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tv   Oral Histories  CSPAN  August 16, 2015 6:30pm-7:40pm EDT

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able to enjoy for themselves in income that is guaranteed for life. it is an income provided not by charity or belief, but by federal, old age, and survivors insurance. insurance that is bought and paid for. in august, 1945, 70 years ago, american forces dropped two atomic bombs over japan. one at hiroshima and the other in not a saga -- in nagasaki. val fitch talks about his time at los alamos, new mexico. after working at the time the apparatus of the atomic bomb, he was set to observe the 1945 trinity test, the first nuclear bomb detonation. he also discusses the national revocations of nuclear weapons and his thoughts on nuclear disarmament. val fitch died in february, 2015
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at the age of 91. this oral history is from the voices of the manhattan project, created by the atomic heritage foundation and the los alamos historical society. val: i was born on a cattle ranch in northwest nebraska, 1923. ranch.ually born on a this is about five miles from a thele town of merriman, in sandhills of nebraska. you probably do not know anything, but they occupy 1/5th of the state. it's cattle raising country. they call it sandhills because the terrain is made out of sand. hills are the dune. that is almost uprpure sand. buthills are the the only thinge grown there without destroying the terrain is something that
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lives off the native grasses, and that is cattle. you try turning the soil lower, and is simply blows away. so, that's the sandhills dedicated to growing cattle. purebreds.raced upre was too smalls to support a family on raising beef cattle. he raised breeding stock. that was the enterprise i was born into. have an older brother and sister. both of them now dead. my brother was 10 years older sister six years older
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but they both started school, and as long as we lived on the ranch, they attended a one-room schoolhouse half-mile away. so, most often the schoolteacher lived in our home. and all three of them would get on their horses in the morning and ride up the valley to go to school. i thought it was a little ridiculous, but the important thing was to get out of the house. how they lived the first few years of their lives. and when my brother came of age to go to high school, then, and ready to startt school, we moved to gordon nebraska, a town 25 miles to the west. so, all of my k-12 education was in gordon, nebraska. and this is, this part of the world is just south of the pine ridge indian reservation. so there are a lot of sioux indians around. father was always rather
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close to them. he understood them. as a young teenager, he had other to learn their language. -- he had father bothered to len their language. so he was really a great friend of the indians, which is a very -- very rare for white people in those days. the net result of that was that he became an37, honorary sue indian chief. chief eagle star. knowledge, he was the only non-politician that has ever been recognized in such a way. so, he received on that occasional full headdress of eagle feathers. all the way to the ground behind. and i inherited that. and just a couple years ago i
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lresented it to the lcooca library as part of their western united states collection. that's now out of my hands. but they take good care of these things. then after high school, i went to shattering state college derin state- sha college, there is a geological formation called a shaderin formation. it is named for the formation. thet it is where the, where high plains start to break away in southlower country dakota. and that is what forms the pine ridge escarpment. hence, the name pine ridge. pine trees grow along the escarpment. so, it's part of the formation.
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guess, the only thing i emphasize here is that indians were -- always there he much present in my own life. -- my young life. i never though the language -- never learners the line which, unfortunately, but it was an interesting thing to have about. interesting culture to have about. i went to state college. and i graduated from high school in 1940. 941, youe, in december 1 know what happened. were 18 yearswho of old new precisely what was going to happen to us. did try to volunteer for the air force but was turned down for being colorblind. it that timeded
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just to wait it out and get as much college as i could before being drafted. that is what i did. so, eventually, i was, in march, 1943, i was drafted in wyoming. sent to utah for basic training. and then after that, after wasc training, the army just starting their specialized training program. of so, i was taken out regular army units and sent to astp, the unit in what is now carnegie mellon. then carnegie tech in pittsburgh. and i was, i had the choice of going into four different areas. chemical engineering, electoral engineering, mechanical engineering, civil engineering. -- already taken most of the
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concentrated very heavily on chemistry and physics and mathematics in my undergraduate work. could learng -- i something and was electrical engineering, so i opted for that. so, eventually, that program, 944, the january of 1044 pressures for manpower were being felt in the army. so they disbanded most of the aftp across the country. pals went off to the 95th infantry. then were subsequent part of the european enterprise. there were a number of us left behind. s one of those, sent to
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los alamos to work as basically the technician. so that was in december, 1944. so, there i was in the army. unit called the special engineering detachment. and i was immediately assigned to work for a member of the british mission. so, very quickly i became this right of left hand man. however you want to describe -- to getting flair involved in interesting things. and i was always there. know if you're interested in what i did a los alamos are not. >> absolutely. i arrived they were
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just getting, being seriously involved in the fusion -- i'm sorry, the implosion program. were as is well known they detonating explosives in such a ve, as to produce a shock wa spherical shockwave going inward to compress to tony him to a critical point. and timing of all of these explosive -- was all important. and so, i was very much involved in developing the timing apparatus for measuring when the shock wave passes a certain point. so that is what i did. we did all of the electronics for doing that. and also made some of the measurements. aside that its an
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was a time in my life when, very the sad's are a unusual unit. there was a lot of talent. i made very good friends just among the people at the one end of the barracks. thornton.was gunner who had immigrated, his parents had brought him from norway when he was 10 years old. hans, perhaps that name brings about with you. the son of the famous mathematician. our, still, after all these years, i still communicate all the time. alamos to go to
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mit after the war, he had a girlfriend at los alamos. he assigned me the job of taking care of his girlfriend. this i did. we eventually were married, as a matter of fact. so, that was a nice story. but also, i learned to ski. this norwegian -- i had to learn to ski. and also at that end of that there is, a member of the dartmouth ski team. so i had lots of good instruction on skiing. every sunday, we would go out to sawyer field to ski. physicistf the famous were also skiers. them, they were probably on the ski slopes with us. i probably had more interaction
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with these famous papal -- people on the ski slopes than i did in the laboratory, as a matter of fact. in the spring of 1945, elaborate testing was underway with dummy at whent in b-29's dover air force base which was border,the nevada-utah near salt lake city. the technique was to load the there ands in b-29's drop them over the salted see where to love it too would pick up the signals from the falling objects. and tel people what was going on insidel the dummy bomb as far as the timing mechanisms, whether they were functioning correctly. 1945, i wasprin gof
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one of those sent to went over -- wendover. with, we.a.d. i worked set up a laboratory on the field to initiate this testing program. and also to educate some of the army officer so they could carry it on after we left. so that was my first exposure and all-29's and bombs that. went toy memory, i wendover from kirkland air force base in albuquerque. [coughs] old b-17g in an bomber. the loans, just over
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and they were not far below, the second engine went out. so, we were asked to get on parachutes. and so on. so, it was quite a trip. in that respect. also characterized by the fact that during world war ii if you were ever out of uniform, you are automatically thought to be a deserter. were required to wear uniform at all times. all those in the military. but there was a special dispensation for us. s.e.d.'s who went out to wendover. for security purposes, we had to play the role of good scientists from washington. we were given money and we went down to santa fe and bought civilian clothes. and including shoes.
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order to have something to wear at wendover. of paperave this piece they have given me permission to wear civilian clothes. one of the memos that means a much at the time. time.much at the event, then it was not long after we came back that we went to trinity to start the testing program there. initially, as you know, the first test was setting off 100 tons of tnt. with that, we tested all the far he mechanisms and so want to make sure the signals were getting through, all that. the main control for the test
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r was 10,000ke yards, which is slightly less than six miles. m the gadget itself. and so, it was a job of -- his group to send up a signal to detonate the thing. at the appropriate time. but also to send a preliminary signals of a sperm into groups that needed signals in anticipation of the thing going off. photographers had to open their shutters. a few milliseconds before him. we did the fast timing. name -- emlmore slow timing which consisted of a rotating drum picking up signals. fast timing and
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main detonation pulse at the end of the timing interval. by we, i mean in the main control bunker there was just myself.n and we did have a technician. his name was calvin benton. hauling things around, putting things together. on the other, the fourth member of the team was russ. thehis prime concern was apparatus that we used to measure the simultaneity of which all the detonators were fired on the bomb itself. there were 32 of them, and it was our job to measure the degree of simultaneity of those detonators fired.
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that was where my previous six. my previous experience had come in. russ was in charge of the recording of that data, done in a bunker half a mile west of the tower. so we had to pull in all of the apparatus to make those measurements. got all that stuff ready, running cables up to the tower, to the bomb, to carry signals back to the recording apparatus. so that was the secretary measurement -- plus, including the technician. that is what we were doing. actually, it was two or three days after the test when lowry made a very quick trip into the
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book or to retrieve the film in which the data was recorded. and unfortunately, when it was developed, it fell -- radiation had just been too much for it. and it blasted it. and when the bomb went off, the blast head take all the earth that it piled over this bunker and threw it back at it. bunkerew it off the totally. between that blogger -- that hunger which was a half-mile west and the tower -- that bunker which was a half-mile west, and the sand had been turned to glass. so, when the time to set off the bomb approach, we were at the main control bunker.
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camp,wry was back at base which was five miles further away. and i do not know if you have seen photographs of those places, but they are rather interesting. i have some upstairs if you would like to see them. but just as far as our timing measurements are concerned, that was all done automatically, of course. one of measuring times in milliseconds. an't be somebody throwing switch. had to be automatic. that was all an automatic mode. titterton suggested maybe if i wanted to go out and take a look at what was going on, go ahead, because he could not do anything about it. and went outside the bunker
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around to the east side. there were two or three others -- who went out. left the bunker and went out to get a good view. of course, i had this glass to cover my eyes with. which i also kept as a memento of the occasion. on the groundut with the glass over my eyes. of course, initially, i was looking away from the tower. that enormous flash of light, of course, just over -- overcame any lack of transparency. it is just, it is the most surprising thing of all. a fantastic flash of light. then, of course, you see the
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ball slowlynd the rising off the ground. this mushroom cloud eventually. so i got up to, got up off the ground to get a better view. totally forgetting that the shockwave had yet to arrive. might -- only 30 microseconds for the light to arrive but it takes 30 seconds for the shock way to arrive -- shock wave to arrive. i had plenty of time to get back thaton the ground and hear fierce rumble. first that blast, and then the rumble of the sound off the ne arby mountains. theas hard to overstate the impact on the senses for something like that. first the flash of light. fireball -- the
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mushroom cloud rising thousands of feet in the sky. and then a long time afterwards, the sound, the rumble, the funder in the mountains. in the mountains. words have not been invented to describe it. in any accurate way. allude andg you something i quoted when i wrote a piece about the experience, your bookput in about the manhattan project, apple is a -- f it was over, people started milling about and coming in out of the bunker, and there was an mp on duty at the door. a single mp.
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he was supposedly there to control access, even though it had to mainly symbolism, because of security was just -- course, the mp did not know anyone. but in any event, i saw him absolutely ashen faced. and i simply remarked, the world will -- the war will soon be over. i was right, fortunately. i stayed around for two or three up equipment and take the stuff back to los alamos. and we were driving an army panel truck.
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as we wereving, leaving the place -- we had to go past where the tower had been to leave the site, so as we were passing by past perhaps rode a mile west of where the tower had been, we turned up the road towards where the tower had bunkerast that small that we had instrumented a half-mile west. cable we had so laboriously strung to the tower were flung back over the bunker, that hadf the earth been piled on top was gone. it was just sitting there bare. drove on a bit further to where
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the sand had been turned to glass. out of thelittle box back that contained a transformer and i reached down and scooped up some of the glass y material. and then, we did not know what the radiation level was, but thought it was a good time to get out of there. that we did. so, i still have some of that itite that i-- trin picked up myself. it was a couple years after that toent back to los alamos work for the summer. and i came across a stockroom, an old stockroom where stuff was stored. the circuit we had used to put t he signal on the line to trigger the bomb, the basic trigger -- the high-voltage trigger -- i do not know maybe 2000 volts to make sure it got through. so, at the time, i was
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wondering, well, may be a should call that to somebody's attention because no one else knows what that is. but, of course, i did not do it. was scrapped with everything else at one time or another. i was discharged almost exactly three years after i entered the army from texas. then went back and worked at los alamos to make some money doing the same job i had before, but this time making a reasonable amount of money. and i had none. so saving money for college was important. so i worked there for another year and a half after being discharged. let me say more about the s.a.d.'s, because they're not
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properly advertise. virtually nothing to say about n thata.d.'s i otherwise fine book. by the end of the war, 50% of the technical personnel were s.a.d.'s. they lived in barracks, eight in the mess hall. -- ate in the mess hall. worked in the technical area for civilians. when we were in the technical area, military could not touch us. but of course, we ate in mess halls and slept in the barracks, and any time you have 60 to 1210 men -- to 120 men collected -- good about pretty making sure that a certain amount of water is kept. -- order is kept. sessions, night scrub
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cleaning out down in the barracks. and saturday morning inspections. that was discontinued after -- [laughter] his group was involved in producing the lenses. he was working closely more than anyone else on the whole project . he cared about the way that they were treated.
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he didn't expect them to work 24 hours a day. he complained about the spit and polish attitude. complained directly and threatened to leave the place if it wasn't changed. so thingsor transformed around. we didn't have to get up at 6 a.m. the mess hall was staffed by indigenous labor. after that, that was also our
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costnsibility until a things to -- was -- job only had -- the center aisle of the barracks. somebody had to keep those fires going. it does get a fairmount of snow in the winter time. barracks, we hired one of
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our members to do the job. he is happy to do it. more money to send home. a member of the dartmouth ski team. [laughter] when you look at some of the sed, there was one who lived in my barracks. then there was peter. became very well known.
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>> if you could talk about the roles of the british and getting funding museum interest in having those exhibits come their talk about what it was late . >> i'm glad you asked that question. there's a tendency to forget about their contributions. .here is a book about it he has a rather peculiar name. it is all about the role of the british mission.
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there was tony who is going to be speaking at st. louis. and there was one of the authors that the original report showed it was possible to make arms. what was his name?
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the one who stayed on. they were instigators. they were working on this. the current work on the supersecret rings going on in britain at the time. they were working on the process.ions on the they could play around with it.
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i once talked about that report that they put together. calculated a critical mass might be as little as one pound. is -- her vision was it the observation was it is a good thing they made that error. it wasn't exactly an error. it just wasn't the right information.
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at that it was an interesting observation. he made it his business to make sure those people have someplace to go to. create ae managed to job for them. there are at best -- they turned up the magnetron. it have been instrumental in the
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development of the radar for use in airplanes. he was really a great man. there is that connection. .here's a site section roughly 1948-1949.
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age of 96 the right or so. just two or three years ago. it was an advocate of getting rid of weapons altogether. write to the end of his life. -- right to the end of his life. >> where were you with the dropping on hiroshima? did you support that at the time? friends in the military.
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many of those friend turned out preparing in the philippines. they told me all about this. i understand that totally. get the whole thing over with. it will soon be over.
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it certainly was. i would have to say i wasn't in i'mr intel -- until -- still in favor, no doubt. there are a number of people walking today who would be walking around because their fathers others would have been killed in japan. i'm convinced of that. i've had in my own mind shutting down that a war was in a sense worth it. but that is not to say we shouldn't do everything we can
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to put that genie back in the bottle and keep it there. certainly my sense has been a long that line ever since. doubt the military-industrial complex dictate the speed at -- wewe arm ourselves is two turn off the influence of the super hawks. that turns out to be awfully because they know to spend their money. b2 bomber. like the
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crashed. one of them it only cost a billion dollars a piece. .t is a nonsense weapon it is no utility whatsoever. in a serious war, they would be the first to go. i'm convinced of that. additional qualifications. -- later inproject 1970, i became a member of the committee.
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it had a number of panels. chairmanto have become of the strategic panel. it not -- meant to be done with all of the strategic forces in the military. i became quite an expert on that . i know what is involved. remember when it was being first proposed. how many men it men do we need -- minutemen do we need? they had a single warhead at the top.
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they just automatically went to 1000. that is the way things escalated again and again and again. besides the strategic panel, the -- theed safeguard safeguard system was something that nixon was pushing very hard . involves a big radar in north dakota. in using missiles as a weapon.
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this whole safeguard system was funded. hardin radar. that's hardened radar. the size of a pyramid. an enormous waste of resources.
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so much what happens in the military is an enormous waste. thoseall driven by elements. it is allocated on the basis of certain congressional districts of thesfy the demand clients of the congressman and those particular districts. could point fingers at the government. veryhe -- it is a
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real and present danger. somehow we have never been able to make sense of it. what others do i have? [laughter] i guess the other thing i wanted to say -- they were very much the missile system i just described. this was during the nixon administration. members were quite -- were members of the peace
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act. it is allowed in their opposition. all.fired us there were no more piece ask. a letter from that was 1972 or so. since then i have had little to except -- had nothing to do with any classified work since then. that was a clean cut.
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laureate --er nobel and other nobel laureates -- in 2000, you and 40 other nobel -- maybe you want to talk about those initiatives and how scientists have become politically active like yourself and what you hope to accomplish. -- you areite right quite right. it started with the manhattan project. entirely due in the scientists sector.
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they were keen on getting control. efforts to give an international control. we all ended up in the atomic energy commission. it was a reasonable way. that was always entirely due to the activism of scientists. this is a very effective organization. inspired.
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then there was the establishment the groupell -- of that consisted of mostly physicists. effective very organization in advising the president. there first went on psac,
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is ahead of the radiation lab at m.i.t. during the war. then he became head of the psac. inviting.tive and they would have to sign off.
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it had beenof fact, inhabited during the war. after nixon get rid of psac, everything pretty much fell apart. it is the office of science and technology.
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the chairman is pretty much a unit. originally that was not the case. it all started a change in the 1970's. he was very pressured with the secrecy. it wasn't just the duration of the war, but afterwards -- frustrated with the secrecy. wasn't just the duration of the work, but afterwards. the secrecy stamp.
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there was a petition he started. >> oppenheimer found a way around that. [laughter] ofdidn't have any sense compartmentalization. that was oppenheimer's doing. >> did you have any interactions with him? >> they would have to get out and parade.
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i think that happened once. what was the book's name? all.ver mentioned it at a brilliant hand, administrator. it was the perfect choice.
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he had to stick out his neck along with to make that happen. i admire him very much for that. want to talk about the oppenheimer story? with regard to the oppenheimer affair, i consider .hat to be a real tragedy it was all because of the vending of nature with you that oppenheimer at one time or another had managed insult.
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oppenheimer was an incredible resource for this country. there was a wonderful book about the oppenheimer case. i highly recommend it. there is a very good account of the nasty doings of these people
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, these vindictive people. the kind of thing would've been .mpossible i just continued on. just personal nastiness. i have feelings about that. person.uch a talented to throw that talent on the drain is too much for me.
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>> one of the things in your autobiography you say the manhattan project was a time when the mind wandered freely and invented new ways of doing that job. hadhe manhattan project enormous effect on my own career. it was not so clear before. i liked them very much as people . to anticipate having
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withlegial relationship them. it was a great joy. with respect to what i learned, and learned that i became very skilled at electronic. i was never limited for those instruments that were available and not the shelf. again the enormous freedom.
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i had a very successful phd project. a lot of the success came from application of knowledge about all kinds of things. didn't have any particular frontier.
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for me that has been enormous advantage. i haven't felt constrained. >> how that manhattan project changed science. ,> before the manhattan project the league sources for any kind of science were private. it was all private money.
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that office did many constructive things. the national science foundation was created as a direct result for things like the manhattan project. it has been without bounds. as time has gone
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on, the government funding has been so successful that private companies have tended to give up their basic research. the labs no longer exist. likesed to speed something some more like half $1 million. but no more. essentially left that for the government to do. . think that is a tragedy congress doesn't really realize that this has happened and they now have a responsibility where
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before it was a shared .ensibility most congressmen don't really appreciate that. they have left the leadership to the europeans. they could cancel it. activity is taking
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place. they have all picked up where the u.s. is by default. it is my own area. particle physics that has some of the most. at the same time, we could spend enormous quantities on absolutely foolish wars, etc., etc. [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit] [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2015] >> you are watching american history tv on c-span 3. follow us on twitter and keep up with the latest history news. >>


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