Los Alamos to Princeton: Top Secret Manhattan Project Lectures

March 04, 2016

Los Alamos to Princeton: Top Secret Manhattan Project Lectures

This book is rather unassuming - it bears the ownership signature of a Princeton student and looks like it could be any mid-century educational text in an inexpensive brown binder. But in fact, this is a rare and highly classified set of lectures printed for leading members of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. How do it come to be in the possession of a student a year before its contents were declassified?

Titled only LA Report 24. Lecture Series on Nuclear Physics, this document contains the texts of forty-one lectures delivered at Los Alamos between September 14, 1943 and March 12, 1944. They begin with introductory sessions on terminology and cover complex topics such as radioactive decay, neutron-proton interactions, the two-body problem, and diffusion theory. Among the lecturers were distinguished physicists such as Edward Teller, Emilio Segrè, Victor Weisskopf, and Felix Bloch.

Information on the Manhattan Project was tightly controlled, with no individual knowing more than necessary to do their job. The audience for these lectures would therefore have been only the highest-level scientists and military officials. A small number of mimeographed copies were made for their use, and many were probably destroyed soon after in the interests of security. The content was declassified in October 1945 and the lectures were first officially published by the US Government Printing Office in 1947. Copies are so rare that only three others have appeared at auction, and a global library catalogue search locates only eight in academic institutions.

So how did this copy get into the hands of a lucky Princeton student? The likeliest explanation was that it originally belonged to a faculty member who had worked on the Manhattan Project and later gave (or loaned) this text to a student. Two options that immediately came to mind were Eugene Wigner, the Nobel Prize-winning nuclear physicist who was instrumental in convincing the US to develop the atomic bomb, and Walter Kauzmann, the chemist who developed the detonators for the Trinity test and the Nagasaki bomb. But all I had to go on was the inscription on the upper cover. "Nuclear Physics 1946. J. H. Irving. Grad. Coll. Princeton N.J." So I contacted Princeton's Mudd Manuscript Library, which houses the university's archives, and they were able to provide important information about Irving's career at Princeton, as well as his full name, which helped me find his obituary in the Los Angeles Times.

John "Jack" Howard Irving earned his undergraduate degree at Caltech in 1942. He worked at MIT’s Rad Lab during the Second World War and completed his MA in Physics at Princeton between 1946 and 1948. He then accepted a fellowship to study statistical mechanics at Caltech, after which he became Head of Systems Planning and Analysis at Hughes Aircraft, where his group developed the first airborne digital computer for fighter aircraft. In 1954 he joined the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation where he worked on synchronous orbit satellites, and in 1960 he was hired by the non-profit Aerospace Corporation as head of their Systems Research and Planning Division. Irving returned to Princeton to complete his PhD in 1963 and graduated in 1965.

The Mudd Manuscript Library confirmed the dates Irving was a student at the school and, crucially, explained his connection with the two Princeton faculty members who had worked on the Manhattan Project. They told me that most of his dissertation and research work was done with Eugene Wigner (the title of his dissertation was Wigner Distribution Functions in Relativistic Quantum Mechanics), and Walter Kauzmann served as one of the principal examiners. Even though Irving took a hiatus between his MA and PhD, it is likely that he also knew and worked with these professors during his MA in the late 40s. While it's possible that this was Wigner’s copy, Kauzmann returned to Princeton from the Manhattan Project in 1946, about a year before Wigner and early enough to correspond with the date on the cover. So it seems more probable that Kauzmann gave or loaned this copy to Irving during the first year of his MA.

One of the most interesting things about the book is the large number of manuscript annotations in both pen and ink. Most of those in ink are by Irving, and it's a real delight to see him engaging with the text, often striking things out and correcting them or engaging with the equations. I suspect that he was working through this book in concert with a course, mentoring from a professor, or other texts on nuclear physics.


There are also a large number of pencilled notes in a more stylized, cursive hand. These don't match Eugene Wigner's handwriting, and we haven't been able to determine whether they belong to Kauzmann. (It's possible that they were made by another student who shared the book with Irving or borrowed it from him.)

While working on this I've often wondered about Irving, and whether he realised how special his book was. As a veteran of the Rad Lab he'd understand what it's like to work on a top secret military science project, and probably would have felt privileged to study under scientists who had just participated in the greatest technological feat the US had ever seen. And, judging by the engaging manuscript notes and the excellent condition the book was kept in, it certainly seems to have been treasured.