Critchfield's Los Alamos ID badge photo
|Born||June 7, 1910
|Died||February 12, 1994
Los Alamos, New Mexico
|Institutions||Institute for Advanced Study
Los Alamos National Laboratory
University of Minnesota
|Alma mater||George Washington University|
|Doctoral advisor||Edward Teller|
|Doctoral students||William C. Erickson
|Known for||Nuclear weapons
John von Neumann
Charles Louis Critchfield (June 7, 1910 – February 12, 1994) was an American mathematical physicist. A graduate of George Washington University, where he earned his PhD in Physics under the direction of Edward Teller in 1939, he conducted research in ballistics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and the Ballistic Research Laboratory at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, and received three patents for improved sabot designs.
In 1943, Teller and Robert Oppenheimer persuaded Critchfield to come to the Manhattan Project's Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he joined the Ordnance Division under Captain William Parsons on the gun-type fission weapons, Little Boy and Thin Man. After it was discovered that the Thin Man design would not work, he was transferred to Robert Bacher's Gadget Division as the leader of the Initiator group, which was responsible for the design and testing of the "Urchin" neutron initiator that provided the burst of neutrons that kick-started the nuclear detonation of the Fat Man weapon.
After the war he became a professor at the University of Minnesota, and then vice president for research at the Convair division of General Dynamics, where he worked on the Atlas family of rockets. In 1961, J. Carson Mark and Norris Bradbury offered him a position at Los Alamos, which he held until he retired in 1977.
Charles Louis Critchfield was born in Shreve, Ohio, on June 7, 1910, and grew up in Washington, D.C. He received his B.S. (1934) and M.A. (1936) degrees in Mathematics from George Washington University, where he also earned a PhD in Physics (1939) under the direction of Edward Teller.
During Critchfield's graduate studies, Teller's colleague George Gamow introduced him to Hans Bethe, with whom he wrote a paper in 1938, which analyzed the nuclear fusion of protons into deuterons. The next year, Bethe showed that this process is a key link in the proton-proton chain reaction and the CNO cycle, which are the major ways that nuclear energy is released in the solar core and in massive stars. In 1967, Bethe was awarded the Nobel Prize for this work on stellar nucleosynthesis.
World War II
After he graduated, Critchfield taught optics for a year at the University of Rochester at the invitation of Victor Weisskopf. In 1940, he was awarded a National Research Council fellowship, and went to work under Eugene Wigner at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. At this time, Robert Kent had just recruited John von Neumann to the advisory board of the Ballistic Research Laboratory at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. Critchfield joined von Neumann and Wigner there on several visits.
In 1942, after a brief stay at Harvard University, Critchfield went to the Carnegie Institution of Washington, where he continued his ballistic studies, which resulted in three patents for improved sabot designs. Because of his experience with ballistics, Teller and Robert Oppenheimer persuaded Critchfield to come to the Manhattan Project's Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1943, where he joined the Ordnance Division under Captain William Parsons. As leader of the target, projectile, and source group, he worked on the gun-type fission weapons, Little Boy and Thin Man.
In April 1944, the Manhattan Project experienced a crisis when Emilio Segrè discovered that plutonium made in nuclear reactors would not work in Thin Man. In response, Oppenheimer completely reorganized the laboratory to focus on development of an implosion-type nuclear weapon in August. He reassigned Critchfield to a new Gadget Division under Robert Bacher, as the leader of the Initiator group. This group was responsible for the design and testing of the "Urchin" neutron initiator, which provided a burst of neutrons that kick-started the nuclear detonation of the Fat Man weapon.
Critchfield left Los Alamos in 1946 and returned to George Washington University, but soon left to join Wigner at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In 1947 he became an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, where he participated, with Edward P. Ney and John R. Winckler, in a classified project to improve balloon technology. Here, with Leland S. Bohl, he invented and patented the natural shape balloon, and participated, with Ney and his student Sophie Oleksa, in an early search for primary cosmic ray electrons.
In 1955, after advancing to full professor at Minnesota, Critchfield became vice president for research at the Convair division of General Dynamics. Here, he worked on the Atlas family of rockets, which began as a series of ICBMs and evolved into launch vehicles for Project Mercury and many other space missions. He also created the Convair Scientific Research Laboratory whose staff were expected to serve as consultants for the company's engineering divisions and to carry out basic scientific research. In 1957, Critchfield's student William C. Erickson joined the staff, and created the Clark Lake Radio Observatory. In 1963, this facility, where observations focused on long wavelength radio waves, was transferred to the University of Maryland, where Erickson had become a professor. Although the original observatory has been abandoned, similar research continues at the much larger Long Wavelength Array in central New Mexico.
In early November 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Secretary of Defense Neil H. McElroy selected Critchfield to be head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. McElroy hoped that Critchfield would be able to fix the nation's trouble missile program, but Critchfield was reluctant to serve at the director's $19,000 salary. McElroy then offered to let Critchfield serve without pay, with the government paying only his expenses of $15 per day, while allowing Critchfield to continue to draw his Convair salary of around $40,000. Critchfield accepted this offer, but ran into a storm of political and media criticism over the conflict of interest involved in heading an agency that did $4 million worth of business with Convair each year. Critchfield then withdrew his name from consideration.
In 1961, Critchfield accepted a professorship at the University of Wisconsin, but before he moved to Madison, his friends at Los Alamos, J. Carson Mark and Norris Bradbury offered him a position there that he took instead. He held this position until he retired in 1977, but he continued his association with the laboratory until his death after a long battle with cancer on February 12, 1994. His obituary in Physics Today was written by Carson Mark, Louis Rosen, Edward Teller, and Roger Meade.
Charles Critchfield is buried next to his wife, Jean, in Guaje Pines Cemetery in Los Alamos County, New Mexico.
- "Charles L. Critchfield; obituary". Orlando Sentinel. March 4, 1994. Retrieved April 18, 2012.
- Vogel, Peter. "Manhattan Project U235 production data, 1943–1945 (See p6)". The Last Wave from Port Chicago. Retrieved April 18, 2012.
- Carson Mark; Louis Rosen, Edward Teller, and Roger Meade (February 1995). "Obituary: Charles Louis Critchfield". Physics Today 48 (2): 70. Retrieved May 17, 2012.
- Gamow, George (April 20, 1964). A Star called the Sun. Viking Press Asc. ISBN 978-0-670-66759-8. Retrieved April 17, 2012.
- Bethe, H. A.; C. L. Critchfield (June 23, 1938). "The Formation of Deuterons by Proton Combination". Physical Review 54 (4): 248–254. Bibcode:1938PhRv...54..248B. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.54.248. Retrieved April 18, 2012.
- Bethe, H. A. (September 7, 1938). "Energy Production in Stars". Physical Review 55 (5): 434–456. Bibcode:1939PhRv...55..434B. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.55.434. Retrieved March 5, 2013.
- Schweber, Silvan S. (2012). Nuclear Forces: The Making of the Physicist Hans Bethe. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 352. ISBN 978-0-674-06587-1.
- "Members 1940–1941". Bulletin No. 10. See p xii. The Institute for Advanced Study. October 1941. Retrieved May 16, 2012.
- "Biography of Robert Kent". Array of Contemporary American Physicists. American Institute of Physics. Retrieved April 18, 2012.
- Aspray, William (May 29, 1987). "Oral history interview with Charles L. Critchfield]". Charles Babbage Institute. University of Minnesota. Retrieved April 17, 2012.
- Critchfield's Ordinance Patents: 2638051, 2996992, 2992612; US Patent and Trademark Office
- "Charles Louis Critchfield". Los Alamos National Laboratory. Retrieved June 12, 2010.
- Meade, Roger (2004). "Plutonium complicates early gun work". Los Alamos; 50 Years Ago. Los Alamos National Laboratory. Retrieved May 17, 2012.
- "The Manhattan Project and predecessor organizations". Array of Contemporary American Physicists. American Institute of Physics. Retrieved March 11, 2013.
- Hoddeson,, Lillian; Meade, Roger A.; et al. (2004). Critical Assembly: A Technical History of Los Alamos During the Oppenheimer Years, 1943–1945. Cambridge University Press. pp. 316–319. ISBN 978-0-521-54117-6.
- "Critchfield, Charles". Manhattan Project Veteran Archives. Retrieved 2 August 2013.
- Ney, Edward; Winckler, John (1956). Final Report: Research and Development in the Field of High Altitude plastic Balloons, Vol XVI. University of Minnesota.
- Patent 3063656: PLASTIC CYLINDER BALLOON, US Patent and Trademark Office
- Critchfield, C. L.; E. P. Ney, and Sophie Oleksa (June 6, 1950). "The Electrons in Cosmic Rays". Physical Review 79 (2): 402–403. Bibcode:1950PhRv...79..402C. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.79.402.2.
- Critchfield, Robert. "Reminiscence of my father". Atomic Heritage Foundation. Retrieved April 18, 2012.
- Erickson, W. C. (September 8–11, 2004). "Lessons Learned from the Clark Lake Experience". In Kassim, N. ASP Conference Series, Vol. 345. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Astronomical Society of the Pacific. p. 89. Retrieved May 16, 2012.
- "The Long Wavelength Array". University of New Mexico. Retrieved May 16, 2012.
- "Defense: New Man for Space". Time. November 16, 1959. Retrieved August 3, 2013.
- "The Administration: WOC's Walkout". Time. November 23, 1959. Retrieved August 3, 2013.
- "Burials in Guaje Pines Cemetery See lots 726 and 727". Retrieved May 17, 2012.