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Hans A. Bethe, (1906 - 2005)


Hans A. Bethe, (1906 - 2005) When physicist Hans Bethe first heard of the atomic bomb project he thought it an impractical idea and he didn't want to get involved with it. He told a biographer after the war that, "I considered... an atomic bomb so remote that I completely refused to have anything to do with it." But he was also desperate to make some contribution to the war effort against the Nazis, especially after the fall of France. So in the summer of 1942, when Robert Oppenheimer pulled together a group of distinguished physicists to work at Berkeley on a design for the bomb, Bethe accepted the invitation. He and his young wife Rose drove across the country from Cornell University, where he was teaching, to California, stopping on the way to pick up their best friends Edward Teller and his wife Mici at the University of Chicago. When Bethe saw the atomic pile that physicist Enrico Fermi had built at the University he became convinced that the atomic bomb would probably work.

Hans Bethe was born in Strasbourg, Germany, in 1906, the son of a university psychologist. He started his university studies in Frankfurt in 1924 and in 1932 joined the faculty at Tübingen University. Almost as soon as Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, hundreds of Jewish academics were fired from their jobs. Although Bethe didn't consider himself a Jew--his mother was Jewish his father wasn't--the Third Reich did. He learned of his dismissal from one of his students who read about it in the paper. Bethe was able to find another position in Munich with his mentor, Arnold Sommerfeld, but when Cornell University offered him an assistant professorship in the summer of 1934, he accepted and emigrated to America.

It was in the 1930s that Bethe achieved his greatest accomplishment by developing a theory for the production of energy in stars. It was work for which he would receive a Nobel Prize in 1967. Following the summer at Berkeley spent on the atomic bomb design, Bethe was recruited by Oppenheimer to head the theoretical division at the new weapons laboratory that was being set up in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Teller was disappointed not to have been picked for the post himself. Bethe remembers that it, "was a severe blow to Teller, who... considered himself, quite rightly as having seniority over everyone then at Los Alamos." Tensions increased between the old friends, when Teller, who was supposed to be heading a group working on implosion calculations, began to concentrate instead on the feasibility of a hydrogen bomb.

Following the success of the Manhattan Project and the end of the war, Bethe returned to Cornell to resume teaching and his academic research. When the Soviet Union conducted its first atomic test in August 1949, Teller went to visit Bethe in the hopes of persuading him to return to Los Alamos to work on the superbomb. Bethe agonized over the decision. But ultimately he concluded that in a war fought with hydrogen bombs, "even if we were to win it, the world would not be... like the world we want to preserve. We would lose the things we were fighting for." Bethe called Teller and told him he had decided against working on the project.

Bethe remained vigorously opposed to the H-bomb throughout his life although, he continued to return to Los Alamos as a consultant. He became a member of the President's Science Advisory Committee in 1956, a position he held until 1959. It was in this capacity that he was involved in the failed negotiations with the Soviet Union for a ban on nuclear testing. Nevertheless, he has continued to argue for slowing down the arms race and for nuclear disarmament. In February 1997, as the Senate was preparing for a debate on the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the 90-year-old physicist wrote a letter to President Clinton, urging him to stop not only all tests of nuclear weapons but also the sponsorship of "computational experiments, or even creative thought designed to produce new categories of nuclear weapons."
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