May 29, 2007

Physicists, the Bomb and the Development of U.S. Science Policy

Last Thursday, the University of California, San Diego, Division of Physical Science, hosted a event entitled "Physicists, the Bomb and the Development of U.S. Science Policy". It was a discussion with UCSD professors Herbert York and Marvin Goldberger. I arrived a bit early to get a good seat as you never know what San Diego traffic can be like. They were just finishing testing the microphones and a few other pre-recording checks. Once the production folks were finished, I had moment to talk with Dr. York. Being the collector that I am, I did bring along copy of The Advisors, which he graciously signed. We chatted a bit about his other book, Making Weapons, Talking Peace, which I told him was back on the bookshelf. I wish I had more time to into depth on so many topics; working with E.O. Lawrence, arms control negotiations, running a weapons lab.

Soon the theater began to fill up. The event was moderated by Mark Theimens, Dean of the Division of Physical Sciences. The evening started with Dr. Goldberger reflecting on his time at the University of Chicago. He worked as an S.E.D. (Special Engineering Detachment), assisting in the development of designing the production reactors that were being built at Site W. After the war, he continued his education with Enrico Fermi serving as his advisor. He warmly remembered Dr. Fermi. I wished we could have heard more about his interactions with Fermi.

Dr. York also commented on time spent with Fermi, and it seemed he loved to ask rhetorical questions. He then spoke about one of the other giants of the time, Ernest Lawrence. He painted a picture of Lawrence as an optimist, and more of an incredible inventor rather than a physicist. He spoke of his graduate days, working in the evenings on the calutron at Berkeley, when Lawrence would stop by and ask how it was going. The best analogy I could give would be if you were a simple programmer at Apple and Steve Jobs would stop by your office to see how things were progressing. Later he commented on how he had about 10 hours a week on one of the most expensive experimental machines in the world at the time, and how today it take massive groups just to perform similar experiments.

The discussion then turned to Oppenheimer. Dr. York had him as a teacher, and remembered his distinctive cough, the ever present smoking, and the pork pie hat. He knew Oppy's brother Frank quite well. He spoke of the great leaps that Oppy would make during lecturing. You would start with something simple like, "1 - 1 = 0";, then the next line would be on alpha decay.

Dr. Goldberger also knew Oppy, mostly while serving as director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. He recalled hosting a New Year's Eve party at a firehouse near campus, when Oppy, Kitty, Niels Bohr and his wife, Margrethe, came in and the whole party turned toward them. He also added his comments about his dislike of Kitty.

He also spoke of the events of 1954, the security hearings of Oppenheimer. He supported Oppenheimer, as most did, but felt he made some poor choices along the way.

Dr. York provided some insight from his role as the first director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. There he worked both with Lawrence and Edward Teller, both of whom had a dislike for Oppenheimer. He decided to try to stay out of the fray, and focus on getting the new lab up and running, but mostly sided with Oppenheimer. He saw the fallout of the hearings, many scientists refused to come to the lab, even for a visit because of Teller's testimony (and to some degree Teller's bashing of Los Alamos as well). He commented that Teller continued to be bitter about his treatment after the hearings and this bitterness continued to grow over time.

The discussion then turned toward their roles in science policy. One remembered Luis Alverez commenting after a visit to Washington, D.C. "They wanted me to bring it [money] home in a wheelbarrow."- They talked about the state of science today, how it takes multiple universities working together in order to get funding. Dr. York commented on when this change occurred. He said, when the "War Time" leaders (those who lived by the "just get it done" attitude), retired, then leadership by committee began to take hold.

Dr. Goldberger did speak briefly about forming Jason, a group of academic scientists from top universities who get together for a few weeks every summer to work on government projects. Dr. York also spoke briefly about his involvement.

The evening quickly drew to a close, with Dr. Goldberger commenting on the down turn of the role of science in policy making. Dr. York spoke of the need for science to take the lead on three main issues; Climate Change, Energy, and Proliferation.

The event was video taped and should be available at at some later date.

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