The Man Who was Nearly Oppenheimer

October 23, 2019

By John Moore, archivist, National Security Research Center

Have you ever considered how the Manhattan Project – and perhaps even the world – might have been different if J. Robert Oppenheimer had not been the leader of Project Y?

In honor of this year’s Nobel Prize awards ceremony on December 10, we at the National Security Research Center – the Lab’s classified library located in the NSSB – looked back at past Nobel recipient Carl David Anderson and wondered what might have been.

Left to right: Carl David Anderson, Arthur H. Compton and Seth Neddermeyer. Photo sources: Wikipedia

Lab Director Anderson?! Not quite.

In 1936, 31-year-old Physicist Carl David Anderson was the youngest person at that time to receive the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the positron years earlier. (A positron is a subatomic particle with the same mass as an electron and a numerically equal positive charge.)

About six years later, he was approached by fellow physicist and Nobel Prize winner Arthur H. Compton. He had three telegraphs – two asked Anderson to head the government’s top-secret project that would eventually produce the world first atomic bombs. The third telegraph was a request that none other than Oppenheimer join Anderson’s ongoing scientific work to discuss the “theorical aspects” of the project. (Oppenheimer would have worked as Anderson’s assistant.)

While at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where Anderson studied, taught, and researched, Anderson often interacted with Oppenheimer. Anderson recalled that Oppenheimer believed he would never be able to work on Project Y due to his past affiliation with the Communist Party. Anderson, however, didn’t even pursue the job offer that ultimately helped end World War II and made “Oppenheimer” a household name.

No regrets

In Anderson’s autobiography The Discovery of Anti-Matter: The Autobiography of Carl David Anderson, the Youngest Man to Win the Nobel Prize, he said that his ability to head Project Y was out of his control, citing economic and family issues.

Anderson wrote, “I believe my greatest contribution to the World War II effort was my inability to take part in the development of the atomic bomb.”

During WWII, though, Anderson played a major role in the ability for Allied aircraft to fire a variety of rockets that were developed at Caltech.

Anderson would continue to interact with other famed Manhattan Project scientists, such as Seth Neddermeyer, who championed the implosion-style nuclear weapon called Fat Man. In the pre-war years, Anderson worked with Neddermeyer to discover the muon in 1936.

Lasting impact

Anderson’s discovery of the positron is still used today in various types of sciences, including particle accelerator experiments and what are commonly called PET scans, which help diagnose diseases.

In a 1990 interview, Anderson said he had no regrets about his decision not to lead Project Y because of the burden it had placed on his friend “Oppie,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Meanwhile, Oppenheimer was nominated for the Nobel Prize for physics three times – in 1945, 1951, and 1967 – but never won.