Chatting with Ben Segal - Podcast Episode 3 - Los Alamos

May 20, 2020

CERN Alumnus, David Garcia Quintas approached the Alumni Relations team some months ago with the idea of creating a podcast. Out of this idea is born the 'Chatting with Ben Segal' serial which you will find here on the CERN Alumni Network, in weekly installments.

Introducing Chatting with Ben Segal


Episode 3 - Los Alamos



Ben: [00:00:00] Another thing which I learned, I made friends with a very, very good programmer, called Tony Hassitt, who had written a program to solve simplified equations of reactor theory to design reactor cores. And I became very interested in this program and I became an expert in handling input and output for this program. You know, being a liaison between the physics group for running this program, presenting the results, etc. If you like I was I was ... I was not programming, but I would talk a lot to him and feed back ideas from us. And so I helped to design this program, helped to develop it (he did all the programming). And it was a very advanced program. And what that led to, after I moved to the States, which we'll talk about later, it led me to take this program to Los Alamos Laboratory, where our program was much faster than their program, though it was less accurate, but it was a very, very fast program.

Ben: [00:01:03] So Tony let me take a tape. Well, he let me take a tape with me from England to this company. And we used his program inside the company I worked for - the private company that we'll talk about. But soon the word got out that we had this very fast program and Los Alamos was interested. And so they flew me out to Los Alamos in 1963...

David: [00:01:26] With the physical tape?

Ben: [00:01:27] With the physical type, yeah. And it was a wonderful experience. So I was 26 years old. I had never been to the West before - I'd been to the Midwest, I was in that. And it was the most romantic trip. So I flew to Albuquerque, which was for me like a different world.

David: [00:01:45] It is pretty.

Ben: [00:01:46] Yeah. And I arrived there in the night, in the evening, it was before sunset. And I had instructions what to do. It was rather mysterious. I had to go to a certain desk, OK. And it was called Carco. I remember the name - "Go to the Carco desk and wait". So there was I with my tape and my bag. Nothing much happened at the Carco desk. The airport was pretty empty anyway. And soon, though, a guy comes just in jeans, jeans and sort of maybe a cowboy hat, I don't remember. "Mr. Segal?". I said "Yes". "Come with me". So we go out the side entrance to a little plane and he flies me in this little Cessna or whatever it was, up from Albuquerque up to the Mesa, which is where Los Alamos is. And I was, you know at that time, of course, I didn't have the guilt feelings about Hiroshima. Being a young physicist through the war and everything, I still thought that the Manhattan Project was the most exciting thing in the world. It was a great achievement and so on, and here I was. And we land there and a car comes for me and we're delivered to the old lodge ...

Ben: [00:03:04] The guy who came in the car was also, he wasn't in jeans but he was in a sort of a hunting type shirt and a string tie, I remember. He was the Director of the Computing Division - Carroll Zabel he was called, I remember his name from all that time ago. He welcomed me like I was his friend. You know, a long lost ... It was so unexpected and so charming as a young man.

*** ERRATUM: Carroll Zabel was the Division Leader of the Reactor Development Division, not of the Computing Division (BS) ***

Ben:[00:03:32] So he took me to the Lodge. The Lodge at that time was a log cabin type building, which was the original school building where Oppenheimer and company had .. it was what existed when Oppenheimer discovered it. In fact, Oppenheimer's family used to go there to ride horses. Oppenheimer came from a very rich family and so Oppenheimer knew this part of the world from before, and when they needed a lab in the back of beyond, in remote places, he thought of putting it there. So what we were staying in was the original building there. It was a school or - I don't know what it was. It was a school, but it was a ranch. And that building was pulled down since. So I stayed there. And later that evening for supper, the guy comes for me and we go to eat supper in his house with his family. The next morning, I go in with my tape, I deliver the tape and they gave me a tour of Los Alamos's Computer Center. I still remember the machine there. It was called the IBM Stretch machine, the biggest machine in the world. It was literally very big. It was very long. It had lights flashing. It looked like the biggest computer in the world.

Ben:[00:04:47] Now I went back in '91, it must have been, back to Los Alamos for meetings with our Division Leader of the time, by the way. And we couldn't get in - the meeting was held outside the fence. It was part of Los Alamos's meeting rooms. But we were not allowed in - there was no question of going inside to see the computer centre, no question.

Ben:[00:05:12] So that was very exciting. And that shows how accidents lead to interesting things. In exchange, by the way, we got a copy of their neutron transport program written by a Swede, called Bengt Carlson, I remember, and I could take that back, too, with me to the company in which I was working.

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