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<title>Bill Wattenburg’s Background: A Colleague’s Observations</title>


<h1>A Colleague’s Observations</h1>

<p>We interviewed a professor of engineering at a major California university who worked with
Bill Wattenburg at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site in 1962–1963 and at the Livermore
National Laboratory for some time after that. Like many of his former scientific colleagues we interviewed,
this man has followed Wattenburg’s public career ever since.</p>

<p>His candid recollections give a good picture of Bill Wattenburg’s personality and style as a young
scientist. We believe these observations explain a lot about Wattenburg’s public activities and
personality in later years, as we have summarized it in the following sections of this report.</p>

<p>These are the professor’s comments taped and included here with his permission:</p>

<hr />

<p>“Bill Wattenburg’s mind just doesn’t work the same way that everyone else’s does. He is
bored to death with complicated solutions to difficult scientific problems. He obviously
understands scientific fundamentals as well as any of the rest of us, but he is basically lazy. … He
was always looking for the simple solution that everyone else had overlooked. His favorite saying
was: ‘A smart cowboy just wouldn’t work this hard to make things so goddamn difficult.’ Then
he would throw up his hands and go off to tease the ladies in some local bar down the
highway while the rest of us were working our butts off.</p>


<p>“But, all too often, he would come back to wake us all up in our trailers in the middle of
the night and march us into the laboratory to see some Rube Goldberg solution he had discovered,
or a clever gadget he had built to do the same thing we had worked months to do.</p>


<p>“I admired the guy’s genius, but I have to admit that I came to simply dread working with
him for the first few months that I knew him. You are always wondering when he is going to
make a fool out of you, and do it in some simple way or with some crazy experiment that forces
you to stand and applaud your own ignorance. … He was always watching everything what
everybody else was doing. He seldom ever criticized, but you always had the feeling that he was
seeing something about your work that you didn’t realize yourself. It was very unnerving in the
beginning. … But I have to admit that now I try to teach my own graduate students some of the
things I learned from him.</p>


<p>“He was only twenty-five when I began working for him at the Test Site. It was hard to
believe that he was a nuclear weapons designer from ‘A’ division. Most of us were ten years
older and we were working for him. … The guy never slept. … A tennis game was the only thing
that seemed to hold his attention in one place for more than an hour … or maybe a cute cowgirl on
a barstool somewhere.</p>

<p>“There was a problem with him on this score. Once in a while they would have to send
out the Test Site security guards to scout every country bar within 50 miles of the test site to find
him if a problem came up on a weekend. I remember once when they brought him back to the
trailers and he had blood all over his shirt. Someone asked him if he had been in an accident. He
said, ‘No, some women just like to make their cowboys jealous. I guess it makes him better in bed
after she takes him home and patches him up.’</p>

<p>“Once when an underground nuclear test at Mercury was delayed and there was absolutely
nothing we could do for two days but catch up on our sleep, he kept busy tuning up every
secretary’s car in the parking lot, free of charge of course. We all knew what he was doing … he
always found a lady friend out in that god-forsaken desert somewhere who took real good care of
him. We would get hamburgers for dinner in the cafeteria and he would get a steak with all the


<p>“He would try any damn thing that popped into his mind—even at
the very last minute before a nuclear shot. He was always pushing everybody to try add-on
experiments that he cooked up. He was always fooling around with your equipment in the test
shack in the middle of the night. You’d come back the next morning and something would be
changed. It was hard enough to carry out the main experiments that we were supposed to do.
And, he was supposed to be the group leader. But his attitude was that once he showed you how
to do something, and he was very good at that, it was all over as far as he was concerned. It was
of no interest to him whatsoever after that. I didn’t feel that he was a good manager in that sense,
but he made up for it in other ways that I’ll tell you about later.<p>


<p>We actually got to the point that we would hide any extra test equipment, like
oscilloscopes and cameras, and even dumb things like extra pieces of wire and signal cable. If you
didn’t, he would try to use them for some other quirky experiment that could be wired
up at the last minute before the shot. He always liked to find things he could add on to other
people’s equipments that we had been working on for months to get checked out. Most of the
other physicists made jokes about his ideas. But, on one underground nuclear shot in 1962, they
all got a real jolt of a different sort.</p>

<p>“One of his ‘midnight’ experiments hit the jackpot. The results shocked all the experts.
And it was one that the bosses in ‘L’ division at Livermore had said could not possibly work. I
remember that he was really pissed off because they wouldn’t even let him use some spare test
equipment from the Livermore shops to do it. How he got permission and the equipment I don’t
know. Another physicist from ‘A’ division named Russ Duff worked with him, I recall. Yes, I
think it was Russ Duff who was showing everybody the surprising results of Wattenburg’s
experiment right after the shot. … I mean the pictures from the Polaroid cameras we used in those
days to record test results from a shot. They were all gathered around Russ Duff talking about it.
Someone asked Wattenburg at dinner that night in the cafeteria what he thought about his
experiment and he said something like ‘Yeah, I thought it would be interesting. Now maybe those
assholes will wake up next time.’ I think he was talking about the bosses at
‘L’ division who wouldn’t help him do it.</p>

<p>“What Wattenburg discovered in this experiment really changed the way we instrumented
bomb tests after that. The report on his Nevada Test Site experiment was still classified for many
years after that for reasons that I never understood. I was going to talk about it in a classified
seminar I was going to give to new test engineers in 1975, and I discovered that his report was
still classified beyond my need to know, which I thought was fairly high at the time. I told the
head of the division that I thought it was a valuable example for new test engineers … which means
that I’m a hell of a hypocrite for what I said a while ago about Wattenburg’s crazy ideas. The
division head, I’ll leave his name out of this, told me that I shouldn’t discuss his report. He said it
was a “sensitive matter” that he didn’t want to have to get into right then. I dropped
the subject.</p>


<p>“A year or so later, I saw Wattenburg and asked him what was the big deal with his report
on the 1962 experiment. We all knew that the scheme he discovered—invented would be a better
description—was being used by everybody in the nuclear testing business since 1963. He just
shrugged his shoulders and muttered something like ‘It looks like everybody but me has made a
career out of being the real expert on that subject.’ I sensed that there was some annoyance on
his part over it, so I dropped the subject.</p>

<p>“This wasn’t the only startling thing he did when he was at the lab by any means. After I
was no longer working with him in Nevada, I heard through the grapevine at the lab that he shook
them up a few more times in ‘A’ division, that’s the H-bomb design division. I heard a few of the
bomb designers say later that they were happy when he finally went back to teaching at
Berkeley. … But if he went back to Berkeley you’d never have known it. I saw him at
the lab at night for years after that. I would go in late at night or on weekends to check on one of my
experiments or a computer run, and I’d see him in the computer room or in the cafeteria, sometimes
at two in the morning.</p>


<p>“A guy in ‘A’ division told me a story about how Wattenburg learned to deal with the
bureaucracy at the Laboratory after his first successful experiment. He said that Wattenburg had
another idea and he desperately wanted money to do the experiment. He bragged that this idea
was so good that he was going to convince them to give him two hundred thousand dollars to do
this experiment. Everyone laughed at him. When he went to see the the bosses, they would only
agree to give him twenty thousand. He was happy as a lark when he came back to the physics
department. Some thought that he had gotten what he wanted. One of the physicists asked him:
‘Did you get the two-hundred thousand you wanted?’</p>

<p>“He answered: ‘No. I got twice as much as I needed.’ ”</p>

<p><i>(The professor now talks at length about other scientists at the Livermore lab that
Wattenburg used to pal around with, how he taught them to ride a horse in a local rodeo, shoot a
pistol, water-ski, go deer hunting in the Sierra, and some of his amusing escapades with women
at the lab. None of this is relevant here, but it is consistent with Wattenburg’s general playfulness
and hobbies that are reported elsewhere in this report.)</i></p>

<br />

<p>He continues:</p>

<p>“Bill Wattenburg’s latest hobby on radio and television is just the right place for him to show off what a clever
smart-ass he can be. … On the other hand, there are probably few good scientists who can explain complex technical things to the lay public as well as
he can. … He can cook up the most clever little experiments for people to do at home so that they
can explain science to themselves. He’s really good with bright kids. I’ve heard ten-year olds call
him on the radio at midnight. They love him … but that’s because he’s still just a kid at heart

<p>“I’m sure a lot of people are happy he is spending his time as a radio celebrity nowadays
instead of on their backs in the laboratory. … It’s probably a good thing that the crazy guy got
rich from his early inventions because the ordinary engineers of the world simply wouldn’t be safe
with him wondering around looking for consulting contracts to beat them at their own
game. …Anyone who has ever worked with him would never bet money that he couldn’t open a bank
vault with the manager’s own pocketknife.</p>


<p>“I think he has been away from the scientific laboratory too long now to still be up on the
cutting edge of scientific research. … That means he’ll probably walk into my lab any day now and
tell me how much he enjoyed reading my latest scientific papers. Then he’ll probably show me all
the simple things I overlooked.</p>


<p>“But if you want to know what I really think of him, I’ll tell you. If I am ever trapped in a
spaceship and everyone says it is hopeless, I hope he is still around, and near a telephone. …”</p>