Science Talk

The First Nuclear Arms Race: Churchill's Bomb, Part 2

Graham Farmelo is the award-winning author of the Dirac biography The Strangest Man. His latest book is Churchill’s Bomb: How the United States Overtook Britain in the First Nuclear Arms Race

Podcast Transcription

Steve Mirsky: Steve Mirsky here with part two of our talk with Graham Farmelo, author of Churchill's Bomb.  In terms of the effort to separate the uranium I mean it's a brute force kind of thing.  If you just do it long enough and make the separation tubes big enough and use enough uranium you can do it.  How long – I mean the idea is that the uranium isotopes are a slightly different weight.

Graham Farmelo:      That's right.

Steve Mirsky:    And when you vaporize them one will travel down the tube slightly further than the other.

Graham Farmelo:      That’s right.

Steve Mirsky:    And that's how you can separate them.  But how long were the tubes that –?

Graham Farmelo:      Oh they were –

Steve Mirsky:    They went on for –

Graham Farmelo:      They were ____ - I can't tell you the exact size but this was a vast – It's not even thinkable now because you'd see them from aerials [inaudible comment].

Steve Mirsky:    Right.  [laughter]

Graham Farmelo:      I mean they were building whole towns to do this.

Steve Mirsky:    Just to separate out the uranium isotope.

Graham Farmelo:      I know and as you rightly say it was absolutely brute force.  And it was – Well I'm at a loss for words.  To produce the amount of fissile uranium and also plutonium America definitely took the lead on that right?  Because it turned out you need less of that stuff – that particular chemical element.  And Americans quickly took the lead in developing plutonium weapons so they had enough fissile material to build a small number of nuclear bombs right at the end as it turned out of the war.

And that was – In its macabre way it was a complete triumph for Oppenheimer, but also let's be clear, for General Groves. 

Steve Mirsky:    Right.

Graham Farmelo:      Who I don't think I would've gotten on particularly well with (not that that matters).  I suspect he's a very, very tough guy to work with.  But it was an absolutely phenomenal planning achievement to have gotten those weapons ready.  In fact – Well they had the Trinity test.  And then they were able to give the president the results of the Trinity test just in time for Potsdam which is when Harry Truman informed Stalin that the nuclear bomb had been – was ready.

And of course Stalin was a really great actor there.  He said, "Oh really?"  And of course he'd been briefed on this for years.  He'd been getting briefings from London which would've made Churchill blanch you know. 

Steve Mirsky:    Mm-hmm.

Graham Farmelo:      But as I say the outcome is really quite – I think for most people – a very sad one because people will never agree about nuclear weapons in the sense.  Some people will say that it's a blight to the earth.  Other people will say that it's given us a longstanding piece.  But whatever you think about it a colossal amount of wasted effort was put in, building up these ever larger arsenals, which perhaps a more imaginative approach would've been more productive.

We have to bear in mind – We know that good people will differ on this.  But I think it fair to say that I mean anyone, I think with any sensibility, will think it's an appalling thing to wipe out tens of thousands of people but one has to bear in mind that a comparable number of people were killed in one night's firebombing in Tokyo.

Steve Mirsky:    And Dresden as well I believe from firebombing _____.

Graham Farmelo:      Absolutely.  Absolutely fair point.  And the people then at that time – You can look or George or well my own mother – still alive – will say the relief that they had because the war was over.  Right?  Now as I said there are all sorts of perspectives you can take on that.  So we just have to – Thor would've appreciated this.  There's no unique way of looking at this.  But it was a huge – a momentous tale of where scientists and politicians had to come together.

And it's worth thinking, I think, of how strange this was that the most advanced scientists in one field seemed as a very, very ______ are came together with scientists.  It's almost like today's string theorists who are suddenly finding themselves working with a bomber, David Cameron and Putin and what have you.

Steve Mirsky:    Right.

Graham Farmelo:      Right?  It's really like something out of science fiction.  I think it's unprecedented to have such a large scale working together.  Going back to that point about how the public before the war had read – had seen plays on Broadway, in London – Wings Over Europe.  They'd read books by people like Harold Nicolson – big selling books by J.B. Priestley – big selling books in the United States in 1938 where people were talking about nuclear weapons.  And the physicists – It has to be said the physicists were poo-pooing this.

Most of all the greatest nuclear physicist of them ball – Ernest Rutherford, the classic nuclear skeptic.  He was talking about moonshine – well the idea that you could actually make a bomb and you could tap this nuclear energy.  And then it all goes quiet in the war.  The next thing they do; they read the newspaper and a nuclear bomb is being built.

Steve Mirsky:    Mm-hmm.

Graham Farmelo:      You can understand that the public – how disorientated they were by this you know?  Because in a sense the H.G. Wells and the Priestlys and the poets and the writers had forewarned people about this.

Steve Mirsky:    Yeah.

Graham Farmelo:               You know?

Steve Mirsky:    When you wrote the book, when you did the research for the book what really jumped out at you as something you didn't know – didn't expect?

Graham Farmelo:      Well there are several anecdotes that caught me by surprise.  I must say that the one that tickles me most was this.  Let me give a very quick bit of background, that Churchill is often seen as a kind of scientific illiterate.  But he was seen by people in his cabinet as being – because he knows nothing about science.  He just relies on Lindemann.  He had no interest at all in basic science.  So I came across this report and I did quite a bit of research on it where in March 1933 Churchill chaired a discussion about the modern discoveries in nuclear physics.

This is the first artificial splitting of the atom, the discovery of the neutron, and the cosmic ray showers which gave a beautifully vivid picture of antimatter freshly discovered in the United States.  Churchill was talking really quite lucidly in his witty way about these discoveries.  He had just published Fifty Years Hence where he was looking forward to nuclear weapons.  So it's astounding to me that this writer who is so literary and so unscientific allegedly was in fact on top of this stuff in the 1930s.

And I remain deeply admiring of his breadth of interest and his farsightedness.  To me, as nuclear visionary, he was far greater as a journalist than he was a politician.

Steve Mirsky:    Mm-hmm.

Graham Farmelo:      One other point that fascinated me was that Churchill – I think it was 1947.  He actually advocated – when he was talking to Mackenzie King the Canadian leader – a preemptive strike on the Soviet Union.  That was the high point of his bellicosity so to speak.  He was deeply, deeply troubled by Stalin's – what Churchill saw was Stalin's belligerency particularly in Eastern Europe.  Events quickly took over.  The Soviets got the bomb.  They then got the H bomb which is a super-duper version of the atomic bomb.

And then in 1954 Churchill has this damascene moment when he read of the appalling, utterly appalling destructiveness of the hydrogen bomb.  In a report he read in the _______ Guard we know someone that actually saw him read that newspaper.  And he realized, so to speak, the game was up.  This was ridiculous that both sides could absolutely smash each other to bits.  And he saw in this an imperative to end the Cold War.  He felt he had to take a lead in this.

And that's what made him a pioneer of detente right at the end of his career when he was urging Eisenhower and he was urging the Soviet leaders – 'cause Stalin died in 1954 – to come together to avoid what he saw as a likely cataclysm.  That wasn't successful.  It was undoubtedly a failure of his.  But historians disagree on this, but I personally find it actually rather thrilling that someone of that age, 80 years old in 1954, could still be imaginative way after – It would've been great if he'd been more imaginative in the war but he still was taking imaginative action about nuclear weapons.

And you know, Steve, this – people might say, "He had to be involved in the Second World War.  It's curiosity that he was involved in the 1930s.  Afterwards he wouldn't have given a dam about it."  That's not true.  After he left office he was kept briefed on Britain's nuclear arrangements.  He visited Britain's nuclear research establishment in Harwell and believe it or not he participated in a nuclear experiment when he was age 80.

Steve Mirsky:    What did he do?

Graham Farmelo:      Well so John Cockcroft, one of the two guys who first artificially split the atom took him to this neutron scattering experiment and Churchill was being briefed by Cockcroft and others.  And he was the person who turned off this neutron beam.  It was actually minimal involvement.  But the point was he was actually in there with equipment at age 80.  And he was reading Nevil Shute's On the Beach.  This was his obsession right to the end.  And for me the abiding fascination of this story is that he was aware of it so early.

Politicians they say never will come out and say, "I screwed up," or "I got this wrong."  But I would dearly love to know whether he ever thought about tracing those steps.  I think, as I speculate in my book, that it must've dawned on him when he gave his great speech on the 1st of March 1955 which was by all accounts a really great speech, even to people who are opposed to him.  And this was on Britain's acquisition of the hydrogen bomb.  When he looked back and Fifty Years Hence; he looked back on that article and he frankly was boasting that he and Lindemann had been anticipating events.

And yet nobody sought to ask, "Well if you were doing that in 1931 why weren't we better prepared?"

Steve Mirsky:    Right.

Graham Farmelo:      But overall I would say that Churchill is a more impressive figure after this.  It's easy to be critical from the vantage point we're in now.  But I think that it's a remarkable story of how a politician could know about a science early and still not be able to handle it as effectively as one might hope when it comes to actually dealing with those.

Steve Mirsky:Why did you write this book?

Graham Farmelo:      I've long been intrigued by the thought of all these nuclear physicists and directable physicists suddenly being swept away from their laboratories, away from all these abstractions in the sub-nuclear world – just ripped away from their laboratories, from their desks and easels into the completely unfamiliar world of politics with secrecy then prevailing rather than the openness that everyone wants to see.  And that's what caught my imagination.

         I knew that Churchill was evolved in this.  What I never expected – never expected – was to find that Churchill was much more evolved in science than as far as I know anyone really had realized.  And that's what I think makes this such a rich story.  And I did not know that when I started.  So you could call it a lot of luck.

Steve Mirsky:    Hmm.  You spent the summer at Princeton at the Institute for Advance Study.  Is that to do research on your next book?

Graham Farmelo:      It is.  It is.  My thinking about my next book is so tentative that even you Steve shall not know its subject.  But I shall be very pleased in due course to come and talk about it with you.  It does not involve Winston Churchill.  I'll give you that all right?  [laughter]

Steve Mirsky:    Okay.  Well we'll hope to see you again in maybe two years?  More like three probably.

Graham Farmelo:      Yeah but it won't be five and a half.  I've done two five and a half year books and I think a shorter one is due this time.

Steve Mirsky:    Well Dirac and Churchill are rather large subjects.

Graham Farmelo:      They are.  That's a good link on that anecdote actually.  There's a good link there.  In 1970 – Excuse me.  I beg your pardon.  In 1972 when Dirac's 70t birthday would've been celebrated by people like Heisenberg and Yang and all these great people were celebrating his birthday C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures guy ____ stood up and said, "We are in the presence of the greatest living Englishman."  And nobody demurred.  Right?  And of course the reason he was able to say that was that Churchill had died in –

Steve Mirsky:    '65 I think.

Graham Farmelo:      1965 that's right.  So you could say by C.P. Snow's rather peculiar way of looking at the world that I've looked at two of the century's greatest Englishmen.

Steve Mirsky:    Very good.  Have you seen the opera Doctor Atomic?

Graham Farmelo:      No I couldn't get tickets.  I was away.  Have you seen it?

Steve Mirsky:    I saw a broadcast of it on television.  And you know after watching this I think you'd just find it fascinating.

Graham Farmelo:      Yep.

Steve Mirsky:    Whether you'd think it's a great opera I can't say but I think you'd find it fascinating.

Graham Farmelo:      Right okay.  Yes I've heard people that really liked that.  I mean there's no doubt that Oppenheimer is an operatic figure, I mean for lots of reasons.  That's why there are so many biographies of him now.  There probably will continue to be so.  He wasn't the world's greatest scientist but that said to Groves' credit Groves saw the potential which hardly anyone else as far as I know saw and found a really great scientific leader of that project.  And that was an inspirational piece of leadership on Groves' part.

Steve Mirsky:    Oppenheimer – not the world's greatest physicist but the world's greatest administrator of a gigantic physics project. 

Graham Farmelo:      Well the physics of it. 

Steve Mirsky:    [inaudible comment]    

Graham Farmelo:      It was Groves who – Yeah it's an important distinction because Oppenheimer – he was doing the science of it.  That's not to belittle his contribution in any way.  But you know you have to bear in mind that Groves is the mastermind who put the whole thing together.  And let me say when I say he's not the world's greatest physicist I don't mean he was in any way a poor physicists.  I'm simply saying he wasn't at the same level as Einstein and Dirac.  And he knew that.

         I personally believe (for what it's worth) that he knew – He had immaculate taste – Oppenheimer.  He knew who the best people were.  He knew what great physics was.  And he also knew he wasn't quite in that league.  But he also was competent enough to try his hand at this scientific leadership.  And that made him one of the greats.

Steve Mirsky:    That reminds me of one of the Supreme Court justices said, after meeting FDR after he'd just been elected I believe, "He does not have a first rate intellect but he does have a first rate temperament."

Graham Farmelo:      Yes.  Churchill hugely revered FDR.  And I have to say I was – Just in terms of representing his country I've been very impressed with FDR.  I would've found it totally frustrating to have dealt with him and I think Churchill often did but an absolute master politician.  I mean and you have to – He knew far less about science than Churchill, quite plainly.

Steve Mirsky:    Right.

Graham Farmelo:      He took a couple of courses at Harvard in geology or whatever it was.

Steve Mirsky:    [inaudible comment]    

Graham Farmelo:      And you would never see him chairing a course on new discoveries in nuclear – He had no Lindemann.  But the decisiveness with which he went after the bomb – with which he appointed Vannevar Bush for example who came in to kind of _______ to set up this amazing organization of American science.  That was really impressive leadership.

Steve Mirsky:    And Leó Szilárd famously goes to the White House with a letter from Einstein for FDR begging him to initiate this project to make an atomic bomb.  Was that indeed a crucial event in FDRs decision making?

Graham Farmelo:      It was important.  I personally think that the understanding of how to make a bomb in crude terms – That impetus was much more important than the Einstein initiative.  I'm not saying the Einstein initiative was unimportant but what was so critical and missed out of some really quite good histories is that it was in that office in Birmingham in 1940 that the allies broadly speaking realized you could build a bomb.  And Szilárd did not know how to do that.  He was a very brilliant person.

         There's no doubt about that.  He was a friend of Einstein.  He was very worried.  His intuition was right that it must be possible so to speak.  But it was Frisch and Peierls who actually wrote pretty much on the backs of envelopes how you could do it.  And that's what I think has been underestimated.  And to be fair to Szilárd you know he with Frisch and Peirels' boss, Oliphant – He was really pushing this in the United States right? 

So all of those things came together with the leading players.  And as I said the way with which the United States ran with that is awesome.

Steve Mirsky:    Yeah Leó Szilárd, when he got out of the bathtub could get a lot done.

Graham Farmelo:      Yep, he did.  He was a very, very brilliant guy.  But as I say he was from a group of people – He was not the brightest of them.  Either same school district –

Steve Mirsky:    John von Neumann –

Graham Farmelo:      John von Neumann, Eugene Wigner, Dirac's brother in law.

Steve Mirsky:    Right, right.

Graham Farmelo:      Polanyi – These are – There is a good book to be written.  I know there have been others but there's a good popular book to be written about how this fluke that gave us these great Hungarian minds –

Steve Mirsky:    It is quite amazing.

Graham Farmelo:      It is absolutely amazing.  Yes that's right.

Steve Mirsky:    Well we'll let Hungary have the last word this time.

Graham Farmelo:      Okay.  That was great.

Steve Mirsky:    This is great to talk to you.  Churchill's Bomb: How the United States Overtook Britain in the First Nuclear Arms Race.  If you like science you'll love it.  If you like history you'll love it.  If you like science and history well – Graham Farmelo thanks so much.

Graham Farmelo:      Absolutely my pleasure Steve as always.

Steve Mirsky:    That's it for this episode.  Get your science news at our web site: www.scientificamerican.com where you can also check out the collection of Scientific American e-books.  Of particular interesting maybe the recently published volume called The Changing Face of War.  All the e-books are under $4.00. They're at www.books.scientificamerican.com/sa-ebooks. Or just go to the website and look for e-books.  And follow us on Twitter where you'll get a tweet whenever a new item hits the website. Our Twitter name is @sciam. For Scientific American Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

Winston Churchill:     "The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'"

[End of Audio]

Graham Farmelo is the award-winning author of the Dirac biography The Strangest Man. His latest book is Churchill’s Bomb: How the United States Overtook Britain in the First Nuclear Arms Race.

Also check out The Manhattan Project and the Met

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