The Manhattan Project
At Princeton, the physicist Robert R. Wilson encouraged Feynman to participate in the Manhattan Project—the wartime U.S. Army project at Los Alamos developing the atomic bomb. Feynman said he was persuaded to join this effort to build it before Nazi Germany developed their own bomb.
He was assigned to Hans Bethe’s theoretical division, and impressed Bethe enough to be made a group leader. He and Bethe developed the Bethe–Feynman formula for calculating the yield of a fission bomb, which built upon previous work by Robert Serber.
He immersed himself in work on the project, and was present at the Trinity bomb test. Feynman claimed to be the only person to see the explosion without the very dark glasses or welder’s lenses provided, reasoning that it was safe to look through a truck windshield, as it would screen out the harmful ultraviolet radiation.
As a junior physicist, he was not central to the project. The greater part of his work was administering the computation group of human computers in the Theoretical division (one of his students there, John G. Kemeny, later went on to co-design and co-specify the programming language BASIC). Later, with Nicholas Metropolis, he assisted in establishing the system for using IBM punched cards for computation. Feynman succeeded in solving one of the equations for the project that were posted on the blackboards. However, they did not “do the physics right” and Feynman’s solution was not used.
Feynman’s other work at Los Alamos included calculating neutron equations for the Los Alamos “Water Boiler”, a small nuclear reactor, to measure how close an assembly of fissile material was to criticality. On completing this work he was transferred to the Oak Ridge facility, where he aided engineers in devising safety procedures for material storage so that criticality accidents (for example, due to sub-critical amounts of fissile material inadvertently stored in proximity on opposite sides of a wall) could be avoided. He also did theoretical work and calculations on the proposed uranium hydride bomb, which later proved not to be feasible.
Feynman was sought out by physicist Niels Bohr for one-on-one discussions. He later discovered the reason: most physicists were too in awe of Bohr to argue with him. Feynman had no such inhibitions, vigorously pointing out anything he considered to be flawed in Bohr’s thinking. Feynman said he felt as much respect for Bohr as anyone else, but once anyone got him talking about physics, he would become so focused he forgot about social niceties.
Due to the top secret nature of the work, Los Alamos was isolated. In Feynman’s own words, “There wasn’t anything to do there”. Bored, he indulged his curiosity by learning to pick the combination locks on cabinets and desks used to secure papers. Feynman played many jokes on colleagues. In one case he found the combination to a locked filing cabinet by trying the numbers a physicist would use (it proved to be 27–18–28 after the base of natural logarithms, e = 2.71828…), and found that the three filing cabinets where a colleague kept a set of atomic bomb research notes all had the same combination. He left a series of notes as a prank, which initially spooked his colleague, Frederic de Hoffmann, into thinking a spy or saboteur had gained access to atomic bomb secrets. On several occasions, Feynman drove to Albuquerque to see his ailing wife in a car borrowed from Klaus Fuchs, who was later discovered to be a real spy for the Soviets, transporting nuclear secrets in his car to Santa Fe.
On occasion, Feynman would find an isolated section of the mesa to drum in the style of American natives; “and maybe I would dance and chant, a little”. These antics did not go unnoticed, and rumors spread about a mysterious Indian drummer called “Injun Joe”. He also became a friend of laboratory head J. Robert Oppenheimer, who unsuccessfully tried to court him away from his other commitments after the war to work at the University of California, Berkeley.
Feynman alludes to his thoughts on the justification for getting involved in the Manhattan project in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. As mentioned earlier, he felt the possibility of Nazi Germany developing the bomb before the Allies was a compelling reason to help with its development for the US. However, he goes on to say that it was an error on his part not to reconsider the situation when Germany was defeated. In the same publication, Feynman also talks about his worries in the atomic bomb age, feeling for some considerable time that there was a high risk that the bomb would be used again soon so that it was pointless to build for the future. Later he describes this period as a “depression.”