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Tale of two laboratories

By Istvan Hargittai


The Los Alamos National Laboratory came to life in 1943 as the concluding segment of the Manhattan Project to produce the atomic bombs for the US Army. In August 1945, these bombs were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

On the other side of the world to Los Alamos, Soviet scientists started researching nuclear fission right after they heard of its discovery in 1939. But when Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, they had to suspend this work and concentrate on traditional weapons. They resumed their nuclear research in 1943. Eventually the secret installation called Arzamas-16 was established some 230 miles east of Moscow. The scientists of Arzamas-16 nicknamed their laboratory “Los Arzamas” and often referred to their scientific director, Yulii Khariton, as the Soviet Oppenheimer.

The poster refers to the deployment of the atomic bombs in anticipation of the expected huge sacrifices of the invasion of Japan in 1945. Photograph of the legendary Ed Westcott; the image is in public domain, courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The poster refers to the deployment of the atomic bombs in anticipation of the expected huge sacrifices of the invasion of Japan in 1945. Photograph of the legendary Ed Westcott; the image is in public domain, courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The two laboratories had a one-way direct connection through espionage — the first Soviet atomic bomb was a copy of the American plutonium bomb. Only the leadership of the Soviet project was aware of the source of information, the scientists were merely given the tasks of what solutions to work out. It was a frustrating experience since they could not bring in their own ideas. For the hydrogen bomb, with less intelligence, the Soviet physicists could utilize their innovative talents.

At Los Alamos, there was a conspicuous concentration of Jewish refugee scientists from Europe. By the time the laboratory came to life, most other scientists had already been engaged in war-related projects. The refugees were latecomers as was the atomic bomb project among war-related research projects. The physics of nuclear weapons was challenging, and the refugee scientists were dedicated to the fight against Germany.

Left: Detail of the Oppenheimer statue in Los Alamos, New Mexico (photograph by I. Hargittai); Khariton on Russian postage stamp, 2004.

Detail of the Oppenheimer statue in Los Alamos, New Mexico (photograph by I. Hargittai)

At Arzamas-16, a number of the prominent Soviet physicists happened to be Jewish. The nuclear weapons project protected the physicists during the difficult period of 1948-1953 when Stalin’s paranoia developed into active anti-science as well as anti-Semitic persecution. When the pioneer nuclear physicist Yakov Zeldovich got into trouble in Moscow, he found refuge at Arzamas.

Khariton’s year of birth and his first name were not the only similarities with Oppenheimer (Yulii being the Russian equivalent of Julius). They both spent years in Western Europe for postgraduate studies. For both, this included Ernest Rutherford’s Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England. Like Oppenheimer, Khariton was Jewish, a life-threatening condition under Stalin and a definite disadvantage under the subsequent Soviet leaders. Khariton’s mother lived in Palestine and his father had been kicked out of the Soviet Union and lived in a Baltic state. When in 1940, the Soviet Union annexed the Baltics, he was arrested and directed to the Gulag.

Khariton on Russian postage stamp, 2004.

Khariton on Russian postage stamp, 2004.

It was for Khariton’s exceptional talent and abilities that in spite of his circumstances he stayed for forty-six years the scientific leader of the nuclear weapons installation. It was forty-six years of luxurious isolation, a “golden cage,” with his private railway car for travel, other benefits, and the highest decorations.

With few exceptions, the Soviet scientists were dedicated to their nuclear weapons program, at least initially. They were past a bloody war called with good reason the Great Patriotic War, in which their nation literally fought for survival. In the early 1950s, they were taught that a yet more dangerous foreign enemy might attempt their annihilation. This is why even the future human rights fighter Andrei Sakharov could propose murderous schemes to destroy densely populated foreign ports with Soviet thermonuclear devices.

The Soviet scientists worked under the threat of severe punishment in case of failure, but performed impeccably. After the first successful test of nuclear explosion, the regime lavishly rewarded their accomplishments. According to some sources, a simple scheme determined the order of awardees. Those who would have been shot had the test failed, became Heroes of Socialist Labor; those who would have been sentenced to the longest prison terms received the Order of Lenin, and so on.

Gradually, the Soviet scientists realized that placing nuclear weapons into the hands of a dictator could have led to unforeseeable tragedies. Clashes between Sakharov and Nikita Khrushchev demonstrated the blatant recklessness of the Soviet leadership in connection with the nuclear arms race. When during the 1967 war between Israel and its neighbors, Zeldovich heard about the consideration of dropping a nuclear bomb over Israel, he deposited a suicide note in secure hands (he knew the authorities would destroy such a note if they found it) and decided to kill himself if the bombing happened. Fortunately, it did not.

Khariton, on his part, never expressed dissidence. However, when in 1990, amid the great political changes in the Soviet Union, the octogenarian Khariton greeted the first US visitors at Arzamas-16, he told them: “I was waiting for this day for forty years.”

Istvan Hargittai is Professor Emeritus (active) of the Budapest University of Technology and Economics. He is a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Academia Europaea (London) and foreign member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. He has honorary doctorates from Moscow State University, the University of North Carolina, and the Russian Academy of Sciences. His latest book is Buried Glory: Portraits of Soviet Scientists (OUP 2013). One of his previous books is The Martians of Science: Five Physicists Who Changed the Twentieth Century (OUP 2006, 2008).

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