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John Wheeler’s H-bomb blues

December 6, 2019

December 6, 2019

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Industry News

In 1953, as a political battle raged over the US’s nuclear future, the eminent physicist lost a classified document, about the hydrogen bomb, on an overnight train from Philadelphia to Washington, DC.

There may never be a good time to lose a secret, but some secrets are worse than others to lose, and some times are worse than others to lose them. For US physicist John Archibald Wheeler (see figure 1), January 1953 may have been the absolute worst time to lose the particular secret he lost. The nation was in a fever pitch about Communists, atomic spies, McCarthyism, the House Un-American Activities Committee, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and the Korean War. And what Wheeler lost, under the most suspicious and improbable circumstances, was nothing less than the secret of the hydrogen bomb, a weapon of unimaginable power that had first been tested only a month before.

Wheeler is best remembered today for being an audaciously original thinker whose contributions span fields from the theory of nuclear fission through relativity and quantum theory and for coining several new pieces of physics vocabulary, including the now ubiquitous term “black hole.” Wheeler’s deep connections to the budding national security state, however, are less well known. He was a major scientist at the Hanford plutonium production site in Washington State during World War II, and from 1951 to 1953, he was the head of Project Matterhorn B, the H-bomb project centered at Princeton University.
It was his role at Matterhorn B that led Wheeler to take a fateful overnight train trip from his home in Princeton, New Jersey, to Washington, DC, in January 1953. He had with him a short but potent document that explained exactly how the US, at that time the only nation in the world with an H-bomb, had overcome the many obstacles to producing a multimegaton thermonuclear weapon. Somewhere on the train ride, that document went missing. Wheeler’s Federal Bureau of Investigation file, recently released under the Freedom of Information Act, has shed new light on the incident, the secrets that lay at its heart, and the massive search for the missing document. A multitude of consequences came out of that single event—a testimony to the power of secrecy during the Cold War and to the ways in which a few pages, improperly situated in space time, can set off an unexpected chain of events.1
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