The Manhattan Project

Oral Histories

Stanislaus Ulam's Interview (1979)

Stanislaus Ulam was a Polish-American mathematician. He worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos and later helped design the hydrogen bomb. In this interview, he discusses his work at Los Alamos and his relationship with J. Robert Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe, John von Neumann, Enrico Fermi, and other scientists. He also discusses Oppenheimer’s varied reputation within the physics community. In particular, Ulam was frustrated by Oppenheimer’s wordiness, which he and some other scientists perceived as pompous and superfluous. Ulam also explains his thoughts on creativity in math and physics, and why he is a proponent of nuclear power.

Kathleen Maxwell's Interview

Kathleen Maxwell's Interview

Kathleen Maxwell was a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project for the Kellex Corporation in Jersey City, New Jersey. The only female scientist in her division, she assisted in troubleshooting various operational, technical, and chemical challenges related to uranium enrichment. In this interview, she discusses the details of her work, as well as the long hours and secrecy. Maxwell describes her laboratory’s concerns over the effects of radiation exposure, and recalls that scientists underwent routine screenings, regular check-ups, and even took out extra insurance policies. She also reflects on the decision to drop the atomic bomb and the urgency of the project: “I have never been so absorbed in any one thing in my life.”

David Bohm's Interview

David Bohm was an American theoretical physicist who would later become a citizen of the United Kingdom. After finishing his undergraduate degree at the Pennsylvania State University in 1939, Bohm arrived at the University of California, Berkeley on a seemingly meteoric rise. However, during this same period he became affiliated with the Communist Party, which would ultimately undermine his chances for success in the United States. After being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950, he was forced to continue his study of physics in other countries. In this interview, he discusses his time at Berkeley before and during the war and the left-wing movement at Berkeley. He describes his former mentor J. Robert Oppenheimer as a brilliant mind with occasional charisma that made him a strong administrator.

Mildred Goldberger's Interview

Mildred Goldberger was an American mathematician. She worked at the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago during the Manhattan Project. She was married to Marvin “Murph” Goldberger, a physicist who taught at Princeton during J. Robert Oppenheimer’s tenure as Director of the Institute for Advanced Study. In this interview, she gives a glimpse into what life was like in Princeton during the 1950s-60s. She discusses her relationship with the Oppenheimer family during this period and notes the Oppenheimers’ struggles to fit in with the rest of the Princeton community.

Joseph Rotblat's Interview

Joseph Rotblat was a British-naturalized Polish physicist, 1995 Nobel Peace Prize winner, and founder of the Pugwash Conferences. Rotblat and his friend James Chadwick, discoverer of the neutron, conducted early research on the atomic bomb in England, and both joined the British Mission at Los Alamos working on the Manhattan Project. Rotblat left the Manhattan Project on grounds of conscience in late 1944 when it became clear Germany was not close to developing an atomic bomb—the only scientist to leave the project for moral reasons. In this interview, he discusses his personal and professional relationships with J. Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr, and the Chadwick family. He also provides insight into the intense security measures in place at Los Alamos, as well as the nature of British involvement at the site. Perhaps most intriguing is Roblat’s discussion of his decision to leave Los Alamos, spurred on by his growing concern that the nuclear weapons being created were also meant for the Soviet Union, and his anxiety over a postwar arms race. In a lighter vein, Rotblat also recalls his work as a technical advisor on the 1980 miniseries “Oppenheimer.”

Marvin Goldberger's Interview

Marvin Goldberger was President of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and a friend of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s from his days at Princeton, after World War II. In this interview, he talks about his and his wife’s relationships with Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer. He also discusses Oppenheimer’s reputation as a physicist and personality, as well as how Oppenheimer fit into the social scene in post-war Princeton. Goldberger recounts how he first met Oppenheimer, and gives his impressions of other Manhattan Project figures including Robert Serber and Edward Teller.

Edward Purcell's Interview

Edward Purcell was an eminent physicist at Harvard who won the 1952 Nobel Prize in Physics. He worked on microwave radiation at the MIT Rad Lab during World War II, and was involved in some of the Trinity test preparations. In this interview, he discusses his time with J. Robert Oppenheimer at Harvard University after the war, and the problems some tenured professors ran into after being accused of being communists. He also mentions Manhattan Project physicist Herbert York whom he praises for his own efforts to chronicle the same period as well as his work on the early American space program. Purcell recalls talking about Eisenhower’s election and the first successful hydrogen bomb test with Oppenheimer.

Verna Hobson's Interview - Part 1

Verna Hobson was an American secretary. She and her husband, the jazz musician Wilder Thornton, moved to Princeton, NJ in the 1950s. From 1954 to 1956, Verna Hobson worked for J. Robert Oppenheimer as a secretary at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. In this interview, she discusses life in Princeton during the mid-’50s, including the social scene and her personal relationships with the Oppenheimer family. She worked for Oppenheimer during his security trial hearing, and explains why she felt the legal strategy was flawed and recalls the strain the Oppenheimer family was put under. She also discusses the personalities of Robert, Kitty, and Peter Oppenheimer, and Robert and Kitty’s relationship.

Ed Hammel's Interview

Ed Hammel was a young physicist at Princeton University when he signed on to work for the Manhattan Project. Stationed at Los Alamos, he became involved with the site’s production of plutonium. He stayed at Los Alamos after the war and became involved in the hydrogen bomb program. In this interview, he discusses the early efforts to design the hydrogen bomb, the scientific innovations he and his colleagues developed at LANL, and why he decided not to work on the Ivy Mike shot.

Margaret Broderick's Interview

Margaret Broderick's Interview

Margaret “Chickie” Broderick worked on the Manhattan Project as a chemist at MIT. In this interview, she describes the laboratory where she was employed and the secrecy and “tight” security that surrounded the project. She elaborates on the background check procedures required for workers. Broderick also recalls the wartime culture and environment in America, offering insight into military-civilian relations and social life during World War II.

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