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Learning to Love the Bomb

by Jeremy Bernstein

Mr. Dooley Now And Forever

At Los Alamos

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
--The Hollow Men, T. S. Eliot


Smoky, August 31, 1957

I graduated from Harvard in 1951, having majored in mathematics. In 1955 I got my Ph.D. in physics. I needed a job, and the physicist and historian of science Gerry Holton, who had become a friend, made a suggestion. On the Harvard campus there was a cyclotron. It had a relatively modest energy; its operation was simple enough so it could be used by graduate students as well as faculty members. At the cyclotron facility was a position called “house theorist.” The occupant at the time was moving on to another university, so the job was open. Holton recommended me, and I got it.

When I inquired as to what the job consisted of, I was told that my only formal duties would be to try to find the answers to questions put by the experimenters. Otherwise I could do my own work. Since the experimenters were people like Norman Ramsey and Ed Purcell, both of whom would later win Nobel Prizes, I thought that if anything the shoe would be on the other foot, and I would have plenty of time to do my own work. My main interest was in the interpretation of experiments being done at Stanford by Robert Hofstadter. He was scattering electrons from protons, deuterons, and other nuclei to learn the distribution of electric charge in the nuclei. I had written my thesis on the deuteron, which explains my interest.

My appointment at the cyclotron ended after two years, and I had to look for a new job. Without much hope of success I applied to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and was incredibly happy when I was accepted for the fall of 1957. This left the summer to fill. What then happened was quite unexpected. Let me give a little background.

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