Robert F. Christy

Last updated

Robert Frederick Christy
Robert Christy 1978.png
Robert F. Christy in 1978
ActingPresident of the California Institute of Technology
In office
Preceded by Harold Brown
Succeeded by Marvin Goldberger
Personal details
Robert Frederick Cohen

(1916-05-14)May 14, 1916
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
DiedOctober 3, 2012(2012-10-03) (aged 96)
Pasadena, California, United States
Alma mater
Known for Christy pits
Awards Eddington Medal (1967)
Bronze Academic Medal of the Governor-General of Canada (1932)
Scientific career
Fields Physics
Thesis Cosmic-ray burst production and the spin of the mesotron  (1941)
Doctoral advisor Robert Oppenheimer
Robert F. Christy signature.jpg

Robert Frederick Christy (May 14, 1916 – October 3, 2012) was a Canadian-American theoretical physicist and later astrophysicist who was one of the last surviving people to have worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. He briefly served as acting president of California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

Manhattan Project research and development project that produced the first atomic bombs

The Manhattan Project was a research and development undertaking during World War II that produced the first nuclear weapons. It was led by the United States with the support of the United Kingdom and Canada. From 1942 to 1946, the project was under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer was the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory that designed the actual bombs. The Army component of the project was designated the Manhattan District; Manhattan gradually superseded the official codename, Development of Substitute Materials, for the entire project. Along the way, the project absorbed its earlier British counterpart, Tube Alloys. The Manhattan Project began modestly in 1939, but grew to employ more than 130,000 people and cost nearly US$2 billion. Over 90% of the cost was for building factories and to produce fissile material, with less than 10% for development and production of the weapons. Research and production took place at more than 30 sites across the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada.

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

California Institute of Technology private research university located in Pasadena, California

The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) is a private doctorate-granting research university in Pasadena, California. Known for its strength in natural science and engineering, Caltech is often ranked as one of the world's top-ten universities.


A graduate of the University of British Columbia (UBC) in the 1930s where he studied physics, he followed George Volkoff, who was a year ahead of him, to the University of California, Berkeley, where he was accepted as a graduate student by Robert Oppenheimer, the leading theoretical physicist in the United States at that time. Christy received his doctorate in 1941 [1] and joined the physics department of Illinois Institute of Technology.

University of British Columbia public research university in British Columbia, Canada

The University of British Columbia (UBC) is a public research University with campuses in Vancouver and Kelowna, British Columbia. Established in 1908, UBC is British Columbia's oldest university. The university is ranked among the top 20 public Universities worldwide and among the top three in Canada. With an annual research budget of $600 million, UBC funds over 8,000 projects a year.

George Volkoff Canadian physicist

George Michael Volkoff, was a Russian-Canadian physicist and academic who helped, with J. Robert Oppenheimer, predict the existence of neutron stars before they were discovered.

University of California, Berkeley Public university in California, USA

The University of California, Berkeley is a public research university in Berkeley, California. It was founded in 1868 and serves as the flagship institution of the ten research universities affiliated with the University of California system. Berkeley has since grown to instruct over 40,000 students in approximately 350 undergraduate and graduate degree programs covering numerous disciplines.

In 1942 he joined the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago, where he was recruited by Enrico Fermi to join the effort to build the first nuclear reactor, having been recommended as a theory resource by Oppenheimer. When Oppenheimer formed the Manhattan Project's Los Alamos Laboratory in 1943, Christy was one of the early recruits to join the Theory Group. Christy is generally credited with the insight that a solid sub-critical mass of plutonium could be explosively compressed into supercriticality, a great simplification of earlier concepts of implosion requiring hollow shells. For this insight the solid-core plutonium model is often referred to as the "Christy pit".

University of Chicago Private research university in Chicago, Illinois, United States

The University of Chicago is a private research university in Chicago, Illinois. Founded in 1890, the school is located on a 217-acre campus in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, near Lake Michigan. The University of Chicago holds top-ten positions in various national and international rankings.

Enrico Fermi Nuclear physicist

Enrico Fermi was an Italian and naturalized-American physicist and the creator of the world's first nuclear reactor, the Chicago Pile-1. He has been called the "architect of the nuclear age" and the "architect of the atomic bomb". He was one of very few physicists to excel in both theoretical physics and experimental physics. Fermi held several patents related to the use of nuclear power, and was awarded the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on induced radioactivity by neutron bombardment and for the discovery of transuranium elements. He made significant contributions to the development of statistical mechanics, quantum theory, and nuclear and particle physics.

Nuclear reactor device to initiate and control a sustained nuclear chain reaction

A nuclear reactor, formerly known as an atomic pile, is a device used to initiate and control a self-sustained nuclear chain reaction. Nuclear reactors are used at nuclear power plants for electricity generation and in nuclear marine propulsion. Heat from nuclear fission is passed to a working fluid, which in turn runs through steam turbines. These either drive a ship's propellers or turn electrical generators' shafts. Nuclear generated steam in principle can be used for industrial process heat or for district heating. Some reactors are used to produce isotopes for medical and industrial use, or for production of weapons-grade plutonium. Research reactors are run only for research. As of early 2019, the IAEA reports there are 454 nuclear power reactors and 226 nuclear research reactors in operation around the world.

After the war, Christy briefly joined the University of Chicago Physics department before being recruited to join the Caltech faculty in 1946 when Oppenheimer decided it was not practical for him to resume his academic activities. He stayed at Caltech for his academic career, serving as Department Chair, Provost and Acting President. In 1960 Christy turned his attention to astrophysics, creating some of the first practical computation models of stellar operation. For this work Christy was awarded the Eddington Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1967. In the 1980s and 1990s Christy participated in the National Research Council's Committee on Dosimetry, an extended effort to better understand the actual radiation exposure due to the bombs dropped on Japan, and on the basis of that learning, better understand the medical risks of radiation exposure.

The Eddington Medal is awarded by the Royal Astronomical Society for investigations of outstanding merit in theoretical astrophysics. It is named after Sir Arthur Eddington. First awarded in 1953, the frequency of the prize has varied over the years, at times being every one, two or three years. Since 2013 it has been awarded annually.

Royal Astronomical Society learned society

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) is a learned society and charity that encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. Its headquarters are in Burlington House, on Piccadilly in London. The society has over 4,000 members, termed Fellows, most of them professional researchers or postgraduate students. Around a quarter of Fellows live outside the UK. Members of the public who have an interest in astronomy and geophysics but do not qualify as Fellows may become Friends of the RAS.

Early life

Robert Frederick Cohen was born in May 14, 1916 in Vancouver, British Columbia, [2] the son of Moise Jacques Cohen, an electrical engineer, and his wife Hattie Alberta née Mackay, a school teacher. He was named Robert after his maternal great uncle Robert Wood, and Frederick after Frederick Alexander Christy, the second husband of his maternal grandmother. He had an older brother, John, who was born in 1913. Moise changed the family surname to Christy by deed poll on August 31, 1918. On November 4, Moise was accidentally electrocuted at work. [3] Hattie died after goitre surgery in 1926. Christy and his brother were then cared for by Robert Wood, their grandmother Alberta Mackay, and their great aunt Maud Mackay. [4]

Vancouver City in British Columbia, Canada

Vancouver is a coastal seaport city in western Canada, located in the Lower Mainland region of British Columbia. As the most populous city in the province, the 2016 census recorded 631,486 people in the city, up from 603,502 in 2011. The Greater Vancouver area had a population of 2,463,431 in 2016, making it the third-largest metropolitan area in Canada. Vancouver has the highest population density in Canada with over 5,400 people per square kilometre, which makes it the fifth-most densely populated city with over 250,000 residents in North America behind New York City, Guadalajara, San Francisco, and Mexico City according to the 2011 census. Vancouver is one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse cities in Canada according to that census; 52% of its residents have a first language other than English. Roughly 30% of the city's inhabitants are of Chinese heritage. Vancouver is classed as a Beta global city.

A deed poll is a legal document binding only to a single person or several persons acting jointly to express an active intention. It is, strictly speaking, not a contract because it binds only one party and expresses an intention instead of a promise.

Goitre swelling of the thyroid gland

A goitre, or goiter, is a swelling in the neck resulting from an enlarged thyroid gland. A goitre can be associated with a thyroid that is not functioning properly.

Christy was educated at Magee High School, and graduated in 1932 with the highest examination score in the province of British Columbia. He was awarded the Governor General's Academic Medal, and, importantly in view of his family's limited ability to pay, free tuition to attend the University of British Columbia (UBC). At the award dinner he met the second-place winner, Dagmar Elizabeth von Lieven, whom he dated while at UBC. [5] He received his Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree in mathematics and physics with first class honors in 1935, and his Master of Arts (MA) degree in 1937, [6] [7] writing a thesis on "Electron attachment and negative ion formation in oxygen". [8]

Magee Secondary School public secondary school in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Magee Secondary School is a public secondary school on West 49th Avenue, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. It is one of the first public high schools located in the Kerrisdale neighbourhood and is fed by the surrounding elementary schools in its catchment area. They include Maple Grove Elementary School, Dr. R. E. McKechnie Elementary School, Sir William Osler Elementary School, and David Lloyd George Elementary School. It was used as a temporary hospital during the Influenza Epidemic in 1918.

British Columbia Province of Canada

British Columbia is the westernmost province of Canada, located between the Pacific Ocean and the Rocky Mountains. With an estimated population of 5.016 million as of 2018, it is Canada's third-most populous province.

Governor Generals Academic Medal

The Governor General's Academic Medal is awarded to the student graduating with the highest grade point average from a Canadian high school, college or university program. They are presented by the educational institution on behalf of the Governor General.

George Volkoff, a friend of Christy who was a year ahead of him at UBC, was accepted as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, by Robert Oppenheimer, who led the most active school of theoretical physics in the United States at that time. This inspired Christy to apply to the University of California as well. He was accepted, and was awarded a fellowship for his first year. At Berkeley he shared an apartment with Volkoff, Robert Cornog, Ken McKenzie and McKenzie's wife Lynn McKenzie. [9] For his thesis, Oppenheimer had him look at mesotrons, subatomic particles called muons today that then recently been found in cosmic rays. They were so-called because they were larger than electrons but smaller than protons. With the help of Shuichi Kusaka he performed detailed calculations of the particle's spin. He published two papers on mesotrons with Kusaka in the Physical Review, [10] [11] which formed the basis of his 1941 Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis [12]

Manhattan Project

Robert Christy's wartime Los Alamos security badge Robert F. Christy Los Alamos ID.png
Robert Christy's wartime Los Alamos security badge

Christy could have graduated in 1940, but could not then be a teaching assistant, and this would have left him jobless and without income. [13] In 1941, Oppenheimer found him a post at the physics department at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). [14] In May 1941, he married Dagmar von Lieven. They had two sons: Thomas Edward (Ted), born in 1944, [15] and Peter Robert, born in 1946. [16] IIT paid Christy $200 per month to teach 27 hours per week for 11 months per annum. To keep abreast of developments in physics, he attended seminars at the University of Chicago. [14] This brought him to the attention of Eugene Wigner, who hired him for the same money that IIT was paying him as a full-time research assistant, commencing in January 1942. [17]

A model of a Christy pit Partially-reflected-plutonium-sphere.jpeg
A model of a Christy pit

Enrico Fermi and his team from Columbia University arrived at the University of Chicago in January 1942 as part of an effort to concentrate the Manhattan Project's reactor work at the new Metallurgical Laboratory. [18] Fermi arranged with Wigner for Christy to join his group, [19] which was building a nuclear reactor, which Fermi called a "pile", in the squash court under Stagg Field at the University of Chicago. Construction began on November 6, 1942, and Christy was present when Chicago Pile-1 went critical on December 2. [20] [21]

In early 1943, Christy joined Oppenheimer's Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, [22] where he became an American citizen in 1943 or 1944. [23] [24] Hans Bethe, the head of T (Theoretical) Division, detailed his physicists to assist with the projects at the laboratory. With his knowledge of reactors, Christy's assignment was to help Donald W. Kerst's Water Boiler group. [25] The Water Boiler was an aqueous homogeneous reactor intended as a laboratory instrument to test critical mass calculations and the effect of various tamper materials. It was the first reactor to use enriched uranium as a fuel, and the first to use liquid fuel in the form of soluble uranium sulfate dissolved in water. Christy estimated that it would require 600 grams (21 oz) of pure uranium-235, a figure he subsequently revised to 575 grams (20.3 oz). When the reactor went critical on May 9, 1944 with 565 grams (19.9 oz), the accuracy of Christy's figures raised the laboratory's confidence in T Division's calculations. [26]

The discovery by Emilio Segrè's group in April and May 1944 of high levels of plutonium-240 in reactor-produced plutonium meant that an implosion-type nuclear weapon was required, but studies indicated that this would be extremely difficult to achieve. [27] By August 1944, the calculations had been made of how an ideal spherical implosion would work; the problem was how to make it work in the real world where jets and spalling were a problem. Christy worked in Rudolf Peierls's T-1 Group, which studied the theory of implosion. He suggested the possibility of using a solid plutonium core that would form a critical mass when compressed. This was an ultra-conservative design that solved the problem of jets by brute force. It became known as the "Christy pit" or "Christy gadget", "gadget" being the laboratory euphemism for a bomb. [28] However the solid pit was intrinsically less efficient than a hollow pit, and it required a modulated neutron initiator to start the chain reaction. [29] Christy worked with Klaus Fuchs, Paul Stein and Hans Bethe to develop a suitable initiator design, which became known as an "urchin". [30] The Gadget used in the Trinity nuclear test and the Fat Man used in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki used Christy pits. [6]

Later in life, Christy agreed to give a number of both oral history and video interviews in which he discussed his role in the Manhattan Project and latter interests. [31] [32]

Later life

An artist's conception of the Project Orion spacecraft NASA-project-orion-artist.jpg
An artist's conception of the Project Orion spacecraft

After the war ended, Christy accepted an assistant professorship at the University of Chicago, at a salary of $5,000 per annum, twice what he had been making before the war. He moved back to Chicago in February 1946, but suitable housing was hard to find in the immediate post-war period, and Christy and his family shared a mansion with Edward Teller and his family. [33]

Before the war, Oppenheimer had spent part of each year teaching at California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Christy was one of Oppenheimer's Berkeley students who made the trip down to Pasadena, California, each year to continue studying with Oppenheimer. [34] After the war, Oppenheimer decided that with his additional responsibilities he could no longer continue this arrangement. The head of the W. K. Kellogg Radiation Laboratory at Caltech, Charles Lauritsen therefore asked Oppenheimer for the name of a theoretical physicist that he would recommend as a replacement. Oppenheimer recommended Christy. Willy Fowler then approached Christy with an offer of a full-time position at Caltech at $5,400 per annum, and Christy accepted. He remained at Caltech for the rest of his academic career. The drawback to working at Caltech was that neither Lauritsen nor Fowler was a theoretical physicist, so a heavy workload fell on Christy. This was recognised by a pay raise to $10,000 per annum in 1954. [35]

Christy joined Oppenheimer, Lauritsen and Robert Bacher, who joined the faculty at Caltech in 1949, in Project Vista, a detailed 1951 study on how Western Europe could be defended against the Soviet Union. [36] Christy was distraught at the outcome of the 1954 Oppenheimer security hearing. When he encountered Teller, who had testified against Oppenheimer, at Los Alamos in 1954, Christy publicly refused to shake Teller's hand. "I viewed Oppenheimer as a god", he later recalled, "and I was sure that he was not a treasonable person." [2] Asked about his relationship with Teller in 2006, Christy said:

I’ve seen him from time to time. Our relationship has remained cool. Since that time, I have disagreed with him in a number of areas. For example, the Strategic Defense Initiative. I have disagreed with him, but I have not argued with him publicly, because Teller operates at a much different level than I do. He’s a confidant of presidents; I’m not. As I say, I merely disagree privately, and that’s the way it is. [37]

In 1956, Christy was one of a number of scientists from Caltech who publicly called for a ban on atmospheric nuclear testing. The 1963 Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that Christy advocated put an end to one of his most unusual projects. He worked with Freeman Dyson on Project Orion, the design of a spacecraft propelled by atomic bombs. [36]

RS Puppis, a Cepheid variable star. Christy explained why they pulsate. Heic1323a -1243686232.jpg
RS Puppis, a Cepheid variable star. Christy explained why they pulsate.

During a sabbatical year at Princeton University in 1960, Christy began an investigation of Cepheid variables and the smaller RR Lyrae variables, classes of luminous variable stars. At the time it was a mystery as to why they varied. He used the knowledge of the hydrodynamics of implosion gained at Los Alamos during the war to explain this phenomenon. This earned him the Royal Astronomical Society's Eddington Medal for contributions to theoretical astrophysics in 1967. [36]

Christy was appointed Vice President and Provost of Caltech in 1970. [38] Under Christy and President Harold Brown Caltech expanded its humanities and added economics to allow (or perhaps to compel--undergrads were required to take 25% of their units in "humanities") students to broaden their education. He had David Morrisroe appointed as Vice President for Financial Affairs, and they steered Caltech through the financially stringent 1970s. The first women were admitted as undergraduates in Fall 1970. [39]

When Jenijoy La Belle, who had been hired in 1969 but refused tenure in 1974, filed suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Christy pressed for the case to be settled and La Belle to be given tenure. The EEOC ruled against Caltech in 1977, adding that she had been paid less than male colleagues. La Belle received tenure in 1979. [39]

In 1970 he became romantically involved with Inge-Juliana Sackman, a fellow physicist 26 years his junior. [40] He divorced Dagmar in early 1971, [38] and married Juliana on August 4, 1973. [41] They had two daughters, Illia Juliana Lilly Christy, born in 1974, and Alexandra Roberta (Alexa) Christy, born in 1976. [42]

Christy briefly became acting President of Caltech in 1977 when Brown left to become Secretary of Defense. Christy returned to teaching after Marvin L. Goldberger became President in 1978. He became Institute Professor of Theoretical Physics in 1983, and Institute Professor Emeritus in 1986. [36]

Christy died on October 3, 2012. He was survived by his wife Juliana, their two daughters, Illia and Alexa, and his two sons, Peter and Ted. [2] He was buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena, California. [43]


  1. Christy, Robert F. (1941). Cosmic-ray burst production and the spin of the mesotron (Ph.D.). University of California, Berkeley. OCLC   25395034 via ProQuest.
  2. 1 2 3 "Robert Christy". The Daily Telegraph . October 8, 2012. Retrieved February 23, 2014.
  3. Christy 2013, pp. 1–5.
  4. Christy 2013, p. 9.
  5. Christy 2013, pp. 11–12, 16.
  6. 1 2 "Noted Physicist Robert F. Christy Dies". Caltech. October 3, 2012. Retrieved February 23, 2014.
  7. Christy 2013, pp. 14–15.
  8. "Electron attachment and negative ion formation in oxygen" (PDF). University of British Columbia . Retrieved February 23, 2014.
  9. Christy 2013, pp. 24–25.
  10. Christy, R. F.; Kusaka, S. (March 1941). "The Interaction of γ-Rays with Mesotrons". Physical Review . American Physical Society. 59 (5): 405–414. Bibcode:1941PhRv...59..405C. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.59.405.
  11. Christy, R. F.; Kusaka, S. (March 1941). "Burst Production by Mesotrons" (PDF). Physical Review . American Physical Society. 59 (5): 414–421. Bibcode:1941PhRv...59..414C. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.59.414.
  12. "Cosmic-ray burst production and the spin of the mesotron". University of California, Berkeley . Retrieved February 23, 2014.
  13. Christy 2013, p. 32.
  14. 1 2 Christy 2013, pp. 47–48.
  15. Christy 2013, pp. 36–37.
  16. Christy 2013, p. 135.
  17. Christy 2013, p. 52.
  18. Rhodes 1986, pp. 399–400.
  19. Christy 2013, p. 53.
  20. Fermi, E. (1946). "The Development of the First Chain Reaction Pile". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society . 90: 20–24. JSTOR   3301034.
  21. Christy 2013, p. 56.
  22. Christy 2013, pp. 70–71.
  23. "Robert F. Christy dies at 96; Manhattan Project physicist". Los Angeles Times . October 5, 2012. Retrieved February 26, 2014.
  24. Lippincott, Sara (September 2006). "A Conversation with Robert F. Christy – Part I". Physics in Perspective. 8 (3): 282–317. Bibcode:2006PhP.....8..282L. doi:10.1007/s00016-006-0270-x.
  25. Hoddeson et al. 1993, p. 77.
  26. Hoddeson et al. 1993, pp. 199–203.
  27. Hoddeson et al. 1993, pp. 228–229.
  28. Hoddeson et al. 1993, pp. 307–308.
  29. Hoddeson et al. 1993, p. 293.
  30. Hoddeson et al. 1993, p. 317.
  31. "Constructing the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb".
  32. "Interview with Robert F. Christy, Christy, Robert F. (1998) Interview with Robert F. Christy. [Oral History]".
  33. Christy 2013, pp. 134–135.
  34. Christy 2013, pp. 32–33.
  35. Christy 2013, pp. 135–138.
  36. 1 2 3 4 Goldstein, David; Goldstein, Judith (2013). "Robert F. Christy 1916—2012" (PDF). National Academy of Sciences . Retrieved February 26, 2014.
  37. Lippincott, Sara (December 2006). "A Conversation with Robert F. Christy – Part II". Physics in Perspective. 8 (4): 408–450. Bibcode:2006PhP.....8..408L. doi:10.1007/s00016-006-0269-3.
  38. 1 2 Christy 2013, p. 45.
  39. 1 2 Christy 2013, pp. 177–185.
  40. Christy 2013, pp. 202–206.
  41. Christy 2013, p. 227.
  42. Christy 2013, p. 236.
  43. "Robert F. Christy". Find a Grave . Retrieved February 23, 2014.

Related Research Articles

Fat Man codename for the atomic bomb that was detonated over the Japanese city of Nagasaki

"Fat Man" was the codename for the nuclear bomb that was detonated over the Japanese city of Nagasaki by the United States on 9 August 1945. It was the second of the only two nuclear weapons ever used in warfare, the first being Little Boy, and its detonation marked the third nuclear explosion in history. It was built by scientists and engineers at Los Alamos Laboratory using plutonium from the Hanford Site, and it was dropped from the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Bockscar piloted by Major Charles Sweeney.

Edward Teller Hungarian-American nuclear physicist

Edward Teller was a Hungarian-American theoretical physicist who is known colloquially as "the father of the hydrogen bomb", although he did not care for the title. He made numerous contributions to nuclear and molecular physics, spectroscopy, and surface physics. His extension of Enrico Fermi's theory of beta decay, in the form of Gamow–Teller transitions, provided an important stepping stone in its application, while the Jahn–Teller effect and the Brunauer–Emmett–Teller (BET) theory have retained their original formulation and are still mainstays in physics and chemistry. Teller also made contributions to Thomas–Fermi theory, the precursor of density functional theory, a standard modern tool in the quantum mechanical treatment of complex molecules. In 1953, along with Nicholas Metropolis, Arianna Rosenbluth, Marshall Rosenbluth, and his wife Augusta Teller, Teller co-authored a paper that is a standard starting point for the applications of the Monte Carlo method to statistical mechanics. Throughout his life, Teller was known both for his scientific ability and for his difficult interpersonal relations and volatile personality.

J. Robert Oppenheimer American theoretical physicist, scientific leader of the Manhattan Project and professor of physics

Julius Robert Oppenheimer was an American theoretical physicist and professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Oppenheimer was the wartime head of the Los Alamos Laboratory and is among those who are credited with being the "father of the atomic bomb" for their role in the Manhattan Project, the World War II undertaking that developed the first nuclear weapons. The first atomic bomb was successfully detonated on July 16, 1945, in the Trinity test in New Mexico. Oppenheimer later remarked that it brought to mind words from the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." In August 1945, the weapons were used in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Edwin McMillan American physicist

Edwin Mattison McMillan was an American physicist and Nobel laureate credited with being the first-ever to produce a transuranium element, neptunium. For this, he shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Glenn Seaborg in 1951.

Hans Bethe German-American nuclear physicist

Hans Albrecht Bethe was a German-American nuclear physicist who made important contributions to astrophysics, quantum electrodynamics and solid-state physics, and won the 1967 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the theory of stellar nucleosynthesis.

Emilio Segrè Italian physicist and Nobel laureate

Emilio Gino Segrè was an Italian-American physicist and Nobel laureate, who discovered the elements technetium and astatine, and the antiproton, a subatomic antiparticle, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1959. From 1943 to 1946 he worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory as a group leader for the Manhattan Project. He found in April 1944 that Thin Man, the proposed plutonium gun-type nuclear weapon, would not work because of the presence of plutonium-240 impurities.

Cyril Stanley Smith British metallurgist

Cyril Stanley Smith was a British metallurgist and historian of science. He is most famous for his work on the Manhattan Project where he was responsible for the production of fissionable metals. A graduate of the University of Birmingham and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Smith worked for many years as a research metallurgist at the American Brass Company. During World War II he worked in the Chemical-Metallurgical Division of the Los Alamos Laboratory, where he purified, cast and shaped uranium-235 and plutonium, a metal hitherto available only in microgram amounts, and whose properties were largely unknown. After the war he served on the Atomic Energy Commission's influential General Advisory Committee, and the President's Science Advisory Committee.

Robert R. Wilson American physicist, born 1914

Robert Rathbun Wilson was an American physicist known for his work on the Manhattan Project during World War II, as a sculptor, and as an architect of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab), where he was the first director from 1967 to 1978.

Seth Neddermeyer American physicist

Seth Henry Neddermeyer was an American physicist who co-discovered the muon, and later championed the Implosion-type nuclear weapon while working on the Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II.

Robert Serber American scientist

Robert Serber was an American physicist who participated in the Manhattan Project. Serber's lectures explaining the basic principles and goals of the project were printed and supplied to all incoming scientific staff, and became known as The Los Alamos Primer. The New York Times called him “the intellectual midwife at the birth of the atomic bomb.”

Robert Bacher American nuclear physicist

Robert Fox Bacher was an American nuclear physicist and one of the leaders of the Manhattan Project. Born in Loudonville, Ohio, Bacher obtained his undergraduate degree and doctorate from the University of Michigan, writing his 1930 doctoral thesis under the supervision of Samuel Goudsmit on the Zeeman effect of the hyperfine structure of atomic levels. After graduate work at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he accepted a job at Columbia University. In 1935 he accepted an offer from Hans Bethe to work with him at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, It was there that Bacher collaborated with Bethe on his book Nuclear Physics. A: Stationary States of Nuclei (1936), the first of three books that would become known as the "Bethe Bible".

Timeline of the Manhattan Project

The Manhattan Project was a research and development project that produced the first atomic bombs during World War II. It was led by the United States with the support of the United Kingdom and Canada. From 1942 to 1946, the project was under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves of the US Army Corps of Engineers. The Army component of the project was designated the Manhattan District; "Manhattan" gradually became the codename for the entire project. Along the way, the project absorbed its earlier British counterpart, Tube Alloys. The Manhattan Project began modestly in 1939, but grew to employ more than 130,000 people and cost nearly US$2 billion. Over 90% of the cost was for building factories and producing the fissionable materials, with less than 10% for development and production of the weapons.

Thin Man (nuclear bomb)

"Thin Man" was the code name for a proposed plutonium gun-type nuclear bomb using plutonium-239 which the United States was developing during the Manhattan Project. They aborted its development when they discovered that the spontaneous fission rate of their nuclear reactor-bred plutonium was too high for use in a gun-type design, due to the high concentration of the isotope plutonium-240.

Joseph W. Kennedy American scientist

Joseph William Kennedy was an American chemist who was a co-discoverer of plutonium, along with Glenn T. Seaborg, Edwin McMillan and Arthur Wahl. During World War II he was head of the CM Division at the Manhattan Project's Los Alamos laboratory, where he oversaw research onto the chemistry and metallurgy of uranium and plutonium. After the war, he was recruited as a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, where he is credited with transforming a university primarily concerned with undergraduate teaching into one that also boasts strong graduate and research programs. He died of cancer of the stomach at the age of 40.

Donald William Kerst accelerator physicist who developed the betatron

Donald William Kerst was an American physicist who worked on advanced particle accelerator concepts and plasma physics. He is most notable for his development of the betatron, a novel type of particle accelerator used to accelerate electrons.

Charles Critchfield American mathematical physicist

Charles Louis Critchfield was an American mathematical physicist. A graduate of George Washington University, where he earned his PhD in Physics under the direction of Edward Teller in 1939, he conducted research in ballistics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and the Ballistic Research Laboratory at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, and received three patents for improved sabot designs.

Joseph O. Hirschfelder physicist

Joseph Oakland Hirschfelder was an American physicist who participated in the Manhattan Project and in the creation of the nuclear bomb. Robert Oppenheimer assembled a team at the Los Alamos Laboratory to work on plutonium gun design Thin Man, that included senior engineer Edwin McMillan and senior physicists Charles Critchfield and Joseph Hirschfelder. Hirschfelder had been working on internal ballistics. Oppenheimer led the design effort himself until June 1943, when Navy Captain William Sterling Parsons arrived took over the Ordnance and Engineering Division and direct management of the "Thin Man" project. Hirschfelder was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a group leader in theoretical physics and ordnance at the Los Alamos Atomic Bomb Laboratory, chief phenomenologist at the nuclear bomb tests at Bikini, the founder of the Theoretical Chemistry Institute and the Homer Adkins professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin. Hirschfelder was also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was awarded the National Medal of Science from President Gerald Ford “for his fundamental contributions to atomic and molecular quantum mechanics, the theory of the rates of chemical reactions, and the structure and properties of gases and liquids”.

Project Y secret laboratory established by the Manhattan Project

The Los Alamos Laboratory, also known as Project Y, was a secret laboratory established by the Manhattan Project and operated by the University of California during World War II. Its mission was to design and build the first atomic bombs. Robert Oppenheimer was its first director, from 1943 to December 1945, when he was succeeded by Norris Bradbury. In order to enable scientists to freely discuss their work while preserving security, the laboratory was located in a remote part of New Mexico. The wartime laboratory occupied buildings that had once been part of the Los Alamos Ranch School.


Academic offices
Preceded by
Harold Brown
Acting President of the California Institute of Technology
1978 – 1987
Succeeded by
Marvin Goldberger