Born in Budapest, Hungary, Peter Lax fled Nazi persecution and came to America with his family at the age of 15. Drafted into the Army when he was 18, he joined other émigré scientists and mathematicians in Los Alamos to work on the Manhattan Project. In this interview, Lax discusses his work as a member of the Manhattan Project’s Special Engineer Detachment and his mathematical contributions to the challenges of neutron transport, fluid dynamics, and shockwaves. He vividly describes what life was like at Los Alamos and offers keen insights on the revolutionizing development of scientific computing and atomic energy. He also recalls the many contributions of the Hungarian mathematicians and scientists at Los Alamos, who were nicknamed “the Martians.”
Sir Rudolf Peierls was a German-born physicist. He worked with Wolfgang Pauli in Switzerland, and moved to England when Hitler rose to power in 1933. In March 1940, Peierls and fellow colleague Otto Frisch co-authored the Frisch-Peierls memorandum, the first technical exposition of a practical atomic weapon. Peierls joined the British Mission and worked on the Manhattan Project in New York and Los Alamos. In this interview, Peierls discusses his work in atomic research and how the Frisch-Peierls memorandum was developed. He recalls going sailing with Oppenheimer, and how the scientists at Los Alamos respected Oppenheimer’s leadership.
Colonel Franklin Matthias was the officer-in-charge at the Hanford site. In the second part of his interview with Stephane Groueff, Matthias describes the personalities of the men he worked with, including Enrico Fermi and DuPont’s Granville Read. He recalls a visit by Fermi and Eugene Wigner to Hanford, and explains why Read got along well with General Leslie Groves. Matthias discusses the safety measures at Hanford, and recounts how a Japanese fire balloon temporarily knocked out power to the plant. He also explains how scientists conducted tests on salmon to assess levels of radioactive contamination in the Columbia River.
Walt Grisham grew up on a farm at Hanford in the 1930s. He was serving in the Air Force in England during World War II when his parents were informed that they would need to leave the farm - the site was being requisitioned for the Manhattan Project. Grisham recalls what life was like growing up on a farm during the Great Depression. He remembers picking fruit at the orchards, how neighbor helped neighbor, and the challenges of getting the fruit and produce to market. He talks about what the area and the Columbia River continues to mean to the people who were kicked off the land. He explains the history of Hanford and White Bluffs, and recalls walking across the Columbia River one winter when it was frozen solid.
William G. (“Bill”) Hudgins spent most of his childhood years in New Mexico. He first heard about a secret wartime laboratory at Los Alamos in 1943, when he was a student at the University of New Mexico. Hudgins joined the Manhattan Project after writing a letter to Dorothy McKibbin. After briefly being called away for Army training, he returned to Los Alamos as a member of the Special Engineer Detachment. In this interview, he recalls interviewing for a job with McKibbin (who asked, “Where did you hear about me?”) and shares his memories of other Manhattan Project figures, including scientist Rebecca Bradford Diven and project historian David Hawkins. He also describes growing up in Santa Fe, and details the geologic and Native American history of the region.
The daughter of Polish immigrants, Isabella Karle had received her Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD degrees in physical chemistry from the University of Michigan by the time she was 22 in 1943. With her husband, Jerome Karle, a fellow student and scientist whom she married in 1942, Isabella became a pioneer in the field of science, starting with her work on the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago in 1943. After the war, Isabella and Jerome began work on crystallography at the US Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, where they were employed for over sixty years until their retirement in 2009. In this interview, Isabella discusses the career path she took after high school to become a chemist. She also explains how she came to work for the Manhattan Project in 1943, how she met her husband at the University of Michigan, and the successful careers of other scientists she worked with during the Manhattan Project.
Jerome Karle worked on plutonium chemistry at the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory during the Manhattan Project, along with his wife, Isabella. After the war, Jerome and Isabella worked for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory for almost seventy years. Jerome was awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1985. In this interview, Karle explains his chemistry work in the Manhattan Project. He recalls his friendship with Glenn Seaborg, and discusses his opinion on dropping the bombs on Japan.
Ralph Lapp was completing his PhD in physics at the University of Chicago when he joined the Manhattan Project. After the war, he worked for the War Department and served as a scientific advisor there before leaving the government to start his own firm. Lapp went on to write several books and advocate for peaceful uses of nuclear energy. In this interview, he discusses how he stumbled upon Enrico Fermi’s team working under Stagg’s Field in December of 1942, and was hired on the spot to work on the development of the atomic bomb. Lapp recalls witnessing the 1946 Bikini nuclear tests, and discusses the controversy over the Lucky Dragon boat, caught into the fallout of one of 1954 Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb test. He examines how nuclear weapons have changed the course of human history.
Robert Christy studied under J. Robert Oppenheimer at the University of California, Berkeley while earning his PhD in theoretical physics. He joined the Manhattan Project in February 1942 at the University of Chicago, and later relocated to Los Alamos when Oppenheimer personally recruited him on a visit to Chicago. At Los Alamos, Christy worked on the design of the water-boiler reactor. He was then recruited into the implosion group, where he designed the Christy gadget, the solid-core design of the plutonium bomb. He also witnessed the Trinity test. In this interview, he recalls what Oppenheimer was like as a professor and lecturer, his love for martinis, and his relations with graduate students. Christy discusses Oppenheimer’s role in the field of physics as a stimulator of ideas, and how it changed after his security trial. He also discusses Oppenheimer’s impact in emphasizing the value of theoretical physics in America. Christy remembers sharing a house with Edward Teller in Chicago and working with Klaus Fuchs and Rudolf Peierls.
Newton Stapleton worked for the legal department at DuPont when he was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project. He became responsible for security and secrecy at Hanford, WA. He describes the security procedures in place, including how background checks were conducted and badges were issued. He discusses the emphasis on secrecy and how DuPont’s leaders urged workers to keep quiet about their work. Stapleton recalls the challenge of getting a four-bedroom home in Richland and bringing his family out to Richland.