Dr. Hans Albrecht Bethe, FAS founder and the father of nuclear astrophysics, turned 104 years old today. Dr. Bethe was one of the leading architects of the first atomic bomb, and devoted his life, following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to nuclear weapons disarmament. A national treasure, Dr. Bethe was a leading innovator in physics, astrophysics, politics and armaments, and science activism.
Dr. Bethe was born on July 2, 1906, in Strasbourg, Alsace-Lorraine. He grew up in Frankfurt, Germany, and went on to attend the University of Munich. Dr. Bethe was an only child, the son of a Protestant father and Jewish mother. In 1928, Dr. Bethe received a doctorate in physics, and was already making contributions to the field of quantum mechanics. Following the Nazi takeover of Germany, Dr. Bethe fled to England, where he taught for two years, and then moved on to Ithaca, New York, to teach at Cornell University. Dr. Bethe would remain a professor at Cornell University for the next 70 years.
During a trip to MIT in the early 1940s, an atomic recruiter from the government asked him to join the secretive Manhattan Project. In 1943, he became the director of the theoretical division at Los Alamos Laboratory, one of the Manhattan Project sites. Dr. Bethe’s group pushed to unlock the secrets of the atom, and determined such things as how much plutonium it would take to build an atom bomb, and if detonation of such a bomb would destroy the Earth. On July 16, 1945, Dr. Bethe stood next to Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project, and witnessed the testing of the first atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert. One month later, their creation devastated the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and forever changed the nature of warfare.
Following the realized horrors of the bomb, Dr. Bethe devoted himself to nuclear disarmament and restraint. As author Robert Norris writes in “Racing for the Bomb,” Dr. Bethe was “the almost perfect expression of the scientist-activist. He saw his role as to educate the public and the policymakers about the new dangers and to help figure out ways to control them.” It was out of this sense of responsibility that he joined with other Manhattan Project scientists to form our organization, the Federation of Atomic Scientists, later renamed the Federation of American Scientists. During the early days of FAS, Dr. Bethe and other leaders of FAS went before the U.S. Congress and the American public to lobby for greater transparency regarding the secrets surrounding the bomb, education about the dangers of nuclear weapons, and the need for civilian control of nuclear development in the U.S.
In a 1997 interview, Dr. Bethe said he did not regret his role in the invention of the atomic bomb, because of worries about Nazi Germany getting the bomb first. While an ardent supporter of nuclear power as a solution to U.S. domestic energy shortages, Dr. Bethe continued to call on U.S. government officials and scientists to stop research on nuclear weapons. During the national debate about the development of a hydrogen bomb or “superbomb” in the spring of 1950, Dr. Bethe was a leading opponent of its development, writing in a Scientific American article, “We must save humanity from this ultimate disaster.” This clashed with fellow Manhattan Project physicist and friend, Dr. Edward Teller, who lobbied strongly for the new weapon. Dr. Bethe simply saw the new weapon as immoral.
Dr. Bethe received the Nobel Prize for physics in 1967. Nearly thirty years earlier, Dr. Bethe published what has now become known as “Bethe’s bible.” His 1938 treatise, “Energy Production in Stars,” was the first and only explanation of stellar energy — why stars burn for billions of years. Dr. Bethe was also a leading force behind the first arms control agreement — the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty — which forced nuclear tests to be conducted underneath the ground. In 1997, Dr. Bethe sent a letter to President Clinton on behalf of himself and FAS to urge the White House to put an end to the U.S. development of weapons of mass destruction of all kinds. President Clinton responded by pledging his commitment to the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Throughout his life, Dr. Bethe published more than 300 scientific and technical papers, and served as a caring mentor to many new scientists.
Dr. Bethe passed away at his home in Ithaca, New York, in the spring of 2005. Author Mary Palevsky described him this way: “His warmth, his modesty, his integrity, won the respect of all who knew him, friend and foe alike.”
The Federation of American Scientists continues to honor our founder’s life and his contributions by striving everyday for a more secure world.
Happy 104th Birthday Dr. Bethe!
Watch the following videos featuring Dr. Bethe:
Dr. Bethe describes the destruction of Hiroshima and the founding of FAS: http://webofstories.com/play/4563
Dr. Bethe explains why he joined the Manhattan Project: http://webofstories.com/play/4552
Dr. Bethe talks about being awarded the Nobel Prize: http://webofstories.com/play/4543