The year was 1943.
World War II was raging in Europe. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor two years earlier.
Back at home, 18-year-old Roy Glauber was a sophomore at Harvard University.
Hoping to avoid the draft, Glauber applied for a position with a company he had never heard of: The National Roster of Scientific Personnel. An interview and security questionnaire soon followed, although the specific job was never disclosed.
And then Glauber received instructions: send his belongings to a post office box in Santa Fe, New Mexico and hop a train out west.
It wasn’t until he arrived in Los Alamos, New Mexico that Glauber learned he had been selected to work on what would become one of the most important scientific projects of the 20th century: The Manhattan Project, which successfully harnessed the power of atomic energy into a bomb that was later dropped on both Hiroshima and Nagaskai, Japan, ending World War II.
“The idea that it was a bomb really shook me up,” Glauber said. “I had taken it for granted by now that they were working on atomic power of some sort but had not the faintest idea that they had already achieved that in late 1942.”
Glauber was recently featured speaker at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce’s 19th Albert Einstein Memorial Lecture on March 20 at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson school of Public and International Affairs.
Passionate about science from an early age, Glauber was a member of the first graduating class of the Bronx High School of Science.
Today he is the Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics at Harvard University and adjunct professor of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona. In 2005, he shared the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physics for his contribution to the quantum theory of optical coherence.
For two years during World War II, Glauber worked in Los Alamos to calculate the critical mass of the atomic bomb. He worked alongside scientific luminaries including Manhattan Project Director Robert Oppenheimer, John Von Neumann and Richard Feynman. He later studied at the Institute for Advanced Study at Oppenheimer’s invitation.
Scientists on the Manhattan Project debated about whether the bomb should be used as planned, but there was no such debate on the military side.
“It would be closer to the truth to say that they wanted to perform the experiment, their business is using weapons,” Glauber said. “Once the weapon existed in any sort of real terms, it was the property of the military and they were not seeking input.”
On Aug. 6, 1945, the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. According to U.S. estimates, two-thirds of the city’s buildings were destroyed, at least 60,000 people were killed or missing and another 140,000 people were injured. Three days later, the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing 42,000 and injuring 40,000 more.
The scientists knew the devastation the bomb would bring, both because the military told them and because they had done calculations.
“It was terrible, just terrible,” Glauber said after his talk. “It got worse and worse and kept getting worse for a couple of years. We all felt hurt and in a way we all felt a bit victimized.”
Glauber steered clear of a career working with nuclear power. But can never forget his work on the Manhattan Project.
"That (the bomb) ended the war with Japan is not to be questioned,” he said. “I think it’s unlikely that anything else would have done it, we would have had to invade…the intention was to invade. And there would have been tens of thousands of us casualties, not to mention Japanese casualties had we done that.
“It’s an interesting question, what would have happened, had we been successful several months earlier while the war in Europe was still going on. I think there would have been more debate about using (the bomb). And I doubt it would have been used quite the way it was.”