The atomic physicist who lost 'the biggest secret on the planet' in a train toilet and the theories about his fate

The atomic physicist who lost ‘the biggest secret on the planet’ in a train toilet and the theories about his fate

On the morning of Wednesday January 7, 1953, the atomic physicist Jean Archibald Wheeler stood on her tiptoes on the toilet in a train bathroom to look at the next cabin, where another man was doing what is done in these intimate spaces. Wheeler, a happily married man, risked being caught and labeled a sexual deviant.

His prestigious position at Princeton and at the top of the American scientific community would surely be destroyed by the ensuing scandal. But at that moment, he was not thinking about any of these consequences. His attention was not on the man sitting on the toilet seat below, but on the wall beside him, where a manila wrap was hidden behind the toilet system pipes. It contained nothing less than the biggest secret on the planet.and Wheeler had to get it back.

Albert Einstein, Hideki Yukawa and John Archibald Wheeler in conversation at Princeton, 1954BBC/Getty Pictures

The distraught scientist had left it there when he visited that cabin a few minutes earlier.

Wheeler, 41 (“Johnny,” as his friends knew him) had been a key figure in the manhattan project What developed the first atomic bomb during the war, then was the director of Matterhorn B the project of United States H-bomb based at Princeton University, where he had been professor of physics since 1938.

He had taken the overnight train to Washington DC that day to meet with officials from the US Naval Research Laboratory about an unrelated project, but decided he would also use his time in the capital to personally deliver his comments. on the H-bomb at the Joint Commission on Atomic Energy (JCAE).

He had put in the manila envelope a six-page document that had been sent to him, which contained details of the history of the making of the H-bombthe terrifying new weapon of mass destruction that only the United States possessed, and enough up-to-date technical detail to excite a foreign power.

At night, he took out the document to read it and take notes before going to sleep. When he woke up in the morning, he took him with him to the bathroom so as not to leave him unattended. in cabin n°9, but he stayed in the cabin who was busy now.

When he saw that the man had finished, Wheeler dove and grabbed the manila wrap. Very relieved, he returns to his cabin and begins to pack his suitcase to leave.

With everything ready, he pulled out the manila envelope for a final check on the H-bomb document. To his horror, the envelope contained only one other, more mundane document: the H-bomb report was missing.

A desperate search for his bunk and the entire car, followed by a frantic tour of Washington’s Union Station rooms and restaurants in an attempt to identify any of his traveling companions, proved fruitless.

Had it been stolen, Wheeler thought, by a Soviet agent?

Wheeler was a pioneer of quantum theory and nuclear fission;  he is credited with coining the term "black hole"
Wheeler was a pioneer of quantum theory and nuclear fission; credited with coining the term “black hole”BBC/Getty Pictures

completely discouraged, he had no choice but to declare his loss to the JCAEthree members of which rushed to the station to help with the search.

Finally, shortly after noon, the director general of the JCAE, William Bordenaccepted the inevitable and phoned the FBI office in Washington.

Within five weeks, the special agent Charles Lyonsat the forefront of the investigation was able to identify and exclude five men as suspects that they had taken neighboring berths on the train in which Wheeler had traveled from Philadelphia. But worrying gaps remained.

First, Lyons was unable to locate an ‘ordinary, simply dressed’ couple in their 30s and 40s, and their young son, who had bought last-minute tickets and occupied the lower and upper berths. of cabin No. 1. Even more disturbing was the inability to find the occupant of lower berth No. 8, diagonally opposite Wheeler.

Lyons had this individual’s ticket, purchased at the Philadelphia ticket office, but unfortunately the name on the railroad’s seating chart could not be identified, although it was investigated at the FBI lab in Chicago. . .

What was the content of the H-bomb article?

what he read that night remains so far very well ranked. But we can infer something from what he said from Wheeler’s interview with the FBI.

The document confirmed that the United States was on the way to a successful thermonuclear weapon (He had tested a rough-and-ready prototype, codenamed “Ivy Mike,” in November 1952.) He also revealed that there were several varieties of thermonuclear weapons believed to be available for practical use.

Wheeler told his inquisitors that the top secret document also revealed technical details about the manufacture of the “super” fusion bomb: that “Lithium-6 and compression were useful and radiant heating provided a way to achieve this compression.”

Physicist thought mention of lithium-6 as vital ingredient would have sparked Kremlin interest. But he told FBI investigators that “the qualitative idea of ​​radiation implosion … is the most important revelation” and could be crucial information for Soviet atomic scientists.

A mushroom cloud during Operation Ivy, the first hydrogen bomb test, on Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands
A mushroom cloud during Operation Ivy, the first hydrogen bomb test, on Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall IslandsBBC/Getty Pictures

Wheeler used to be careless with official documents, but no one believed he was a Soviet spy.. Investigating the matter, Agent Lyons first reported the movements of all Soviet diplomatic personnel that morning of January 7. He then launched an investigation into what he described as a “delegation of radicals” who was heading for the capital on Wheeler’s train. It was a group whose destination was the White House where would carry banners urging the president to commute the Rosenbergs’ death sentence.

FBI agents took numerous photographs and film reels of this protest, and asked Wheeler to study them to see if he recognized any of the people on his January 6-7 train ride. But the scientist was unable to provide a positive identification, and this trail has gotten cold.

fear and paranoia

The loss of the H-bomb document could not have happened in a critical moment of the cold waror more feverish in American history. The war in korea already two and a half years old, showed no signs of ending. chief witch hunter, Joe McCarthyfueled a climate of anxiety, even paranoia vis-à-vis the Communists within the government.

So there were the atomic spies, Julius and Ethel Rosenbergwho had been tried, convicted and sentenced to death. Since the end of December 1952, the couple’s supporters had been carrying out a continuation of the picket in front of the White Houseask the president Harry S Truman to grant the couple clemency before leaving office later that month.

Handcuffed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg kiss in the back of a prison van after being charged with treason, New York, 1950
Handcuffed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg kiss in the back of a prison van after being charged with treason, New York, 1950BBC/Getty Images

In the midst of it all, this disappearance, which could have come straight out of the pages of a spy novel, perhaps from the pen of someone like Ian Flemingwho in 1953 was about to introduce the world to James Bond in Royal Casino.

The Eisenhower Charge

The H-bomb document may simply have fallen from Wheeler’s hands when he fell asleep. that Tuesday night, somehow disappearing into the train’s structure, equipment, or bedding.

But when the newly elected president Dwight Eisenhower had the mission of revealing the disappearance of the writing to its National Security Council a month later, most of them they were convinced it was the work of the Sovietsno more than vice president Richard Nixonwho urged the FBI to carry out a full screening of each of the JCAE members.

Eisenhower asked his aide to contact the FBI Director, J Edgar Hooveron the ‘custody’ of all committee records, before other documents are lost. Eisenhower’s mood that day was a mixture of deep anxiety and anger that such a calamity would occur so early in his term. Rarely has a US president openly expressed his feelings so bluntly. to his closest colleagues.

Dwight David "as" Eisenhower was an American military officer and president from 1953 to 1961
Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower was an American military officer and president from 1953 to 1961BBC/Getty Pictures

He candidly admitted that I was afraid”, and had no idea how to proceed. He expressed bewilderment that the document in Wheeler’s possession had been mistakenly labeled “secret” instead of “top secret”and simply sent by certified mail to a “college professor” at Princeton instead of being escorted through his hands by an armed guard.

If those responsible for this disastrous security breach – JCAE personnel – had been in the military, “they would have been shot”exclaimed the president. The JCAE would soon have a new president and a new configuration, but, as Eisenhower lamented, it would simply amount to “closing the barn door after the theft of the horse”.

Where was the document?

FBI agents from across the eastern United States interviewed hundreds of people and oversaw the search for miles of railroad tracks and dozens of train cars, but found nothing. The search is over and Eisenhower focused on other more immediate concerns, primarily trying to end the war in Korea.

Perhaps the H-bomb document will one day appear in one of the Kremlin archives.. What is a fact is that barely 7 months later, in August 1953, the Soviet Union caught up with the United States. when he tested his own prototype H-bomb on the steppe of northeastern Kazakhstan.

As for ‘Johnny’ Wheeler, was only scolded by Gordon Deanchairman of the atomic energy committee: he was too valuable a member of the H-bomb project to be fired.

Years later, reflecting on the incident in his memoirs, Wheeler wrote: “It is interesting even now to wonder if my document was not stolen by a Soviet agent. He could hardly have faded.”.

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