The Lunar Society
It was a tremendous honor & pleasure to interview Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb
* similarities between AI progress & Manhattan Project (developing a powerful, unprecedented, & potentially apocalyptic technology within an uncertain arms-race situation)
* visiting starving former Soviet scientists during fall of Soviet Union
* whether Oppenheimer was a spy, & consulting on the Nolan movie
* living through WW2 as a child
* odds of nuclear war in Ukraine, Taiwan, Pakistan, & North Korea
* how the US pulled of such a massive secret wartime scientific & industrial project
Watch onYouTube. Listen onApple Podcasts,Spotify, or any other podcast platform. Read the full transcripthere. Follow me on Twitter for updates on future episodes.
(0:00:00) - Oppenheimer movie
(0:06:22) - Was the bomb inevitable?
(0:29:10) - Firebombing vs nuclear vs hydrogen bombs
(0:49:44) - Stalin & the Soviet program
(1:08:24) - Deterrence, disarmament, North Korea, Taiwan
(1:33:12) - Oppenheimer as lab director
(1:53:40) - AI progress vs Manhattan Project
(1:59:50) - Living through WW2
(2:16:45) - Secrecy
(2:26:34) - Wisdom & war
(0:00:00) - Oppenheimer movie
Dwarkesh Patel 0:00:51
Today I have the great honor of interviewing Richard Rhodes, who is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and most recently, the author of Energy, A Human History. I'm really excited about this one. Let's jump in at a current event, which is the fact that there's a new movie about Oppenheimer coming out, which I understand you've been consulted about. What did you think of the trailer? What are your impressions?
Richard Rhodes 0:01:22
They've really done a good job of things like the Trinity test device, which was the sphere covered with cables of various kinds. I had watched Peaky Blinders, where the actor who's playing Oppenheimer also appeared, and he looked so much like Oppenheimer to start with. Oppenheimer was about six feet tall, he was rail thin, not simply in terms of weight, but in terms of structure. Someone said he could sit in a children's high chair comfortably. But he never weighed more than about 140 pounds and that quality is there in the actor. So who knows? It all depends on how the director decided to tell the story. There are so many aspects of the story that you could never possibly squeeze them into one 2-hour movie. I think that we're waiting for the multi-part series that would really tell a lot more of the story, if not the whole story. But it looks exciting. We'll see. There have been some terrible depictions of Oppenheimer, there've been some terrible depictions of the bomb program. And maybe they'll get this one right.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:02:42
Yeah, hopefully. It is always great when you get an actor who resembles their role so well. For example, Bryan Cranston who played LBJ, and they have the same physical characteristics of the beady eyes, the big ears. Since we're talking about Oppenheimer, I had one question about him. I understand that there's evidence that's come out that he wasn't directly a communist spy. But is there any possibility that he was leaking information to the Soviets or in some way helping the Soviet program? He was a communist sympathizer, right?
Richard Rhodes 0:03:15
He had been during the 1930s. But less for the theory than for the practical business of helping Jews escape from Nazi Germany. One of the loves of his life, Jean Tatlock, was also busy working on extracting Jews from Europe during the 30. She was a member of the Communist Party and she, I think, encouraged him to come to meetings. But I don't think there's any possibility whatsoever that he shared information. In fact, he said he read Marx on a train trip between Berkeley and Washington one time and thought it was a bunch of hooey, just ridiculous. He was a very smart man, and he read the book with an eye to its logic, and he didn't think there was much there. He really didn't know anything about human beings and their struggles. He was born into considerable wealth. There were impressionist paintings all over his family apartments in New York City. His father had made a great deal of money cornering the markets on uniform linings for military uniforms during and before the First World War so there was a lot of wealth. I think his income during the war years and before was somewhere around $100,000 a month. And that's a lot of money in the 1930s. So he just lived in his head for most of his early years until he got to Berkeley and discovered that prime students of his were living on cans of god-awful cat food, because they couldn't afford anything else. And once he understood that there was great suffering in the world, he jumped in on it, as he always did when he became interested in something. So all of those things come together.
His brother Frank was a member of the party, as was Frank's wife. I think the whole question of Oppenheimer lying to the security people during the Second World War about who approached him and who was trying to get him to sign on to some espionage was primarily an effort to cover up his brother's involvement. Not that his brothers gave away any secrets, I don't think they did. But if the army's security had really understood Frank Oppenheimer's involvement, he probably would have been shipped off to the Aleutians or some other distant place for the duration of the war. And Oppenheimer quite correctly wanted Frank around. He was someone he trusted.
(0:06:22) - Was the bomb inevitable?
Dwarkesh Patel 0:06:22
Let's start talking about The Making of the Bomb. One question I have is — if World War II doesn't happen, is there any possibility that the bomb just never gets developed? Nobody bothers.
Richard Rhodes 0:06:34
That's really a good question and I've wondered over the years. But the more I look at the sequence of events, the more I think it would have been essentially inevitable, though perhaps not such an accelerated program. The bomb was pushed so hard during the Second World War because we thought the Germans had already started working on one. Nuclear fission had been discovered in Nazi Germany, in Berlin, in 1938, nine months before the beginning of the Second World War in Europe. Technological surveillance was not available during the war. The only way you could find out something was to send in a spy or have a mole or something human. And we didn't have that. So we didn't know where the Germans were, but we knew that the basic physics reaction that could lead to a bomb had been discovered there a year or more before anybody else in the West got started thinking about it. There was that most of all to push the urgency. In your hypothetical there would not have been that urgency.
However, as soon as good physicists thought about the reaction that leads to nuclear fission — where a slow room temperature neutron, very little energy, bumps into the nucleus of a uranium-235 atom it would lead to a massive response. Isidore Rabi, one of the great physicists of this era, said it would have been like the moon struck the earth. The reaction was, as physicists say, fiercely exothermic. It puts out a lot more energy than you have to use to get it started. Once they did the numbers on that, and once they figured out how much uranium you would need to have in one place to make a bomb or to make fission get going, and once they were sure that there would be a chain reaction, meaning a couple of neutrons would come out of the reaction from one atom, and those two or three would go on and bump into other Uranium atoms, which would then fission them, and you'd get a geometric exponential. You'd get 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, and off of there. For most of our bombs today the initial fission, in 80 generations, leads to a city-busting explosion. And then they had to figure out how much material they would need, and that's something the Germans never really figured out, fortunately for the rest of us. They were still working on the idea that somehow a reactor would be what you would build.
When Niels Bohr, the great Danish physicist, escaped from Denmark in 1943 and came to England and then United States, he brought with him a rough sketch that Werner Heisenberg, the leading scientist in the German program, had handed him in the course of trying to find out what Bohr knew about what America was doing. And he showed it to the guys at Los Alamos and Hans Bethe, one of the great Nobel laureate physicists in the group, said — “Are the Germans trying to throw a reactor down on us?” You can make a reactor blow up, we saw that at Chernobyl, but it's not a nuclear explosion on the scale that we're talking about with the bomb. So when a couple of these emigres Jewish physicists from Nazi Germany were whiling away their time in England after they escaped, because they were still technically enemy aliens and therefore could not be introduced to top secret discussions, one of them asked the other — “How much would we need of pure uranium-235, this rare isotope of uranium that chain reacts? How much would we need to make a bomb?” And they did the numbers and they came up with one pound, which was startling to them. Of course, it is more than that. It's about 125 pounds, but that's just a softball. That's not that much material. And then they did the numbers about what it would cost to build a factory to pull this one rare isotope of uranium out of the natural metal, which has several isotopes mixed together. And they figured it wouldn't cost more than it would cost to build a battleship, which is not that much money for a country at war. Certainly the British had plenty of battleships at that point in time. So they put all this together and they wrote a report which they handed through their superior physicists at Manchester University where they were based, who quickly realized how important this was.
The United States lagged behind because we were not yet at war, but the British were. London was being bombed in the blitz. So they saw the urgency, first of all, of eating Germany to the punch, second of all of the possibility of building a bomb. In this report, these two scientists wrote that no physical structure came to their minds which could offer protection against a bomb of such ferocious explosive power. This report was from 1940 long before the Manhattan Project even got started. They said in this report, the only way we could think of to protect you against a bomb would be to have a bomb of similar destructive force that could be threatened for use if the other side attacked you. That's deterrence. That's a concept that was developed even before the war began in the United States. You put all those pieces together and you have a situation where you have to build a bomb because whoever builds the first bomb theoretically could prevent you from building more or prevent another country from building any and could dominate the world. And the notion of Adolf Hitler dominating the world, the Third Reich with nuclear weapons, was horrifying. Put all that together and the answer is every country that had the technological infrastructure to even remotely have the possibility of building everything you'd have to build to get the material for a bomb started work on thinking about it as soon as nuclear fusion was announced to the world. France, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, the United States, even Japan. So I think the bomb would have been developed but maybe not so quickly.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:14:10
In the book you talk that for some reason the Germans thought that the critical mass was something like 10 tons, they had done some miscalculation.
Richard Rhodes 0:14:18
Dwarkesh Patel 0:14:19
You also have some interesting stories in the book about how different countries found out the Americans were working on the bomb. For example, the Russians saw that all the top physicists, chemists, and metallurgists were no longer publishing. They had just gone offline and so they figured that something must be going on. I'm not sure if you're aware that while the subject of the Making of the Atomic Bomb in and of itself is incredibly fascinating, this book has become a cult classic in AI. Are you familiar with this?
Richard Rhodes 0:14:52
Dwarkesh Patel 0:14:53
The people who are working on AI right now are huge fans of yours. They're the ones who initially recommended the book to me because the way they see the progress in the field reminded them of this book. Because you start off with these initial scientific hints. With deep learning, for example, here's something that can teach itself any function is similar to Szilárd noticing the nuclear chain reaction. In AI there's these scaling laws that say that if you make the model this much bigger, it gets much better at reasoning, at predicting text, and so on. And then you can extrapolate this curve. And you can see we get two more orders of magnitude, and we get to something that looks like human level intelligence. Anyway, a lot of the people who are working in AI have become huge fans of your book because of this reason. They see a lot of analogies in the next few years. They must be at page 400 in their minds of where the Manhattan Project was.
Richard Rhodes 0:15:55
We must later on talk about unintended consequences. I find the subject absolutely fascinating. I think my next book might be called Unintended Consequences.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:16:10
You mentioned that a big reason why many of the scientists wanted to work on the bomb, especially the Jewish emigres, was because they're worried about Hitler getting it first. As you mentioned at some point, 1943, 1944, it was becoming obvious that Hitler, the Nazis were not close to the bomb. And I believe that almost none of the scientists quit after they found out that the Nazis weren't close. So why didn’t more of them say — “Oh, I guess we were wrong. The Nazis aren't going to get it. We don't need to be working on it.”?
Richard Rhodes 0:16:45
There was only one who did that, Joseph Rotblat. In May of 1945 when he heard that Germany had been defeated, he packed up and left. General Groves, the imperious Army Corps of Engineers General who ran the entire Manhattan Project, was really upset. He was afraid he'd spill the beans. So he threatened to have him arrested and put in jail. But Rotblat was quite determined not to stay any longer. He was not interested in building bombs to aggrandize the national power of the United States of America, which is perfectly understandable. But why was no one else? Let me tell it in terms of Victor Weisskopf. He was an Austrian theoretical physicist, who, like the others, escaped when the Nazis took over Germany and then Austria and ended up at Los Alamos. Weisskopf wrote later — “There we were in Los Alamos in the midst of the darkest part of our science.” They were working on a weapon of mass destruction, that's pretty dark. He said “Before it had almost seemed like a spiritual quest.”
And it's really interesting how different physics was considered before and after the Second World War. Before the war, one of the physicists in America named Louis Alvarez told me when he got his PhD in physics at Berkeley in 1937 and went to cocktail parties, people would ask, “What's your degree in?” He would tell them “Chemistry.” I said, “Louis, why?” He said, “because I don't really have to explain what physics was.” That's how little known this kind of science was at that time. There were only about 1,000 physicists in the whole world in 1900. By the mid-30s, there were a lot more, of course. There'd been a lot of nuclear physics and other kinds of physics done by them. But it was still arcane. And they didn't feel as if they were doing anything mean or dirty or warlike at all. They were just doing pure science. Then nuclear fission came along. It was publicized worldwide. People who've been born since after the Second World War don't realize that it was not a secret at first. The news was published first in a German chemistry journal, Die Naturwissenschaften, and then in the British journal Nature and then in American journals. And there were headlines in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and all over the world.
People had been reading about and thinking about how to get energy out of the atomic nucleus for a long time. It was clear there was a lot there. All you had to do was get a piece of radium and see that it glowed in the dark. This chunk of material just sat there, you didn't plug it into a wall. And if you held it in your hand, it would burn you. So where did that energy come from? The physicists realized it all came from the nucleus of the atom, which is a very small part of the whole thing. The nucleus is 1/100,000th the diameter of the whole atom. Someone in England described it as about the size of a fly in a cathedral. All of the energy that's involved in chemical reactions, comes from the electron cloud that's around the nucleus. But it was clear that the nucleus was the center of powerful forces. But the question was, how do you get them out? The only way that the nucleus had been studied up to 1938 was by bombarding it with protons, which have the same electric charge as the nucleus, positive charge, which means they were repelled by it. So you had to accelerate them to high speeds with various versions of the big machines that we've all become aware of since then. The cyclotron most obviously built in the 30s, but there were others as well. And even then, at best, you could chip a little piece off. You could change an atom one step up or one step down the periodic table. This was the classic transmutation of medieval alchemy sure but it wasn't much, you didn't get much out. So everyone came to think of the nucleus of the atom like a little rock that you really had to hammer hard to get anything to happen with it because it was so small and dense. That's why nuclear fission, with this slow neutron drifting and then the whole thing just goes bang, was so startling to everybody. So startling that when it happened, most of the physicists who would later work on the bomb and others as well, realized that they had missed the reaction that was something they could have staged on a lab bench with the equipment on the shelf. Didn't have to invent anything new. And Louis Alvarez again, this physicist at Berkeley, he said — “I was getting my hair cut. When I read the newspaper, I pulled off the robe and half with my hair cut, ran to my lab, pulled some equipment off the shelf, set it up and there it was.” So he said, “I discovered nuclear fission, but it was two days too late.” And that happened all over. People were just hitting themselves on the head and saying, well, Niels Bohr said, “What fools we've all been.” So this is a good example of how in science, if your model you’re working with is wrong it doesn't lead you down the right path.
There was only one physicist who really was thinking the right way about the uranium atom and that was Niels Bohr. He wondered, sometime during the 30s, why uranium was the last natural element in the periodic table? What is different about the others that would come later? He visualized the nucleus as a liquid drop. I always like to visualize it as a water-filled balloon. It's wobbly, it's not very stable. The protons in the nucleus are held together by something called the strong force, but they still have the repellent positive electric charge that's trying to push them apart when you get enough of them into a nucleus. It's almost a standoff between the strong force and all the electrical charge. So it is like a wobbly balloon of water. And then you see why a neutron just falling into the nucleus would make it wobble around even more and in one of its configurations, it might take a dumbbell shape. And then you'd have basically two charged atoms just barely connected, trying to push each other apart. And often enough, they went the whole way. When they did that, these two new elements, half the weight of uranium, way down the periodic table, would reconfigure themselves into two separate nuclei. And in doing so, they would release some energy. And that was the energy that came out of the reaction and there was a lot of energy. So Bohr thought about the model in the right way. The chemists who actually discovered nuclear fusion didn't know what they were gonna get. They were just bombarding a solution of uranium nitrate with neutrons thinking, well, maybe we can make a new element, maybe a first man-made element will come out of our work. So when they analyzed the solution after they bombarded it, they found elements halfway down the periodic table. They shouldn't have been there. And they were totally baffled. What is this doing here? Do we contaminate our solution? No. They had been working with a physicist named Lisa Meitner who was a theoretical physicist, an Austrian Jew. She had gotten out of Nazi Germany not long before. But they were still in correspondence with her.
So they wrote her a letter. I held that letter in my hand when I visited Berlin and I was in tears. You don't hold history of that scale in your hands very often. And it said in German — “We found this strange reaction in our solution. What are these elements doing there that don't belong there?” And she went for a walk in a little village in Western Sweden with her nephew, Otto Frisch, who was also a nuclear physicist. And they thought about it for a while and they remembered Bohr's model, the wobbly water-filled balloon. And they suddenly saw what could happen. And that's where the news came from, the physics news as opposed to the chemistry news from the guys in Germany that was published in all the Western journals and all the newspapers. And everybody had been talking about, for years, what you could do if you had that kind of energy. A glass of this material would drive the Queen Mary back and forth from New York to London 20 times and so forth, your automobile could run for months. People were thinking about what would be possible if you had that much available energy. And of course, people had thought about reactors. Robert Oppenheimer was a professor at Berkeley and within a week of the news reaching Berkeley, one of his students told me that he had a drawing on the blackboard, a rather bad drawing of both a reactor and a bomb. So again, because the energy was so great, the physics was pretty obvious. Whether it would actually happen depended on some other things like could you make it chain react? But fundamentally, the idea was all there at the very beginning and everybody jumped on it.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:27:54
The book is actually the best history of World War II I've ever read. It's about the atomic bomb, but it's interspersed with the events that are happening in World War II, which motivate the creation of the bomb or the release of it, why it had to be dropped on Japan given the Japanese response. The first third is about the scientific roots of the physics and it's also the best book I've read about the history of science in the early 20th century and the organization of it. There's some really interesting stuff in there. For example, there was a passage where you talk about how there's a real master apprentice model in early science where if you wanted to learn to do this kind of experimentation, you will go to Amsterdam where the master of it is residing. It's much more individual focused.
Richard Rhodes 0:28:58
Yeah, the whole European model of graduate study, which is basically the wandering scholar. You could go wherever you wanted to and sign up with whoever was willing to have you sign up.
(0:29:10) - Firebombing vs nuclear vs hydrogen bombs
Dwarkesh Patel 0:29:10
But the question I wanted to ask regarding the history you made of World War II in general is — there's one way you can think about the atom bomb which is that it is completely different from any sort of weaponry that has been developed before it. Another way you can think of it is there's a spectrum where on one end you have the thermonuclear bomb, in the middle you have the atom bomb, and on this end you have the firebombing of cities like Hamburg and Dresden and Tokyo. Do you think of these as completely different categories or does it seem like an escalating gradient to you?
Richard Rhodes 0:29:47
I think until you get to the hydrogen bomb, it's really an escalating gradient. The hydrogen bomb can be made arbitrarily large. The biggest one ever tested was 56 megatons of TNT equivalent. The Soviet tested that. That had a fireball more than five miles in diameter, just the fireball. So that's really an order of magnitude change. But the other one's no and in fact, I think one of the real problems, this has not been much discussed and it should be, when American officials went to Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the war, one of them said later — “I got on a plane in Tokyo. We flew down the long green archipelago of the Japanese home island. When I left Tokyo, it was all gray broken roof tiles from the fire bombing and the other bombings. And then all this greenery. And then when we flew over Hiroshima, it was just gray broken roof tiles again.” So the scale of the bombing with one bomb, in the case of Hiroshima, was not that different from the scale of the fire bombings that had preceded it with tens of thousands of bombs. The difference was it was just one plane. In fact, the people in Hiroshima didn't even bother to go into their bomb shelters because one plane had always just been a weather plane. Coming over to check the weather before the bombers took off. So they didn't see any reason to hide or protect themselves, which was one of the reasons so many people were killed. The guys at Los Alamos had planned on the Japanese being in their bomb shelters. They did everything they could think of to make the bomb as much like ordinary bombing as they could. And for example, it was exploded high enough above ground, roughly 1,800 yards, so that the fireball that would form from this really very small nuclear weapon — by modern standards — 15 kilotons of TNT equivalent, wouldn't touch the ground and stir up dirt and irradiate it and cause massive radioactive fallout. It never did that. They weren't sure there would be any fallout. They thought the plutonium and the bomb over Nagasaki now would just kind of turn into a gas and blow away. That's not exactly what happened.
But people don't seem to realize, and it's never been emphasized enough, these first bombs, like all nuclear weapons, were firebombs. Their job was to start mass fires, just exactly like all the six-pound incendiaries that had been destroying every major city in Japan by then. Every major city above 50,000 population had already been burned out. The only reason Hiroshima and Nagasaki were around to be atomic bombed is because they'd been set aside from the target list, because General Groves wanted to know what the damage effects would be. The bomb that was tested in the desert didn't tell you anything. It killed a lot of rabbits, knocked down a lot of cactus, melted some sand, but you couldn't see its effect on buildings and on people. So the bomb was deliberately intended to be as much not like poison gas, for example, because we didn't want the reputation for being like people in the war in Europe during the First World War, where people were killing each other with horrible gasses. We just wanted people to think this was another bombing. So in that sense, it was. Of course, there was radioactivity. And of course, some people were killed by it. But they calculated that the people who would be killed by the irradiation, the neutron radiation from the original fireball, would be close enough to the epicenter of the explosion that they would be killed by the blast or the flash of light, which was 10,000 degrees. The world's worst sunburn. You've seen stories of people walking around with their skin hanging off their arms. I've had sunburns almost that bad, but not over my whole body, obviously, where the skin actually peeled blisters and peels off. That was a sunburn from a 10,000 degree artificial sun.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:34:29
So that's not the heat, that's just the light?
Richard Rhodes 0:34:32
Radiant light, radiant heat. 10,000 degrees. But the blast itself only extended out a certain distance, it was fire. And all the nuclear weapons that have ever been designed are basically firebombs. That's important because the military in the United States after the war was not able to figure out how to calculate the effects of this weapon in a reliable way that matched their previous experience. They would only calculate the blast effects of a nuclear weapon when they figured their targets. That's why we had what came to be called overkill. We wanted redundancy, of course, but 60 nuclear weapons on Moscow was way beyond what would be necessary to destroy even that big a city because they were only calculating the blast. But in fact, if you exploded a 300 kiloton nuclear warhead over the Pentagon at 3,000 feet, it would blast all the way out to the capital, which isn't all that far. But if you counted the fire, it would start a mass-fire and then it would reach all the way out to the Beltway and burn everything between the epicenter of the weapon and the Beltway. All organic matter would be totally burned out, leaving nothing but mineral matter, basically.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:36:08
I want to emphasize two things you said because they really hit me in reading the book and I'm not sure if the audience has fully integrated them. The first is, in the book, the military planners and Groves, they talk about needing to use the bomb sooner rather than later, because they were running out of cities in Japan where there are enough buildings left that it would be worth bombing in the first place, which is insane. An entire country is almost already destroyed from fire bombing alone. And the second thing about the category difference between thermonuclear and atomic bombs. Daniel Ellsberg, the nuclear planner who wrote the Doomsday machine, he talks about, people don't understand that the atom bomb that resulted in the pictures we see of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, that is simply the detonator of a modern nuclear bomb, which is an insane thing to think about. So for example, 10 and 15 kilotons is the Hiroshima Nagasaki and the Tsar Bomba, which was 50 megatons. So more than 1,000 times as much. And that wasn't even as big as they could make it. They kept the uranium tamper off, because they didn't want to destroy all of Siberia. So you could get more than 10,000 times as powerful.
Richard Rhodes 0:37:31
When Edward Teller, co-inventor of the hydrogen bomb and one of the dark forces in the story, was consulting with our military, just for his own sake, he sat down and calculated, how big could you make a hydrogen bomb? He came up with 1,000 megatons. And then he looked at the effects. 1,000 megatons would be a fireball 10 miles in diameter. And the atmosphere is only 10 miles deep. He figured that it would just be a waste of energy, because it would all blow out into space. Some of it would go laterally, of course, but most of it would just go out into space. So a bomb more than 100 megatons would just be totally a waste of time. Of course, a 100 megatons bomb is also a total waste, because there's no target on Earth big enough to justify that from a military point of view. Robert Oppenheimer, when he had his security clearance questioned and then lifted when he was being punished for having resisted the development of the hydrogen bomb, was asked by the interrogator at this security hearing — “Well, Dr. Oppenheimer, if you'd had a hydrogen bomb for Hiroshima, wouldn't you have used it?” And Oppenheimer said, “No.” The interrogator asked, “Why is that?” He said because the target was too small. I hope that scene is in the film, I'm sure it will be.
So after the war, when our bomb planners and some of our scientists went into Hiroshima and Nagasaki, just about as soon as the surrender was signed, what they were interested in was the scale of destruction, of course. And those two cities didn't look that different from the other cities that had been firebombed with small incendiaries and ordinary high explosives. They went home to Washington, the policy makers, with the thought that — “Oh, these bombs are not so destructive after all.” They had been touted as city busters, basically, and they weren't. They didn't completely burn out cities. They were not certainly more destructive than the firebombing campaign, when everything of more than 50,000 population had already been destroyed. That, in turn, influenced the judgment about what we needed to do vis-a-vis the Soviet Union when the Soviets got the bomb in 1949. There was a general sense that, when you could fight a war with nuclear weapons, deterrence or not, you would need quite a few of them to do it right. And the Air Force, once it realized that it could aggrandize its own share of the federal budget by cornering the market and delivering nuclear weapons, very quickly decided that they would only look at the blast effect and not the fire effect. It's like tying one hand behind your back. Most of it was a fire effect. So that's where they came up with numbers like we need 60 of these to take out Moscow. And what the Air Force figured out by the late 1940s is that the more targets, the more bombs. The more bombs, the more planes. The more planes, the biggest share of the budget. So by the mid 1950s, the Air Force commanded 47% of the federal defense budget. And the other branches of services, which had not gone nuclear by then, woke up and said, we'd better find some use for these weapons in our branches of service. So the Army discovered that it needed nuclear weapons, tactical weapons for field use, fired out of cannons. There was even one that was fired out of a shoulder mounted rifle. There was a satchel charge that two men could carry, weighed about 150 pounds, that could be used to dig a ditch so that Soviet tanks couldn't cross into Germany. And of course the Navy by then had been working hard with General Rickover on building a nuclear submarine that could carry ballistic missiles underwater in total security. No way anybody could trace those submarines once they were quiet enough. And a nuclear reactor is very quiet. It just sits there with neutrons running around, making heat. So the other services jumped in and this famous triad, we must have these three different kinds of nuclear weapons, baloney. We would be perfectly safe if we only had our nuclear submarines. And only one or two of those. One nuclear submarine can take out all of Europe or all of the Soviet Union.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:42:50
Because it has multiple nukes on it?
Richard Rhodes 0:42:53
Because they have 16 intercontinental ballistic missiles with MIRV warheads, at least three per missile.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:43:02
Wow. I had a former guest, Richard Hanania, who has a book about foreign policy where he points out that our model of thinking about why countries do the things they do, especially in foreign affairs, is wrong because we think of them as individual rational actors, when in fact it's these competing factions within the government. And in fact, you see this especially in the case of Japan in World War II, there was a great book of Japan leading up to World War II, where they talk about how a branch of the Japanese military, I forget which, needed more oil to continue their campaign in Manchuria so they forced these other branches to escalate. But it’s so interesting that the reason we have so many nukes is that the different branches are competing for funding.
Richard Rhodes 0:43:50
Douhet, the theorist of air power, had been in the trenches in the First World War. Somebody (John Masefield) called the trenches of the First World War, the long grave already dug, because millions of men were killed and the trenches never moved, a foot this way, a foot that way, all this horror. And Douhet came up with the idea that if you could fly over the battlefield to the homeland of the enemy and destroy his capacity to make war, then the people of that country, he theorized, would rise up in rebellion and throw out their leaders and sue for peace. And this became the dream of all the Air Forces of the world, but particularly ours. Until around 1943, it was called the US Army Air Force.
The dream of every officer in the Air Force was to get out from under the Army, not just be something that delivers ground support or air support to the Army as it advances, but a power that could actually win wars. And the missing piece had always been the scale of the weaponry they carried. So when the bomb came along, you can see why Curtis LeMay, who ran the strategic air command during the prime years of that force, was pushing for bigger and bigger bombs. Because if a plane got shot down, but the one behind it had a hydrogen bomb, then it would be just almost as effective as the two planes together. So they wanted big bombs. And they went after Oppenheimer because he thought that was a terrible way to go, that there was really no military use for these huge weapons. Furthermore, the United States had more cities than Russia did, than the Soviet Union did. And we were making ourselves a better target by introducing a weapon that could destroy a whole state. I used to live in Connecticut and I saw a map that showed the air pollution that blew up from New York City to Boston. And I thought, well, now if that was fallout, we'd be dead up here in green, lovely Connecticut. That was the scale that it was going to be with these big new weapons. So on the one hand, you had some of the important leaders in the government thinking that these weapons were not the war-winning weapons that the Air Force wanted them and realized they could be. And on the other hand, you had the Air Force cornering the market on nuclear solutions to battles. All because some guy in a trench in World War I was sufficiently horrified and sufficiently theoretical about what was possible with air power. Remember, they were still flying biplanes.
When H.G. Wells wrote his novel, The World Set Free in 1913, predicting an atomic war that would lead to world government, he had Air Forces delivering atomic bombs, but he forgot to update his planes. The guys in the back seat, the bombardiers, were sitting in a biplane, open cockpit. And when the pilots had dropped the bomb, they would reach down and pick up H.G. Wells' idea of an atomic bomb and throw it over the side. Which is kind of what was happening in Washington after the war. And it led us to a terribly misleading and unfortunate perspective on how many weapons we needed, which in turn fermented the arms race with the Soviets and just chased off. In the Soviet Union, they had a practical perspective on factories. Every factory was supposed to produce 120% of its target every year. That was considered good Soviet realism. And they did that with their nuclear war weapons. So by the height of the Cold War, they had 75,000 nuclear weapons, and nobody had heard yet of nuclear winter. So if both sides had set off this string of mass traps that we had in our arsenals, it would have been the end of the human world without question.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:48:27
It raises an interesting question, if the military planners thought that the conventional nuclear weapon was like the fire bombing, would it have been the case that if there wasn't a thermonuclear weapon, that there actually would have been a nuclear war by now because people wouldn't have been thinking of it as this hard red line?
Richard Rhodes 0:48:47
I don't think so because we're talking about one bomb versus 400, and one plane versus 400 planes and thousands of bombs. That scale was clear. Deterrence was the more important business. Everyone seemed to understand even the spies that the Soviets had connected up to were wholesaling information back to the Soviet Union. There's this comic moment when Truman is sitting with Joseph Stalin at Potsdam, and he tells Stalin, we have a powerful new weapon. And that's as much as he's ready to say about it. And Stalin licks at him and says, “Good, I hope you put it to good use with the Japanese.” Stalin knows exactly what he's talking about. He's seen the design of the fat man type Nagasaki plutonium bomb. He has held it in his hands because they had spies all over the place.
(0:49:44) - Stalin & the Soviet program
Dwarkesh Patel 0:49:44
How much longer would it have taken the Soviets to develop the bomb if they didn't have any spies?
Richard Rhodes 0:49:49
Probably not any longer.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:49:51
Richard Rhodes 0:49:51
When the Soviet Union collapsed in the winter of ‘92, I ran over there as quickly as I could get over there. In this limbo between forming a new kind of government and some of the countries pulling out and becoming independent and so forth, their nuclear scientists, the ones who'd worked on their bombs were free to talk. And I found that out through Yelena Bonner, Andrei Sakharov's widow, who was connected to people I knew. And she said, yeah, come on over. Her secretary, Sasha, who was a geologist about 35 years old became my guide around the country. We went to various apartments. They were retired guys from the bomb program and were living on, as far as I could tell, sac-and-potatoes and some salt. They had government pensions and the money was worth a salt, all of a sudden. I was buying photographs from them, partly because I needed the photographs and partly because 20 bucks was two months' income at that point. So it was easy for me and it helped them. They had first class physicists in the Soviet Union, they do in Russian today. They told me that by 1947, they had a design for a bomb that they said was half the weight and twice the yield of the Fat Man bomb. The Fat Man bomb was the plutonium implosion, right? And it weighed about 9,000 pounds. They had a much smaller and much more deliverable bomb with a yield of about 44 kilotons.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:51:41
Why was Soviet physics so good?
Richard Rhodes 0:51:49
The Russian mind? I don't know. They learned all their technology from the French in the 19th century, which is why there's so many French words in Russian. So they got good teachers, the French are superb technicians, they aren't so good at building things, but they're very good at designing things. There's something about Russia, I don't know if it's the language or the education. They do have good education, they did. But I remember asking them when they were working, I said — On the hydrogen bomb, you didn't have any computers yet. We only had really early primitive computers to do the complicated calculations of the hydrodynamics of that explosion. I said, “What did you do?” They said, “Oh, we just used nuclear. We just used theoretical physics.” Which is what we did at Los Alamos. We had guys come in who really knew their math and they would sit there and work it out by hand. And women with old Marchant calculators running numbers. So basically they were just good scientists and they had this new design. Kurchatov who ran the program took Lavrentiy Beria, who ran the NKVD who was put in charge of the program and said — “Look, we can build you a better bomb. You really wanna waste the time to make that much more uranium and plutonium?” And Beria said, “Comrade, I want the American bomb. Give me the American bomb or you and all your families will be camp dust.” I talked to one of the leading scientists in the group and he said, we valued our lives, we valued our families. So we gave them a copy of the plutonium implosion bomb.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:53:37
Now that you explain this, when the Soviet Union fell, why didn’t North Korea, Iran or another country, send a few people to the fallen Soviet Union to recruit a few of the scientists to start their own program? Or buy off their stockpiles or something. Or did they?
Richard Rhodes 0:53:59
There was some effort by countries in the Middle East to get all the enriched uranium, which they wouldn't sell them. These were responsible scientists. They told me — we worked on the bomb because you had it and we didn't want there to be a monopoly on the part of any country in the world. So patriotically, even though Stalin was in charge of our country, he was a monster. We felt that it was our responsibility to work on these things, even Sakharov. There was a great rush at the end of the Second World War to get hold of German scientists. And about an equal number were grabbed by the Soviets. All of the leading German scientists, like Heisenberg and Hans and others, went west as fast as they could. They didn't want to be captured by the Soviets. But there were some who were. And they helped them work. People have the idea that Los Alamos was where the bomb happened. And it's true that at Los Alamos, we had the team that designed, developed, and built the first actual weapons. But the truth is, the important material for weapons is the uranium or plutonium. One of the scientists in the Manhattan Project told me years later, you can make a pretty high-level nuclear explosion just by taking two subcritical pieces of uranium, putting one on the floor and dropping the other by hand from a height of about six feet. If that's true, then all this business about secret designs and so forth is hogwash. What you really need for a weapon is the critical mass of highly enriched uranium, 90% of uranium-235. If you've got that, there are lots of different ways to make the bomb. We had two totally different ways that we used. The gun on the one hand for uranium, and then because plutonium was so reactive that if you fired up the barrel of a cannon at 3,000 feet per second, it would still melt down before the two pieces made it up. So for that reason, they had to invent an entirely new technology, which was an amazing piece of work.
From the Soviet point of view, and I think this is something people don't know either, but it puts the Russian experience into a better context. All the way back in the 30s, since the beginning of the Soviet Union after the First World War, they had been sending over espionage agents connected up to Americans who were willing to work for them to collect industrial technology. They didn't have it when they began their country. It was very much an agricultural country. And in that regard, people still talk about all those damn spies stealing our secrets, we did the same thing with the British back in colonial days. We didn't know how to make a canal that wouldn't drain out through the soil. The British had a certain kind of clay that they would line their canals with, and there were canals all over England, even in the 18th century, that were impervious to the flow of water. And we brought a British engineer at great expense to teach us how to make the lining for the canals that opened up the Middle West and then the West. So they were doing the same thing. And one of those spies was a guy named Harry Gold, who was working all the time for them. He gave them some of the basic technology of Kodak filmmaking, for example. Harry Gold was the connection between David Greenglass and one of the American spies at Los Alamos and the Soviet Union. So it was not different. The model was — never give us something that someone dreamed of that hasn't been tested and you know works. So it would actually be blueprints for factories, not just a patent.
And therefore when Beria after the war said, give us the bomb, he meant give me the American bomb because we know that works. I don't trust you guys. Who knows what you'll do. You're probably too stupid anyway. He was that kind of man. So for all of those reasons, they built the second bomb they tested was twice the yield and half the way to the first bomb. In other words, it was their new design. And so it was ours because the technology was something that we knew during the war, but it was too theoretical still to use. You just had to put the core and have a little air gap between the core and the explosives so that the blast wave would have a chance to accelerate through an open gap. And Alvarez couldn’t tell me what it was but he said, you can get a lot more destructive force with a hammer if you hit something with it, rather than if you put the head on the hammer and push. And it took me several years before I figured out what he meant. I finally understood he was talking about what's called levitation.
Dwarkesh Patel 0:59:41
On the topic that the major difficulty in developing a bomb is either the refinement of uranium into U-235 or its transmutation into plutonium, I was actually talking to a physicist in preparation for this conversation. He explained the same thing that if you get two subcritical masses of uranium together, you wouldn't have the full bomb because it would start to tear itself apart without the tamper, but you would still have more than one megaton.
Richard Rhodes 1:00:12
It would be a few kilotons. Alvarez's model would be a few kilotons, but that's a lot.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:00:20
Yeah, sorry I meant kiloton. He claimed that one of the reasons why we talk so much about Los Alamos is that at the time the government didn't want other countries to know that if you refine uranium, you've got it. So they were like, oh, we did all this fancy physics work in Los Alamos that you're not gonna get to, so don't even worry about it. I don't know what you make of that theory. That basically it was sort of a way to convince people that Los Alamos was important.
Richard Rhodes 1:00:49
I think all the physics had been checked out by a lot of different countries by then. It was pretty clear to everybody what you needed to do to get to a bomb. That there was a fast fusion reaction, not a slow fusion reaction, like a reactor. They'd worked that out. So I don't think that's really the problem. But to this day, no one ever talks about the fact that the real problem isn't the design of the weapon. You could make one with wooden boxes if you wanted to. The problem is getting the material. And that's good because it's damned hard to make that stuff. And it's something you can protect.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:01:30
We also have gotten very lucky, if lucky is the word you want to use. I think you mentioned this in the book at some point, but the laws of physics could have been such that unrefined uranium ore was enough to build a nuclear weapon, right? In some sense, we got lucky that it takes a nation-state level actor to really refine and produce the raw substance.
Richard Rhodes 1:01:56
Yeah, I was thinking about that this morning on the way over. And all the uranium in the world would already have destroyed itself. Most people have never heard of the living reactors that developed on their own in a bed of uranium ore in Africa about two billion years ago, right? When there was more U-235 in a mass of uranium ore than there is today, because it decays like all radioactive elements. And the French discovered it when they were mining the ore and found this bed that had a totally different set of nuclear characteristics. They were like, what happened? But there were natural reactors in Gabon once upon a time. And they started up because some water, a moderator to make the neutrons slow down, washed its way down through a bed of much more highly enriched uranium ore than we still have today. Maybe 5-10% instead of 3.5 or 1.5, whatever it is now. And they ran for about 100,000 years and then shut themselves down because they had accumulated enough fusion products that the U-235 had been used up. Interestingly, this material never migrated out of the bed of ore. People today who are anti-nuclear say, well, what are we gonna do about the waste? Where are we gonna put all that waste? It's silly.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:03:35
Shove it in a hole.
Richard Rhodes 1:03:36
Yeah, basically. That's exactly what we're planning to do. Holes that are deep enough and in beds of material that will hold them long enough for everything to decay back to the original ore. It's not a big problem except politically because nobody wants it in their backyard.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:03:53
On the topic of the Soviets, one question I had while reading the book was — we negotiated with Stalin at Yalta and we surrendered a large part of Eastern Europe to him under his sphere of influence. And obviously we saw 50 years of immiseration there as a result. Given the fact that only we had the bomb, would it have been possible that we could have just knocked out the Soviet Union or at least prevented so much of the world from succumbing to communism in the aftermath of World War II? Is that a possibility?
Richard Rhodes 1:04:30
When we say we had the bomb, we had a few partly assembled handmade bombs. It took almost as long to assemble one as the battery life of the batteries that would drive the original charge that would set off the explosion. It was a big bluff. You know, when they closed Berlin in 1948 and we had to supply Berlin by air with coal and food for a whole winter, we moved some B-29s to England. The B-29 being the bomber that had carried the bombs. They were not outfitted for nuclear weapons. They didn't have the same kind of bomb-based structure. The weapons that were dropped in Japan had a single hook that held the entire bomb. So when the bay opened and the hook was released, the thing dropped. And that's very different from dropping whole rows of small bombs that you've seen in the photographs and the film footage. So it was a big bluff on our part. We took some time after the war inevitably to pull everything together. Here was a brand new technology. Here was a brand new weapon. Who was gonna be in charge of it? The military wanted control, Truman wasn't about to give the military control. He'd been an artillery officer in the First World War. He used to say — “No, damn artillery captain is gonna start World War III when I'm president.” I grew up in the same town he lived in so I know his accent. Independence, Missouri. Used to see him at his front steps taking pictures with tourists while he was still president. He used to step out on the porch and let the tourists take photographs. About a half a block from my Methodist church where I went to church. It was interesting. Interestingly, his wife was considered much more socially acceptable than he was. She was from an old family in independence, Missouri. And he was some farmer from way out in Grandview, Missouri, South of Kansas City. Values.
Anyway, at the end of the war, there was a great rush from the Soviet side of what was already a zone. There was a Soviet zone, a French zone, British zone and an American zone. Germany was divided up into those zones to grab what's left of the uranium ore that the Germans had stockpiled. And there was evidence that there was a number of barrels of the stuff in a warehouse somewhere in the middle of all of this. And there's a very funny story about how the Russians ran in and grabbed off one site full of uranium ore, this yellow black stuff in what were basically wine barrels. And we at the same night, just before the wall came down between the zones, were running in from the other side, grabbing some other ore and then taking it back to our side. But there was also a good deal of requisitioning of German scientists. And the ones who had gotten away early came West, but there were others who didn't and ended up helping the Soviets. And they were told, look, you help us build the reactors and the uranium separation systems that we need. And we'll let you go home and back to your family, which they did. Early 50s by then, the German scientists who had helped the Russians went home. And I think our people stayed here and brought their families over, I don't know.
(1:08:24) - Deterrence, disarmament, North Korea, Taiwan
Dwarkesh Patel 1:08:24
Was there an opportunity after the end of World War II, before the Soviets developed the bomb, for the US to do something where either it somehow enforced a monopoly on having the bomb, or if that wasn't possible, make some sort of credible gesture that, we're eliminating this knowledge, you guys don't work on this, we're all just gonna step back from this.
Richard Rhodes 1:08:50
We tried both before the war. General Groves, who had the mistaken impression that there was a limited amount of high-grade uranium ore in the world, put together a company that tried to corner the market on all the available supply. For some reason, he didn't realize that a country the size of the Soviet Union is going to have some uranium ore somewhere. And of course it did, in Kazakhstan, rich uranium ore, enough for all the bombs they wanted to build. But he didn't know that, and I frankly don't know why he didn't know that, but I guess uranium's use before the Second World War was basically as a glazing agent for pottery, that famous yellow pottery and orange pottery that people owned in the 1930s, those colors came from uranium, and they're sufficiently radioactive, even to this day, that if you wave a Geiger counter over them, you get some clicks. In fact, there have been places where they've gone in with masks and suits on, grabbed the Mexican pottery and taken it out in a lead-lined case. People have been so worried about it but that was the only use for uranium, to make a particular kind of glass. So once it became clear that there was another use for uranium, a much more important one, Groves tried to corner the world market, and he thought he had. So that was one effort to limit what the Soviet Union could do.
Another was to negotiate some kind of agreement between the parties. That was something that really never got off the ground, because the German Secretary of State was an old Southern politician and he didn't trust the Soviets. He went to the first meeting, in Geneva in ‘45 after the war was over, and strutted around and said, well, I got the bomb in my pocket, so let's sit down and talk here. And the Soviet basically said, screw you. We don't care. We're not worried about your bomb. Go home. So that didn't work. Then there was the effort to get the United Nations to start to develop some program of international control. And the program was proposed originally by a committee put together by our State Department that included Robert Oppenheimer, rightly so, because the other members of the committee were industrialists, engineers, government officials, people with various kinds of expertise around the very complicated problems of technology and the science and, of course, the politics, the diplomacy. In a couple of weeks, Oppenheimer taught them the basics of the nuclear physics involved and what he knew about bomb design, which was everything, actually, since he'd run Los Alamos. He was a scientist during the war. And they came up with a plan. People have scoffed ever since at what came to be called the Acheson-Lilienthal plan named after the State Department people. But it's the only plan I think anyone has ever devised that makes real sense as to how you could have international control without a world government. Every country would be open to inspection by any agency that was set up. And the inspections would not be at the convenience of the country. But whenever the inspectors felt they needed to inspect. So what Oppenheimer called an open world. And if you had that, and then if each country then developed its own nuclear industries, nuclear power, medical uses, whatever, then if one country tried clandestinely to begin to build bombs, you would know about it at the time of the next inspection. And then you could try diplomacy. If that didn't work, you could try conventional war. If that wasn't sufficient, then you could start building your bombs too. And at the end of this sequence, which would be long enough, assuming that there were no bombs existing in the world, and the ore was stored in a warehouse somewhere, six months maybe, maybe a year, it would be time for everyone to scale up to deterrence with weapons rather than deterrence without weapons, with only the knowledge.
That to me is the answer to the whole thing. And it might have worked. But there were two big problems. One, no country is going to allow a monopoly on a nuclear weapon, at least no major power. So the Russians were not willing to sign on from the beginning. They just couldn't. How could they? We would not have. Two, Sherman assigned a kind of a loudmouth, a wise old Wall Street guy to present this program to the United Nations. And he sat down with Oppenheimer after he and his people had studied and said, where's your army? Somebody starts working on a bomb over there. You've got to go in and take that out, don't you? He said, what would happen if one country started building a bomb? Oppenheimer said, well, that would be an act of war. Meaning then the other countries could begin to escalate as they needed to to protect themselves against one power, trying to overwhelm the rest. Well, Bernard Baruch was the name of the man. He didn't get it. So when he presented his revised version of the Acheson–Lilienthal Plan, which was called the Baruch Plan to the United Nations, he included his army. And he insisted that the United States would not give up its nuclear monopoly until everyone else had signed on. So of course, who's going to sign on to that deal?
Dwarkesh Patel 1:15:24
I feel he has a point in the sense that — World War II took five years or more. If we find that the Soviets are starting to develop a bomb, it's not like within the six months or a year or whatever, it would take them to start refining the ore. And to the point we found out that they've been refining ore to when we start a war and engage in it, and doing all the diplomacy. By that point, they might already have the bomb. And so we're behind because we dismantled our weapons. We are only starting to develop our weapons once we've exhausted these other avenues.
Richard Rhodes 1:16:00
Not to develop. Presumably we would have developed. And everybody would have developed anyway. Another way to think of this is as delayed delivery times. Takes about 30 minutes to get an ICBM from Central Missouri to Moscow. That's the time window for doing anything other than starting a nuclear war. So take the warhead off those missiles and move it down the road 10 miles. So then it takes three hours. You've got to put the warhead back on the missiles. If the other side is willing to do this too. And you both can watch and see. We require openness. A word Bohr introduced to this whole thing. In order to make this happen, you can't have secrets. And of course, as time passed on, we developed elaborate surveillance from space, surveillance from planes, and so forth. It would not have worked in 1946 for sure. The surveillance wasn’t there. But that system is in place today. The International Atomic Energy Agency has detected systems in air, in space, underwater. They can detect 50 pounds of dynamite exploded in England from Australia with the systems that we have in place. It's technical rather than human resources. But it's there. So it's theoretically possible today to get started on such a program. Except, of course, now, in like 1950, the world is awash in nuclear weapons. Despite the reductions that have occurred since the end of the Cold War, there's still 30,000-40,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Way too many.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:18:01
Yeah. That's really interesting. What percentage of warheads do you think are accounted for by this organization? If there's 30,000 warheads, what percentage are accounted for?
Richard Rhodes 1:18:12
Dwarkesh Patel 1:18:12
Oh. Really? North Korea doesn't have secrets?
Richard Rhodes 1:18:13
They're allowed to inspect anywhere without having to ask the government for permission.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:18:18
But presumably not North Korea or something, right?
Richard Rhodes 1:18:21
North Korea is an exception. But we keep pretty good track of North Korea needless to say.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:18:27
Are you surprised with how successful non-proliferation has been? The number of countries with nuclear weapons has not gone up for decades. Given the fact, as you were talking about earlier, it's simply a matter of refining or transmuting uranium. Is it surprising that there aren’t more countries that have it?
Richard Rhodes 1:18:42
That's really an interesting part. Again, a part of the story that most people have never really heard. In the 50s, before the development and signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which was 1968 and it took effect in 1970, a lot of countries that you would never have imagined were working on nuclear weapons. Sweden, Norway, Japan, South Korea. They had the technology. They just didn't have the materials. It was kind of dicey about what you should do. But I interviewed some of the Swedish scientists who worked on their bomb and they said, well, we were just talking about making some tactical nukes that would slow down a Russian tank advance on our country long enough for us to mount a defense. I said, so why did you give it up? And they said, well, when the Soviets developed hydrogen bombs, it would only take two to destroy Sweden. So we didn't see much point. And we then signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. And our knowledge of how to build nuclear weapons helped us deal with countries like South Africa, which did build a few bombs in the late 1980s. Six World War II-type gun bombs fueled with enriched uranium, because South Africa is awash in uranium ore and makes a lot of uranium for various purposes. So efforts were starting up. And that's where John Kennedy got the numbers in a famous speech he delivered, where he said, I lose sleep at night over the real prospect of there being 10 countries with nuclear weapons by 1970 and 30 by 1980. And of course, that would have been a nightmare world, because the risk of somebody using them would have gone up accordingly.
But after the Cuban Missile Crisis, we and the Soviet Union basically said, we've got to slow this thing down for us and for others as well. And the treaty that was then put together and negotiated offered a good deal. It said, if you don't build nuclear weapons, we will give you the knowledge to build nuclear energy technology that will allow you to forge ahead very successfully with that. There was a belief in the early years of nuclear weapons that as soon as the technology was learned by a country, they would immediately proceed to build the bomb. And no one really thought it through. It seemed sort of self-evident. But it wasn't self-evident. There are dangers to building a nuclear weapon and having an arsenal. If you're a little country and you have a nuclear arsenal, you have the potential to destroy a large country, or at least disable a large country, because you have these terribly destructive weapons. That makes you a target. That means that a large country is going to look at you and worry about you, which they never would have before. That kind of logic dawned on everybody at that point. And they were getting a good deal.
And the other part of the deal was the part that the nuclear powers never kept to this day, which was an agreement that we would work seriously and vigorously toward nuclear disarmament. We didn't do that. We just told them we would. And then kind of snuck around on the sides. So much so that by this treaty, because no one was quite trusting of the whole deal, treaties are usually signed and they exist in perpetuity. They don't have any end date. They go on until somebody breaks the rules. But this treaty was given a 25-year review period, which would have been 1995, at which point if the countries had chosen to abrogate the treaty, it would have been set aside. And everybody could have gone back to making nuclear weapons. It almost came to that for the very reason that the main nuclear powers had not fulfilled their agreement to start reducing arsenals. We didn't start reducing our nuclear arsenal until the end of the Cold War, until the collapse of the Soviet Union. That's when we began cutting back, as did the former Soviet Union. A diplomat who's a friend of mine, Tom Graham, was assigned the task by our State Department of going around to the countries that were going to be voting on this renewal or not of the treaty and convincing their leaderships around the world. It wasn't in their best interest to abrogate the treaty at that point. Tom spent two years on the road. The only place he thought he should go is not the UN, where there's a second-level diplomat he could have talked to, but back to the home countries. And he convinced enough countries around the world. He's another hero who's never been properly celebrated. He convinced enough countries around the world that they did agree to extend the treaty in perpetuity. With the proviso that the goddamn nine nuclear powers get busy eliminating their nukes.
And of course, George H.W. Bush, bless him, I didn't like his politics otherwise, but he stepped forward and split the nuclear arsenal in half right away. We dropped our numbers way, way lower than we had been. He pulled the amount of South Korea, which was a great bugaboo for both the Soviets and the North Koreans and China, and did a lot of good work toward moving toward a real reduction in nuclear arsenal. And the Russians agreed at that time. It was before Putin took power. So there was a change for the better, but there are still too many around, unfortunately. So that's why there are only nine nuclear powers to this day.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:25:16
How worried are you about a proxy war between great powers turning nuclear? For example, people have been worried about the Ukraine conflict for this reason. In the future, if we're facing an invasion of Taiwan by China, that's another thing to worry about. I had a friend who understands these things really well, and we were arguing because I thought, listen, if there's like a war, if there's a risk of nuclear war, let them take Taiwan. We'll build semiconductor factories in Arkansas. Who cares, right? And he explains, no, you don't understand, because if we don't protect Taiwan, then Japan and South Korea decide to go nuclear because they're like America won't protect us. And if they go nuclear, then the risk of nuclear war actually goes up, not down.
Richard Rhodes 1:26:02
Or they just decide to align with China. Yeah, because we didn't protect them with our nuclear umbrella the way we promised.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:26:10
Oh, I guess we haven't promised Taiwan that, but it's implied, I guess.
Richard Rhodes 1:26:14
I think it's implied. Yeah. If we said we're going to help defend them, that's what that means.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:26:19
Yeah. But anyway, the question was, how worried are you about proxy wars turning nuclear?
Richard Rhodes 1:26:26
There's been a lot of argument about whether nuclear deterrence actually works or not. The best evidence is that the United States fought a number of wars on the periphery, beginning with Korea and then Vietnam, and some other smaller things in between, where we were willing to accept defeat. We accepted defeat in Vietnam for sure, rather than use our nuclear arsenal, always because behind those peripheral countries, was a major nuclear power. China, Soviet Union, whatever. And we didn't want to risk a nuclear war. So at that level, deterrence really seemed to work for a long time. But there's been a change lately. And I find it kind of terrifying. The first manifestation was with India and Pakistan. They both went nuclear full scale in the late 1990s. India had tested one bomb in 1974, which they claimed was a peaceful explosion, whatever that is. But they hadn't proceeded anywhere from there. And Pakistan had tested their first bomb in China when they got it from AQ Khan, the same guy who was trying to proliferate to Iran a little later in Iraq. But they didn't build a lot of warheads either. And then their conflict or the personalities involved in the governments got sideways with each other. And both sides tested a quick flurry of four or five bombs each around 1997 or 1998. Now they were full fledged nuclear powers on the scale of two regional countries. But then in 1999, there was a border conflict between the two countries. And Pakistan came up with a whole new argument about nuclear deterrence. Not only could you prevent a nuclear escalation, but if you kept your deterrent in place, you could have a conventional war with the other side not willing to escalate to nuclear because you still had your nuclear arsenal. And that, which came very close to a nuclear exchange, we jumped in with both feet, believe me, and we're all over both countries about, don't do this, don't go this far, and they backed off. But Putin or someone in the Russian complex picked up on that new approach. And it's the one Putin is using now. He's basically saying, I'm having a conventional war here. And don't you dare introduce nuclear weapons or I will. In fact, if you defeat me, I may introduce nuclear weapons. Screw you. I'm going to use my nukes as a backup. That's new. And it's terrifying because it's a totally different kind of deterrence that risks going too far, too fast to be able to know what's going on.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:29:47
And in some sense, he is calling our bluff or at least I hope he is. Obviously you shouldn’t say this but hopefully the government would not respond to a tactical nuke used in Ukraine by getting the US annihilated.
Richard Rhodes 1:30:04
I don't think we would respond to it with a full scale nuclear attack. But I do think we would respond with some level of nuclear exchange with Russia or maybe just with that part of Russia, I don't know. We've long had a policy called decapitation. We long ago could the individual apartments and [unclear] of this Russian leadership with individual warheads. In the window at high noon, because they are very accurate now and they're totally stealthy. If you're thinking about cruise missiles, we can put one in someone's window and it's a nuclear warhead and not just a high explosive. They've known that for a long time. That doesn't give anybody time to get into the bomb shelter. This has gotten really very hairy. Used to be pretty straightforward. Don't bomb us, or we will bomb you. Attack in some peripheral country and we won't bomb you because you might bomb us. We'll lose that little war, but we'll come in somewhere else. All of these things, that's complicated enough. But now we're talking about this other level.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:31:23
So in some sense, this idea that we can backstop conventional power with nuclear weapons worked. After World War Two, the Soviets had millions of men in the Red Army stationed in Eastern Europe and we didn't have troops remaining in Western Europe but we said, listen, if you invade Western Europe, we'll respond with a nuclear attack. I guess that worked.
Richard Rhodes 1:31:51
It worked until August 1949, when the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb. And that's when panic hit Washington. And the whole debate went on about, do we build hydrogen bombs? And ultimately, the military prevailed and the chairman signed on. And plus, Fuchs was outed and there was this whole knowledge that the Russians knew a lot because Fuchs knew our early work on hydrogen weapons before the end of the war. We were exploring the possibility. All of that came together too with a kind of a terrible moment when the Teller side prevailed. And we said, let's build bigger bombs, as if that would somehow help. But there had been a balance of forces, you're quite right. They had two million men on the ground in Europe. We had the bomb. And then the balance of force was disrupted when they got the bomb. So then how do we rebalance? And the rebalance was the hydrogen bomb. And that's how you get to Armageddon ultimately, unfortunately.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:32:57
I was reading the acknowledgements and you talked to Teller in writing the book. Is that right?
Richard Rhodes 1:33:02
Dwarkesh Patel 1:33:03
And obviously, he was a big inspiration for the US pursuing the hydrogen bomb. What were his feelings when you talked to him about this?
(1:33:12) - Oppenheimer as lab director
Richard Rhodes 1:33:12
I made the mistake of going to see Teller at his house on the grounds of Stanford University early on in my research when I really didn't have as clear a grasp of who everyone was and what I should ask and so forth. I sent him a copy of an essay I'd written about Robert Oppenheimer for a magazine and that set him off. He had reached the point where he was telling TV interviewers, asking them how much time he would actually be on the air, and when they said three minutes or whatever, he would say, all right, then I will answer three questions no more. Trying to control because he was convinced that everyone was cutting the story to make him look bad. He really had quite a lot of paranoia at that point in his life. So when he read my essay on Oppenheimer, he used that as the basis for basically shouting at me, waving my big, heavy book, one of my big, heavy books at him. I remember thinking, oh, my God, he's going to hit me with my book. Then I thought, wait, this guy's 80 years old. I can take him. But he finally said, all right, I will answer three questions. And we sat down and I asked him one and he didn't give me an interesting answer. I asked him the second question and it was worth the whole interview. I said, was Robert Oppenheimer a good lab director? And I thought, well, here's the chance where he'll slice him. But Oppenheimer's worst enemy said to me, “Robert Oppenheimer was the best lab director I ever knew.” And I thought, bingo. And then he chased me out of the house. And I went up the road to a friend's house and got very drunk. Because I was really shaken. It was so new to me, all of this. But that quote was worth the whole thing because Eisenhower in one of his memoirs says, I always liked Hannibal best of all the classical figures in the military of the Roman Empire, because he comes down to us only in the written memoirs of his enemies. And if they thought he was such a good leader, he must have been a hell of a leader.
Dwarkesh Patel 1:35:35
The way the Manhattan Project is organized, it's interesting because if you think of a startup in Silicon Valley, you usually have a technical founder and a non-technical founder. The non-technical founder is in charge of talking to investors and customers and so on. And the technical founders in charge of organizing the technology and the engineers. And in Oppenheimer, you had the guy who understood all the chemistry, the metallurgy, the obviously the nuclear physics, and then Groves is getting appropriations and it's an interesting organization that you see. But why was Oppenheimer such a great lab director?
Richard Rhodes 1:36:13
Oppenheimer was a man with a very divided self and an insecure self. One of his closest friends was I.I. Robbie, a really profound and interesting human being. I'm going to be writing about him in my next book. I spent some time with Robbie just before he died and he said once of Oppenheimer, “I always felt as if he could never decide whether he wanted to be president of the [unclear] of Columbus or [unclear].” He said he was a certain kind of American Jew. The German Jews who came over before and after the First World War were westernized, they were not from the shtetls of the paler settlement of the Eastern European Jews. They were sophisticated, they were well educated. They were a totally different group and as such, they were able to assimilate fairly easily. Oppenheimer wasn't sent to a Jewish school. He was sent to the famous school that was opened in New York, it was called the ethical culture school. It was based on the idea of an ethical, moral education, but not a religious education. So his parents found this niche for him. He never quite pulled himself together as a human being. And as is true with many people with that kind of personality structure, he was a superb actor. He could play lots of different roles and he did. Women adored him. He was one of the most lavish courtiers of women. He would bring a bouquet of flowers to their first date, which was apparently shocking to people in those days. He was just a lovely, courtly man. But in the classroom, if somebody made a stupid mistake, he would just chew them out. And he taught a course in physics that was so advanced that most of the best students took it twice because they couldn't store it all the first time.
He was nasty to people all the time in a way that bothered a lot of people. Louis Alvarez, who was someone I got to know pretty well because I helped him write his memoirs, he was one of the important scientists at Los Alamos who didn't get along with Oppenheimer at all because Oppenheimer was so condescending to everyone. Louis was kind of a hothead and he didn't like people being condescending to him. Oppenheimer never won a Nobel, Louis did. There was this layer of Oppenheimer being waspish all the time, which was his insecurity and his insecurity extended to physics. Robbie said later he couldn't sit down and focus on one problem because he always wanted to be someone who always knew everything that was going on in physics. You could call that someone who was a very sophisticated, knowledgeable scientist or you could call him someone who was superficial and he was superficial. He knew broadly rather than deeply. He and a graduate student of his developed the basic idea of the black hole long before it came up after the war. They published a paper on what was essentially the physics of the black hole in 1929. But it wasn’t called the black hole yet. John Wheeler invented that term many years later but the idea that a big enough sun, if it collapsed, would just keep on collapsing until nothing could come out of it including light, came from Oppenheimer. And if the black hole had been discovered out in space before he died, he certainly would have had a Nobel for the theory. That being said, he still was someone who was broad rather than deep. And he was someone who was really good at playing roles.
General Groves, who himself had two or three degrees from MIT in engineering, he was no slouch. But his was more the industrial side of everything. How do you build a factory when you don't know what you're going to put in it? He built the factories at Oak Ridge, Tennessee to enrich uranium and start building the early piles that would later lead to the big reactors in Washington before they even knew what was going to go in the factory. He got orders of magnitude numbers and he said, start laying the concrete, we want it this big, we want this attached to it. We’re going to need power, going to need water, going to need gas, whatever they needed. He was that kind of really great engineer but he needed someone to help explain the physics to it. And he saw pretty quickly at the meetings he was holding at the University of Chicago, where they were building the first reactor, little one, that Oppenheimer was really good at explaining things. So he grabbed him and Groves spent the war riding in trains back and forth among all these various sites. He'd have the advisors from one site like Chicago jump on the train while he was taking the train from Chicago to Santa Fe. Then they'd get off and take the next train back to Chicago. Then he'd pick up the guys who were going to go with him to Tennessee from Santa Fe and they'd ride with him round and round and round. He got a plane later in the war. But most of the war, he just had people riding with him. And Oppenheimer later said, well, I became his idiot savant. And Oppenheimer did. He explained all the physics to Groves because Groves was a little insecure around six Nobel Laureates around the table and would say things like, well, you each have a PhD, but I think my work at MIT probably was the equivalent of about six PhDs, wouldn't you think? And they would think, who is this guy?
Dwarkesh Patel 1:42:31
Was he joking? Was that sarcasm or?
Richard Rhodes 1:42:33
No, he wasn’t. He had multiple degrees. You know how the military works when there's no war. They send their guys to school to get them better trained. So when the time came to find someone to run, Oppenheimer had been pushing for a separate place where the scientists could get together and do what scientists must do if they're going to advance their science. And that is, talk to each other. The system that Groves had installed around the country at all these factories and so forth, was called compartmentalization for secrecy. And basically it was — you're only allowed to know just enough to do your job and not the overall picture of what your job might be for. So, for example, there were women at Oak Ridge running big magnetic machines that would separate uranium 235 from uranium 238 with magnetic coils of various kinds, taking advantage of the very slight difference in mass between these two otherwise identical materials. The women who were doing this work were set in front of a board with a big dial on it, a big arrow that went from zero to ten or whatever and told keep the arrow about between right here on this. They didn't know what they were making. They really got good at spinning their dials and maintaining what was basically the level of whatever electric process was going on in this machine. So compartmentalization worked.
But Oppenheimer said, if we are compartmentalized as scientists, we're not going to get anywhere. Science works by gift exchange. I discover something, I publish the results. All the other scientists in my field can read it or be told of it at a meeting. And then they can take that information and use that to move a little farther. And that's the way it's always been done. And that's the only way it works. As soon as you lock people up and tell them they can't talk to each other, it stops because the discovery over here doesn't get applied to a need over here. Simple. Groves reluctantly agreed to let the place have openness, as it was called. You see the parallel with the open world about the bomb. Same sort of thing. How can you know what's going on if you can't let people talk to each other? See what they're doing. But he insisted that the whole crew be put behind barbed wire in a faraway place when no one else was around. So they did. Groves had worked with Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was now playing the lab director. And he was superb at it, as Teller’s remark about a good lab director would let you know.
For the period of the war, Hans Bethe told me this, “Before the war, Robert really could be cruel. He would pounce on a mistake you made.” And Bethe, a Nobel Laureate, discovered what makes the sun work. That's how important Bethe's work was and how significant. Bethe told me, “everyone makes mistakes. I made mistakes. Oppenheimer would charge me with a mistake if I spoke wrong. But before the war, after the war, but not during the war.” During the war, he was a superb wise lab director. Because unlike most scientists, he was not only a physicist of high class, but he really was psychologically astute as a human being, as I think insecure people often are because got to scope out what's going on. Oppenheimer wrote pretty good poetry. He was interested in art. He wanted to read the Bhagavad Gita Gita in the original Sanskrit so he learned Sanskrit. He was very smart, needless to say, and had a very high IQ. Not all the physicists who did first class work did have high IQs. They took some other qualities as well. It took the [unclear] sitting down in a chair and focusing on one thing until you got through to it. That's what Robbie said. And he said, that's why Oppenheimer never won a Nobel Prize. All in all, Oppenheimer became in this place that some of these people later were calling [unclear]. Remember they were working on a bomb that was going to kill hundreds of thousands of people but it was the most curious collection of people who had felt like theirs was a spiritual field before the war. And here they were in the war and they began to think, well, maybe this isn't so spiritual, maybe we're doing something truly horrendous and when Bohr comes along and says, wait a minute. Oppenheimer by then was kind of a student of Bohr's.
Oppenheimer had the job of recruiting everyone for Los Alamos without telling them what they would be doing because it was secret. So he would go to a university campus where there was a young physicist he wanted to recruit and they would go out for a walk to get away from any hidden microphones. And Oppenheimer would say, I can't tell you what we're going to be doing. I can tell you that it will certainly end this war and it may end all war. And that was quite enough. I mean, most of them figured out what they'd be doing anyway, because it was sort of obvious when you start looking at the list of people who are going there. They're all nuclear physicists.
So Oppenheimer and Bohr together brought this idea to Los Alamos and later to the world that there was a paradox. The bomb had two sides and they were in a sense complementary because although it's certainly true that this was going to be a very destructive weapon, it would also maybe be true if all worked out and they tried to make it work out, that it would put an end to large scale war. If you go to the numbers and graph the number of man-made deaths from war starting in the 18th century, it's almost exponential up to 1943, when 15 million people died between the war itself and the Holocaust. And then it starts to decline as the war begins to come to an end. The war is really 1945. It drops down to about one to two million deaths and it stays there ever after. And although one to two million deaths a year from war is nothing to be proud of, we lose six to seven million people in the world every year from smoking. So in a curious way, the introduction of how to control nuclear energy changed the nature of nation states such that they could no longer at the limit defend their borders with war. They had to find some other way, at least when the scale goes up, they had to find another way. I think that's very important because people somehow don't really understand what a millennial change, the introduction of the release of nuclear energy into the world, really was. As we've been talking, I've been thinking over and over again about your question about AI and the whole larger interesting question that you can see how it fits into the bomb story of unintended consequences. All the countries that worked on the bomb at some level were thinking, oh my god, we're going to have a weapon that will surpass them all. One ring to bind them all like Lord of the Rings. They thought it would aggrandize national power, but what it did was put a limit to national power. For the first time in the history of the world, war became something that was historical, rather than universal. It was something that would no longer be possible. And who did that? Scientists going about their quiet work of talking to each other and exploring the way the universe works.
Bohr, who's one of my favorite people in the world, he liked to say, science is not about power over nature, as people seem to think. Science is about the gradual removal of prejudice. By that, he meant when Galileo and Copernicus changed the way everyone looked at the position of the earth in the universe, not the center of the universe anymore, but just a planet revolving around a third-rate star. It changed the way everyone thought about the whole world. When Darwin definitively identified our place in the natural world as a brainy ape, it's still taking time for a lot of people to swallow that one. But inch by inch, these prejudices about where we are in the world and how powerful we are and what our purpose is and so forth are being drained away by science. The science of nuclear fission and nuclear energy is draining away and has drained away the theory that we are sort of universally capable of destroying each other and getting away with it. But the dark side is, the unintended consequence is, it's only by having a Damocles sword over our heads, the potential for destruction of the human world, that it's possible to limit war in this way. That's the threat. And when people start saying, well, look, we can have a conventional war if we've got nuclear weapons, because you're not going to attack us. You don't dare. We'll use our nuclear weapons on you. Something's changed most recently in all of this. It's outside the range of all the books I've written. It's a whole new thing. I guess you have to work through all the combinations, just as evolution does, before you come up with the one that actually fits the reality of the world.
(1:53:40) - AI progress vs Manhattan Project
Dwarkesh Patel 1:53:40
There's at least 10 different things and I'm trying to think which branch of the tree I want to explore first. On the AI question, yeah, I'm trying not explicitly connect the dots too much. Every time I read something in history, I think oh, this is exactly like so and so. First of all, the broader outline of the super eclectic group of people who are engaged in this historical pursuit, they understand it's a historical pursuit, they see the inklings of it. My second to last guest was Ilya Sutskever, who is the chief scientist at OpenAI which is the big lab building this. He was basically the Szliard of AI, how Szilard discovered nuclear chain reaction, Sutskever was the first person to train a neural network called ImageNet. Anyway, from that moment on, he was one of these scientists who sees that you could build a nuclear bomb immediately as soon as the news hits the floor. He saw this coming 10 years ago, scale this up and you've got something that's human level intelligent. I was reading through the book and so many things like this came up. One was a good friend of mine who works at one of these companies. And they train these models on GPUs, which are computers that can perform all these matrix calculations in parallel. And I was thinking about these engineers who were in short supply during the making of the bomb, let's say they're working on the electromagnetic separation of the isotopes. And it's this really esoteric thing, you're a chemist or a metallurgist or something that you're really needed for this specific thing. And he's in super high demand right now, he's like the one guy who can make these very particular machines run as efficiently as possible. You start looking and there's so many analogies there.
Richard Rhodes 1:55:41
I don't think there's much question that AI is going to be at least as transformative as nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. And it's scaring the hell out of a lot of people and a lot of other people are putting their heads in the sand. And others are saying, let's live it around with laws, which certainly we should do. We've tried to do that with nuclear weapons and have had some success. But people have no idea what's coming, do they?
Dwarkesh Patel 1:56:10
Yeah. One thing I wanted to ask is — Some of these scientists didn't see this coming. I think Fermi said you could never refine uranium and get 235 but then some of these other scientists saw it coming. And I was actually impressed by a few of them who accurately predicted the year that we’ll have the atomic bomb. Another one was, Russia is five to 10 years behind. So I'm curious, what made some of these scientists really good at forecasting the development of this technology and its maturity and what made some either too pessimistic or too optimistic? Is there some pattern you noticed among the ones who could see the progression of the technology?
Richard Rhodes 1:56:57
That's a good question. Well, the experience that I've had in working with scientists, physicists, is that they really are not very interested in history or in the future. They're interested in the Now, where the work is, where the cutting edge is. They'd have to devote quite a bit of energy to projecting in the future. Of course there have been a few. One thinks of some of the guys who wrote science fiction, some of the guys who wrote essays and so forth about where we were going. And if you ask them, particularly later on in their careers, when their basic work is already done, and I remember talking to a Nobel Laureate in another line of science, but he said, I would never be a graduate student connecting up with the Nobel Prize winner because they've already done their best work. And he was one so he was talking about himself, too. It takes a certain mentality to do that. And maybe scientists aren't the best ones to do it. Alvarez told me, he said, you know, I was always a snoop and I would poke around Berkeley in the various drawers of the benches in the laboratory. He said, one day I was poking around and I found this little glass cylinder about the size of a Petri dish with some wires inside. He said, and I realized it was the first cyclotron. They just put it in a drawer. I asked, so where is it now? He said, it's in the Smithsonian, of course. Where else would it be? I talked to the guy who invented the first laser and actually held one in my hand. He was an engineer at one of the big telephone companies. He said, the first laser is supposedly in the Smithsonian but they don't have it. They got one in the lab and I took my first one home. You want to see it? I said, God, of course. We went to the credenza in his dining room and he opened the drawer and pulled out a little box. Inside it was basically a cylinder of aluminum about the size of a little film can, which he opened up and took out a man-made ruby cylinder that was half-silvered on each end, surrounded by a very high-intensity flash bulb. That was it. It was this beautiful, simple machine. He said they didn't get the right one. I said, why didn't you give them the right one? He said, they didn't ask me. He was angry all his life because he wasn't included in the Nobel prizes. It went to the theoretician to first theorize the laser, but he built the first laser and there it was.
(1:59:50) - Living through WW2
Dwarkesh Patel 1:59:50
When you were interviewing the scientists, how many of them did you feel regretted their work?
Richard Rhodes 2:00:04
They'd been down the road so far, they really didn't think that way anymore. What they did think about was they regretted the way governments had handled their work. There were some who were hawks and patriots, Alvarez was one of those. But most of them had tried in the years since the war to move in the direction of reducing nuclear weapons, eliminating nuclear weapons. It was a problem for them. When the war was over, these were mostly graduate students or new PhDs who had been recruited for this program. The average age at Los Alamos was 27. Oppenheimer was an old guy, he was 39. These were young guys who had been pulled out of their lives, pulled out of their careers. They wanted to get back to the university and do the work they had started out to do. By and large, they did and Los Alamos, just emptied out. Teller was horrified, he wanted the bomb program to continue because he wanted to build his hydrogen bomb. It was going to be his bid for history just as Oppenheimer's bid for history was the fission bomb. Teller’s was going to be the hydrogen bomb. Over the years, after that work was done, he systematically and meanly tried to exclude one by one anyone else who'd helped him work on the hydrogen bomb. Originally, he said it was a Polish mathematician named Stanislaw Ulam, whom I interviewed also, who really came up with the basic idea for the hydrogen bomb. He took it to Teller and Teller came up with an improvement. Then together, they wrote a paper which was signed by both of them. But by the 1980s, Teller was saying, “Ulam did nothing. Nothing.” Which wasn't true. It was his piece of history because he was scattered too, and he, number one, did Nobel-level work. They didn't talk so much about their personal guilt.
I was a child in the Second World War. I was eight years old in 1945. So many young men had been killed on all sides in the war. It was a kind of a strange, peaceful time for children. Cars couldn't get tires, they were rationed. Cars couldn't get gasoline, it was rationed. So the streets were empty. We played in the streets. Meat was rationed, so we lived on macaroni and cheese. You got four ounces of meat a week per person during the Second World War. That was kind of wonderful and peaceful, and kids running around in gangs and so forth. But in at least one house in almost every block in the city, there was a black velvet flag or drape hanging with a gold star on it. That meant that someone in that family, a father, a brother, a son, had been killed. And I was a smart little kid, I understood what all that meant. I was reading newspapers by the time I was six following the war. It was the strangest time of darkness and terror. We didn't know until 1943 if we were going to win the war. It was scary for a while up front, the war in Europe. We sort of set Japan aside. Our government did until the war in Europe was done before we finished that other war. But it took a while for the United States to get its industrial plant up and cranking out planes at the rate of one a day or more. Churchill famously said when Pearl Harbor occurred, “The Lord hath delivered them into my hands.” And he explained later what he meant was that America's going to join the war. And I know we can win now because America's just one vast factory, much more so than the British could have put together. So it was a peaceful time, but it was a very dark time even for a child. My mother died when I was an infant so I understood what the death of a family member was about.
Dwarkesh Patel 2:04:29
Do you remember when the bombs dropped?
Richard Rhodes 2:04:34
By 1945, we were so pissed off at the Japanese. We had destroyed their air force, we had destroyed their navy, we had destroyed their army. The population of Japan was down to about a thousand calories per person of the worst kind of stuff, buckwheat and weeds and whatever they could find. And yet they wouldn't surrender. And they still had a million men on the ground in Western Manchuria. They only had about a year's worth of bullets left. We knew that much, but that's a long time with a million men. With that in mind, and because they felt that the Soviet Union was still neutral in the Eastern Front, because it had basically fought the war in Europe. We didn't win the war in Europe, the Russians did. We didn't enter the war on the ground until June 1944, by which time they were already moving forward against the German forces that attacked them in 1941. But the Japanese just wouldn't surrender. You could read the documents about the bombs. General George Marshall, who was leading the war, was in charge of all the forces, had this idea that maybe if we could use these bombs on the beaches before we landed, to kill any Japanese defense that was there, maybe they would get the message and be shocked and surrender. But from the Japanese point of view, as it turned out later, it's a myth that the bombs won the war. They contributed to winning the war, but they didn't win the war. What won the war was when Stalin finally was convinced that there were such things as atomic bombs. He was half convinced these were American pieces of disinformation. We were feeding the espionage to the Soviet Union to make him spend a lot of money and waste a lot of time on something that didn't exist.
When the news came back from Hiroshima and then from Nagasaki that these things existed, he called Igor Kurchatov in and said famously, “Comrade, give us the bomb. You have all the resources of the state at your disposal. Give us the bomb as soon as you can.” But up until then, he wasn't so sure. He had told Truman at Potsdam that they would invade Manchuria with fresh Soviet forces on the 15th of August. Truman was trying to get him to agree to invade at all. Then when word came from New Mexico that the bomb had worked, which it did right in the middle of the Potsdam conference, Truman then was trying to get Stalin to come in as late as possible because he figured the bombs would end the war before Stalin could take over enough of Japan to divide the country the way Europe was divided. He didn't want a Soviet zone, an American zone, and a British zone. He knew we could do better with the Japanese than the Soviets would do. But Stalin, having heard that the bombs really worked, moved up the date of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria to the 8th of August between Hiroshima and Nagasaki and invaded early. I found it very interesting that the conventional air forces on our side staged the largest firebombing raid of the war, on the 14th of August, after the Japanese were in the middle of their surrender negotiations. The air force wanted to get credit for winning the war and they wanted to hold back the Soviets who were advancing down from Sakhalin Island to the northern islands of Japan as well as inward from Manchuria. So our bombing was in northern Japan. It was a way of telling the Soviets, back off buddy, we're not going to let you in here. Then the Japanese military leadership, which had been adamant that they would fight to the last Japanese, the 100 million, they called it, turned and finally realized that it was futile. With the fresh Soviet army coming into Manchuria, with the United States and the British coming in from the west to the south, they were surrounded and there was no reason to continue. But the bombs had their effect.
The Japanese emperor used the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a reason for entering politics for the first time in Japanese history. He had always been a spiritual figure, but he wasn't allowed to vote or veto the political arrangements. He stepped forth and said, we must do it for peace. And in his final imperial rescript on the 15th of August, recorded and played out to the people by radio, he said a new and most terrible weapon of war has led us to think the unthinkable and we must now lay down our arms. So the bomb had its effect, but it wasn't what we thought at the time. A lot of Americans said, thank God for the atomic bomb because our boys came home. The actor Paul Newman was a friend of mine and Paul was an 18-year-old bombardier on a two-man Navy fighter bomber training for the invasion of Japan. He said to me once, “Rhodes, I'm one of those guys who said, thank God for the atomic bomb because I probably wouldn't have come home if we'd invaded the Japanese home islands.” And a million men said that. And the truth is, there were so many Japanese who would have been killed if we had invaded that even the killings of the two bombs would have been dwarfed by the killing that happened. For the first time in the history of war, more Japanese civilians were killed in World War II than had ever been killed in a war before. War was beginning to become what it has since become, which is a war against civilians.
Dwarkesh Patel 2:11:06
We were talking near the beginning about whether it was possible that the bomb could not have been built at all and in the case of the nuclear physics involved here, it seems like it was sufficiently obvious. But one question I have, seeing the history of that science and whether it was plausible or not for some conspiracy to just hold it off, how plausible do you think it is that there's some group of scientists somewhere else who have discovered some other destructive phenomenon or technology that decides that we can't tell anyone about this. One area I think this might be plausible is bioweapons where they discover something and they just shut up about it. Given the study of this history, do you think that's more or less plausible?
Richard Rhodes 2:11:51
I don't think it's very likely to take bioweapons as an example. I remember talking to a biologist, one of the early DNA researchers who had been a physicist until DNA came along, and I asked “How'd you switch over to biology?” He said, “Well, it's molecules.” So from his perspective, it wasn't very different. But we were talking about the question of just the one you asked, but about biological agents. He said, nature has had millions of years to work all the combinations on the worst things you can imagine. The odds of anybody in a laboratory coming up with anything worse are really vanishingly small. I took that with great comfort. I went home and slept that night. And I think he's probably right. Evolution has done such a job. We're still digging stuff out. I mean, it's just amazing how much of our technology started out as something in the natural world that we adapted it and simplified it and engineered it so we could make it too. That's still going on in all sorts of ways.
Dwarkesh Patel 2:13:04
I hope that's the case. I was talking to a biologist and he was explaining to me, if you've seen things like AlphaFold, which is this AI program that models that can predict how a protein will fold, you can run billions of different permutations of a protein. And you can find smallpox, but it binds 100 times better with human receptors or something.
Richard Rhodes 2:13:35
I'll tell you a story, which I don't think is well known, I wish it were. Back in the 60s the Russians proposed a world-scale program of public health to eradicate smallpox to the UN. And they said, we'll contribute a vaccine and other countries can contribute whatever they can contribute. This program got going. It was run out of Geneva by the World Health Organization, by a wonderful American public health doctor, D.A. Henderson, a big old burly country boy looking guy whom I followed around for several months once in Geneva and elsewhere. And by the late 1970s, the last case of smallpox, which happened to be a disease that's only spread among humans and therefore was of all the diseases the most obvious one to try to get rid of. Because if there are reservoirs in the natural world outside of the human world, then there will be a problem. If it's also something that's carried around by rabbits or deer or whatever then it's harder to deal with. But if it's just humans, then all you have to do is to identify people who start showing signs of smallpox. In fact, you need everyone around them to make sure they don't go anywhere for a while and the disease can't spread. And that's the method that they use to eliminate smallpox everywhere in the world. And then in the 90s, when the Soviet Union collapsed, D.A. learned, as we all did, although it wasn't terribly well publicized, that there was a secret lab still operating that the Russian plan had been to eliminate smallpox vaccination from the world so that everybody, except people in their country who had been vaccinated for this purpose, would not be immune and a bacteriological agent like smallpox could be used as a weapon of war. D.A. was so incensed. He took this story to our government and we started a whole new section of the public health business to work on biological warfare. And he did for the last part of his life to try to get past this and that lab was eventually, we hope, closed down. So that scenario is not outside the bounds of possibility. But generally speaking, biological warfare isn't very effective because your own people could be infected as well, if not your war people, at least your civilian population. Much like poison gas, which used to blow back over the lines of the people who'd launched it to their horror. It never was a terribly good weapon of war. Plus Hitler's experience of using gas in the first world war that all sides decided not to use it in the second. So that's part of it.
(2:16:45) - Secrecy
Dwarkesh Patel 2:16:45
Speaking of secret labs, you've written so many books about not only the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb, and the Cold War and so on. Is there a question you have about any of those stories that you were really interested in but you haven't been able to get the answer to because the information is classified?
Richard Rhodes 2:17:05
Over the years, it's slowly leaked out. The latest thing I discovered is that from early on, our hydrogen bombs were shaped sort of like a dumbbell, more spread out. There's a picture of Kim Jong-un looking at a hydrogen bomb of North Korean make and it's perfectly obvious that it's a real bomb because that's its configuration. I didn't know that until just a year or so ago. But sooner or later, everyone tells you at least a little bit.
Dwarkesh Patel 2:17:46
And then is there anything you've learned that you can't put in your books because it's...
Richard Rhodes 2:17:50
The only thing I didn't put in the book, rightly so, was the dimensions of the Fat Man bomb that were on the original Fuchs documents that he passed to the Russians. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the scientists became available, I learned that the KGB in the interest of promoting its service to the state in this new world they were going into, had published a historical piece about their good work in stealing the secret to the bomb. And they included a picture of the sketch that Fuchs did showing the dimensions of each of the shells of this multi-shelled implosion weapon with the numbers there in millimeters. And when the scientists realized that the KGB had published this stuff, they raised a great hue and cry and said, that's in violation of the Nuclear Non-Puller Variant Treaty. They said, we have to pull all the issues of that journal. And they did. But I had a very enterprising assistant in Moscow, this geologist I mentioned before. And he said, I think I know where I can find a copy of the journal. And he jumped on the night train from Moscow to St. Petersburg and went to a science library there. And they said, no, of course not. We pulled that. And then he thought, wait a minute, where's the public library? It was across the street. And he went across the public library. And they said, yeah, we have the journal. And handed it to me. He made a copy and gave me one. But when I realized that I had this, I never published that information. That's the only one, though.
Dwarkesh Patel 2:19:35
That is a wise thing to do. One of the final questions. A lot of times people use the phrase, we need a Manhattan project for X. If it's some new technology or something. When you hear that, do you think that is a naive comparison? Or does it make sense to use that terminology?
Richard Rhodes 2:19:57
No. It’s been used so many times over the years for cancer, for this, for that. But Manhattan was a very special time and it was a very special problem. The basic science was in hand. Oppenheimer once said in his funny way, we didn't do any basic science between 1939 and 1945. In a sense, it was a vast engineering program. There was some basic physics, but very little. It was mostly using Nobel laureate level physicists as engineers to develop a whole new weapon with the precision of a Swiss watch that weighed 9,000 pounds. And they did a beautiful job considering the time and place and the rationale. They solved some problems that I don't know how anybody else could have solved. How do you make plutonium explode without a gun? All of that. But most of these problems aren't like that. Nobody was starting a startup with some investment from an investment company to build the bomb. This was a government project, and it was secret. And if you divulged the secret, you'd go to jail. A lot of the parameters of what they were doing were carefully kept secret. It's remarkable that 600,000 people worked on the bomb and the secret never got out.
Dwarkesh Patel 2:21:28
Do you say 600,000?
Richard Rhodes 2:21:29
Dwarkesh Patel 2:21:33
This is actually one of the questions I want to ask you. Truman, when he became president, he had to be told about it. He didn't know about it, right? I don't know how many people were working on it when he became president, but hundreds of thousands of people are working on it. The vice president doesn't know about it. He only learns about it as president. How was it possible that with so many people working on it, the vice president doesn't know that the atom bomb is in the works? How did they keep that so under wraps?
Richard Rhodes 2:21:57
One of Roosevelt’s several vice presidents famously said, the vice presidency isn't worth a bucket of warm piss.
Dwarkesh Patel 2:22:05
Can you note, Kennedy had a saying, I'm against [unclear] in all its forms.
Richard Rhodes 2:22:11
Yes, well, interesting for me. Roosevelt wanted to keep it a secret and so did Groves. They didn't want the word to get out. They didn’t want the Germans to get ahead of us. And what was the vice president for? He was to sit around in a waiting room in case the president died, which in Truman's case, he hit the jackpot. He was just at the right time because Roosevelt had several vice presidents in his long reign. So from their point of view, he didn't need to know. It was the need-to-know thing again, it was the compartmentalization. And of course, as soon as he became president, Groves and Stimson and several others got together with Truman and filled him in on it. Truman had some inkling because he was a crusading senator who had taken on the job of preventing waste in war. And if he heard about some industry that was sloughing off and putting money in people's pockets or whatever, he would go visit their factories, call them out. And he was ready to go to Hanford, Washington, and Oak Ridge, and find out what these people were doing. But Stimson, the Secretary of War at the time, whom he greatly admired and one of the great elder statesmen of the era, said, “Mr. Vice President, please don't go. I guarantee you that what is happening is being well managed. Please don't go.” And he said, “If you say so, Mr. Stimson, I will believe you.” So he knew a little bit, but he didn't know very much. And I don't think that helped. I don't know how much Roosevelt understood either. He was not a scientist. Truman was not even a college graduate, he was self-educated. A well self-educated guy. One of the senator’s once said, every time I go to the Library of Congress to pull out a book, Truman's name is always there. The senator said I think he read everything in the Library of Congress. It's partly that there wasn't any way to communicate except by letter or telephone and you didn't call long distance unless somebody died, basically. Tell someone they had a long distance call and their woman would start crying. Or a man, for that matter. You thought your son was probably dead in Iwo Jima. So the communication was more limited to be sure. But even so, it's extraordinary.
Dwarkesh Patel 2:24:45
But was the culture different in that the idea of leaking something would be much more frowned upon than it is now?
Richard Rhodes 2:24:52
I can't remember in my entire life a more patriotic time than the Second World War. We children gathered together pieces of aluminum foil from the lining of cigarette packages, about the only place you could get aluminum foil in those days, watered it up into balls and took them to school so they could use it to make bombers. We collected this bacon grease from cooking meat in the kitchen and took it to school in cans because it had some application to making bullets. We collected newspapers for the same reason. The Boy Scouts during the Second World War took it as their special responsibility to collect the fibers that come off milkweed with this little ball that blows away because it was used in place of kapok to line life vests for sailors. They collected 500,000 tons of milkweed fluff in the course of the war. We were all consumed with winning this thing, which didn't seem to be a certain thing at all, as I said earlier, before around 1943. Of course, there was a black market and people got to see a farmer and pick up some steaks, so they didn't have to live on some more macaroni and cheese for the next month as we all did. But despite those changes, people were very, very patriotic and fought in every way we could to win the war.
(2:26:34) - Wisdom & war
Dwarkesh Patel 2:26:34
Speaking of elder statesmen, by the way. Who, since the development of the nuclear bomb, has been the wisest political leader, not necessarily the U.S. and not even necessarily as a leader of state, but contributed most to the stability and peace?
Richard Rhodes 2:26:52
It depends on what period you're talking about. There's no question that Oppenheimer's advice to the government after the war was really good. I don't think anyone except the Oppenheimer committee, the Acheson-Lilienthal Committee, has ever found a better way of thinking about eliminating nuclear weapons in a world that understands how to build them. And that really was Oppenheimer. I don't mean he deluded anybody. He just led them straight down the path. All these engineers and industrialists who were on the committee with him, skeptical men, men who wouldn't have been easily convinced of anything, but he convinced them this was the right way to go. So he, up until he was forced out of government because he made the mistake of not supporting the Air Force's favorite bomb, and they found a way to destroy him basically, and they did destroy him. I talked to one of the scientists who was his closest friend, and he said Robert was never the same after the security hearing in 1954. He was one of [unclear]’s smiling public men after that. It really devastated him. That basic insecurity he had as a Jew in America all the way from childhood, haunted him, and he became the director of the Institute for Advanced Study, and he wrote a lot of nice essays. But I don't know.
The leader that I've fallen into more and more is Niels Bohr. He tried to figure out a way to bring the openness of science into a world without nuclear weapons. He and Robbie taught Oppenheimer the ideas that ended up in the Acheson-Lilienthal plan, and he and Robbie later, were the ones who started up the scientific laboratory in Geneva that is now CERN where they built these new giant colliders. With the idea in mind that at the very least if the scientists have devastated Europe, we remember what things were like for the former Soviet Union. People were living on crusts of bread and bags of old potatoes. They really were. And particularly people who worked for the government because their pensions weren't worth anything. That's what I saw when I went back there in the spring of ‘92 after the place collapsed. The money wasn't worth anything. Their salaries weren't being paid. In the midst of all of that, Europe needed something to sustain it. And of course, there was the Marshall Plan, and that was absolutely amazing. And the help it gave to Europe when it needed it most. But Bohr wanted to make sure, and Robbie wanted to make sure, that the scientists of Europe were tapped to go off somewhere and build nuclear weapons. And they invented this international laboratory in Geneva, which is still a thriving enterprise, where they could do basic physics and where they'd be paid for their work and could do the kind of exciting thing that good science is without having to drift over into the dark side of the whole thing. Let's face it, it more or less worked. The French had to have the bomb, you know, because they're French.
Dwarkesh Patel 2:30:26
They need their lovers, they need their bombs.
Richard Rhodes 2:30:29
The British had to have the bomb because they knew how to build one. They'd worked with us all during the war, and then we'd cut them off from a supply of uranium and from any new developments along the way. And most of all, because the British Empire was bankrupt by the end of the Second World War, and Churchill was determined to get the bomb because without it, his country would fall away and wouldn't get to sit at the table with the big boys. So they had the typical reasons for getting bombs because you don't want to be left out because of the prestige, or because you have a mortal enemy who's got the bomb or is getting the bomb. That's North Korea, that's Iraq. Its attempt, it didn't get there. That's Pakistan and India. We, because of Germany. The Soviets, because of us. By and large, the countries that did go toward the bomb, finally built bombs because they were afraid of another country having the bomb. And everyone else stood back and said, well, if you'll protect us with atomic bombs, when somebody comes calling here in South Korea or Germany or wherever, we won't build them and share your knowledge of how to make energy out of nuclear power.
Dwarkesh Patel 2:31:54
There's easily another three hours of questions I could ask you. I can't say I want to be respectful of your time because I haven't been with the extra hour I've taken, but I want to be less than totally disrespectful of your time. So I guess the final question that we can go out on is — In the next 50 years, what odds do you put on a non-test nuke going off?
Richard Rhodes 2:32:22
A nuke going off in anger? That's the way I usually put it. I think the odds are high.
Dwarkesh Patel 2:32:35
Over 50% in the next 50 years?
Richard Rhodes 2:32:26
I wouldn’t put a number on it, but it's certainly higher than zero and it's probably higher than 10%. And that's high enough if we're talking about millions of people dying. There was a period when people in the field were talking about, well, maybe we'll have a little regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan and that'll scare everybody to the point where they realize you've got to get rid of these things. The same guys who did the nuclear winter studies back in the 80s decided in 2007 first to look at nuclear winter world scale war using the much better computers of today. And they found out that that would be even worse than they thought it would when they had only one dimensional atmospheric models. Then they said, well, what would a small regional nuclear war look like? So they simulated a war between India and Pakistan where each country explodes 50 Hiroshima sized, 15 kiloton nuclear weapons over the enemy cities. And what would follow from that? And it turned out as the model develops, you can see it online, you can watch the graph develop that even that small in exchange, less than some of our individual hydrogen bombs, about a megaton between the two countries, would be enough to cause enough fire from burning cities to spread smoke around the world and reduce the amount of sunlight. They figured in the end that there would be 20 million prompt deaths from the explosions themselves and the fires. But then over the course of the next several years, up to two billion people would die of starvation because you would have the same phenomenon that the world had in the 18th century when there was an interim of rather cold, the sun was pulling back a bit and it was freezing hard in July in New England and the crops failed. And a mass of people died worldwide during that period of time. Like the flu epidemic of 1918, everybody seems to have forgotten. I don't know where our memory goes with these things.
Therefore even a small so-called nuclear war must engage the whole world because it's going to engage us if it ever goes off. So we're still in a very precarious place. And as long as any country in the world has nuclear weapons, we're going to continue to be. There is a sword of Damocles over our heads. That has been the price of nuclear deterrence. It isn't necessary that that be the price. It's possible to have nuclear deterrence without actual weapons, but it's damned hard to convince leaders, particularly in totalitarian and authoritarian countries, that that's the case. So the odds, I don't know, but there's no such thing as a machine that doesn't malfunction sooner or later. And these machines, these weapons that we make us such supernatural powers of, are just machines. We built, put them together. We can take them apart. We can put the ore back in the ground if we want to. We don't have to live with this. I think we're in a big, wide, long transition. Maybe the world scale problem of solving global warming will help with this, will help people see that if they work together. Here I am saying there could be a good outcome from this technology. Well, there was a good outcome from the telephone. There was a good outcome from television, but there was also a dark side and we're going to have to learn to handle dark sides better. Maybe that's the last thing to say on this subject.
Dwarkesh Patel 2:36:39
Yeah, that's a sound note to close on. The book is The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to talk as much about your new book on energy, but when your next book comes out, we'll get a chance to talk about the remainder that we didn't get a chance to talk about. It's been a true honor, and an incredible pleasure. The stories, the insight. It was really wonderful. Thank you so much for your time.
Richard Rhodes 2:37:02
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