John Wheeler's very bad night
January 17, 2020 4:59 PM   Subscribe

In the early 50's the Physics community was sharply divided. One camp, led by Edward Teller (previously) thought that the United States had to stay one step ahead of the Soviet Union and so building a fusion weapon was vital to national security. On the other hand, physicists like Robert Oppenheimer thought that it would be madness and genocide.

The pro-bomb group wanted to show that the AEC, and Oppenheimer in particular, had at least been negligent with regard to the H-bomb’s development, and at worst may even have been trying to sabotage the program. So they compiled a 91 page document of the history of the development of the bomb. John Wheeler (previously) was tasked with reviewing and help polishing up final draft of the document. To save time, he thought he would do the work on a train ride to DC and then maybe take a nap. Unfortunately, that's not what happened.
posted by ambulocetus (16 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
In a depressingly desperate act, they went to the station’s lost-and-found office. Nobody had turned in any documents containing the secret of the H-bomb.

Would have been nice if they did.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 5:21 PM on January 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

Alex Wellerstein is a rock star. He makes reddit worth reading.
posted by ensign_ricky at 6:49 PM on January 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

The WWIII memes have really died down in the last week, but it is crazy to think how we made it through 40 years of things like without a major incident. Especially with the level paranoia described here.
posted by CostcoCultist at 8:14 PM on January 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

A comedy of terrors. Not quite like finding a discarded perfume bottle full of nerve agent, but a white envelope full of cosmic whoopass. Anyone finding it would have to be able to interpret physics, make sense of the concepts to unlock the unsafe. Anyone who interfered with that bomb, the one which they wondered about igniting the atmosphere, they were heroes even if accidental.
posted by Oyéah at 10:14 PM on January 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

All I can think about now is being the guy who went into a public toilet to take a shit and looking up and seeing the wild eyes of a frantic nuclear scientist watching me through a metal grate. There's no protocol for a situation like that.
posted by um at 12:33 AM on January 18, 2020 [4 favorites]

It's a very enjoyable read, and feels very "hijinxy" until you remember just what was at stake and how incredibly serious it all was.

Wow, it just boggles the brain.
posted by freethefeet at 12:36 AM on January 18, 2020

Most shocking to me is that they initially classified the draft less than top secret so that they could send it to Wheeler via ordinary registered mail rather than have it hand-delivered.
posted by sjswitzer at 4:21 AM on January 18, 2020 [4 favorites]

Richard Rhodes' follow up to "The Making of the Atomic Bomb", "Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb" covers the "let's build a fusion bomb"/"that's insane" history, which lead to the red-scare Oppenheimer security hearing in the early 50's and Teller being not a very nice person at all.
posted by mikelieman at 6:24 AM on January 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

Thank you for posting this! Fascinating!
posted by brainwane at 10:54 AM on January 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

I really liked this article, but I had to stop and restart several time because of A N X I E T Y
posted by Countess Elena at 12:03 PM on January 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

I remember when I discovered that this was a touchy subject. We were discussing Oppenheimer when a History of Science prof told me in very low tones "they crucified him".
posted by Twang at 12:04 PM on January 18, 2020

Wheeler's behavior throughout is very strange.

It's as if he was subconsciously acting out the part of a deep cover spy handing off the documents to a foreign power. I mean really: taking the secret summary of H-bomb science into a public bathroom and scrunching it down behind the pipes in a toilet stall in a public bathroom and 'forgetting' it when he leaves? Come on!

I'm tempted to see this as unconscious Tourette's-like compulsion to perform the most forbidden act, somewhat like the numerous cases we've seen of good, apparently loving parents 'forgetting' the baby they've locked into a hot car, but I just don't know.

I think a lot of atomic scientists were not unhappy to see the Soviets develop comparable nuclear devices because they knew at first hand that a strong faction of the US military was advocating a pre-emptive war against them in which the US would use its nuclear arsenal.
posted by jamjam at 1:19 PM on January 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

The problem with that idea is that Wheeler would have already known everything in the draft that he was asked to review; it's kinda the reason he was a reviewer. So if he wanted to pass it off he could have done it on the down-low.
posted by sjswitzer at 2:19 PM on January 18, 2020

However, your final point seems pretty valid to me. Who knows what had happened if only we had the "Super." And as it turns out MAD has worked out... so far.
posted by sjswitzer at 2:22 PM on January 18, 2020

The most likely thing, IMO, was that the AEC had caught wind of this conspiracy to kneecap them and sent someone to tail Wheeler and managed to snag the docs at any of a number of places along the way, most likely when he was sleeping but, yeah, they could have followed him into the can.

The absent-minded professor thing is real. (Ask me how I know.) The very idea that they could have pulled this little coup off is preposterous on its face.
posted by sjswitzer at 2:36 PM on January 18, 2020

It’s amazing that we survived these maniacs and their apocalypdick waving.
posted by rodlymight at 10:37 AM on January 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

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