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Westinghouse STS alum publishes science memoir

Westinghouse STS 1944 finalists, from left: Lee Hershenson, Charles Butler, Nancy Davis (Slaven), Ben Mottleson, Ruth Briehl (Miles), and Kenneth Ford. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SOCIETY FOR SCIENCE & THE PUBLIC

Westinghouse STS 1944 finalist Kenneth Ford published his tenth book in March, Building the H Bomb: A Personal HistoryKenneth, a physicist, is the author of several books on quantum physics and flying small planes.

Kenneth’s recent book has four stars on both Amazon and Goodreads. But it went through a rocky launch since Kenneth defied the Department of Energy to get it into print, he said.

“[The bomb] was developed in great secrecy, and Washington for decades has done everything in its power to keep the details of its design out of the public domain,” according to an article in The New York Times. Kenneth defied a federal order to include material that the government said “teems with thermonuclear secrets” in his book, according to the article.

Building the H Bomb details insights into the people and the work that led to the creation of the first hydrogen bomb. In his twenties, Kenneth was a member of the team that designed and built the first hydrogen bomb. Through historical research and memoir, Kenneth presents the real physics involved in the making of the bomb. He describes the personalities, strengths and quirks of scientists including Edward Teller, Enrico Fermi, John von Neumann, Stan Ulam, and John Wheeler. Kenneth worked at both Los Alamos and Princeton’s Project Matterhorn. Kenneth has not worked on weapons since 1953.

What was it like to write this science memoir of your involvement in the team that created the first hydrogen bomb?

Since my retirement from the American Institute of Physics in 1993, I have held several short-term jobs — working for a charitable foundation, teaching high-school physics, and tutoring in that subject — but mostly I have been a writer. In 2012, the year after my book 101 Quantum Questions appeared, I was casting about for a new topic, and it occurred to me that I am one of the few contributors to the design of the first hydrogen bomb who is still standing. I decided to try my hand at writing about that development and in 2013 I dug into the writing.

The book settled rather naturally into what I call a three-stranded braid — memoir, history, and nuclear physics. In the memoir section, I describe the life of a young physicist age 24 to 26 at work and play. In the history section (the hardest part for me), I try to meet the standards of historical scholarship, getting the facts straight and documenting the claims. In the nuclear physics section, I explain for the non-specialist reader why fusion releases energy and what goes on during the microseconds of an H-bomb explosion. I worried that the book’s structure might be unsettling for some readers who would trip over the transitions from personal anecdote to historical analysis to nuclear physics. I have been agreeably surprised that almost no one has objected to this structure, and quite a few have found the three-stranded braid to be a positive feature of the book.

You said that the book has faced a rocky launch and that you needed to defy the Department of Energy (DOE) to get it in print. Can you provide more details into this? Has the DOE since approved the book?

I hadn’t thought of submitting my manuscript for DOE review because I felt sure it contained no secrets. In mid-2014, with a first draft completed, an acquaintance at DOE said, “You know, Ken, since you held Q clearance and are writing about a time when you were dealing with secret information, you really should submit your book to the department for review.” Thinking it was a mere formality and being told the review process might take only a few weeks, I complied. I sent the manuscript to DOE in early July 2014. A couple of months later I was told that the manuscript contained “a ton of problems,” and I was invited to meet in person with department officials to iron out the difficulties. When that meeting took place in September, my Q clearance was reinstated for two hours to facilitate open discussion, but we could find no common ground. I continued to see nothing in the book that was not already public knowledge, and the DOE officials continued to see numerous breaches of security. 

In November I was provided with a list of 60 sections of the book, ranging from a few words to a few paragraphs, and told to delete or rewrite those sections. In total, these sections amounted to about 5,000 words, or about 10 percent of the book. I responded in detail in December, explaining why I considered each one of the 60 deletions or alterations unnecessary. In January, six months after I had submitted the manuscript, the DOE officials and I agreed that we had reached an impasse. There has been no communication between us since then.

By that time, the publisher, World Scientific, was getting skittish, but agreed to go forward with publication after we modified the book contract to make it completely clear that the book’s content was my responsibility, not the publisher’s. Building the H Bomb was published in April 2016. The six months of jousting with DOE was not wasted — during that time I tweaked the text, tracked down more sources, and settled on the illustrations. To date, DOE has not given its blessing for the book. Nor has it come after me with a civil or criminal complaint. The department remains quiet, and I remain vulnerable.

What are you most proud of in your career?

I can’t single out one thing. I have been a teacher, researcher, administrator, and writer, and I feel that these multiple careers have enriched my life. Each has provided its own kind of challenge and its own kind of reward. If I had to point to one thing as my greatest honor, it would be the Oersted Medal of the American Association of Physics Teachers. In a way, the ultimate goal of all of my activities has been teaching.

How did you first become interested in science?

A 7th grade teacher told me I should become a lawyer. I think she recognized a tendency toward organized thought. But by that time I was already leaning toward science — not that I had a career in mind, only that my reading gravitated naturally toward scientific biography and science-for-the-layman books. I devoured every such book I could find in our school library. And my projects at home tended toward the technical. It wasn’t until I went off to a boarding school for my last two years of high school that I focused in on physics. My selection of a career, as it turned out, was more like riding a raft downstream than finding a path through the woods. The freedom I had in my middle school and early high school years was important to let my mind run free outside of quickly dispatched homework.

What was your most memorable experience at Westinghouse STS 1944?

I must confess that I remember the “senior” people whom we met more than I remember my peers (although we 40 winners did have good times together). Still clear in my mind are the meetings with Vice President Henry Wallace and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as discussions with notable scientists such as Harlow Shapley (who had mapped our galaxy) and Harold Edgerton (inventor of strobe photography). And I can’t forget the Science Service (now Society for Science & the Public) people, Watson Davis, and his caring assistant who was our “mother hen” (sad to say, I have forgotten her name).

Can you provide a short description of your STS research project?

At that time, essays, not projects, were required (as well as tests and recommendations, of course). My essay was on the passage of energetic charged particles through a gas. I hate to admit it, but it probably represented not more than a week’s work.

Did your involvement in STS influenced you to pursue STEM or promote STEM to others?

At the time, I was already pointed firmly toward a science career. That I would enjoy teaching as much as I did was a surprise for later.

What are you currently researching and working on, science and writing related?

Having recently published Building the H Bomb, I am now casting about for another writing project. There is nothing definite yet.

What is your advice to young people interested in science and math?

I have to be boringly repetitive of most commencement speakers. If you like science and math, go for it. If you like philology, or philosophy, or art history, go for that. Follow your inclinations: That’s the best career advice. Follow the trail to money and prestige: That’s the worst career advice.

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