an apartment. We were allowed to live in an apartment. Somehow, I can’t remember why, developed a social relationship between—oh yes, now I get it. The two other Teller students who were part of this three-person team that were Teller assistants, they were married. There was a married couple. The wife in that couple was very social. She was always organizing social things. As a matter of fact, I have got some wedding presents from her sitting upstairs in the house. I realize that those were given to my wife and me by this individual.

So there were lots of parties. They had lots of parties. We went to enough of these parties that at some point we thought, “Well, we ought to give a party ourselves.” So my first wife and I, arranged a very, very sedate party for people that we had come into social contact. Among them were Fermi and his wife.

These parties were so benign that they would often play party games at them. One of the games which was proposed put all the people attending the party seated in a circle. Then there were some people in the circle who knew the secret that was the basis of the game. The game was that you passed some object. I think it was a pair of scissors. It probably doesn’t matter what. You passed the pair of scissors from one member to the next and you say, “I pass these scissors crossed.” Or you would say, “I pass the scissors uncrossed.” But whether it was crossed or uncrossed became immediately evident. The game was to figure out what was the distinction between passing the scissors crossed or passing the scissors uncrossed. The people that didn’t know were watching what other people did and were supposed to figure out what made the difference. It was a happy little game.

Fermi and his wife were in the circle. After a while, the only member of the circle that hadn’t figured it out was Fermi. Because my wife and I were the hosts of the party, oh God, I was getting so embarrassed. Fermi was doing all sorts of systematic things. He said, “Okay, you hold them this way, or you hold them this way, or you hold them this way.” Everybody else had figured out what the answer to this party game was. But Fermi couldn’t figure it out. Finally, I was getting more and more embarrassed, because he was so intent on figuring it out.

The answer was that if your legs were crossed as you passed the scissors, than you say “Crossed.” If your legs were not—everybody else figured it out, but not Fermi. Oh God, I was embarrassed. His wife, I remember, was also getting disturbed. Shortly after, somebody had to explain it to Fermi. Oh, God. Fermi very shortly thereafter said it was time to go home. He really was upset, you could tell. Oh God, what a moment.

So that’s one of my recollections from Los Alamos. [Laughs] But he was very competitive. That was one of the funny things about him.  Of course, as a physicist, he was hard to beat. But there were all sorts of other things. He did all sorts of activities. He would play tennis and climbing. When we were at Los Alamos, on weekends, after Saturday noon, I think, you were allowed to go off and walk in the hills, in the mountains, really. Fermi was very proud of his climbing. It wasn’t mountain climbing, but it was how long could you keep going before you became exhausted or something like that. He was very strong and proud of it. In fact, I had plenty of opportunity to observe this nature. So that was a Los Alamos memory of Fermi that occurred to me.

When I became his student at the University of Chicago, I saw another side of him, which at the time I accepted. It’s very much related to a conversation you and I were having not long ago, that he despised philosophers. He thought philosophers were just totally useless. As I have gotten older, I recognize that Fermi had weaknesses. I could not expect him to understand what I am trying to do now. It would be absolutely impossible. He used mathematics a great deal, but it was always as a practical tool, not as a way of expressing what mathematicians would call something being correct or incorrect. Mathematical sentence is either true or it’s false. Fermi didn’t care about that side of mathematics. He somehow used mathematics as a practical tool, without caring about whether something was true or false. For him, everything was approximate. He couldn’t imagine that there was any meaning to the absolute truth.

It’s a very strange thing that Fermi who, as a teacher, I revered him in the early part of my career. I did it in the spirit of Fermi. I didn’t pay any attention to the pure mathematical ideas. Now, here at the end of my life, I am trying to do just the opposite. But what has this got to do with Los Alamos? Except that that is where I met Fermi, and I wouldn’t have ever encountered him had it not been for Los Alamos. I was extremely fortunate in the way things developed.

My students, quite a number of them who have looked into this Jean Craighead story, one of my students checked me out. He couldn’t believe the stories I told him. So he actually contacted Jean Craighead and asked her directly, and she verified. As a result, in a book of memoirs or something or other, that was created at the time of my sixtieth birthday, I guess. Some of my students got together and had a celebration of my sixtieth birthday, and they put together a collection of articles. One of them did this research with Jean Craighead includes the details of that story in it. He verified all the details, more so than I ever took trouble to do, because he didn’t quite believe it, but she verified it. It’s actually written down in that little book. [Laughs]

I guess I can say that without Los Alamos, I certainly would have had a totally different life. I would never have enjoyed so many of the remarkable events that occurred. It was a strange period, very strange. Oh, and this student is convinced that I was sent to Los Alamos to get me behind a security barrier, that that was the reason. But I can’t connect it up with Teller communicating with Gamow, and then Gamow telling me—I don’t know whether he even knew the word “Los Alamos,” but Gamow knew pretty well what was going on. He told me that it was going to be much more interesting there than anyplace else. But this student came to the conclusion that I was sent to Los Alamos to button me up, you know, so I wouldn’t be stimulating any other newspaper reporters to write stories with pictures of atomic bombs exploding over Berlin. 

Kelly: That’s great. You were talking earlier, too, about knowing Johnny von Neumann.

Chew: The first time I met von Neumann was about a year before the Los Alamos—my being sent to Los Alamos, when I was assigned to assist him with some work he was doing for the Navy Department based on his hydrodynamic capabilities. Von Neumann was capable of all sorts of remarkable things. I was assigned for summer job afternoons on I don’t know how many days a week. I would walk over from George Washington University to the Navy Department building, where von Neumann was working on hydrodynamical questions related to the Navy—not to the atomic bomb—just having to do with how water flows.

Because this was before the electronic computers, I was assigned to be his manual human computer. I would just punch keys and then translate the outcome of my punching to graphs that I would construct. I knew nothing about the mathematics he was using, but I would sit there punching out numbers and translating them into curves on sheets of paper. Von Neumann would pace around the room, totally out of contact with—there were other people in the room, things going on, but he just disconnected himself completely. I had never seen a human being doing that before. As he went around the room, as he passed me, he would stop, stare at the curves that I was generating, and then go on pacing. So that was my first contact with von Neumann.

The second one was this drive from Lamy to Los Alamos in the dark, with Edward Teller telling me that von Neumann has somehow persuaded, I guess it must mean Oppenheimer, that this circular, spherical implosion was actually feasible.

Then just as I am about to die, the last few weeks, I have come to appreciate that a mathematical idea, which I believe von Neumann had long before any of these other things, may be providing a description of what’s called the Big Bang. In the draft of a paper that I have been working on for years, I have now put the name von Neumann together with the name of [Paul] Dirac and the name of a Russian mathematician named [Israel] Gelfand all into the title.

The von Neumann piece of mathematics relates to the Big Bang itself. I am perhaps incorrect in this. I can’t be sure, but I believe a piece of mathematics he came up with regarding quantum theory provides a more accurate way of giving meaning to this word Big Bang, which of course is a very loose term. By the way, Gamow I think is the one who coined the word “Big Bang” as a joke. Gamow was a good writer, expository. He liked to make jokes out of all sorts of things. When this notion developed, I think it was Gamow who proposed the term “Big Bang.”

To the extent that Gamow was very influential in my career, von Neumann probably never heard of me. I mean, I can’t think of any reason why von Neumann would have known that I existed. There I was computing these—I don’t think he knew who I was. He didn’t care.

But it may be that von Neumann’s work provides a more accurate significance to the term Big Bang than has ever been achieved.