How the U.S. hydrogen bomb secrets disappeared

phys.org | 4/30/2014 | Staff
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Given a choice of items to lose on a train, a top-secret document detailing the newly developed hydrogen bomb should be on the bottom of the list. In January 1953, amid the Red Scare and the Korean War, that's exactly what physicist John Archibald Wheeler lost.

In the December 2019 issue of Physics Today, science historian Alex Wellerstein details the creation of the document and Wheeler's day leading up to its mysterious loss.

Absurdity - Sequence - Events - Absurdity - Cold

"I like the absurdity of the sequence of events, but beyond the absurdity, it connects up with some bigger Cold War themes," he said.

Wellerstein, from the Stevens Institute of Technology, collects FBI files of physicists, obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, as part of his research into the history of nuclear secrecy.

Physicists - FBI - Anti-Communists - Cold - War

"Theoretical physicists were in particular targeted by the FBI and anti-Communists during the Cold War, both because they were thought to know the secrets of nuclear weapons, and because they were considered politically naïve," he said. "Together, it made for a dangerous combination."

Wheeler is perhaps best known for coining the term "black hole," and his contributions to physics span different fields of study to include the hydrogen bomb project. When the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy decided to compile a history of the hydrogen bomb as part of a smear campaign against controversial physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, they sent a six-page extract to Wheeler to ensure the accuracy of the report's technical aspects. The pages contained information about the discoveries of Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam that led to the creation of thermonuclear weapons.

Wheeler - Document - Overnight - Sleeper - Train

Wheeler read the document overnight on a sleeper train. After reading it, he recalled placing it into a white envelope, putting the white envelope into a manila envelope, then the manila envelope into his suitcase, and placing his suitcase in between himself and...
(Excerpt) Read more at: phys.org
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