ROGER SNODGRASS Monitor Assistant Editor
Sudden change of plans
Last fall, Harold Agnew was invited to give a talk in the Heritage Lecture Series, which was inaugurated during the 60th anniversary activities of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2003.
A few days before Agnew's mostly historical talk was to take place on Nov. 16, 2006, it was "classified" by the laboratory. The venue was abruptly changed and the public was prohibited without explanation.
"The talk is classified as secret/restricted data and no foreign nationals may attend," said a forbidding lab announcement. Only Q-clearance badge holders were allowed to attend and only those with specialized security ratings known as "Sigmas."
A declassified version of the talk was recently made available to laboratory employees and to the Monitor.
While there are many insider pieces of information in the unclassified DVD made available by the laboratory, the presentation was seamless and any redactions that may have been made in the disc, a little longer than an hour in length, were not apparent to a viewer.
Unconventional wisdom, Manhattan-Project style
Agnew was the laboratory's third director, who came to Los Alamos because he was working with an experimental physics team under Enrico Fermi at Columbia University and then helped build a nuclear chain-reaction pile in Chicago at Stagg Field. He also flew as the scientific officer on the Enola Gay that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.
Now in his mid-80s, Agnew is surely the most humorous of the laboratory's nine directors, and also retains one of the sharpest minds.
His heritage presentation last fall, as recorded and edited on video by the laboratory, was anecdotal and punctuated by many funny sketches of some of the greatest scientists of the era, focused especially on the Fermi, the Italian physicist, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1938.
He also took the opportunity to fan the flames of an old historical debate on J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project's founding director.
"My hero in all this business is really Fermi," Agnew said.
Fermi's Nobel Prize almost instantly recognized the importance of his theoretical investigations of the atomic nucleus in the process of radioactive decay and the role of a little-known particle that he named the neutrino.
The Nobel Prize, Agnew noted, enabled Fermi to obtain permission to leave fascist Italy and come to New York, where he worked on a graphite reactor, joined by Agnew.
Agnew joked about his days crawling around in the graphite - he preferred beryllium and radium. Once he got his tie caught in a sprocket.
Fermi's lectures on reactor technology reminded Agnew of stories about Leo Szilard, the Hungarian scientist whose letter to Roosevelt is generally credited with having started the Manhattan Project.
One night at the University of Chicago Faculty Club, Szilard announced that he had applied to get his fingerprints back, Agnew recalled. When people wanted to know why, Szilard said, "Well, I might resort to an activity of crime and I don't want to be handicapped."
Agnew's stories featured anecdotes about the "risk-averse" culture of the early days of the laboratory. Activities included stirring up radioactive concoctions in a Coor's evaporating dish that was then "put in a mayo jar with Kleenex to see if it was leaking."
On Tinian Island waiting for the bombing mission, Agnew learned a lesson.
"Don't ever try to help the feds," he said, to general laughter in the auditorium. "Be honest. But don't try to help them."
He showed a picture of himself holding a canister that contained part of the plutonium core used at Nagasaki, which was stored in his hut on the island.
Later, back in Chicago he said, "The feds came by and said they thought I had classified material. Trying to help, I said I had these slides."
Agnew tried to help them by pointing out the one with the Nagasaki plutonium core.
"I said, 'Maybe this is what you're looking for' and they said, 'Oh yeah, that's it,' but they hadn't a clue what I was talking about," Agnew recalled.
Agnew showed a slide of the special B-29 bombers that were flown to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They had reversible props and all the guns were taken off to save weight. They also had large black arrows painted on the tails.
On the day before the raid on Hiroshima, Agnew said, Tokyo Rose (the Japanese radio propagandist) came on the radio with a message for the "black arrows": "She said, 'We know who you are and what you are up to and we are ready for you.' When we went out to our planes that night, we didn't have black arrows any more; we had numbers and letters like all the other planes. I thought it was a little chicken, but..."
Knocking Oppy and RRW
Agnew's talk concluded with some remarks about Edward Teller and Oppenheimer that were, characteristically, somewhat against the grain.
Agnew said Teller's criticism of Oppenheimer, during the famous hearings on his security status by Lewis Strauss in 1954, was not as bad as it was made out to be.
"Listen to what Teller said," Agnew said, "that [Oppy] had done a great job as lab director, but if he had to do it again, [Teller] would not have been happy to have Oppy advising the government."
Agnew noted that Oppenheimer wanted to close down Los Alamos, was against the development of nuclear energy for power, against the hydrogen bomb and advised against the nuclear-powered submarine, all virtual heresies in Agnew's view.
After a standing ovation from a packed auditorium in the administration building, Agnew answered several questions, including one about a published statement he had made expressing skepticism over the Reliable Replacement Warhead.
LANL employees had not yet learned at the time that their proposal would not win the competition for a controversial redesign concept for the nuclear weapon inventory, for the replacement warhead that would not violate arms control treaties because it would not have to be tested.
Agnew did not provide the answer many wanted to hear.
"You're willing to build something you've never built before, using codes that have never been used before in this context, materials that have never been used before, instead of rebuilding something that has been tested and that has been built before," he said. "Don't put it in the stockpile without testing it."