Lot 70
  • 70


40,000 - 60,000 USD
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  • "Inside the Atom", drafts for two or possibly three different talks on the engineering problems of the atom bomb, ca 1944-1945.
Autograph manuscripts, 6 pp on 4 sheets (8 x 10 1/2 in & 8 1/2 x 11 in), in black ink on brown paper (1 sheet), in pencil, black ink, & brown ink on onion skin paper (2 sheets), and in pencil on brown paper (1 sheet), one sheet with small central hole, text unaffected.

Catalogue Note

"WHAT WE WORRIED ABOUT AT LOS ALAMOS" At the request of Edward Teller, Feynman gave a series of lectures on the atom bomb to fellow members of the Manhattan Project, covering topics such as the design & chemistry of the bomb, and safety issues regarding the separation of the isotopes of uranium.

The first manuscript, on brown paper and headed "INSIDE THE ATOM" is very possibly a draft for the famous talk given by Feynman at Oak Ridge, the top-secret location of the Clinton Engineer Works, where the material for the bomb was being produced; it touches on many of the key topics we now know Feynman discussed there, including engineering problems, separation of the isotopes of uranium 238 and 235, and is clearly adapted for an audience who has a high level of understanding of chemistry. It is clear that the talk was given at a time when the new element of Plutonium was still classified, as Feynman refers to it using the code word "49" - the reverse of the new pure element's atomic number of 94; the phrase in caps "WHAT WE WORRIED ABOUT AT LOS ALAMOS" is written next to the heading "Chain Reaction Described", followed by 4 bullet points: 1) "Critical size", 2) "Reflector", 3) "Explosion energy needs extra mass", & 4) "Speed of assembly".

These bullet points represent 4 of the major topics that Feynman discussed at Oak Ridge. On the verso, in pencil in two different hands are several games of Tic-tac-toe, and the phrases "Now, what did you want to know?", "Yes, I don't know."

While the bomb was built at Los Alamos, the material used to make the bomb was produced at Oak Ridge. Emilio Segrè, one of Feynman's senior colleagues, decided to inspect the plant to make sure that the instructions sent by Los Alamos were being followed. What he discovered were extremely dangerous conditions, with high quantities of material being stored together that could lead to disaster if not corrected. Oppenheimer had two teams, one led by Robert Christy and the other by Feynman, calculate the amount of material that could be accumulated safely. Feynman was then sent to Oak Ridge to present the numbers, taking what was his first ever plane ride to get there. "The first thing I did was have them take me to the plant, and I said nothing; I just looked at everything. I found out that the situation was worse than Segrè reported... I went to my room that night, and went through the whole thing, explained where the dangers were, and what you would have to do to fix this. It's rather easy. You put cadmium in the water, and you separate the boxes so they are not too dense..." ("Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman!", p. 142-43). The next morning, when preparing to give his talk to a room full of important generals, engineers, and other important personnel, Feynman was told that he was not to go into details of how everything worked, and to just stick to telling everyone what to do to keep things safe. His response was:

"In my opinion it is impossible for them to obey a bunch of rules unless they understand how it works. It's my opinion that it's only going to work if I tell them, and Los Alamos cannot accept the responsibility for the safety of the Oak Ridge plant unless they are fully informed as to how it works." 

Feynman was convincing, and was allowed to share the details. He is now credited with saving the lives not only the workers, but the people living around the area of Oak Ridge. 

The second manuscript, on brown paper in black ink, contains some similar information to the first, but has the added dimension of discussing control problems, issues of assembly and control, and problems regarding heat transfer and corrosion, plus two diagrams giving examples of poor design. The third longer draft, on onion skin paper, is likely a version of the second manuscript, adapted to be given to a post-war audience, as it includes the same technical details and diagrams, but adds an expanded section on peace-time applications of atomic power. On the verso of this second draft, written in brown ink, is what appears to be an introduction for a post-war talk, possibly one delivered or planned to be delivered at a nuclear physics conference he was invited to attend by R.D. Richtmeyer in 1947 (see Michelle Feynman, ed. Perfectly Reasonable Deviations, p. 75). It begins:

"Scientists discovered energy locked in atomic cores & dreamed of the age of its release. The great atomic age was ushered in in a most dramatic and horrible fashion... The greatest problem by all odds is that of war & peace... I am tired of that & would like an opportunity to describe instead of the horror of the things I helped to make, rather some of the hopes & values..."