Adventures of a mathematician bring little-known scientist to light

Enlarge / Philippe Tlokinski plays Stanislaw Ulam in new film Adventures of a mathematician.

Films by Samuel Goldwyn

On November 1, 1952, the United States detonated the world’s first thermonuclear weapon, nicknamed “Ivy Mike,” off Enewetak Atoll in what is now the Marshall Islands. Most of us consider the late physicist Edward Teller to be the “father of the hydrogen bomb” – and Teller has indeed championed the notion of a fusion-based “super bomb”. But hardly anyone outside of physics has heard of Stanislaw Ulam, the Polish mathematician and physicist who helped achieve Teller’s goal, although the extent of their respective contributions to Teller-Ulam’s revolutionary design remains both highly confidential and controversial.

Ulam is also the mastermind behind what is known as the Monte Carlo method of calculating, and along with his Hungarian-born colleague John von Neumann, he pioneered early computer technologies. He proposed a new method of nuclear pulse propulsion for spacecraft which led to the formation of Project Orion in 1958, with the goal of achieving interplanetary travel. And he was a formidable poker player, as many of his colleagues at Los Alamos have learned to their detriment.

The life of this extraordinary but largely unrecognized scientist is at the center of Adventures of a mathematician, a new film by German director Thor Klein. Klein’s thoughtful and haunting film is less a simple biopic than an elegant impromptu made up of key events in Ulam’s life, set against the backdrop of WWII and its immediate aftermath.

(Some spoilers for the movie below.)

Ulam's best friend, John von Neumann (Fabian Kociecki) convinces him to accept an unusual offer.
Enlarge / Ulam’s best friend, John von Neumann (Fabian Kociecki) convinces him to accept an unusual offer.

YouTube / Samuel Goldwyn Films

How did Ulam make him so special in the eyes of his colleagues? “The key is to have the right idea at the right time,” George Dyson, a science historian who consulted on the film, told Ars. “Ulam is one of the main characters in three of my books. He keeps popping up because he’s done so many different things. A lot of the ideas that we credit to others have come from their bounce on Ulam. ” Besides his research in pure mathematics and logic, Ulam is known for a handful of particularly influential ideas.

First and foremost, the Teller-Ulam design for thermonuclear weapons. It was Enrico Fermi who first mentioned to Edward Teller in the fall of 1941 the possibility of using the energy of a fission apparatus to start a fusion reaction. Even after the Trinity Test and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Teller was convinced that there would be a need for a nuclear “super bomb”. When the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb in August 1949 – an implosion design similar to the Fat Man bomb exploded over Nagasaki, thanks to information provided by Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs – President Harry S. Truman has given the green light to an American program to develop a hydrogen bomb.

The sticking point with the hydrogen bomb was how to ignite the molten material, which required tremendous temperatures and pressures. The original idea was to use a fission “trigger”, but the heat from this explosion alone proved insufficient. Ulam and Teller’s ingenious solution of 1951 is now called a “staged implosion,” and is believed to be the basis of most thermonuclear weapons today.

A confrontation with Edward Teller (Joel Basman) over technical issues with the hydrogen project
Enlarge / A confrontation with Edward Teller (Joel Basman) over technical issues with the planned “super” hydrogen bomb.

YouTube / Samuel Goldwyn Films

While Teller later denied Ulam’s contribution, other physicists, like nukes designer Ted Taylor, argue that Ulam deserves credit for ideas on compression and basic staging of the weapon, while Teller realized that radiation – rather than hydrodynamic pressure – was the key to ignition. (Since many relevant files remain classified, the controversy is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.)

Ulam came up with the idea for his MonteCarlo Method while recovering from an operation. It was around this time that scientists were developing ENIAC, the first general-purpose programmable digital computer. Ulam had played solitaire a lot during his recovery, trying to estimate the odds of succeeding, for example, in a game of Canfield solitaire using abstract combinatorial calculations. He came up with a more practical method, by presenting the game a hundred times, for example, and then observing and counting the number of successful games. Ulam quickly recognized that a computer like ENIAC would make such methods feasible. When he mentioned it to von Neumann, they started planning real calculations, and the Monte Carlo method was born.

Dyson also credits Ulam with the vision of predicting the digital universe. “Ulam had this very clear picture that once you had enough computers, you would effectively have a two-dimensional universe,” Dyson said. “Ulam had the idea that you could see this in a biological way. These cell networks could become ‘complete Turing’ and become their own universal machines. So you could have computers floating freely in this digital space, which at the time It seemed like an incredibly crazy idea. It took many years for it to even become science fiction. This is the digital universe we live in now, what we call the cloud. “

Much of this is discussed, albeit briefly, in Adventures of a mathematician. Director Klein has always had a passion for mathematics, ever since he read a book called Who has Einstein’s office (by Edward Regis), telling the story of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Ulam and John von Neumann both featured prominently. “They would throw parties and drive fast cars, in Johnny’s case,” Klein told Ars. “They were so different from the math teachers I had in school.”

Ulam was a gifted poker player.
Enlarge / Ulam was a gifted poker player.

YouTube / Samuel Goldwyn Films

Klein initially dreamed of becoming a mathematician himself, but eventually realized that mathematics was not his strength. “I had a great professor of literature who made me realize that I was probably more interested in these people and their ideas than in the actual calculations,” he said. “And I realized as I got older that parties and fast cars were on the surface. Underneath it was a deep tragedy, as they lost their families and only had to rely on one. other.”

Klein met Ulam’s memories, Adventures of a mathematician, while he was still in film school and decided to base his film on it. Of course, the story of the Manhattan Project and the birth of the Atomic Age has been told and retold on screen multiple times in different ways. But Ulam was a relatively minor character in Los Alamos. Granted, his ideas turned out to be crucial, especially for the latest hydrogen bomb, but he’s not one of the famous names associated with the project in popular culture, like Robert Oppenheimer and Teller.

“Stan was on the outskirts of the place,” Klein said. “[Ulam’s story] visually opened up an interesting way to represent this, to show a different layer [to the story]The fact that so many Los Alamos scientists were European immigrants who had fled Nazi occupations in their home countries also appealed to Klein.

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