In 1953, the eminent physicist and H-bomb advocate took an ill-fated overnight train from Philadelphia to Washington, DC, that would indirectly lead to the Robert Oppenheimer security hearing.
Enlarge / In 1953, the eminent physicist and H-bomb advocate took an ill-fated in a single day prepare from Philadelphia to Washington, DC, that may not directly result in the Robert Oppenheimer safety listening to.

Michail_Petrov-96/iStock/Getty Photographs

Within the standard science world, physicist John Wheeler might be finest identified for popularizing the time period “black gap,” though his analysis spanned a broad vary of fields, together with relativity, quantum principle, and nuclear fission. He additionally labored on Challenge Matterhorn B within the early Nineteen Fifties, the controversial US effort to develop a hydrogen bomb. In January 1953, Wheeler unintentionally left a extremely categorised doc regarding that program on a prepare as he traveled from his Princeton, New Jersey residence to Washington, DC. It was a stereotypical “absent-minded professor” second, and one with vital nationwide safety implications.

Alex Wellerstein advised the story intimately late final yr in an article in Physics At the moment. Wellerstein is a historian of science on the Stevens Institute of Expertise in New Jersey, the place his analysis facilities on the historical past of nuclear weapons and nuclear historical past. (Enjoyable reality: he served as a historic marketing consultant on the short-lived TV sequence, Manhattan.) His forthcoming e-book, Restricted Information: The Historical past of Nuclear Secrecy in the USA, is slated for publication in April 2021 by the College of Chicago Press.

A self-described “devoted archive rat,” Wellerstein maintains a number of do-it-yourself databases to maintain observe of all of the digitized recordsdata he is gathered through the years from official, non-public, and private archives. The bits that do not discover their manner into educational papers sometimes find yourself as objects on his weblog, Restricted Information, the place he additionally maintains the NUKEMAP, an interactive software that permits customers to mannequin the impression of quite a few sorts of nuclear weapons on the geographical location of their selection.

Wellerstein stumbled throughout the Wheeler story whereas inspecting declassified congressional transcripts from the Nineteen Fifties, notably from the Joint Committee on Atomic Power. “It was a really highly effective committee within the Nineteen Fifties,” he advised Ars. “There’s all these unusual tales that come up, as a result of not one of the [committee members] ever thought this stuff would see the sunshine of day, in order that they have been remarkably frank.” There are even feedback within the transcript the place members ask why the assembly is being recorded in any respect, as a result of who would ever learn it? “It is me. I am the one which’s going to learn it sooner or later,” mentioned Wellerstein.

The “Wheeler incident” appealed to Wellerstein as a result of it was rife with colourful particulars, in addition to being of historic curiosity and relevance. However it was only one account from one particular person—the Joint Committee’s chief of employees, William Borden, who was fired after the incident—so he began digging across the archives for extra data, even submitting a FOIA request for Wheeler’s FBI file. That file turned out to be probably the most helpful for the Physics At the moment article.

“They labored very laborious to reconstruct precisely what had occurred, in order that they interviewed everyone one million instances,” mentioned Wellerstein. “The FBI ended up being form of a liaison between Congress, the Atomic Power Fee, and Wheeler, as a result of these teams weren’t actually cooperating with one another.”

No extraordinary report

What was it that was so particular about these paperwork Wheeler took with him on the prepare? “The H-bomb doc was no extraordinary technical report,” Wellerstein wrote in Physics At the moment. “It was a bureaucratic weapon aimed instantly at its creators’ political enemies.” In 1949, the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb, and the US misplaced a serious navy strategic benefit. Some physicists, led by Edward Teller and Ernest Lawrence, felt the answer was to construct a brand new sort of nuclear weapon: a hydrogen bomb that relied on nuclear fusion, moderately than fission, for its devastating explosion (though such a response would should be powered by a fission bomb).

However others, like J. Robert Oppenheimer, former head of the Manhattan Challenge, objected to this system, deeming it pointless. President Harry Truman finally sided with Teller and Lawrence, and the Matterhorn B venture was born, however physicists remained bitterly divided on the subject. In March 1951, Teller and Stanislaw Ulam got here up with an H-bomb design that even opponents of this system acknowledged would possible work. The prototype “Mike” machine was efficiently detonated in November 1952. However it wasn’t prepared for sensible use as a navy weapon, Wellerstein wrote, given the 80 tons of cryogenic tools wanted to maintain its deuterium gas in a liquid state.

In the meantime, a special sort of conflict was being waged on the political entrance by H-bomb proponents on the Joint Committee on Atomic Power, a lot of whom have been nonetheless bitter about Oppenheimer’s sharp criticism particularly. It fell to Borden, as chief of employees, to compile an official historical past of the H-bomb’s improvement, primarily based on documentary sources, which doubled as a smear marketing campaign towards Oppenheimer. He despatched a six-page extract of the doc to Wheeler in Princeton, so the physicist might test the technical particulars.

Wheeler took the doc on a Pullman sleeper prepare as he headed again to Washington, DC, and skim it in a single day—principally to keep away from the added expense of paying for an in a single day keep within the resort. Though he later started to doubt his reminiscence, Wheeler recalled that he put the extract into its white envelope, positioned that again inside its manila envelope, put the manila envelope in his suitcase, after which wedged the suitcase between himself and the wall. The porter, Robert Jones, woke up Wheeler at 6:45am as he had requested, and Wheeler took his suitcase to the lads’s toilet on the different finish of the prepare to carry out his morning ablutions. Per Wellerstein:

Wheeler left his suitcase on the counter, took the manila envelope with him into the lads’s “saloon” (bathroom stall), and closed the door. Discovering nowhere to place the envelope, he wedged it between some pipes and the wall, just below the window on his proper. He used the bathroom. He exited the stall, continued washing up—after which realized he had left the envelope wedged towards the saloon wall.

At that time two different males have been utilizing the wash basins and one other man was occupying the bathroom stall. Not letting decorum get in the way in which of safety, Wheeler climbed on the washstand and tried to see via the metallic grate on the bathroom door. He couldn’t see the envelope, however he might see the opposite man on the bathroom and will see that he was not studying something. Wheeler watched him till he completed his enterprise and opened the door, at which level Wheeler ran in behind him and grabbed the manila envelope from behind the pipes. It didn’t appear tampered with.

However when Wheeler bought again to his berth and seemed contained in the manila envelope, the white envelope containing the categorised paperwork was gone. With the porter’s assist, Wheeler searched the prepare for the lacking white envelope, even checking with the station’s lost-and-found on the extraordinarily unlikely probability that somebody had turned it in—to no avail. Not even the FBI’s extraordinarily thorough subsequent investigation turned up the lacking paperwork.

Schematic drawing of the Pullman car where John Wheeler spent the night on 6 January 1953.
Enlarge / Schematic drawing of the Pullman automobile the place John Wheeler spent the night time on 6 January 1953.

Newberry Library, Chicago

In reality, these paperwork have been by no means recovered, and their whereabouts stays a thriller to at the present time, though there are many speculative theories. Wellerstein personally favors the speculation that the porter discovered the paperwork and simply threw them away moderately than reporting the discover, as a result of he thought he can be higher off pretending he by no means noticed it—though being stolen by a spy is a much more thrilling speculation. However given the shortage of proof, he thinks the spy situation is very unbelievable.

Based on Wellerstein, Wheeler’s misplacing of the categorised H-bomb paperwork occurred on the worst attainable time, significantly given how the hydrogen bomb was seen as distinctly totally different from the primary atomic bombs. It was additionally a expertise managed by secrets and techniques versus supplies. “It is not some magical materials, and it isn’t laborious to construct,” he mentioned. “It is simply figuring out tips on how to prepare it.” This had large strategic implications for American policymakers and navy leaders, who feared the data would fall into Soviet fingers, thereby posing an excellent larger danger to the protection and safety of the USA.

“For them, it is actually this life or dying scenario,” mentioned Wellerstein. “The H-bomb was one thing they thought they’d this huge benefit on as a result of the spies of the Manhattan Challenge did not know that a lot about it. You’ve got bought the precept of the factor however you do not even have any H-bombs in your stockpile. And now there’s this risk that there is not any benefit in any way, if this has fallen into Soviet fingers.”

The lack of the paperwork derailed a number of political careers, together with Borden’s. After being fired from his place, Borden returned to his non-public legislation apply, and have become a full-blown conspiracy theorist. He had a selected vendetta towards Oppenheimer, and his unrelenting marketing campaign towards the physicist was considered one of a number of elements that led to the notorious Oppenheimer safety listening to, which stripped the physicist of his safety clearance.

As for Wheeler, he bought off simple with a sharply worded letter of rebuke from the Atomic Power Fee. “He was too beneficial as a scientist,” mentioned Wellerstein. “They mentioned they could not punish him with out hurting the nuclear program.”

DOI: Physics At the moment, 2019. 10.1063/PT.3.4364 (About DOIs).

 

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