By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Roy J. Glauber, now 87, stood in front of an audience at Princeton University Wednesday to talk about what it was like to work on the atom bomb during World War II as a teenager.
Mr. Glauber, a professor at Harvard University and the University of Arizona, made his talk a trek down memory lane from recounting how he was recruited for the Manhattan Project to sharing impressions of the men and their top-secret task in the desert of Los Alamos, New Mexico.
”The idea that it was a bomb really shook me up,” said Mr. Glauber in delivering the annual Albert Einstein Memorial lecture the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce has presented since 1994.
As a Harvard undergraduate, Mr. Glauber wondered what kind of war work he would do as an alternative to simply getting drafted. He said he filled out a questionnaire for what he recalled was the national roster of scientific personnel and sent it back to Washington, D.C.
Eventually, he said, a man in a “dark black overcoat” showed up, wanting to interview him, then only 18.
”He wouldn’t at all say what kind of work it was he was interested in recruiting me for. He would say that it was out west,” Mr. Glauber said.
Out west turned out to be New Mexico, a place where he traveled by train in January 1944. Finally reaching his destination, another man got off the train with him, later finding out he was the mathematician, John von Neumann, of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. A chauffeur, who, it turned out, was also a mathematician who previously had worked with Mr. von Neumann, drove both men.
To illustrate his remarks, Mr. Glauber used photos of the men he encountered, notably J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project. In one picture, Mr. Oppenheimer had on his signature pork pie hat and a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
”I never had heard of him,” said Mr. Glauber of the first encounter.
Mr. Oppenheimer, he recalled, “was remarkably intelligent,” who was well versed in what others were doing in their areas of the project.
He said, “Oppenheimer was an extraordinary director who did command everyone’s respect.”
Mr. Glauber talked later of the other talented minds assembled for the project, their work done in secrecy. Yet each week, they would gather for a colloquium in a tightly guarded gymnasium, a photo from which Mr. Glauber showed.
”One of the understandings at Los Alamos was that, while security would be very tight regarding information leaving Los Alamos, there had to be very free exchange among the appropriately cleared people within Los Alamos,” he said.
Of Army Gen. Leslie Groves Jr., the military official in charge of the Manhattan Project, Mr. Glauber said he was the subject of “some scorn among many scientists. He was a very stiff man who, frankly, felt the scientists by and large were mad men.”
He recalled how the general wanted the scientists to wear military uniforms, an idea that went nowhere.
As he wound down his remarks, Mr. Glauber did not go into details about the uses of the bomb, “which was never a very happy business for the people at Los Alamos.”
Later, he was asked by an audience member about the bomb being dropped on Japan.
”There had been a great deal of debate, initially, about whether the bomb should have been used the way it was used,” Mr. Glauber said. “The military people were not really very interested in arguments that we should first stage a demonstration. The reason they gave is that there are too many things that might go wrong, and we end up being embarrassed. I think it’s a little closer to the truth to say that they wanted to perform the experiment; that their business is using weapons.”
After the war, Mr. Glauber went back to Harvard to finish his undergraduate degree, later earning a doctorate there as well. Later, he would come to the Institute for Advanced Study, even showing a classroom photo of Mr. Einstein, then on the faculty.
In 2005, he shared the Nobel in physics with two others.
PRINCETON: Physicist recalls life among atom bomb’s creators
By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer