Oral Histories

Interview of Willard F. Libby

UCLA professor of chemistry and director of the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics. Commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission.
Nobel Laureate
UCLA and University of California History
Science, Medicine, and Technology
UCLA Faculty
Terrall, Mary
Libby, Willard F.
Persons Present:
Libby and Terrall.
Place Conducted:
Tapes I, II, and IV: Libby's home in Santa Monica, California; Tape III: Libby's office, UCLA.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library's Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Mary Terrall, assistant editor, Oral History Program, UCLA; B.A., folklore and mythology, Radcliffe College.
Processing of Interview:
Editing was done by the interviewer. She checked the verbatim transcript against the original tape recordings, editing for spelling, punctuation, and paragraphing, and verifying all proper nouns. Words and phrases inserted by the editor have been bracketed. Libby reviewed and approved the edited transcript. Stephen Stern, senior editor, reviewed the edited transcript before it was typed in its final form. Front matter and index were prepared by Oral History Program staff.
5.5 hrs.
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Early childhood in Colorado; move to Sebastopol, California, at age five; attending University of California, Berkeley; chemistry professors Gilbert Newton Lewis and Wendell Latimer; building first Geiger counter; Ernest Lawrence and cyclotron development; medical isotopes; J. Robert Oppenheimer; communists on campus; volunteering to work with Harold Urey at Columbia University at start of World War II; chemistry of gaseous diffusion plant; Manhattan Project personnel; General Leslie R. Groves; electron tunneling; barrier problem solutions; first atomic bombing; uranium hexafluoride; Oak Ridge diffusion plant, Tennessee; Leona Woods Libby's work as Enrico Fermi's top assistant; Harry S Truman and hydrogen bomb; Klaus Fuchs, Guy Burgess, and Donald Maclean; bacteriological and chemical warfare research; postwar move to University of Chicago with Urey; discovery of radiocarbon dating; Martin Kamen, Sam Rubin, Serge Korff, and Ernest Anderson; collaboration with archaeologists and geologists; Albert Einstein, Fermi, George Gamow, and Edward Teller; democracy and conservative politics; appointment to General Advisory Committee of Atomic Energy Commission, 1950; fallout dissemination; Pacific bomb tests, 1954; Rand Corporation study, Project Sunshine; strontium 90 and cesium 137 research; lack of good data on health effects; appointment to Atomic Energy Commission, 1954; Lewis Strauss and Thomas Murray; Clinton Anderson, Melvin Price, and Henry Jackson; William F. Knowland and Bourke Hickenlooper; Atoms for Peace program; John McCone and Glenn Seaborg; importance of biostatistics; fallacies in position taken by Hermann Muller, Linus Pauling, and Bertrand Russell; Joint Committee on Atomic Energy; fallout shelters; atomic test ban; International Conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, 1955; James E. Carter's energy program; talks with President Dwight D. Eisenhower; move to UCLA, 1959; Lynn White, Gustave von Grunebaum, and Franklin D. Murphy; director, Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics; National Aeronautics and Space Administration and space program at UCLA; Edwin Pauley and attempts to locate Manned Space Flight Center at UCLA; John F. Kennedy; Lyndon B. Johnson; solar system magnetic field mapping; work on tritium in water dating; awarded Nobel Prize, 1960; nuclear medicine research at UCLA; appointed to California Air Resources Board by Governor Ronald W. Reagan; smog control problems; Governor Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown, Jr.; applied science versus research.