The Los Alamos Primer (Hardcover)

The First Lectures on How To Build an Atomic Bomb

By Robert Serber, Richard Rhodes (Introduction by)

University of California Press, 9780520075764, 98pp.

Publication Date: March 2, 1992

Other Editions of This Title:
Hardcover (6/1/2018)
Paperback (6/1/2018)

List Price: 47.95*
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The classified lectures that galvanized the Manhattan Project scientists—with annotations for the nonspecialist reader and an introduction by a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian.

In March 1943 a group of young scientists, sequestered on a mesa near Santa Fe, attended a crash course in the new atomic physics. The lecturer was Robert Serber, J. Robert Oppenheimer's protégé, and they learned that their job was to invent the world's first atomic bomb.

Serber's lecture notes, nicknamed the "Los Alamos Primer," were mimeographed and passed from hand to hand, remaining classified for many years. They are published here for the first time, and now contemporary readers can see just how much was known and how terrifyingly much was unknown when the Manhattan Project began. Could this "gadget," based on the newly discovered principles of nuclear fission, really be designed and built? Could it be small enough and light enough for an airplane to carry? If it could be built, could it be controlled?

Working with Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the development of the atomic bomb, Professor Serber has annotated original lecture notes with explanations of the physics terms for the nonspecialist. His preface, an informal memoir, vividly conveys the mingled excitement, uncertainty, and intensity felt by the Manhattan Project scientists. Rhodes's introduction provides a brief history of the development of atomic physics up to the day that Serber stood before his blackboard at Los Alamos. In this edition, The Los Alamos Primer finally emerges from the archives to give a new understanding of the very beginning of nuclear weapons. No seminar anywhere has had greater historical consequences.

About the Author

Robert Serber (March 14, 1909 – June 1, 1997) was an American physicist who participated in the Manhattan Project. Serber's lectures explaining the basic principles and goals of the project were printed and supplied to all incoming scientific staff, and became known as The Los Alamos Primer. The New York Times called him “the intellectual midwife at the birth of the atomic bomb.” 

Richard Rhodes, author of Farm and A Hole in the World, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

Praise For The Los Alamos Primer: The First Lectures on How To Build an Atomic Bomb

"The Primer is an extraordinary document. Perusing it gives one a sense of being there at the start of the Los Alamos project. In its 24 pages, Serber both adroitly summarized the state of existing knowledge and laid out a prescient road map for the work ahead and the challenges that might arise. . . .mandatory reading for anyone interested in the origins of nuclear weapons."

— Physics Today

"...educational and designed to help the naive reader. . . .[the] definitive, extensively annotated reprint of the five bomb-physics lectures given in April 1943 by Robert Serber for new arrivals at Los Alamos."

— American Physical Society Journal