March 17th, 1920 to January 21st, 2013
March 17th, 1920 to January 21st, 2013
"Donald Hornig, Last to See First A-Bomb, Dies at 92"
January 26th, 2013
The New York Times
In a small shed at the top of a 100-foot-tall steel tower deep in the New Mexico desert, Donald Hornig sat next to the world’s first atomic bomb in the late evening of July 15, 1945, reading a book of humorous essays. A storm raged, and he shuddered at each lightning flash.
It was his second trip to the tower that day as part of the Manhattan Project, the secret American effort to build an atomic bomb. He had earlier armed the device, code-named Trinity, connecting switches he had designed to the detonators.
But J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the project, had grown nervous about leaving the bomb alone. He told Dr. Hornig to return to the tower and baby-sit the bomb.
A little after midnight, the weather had improved, and Dr. Hornig was ordered down from the tower. He was the last man to leave and the last to see the weapon before it changed human history.
A little more than five miles away, Dr. Oppenheimer and others waited in a bunker to see if the device they called “the gadget” would actually go off. After Dr. Hornig joined them, he took his position for his next task: placing his finger on a console switch that when pressed would abort the blast, should anything appear awry. The countdown began, his finger at the ready.
The bomb was detonated at 5:29:45 a.m. on July 16 as Dr. Hornig and the others watched from the bunker. He later remembered the swirling orange fireball filling the sky as “one of the most aesthetically beautiful things I have ever seen.”
Three weeks later, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Three days after that, another fell on Nagasaki.
It was the dawn of the nuclear age and also of a career that took Dr. Hornig to the White House as science adviser to President Lyndon B. Johnson and to academic eminence as the president of Brown University in Providence, R.I., where he died on Monday at 92, his family said.
Dr. Hornig worked under Johnson from 1964 to 1969, conferring with him on space missions and atom smashers as well as on more practical matters, like providing sufficient hospital beds for Medicare patients and desalting water for drinking.
He had actually been President John F. Kennedy’s choice for science adviser. Kennedy had asked him to take the job shortly before his assassination in 1963, and Johnson followed through with the appointment.
Working for Johnson was reportedly not easy. The president was said to disdain scientists and academics after so many of them had voiced opposition to the Vietnam War, which made it difficult for his science adviser to lobby for them.
But when a power blackout hit the Northeast in 1965, the president turned to Dr. Hornig for guidance, as he did when earthquakes hit Denver. After Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, Johnson sought Dr. Hornig’s advice on ways to detect concealed weapons.
Under Johnson, Dr. Hornig doubled the budget of what is now the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which he led, and pushed for federal research in housing and transportation. He also helped kill a proposal to put giant mirrors into orbit over Vietnam to spotlight the enemy at night.
As the president of Brown from 1970 to 1976, Dr. Hornig established a four-year medical school. He oversaw the merger of Pembroke College, Brown University’s women’s school, with Brown College, the men’s undergraduate school. He faced student protests, including a 40-hour sit-in at Brown’s administrative building, over cost cutting, minority admissions and other matters.
He met some student demands but later declared that the university would never again negotiate with students occupying a building. He described his presidency as “bittersweet.”
Donald Frederick Hornig was born on March 17, 1920, in Milwaukee and attended Harvard, earning his undergraduate degree there in 1940 and his Ph.D. in 1943, both in chemistry. His dissertation was titled “An Investigation of the Shock Wave Produced by an Explosion,” and he went to work at the Underwater Explosives Laboratory of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts.
He joined the Manhattan Project after his boss at Woods Hole passed along a mysterious invitation asking him to take an unspecified job at an unspecified location. No explanations were offered, and Dr. Hornig declined. James B. Conant, the president of Harvard, helped persuade him to change his mind.
Dr. Honig and his new wife, the former Lilli Schwenk, bought an old Ford with frayed tires and puttered to New Mexico. His wife, who also had a Ph.D. in chemistry, worked for the project as a typist, and then as a scientist.
Dr. Hornig is survived by his wife, as well as two daughters, Joanna Hornig Fox and Ellen Hornig; a son, Christopher; a brother, Arthur; a sister, Arlene Westfahl; nine grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren. His daughter Leslie Elizabeth Hornig died last year.
After World War II, Dr. Hornig was a professor and a dean at Brown and then moved to Princeton as the chairman of the chemistry department. While at Princeton, he was on President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s scientific advisory committee.
Dr. Hornig was briefly a vice president at the Eastman Kodak Company before accepting Brown’s presidency. After leaving Brown, he taught at Harvard’s public health school, retiring in 1990. He was one of the youngest scientists ever elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
"Donald F. Hornig, scientist who helped develop the atomic bomb, dies at 92"
By Matt Schudel
January 23rd, 2013
The Washington Post
Donald F. Hornig, who as a young scientist once “babysat” the world’s first atomic bomb and who later became Brown University president and the top science adviser to President Lyndon B. Johnson, died Jan. 21 at a nursing home in Providence, R.I. He was 92.
He had Alzheimer’s disease, his son, Christopher Hornig, said.
Only a year out of graduate school, Dr. Hornig was recruited in 1944 for the top-secret Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M.
The World War II project, directed by J. Robert Oppenheimer, was designed to produce an atomic bomb. Dr. Hornig led a team that developed a device called the “X unit,” the firing mechanism for the bomb.
The first nuclear bomb — called “the gadget” by scientists — was scheduled to be detonated near Alamogordo, N.M., on Monday, July 16, 1945.
“On the Sunday before the test, shortly before 9 p.m.,” Dr. Hornig recalled in a 1995 article in the Christian Science Monitor, “Oppenheimer decided someone should be in the tower to baby-sit the bomb because of the possibility of sabotage. Maybe because I was the youngest, I got the job. In the darkness, amid heavy rain, lightning, and strong winds, I climbed the ladder to the top of the 100-foot tower.”
To take his mind off the bomb beside him, Dr. Hornig attempted to read a paperback novel under a 60-watt bulb.
“I stopped frequently to count the seconds between the sound of a thunder clap and the lightning flash,” he told the Monitor, “and tried not to think of what might happen if the tower got a direct hit and the gadget went off. At least I would never know about it.”
Early the next morning, Dr. Hornig climbed down from the tower and took his place beside Oppenheimer in a control room more than five miles away.
“My right hand was poised over a control switch that would stop the test if something went wrong,” he said in the interview. The bomb exploded at 5:29:45 a.m.
“My first reaction, having not slept for 48 hours, was ‘Boy, am I tired,’ ” Dr. Hornig recalled. “My second was, ‘We sure opened a can of worms.’ Nobody knew where this would lead, but I had no regrets.”
Donald Frederick Hornig was born March 17, 1920, in Milwaukee. He was a 1940 graduate of Harvard University, where he also received a doctorate in physical chemistry in 1943.
After working at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, he joined the Manhattan Project because of his expertise on shock waves produced by large explosions.
Dr. Hornig joined the faculty at Brown University in 1946, then moved to Princeton University in 1957. He served on science advisory panels of four presidents, beginning with Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In November 1963, Dr. Hornig was tapped as the top White House science adviser by President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated two weeks later. Dr. Hornig became head of the White House Office of Science and Technology in January 1964, after Johnson had assumed the presidency.
Business Week reported that the job “is expected to be one of the hottest seats in the Johnson administration,” but Dr. Hornig often found himself having to defend federal research programs from budget cutters in Congress.
At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, he said he sometimes had a hard time getting Johnson’s attention. He left at the end of Johnson’s term, in January 1969.
“I was never on easy personal terms with the president,” Dr. Hornig told Science magazine at the time. “There’s always been a certain gap in attitude and approach between a Texas rancher and an Ivy League professor. I was on much easier terms with Kennedy, who asked me to serve in the first place.”
Dr. Hornig was named president of Brown in 1970. He merged an affiliated women’s college, Pembroke, with the all-male Brown and helped establish a medical school at the university.
He also wrestled with a $4 million deficit and a confrontational student body that went on strike in 1975 to protest cuts in popular classes and programs. Dr. Hornig ordered a 15 percent cut in spending that included the dismissal of many faculty members. By the time he resigned in 1976, he was unpopular with students and professors, but he was eventually credited with steering the Ivy League university toward financial stability.
Dr. Hornig finished his career at the Harvard School of Public Health, where he established an interdisciplinary program in public health. He retired in 1990.
Survivors include his wife of 69 years, Lilli Schwenk Hornig of Providence; three children, Joanna Fox and Christopher Hornig, both of Washington, and Ellen Hornig of Shrewsbury, Mass.; a brother; a sister; nine grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.
A daughter, Leslie Hornig, died in 2012.
In a 1964 article examining the state of science in the Johnson administration, a writer for Time magazine questioned whether Dr. Hornig could accomplish much because he “is a virtual stranger on the Washington scene.”
In a letter to the editor, Dr. Hornig’s 10-year-old son took exception. “My father has served for three Presidents,” Christopher Hornig noted, “and is in Washington so much that by now he is a virtual stranger to me.”
"Donald Hornig: Babysitter for the A-Bomb"
January 24th, 2013
Donald F. Hornig was a top science adviser to three Commanders-in-Chief — Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson — and taught at Princeton and Harvard, in addition to serving a six-year stint as president of Brown University. But he achieved his greatest measure of fame as a young chemist a year out of graduate school, when he joined the Manhattan Project, the U.S. government’s top-secret effort during World War II to develop an atomic bomb.
Hornig, who died on Jan. 21 at age 92 in Providence, R.I., was such a gifted young scientist that, despite his inexperience, he rose to the level of team leader, supervising a group that developed the “X unit,” the mechanism that actually triggered the nuclear bomb. Here are five fascinating facts about the scientist who helped to end World War II and launch the nuclear age.
In a 1995 Christian Science Monitor article [below], Hornig recalled that he was working as a physical chemist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts when he got a call from his old Harvard professor George Kistiakowsky, who said he needed Hornig’s help at a lab where he was working. When he agreed, Kistiakowsky told him to pack his bag immediately, and said no more. It wasn’t until Hornig got to Los Alamos, N.M., in May 1944, that he was told that he would be working on the effort to build an atomic bomb.
Hornig made his most important contribution to the bomb after just a month on the job. In June 1944, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the project’s chief scientist, held a meeting to discuss a critical technical problem: how to trigger an implosion of the outer shell of the bomb’s plutonium, which would drive the fissionable material together and create the critical mass that would lead to a nuclear blast. Using explosives would destroy the firing mechanism, which would make testing difficult. Hornig suggested setting off electrical spark gaps, which would act as very precise switches that would trigger the process in a fraction of a microsecond. Oppenheimer was sufficiently impressed that he told Hornig to get some people together to work on the idea, and by October, the decision was made to use Hornig’s gadget.
The first full-scale test of the bomb — scheduled for Monday, July 16, 1945, the day before President Truman’s crucial meeting with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin at Potsdam, Germany — had high stakes, but it was no sure thing. “Many involved in the project doubted that the complicated implosion-bomb system would work effectively and with a large enough explosive yield,” Hornig recalled. The scientists’ nerves were rattled all the more when heavy clouds over the desert test area created a powerful electrical surge that might have set off the bomb prototype, had its trigger been set.
On the evening before the test, Oppenheimer, who was worried about sabotage, assigned Hornig to go up in the bomb tower and keep watch over the nuclear device. Hornig climbed a 100-foot ladder to the top of the tower, with a paperback book to keep him occupied. It proved to be a hair-raising experience. The tower was battered by heavy rains from a thunderstorm, and Hornig anxiously counted the seconds between the thunder claps and lightning flashes. He recalled that he “tried not to think of what might happen if the tower got a direct hit and the gadget went off.” As a consolation, it occurred to him that if the bomb went off, “at least I would never know about it.”
Just before daybreak, Hornig sat in a concrete bunker about five and a half miles away from the bomb tower, watching control panels. Just before 5:30 a.m., he saw a brilliant flash, and then — ignoring the possible risks — ran outside to get a better view. He saw “a great fireball rapidly rising, with peach, green, and rosy red colors, gradually transforming into a mushroom cloud.”
Hornig, who was exhausted from going without sleep for 48 hours, had a subdued reaction to the event. “Boy, am I tired,” was his first thought, he later recalled. It took a moment for the significance to sink in. “Nobody knew where this would lead,” he later recalled. “But I had no regrets. If it ended the war without the tremendous casualties an invasion of Japan would cause, it was worth it.”
Here’s declassified film footage shot by the government of the historic bomb test:
"Atom-Bomb Scientist Tells His Story"
Chemist Don Hornig kept his hand on the switch to stop the test
Donald Hornig and Robert Cahn
July 11th, 1995
The Christian Science Monitor
IN the spring of 1944, my life became a mystery novel. I was working at the High Explosives Research Laboratory at the Woods Hole (Mass.) Oceanographic Institute when I got a call from Harvard Prof. George Kistiakowsky, a scientist whom I greatly admired. He was working at a new laboratory, he said, and needed me badly.
That was all I needed to say yes. I was advised to leave as soon as possible, without telling anyone, and report to 109 East Palace Ave., Santa Fe, N.M., where I would be given further instructions.
At Santa Fe, I was directed to Los Alamos, a former boys' school on a mesa at the base of the Jemez Mountains. I found that I was to join Kistiakowsky and others under J. Robert Oppenheimer working on the Manhattan Project, the crash program to build an atomic bomb. I was 23 years old, a physical chemist of limited experience with a newly acquired PhD who had done research on shock waves produced by large explosions.
To maintain secrecy, the project's overall director, Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves, insisted on strict compartmentalization: Scientists would have access to information only on a need-to-know basis.
Oppenheimer persuaded Groves that the only hope of resolving the enormous scientific and technical problems facing his group was to let scientists discuss these challenges with one another.
When I arrived in May 1944, two ways to create a critical mass were being considered. The first used a high velocity gun to shoot two sub-critical chunks of enriched uranium (U-235) together. This would not work with plutonium, though, which requires much faster assembly to avoid a premature explosion. The solution proposed was ''implosion'': Surround a subcritical shell of plutonium with explosive charges (called ''lenses'') shaped to focus the detonation waves toward the center of the plutonium shell and drive all segments together.
Only enough U-235 would be available for one bomb. But if the implosion concept worked, several such bombs might be ready by the end of 1945.
ENOUGH was known about the gun method to justify going ahead without a full test. But the implosion method was still in a preliminary stage; among its problems was that of a firing system that could initiate all the explosive lenses at once. The only idea for doing so was an explosive switch, but that could not be tested without destroying the firing mechanism. Oppenheimer raised the problem in June 1944 at one of his seminars.
After listening to the discussion, I suggested developing triggered spark gaps to act as very rapid switches. They might make it possible to initiate the explosive lenses within a fraction of a microsecond. Oppenheimer told me to get a few people together and work on the idea. By the end of the summer, we had accumulated enough evidence to say that this method was feasible. After much debate and many misgivings, we were given a go-ahead in October to incorporate triggered spark gaps into a firing unit for ''the gadget,'' as the bomb was called.
Many months of work remained before the firing mechanism would be ready. The ''X-unit'' had to initiate at 32 points with astonishing simultaneity. If it did not, the explosive yield would be low.
The full-scale test of the bomb was planned for pre-dawn Mon., July 16, the day before President Harry Truman was to meet with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill at Potsdam, Germany. By then, we felt we were ready, but many involved in the project doubted that the complicated implosion-bomb system would work effectively and with a large enough explosive yield. Several days before the firing date, the doubts were exacerbated when heavy clouds passed over the desert test area near Alamogordo, N.M., and an electrical surge set off the X-unit. It would have set off a live bomb.
On the Sunday before the test, shortly before 9 p.m., Oppenheimer decided someone should be in the tower to baby-sit the bomb because of the possibility of sabotage. Maybe because I was the youngest, I got the job. In the darkness, amid heavy rain, lightning, and strong winds, I climbed the ladder to the top of the 100-foot tower. Pulling out a paperback and sitting under a 60-watt bulb, I read to keep my mind off the lightning and the bomb. I stopped frequently to count the seconds between the sound of a thunder clap and the lightning flash, and tried not to think of what might happen if the tower got a direct hit and the gadget went off. At least I would never know about it. I was never happier than when the phone rang just before midnight, and Kistiakowsky told me to come down.
Shortly before daybreak at a concrete bunker 10,000 yards south of the tower, my final task was to watch the control panels to assure that all the condenser banks reached the 15,000 volts needed to initiate the explosion. My right hand was poised over a control switch that would stop the test if something went wrong. At 5:29:45 a.m. the gadget went off. Through the open door, looking away from the tower at the mountains, I saw a brilliant flash, then ran outside to see a great fireball rapidly rising, with peach, green, and rosy red colors, gradually transforming into a mushroom cloud.
My first reaction, having not slept for 48 hours, was ''Boy, am I tired.'' My second was ''We sure opened a can of worms.'' Nobody knew where this would lead, but I had no regrets. If it ended the war without the tremendous casualties an invasion of Japan would cause, it was worth it.
* After a career as a chemistry professor at Brown and Princeton universities, Donald F. Hornig became a science adviser to Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. Later he was president of Brown and concluded his career at Harvard.
Donald Hornig [Wikipedia]