Jeremy Bernstein

Jeremy Bernstein’s Nuclear Iran will be published by Harvard in October.

From The Blog
25 January 2021

I recently looked at Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein to see if there was anything about a connection with Proust. Sure enough there was a letter I had never heard of that Proust wrote to a physicist friend in 1921: ‘How I would love to speak to you about Einstein. I do not understand a single word of this theories, not knowing algebra. [Nevertheless] it seems to me we have an analogous ways of deforming Time.’ In understanding Einstein, algebra is the least of it.

From The Blog
3 March 2020

Over the years Freeman Dyson, who died on 28 February at the age of 96, corrected mistakes I made, often in print, with letters written with great gusto. One, dated 21 August 1981, written in his almost calligraphic hand, begins: ‘Sorry my friend, but you goofed.’

From The Blog
9 October 2019

In June 1982 I was spending my usual summer at the Aspen Center for Physics when I was approached by Philip Anderson. He was a very persuasive person who had won the Nobel Prize five years earlier. I didn’t really know him but he presented me with almost a command. It looked as if AT&T was going to be broken up and Anderson was worried about what might happen to Bell Laboratories, where he worked. He wanted me to write something about it, preferably for the New Yorker. My problem was that I knew almost nothing about Bell Labs. I knew that the transistor had been discovered there as had the radiation left over from the Big Bang. I also knew that it was an enormous laboratory employing some 25,000 people. Under these circumstances how could I possibly write something that made any sense? But Anderson is as I said a very persuasive person so I agreed to try something.


Jeremy Bernstein, 31 July 2014

‘Their aim​ is that we accept a capacity of ten thousand separative work units which is equivalent to ten thousand centrifuges of the older type that we already have,’ Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said on 4 June. ‘Our officials say we need 190,000 SWU. Perhaps this is not a need this year or in two years or five years, but this is the country’s absolute...

Six Bombs: South Africa’s Nukes

Jeremy Bernstein, 9 January 2014

Nelson Mandela was released from prison on 2 February 1990. On 26 February F.W. de Klerk ordered the dismantling of a South African nuclear weapons programme which very few people knew existed. At the time the country had six uranium bombs and one more under construction. De Klerk had looked into abandoning the programme a year earlier, but Mandela’s release was plainly instrumental in...

At Los Alamos

Jeremy Bernstein, 20 December 2012

I graduated from Harvard with a degree in mathematics in 1951 and got my PhD in physics in 1955. I needed a job and a friend made a suggestion: on the Harvard campus there was a relatively modest cyclotron, simple enough for graduate students to operate. There was a position open for a ‘house theorist’. My friend recommended me and I got the job. My only formal duties were to try...

From The Blog
5 July 2019

Sometime in the winter of 1969 a Pakistani colleague told me that the Ford Foundation had created visiting professorships at the University of Islamabad and asked if I would like one. At the time I was always open to travel adventure so I said sure. After I was appointed, the question arose as to how to get there. To me the obvious answer was to drive. I put the proposition to William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker, who thought it an interesting idea. The magazine put up enough money for me to buy a Land Rover Dormobile. This legendary vehicle, which is no longer manufactured, had sleeping bunks and a stove – perfect for the job. I enlisted my friend the Chamonix guide Claude Jaccoux and his wife Michèle and in early September we set out. It took about three weeks to drive from France through Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan and then over the Khyber Pass into Pakistan.

From The Blog
27 May 2019

In the spring of 1959 I won a National Science Foundation fellowship that enabled me to do physics anywhere I wanted to. I chose Paris. I had spent the last couple of years at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and wanted very much to go to a city. Murray Gell-Mann was paying a visit to Princeton at the time. I had written a paper with a colleague suggesting how an idea of Gell-Mann’s could be tested experimentally. He dropped round to my office and asked what I was doing the following year. I told him. To my surprise he said he was going to Paris too, and added: ‘Stick with me, kid, and I’ll put you on Broadway.’ I didn’t then tell him that I was familiar with him from another life.

From The Blog
10 May 2019

Trevor Nunn’s movie Red Joan, starring Sophie Cookson and Judi Dench, claims to be ‘based on incredible true events’, namely the life of Melita Norwood. But the story told by the film is so far from the truth it’s nonsense.

From The Blog
3 January 2019

Reading Elaine Pagels’s new book, Why Religion? A Personal Story, brought back memories of my friendship with her husband Heinz Pagels. I met him in 1966 when he arrived at the Rockefeller University. I had no knowledge of his work but he struck me as a golden boy. He was very handsome and looked more like someone who might sing folk songs for a living than a theoretical physicist. He had been born in New York City in 1939 and attended Princeton. He then went to Stanford for his graduate work and took his PhD in 1965 under the direction of Sidney Drell. I recently looked at the paper they published and it still holds up. Heinz then spent a brief time at the University of North Carolina. I do not know how he found his way to the Rockefeller but there he was.

From The Blog
29 October 2018

With what just happened in Pittsburgh it is easy to forget what things were like in the 1930s in America. I remember because I was growing up then. We used to listen to Father Coughlin on the radio. He said things like this:

From The Blog
19 July 2018

I am rereading Proust. If anyone asks why, I tell them the story of Franklin Roosevelt and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Roosevelt paid a visit to the aged Holmes to find him reading Plato in Greek. He asked him why and Holmes replied: ‘To improve my mind, Mr President.’

From The Blog
15 May 2018

With the death of Stephen Hawking and the discussion it produced on black holes it was a little surprising that there was little or no mention of the man who created the subject, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who died in 1967 at the age of 62. He often said that the J stood for nothing, but I have a copy of his birth certificate on which his first name is given as ‘Julius’. In his day Oppenheimer was the most celebrated physicist in the United States. His portrait had been on the cover of Time magazine and he was on first-name terms with much of the Washington establishment, until he lost his security clearance in 1954. It was said by people who had known him before that the experience changed him profoundly and he appeared diminished. He did not appear diminished to me when when I arrived at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 1957 and was ushered into his office. The first thing he asked me was what was ‘new and firm’ in physics. I was spared trying to give an answer when his phone rang. It was from his wife. ‘It was Kitty,’ he said when he hung up. ‘She has been drinking again.’

From The Blog
15 March 2018

I had one encounter with Stephen Hawking. He came in the summer of 1989 to the Aspen Center for Physics and had the office next to mine. He travelled with an entourage with whom he could communicate with his voice synthesiser. His hands still worked well enough. He gave a full house public lecture and afterwards Sidney Coleman presided over a question session. Hawking had to type out all his answers on his voice synthesiser which took a lot of time. At one point Sidney said: 'You can have it fast or you can have it good.' If I had asked a question, it would have been: how did he come up with the idea of Hawking radiation? I have always found his paper hard going and have always marvelled at the simple result at the end. In A Brief History of Time he gives an account which explains the phenomenon but not the result.

From The Blog
17 October 2017

‘The Iranian regime has committed multiple violations of the agreement,’ Donald Trump said last week. ‘For example, on two separate occasions, they have exceeded the limit of 130 metric tons of heavy water.’ In 1931, the American physical chemist Harold Urey discovered deuterium, the isotope of hydrogen that has a neutron in its nucleus along with a proton. He manufactured some ‘heavy water’ (D2O) and, I think, drank some. Heavy water remained an interesting laboratory phenomenon until the Second World War, when it took on new importance since it plays a role in the production of plutonium, which does not exist naturally on earth.

From The Blog
18 August 2017

Not long after the Second World War, the scientists at Los Alamos realised that they could vastly improve the design of a nuclear bomb, making it light enough to fly on a rocket.

From The Blog
12 July 2017

US presidents since John F. Kennedy have been followed everywhere by an army officer carrying a leather-bound metal Zero Halliburton briefcase. (Zero Halliburton was sold to a Japanese company in 2006, but Donald Trump hasn’t switched to an all-American manufacturer.) Inside the president’s ‘emergency satchel’, also known as the ‘nuclear football’, is a ‘black book’ containing such things as retaliatory options and the codes for launching them. The president has the power to choose any of these options and no one has the power to stop him.

From The Blog
27 April 2017

In the early 1970s I wrote a profile of Albert Einstein for the New Yorker. I had known his secretary Helen Dukas since my days at the Institute for Advanced Study. She had come with him when he emigrated from Germany and lived in the Einsteins’ house in Princeton, which after his death she shared with his stepdaughter Margot. I asked if I could visit the house. She agreed. In Einstein’s study there was an etching of James Clerk Maxwell and one of Newton which had come out of its frame. This seemed symbolically correct. Helen offered to make lunch and while she was preparing the sandwiches she gave me a book to look at. It included a letter Einstein sent from Brussels to his wife Elsa in 1930.

From The Blog
6 March 2017

In my earlier years I had some dealings with classified material, enough that I was able to see how arbitrary, foolish and transitory security classification can be. That there may be information on somebody’s computer that was classified at some point in the past doesn’t necessarily have any relevance for national security. In summer 1958, I was briefly a consultant for the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica. I had a Q clearance, the most rigorous that the Atomic Energy Commission had. This enabled me to receive classified information on nuclear weapons on a ‘need to know’ basis. During most of my short stay I didn’t need to know anything, but one day the theory division leader descended on me with stacks of numbers he wanted me to add up on a Marchant calculator.

From The Blog
11 January 2017

At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Stanley Kubrick was living in England. He decided that it was not safe there and he should move his family to Australia. Since he refused to fly commercially, he booked passage on a boat. But when he found that he would have to share the bathroom facilities with a neighbouring cabin he cancelled the whole thing, preferring to take his chances with the bomb.

From The Blog
23 December 2016

I made my first trip to Tibet in 1987. One of my companions was a former British army officer called Garry Daintry, who told me that during the winter he helped out on the Cresta Run in St Moritz. The Cresta is an ice chute that you descend on a ‘skeleton’, a toboggan that you lie down on head first, and which has neither brakes nor any steering mechanism. You can try to control the speed by ‘raking’, rubbing the spikes of your special shoes on the ice, but you will inevitably reach speeds approaching sixty miles an hour.

From The Blog
27 September 2016

‘And by the way,’ Donald Trump said to Hillary Clinton in last night’s debate, ‘another one powerful is the worst deal I think I’ve ever seen negotiated that you started is the Iran deal.’ His view on the Iranian nuclear deal, and the nuclear weapons situation in general, hasn’t changed much since he spoke with two New York Times reporters in March. Not surprisingly he revealed an abominable ignorance of the subject.

From The Blog
31 August 2016

Until 1880, Aspen, Colorado was known as Ute City, after the Native American people who inhabited the valley. During the silver boom of the 1880s it was an extremely prosperous small town. There are still traces of that era, including the Wheeler Opera House. It came to an abrupt halt in 1893 when the silver market collapsed. The place was moribund for fifty years until the Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke, who liked to ski, saw the potential of the place as a resort. Among other things he created the Aspen Institute where industrialists like himself might be exposed to Aristotle. The Aspen Center for Physics, where I have been coming since the 1960s, was originally part of the institute. This used to be a pretty funky town. In 1970 Hunter S. Thompson ran for sheriff. There were some wealthy people like Paepcke but they pretty much faded into the background. Either you could ski or you couldn’t. Things have changed. There are now fifty billionaires who have some sort of property in Aspen. Three of the Koch brothers – Charles, David and William – have roots here. (William is the poor Koch brother, worth only $2.3 billion.) Donald Trump does not own any property here – though he once tried to build a hotel – but he has left a trail.

From The Blog
16 February 2016

Most undergraduates at Harvard live in a ‘House’. When I went to the university in 1947 the place was overcrowded with soldiers and sailors returned from the war. So I spent the first two years in Dudley Hall, the ‘non-residents’ student centre’ in Harvard Yard. My room was number 46: I know this precisely because I have a letter sent to this address by Albert Einstein, dated 3 June 1949, telling me he did not give ‘oral interviews to avoid misinterpretation’. Since Dudley wasn’t considered a House it didn’t have a ‘master’ but a ‘graduate secretary’. Then in autumn 1949 I moved into Eliot House.

From The Blog
16 November 2015

When I lived in Paris in the early 1960s the Bataclan was a cinema. It had been converted into one in 1926. (Incidentally, bataclan means junk; ‘tout le bataclan’ is slang for the whole ball of wax, or all that jazz.) I don’t recall going to it: there were so many other cinemas. It was built in 1864 as a site for café concerts. You could have your dinner and listen to an act. From the outside the building looked like a Chinese pagoda: chinoiserie was the mode.

From The Blog
22 July 2015

Glenn Seaborg, Joseph W. Kennedy, Edwin McMillan and Arthur Wahl discovered element 94 in Berkeley in 1941. McMillan and Philip Abelson had discovered element 93 the previous year. When Martin Heinrich Klaproth isolated element 92 in pitchblende in 1789, he called it uranium after the recently discovered planet Uranus. The scientists at Berkeley named elements 93 and 94 after the planets Neptune and Pluto. The discovery of plutonium was kept secret until after the war. At Los Alamos it was called ‘49’. This did not help much since Klaus Fuchs gave all the details about the bomb to the Russians. The Germans also realised the value of element 94 for making bombs but they never could make a reactor to produce the stuff.

From The Blog
19 March 2015

The Iran University of Science and Technology in Tehran was founded in 1929 as a school of engineering. It became a general technological institute in 1972. It now has more than a dozen departments with thousands of undergraduate and postgraduate students. Few if any American universities have a more complete list of undergraduate physics courses. Looking at the faculty reveals an interesting split. The senior professors all did much of their degree work abroad. One of them for example was an undergraduate at Columbia. The junior faculty, including one woman, all did their degree work in Iran. In another generation, it may be that all of Iran’s physicists will have been educated in Iran. No other country in the Middle East would show a demographic like this. Taken in the large this means that Iran has a serious scientific infrastructure, which must be taken into account in any negotiations over its nuclear programme. The notion that the country can be negotiated into a scientific stone age is nonsense.

From The Blog
5 January 2015

On Christmas day at 3.05 p.m. I managed to see The Interview. It was not so easy. It was playing at the Cinema Village, a pocket size three-screen theatre in Greenwich Village which specialises in obscure foreign films and other exotica. When I showed up at 2.30 all performances were sold out except the 1 a.m. but I joined the standby line and just at 3.03 managed to get in and find a seat in the very back of the theatre. There were some TV people outside both when I entered and left. What they expected I have no idea.

Diary: Newton’s Rings

Jeremy Bernstein, 1 April 1999

Stanley Kubrick’s second film, an RKO short that he made when he was 23, was called Flying Padre. It was about the Rev. Fred Stadtmueller, who flew around New Mexico tending his parishioners. Kubrick had taken flying lessons himself. I am not sure when it happened, but by the mid-Sixties he had decided never to fly in anything again. He told me that he considered it too dangerous. This meant he didn’t do much travelling and all the long-distance journeys he made – such as relocating his family to England in 1965 – he made by boat. He explained to me that the best way to transport your possessions in this kind of move was in Boy Scout foot lockers – small trunks. For his move to England he had purchased 140. Not flying posed a problem during the Cuban missile crisis. Kubrick had decided that there was a considerable chance of a nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States and that his prospects would be better if he went to the Southern hemisphere. Australia seemed like a good choice so he booked a passage on a boat with his family. However, before leaving he learned that he and his wife would have to share a bathroom with a neighbouring cabin. He cancelled his booking and decided to take his chances with the atomic bomb. Not long afterwards he began working on Dr Strangelove.’

From The Blog
27 November 2009

On the morning of 20 July a man identifying himself as William Kramer boarded American Airlines flight 720 from Dallas/Fort Worth to New York. He was travelling first class. His one-way ticket cost $1145.60. I know this because he used data stolen from my credit card to pay for it. I had no idea that anything was wrong – my credit card was still in my wallet – until the following morning when I checked my recent transactions online. The American Airlines payment had not yet appeared but three other charges had: for $64 and $75, on consecutive days, from Angelo’s Pizza in New York, and for $663.44 from a firm called Ritz Camera. I cancelled the card and put in a claim against these fraudulent transactions. When I called Ritz Camera, they told me that a camera had been ordered over the internet using my card details and sent by FedEx to my apartment house in New York.

Marc Dubin expresses his shock that the US State Department was looking at plans for a first-strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. I spent some time in the summer of 1957 at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica. There were departments devoted to Russian history and others to hydrogen bombs. There was Herman Kahn informing us that even if we suffered a few megadeaths we would come out OK in the...

Bomb in the Head

5 April 2018

Thomas Jones repeats the story that Robert Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad Gita after witnessing the first successful nuclear weapons test in New Mexico: ‘I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.’ I once had the chance to ask his brother, Frank, who was standing next to him at the time, what Oppie’s actual words were. Frank’s recollection was that he said: ‘I guess it worked.’

Before or After?

13 July 2016

‘In relativity,’ John Banville writes, ‘there is no before and after’ (LRB, 14 July). That is not so. If you could reverse the two by changing the reference system you could murder your grandmother, which would have some remarkable consequences.
Steven Shapin refers to the isotopes Uranium-235 and Plutonium-239 as ‘fissionable’ (LRB, 26 September). This is true, but all the isotopes of uranium and plutonium are fissionable. If the nuclei are hit by a neutron above a certain energy threshold they will split. However, U-235 and Pu-239 are ‘fissile’. A neutron of any energy will split them. This is the crucial point since...
That Rosa Luxemburg chose the name ‘Junius’ for the pamphlet she wrote in 1916 and published in Switzerland shows that she had a knowledge of 18th-century Britain. The ‘Junius Letters’ attacking the establishment were published between January 1769 and January 1772 in the Public Advertiser. The pamphlets stopped when Sir Philip Francis, who was almost certainly their author,...

A Few Words from Dirac

26 February 2009

While it is certainly true that Dirac was a man of relatively few words, as David Kaiser makes clear, it is easy to exaggerate his reluctance to speak (LRB, 26 February). During the 1958-59 academic year at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton he frequently had dinner in the cafeteria with young people like myself. He entered into our conversations, sometimes with quite unexpected comments....

Wrapped Gap

3 March 2005

Hal Foster says that Christo wrapped or decorated a ‘Colorado valley’ (LRB, 3 March). That isn’t quite right. In 1972, a curtain designed by Christo was put across the Rifle Gap. The curtain didn’t last long: the wind all but blew it away.

Trafalgar Square

15 April 2004

David Wootton's essay on the rarity of nakedness in early modern England reminded me of my first visit to Kathmandu in the fall of 1967 (LRB, 15 April). I stayed at the Royal Hotel, which was presided over by the legendary White Russian Boris Lissanevitch – Boris of Kathmandu. Boris told me about a republic that had been established outside the city called Hippieland. You could, he said, go there...

Lunch at the Club

5 February 2004

The Century Association that Walker Evans joined is not a ‘club of private clubs’, as Mary Hawthorne calls it (LRB, 5 February). It is one club located on West 43rd Street in New York. If I had to describe it, I would say that it’s comparable to the Athenaeum in London, one of our sister clubs, except that we don’t have rooms for guests to stay overnight. There is another difference....


3 April 2003

Reading the pieces by Daniel Soar and Ruth Franklin (LRB, 3 April) reminded me of the Sundays I spent in Boreham Wood in the spring of 1972 watching movies with Stanley Kubrick. Playboy had just commissioned me to cover the Fischer-Spassky match in Iceland. Kubrick had been a professional chess hustler and he and I studied with care the bizarre preliminaries that led up to the match. One Sunday we...
In my freshman year at Harvard, I was one of at least two hundred students to take a General Education course in which I.A. Richards was a lecturer (LRB, 25 April). He was one of the best I have ever heard. We also shared an interest in mountaineering. He gave a talk on climbing in the Canadian Rockies, the high point of which was an encounter with a bear. It came into a two-storey cabin where Richards...

Tennis Lessons

1 July 1999

Edward Said’s mention of Budge Patty dates both him and me. I met Patty in the winter of 1960 when we were both members of the Tennis Club of Paris. My one lasting memory of him was when he lost to the Dane Kurt Nielsen in that winter’s indoor championships, which were played at our club. He came to our contiguous lockers and said: ‘I hate it! I hate it!’ I suppose he meant...

All Antennae

18 February 1999

John Banville’s review of David Cesarani’s biography of Arthur Koestler (LRB, 18 February) reminded me of something that has been nagging me since 1972, when I went to Reykjavik to cover the chess match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer. Koestler was there covering it for some prestigious newspaper. George Steiner was covering it for the New Yorker. I blush to say that I was covering...
I greatly enjoyed Murray Sayle’s piece about Eric Shipton (LRB, 7 May). Some years ago I spent an evening with Shipton, who told me that on one of his Everest expeditions of the Thirties he stood at much the same spot where, as Sayle recounts, Noel Odell thought he saw Mallory and Irvine before they disappeared. Shipton saw what appeared to be two figures above him but clearly they were rocks....

New York Hankies

13 November 1997

I was much taken by Mary Hawthorne’s tribute to the late Maeve Brennan (LRB, 13 November). Miss Brennan was one of the first people I met when I joined the staff of the New Yorker in the early Sixties. She was as remarkable-looking as Mary Hawthorne describes and she had that wonderful Irish lilt and a very impish sense of humour. On one occasion I ran into her on 43rd Street in front of the...

Fabienne Loy

19 June 1997

Readers of Jane Eldridge Miller’s review of Carolyn Burke’s biography of Mina Loy (LRB, 19 June) might wish to know that Loy’s daughter Fabienne, ill and nearing blindness, died – by her own hand – a few weeks ago.


22 February 1996

Jenny Diski should know (LRB, 22 February) that Mont Cervin and the Matterhorn are one and the same: French/German. Any snow frosting the one will frost the other.

Early in his career as the first Governor-General of the East India Company in Bengal, Warren Hastings instituted an annual dinner for fellow old boys of Westminster School. He paced his own...

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