Gamow, George and Edward Teller

From GW Encyclopedia

George Gamow talking to high school students, 1954

Oral History

The following is an extract of an oral history done with Dr. Charles Naeser, Professor of Chemistry by David Anderson, University Archivist, October 23, 1996. Naeser discusses his memories of George Gamow and Edward Teller, as well as his own experiments with Uranium 235:

NAESER: This was in 1935 when the Depression was still running very high and the best offer I got was for one-thousand dollars a year to teach at some of the schools in the East, and when Dr. Marvin offered me eighteen-hundred plus four-hundred if I would teach half of summer in summer school, I’d get all the way up to twenty-two hundred, so I took the job. That’s how I landed at GW in the fall of 1935. I got my Ph.D. in June of ’35. Gamow was already on the faculty in the Physics Department, having come in the year before, and Teller came in 1935, the same time that I did. So, there were three relatively new members of science departments………

ANDERSON: I do know that one of the reasons that Gamow and Teller were hired, besides of course their own reputations and potential, was the fact that as theoretical physicists they really did not need that much equipment to do their work. Obviously, chemistry and biology and applied physics all did.

NAESER: Yes, well the, of course, the big contribution to the Physics Department was working with the terrestrial magazine lab, where too, Gamow and Teller set up the theoretical physics conference as an annual meeting at which the announcement of the splitting of the uranium atom was first made public at the January meeting, 1939.

ANDERSON: How did you get involved with that, with uranium studies and so forth?

NAESER: Well, by late 1939, it was determined that a particular isotope of uranium that underwent the fission was the Uranium 235. And so, it was an effort made to set up a system whereby you could separate the Uranium 235, relatively rare, from the Uranium 238, which was very, many times as much as there was of the Uranium 235. So, Naval Research Laboratory called me and asked if they brought the uranium material over, would I convert it to a suitable compound named Uranium-Fluoride, which could be changed to a gas, to separate the Uranium 235 from the Uranium 238. So that’s how I got into the program in December 1939. And so I converted it, most of what they had was uranium as an oxide, use 308, but I converted it to a chloride, then took it to the Naval Research lab where they had a fluorine generator and we converted it to the fluoride. And then in March of 1940, Naval Research Lab said they had received orders from higher echelon to stop all their work on uranium separation. No details given why it was stopped, but my own guess is that plans for the Manhattan District Project, which ultimately led to the gaseous diffusion plant in Oak Ridge, the plant in Hanford, Washington, and the research center in the Manhattan District. Plans were very well laid for that and that’s where the government supported atomic energy work would go forth. That’s just conjecture on my part as to why it was stopped. We did make the Uranium- Chloride and were preparing to do the same thing they built the Oak Ridge plant to do in a much larger scale than the experimental stage that we were going to do. So, I did get into the program that way, but I was not involved directly after that.

ANDERSON: Do you think the assignment to create Uranium-Fluoride had anything to do with the Otto Hahn experiments in Germany, and of course, the announcement beforehand of the splitting of the Uranium 235 atom?

NAESER: Oh no. All of this took place in, after Hahn’s announcement had been made at the beginning of 1939. It wasn’t until near the end of 1939 that the U235 was necessary. So, Hahn had already discovered that the uranium atom could be split and so that had nothing to do with the fact that we were working on it. Everybody wanted to work on it, because it was such a revolutionary discovery that you could split the uranium atom.

ANDERSON: Do you think maybe the move, business conjecture as well, to Chicago of most of the Manhattan Project had anything to do with the uncertainty of what could happen with the experimentations themselves, being in Washington as opposed to being outside of Washington?

NAESER: No, I don’t. They had far better facilities at Chicago than they had at GW. And of course they had Fermi at Chicago. He was here for a brief time but . . . .

ANDERSON: Do you mean here at the conferences?

NAESER: In Washington, and he gave several lectures at GW in connection with theoretical physics. He was a very good friend of Teller and Gamow.

ANDERSON: I didn’t realize that Fermi gave lectures at GW.

NAESER: Not lectures to students, but he did give some lectures to public sectors on theoretical physics. Yes, he did do that, but he was not a member of the faculty as such.

ANDERSON: What your impressions of Gamow and Teller when they first got here, since you all arrived almost simultaneously?

NAESER: Well, they arrived a year apart. We of course recognized them as being authorities in their respective fields. That was the reason they were brought over here … to give the place some prestige having both of those men who had already established their place in science as being right out of the cutting edge. They were both very friendly. They both had difficulty with the English language, but they recovered from it and got to be pretty fluent. The first couple of years it was not always easy to understand them. They had to communicate in German because it was the thing they knew best. Gamow didn’t know any Hungarian and Teller didn’t know any Russian, but the one common language they had was German and just learning English, as it were, at the time, it was both a good deal to speak with each other in German.

ANDERSON: I know that Gamow and Dr. Teller mainly taught graduate courses as opposed to undergraduate courses.

NAESER: Yes, right.

ANDERSON: I don’t think they taught any undergraduate courses if I’m not mistaken.

NAESER: I think in later years, Gamow taught an undergraduate advanced course in physics, but I’m not sure.

ANDERSON: At GW or Colorado?

NAESER: I think at GW he taught an undergraduate physics course, not a beginning physics course, but I think it was for physics majors, but I’m not sure of that.

ANDERSON: You taught basically the entire spectrum, did you not, as far as classes, from undergraduate through graduate students?

NAESER: Oh yes. I always taught first year chemistry all the time I was at GW, and I taught advanced undergraduate courses and graduate courses. But I always liked to teach the first year course, because I enjoyed it.

ANDERSON: It was interesting, because in my own research with George Gamow, he did teach an undergraduate course when he went to the University of Colorado and he said it really, in his own words, it really opened his eyes to a lot of aspects of physics students who were not physicists or did not want to become physicists. A different orientation.

NAESER: Yes, well, among the portion that I taught when I first came to GW was not only the regular freshman course, but I taught also Survey of Physical Science in conjunction with the Physics Department for people who were not science majors. It was strictly for the liberal arts major in the field of humanities or something of that sort, not going to major in anything that required a specific science program laid out ahead of them, such as a premed student or a physics major or chemistry major. Professor Seeger in the Physics Department and I taught that course. That course is still being taught, by the way, but it is now being taught entirely, has been for a number of years, entirely in the Chemistry Department. But they originally had a joint program of physics and chemistry.

ANDERSON: Well, when did you, I know you went into the military during the Second World War, and I know Gamow and Teller stayed at GW, Gamow working with the Navy Department.

NAESER: Well, Teller didn’t stay. He went to Manhattan District.

ANDERSON: To Los Alamos.

NAESER: Well, the Manhattan District Project, they had it in various places. He was at Los Alamos and he was at the University of Chicago, and he was in the Manhattan District briefly. But how long he was in each of these places, I don’t know. But he did spend most of his time with the Los Alamos people. I mean that was also a part of the Manhattan District.

ANDERSON: I believe he left in’42 to go to these.


ANDERSON: Of course, George Gamow stayed at the university and worked with the Naval Ordinance area and of course consulted with Einstein as part of naval ordinance.


ANDERSON: Well, I know Gamow was offered the head of the department as well. Was he in the same situation?

NAESER: Everybody was. That’s the way it was set up. If you look at those catalogues, you won’t find department chairmen listed. You will see executive officers listed. They had all the responsibilities of a chairman, but no authority.

ANDERSON: Do you remember where the physics offices were? Were they in Samson or in Corcoran where Gamow and Teller were located?

NAESER: I know Gamow’s was in Samson and I think Teller was there, but I’m not certain about that. But I know Gamow’s was in Samson because I went past his office there and I had seen this pyramid of mail on his desk that he hadn’t gotten around to opening.

ANDERSON: Oh really? Can you tell me a little more about that, about your interactions, like when you just came, to friendly conversations and things on this nature?

NAESER: Oh, I don’t know of anything particular to mention there. We got along very well. We were at parties occasionally and sometimes they involved families, my children and Gamow’s son. When Gamow would stretch out that big 6’ 6” frame of his on the floor and do Cartesian diver experiments with the kids and he got along with them very well, completely uninhibited. He made no effort to impress the kids that he was a theoretical physicist. He would do the simple experiments . . . very simple things. He was an inveterate smoker. He was always smoking a cigarette. In his lectures he would light up a cigarette. He used one of the classrooms in Corcoran. It had a regular lecture table, so he could do experiments on it . . . with water and all that sort of thing. It was pretty long, not a small desk, but a regular lecture demonstration desk. So when he had his lecture, frequently he would light up a cigarette and put it on the bench and start scribbling on the board, and when he got to the middle of the board, he would light up another cigarette and put it on the middle of the lecture desk, and then when he got all the way to the other end of the blackboard, he’d light a third cigarette and put it there. And then he’d erase the board and go back to the first cigarette and take a few puffs there and start on the board and continue to the middle, and take up the middle cigarette and scribble some more on the board and then do some more writing, and use the third cigarette that was at the far end of the lecture table. He would keep three cigarettes going at a time. But he was always . . . . But about that time somebody came out with a plastic full scale model of a 45 caliber automatic, and when you pull the trigger, the butt came open and there was a package of cigarettes in there. Well he was just intrigued by it. He carried his big 45 caliber automatic cigarette holder in his pocket just because he liked the idea of pulling out this thing, pulling on the trigger and the barrel firing mechanism popped up and there was this package of cigarettes in the butt . . . Very simple. He liked it!

ANDERSON: I know Dr. Gamow did work with the hydrogen bomb project, so he obviously did get security clearance, but were there any difficulties because he had been in the Red Army at one point, or he . . . .

NAESER: I don’t know if there were any difficulties on that.

ANDERSON: What, uh, one thing I’m fascinated with is, of course, George Gamow left the university in ’59 [1956], and Edward Teller had left in 1946 [1945] and went to the University of Chicago. But do you have any recollections of maybe some of the, anything between Dr. Marvin and Dr. Gamow, as far as, just before he left and went to Colorado?

NAESER: Ah, no, I don’t know of any. I know Gamow made no, never did hide the fact that he was an atheist, but whether that came into the picture, I don’t know. But the story around the university was that Gamow and Mrs. Gamow were divorced, but they were in the same social circles some of the time, he thought it was better to get out of Washington. That’s why he went to Ohio State.

ANDERSON: Colorado, actually, University of Colorado.

NAESER: No, he went to Ohio State.

ANDERSON: Oh, you’re right, you’re quite right.

NAESER: He went to Ohio State, and then went to Boulder.

ANDERSON: I’m sorry. I misspoke on that.

NAESER: But that was the story, there, that it was not a matter of difference between Marvin and Gamow. That was the generally accepted reason among the faculty why Gamow left. It was a matter of embarrassment in various social circles because of the divorce. Both he and his wife were in the same social group. And that was why he chose to go to Ohio State. He wasn’t at Ohio State too long. He was there for a while. Why he left Ohio State for Boulder, I have no idea.

Document Information

Images: 1
Photographic Credit: Public Relations files
Author or Source: Oral interview with Charles Naser by G. David Anderson on October 23, 1996; Public relations files
Document Location: University Archives
Date Added to Encyclopedia: December 21, 2006
Prepared by: Lyle Slovick

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