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TitleBuilding the H Bomb: A Personal History
File Size5.3 MB
Total Pages222
Table of Contents
A Note on Secrecy
1. The Big Idea
2. The Protagonists
3. The Choice
4. The Scientists, the Officials, and the President
5. Nuclear Energy
6. Some Physics
7. Going West
8. A New World
9. The Classical Super
10. Calculating and Testing
11. Constructing Matterhorn
12. Academia Cowers
13. New Mexico, New York, and New Jersey
14. The Garwin Design
15. Climbing Matterhorn
16. More Than a Boy
End Notes
Document Text Contents
Page 2

Ken Ford has written a truly remarkable book. It is not only the story of his life
but it is a primer for the nuclear age. He is one of the few witnesses left of how
the hydrogen bomb was created. There are portraits of people like Edward Teller
and John Wheeler and the physics is clear. It is a must read for anyone who
wants to learn about the history of nuclear weapons.

Jeremy Bernstein, Nuclear Iran A Chorus of Bells
and Other Scientific Inquiries.

Ken Ford’s book provides a firsthand look at the early days of U.S.
thrermonuclear weapons design and the work under John Wheeler of the
Matterhorn B (for bomb) project at Princeton that focussed on predicting the
yield of the first U.S. test of a hydrogen bomb—Mike—on November 1, 1952.
Knowing all the participants, I found the account accurate as well as

Richard Garwin,
Megawatts and Megatons: The Future of

Nuclear Power.

Building the H Bomb offers a rare and fascinating insider’s look at the making of
humankind’s most powerful nuclear weapon. Ford combines his trademark talent
for explaining physics with a warm, engaging personal story. Amidst the
darkness of Cold War paranoia and the nuclear arms race, Ford lets the
scientists’ personalities, their quest for knowledge, and his own youthful
innocence shine through. Part physics, part history, part memoir, this book
reminds us that science is ultimately a very human endeavor.

Amanda Gefter, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn

A charming and engrossing book about the building of the hydrogen bomb, the
individuals who built it, the development of computers and much more from the
point of view of a young man who was in the middle of all of it and knew

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Yucca Flat, part of the Nevada Test Site (as of 2011). The craters are places where the earth subsided after
underground nuclear tests. Courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration.

Over the years, the Nevada test site became the favored location for weapons
tests. Of the 1,054 reported tests in the period 1945–1992, 928 were carried out
in Nevada, 828 of them underground and 100 above ground.* The remaining
tests were carried out mostly in the Pacific (106) with a scattering (20) in other
places, including even two in Mississippi. [9]

Just three of those thousand-plus tests come into my story, all three
conducted at Enewetak. They were Greenhouse George and Greenhouse Item in
May 1951 and Ivy Mike on November 1, 1952 (October 31 in the United States).

By the time I arrived in Los Alamos in mid-1950, the authorities there had
decided that thermonuclear burning needed some experiments, not just
theorizing. In February of that year the “Family Committee” had come into
being, with Edward Teller as its chair, to oversee thermonuclear developments.
[14] (The name, I was told, reflected the fact that the committee was to consider a
new family of weapons—or perhaps all families of weapons.) Members included
leading lab scientists and engineers from various divisions—including those

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concerned with theory, experiment, chemistry, metallurgy, and testing. I was not
a member but did attend some of its meetings, most of which were concerned
with planning for the Greenhouse tests scheduled for the following May.

Available minutes of the Family Committee meetings run from its fourth
meeting in March 1950 to its twenty-seventh meeting on November 15, 1950.
[15] At that meeting, Norris Bradbury the lab director, reminded the committee
that its charge was to look beyond Greenhouse at all phases of the thermonuclear
program.[16] To what extent it did so I don’t know since if any minutes were
recorded for meetings after November 15, they remain shrouded in secrecy. To
call the minutes of the earlier meetings “available” is a slight overstatement.
They are works of modern art, studies in black and white, containing fully
blacked out pages intermingled with partially whited out pages, with a few
sentences peeking out here and there. The sentences that do make it into the light
show that the committee was largely concerned with experiments planned for the
George and Item “shots” at Greenhouse—experiments with names like
FLUMEX, GANEX, TENEX, DINEX, and PHONEX. (A saying at the lab at the
time was that if a really clean experiment were ever designed, it would be called

Part of my job in my first months at Los Alamos was to carry out
calculations on the expected performance of some of these experiments. The
George shot was the more complicated of the two. It used a large fission bomb,
reportedly the largest to that date (225 kilotons), to ignite a small quantity of a
liquefied (and frigid) mixture of deuterium and tritium. This was in the spirit of
the 1946 invention of von Neumann and Fuchs that I described in the previous
chapter—although, as I mentioned there, I don’t recall the von Neumann-Fuchs
invention ever being discussed in connection with planning for George. The
ignition occurred because radiation from the fission bomb ran out ahead of the
expanding matter from the fission explosion. The fission bomb was, according to
descriptions now posted, cylindrical rather than spherical—perhaps the only one
of its kind ever made.[17] That geometry meant that there was a channel out of
which radiation could pour onto the nearby container of liquefied deuterium and
tritium. Von Neumann and Fuchs had considered a gun-type weapon to achieve
the same end. The questions of interest were: Did the DT mixture burn? If so,
what fraction of it was consumed? What temperature was reached in the DT
container? (Energy release from the DT burning, even if complete, was
inconsequential relative to the energy of the fission trigger.)

It was to answer these and related questions that all the diagnostic …EX’s
were devised. It is a tribute to the skill of the experimental physicists and the

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reaction to Los Alamos, 78, 120
trip to Los Angeles, 125, 161

Wheeler, John, 26, 72, 141
1949-50 in France, 27–28
1950 vacation with Janette, 32
1950 visit to Princeton, 34
autobiography of, 83
Bethe’s link to, 88
Bohm, disappointment in, 134
Bohm, recruitment of, 133
and Bohr, 28–29
concern about underestimated yield, 183
creating Matterhorn, 126
in crowded office, 85
decision to join project, 32
early days at Matterhorn, 140, 141, 169
and early Super calculations, 103
effect of “Joe 1” on, 30
joining Los Alamos, 102, 119
at June 1951 meeting, 152–153
and Los Angeles APS meeting, 20, 123, 124
as Matterhorn leader, 165
and Matterhorn recruitment, 128
as a mentor, 35
and naming Stellarator, 129–130
and nuclear deformation, 27–28
optimism of, 105, 108, 148
and “Princeton physics,” 87
as principal author of PM-B- 37, 168, 173
reaction to Mike test, 181
recruitment efforts by, 119
seeking Princeton approval, 121
and six-day work week, 83–84
and Spitzer idea, 127
and Task Force 132.1, 179
as a teacher, 25–26, 27
and “telephone book” report, 107
and Teller, 4
and thermonuclear burning, 143

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and Ulam, 4
witnessing Mike test, 176, 178
and “Yule log,” 5
and the Zia Company, 86

Wheeler children
in France, 27, 29, 31, 32
in Los Alamos, 77, 78
and Los Alamos schools, 120–121

Whitworth, Fletcher, 189
Wilets, Lawrence (Larry), 25, 141, 173
Williams, Frederic C., 165n
Williams tubes, 165, 166
Winnipeg, Ontario, 162
Woodrow, Roy, 128, 129
“Work of Many People,” 14
World War II, 93

yield of Mike
actual, 183
calculated, 173
and Swordtail calculations, 173

Yucca Flat, 113
“Yule log,” 5

Zeldovich Yakov, 10
Zia Company, 86, 123

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