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Robert Serber

Robert Serber

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Robert Serber was an American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 physicist who participated in the Manhattan Project
Manhattan Project
The Manhattan Project was a research and development program, led by the United States with participation from the United Kingdom and Canada, that produced the first atomic bomb during World War II. From 1942 to 1946, the project was under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves of the US Army...

. He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; he was the eldest son of David Serber and Rose Frankel. He married Charlotte Leof (26 Jul 1911 - 1967) in 1933. Rose Serber died in 1922; David married Charlotte's cousin Frances Leof in 1928.

He earned his B.S. in Engineering Physics from Lehigh University
Lehigh University
Lehigh University is a private, co-educational university located in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in the Lehigh Valley region of the United States. It was established in 1865 by Asa Packer as a four-year technical school, but has grown to include studies in a wide variety of disciplines...

 in 1930, his PhD from the University of Wisconsin–Madison
University of Wisconsin–Madison
The University of Wisconsin–Madison is a public research university located in Madison, Wisconsin, United States. Founded in 1848, UW–Madison is the flagship campus of the University of Wisconsin System. It became a land-grant institution in 1866...

 with John Van Vleck in 1934, after which he was initially going to begin postdoctorate work at Princeton University
Princeton University
Princeton University is a private research university located in Princeton, New Jersey, United States. The school is one of the eight universities of the Ivy League, and is one of the nine Colonial Colleges founded before the American Revolution....

 with Eugene Wigner. He changed his plans and went to work with J. Robert Oppenheimer at the University of California, Berkeley
University of California, Berkeley
The University of California, Berkeley , is a teaching and research university established in 1868 and located in Berkeley, California, USA...

 (and shuttled with Oppenheimer between Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology
California Institute of Technology
The California Institute of Technology is a private research university located in Pasadena, California, United States. Caltech has six academic divisions with strong emphases on science and engineering...

). In 1938 he took a job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
The University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign is a large public research-intensive university in the state of Illinois, United States. It is the flagship campus of the University of Illinois system...

 where he stayed until he was recruited for the Manhattan Project
Manhattan Project
The Manhattan Project was a research and development program, led by the United States with participation from the United Kingdom and Canada, that produced the first atomic bomb during World War II. From 1942 to 1946, the project was under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves of the US Army...

. He later became a professor and chair of the physics department at Columbia University
Columbia University
Columbia University in the City of New York is a private, Ivy League university in Manhattan, New York City. Columbia is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state of New York, the fifth oldest in the United States, and one of the country's nine Colonial Colleges founded before the...

.

He was recruited for the Manhattan Project in 1941, and was in Project Alberta
Project Alberta
Project Alberta was a section of the Manhattan Project which developed the means of delivering the first atomic bombs, used by the United States Army Air Forces against the Empire of Japan during World War II...

 on the dropping of the bomb. When the Los Alamos National Laboratory was first being organised a decision was made by Oppenheimer to not compartmentalize the technical information among different departments. This increased the effectiveness of the technical workers in problem solving, and emphasized the urgency of the project in their minds, now they knew what they were working on. So it fell to Serber to give a series of lectures explaining the basic principles and goals of the project. These lectures were printed and supplied to all incoming scientific staff, and became known as The Los Alamos Primer, LA-1. It was declassified in 1965. (Available at Wikimedia Commons). Serber developed the first good theory of bomb disassembly hydrodynamics.

Serber's wife Charlotte was appointed by Oppenheimer to head the technical library at Los Alamos National where she was the only female section leader at wartime Los Alamos.

Serber created the code-names for all three design projects, the "Little Boy
Little Boy
"Little Boy" was the codename of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 by the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, piloted by Colonel Paul Tibbets of the 393rd Bombardment Squadron, Heavy, of the United States Army Air Forces. It was the first atomic bomb to be used as a weapon...

" (uranium gun), "Thin Man
Thin Man nuclear bomb
The "Thin Man" nuclear bomb was a proposed plutonium gun-type nuclear bomb which the United States was developing during the Manhattan Project...

" (plutonium gun), and "Fat Man
Fat Man
"Fat Man" is the codename for the atomic bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, by the United States on August 9, 1945. It was the second of the only two nuclear weapons to be used in warfare to date , and its detonation caused the third man-made nuclear explosion. The name also refers more...

" (plutonium implosion), according to his reminiscences (1998). The names were based on their design shapes; the "Thin Man" would be a very long device, and the name came from the Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett
Samuel Dashiell Hammett was an American author of hard-boiled detective novels and short stories, and political activist. Among the enduring characters he created are Sam Spade , Nick and Nora Charles , and the Continental Op .In addition to the significant influence his novels and stories had on...

 detective novel
The Thin Man
The Thin Man is a detective novel by Dashiell Hammett, originally published in Redbook. Although he never wrote a sequel, the book became the basis for a successful six-part film series which also began in 1934 with The Thin Man and starred William Powell and Myrna Loy...

 and series of movies
The Thin Man (film)
The Thin Man is a 1934 American comic detective film starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, a flirtatious married couple who banter wittily as they solve crimes with ease. Nick is a hard drinking retired detective and Nora a wealthy heiress...

 of the same name; the "Fat Man" bomb would be round and fat and was named after Sidney Greenstreet's character in The Maltese Falcon
The Maltese Falcon (1941 film)
The Maltese Falcon is a 1941 Warner Bros. film based on the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett and a remake of the 1931 film of the same name...

. "Little Boy" would come last and be named only to contrast to the "Thin Man" bomb. This differs from the unsupported theory, now abandoned, that "Fat Man" was named after Churchill and "Thin Man" after Roosevelt (see Links).

Serber was to go on the camera plane for the Nagasaki mission, Big Stink, but it left without him when Major Hopkins ordered him off the plane as he had forgotten his parachute, reportedly after the B-29 had already taxied onto the runway. Since Serber was the only crew member who knew how to operate the high-speed camera, Hopkins had to be instructed by radio from Tinian on its use.

Serber was with the first American team to enter Hiroshima
Hiroshima
is the capital of Hiroshima Prefecture, and the largest city in the Chūgoku region of western Honshu, the largest island of Japan. It became best known as the first city in history to be destroyed by a nuclear weapon when the United States Army Air Forces dropped an atomic bomb on it at 8:15 A.M...

 and Nagasaki to assess the results of the atomic bombing of the two cities.

In 1947 an attempt was made on his life by anti-communist
Anti-communism
Anti-communism is opposition to communism. Organized anti-communism developed in reaction to the rise of communism, especially after the 1917 October Revolution in Russia and the beginning of the Cold War in 1947.-Objections to communist theory:...

 librarian Chris James Hines and in 1948, he had to defend himself against anonymous accusations of disloyalty, mostly because his wife's family were Jewish intellectuals with Socialist leanings, and also because he tried to remove politics from discussions of the feasibility of the fusion bomb, leading to arguments with Edward Teller
Edward Teller
Edward Teller was a Hungarian-American theoretical physicist, known colloquially as "the father of the hydrogen bomb," even though he did not care for the title. Teller made numerous contributions to nuclear and molecular physics, spectroscopy , and surface physics...

.

Serber went on to be consultant to numerous labs, businesses and commissions.

Robert Serber is interviewed in the Oscar-nominated documentary, The Day After Trinity
The Day After Trinity
The Day After Trinity is a 1980 documentary film directed and produced by Jon H. Else in association with KTEH public television in San Jose, California. The film tells the story of J...

(1980).

Serber died June 1, 1997, at his home in Manhattan, from complications following surgery for brain cancer.

In the 1989 movie dramatization of the Manhattan Project, Fat Man and Little Boy
Fat Man and Little Boy
Fat Man and Little Boy is a 1989 film that reenacts the Manhattan Project, the secret Allied endeavor to develop the first nuclear weapons during World War II. The film is named after the nuclear weapons known by the code names "Fat Man" and "Little Boy". The code names can be taken for joking...

, the role of Robert Serber is played by Dr. H. David Politzer, a professor of theoretical physics at Caltech. Politzer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2004.

External links