Helping US get bomb, Jewish mathematician faces ethical problem


On July 16, 1945, researchers working on the Manhattan Project were fortunate enough to see the results of their top-secret war efforts for the United States government when they were invited to witness the first-ever bomb test. atomic, nicknamed Trinity, near their laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

One researcher refused to go – Polish Jewish mathematician Stanislaw “Stan” Ulam. Although he became a central part of the development of thermonuclear weapons, Ulam’s work on the bomb haunted him for a long time thereafter. His story is shared in a new film, “Adventures of a Mathematician”, directed by German filmmaker Thor Klein.

“The basic question was, would you make the atomic bomb if you knew Hitler was building it? Klein told The Times of Israel on Zoom. “Most of us, including me, would agree with this scenario, that it’s something we should be doing. Then the war ends, the world changes and we move on. [After that] it gets more complicated. Why are you building the hydrogen bomb? It’s a more complex discussion to have.

Klein sees similarities to today’s ethical challenges: “You think of artificial intelligence, all of biotechnology, all of that,” he said. “It’s not just a moral dilemma here, it’s the story of people, relationships… Everything I wanted to explore in the film.”

While Ulam was working on the bomb, virtually his entire family was stranded in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe except for his younger brother, Adam, whom he sent to live with their uncle in New York. York. In Los Alamos, Ulam could only speak to two people: his wife, Françoise, and his friend and colleague from the Manhattan Project, John “Johnny” von Neumann.

Based on Ulam’s autobiography of the same name, the film was recently released in the United States, France and Russia, and has been on the festival circuit since last year. Klein was able to show the final version to Ulam’s daughter, Claire Ulam, before her death last year.

“It was truly a gift that I will always be grateful for,” he said.

Some scribbles

More than ten years ago, Klein first discovered the mathematician in the library of his hometown in southwestern Germany, thanks to the book “Who Has Einstein’s Office?” »By Ed Régis. He read not only about Einstein’s work at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, but also about two other researchers who worked there – Ulam and von Neumann. Like Einstein, both were Jewish emigrants from Europe – Ulam from Poland, von Neumann from Hungary.

Klein calls the duo “people who grew up in a very special time, brought up in a very special way, the heyday across Western Europe, very educated and very cultured people.”

Filmmaker Thor Klein. (Courtesy Dragonfly Films)

The film notes two significant accomplishments attributed to Ulam. The Teller-Ulam design (which also honors his Los Alamos colleague Edward Teller) has been the basis of thermonuclear weapons since their inception, while the Monte Carlo method has become useful not only for bomb research, but also for computers and biology. Its name reflects its creator’s long-standing interest in gambling. A quote from Ulam reflects his bewilderment at the impact of his ideas: “It is always an inexhaustible source of surprise for me to see how a few scribbles on a blackboard or on a sheet of paper could change the course of business. human. “

A photo from “The Adventures of a Mathematician” by filmmaker Thor Klein. (Courtesy Dragonfly Films)

Klein himself wanted to be a younger mathematician, before his literature teacher suggested he was more interested in the stories behind math than in math itself. As a filmmaker, he draws on the storytelling of big names like Stanley Kubrick as well as the more contemporary Darren Aronofsky, whose film “Pi” also examines mathematics, albeit through the prism of the stock market.

Klein’s interest in Ulam’s story goes back years. In film school, he read the mathematician’s autobiography – which contained more details about his friendship with von Neumann – and ultimately got the green light to turn the book into a film.

When the original lead actor had to step down, Polish actor Philippe Tlokinski joined an unexpected cast.

“He started reading on camera and I knew that was it,” Klein said. “I had a strong feeling that this was the right fit for Stan.”

French actress Esther Garrel plays Françoise and Polish actor Fabian Kociecki plays Johnny. Filming took place mainly in Germany and Poland, although part was made near Los Alamos, at the Ghost Ranch, the former home of artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who knew Ulam. Klein worked on editing the film closer to home – in his living room – with French editor Matthieu Taponier, whose credits include “Son of Saul.”

A photo from “The Adventures of a Mathematician” by filmmaker Thor Klein. (Courtesy Dragonfly Films)

The original script spanned 150 pages and included a lot of additional characters, “even Enrico Fermi, a good friend of Stan,” Klein said. “At one point, I had to condense myself.

He focused on Ulam’s journey from the east coast to the western United States, describing it as an immigrant story. When the film begins, Ulam is on the Harvard Stock Exchange. He lives with his teenage brother, Adam, and makes increasingly desperate phone calls to Poland, begging the operator to keep trying to put him in touch with his family there.

“Every day was taking its toll,” Klein said.

Difficult decisions

Life gets more complicated for Ulam after he falls in love with Françoise Aron, a French Jew who studies at Mt. Holyoke College in western Massachusetts. He makes a marriage proposal that is based more on logic than romance, but it is ultimately successful. Then von Neumann convinces him to join a mysterious project on the other side of the country. He sends Adam to stay with their uncle, damaging the brothers’ relationship.

“Stan was the older brother, more or less the only parent – or figure who could be a parent – who remained,” Klein said. “At the same time, he had to leave for Los Alamos. It didn’t make their relationship any easier. They were very formative years for a teenager.

A photo from “The Adventures of a Mathematician” by filmmaker Thor Klein. (Courtesy Dragonfly Films)

In Los Alamos, Ulam joins an eclectic group of scientists, from the brilliant but capricious Teller to a conscious American named John Calkin to German Klaus Fuchs, who spies for the Soviets. Collectively supervised by J. Robert Oppenheimer, their goal – at least initially – is to bomb the Nazis. Yet they continue to work after Victory Day.

When Ulam finds a way to create the hydrogen bomb, he tells Françoise so, but wonders if he should share it with Los Alamos. His worries throughout the project are reflected in his absence from the Trinity test.

“It intrigued me, his decision not to take the test,” Klein said.

The viewer, too, does not see the explosion, which the director had wanted.

“I think, first of all, everyone saw the vision of the mushroom cloud,” Klein said. “He became a pop culture icon, the head of Einstein and the mushroom cloud. The image no longer has any value. It harms the message.

Yet the tensions behind the making of the bomb are pervasive.

“It was very layered, very complex, something always there, sometimes blunt, sometimes not blunt,” Klein said.

Scientists engage in a heated discussion, with arguments both for the bomb (which it will protect their children) and against (which it will kill soldiers and civilians).

A photo from “The Adventures of a Mathematician” by filmmaker Thor Klein. (Courtesy Dragonfly Films)

The Jewish theme

For Ulam and von Neumann, there were other complexities.

“These guys were from Central and Eastern Europe,” Klein said. “The Jewish subject hung over them.”

He noted: “From 1943, [people] knew there were “death camps”, but not necessarily throughout the expanse.

Stan, Adam and Françoise Ulam all lost their families in the Holocaust.

“[Stan] could hide his pain better than Adam possibly could, ”Klein said. “In Adam’s case, it was the result of the survivor’s guilt. For him he was the only one [in their immediate family], apart from Stan, to survive. I think he was troubled by it his whole life.

Stan Ulam holding the FERMIAC, an analog computer invented by his colleague Enrico Fermi. (Public domain)

Adam Ulam became a prominent Sovietologist at Harvard.

“The bond and love never died between [him and Stan]Klein said. “I wanted to show, at the same time, an unresolved conflict.”

Another type of unresolved conflict followed Ulam and von Neumann after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“They got into a situation where the bombs were used and people died,” Klein said. “Even if you see it in the Cold War equation – we have to do it to keep everyone safe – of course it did something to them as people.

“In Stan’s case, he used humor as a form of management in difficult situations. Jokes were such a hallmark for him. It wasn’t an antidote, it was like medicine, the use of jokes and humor. But that was never able to resolve the contradiction in their life.


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