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Glimpse of the Past

I just found this photograph on my hard drive. I don’t know where it came from; I have no memory of seeing it before. It is a low-resolution image, grainy and shadowed. Three men on a bench: one wearing a suit and tie (you can almost make out the time on his wristwatch); one slouching in a white T-shirt; one with a cigarette in his left hand. Looking at the picture makes my heart pound.

I never met any of them (they died in 1957, 1987, and 1984), but I recognize their faces. A Hungarian, an American, a Pole. They appear in at least three of my books (prominently or in passing). I don’t know who made the photograph or when (maybe a reader can tell me)—except that once you know who they are, you know exactly where they are and you know the date, or pretty close.

There’s something awesome about a random glimpse into history. It’s just a point in spacetime. I’d give a lot to be a fly on the wall.


  1. Chris Quigg says

    A little Googling turned up a Russian scan (http://scilib.narod.ru/Nukes/RhodesII/photos.htm) of Richard Rhodes’s Dark Sun, from which I found a credit to Ulam’s widow, Françoise. A bit more led to a recent article celebrating Ulam’s 100th birthday anniversary (http://ajmaa.org/searchroot/files/pdf/v6n1/v6i1p1.pdf) in which the photo appears, but flipped in the apparently correct parity (see Ulam’s pocket). There it is attributed to “A photo taken near Los Alamos sometime in 1950s by a Los Alamos staff photographer.” I would have guessed it was during the Manhattan project.

    • gleick says

      That was fast! And of course you’re right that the picture is flopped. I think I’ll correct it.

      I, too, was guessing ’43-44.

  2. gleick says

    Erratum: Since the original posting, the parity of the photograph has been corrected, as per Chris Quigg’s comment.

  3. Scott Love says

    I wonder if I or my children will ever see a picture like this in our lifetime where the greatest scientific minds of the generation collaborate together in a race against time to make something like the NIF project achieve a breakthrough sooner. Short of a planetary collision or an invasion from another civilization, I doubt it will happen again.

    Thanks for sharing this photo.

  4. Cathy Fuerst says

    It is easy to imagine this photo with the glow of a laptop in one of their faces. And yet. Revolutionaries.

  5. Gregory J. McRae says

    The photograph was taken at Bandelier National Monument, which is a short distance from Los Alamos. The correctly oriented photograph can be seen on the American Institute of Physics web site (see Catalog #: Ulam Stanislaw C2). There is no date.

    • gleick says

      Interesting—Bandelier is very plausible. I’m agreeing with Chris Quigg about the orientation, though: the version at AIP is flopped. It’s correct (now) above.

  6. Lawrence Sherman says

    An unrelated comment. Yesterday’s New York Times obituaries (Sunday, April 24th, Section A, p. 20) featured Max Mathews, a “..Pioneer in Making Computer Music”. William Grimes obituary pointed out Max Mathews connection with the Bell Labs, John R. Pierce and Claude Shannon’s work. Max published an article in Science entitled “The Digital Computer as a Musical Instrument” in 1963. While even most musicologists are not familiar with Max Mathews, there exists an inner circle of electronic music enthusiasts who are quite aware of his importance to digital music. I believe he might be of interest to you, especially in relation to your discussion at the bottom of page 349 in The Information book. I just happen to be reading “The Information” at the same time as this obit came forth and immediately saw the connection to one of your key characters, Claude Shannon. Just thought I would draw your attention to this important innovator in the digital music world! In future revisions of your book he might be a significant addition to the many important characters you have developed throughout you delightful book: I’m really enjoying it!

  7. Steve Pratt says

    I look at that picture and I can’t help but feel the impact of it and what it conveys. Amazing men, incredible, world-shaking events, profound historical significance — stunning.

  8. Bruce Hay says

    From their expressions they could be talking about almost anything. He could even be telling a joke, except that the other two were so famous for seeing around the curve that you’d never get to the punchline… Sort of like that meta-joke about club that just calls out numbers.

    • Bruce Hay says

      Sorry to reply to myself, but this has been nagging me all day. Earth-shaking information is being uncovered and exchanged at this place (if not at this precise moment!); secrets are being unlocked that no one else begins to fathom. Our inability to know what is being said in the picture is a sort of figure for our exclusion from that most exclusive of clubs… And, pursuing my joke reference a bit more, you do wonder what those guys could possibly say that the the others hadn’t already thought of, or wouldn’t instantaneously after 3 syllables — I envision their conversations on technical matters as being very clipped, each finishing the others’s sentences. Except perhaps when recounting a story.

  9. Matt Geiser says

    Françoise Ulam very recently passed away at the age of 93.

  10. Charles E Smith says

    I stumbled across this web space as I am reading “Information” at present, and was interested in learning more about its author.

    That is an amazing photograph.
    It demonstrated to me the “smallness” of the planet on which we live.
    My father’s brother MSgt Stanley Smith USAF was stationed at White Sands Missile Testing Facility during that time as one of the several base technical photographers. He very well could have been the photographer who took that photograph.
    While I was between High School and College I spent a long summer at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico (he retired there after his time of service) The collection of photographs he had from that time were all pretty amazing.
    Unfortunately he has since passed from diabetes, which caused blindness in its final stages.
    Thank you for posting it, altho’ it does mean as much to me regarding the people depicted in it, it also reminded me of someone very special in my life.

  11. ross.donovan says

    From the left I think it is John von Neumann and Richard Feynman.

  12. Darren C. says

    I remember reading somewhere that when Feynman was asked about this picture, he thought it was from some sort of reunion gathering of the Los Alamos team, that took place sometime after they had disbanded from working on the bomb. I always thought that sounded wrong though, because Feynman in a t-shirt and looking so young looks to me like it would have to be during the building of the bomb.

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