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UND physicists, guest scholar talk Oppenheimer on ‘Cosmic Pi’ podcast

Podcast guest Cameron Reed is author of four books on Manhattan Project

J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos laboratory. Photo credit: National Archives.

Last month, two UND physicists were joined on their podcast by an expert on the Manhattan Project, who discussed the history of the initiative to develop the world’s first nuclear weapons, their subsequent use that brought an end to World War II, and the award-winning film named after the man behind the project — J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Wayne Barkhouse, professor of physics and astrophysics at UND, and Robert Moore, general physical lab supervisor for the Department of Physics and Astrophysics, were joined on their “Cosmic Pi” podcast by Cameron Reed, professor of physics emeritus at Alma College in Alma, Mich.

In addition to his work as a professor, Reed has authored four books on the subject and also has delivered numerous lectures around the world.

The podcast began with a discussion of the 2023 biopic “Oppenheimer.” Last month, the film won seven Academy Awards, including best picture, best director and best actor.

Although Reed conceded that “some Hollywood license was taken to dramatize the story a bit,” he said such dramatization does not detract from its historical accuracy.

“By and large, it was pretty truthful to the historical progression,” Reed said. “For a movie on a serious, arcane topic that’s so dialogue heavy, to be received like it has is really quite something.”

The discussion then progressed to the career of Oppenheimer himself, and his colleagues at the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos, N.M., laboratory.

In the summer of 1942, Oppenheimer convened a summit at the University of California, Berkeley, to discuss the feasibility of developing a nuclear weapon through the process of fission — an event that kicked off the Manhattan Project in earnest. Among the attendees was Hungarian-born physicist Edward Teller — who took things a step further and advocated for the development of fusion weapons.

“Teller was basically 10 steps ahead, because you need a fission bomb to trigger a fusion bomb in any event,” Reed said. “They didn’t even have their first gram of plutonium by then.”

Although Teller and Oppenheimer worked together closely during the Manhattan Project, their views diverged on the development of fusion weapons or the hydrogen bomb.

After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which forced a Japanese surrender — effectively ending World War II — a mounting nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union ensued. This led U.S. scientists to rapidly work to develop fusion weapons — a technology Reed said Oppenheimer was uncomfortable with due to its destructive potential.

It was this opposition, Reed said — along with alleged ties to Communist-sympathizing organizations — that led to a hearing at which Oppenheimer’s top-secret security clearance was revoked. Teller himself testified against Oppenheimer, recommending against the reinstatement of his clearance.

“I think the political pressure on Truman to proceed with fusion bomb development — when they didn’t even know how to do it — was so intense after the Russians detonated their first fission bomb in 1949,” Reed said. “That’s when all the trouble started for Oppenheimer. He got crucified I guess you could say for presenting an argument that was rational but was overwhelmed by the political sentiment of the times.”

“I think Oppenheimer in some ways could be his own worst enemy,” he added. “His personality seemed to be so complex. He would come out with these oracle-like statements sometimes — he just didn’t do himself any favors with those things.”

The podcast ended with the trio discussing the present nuclear threat level.

Barkhouse posited that the development of nuclear weapons, and the consequent threat of mutually assured destruction should an armed power use them, likely saved hundreds of millions of lives by preventing the Cold War from becoming a third and very hot world war. Reed agreed but cautioned against complacency in an environment where nine nations currently possess nuclear weapons — among them Russia and North Korea.

“I call that the theory of nuclear inoculation,” Reed said. “Hiroshima and Nagasaki let the world know just how horrific these things were. We’re speaking of events almost 80 years ago now, and I have some fear that some of that is wearing off. Is somebody somewhere in Ukraine, North Korea, India or Pakistan going to do something crazy?”

The podcast is available for viewing or listening on the Cosmic Pi YouTube channel.