John von Neumann and Klaus Fuchs: an Unlikely Collaboration
- Jeremy Bernstein
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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.
- See the website http://www.rheingold.com/text s/tft/4.html, p. 3.
- Teller interview by Jay Keyworth, September 1979. I thank Richard Garwin for supplying a transcript of this interview.
- Jeremy Bernstein, Hans Bethe: Prophet of Energy (New York: Basic Books, 1980), pp. 73–74.
- K. Fuchs and R. Peierls, “Separation of Isotopes,” DTA [Directorate of Tube Alloys] Report MS12A [early 1942]; reprinted in R.H. Dalitz and Sir Rudolf Peierls, Selected Scientific Papers of Sir Rudolf Peierls With Commentary (Singapore: World Scientific and London: Imperial College Press, 1997), pp. 303–320.
- Quoted in Gregg Herken, Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2002), p. 374, n. 92.
- Ibid., plate between pp. 210 and 211.
- G.A. Goncharov, “The extraordinarily beautiful physical principle of thermonuclear charge design (on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the test of RDS-37—the first Soviet two-stage thermonuclear charge),” Physics-Uspekhi 48 (11) (2005), 1187–1196.
- John von Neumann and Klaus Fuchs: an Unlikely Collaboration
Physics in Perspective
Volume 12, Issue 1 , pp 36-50
- Cover Date
- Print ISSN
- Online ISSN
- SP Birkhäuser Verlag Basel
- Additional Links
- John von Neumann
- Klaus Fuchs
- Stanislaw Ulam
- Edward Teller
- nuclear fission
- nuclear fusion
- von Neumann–Fuchs hydrogen-bomb design
- Ulam–Teller hydrogen-bomb design
- Russian hydrogen-bomb design
- atomic espionage
- Jeremy Bernstein (1)
- Author Affiliations
- 1. Aspen Center for Physics, 700 West Gillespie, Aspen, CO 81611, USA