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Questions and answers with Kenneth Ford

10 July 2015
The retired physicist, who played a key role in the H-bomb’s development, weaves biography, political history, and nuclear science into his new and controversial memoir.

“Hydrogen Bomb Physicist’s Book Runs Afoul of Energy Department,” declared a 23 March 2015 New York Times headline to an article that chronicled how the new memoir, Building the H Bomb: A Personal History (World Scientific, 2015), landed its author in hot water with the US Department of Energy. In the summer of 2014, retired physicist Kenneth Ford submitted his manuscript to DOE, which oversees the nation’s weapons labs, for “classification review.” After their review and some back-and-forth discussion, DOE officials asked him to remove sixty passages, adding up to roughly 10% of the text, for fear that weapons secrets would be revealed. Ford refused, and the book was published in March. Over the next few months, sales of Building the H Bomb ranked near the top of Amazon.com's military technology category.

But “Ford’s book is not a primer on how to build a hydrogen bomb,” and it “relates nothing that cannot be gleaned from numerous online sources or existing histories,” writes Alma College physicist Cameron Reed, who reviewed the book in the July 2015 issue of Physics Today. Instead, Reed describes it as “a valuable resource for anyone interested in the history of the H bomb and its role in the Cold War, and in how that work affected the life and career of an individual involved.

Ford received his PhD in physics from Princeton University in 1953, after he’d interrupted his graduate studies from 1950 to 1952 to work on the development of the H bomb. He then taught and did research in nuclear physics at several universities. He also was the first chair of the physics department at the University of California, Irvine; president of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology; and director of the American Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics Today.

Since his retirement from AIP in 1993, Ford has taught high school physics, written four other books, and continued to pursue his hobby of flying light planes and gliders until 2003, when he was 77.

Ken Ford

Physics Today recently caught up with Ford to discuss his new book, Building the H Bomb.

PT: You’ve written several books before this one, including your memoir In Love with Flying (H Bar Press, 2007). Why did you wait until now to tell the story of your involvement with the H-bomb’s development?

FORD: A little over two years ago, in early 2013, I began to think about the fact that I was one of the very few still standing from among those who had worked on the design of the first H-bomb. Wouldn't it be an interesting project, I thought to myself, to try to tell the story of that development from a personal perspective—since I had been both observer and participant. Yet, from the outset, I didn't want to rely only on memory or just set down a series of anecdotes. I wanted to get the facts straight and meet at least rudimentary standards of historical scholarship.

PT: The reviewer describes your book as a memoir, a history of the bomb’s development, and a mini textbook on nuclear physics rolled into one. What motivated you to write it that way?

FORD: It just happened. I wanted the book to be interesting to a general reader, so I didn't want it to be only a scholarly work. At the same time, I didn't want it to be just personal fluff. I wanted historians to find some value in it. Thus the intertwined history and memoir. As to the third strand, the mini textbook, I have been a teacher all my life and just don't seem to be able to write without trying to teach.

This photo was taken in 1992, a year before I retired from AIP. I enjoyed towing gliders as well as flying them. This tow plane, a Cessna 305A, was army surplus, converted for towing gliders. In the army it was called a Birddog. Many Birddogs, including quite possibly this one, saw service in Vietnam.—Ken Ford
"This photo was taken in 1992, a year before I retired from AIP. I enjoyed towing gliders as well as flying them. This tow plane, a Cessna 305A, was US Army surplus, converted for towing gliders. In the army it was called a Birddog. Many Birddogs, including quite possibly this one, saw service in Vietnam."—Ken Ford

I actually worried about the book being this three-stranded braid. I was afraid that many readers would find odd juxtapositions in it. To my great pleasure, this has not seemed to be an issue. Quite a few nice things have been said about the book, and no one has expressed objection to its structure.

PT: You defied the US Department of Energy’s request to redact passages that they felt contained government secrets. How did you come to the conclusion that their concerns were unwarranted? Was it an easy or a tough decision for you?

FORD: Defying one's government is unsettling, but DOE made it easy by the sheer magnitude of what it wanted removed—60 passages, ranging from a few words to a few paragraphs, comprising in total some 10% of the book. To have acceded to DOE's request (actually its instruction) would have destroyed the book. I was able to respond in detail to all 60 items, explaining, for each one, why expunging the item made no sense. Sometimes it was because the material dealt with events that occurred before or after I had clearance (for example, Edward Teller's Los Alamos activities during World War II or features of a Soviet explosion in 1953). Sometimes it was because the material had already been published by someone who had clearance (for example, Teller or Marshall Rosenbluth). Sometimes it was because the concept has been widely discussed in many places (for example, radiation implosion). In one case, I was told to remove stated dimensions of the Mike device (the first H-bomb), although Los Alamos furnished me with an unclassified photograph showing Mike in its shed along with a person and a Jeep to provide scale.

After submitting the manuscript for DOE review in July 2014, discussing concerns with DOE staff in September, receiving the full list of proposed redactions in November, responding to that list in December, and running out of things to discuss in January, I proceeded to publish. World Scientific was skittish but agreed to go ahead after a minor change in the publishing contract.

I hold no animus toward the DOE staff with whom I dealt. They are trying to do their job as they see it.

PT: Do you see or foresee a contemporary or future threat, military or otherwise, that could galvanize US graduate students and researchers like the weapons projects did in the 1940s and 1950s?

FORD: It was only in the 1940s, not the 1950s, that US researchers and students were galvanized. Despite the best recruiting efforts of Edward Teller and John Wheeler, only a tiny minority signed up for work on the H-bomb—to be sure, that minority included the leading émigré scientists Enrico Fermi, John von Neumann, and Hans Bethe. I cannot foresee anything comparable to the World War II mobilization of science happening again. At the same time, it is heartening to see concerns translated into actions by numerous young Americans worried about world hunger, poverty, climate change, and human justice.

PT: What accomplishments during your tenure at AIP are you most proud of?

FORD: I would put first the successful negotiations with the Soviets to retain AIP's Russian translation program, not easy in the face of determined competition from private publishers in this country and aspiring entrepreneurs in the fading Soviet empire. The most valuable contributors to this success were Martin Levin, a consultant with ties to leaders in the USSR, and AIP's own Darlene Walters (then Carlin). Our series of five Soviet–American Chaos Conferences also helped, and the still-successful journal Chaos was a result (David Campbell was an important part of both the conferences and the journal).

I supported the decision to move to College Park and took satisfaction in working with the architect of the American Center for Physics building, who agreed to locate the building not on Physics Oval but on Physics Ellipse.

PT: What books are you currently reading?

FORD: Having worked through the writings of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, and Arthur Conan Doyle (complete works 99 cents each on [Amazon] Kindle), I have turned to later books. Those recently enjoyed: Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Henry Holt and Co, 2014), Mary Norris's Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (W. W. Norton, 2015), and David McCullough's The Wright Brothers (Simon and Schuster, 2015). Now on my nightstand: Ari Shavit's My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (Spiegel and Grau, 2013).

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