The Los Alamos Primer: The First Lectures on How To Build an Atomic Bomb / Edition 1

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The classified lectures that galvanized the Manhattan Project scientists—with annotations for the nonspecialist reader and an introduction by a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian.

In March 1943 a group of young scientists, sequestered on a mesa near Santa Fe, attended a crash course in the new atomic physics. The lecturer was Robert Serber, J. Robert Oppenheimer's protégé, and they learned that their job was to invent the world's first atomic bomb.

Serber's lecture notes, nicknamed the "Los Alamos Primer," were mimeographed and passed from hand to hand, remaining classified for many years. They are published here for the first time, and now contemporary readers can see just how much was known and how terrifyingly much was unknown when the Manhattan Project began. Could this "gadget," based on the newly discovered principles of nuclear fission, really be designed and built? Could it be small enough and light enough for an airplane to carry? If it could be built, could it be controlled?

Working with Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the development of the atomic bomb, Professor Serber has annotated original lecture notes with explanations of the physics terms for the nonspecialist. His preface, an informal memoir, vividly conveys the mingled excitement, uncertainty, and intensity felt by the Manhattan Project scientists. Rhodes's introduction provides a brief history of the development of atomic physics up to the day that Serber stood before his blackboard at Los Alamos.
In this edition, The Los Alamos Primer finally emerges from the archives to give a new understanding of the very beginning of nuclear weapons. No seminar anywhere has had greater historical consequences.

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Editorial Reviews

Serber has annotated the lectures he gave to those joining the scientific elite in the wilderness of Los Alamos, NM in 1943. This is LA-1, the Los Alamos primer, here published for the first time. Edited and introduced by Richard Rhodes (The Making of the atomic bomb). All history of science collections must add this central document. Accessible to the lay reader. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520075764
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 3/2/1992
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 98
  • Sales rank: 528,884
  • Product dimensions: 6.25 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 0.63 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Serber is Emeritus Professor of Physics at Columbia University. Richard Rhodes, author most recently of Farm (1989) and A Hole in the World (1990), won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1987), all published by Simon and Schuster.

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Table of Contents

The Los Alamos Primer 1
1 Object 3
2 Energy of Fission Process 5
3 Fast Neutron Chain Reaction 9
4 Fission Cross-sections 13
5 Neutron Spectrum 19
6 Neutron Number 19
7 Neutron Capture 21
8 Why Ordinary U Is Safe 21
9 Material 49 22
10 Simplest Estimate of Minimum Size of Bomb 25
11 Effect of Tamper 29
12 Damage 33
13 Efficiency 38
14 Effect of Tamper on Efficiency 43
15 Detonation 45
16 Probability of Predetonation 46
17 Fizzles 49
18 Detonating Source 51
19 Neutron Background 52
20 Shooting 56
21 Autocatalytic Methods 61
22 Conclusion 63
Endnotes 65
Appendix I: The Frisch-Peierls Memorandum 77
Appendix II: Biographical Notes 89
Index 95
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 2, 2013

    The book is excellent on at least three levels.  First it does w

    The book is excellent on at least three levels.  First it does what it was intended to do in 1943:  gives a view of the technical basics
     of building a nuke and the challenges to be overcome.  The information is available in other places but not organized toward this goal.  
    Second is the historical context and Serber's annotations that describe in many cases how the obstacles were overcome or some
    aspect evolved.  Third anybody interested in the proliferation of nuclear weapons ought to be familiar with the contents of the Los
    Alamos Primer to begin to understand what potential proliferant nations are up against.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 29, 2003

    Physics can be interesting

    This is a great resource on the physics of the book. And how the theoretical took a physical shape. Written in a style that high shool physics students would clearly understand most of the material. As a historian I was surprised at what we knew when Los Alamos was opened. It bacame the engineering center to turn the theory into reality. A short book filled with facts and verly little info on the people.

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