The adventures of a mathematician bring an unknown world back to light

Polish mathematician Stanislaw Ulam helped design the H-bomb and predicted our digital world.

On November 1, 1952, the United States detonated its first thermonuclear weapon, Ivy Mike, off the coast of Anvitac in what is now the Marshall Islands. Many of us consider the late physicist Edward Teller to be the "father of the hydrogen bomb" - and Teller actually endorsed the idea of ​​a "super bomb" based on fusion. But almost no one outside of physics has heard of Stanislaw Ulam, the Polish mathematician and physicist who helped Teller achieve his goal, although the extent to which they contributed to the success of Teller Ulam's design remains highly debated. It is provocative.

Ulam is also known as the mastermind behind the Monte Carlo computational method, and was a pioneer in early computing technology with fellow Hungarian-born John von Neumann. He proposed a new method for propelling nuclear pulses for spacecraft, which led to the formation of Project Orion in 1958 with the goal of achieving interplanetary travel. And as many of his Los Alamos teammates learned on their account, he was a great poker player.

The life of this extraordinary and unknown scientist focuses on The Adventures of a Mathematician, a new German film. Directed by Thor Klein, Klein's thoughtful and unpopular film is not a simple autobiography but more of a beautiful impromptu novel consisting of key events in Ulam's life that occurred in the immediate aftermath of World War II and its aftermath.

(Some spoilers for the video below). src = "" alt = " The adventures of a mathematician bring the unknown world back to light" srcset = " / 2021/10 / ulam10.jpg 2x "> Zoom / Ulam's best friend, John von Neumann (Fabian Kocchiche) convinces him to accept an unusual offer. YouTube / Samuel Goldwyn Films

What about Ulam? Did he make him too special in the eyes of his teammates? "The key is to have the right idea at the right time," science historian George Dyson, who consulted on the film, told Ars. "Olam is one of the main characters in my three books. It keeps popping up because he did so many different things. Many of the ideas we give to others came from their withdrawal from Olam." Aside from his research in pure mathematics and logic, Ulam is known for a range of influential ideas.


Teller-Ulam is the first and most important plan for nuclear weapons. It was Enrico Fermi who first mentioned the possibility of using the energy of a fission device to start a fusion reaction to Edward Teller in the fall of 1941. Even after the Trinity test and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Teller was convinced of the need for a nuclear "cloud bomb". When the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb in August 1949 - an explosive device similar to that of a fat man went off in Nagasaki, using information provided by Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs - President Harry S. Truman revealed an American plan to develop a hydrogen bomb. . The attachment point for a hydrogen bomb was how the fusion material ignites, which requires extreme temperatures and pressures. The original idea was to use "trigger" fission, but the heat of the explosion alone was not enough. Ulam and Teller's innovative solution in 1951 is now called a "phase explosion" and is believed to be the basis of most nuclear weapons today.

Encounter with Edward Teller (Joel Beseman) over technical issues related to the Zoom / Encounter Edward Teller (Joel Besman) over technical issues with the "super" hydrogen bomb. YouTube / Samuel Goldwyn Films

While Teller later denied it, other physicists claim, Ulam's contribution , like nuclear weapons designer Ted Taylor, that Ulam deserves credit for his ideas about pressure and initial operation of weapons, while Teller recognizes that radiation—not hydrodynamic pressure—is the key to combustion.Olam came up with the idea for the Monte Carlo method while recovering from surgery, at a time when he was Scientists develop in it ENIAC, the first digital electronic computer with general programming capabilities.Play a lot of solitaire and try to estimate the probability of success of the game Canfield, for example, using abstract calculations.Demonstrate a more practical way, for example, mention the game a hundred times, then observe and calculate the number of Successful games.Olam quickly realized that a computer like ENIAC made Such methods are possible. When this was mentioned to von Neumann, they began to plan the actual calculations, and the Monte Carlo method was born. "Olam had a very clear picture that when you have enough computers, you really have a two-dimensional world," Dyson says. "Olam had the insight that you could look at this biologically. This group of cells could become 'full Turing' and become their world machines. So you can have free-floating computers in this." You have a digital space, which at the time seemed like a crazy idea. It took years for this idea to become science fiction. This is the digital world we live in, what we call the cloud.

Many of these, albeit briefly, are in the adventures of a mathematician. Director Klein has been reading the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study story ever since he read Who Takes Einstein's Desk (by Edward Regis). Both Olam and John played "They were having a party around Johnny and driving fast cars," Klein told Ars. "They were very different from the math teachers I used to work with in school."

Ulm was a talented poker player. src= Zoom / Ulam was a talented poker player. YouTube / Samuel Goldwyn Films

Initially, Klein dreamed of becoming a mathematician, but eventually realized that his strength in mathematics was what he says : “I had a great literary teacher who told me that these people and ideas maybe ‘I’m more interested in math than in real life.” And as I got older, I realized that parties and fast cars were on Surface. There was a deep tragedy underneath, because they lost their families and just had to rely on each other."

Klein encountered Ulam's memoirs, the adventures of a mathematician when he was still in film school, and decided to base his film on that. Of course, The story of the Manhattan Project and the birth of the atomic age has been repeatedly shown and retold in various ways.But Olam was a relatively minor character at Los Alamos.It is true that his ideas were important, especially for the next hydrogen bomb, but he is not one of the most famous names associated with the project in popular culture, such as Robert Oppenheimer and Teller. “Stan was on the sidelines," Klein said. "Many of the Los Alamos scholars were European immigrants who had fled Nazi occupation of their countries. This was also attractive to Klein."

The adventures of a mathematician bring an unknown world back to light
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