My grandmother worked in the "Rad Lab" in Berkeley, California during the second world war as one of Ernest Lawrence's secretaries. I'm home for Thanksgiving with her, and thought I would see if anyone is interested in an AMA with her. First, proof:

She is 94, but her memory is still pretty good. She personally knew Robert Oppenheimer, Glenn Seaborg, and General Leslie Groves. She spoke on the phone with many other scientists, like Enrico Fermi. While she did type up many reports for Lawrence, she does not have much technical knowledge of the project. What she knows is more the experiences of being in the Rad Lab, like the security, personalities, and amusing stories. After the war, my grandmother married my grandfather, who was an engineer in the Rad Lab.

tl, dr: My grandmother knows stuff about the people who made the first atomic bombs.

EDIT: I'm getting a fair number of down votes, which I suspect are from the people who are against nuclear weapons. While that is certainly a valid opinion, I don't think this is the place to discuss it.

EDIT 2: This is fantastic, a lot of great questions. Especially, about different people at the lab, the building, and what a day was like. My grandmother was really interested in who are asking these questions. So let us know! Just like where you are and why you care.

EDIT 3: Alright, time for a time out. My grandmother wants to help my mother with the cooking and such for dinner. I think we can get back again later, and certainly tomorrow. I'm hear all weekend and I will happily spend it with my grandmother answering every question we possibly can. Please keep the questions coming!

EDIT 4: Wow, front page. My grandmother and I will be on and off the next couple of days and we will answer as many questions as we have time for. I'll try and read all of the questions to pick out the good ones, so please keep asking. The things I would never have thought to ask are great!

Comments: 640 • Responses: 31  • Date: 

pikapp245285 karma

What was Richard Feynman like back then?

SunSlayer11567 karma

So I've asked, and she does not remember a Richard Feynman. She says she was only introduced to important people. She said Feynman was likely in Los Alamos, and different groups were kept out of contact with each other, because of security concerns. Also, from my understanding, Feynman wasn't that well known at that point.

tl, dr: Richard Feynman may be by biological grandfather, and my grandmother is pretending not to remember.

SunSlayer11101 karma

This will be one of my first questions once we start up again.

xmachina186 karma

What was the atmosphere at Rad Labs the day after Hiroshima?

SunSlayer11269 karma

Everyone was amazed at what happened. Most people did not know that what was going on at the lab was related to a bomb. Most people hoped it would end the war. Many of those in the lab has lost loved-ones and wanted the war to end.

Somedamnusername151 karma

Wow, great AMA! Very interesting

During 1945 and 1946, two lab accidents occured, with two men dying from extreme radiation poisoning of sorts, what was the general reaction around Los Alamos when people died from lab accidents?

SunSlayer11105 karma

She never heard anything. But note, she was in Berkeley, not Los Alamos. She said "they were always very careful." If you're interested, the effects of radiation were not clear, and my grandmother addressed the by making my grandfather change his shoes before coming in the house. He had home shoes and lab shoes, and they never were crossed.

PeacockDoom145 karma

What was Oppenheimer like?

SunSlayer11280 karma

"A normal physicists who's mind is miles away. A very nice guy actually." A good story is about his brother Frank, who was also a physicist. Back in the war, they all used to sort of date. One date, Frank Oppenheimer took his girlfriend out and parked with a view of the Berkeley hills. After a while he got to thinking, got out of the car and started walking around. After a couple of hours, his girlfriend got tired of waiting and drove home with out him. Frank Oppenheimer then just walked home. Everyone at the Rad Lab had some fun with that.

p7r220 karma

Oppenheimer: I took a girl out to the hills last night to make out

Friend: Oh yeah? Did you get far eh? Eh Frank?

Oppenheimer: Yeah, I did actually - I had a thought that if we just change some of the calibrations on the equipment...

Friend: Errr.... ?

SunSlayer11211 karma

Exactly, and then throw in the fact that he doesn't know where is car is now.

djicebergus133 karma

What was the lab atmosphere like on a day-to-day basis? Was everyone pretty laid back and friendly, or were people always very serious?

SunSlayer11319 karma

"Most people were pretty serious. We were in the middle of a war, and we were trying to help. After the war things became much more fun." For example, after the war, six of the engineers would ask her to come in and take notes. Then, when she would get up to leave, they would have rigged the door mechanism so she couldn't get out. (I guess that's how mechanical engineers flirt, because she ended up marrying one of those engineers.)

ramen_feet590 karma

I'm writing this down for future use.


SunSlayer11242 karma

Actually, the dating scene was really tough for most of the scientists. For example, my grandfather was 21 when the war started. He was healthy, with no children, and no wife. Perfect for the draft. But he didn't serve, and when women meet him, they would ask him why he didn't serve. All he could say was, "I work at UC Berkeley" because the whole thing was a secret. They would assume the worst, and dating was impossible. The result is they tended to marry people within the project, who understood. See: my grandparents.

Also, my grandfather's first job out of college, age 21, was working in the Manhattan project. And what have I done with my life?

Uncle_Mo126 karma

Unrelated to everything: Please give her a huge hug and a kiss. Grandmas are the best! Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours =)

SunSlayer11107 karma

:) Will do, but we are old fashioned WASPs, so a kiss sort of out of the question. Happy Thanksgiving to you too!

ButttttMannnn112 karma

She stings?

SunSlayer1182 karma

I mean we are white anglo-saxon protestants (WASPs). And one stereotype, which is accurate for us, is that we are rather subdued with our affections.

sanarothe35 karma

white anglo-saxon protestants?

I don't know how this stops one from kissing their gma though.

SunSlayer1148 karma

You're right, it's just not how my family shows affection.

Uncle_Mo59 karma


SunSlayer1191 karma

Haha, social pressure to break societal norms. So conflicted right now. I'll see what I can do and get back to you.

Incoherentrant18 karma

At first I thought you were talking about that WW2 all women airforce team, but then I was like that doesn't make any fucking sense, and then I still realized I don't understand what you mean.

SunSlayer1119 karma

Sorry, I was referring to white Anglo-Saxon protestants (WASPs) and that fact that in my family we don't kiss to show affection. Now that I think about it, I'm sure plenty of WASPs do, its just we don't seem to.

djicebergus107 karma

How did she get this job?

SunSlayer11275 karma

"I went to the University of California employment office and asked for a job. And they sent me up to the Rad Lab. They hired me on the spot." Note to self: Maybe my grandmother was a looker...

p7r89 karma

By the time she met Lawrence, he was already a star: he'd got a Nobel prize, he had invented the cyclotron, he was considered a world leader in physics: did that come across? Was he aloof? Did the people around him care about his status much?

SunSlayer11140 karma

"No. No. He was a very regular guy. He never pushed his way. Just a normal guy. A normal physicist. And all physicists are a little cookie." I should point out at this point, that I grew up with hearing stories about Dr. Lawrence's amusing habits.

p7r64 karma

Care to share some of his amusing habits? His work was astonishing, but sometimes it's the human things that interest me more about a great hero...

SunSlayer1184 karma

I've just asked my grandmother, and it turns out that Lawrence was the exception. He was rather normal. Frank Oppenheimer on the other hand, she saw him walk into a mac-truck. He said "excuse me," and walked on. Another good story, I'll re-post from below:

One date, Frank Oppenheimer took his girlfriend out and parked with a view of the Berkeley hills. After a while he got to thinking, got out of the car and started walking around. After a couple of hours, his girlfriend got tired of waiting and drove home with out him. Frank Oppenheimer then just walked home. Everyone at the Rad Lab had some fun with that.

ixixix28 karma

I think you accidentally your grandmother. ( = there's a missing verb)

SunSlayer1127 karma

Oops thanks. Curse you syntax!

betaboxx83 karma

Did she ever suspect spies?

SunSlayer11143 karma

"Not really, their could have been spies all over the university, but I never suspected that." I'll follow that up by asking about security. At the entrance into the building there were two military people that everyone had to go through. Also, she believe that there were people listening to the phone conversations. Often when Fermi would call, should would have trouble understanding. He would get excited (mad) and start speaking Italian. Then the phone would get cut off. Presumably, the military didn't want anyone knowing Italian was being spoken at the University.

p7r69 karma

After the war Oppenheimer and others from the Manhattan project lobbied heavily to prevent nuclear weapon proliferation, and as a result had security clearances revoked, etc. - a sort of political persecution of sorts.

How did your grandmother feel about the political and philosophical arguments the people she worked with got involved with? Did Oppenheimer's treatment shock her, or did she think he kind of had it coming? Did his treatment affect her own views at all?

SunSlayer1192 karma

"Oppenheimer was a very nice and good man. He helped us win the war." She says that she was not happy with how Oppenheimer was treated. He got involved in the communist party in college, but that was just something he did when he was young. She doesn't have a "strong opinion" about proliferation.

p7r36 karma

Were her views on Oppenheimer and his politics in the minority at the time? Could she publicly say she felt that way, or did she feel that was something she had to keep to herself.

I ask because I'm curious to learn from your older and wiser grandmother: I've held security clearances (in the UK), and sometimes when you see your government do something you disagree with in the area you worked in, it can be difficult to speak out: you signed that piece of paper, you made an agreement, you knew what you were doing. Then they do something you think is just ridiculous but now you're on the outside and can't say a thing without a risk of being called "unpatriotic", or worse a security risk... It can be hard.

SunSlayer1165 karma

"What you do is keep everything to yourself. If you didn't agree with what is going on, you should not have worked with them. Keep everything to yourself" I'm not sure if that is directly addressing what you mean, but I think she has something of a 1950s housewife mentality about it. And basically, at the time she kept her head down. Please get back to me if this is unclear or if you'd like a follow up.

fathobo58 karma

My current chemistry professor worked with Glenn T. Seaborg for his masters degree. He told us the story about how he founded plutonium and why he named it the way he did. Does your grandmother have any knowledge of ever speaking to Dr. Seaborg? If so, how was he in person, interesting, fun to talk to? Also, what happened the day he found plutonium, can she describe what the atmosphere was like when that discovery was made? TL;DR Any good stories of Glenn T. Seaborg?

SunSlayer1159 karma

Yes, she does! But, she is busy right now. I'm replying, so that I remember to make this our first response once we get back.

SunSlayer119 karma

"Dr. Seaborg was a very nice young man." She only spoke with him on the phone, but it was mostly just asking to speak with Dr. Lawrence. He was mostly "back east." She says her husband knew Dr. Seaborg very well. He went to his funeral, and it was like a Rad Lab reunion.

powder_hound41 karma

Since I've heard that Einstein was opposed to it's use and campaigned against it after its completion, what is her opinion on its use?

SunSlayer1191 karma

"At time of war, you have to do something to stop the fighting." Also, keep in mind, that most people involved in the work, didn't know they were working on a weapon, until after the fact.

DaTroof16 karma

What did they think they were working on if not a weapon? Wouldn't the military personell providing security and hurried nature of the research arouse suspicion among the people working on the project?

SunSlayer113 karma

"I didn't stop to think about it. We were at war and we were trying to help. People didn't discuss the project. If you were discussing it and one of the officers was around, you would hear about it. When the discussions occurred, it was all behind closed doors." Maybe when they talked about any sort of project it was just called a "gadget."

apestate34 karma

How long was she involved with the lab? What did she do after?

SunSlayer1194 karma

She worked in the lab from 1941-5. And then 1946-1947. Then she married my grandfather in 1947. Women back then didn't work after they got married. My grandfather worked in the Berkeley and then Livermore lab from 1941-1982(ish). He actually passed a way a number of years ago from cancer associated with radiation dose from his work.

mcquild29 karma

What was the food like?

SunSlayer1160 karma

She lived at home and got food at a grocery store in Berkeley. There was rationing, but she had a very good friend at the store who would sneak her extra stuff.

twinprime27 karma

Any thoughts on thorium?

SunSlayer1169 karma

I do, but this isn't my AMA. My grandmother does not.

DrTechno12 karma

I read a biography on Oppenheimer and apparently all the ladies were quite taken with him. Did your grandma think he was a cutie?

SunSlayer115 karma

"He was an extremely good looking man. Very polite and friendly. I'm sure many of the ladies in the lab liked him. There was no reason not to."

apestate9 karma

Does she know how much of the Rad lab's product went into the two bombs?

SunSlayer1120 karma

She has no idea. But I can tell you, a lot. It was where much of the heavy thinking was done. Oppenheimer, Seaborg, Groves, and Lawrence spent much of there time in the Lab.

magicbullets8 karma

What did she do after Rad Labs, during the Cold War?

SunSlayer1131 karma

After the war, she got married and was a housewife. Her husband, my grandfather continued to work in the lab until the early 80s. He did cyclotron work. We don't really know what he worked on. It was all a secret. We do know that he worked on cyclotrons and mass spectrometers. Eventually, they had him do weapons work, but he didn't like that, so he retired.

Maldetete7 karma

As the power of atomic and nuclear bombs have increased over time, and there is a constant concern about nuclear war, does she worry that she may have had a hand in what could someday end the world?

Secondly, does she know how to create zombies with radioactive materials. Thank you.

SunSlayer1126 karma

Her response is basically, I was just a secretary answering the phone and taking notes. I needed a job no one ever asked me about what I thought about making a bomb. Keep in mind, that she didn't know she was working on a weapon until after the war.