Featured Title

Megawatts and Megatons:
A Turning Point in the Nuclear Age?

Writer's Recommendations

About the Author Excerpt Q&A
Picture of Author
Richard Garwin

Author Name


Richard Garwin was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1928. His father, Robert, had received a diploma in electrical engineering seven years earlier but never found work in his chosen profession probably because of the anti-Semitism that was widespread at that time. But during the day he taught electrical engineering in a technical high school and at night worked as a projectionist in a movie theater. In 1927 the first film with sound, Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer, appeared and the projectionists either had to adapt to the new technology or lose their jobs. Garwin's father taught these techniques to other projectionists. Thus Garwin, who showed exceptional gifts for science and technology from a very early age, had the good fortune to grow up in an environment where these gifts were appreciated and understood. He was an insatiable tinkerer. He built a photographic darkroom and devoured textbooks in mechanical and electrical engineering while he was in high school. He also helped in his father's growing sound-equipment business by building audio amplifiers and by repairing amplifiers and motion picture projection equipment. Garwin's colleagues have always noted his total mastery of all things electronic. He grew up on them.

He entered what is now Case Western Reserve University at age sixteen and graduated three years later, while working at night as a projectionist. In 1947 he entered the University of Chicago graduate school to obtain his doctorate in physics. At this time Chicago had both a remarkable faculty and an equally remarkable student body. Many of the graduate students had spent the war working essentially as professional physicists in various military establishments. The Physics faculty was led by Enrico Fermi who was one of the most extraordinary physicists of this century. Fermi may have been the last physicist who knew, more or less, all the physics there was to know. It is just too complicated now. He worked brilliantly in both theory and experiment, and while he was awarded his Nobel Prize for his experimental work, it could as easily have been for his theoretical contributions.

At Chicago there was a notoriously difficult qualifying exam required of students who wanted to enter the Ph.D. program. Physicists who have gone on to have excellent careers--even one eventual Nobel Prize winner--failed it. Garwin passed it with the top score and presented himself to Fermi as a student. Fermi was, among many other things, at the time trying to devise an electronic device that would solve quantum mechanical equations--something one can now readily do on a modest personal computer. Garwin went to work and built a better equation-solving machine than Fermi had envisioned. He also created an electronic circuit--the "Garwin coincidence circuit"--which was used in many experiments for the next decade. He received his Ph.D. in 1949.

Garwin remained in Chicago to work with a new particle accelerator. One of his activities was to build liquid hydrogen targets. His familiarity with these techniques--cryogenics--led him into his first encounter with nuclear weapons. It was common at the time for young post-doctorals to take three-month summer jobs in industry or government laboratories such as Los Alamos. Garwin had made a suggestion to Fermi about nuclear weapons-to which Fermi replied that if Garwin wanted to pursue the idea or to learn more about it he should come with Fermi as a consultant to Los Alamos for the summer of 1950. It was a pivotal time. The first successful Soviet atomic bomb test had taken place on August 29, 1949. While many of our nuclear scientists had warned in 1945 that the Soviets would succeed in about four years in making a bomb, the public was surprised at the speed at which this happened. It was later revealed that the Russians had used a blueprint of the first bomb tested at Los Alamos which had been transmitted to them by the spy Klaus Fuchs. Fuchs--a very capable German-born physicist--was part of the British contingent at Los Alamos. Even so, testing such a device revealed a level of technical competence and commitment which had been largely unsuspected by the public and in U.S. government circles. It has now been revealed that the Soviet scientists had substituted the design obtained by espionage for their own design largely out of fear that a failure of their particular approach on their first test would have cost them their lives.

Even before the full-scale effort to make a nuclear weapon had begun at Los Alamos in 1943, the nuclear physicists that Robert Oppenheimer had assembled at Berkeley for consultation had begun to think about the next step--a thermonuclear weapon that would use fusion rather than fission energy. At Los Alamos some thought was given to these weapons, but work on them had a low priority compared to the effort that went into making a conventional nuclear weapon. This was also true after the war, especially when it appeared that the designs proposed simply would not work. Then came the successful Soviet test, which involved a conventional atomic bomb.

It is now known that the Soviet scientists had begun thinking about the hydrogen bomb as soon as they began their own weapons program. A short report entitled Utilization of the Nuclear Energy of Light Elements authored by five prominent physicists was presented to the Moscow government in 1946 and the full-scale program to make such a weapon began soon after. Our scientists and government officials did not know it at the time, but the explosion of the first Soviet atomic device created here an unstoppable momentum towards building a hydrogen bomb. Although the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission voted in 1949 against starting a crash program to build something that, at the time, no one had any idea how to build, President Truman ordered that such a program be put in place anyway. A minority report signed by Fermi and a fellow physicist, I.I. Rabi, took the position that the hydrogen bomb was "necessarily an evil thing considered in any light," and opposed attempting to construct it at all.

Although Garwin and Fermi were working in the same institutions at Chicago and Los Alamos and were in constant contact, they never discussed the necessity or the propriety of building the hydrogen bomb even though Garwin had the requisite clearances to have access to this sort of classified information. Fermi certainly did not try to persuade Garwin to his view. In 1951 the Polish-born American mathematician Stanislaw Ulam--who had been at Los Alamos during the war and had remained there--made the first suggestion as to how such a bomb could actually be built. This was fleshed out by Edward Teller and the resulting Ulam-Teller design became the basis of its construction both here and elsewhere. In the Soviet Union it was independently discovered by Andrei Sakharov.

As is discussed in this book, nuclear fusion-the joining of two light elements to make a more tightly bound element with the release of energy--can only take place if the light elements can be made to overcome their mutual electrical repulsion and remain for some period of time in close proximity to each other. The Sun accomplishes this by compressing these elements gravitationally. This is a slow process, which is why the Sun will shine for a long time. In a bomb one wants this energy to be released as rapidly as possible. All hydrogen bombs use atomic bombs as their "triggers." This heats the mass of light nuclei and the subsequent violent collisions will cause them to fuse. But to make it work the nuclei must be compressed rapidly into a very dense state.

The Ulam-Teller suggestion was to employ the pressure from the X-rays generated in the primary atomic explosion to produce this compression. So when Garwin returned in May of 1951 for his second visit to Los Alamos, Teller asked him to propose an experiment to determine whether the Ulam-Teller approach would work. The conceptually simplest approach involved starting with the light elements in a liquid state--liquid heavy hydrogen kept cool by liquid hydrogen. This was the sort of thing that Garwin had been doing with his targets at Chicago, and he proceeded to design an apparatus that could be used in a bomb. Indeed, according to Teller, the first hydrogen bomb the United States exploded was built according to Garwin's design.

The effort to control nuclear weapons has always involved two prongs. There were, and are, people outside the nuclear establishment who do not have, as a rule, a high level of technical information but who make their voices heard loudly enough to change established policy. Then there are individuals inside the establishment whose technical competence is respected and who can persuade officials on the inside that what the outsiders are demanding can be accomplished without compromising national security. This is what happened in the successful struggle to abandon above-ground nuclear testing. When in 1996 the American Foreign Intelligence Community presented Garwin with the R.V. Jones Award in Scientific Intelligence, the then Secretary of Defense William J.Perry said, "Dick, I can tell you now that I'm in the position of Secretary of Defense, there is not a week goes by that I don't in some way or another benefit from the legacy of the work you've done through the years--in the development of technical weapons systems; in the development of technical intelligence collection systems; in the development of analytical techniques; and I think perhaps most importantly just in the application of good common sense to dealing with important and complex problems."

One important problem that Garwin pursued was the fight against a Star Wars program that was the wasteful and misguided bureaucratic response to President Reagan's 1983 speech that asked that nuclear weapons somehow be rendered "impotent and obsolete". He had also presided over a group created by President Nixon's science advisor to assess the technical aspects of the construction of a supersonic transport. The committee was hastily disowned after it concluded that such an aircraft did not make economic or ecological sense.

Garwin did not like the bureaucracy that was required to work in the large groups that perform high energy experiments on accelerators--what he had been doing at Chicago. Thus in 1952 he joined IBM which was then a relatively small company which employed very few scientists. IBM agreed that he be allowed to spend a third of his time working on defense-related matters. When he was offered in 1960 the position of the head of research at IBM, he turned it down since it would not have allowed him the time to work on these larger issues. In 1967 he became an IBM Fellow. During his 40-year employment with the company, he was an adjunct professor in the physics department at Columbia University, which allowed him to stay in contact with the latest work in pure physics. It was in this role that he and his coauthor worked together at CERN beginning in 1959. The ensuing friendship and mutual respect was the genesis of this book.

Picture of Author
Georges Charpak
Georges Charpak was born in 1924 in a Jewish village in the Ukraine. He remembers having swum, as a child, in a river whose waters were later used as a coolant for the reactors at Chernobyl. Prior to his birth his village had been the scene of the comings and goings of a Polish army engaged in fighting the Russians. As a result of a significant defeat of the Bolsheviks in 1920, his village became part of Poland in 1922; this did not spare the village from frequent pogroms. So, more or less by accident, Charpak was born in Poland. It was partly idealism and partly anti-Semitism that led his family to become Zionists. At the age of three his parents took him to what was then Palestine and lived in Haifa. After some years there, where the only employment his father could find was breaking rocks for road construction, the family returned to Poland. But with the menace of the war and the rise of the Nazis, many of his relatives emigrated. Those who didn't were later exterminated by the Germans and their Ukrainian allies. In 1931 the Charpaks emigrated to France, an immensely fortunate choice for Georges. He was able to be educated in the best French public schools. His parents, who were struggling to make a living, could not have paid for any sort of private education. Just before the arrival of the Germans in France, Charpak had begun studying at the Lycée Saint Louis in Paris, which was noted for its scientific curriculum. He had an interest in mathematics and was beginning to point toward a career in science.

In 1940 Paris was occupied by the Germans. Georges, who with his blue eyes resembles a fisherman from Britanny, was by this time a thoroughly integrated Frenchman. Working with the French resistance, he managed to get papers for the entire family in the name of Charpentier, which would give them all a French identity if the need arose. As it happened, the father of one of Charpak's friends was a policeman, who alerted Georges to the fact that on the following day there was going to be a major roundup of Jews who would be sent to concentration camps. The family fled south to the unoccupied zone which was under the administration of Marshall Pétain. Charpak was able, at least for awhile, to continue his studies in Montpellier using the name Charpentier. But, in 1943, the Germans occupied this zone as well, and he joined a resistance group that had been set up by the French Communist Party. The Communists were among the first groups to actively resist the German occupation. Charpak's role was to help young Frenchmen who had been drafted to work as forced laborers in Germany to escape so that they could join the partisans. He was arrested by the French police and after a year in prison in France was sent to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. If he had been arrested as a Jew he would have been summarily executed, but he was able to pass as a non-Jewish Frenchman. Charpak feels that it was solidarity among the detainees that saved his life and the life of many of his fellow prisoners. He recalls that even when they were being shipped in boxcars to Germany they began helping each other to make sure the weakest had a chance to survive. This experience of mutual solidarity has been with him ever since. In Dachau Charpak was assigned work as a ditch digger, something that he feels gave him a life-long distaste for gardening. He had at least one very close call. He had fallen asleep on his shovel when he was rudely awakened by a German officer to whom he responded in Yiddish. It took some artful explaining to convince this officer that he was not Jewish.

In 1945 the American army under General Patton liberated Dachau and Charpak returned to Paris where he entered the Ecole des Mines, a prestigious institution for engineering education. Although he knew nothing about the subject, he decided to become a physicist. He was fortunate in his timing. Education in France was in something of a turmoil and in the general chaos he was able to join the laboratory of Frédéric Joliot-Curie--Madame Curie's son-in-law--at the Collége de France. In a more orderly time he might not have been admitted, because of lack of qualifications. Joliot himself was frenetically active. He was involved with a Communist peace movement. He was constructing a reactor and he was teaching an exceptional course in which Charpak enrolled. But most of the education of French physicists at the time was the work they did among themselves, using English textbooks. There were then no good textbooks in French in modern physics. Perhaps because of this experience Charpak has had an enduring interest in scientific education, to which he now devotes a great deal of his time.

Joliot's laboratory was devoted to nuclear physics and indeed had made some very fundamental discoveries before the war, including some of the early fission experiments. Charpak became interested in the development of detectors for nuclear particles, a subject in which he was totally self-taught, and to which he was to make life-long contributions. In the late 1950s he became one of the first physicists to join CERN-- the European Organization for Nuclear Research--in Geneva. It was here that he first met his present coauthor; they collaborated on an experiment and became firm friends to this day. Many years passed before Charpak realized that his colleague had another life as an expert on nuclear weapons. Charpak himself has not worked either on nuclear weapons nor nuclear reactors. However in 1968 he invented a new sort of particle detector. Its importance for the field of elementary particles was such that in 1992 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, which has enabled him to speak out effectively on many political and social causes. This book reflects his strong feelings on these matters. As he has written, his intention is to "help ordinary citizens become better informed, so that they can avoid the traps of superstition and propaganda."