, Volume 12, Issue 1, pp 36-50

John von Neumann and Klaus Fuchs: an Unlikely Collaboration

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Abstract

I discuss the origin of the idea of making a fusion (hydrogen) bomb and the physics involved in it, and then turn to the design proposed for one by the unlikely collaborators John von Neumann and Klaus Fuchs in a patent application they filed at Los Alamos in May 1946, which Fuchs passed on to the Russians in March 1948, and which with substantial modifications was tested on the island of Eberiru on the Eniwetok atoll in the South Pacific on May 8, 1951. This test showed that the fusion of deuterium and tritium nuclei could be ignited, but that the ignition would not propagate because the heat produced was rapidly radiated away. Meanwhile, Stanislaw Ulam and C.J. Everett had shown that Edward Teller’s Classical Super could not work, and at the end of December 1950, Ulam had conceived the idea of super compression, using the energy of a fission bomb to compress the fusion fuel to such a high density that it would be opaque to the radiation produced. Once Teller understood this, he invented a greatly improved, new method of compression using radiation, which then became the heart of the Ulam–Teller bomb design, which was tested, also in the South Pacific, on November 1, 1952. The Russians have freely acknowledged that Fuchs gave them the fission bomb, but they have insisted that no one gave them the fusion bomb, which grew out of design involving a fission bomb surrounded by alternating layers of fusion and fission fuels, and which they tested on November 22, 1955. Part of the irony of this story is that neither the American nor the Russian hydrogen-bomb programs made any use of the brilliant design that von Neumann and Fuchs had conceived as early as 1946, which could have changed the entire course of development of both programs.

Jeremy Bernstein is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the Stevens Institute of Technology and a former staff writer for The New Yorker.