In April 1943, at a new secret laboratory on a mesa in the high New Mexican desert, a crowd of the most brilliant young scientists in America heard five stunning lectures that summed up everything the world knew about how to build an atomic bomb. The lecturer was Robert Serber, a theoretical physicist and protege of J. Robert Oppenheimer; the laboratory was Los Alamos. Serber's lectures, assembled in note form and mimeographed, became the legendary LA-1, the Los Alamos Primer, the first document passed out to new recruits to the wartime enterprise, classified Secret Limited for twenty years after the Second World War and published here for the first time. Now contemporary readers can see just how much was known and how much remained to be learned when the Manhattan Project began. Would the "gadget", the atomic bomb, really work? How powerful would it be? Could it be made small enough and light enough to carry in a bomber? Could its explosive nuclear reaction be controlled? Working with Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the development of the atomic bomb, Professor Serber has annotated the Primer for the nonscientist. His preface, a lively informal memoir, vividly conveys the mingled excitement, uncertainty, and intensity the Manhattan Project scientists felt. Rhodes's introduction reviews the development of nuclear physics up to the day that Serber stood before his blackboard at Los Alamos and summarizes the work that followed. In this first published edition, the Los Alamos Primer finally emerges from the archives. No lectures anywhere have had greater historical consequences.
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.