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The man who was nearly Oppenheimer

Nobel Laureate Carl David Anderson was the first person tapped to lead Project Y.
July 6, 2020
A man stands in front of a chalkboard.

Physicist Carl David Anderson had no regrets about turning down the top scientific leadership role at Project Y.CREDIT: Archives, California Institute of Technology

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“I believe my greatest contribution to the World War II effort was my inability to take part in the development of the atomic bomb.”- Carl Anderson

By John Moore

In 1936, 31-year-old physicist Carl David Anderson was the youngest person at that time to receive the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the positron years earlier. (A positron is a subatomic particle with the same mass as an electron and a numerically equal positive charge.)

About six years later, he was approached by fellow physicist and Nobel Laureate Arthur Compton. Compton had three telegraphs; two asked Anderson to head the government’s topsecret project that would eventually produce the world’s first atomic bombs. The third telegraph was a request that none other than Robert Oppenheimer join Anderson’s ongoing scientific work—as Anderson’s assistant—to discuss the “theorical aspects” of the project.

While at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where Anderson studied, taught, and researched, Anderson often interacted with Oppenheimer. Anderson recalled that Oppenheimer believed he (Oppenheimer) would never be able to work on Project Y due to his past affiliation with the Communist Party.

Anderson never pursued the job offer that ultimately helped end World War II and made “Oppenheimer” a household name. In his autobiography, The Discovery of Anti-Matter: The Autobiography of Carl David Anderson, the Youngest Man to Win the Nobel Prize, Anderson said that his inability to head Project Y was out of his control, citing economic and family issues.

He wrote, “I believe my greatest contribution to the World War II effort was my inability to take part in the development of the atomic bomb.” In a 1990 Los Angeles Times interview, Anderson said he had no regrets about his decision not to lead Project Y because of the burden it had placed on his friend “Oppie.”

During World War II, however, Anderson played a major role in the ability of Allied aircraft to fire a variety of rockets that were developed at Caltech. He would also continue to interact with famed Manhattan Project scientists, such as Seth Neddermeyer, who championed the implosion-style nuclear weapon called Fat Man. (In the pre-war years, Anderson had worked with Neddermeyer to discover the muon in 1936.) Anderson's discovery of the positron is still significant for various types of sciences, including particle accelerator experiments and what are commonly called PET scans, which help diagnose diseases.

Meanwhile, Oppenheimer was nominated for the Nobel Prize for physics three times—in 1945, 1951, and 1967—but never won. 

A portrait of Carl Anderson.

Carl Anderson