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George Kistiakowsky
Head and shoulders of middle-aged man in suit and tie
George Kistiakowsky
Born (1900-11-18)November 18, 1900
Kiev, Russian Empire
Died December 7, 1982(1982-12-07) (aged 82)
Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
Nationality Ukrainian-American
Alma mater University of Berlin
Known for Explosive forming
Manhattan Project
Signature Kistiakowsky signature.png

George Bogdanovich Kistiakowsky (November 18, 1900 – December 7, 1982) (Ukrainian language:Георгій Богданович Кістяківський ) was a Ukrainian-American physical chemistry professor at Harvard who participated in the Manhattan Project and later served as President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Science Advisor.

Born in Kiev in the old Russian Empire, Kistiakowsky fled Russia during the Russian Civil War. He made his way to Germany, where he earned his PhD in physical chemistry under the supervision of Max Bodenstein at the University of Berlin. He emigrated to the United States in 1926, where he joined the faculty of Harvard University in 1930, and became a citizen in 1933.

During World War II, he was the head of the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) section responsible for the development of explosives, and the technical director of the Explosives Research Laboratory (ERL), where he oversaw the development of new explosives, including RDX and HMX. He was involved in research into the hydrodynamic theory of explosions, and the development of shaped charges. In October 1943, he was brought into the Manhattan Project as a consultant. He was soon placed in charge of X Division, which was responsible for the development of the explosive lenses necessary for an implosion-type nuclear weapon. He watched an implosion weapon that was detonated in the Trinity test in July 1945. A few weeks later a Fat Man implosion weapon was dropped on Nagasaki.

From 1962 to 1965, he chaired the National Academy of Sciences's Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP), and was its vice president from 1965 to 1973. He severed his connections with the government in protest against the war in Vietnam, and became active in an antiwar organization, the Council for a Livable World, becoming its chairman in 1977.

Early lifeEdit

George Bogdanovich Kistiakowsky was born in Kiev, in the Kiev Governorate of the Russian Empire (in present day Ukraine), on November 18, 1900.[1] George's grandfather Oleksandr Fedorovych Kistiakovsky was a professor of law and an attorney of the Russian Empire who specialized in the criminal law.[2] His father Bogdan Kistiakovsky was the Professor of Legal Philosophy at the University of Kiev,[1] who was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in 1919.[3] Kistiakowsky 's mother was Maria Berendshtam, and he had a brother, Alexander.[1] George's uncle Ihor Kistiakovsky was the Minister of Internal Affairs of the Ukrainian State.[3]

Kistiakowsky attended private schools in Kiev and Moscow until the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917. He then joined the anti-Communist White Army. In 1920 he escaped from Russia in a commandeered French ship. After spending time in Turkey and Yugoslavia, he made his way to Germany, where he enrolled at the University of Berlin later that year.[1] In 1925, he earned his PhD in physical chemistry under the supervision of Max Bodenstein, writing his thesis on the photochemical decomposition of chlorine monoxide and ozone. He then became Brodenstein's graduate assistant.[4][1] His first two published papers were elaborations of his thesis, co-written with Brodenstein.[5]

Kistiakowsky came to the United States in 1926 as an International Education Board Fellow. Hugh Stott Taylor, a fellow student of Brodenstein,[6] accepted Bodenstein's assessment of Kistiakowsky, and gave him a place at Princeton University. That year, Kistiakowsky married a Swedish woman, Hildegard Moebius.[1] They had a daughter, Vera, in 1928, who later became a Professor Emerita of Physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.[7] When Kistiakowsky 's two-year fellowship ran out in 1927, he received a Research Associate and DuPont Fellowship. On 25 October 1928, he became an associate professor at Princeton.[4][1] Taylor and Kistiakowsky published a series of papers together,[5] Encouraged by Taylor, he published a American Chemical Society monograph on photochemical processes.[5][1]

In 1930, Kistiakowsky joined the faculty of Harvard University, an affiliation that continued through his career. At Harvard, his research interests were in thermodynamics, spectroscopy, and chemical kinetics. He became increasingly involved in consulting to the government and industry. He became an associate professor again, this time at Harvard in 1933. That year he also became an American citizen. In 1938, he became the Abbott and James Lawrence Professor of Chemistry.[8]

World War IIEdit

National Defense Research CommitteeEdit

Head and shoulders mug shot of middle-aged man in suit and tie. Lettering reads "C 16"

Kistiakowsky's Los Alamos wartime security badge

Foreseeing an expanded role for science in World War II, which the United States had not yet joined, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) on June 27, 1940, with Vannevar Bush as its chairman. James B. Conant, the President of Harvard,[9] was appointed head of Division B, which was responsible for bombs, fuels, gases and chemicals. He appointed Kistiakowsky to head its Section A-1, which was concerned with explosives.[10] In June 1941, the NDRC was absorbed into the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). Bush became Chairman of the OSRD, Conant succeed him as Chairman of the NDRC, and Kistiakowsky became head of Section B.[11] In a reorganization in December 1942, Division B was broken up, and he became head of Division 8, which was responsible for explosives and propellants, remaining in this position until February 1944.[12]

Kistiakowsky was unhappy with the state of American knowledge of explosives and propellants. To remedy this, Conant established the Explosives Research Laboratory (ERL) near the laboratories of the Bureau of Mines in Bruceton, Pennsylvania.[13] Kistiakowsky initially supervised the activities of the ERL, before Conant appointed him as its Technical Director in the spring of 1941.[14] The ERL reached a peak of 162 full-time staff in 1945.[15] An important field of research was RDX. This powerful explosive had been developed by the British before the war. The challenge was to develop an industrial process that could produce it on a large scale. RDX was also mixed with TNT to produce Composition B, which was widely used in various munitions, and torpex, which was used in torpedoes and depth charges. Pilot plants were in operation by May 1942, followed by large-scale production in 1943.[16]

A special request was for an explosive that could be smuggled through Japanese checkpoints by Chinese guerrillas. Kistakowsky mixed HMX, a non-toxic explosive that was produced as a by-product of the RDX process, with flour so as to create what was called Aunt Jemima, after a brand of pancake flour. The result was an edible explosive, which could pass for regular flour, and even be used in cooking.[17][18]

In addition to the research into synthetic explosives like RDX and HMX, the ERL investigated the properties of detonations and shock waves. This was initiated as a pure research project, without obvious or immediate applications. Kistiakowsky visited England in 1941 and again in 1942, where he met with British experts, including William Penney and Geoffrey Taylor. When Kistiakowsky and Edgar Bright Wilson, Jr., surveyed the existing state of knowledge, they found a number of areas that warranted further investigation. Kistiakowsky began to look into the Chapman–Jouguet model,[19] which describes the way the shock wave created by a detonation propagates.[20]

At this time, the efficacy of the Chapman–Jouguet mode was still in doubt, and it was the subject of studies by John von Neumann at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. Kistiakowsky realized that the deviations from hydrodynamic theory were the result of the speed of the chemical reactions themselves. In order to control the reaction, calculations needed to be made down to the microsecond level.[19] Section 8 was drawn into the investigation of shaped charges, whose mechanism was explained by Taylor and James L. Tuck in 1943.[21]

Manhattan ProjectEdit

At the Manhattan Project's Los Alamos Laboratory, research into implosion had been going on under Seth Neddermeyer, but his division had worked with cylindrical objects and small charges, and had only produced objects that looked like rocks. Their research was accorded a low priority, because the there was confidence that a gun-type nuclear weapon design would work for both uranium-235 and plutonium, and implosion technology would not be required.[22]

In September 1943, the Los Alamos Laboratory's director, Robert Oppenheimer, arranged for von Neumann to visit Los Alamos and look at implosion with a fresh set of eyes. After reviewing Neddermeyer's studies, and discussing the matter with Edward Teller, von Neumann suggested the use of high explosive in shaped charges to implode a sphere, which he showed could not only result in a faster assembly of fissile material than was possible with the gun method, but which could greatly reduce the amount of material required. The prospect of more efficient nuclear weapons impressed Oppenheimer, Teller and Hans Bethe, but they decided that an expert on explosives would be required. Kistiakowsky's name was immediately suggested, and Kistiakowsky was brought into the project as a consultant in October 1943.[22]

Cut away diagram of soccer ball like arrangement, with an inner and an outer ball.

In an implosion-type nuclear weapon, polygonal explosive lenses are arranged around the spherical pit.

Kistaiakowsky was initially reluctant to come, "partly because", he later explained, "I didn't think the bomb would be ready in time and I was interested in helping to win the war".[23] At Los Alamos, he began reorganizing the implosion effort. He introduced techniques such as using photography and X-Rays to study the behavior of shaped charges. The former had been extensively employed by the ERL, while the latter had been described in papers by Tuck, who also suggested the use of three dimensional explosive lenses. As with other aspects of the Manhattan Project, research into explosive lenses followed multiple lines of inquiry simultaneously, because, as Kistiakowsky noted it was "impossible to predict which of these basic techniques will be the more successful."[23]

Kistiakowsky brought with him to Los Alamos a detailed knowledge of all the studies into shaped charges that had been carried out at the ERL in 1942 and 1943, of the research there into explosives like Composition B, and of the procedures used at the ERL. Increasingly, the ERL itself would be drawn into the implosion effort, with its deputy director Duncan MacDougall also becoming the head of the Manhattan Project's Project Q.[24] Kistiakowsky replaced Neddermeyer as head of E (for explosives) Division in February 1944.[22] The implosion program acquired an new urgency after Emilio Segrè's group at Los Alamos verified that plutonium produced in the nuclear reactors contained plutonium-240, which made it unsuitable for use in a gun-type weapon.[25] A series of crisis meetings in July 1944 concluded that the only prospect for a working plutonium weapon was implosion. In August, Oppenheimer reorganized the entire laboratory to concentrate on it. A new explosives division, X Division was created under Kistiakowsky to develop the lenses.[26] Under Kistiakowsky's leadership, X-Division designed the complex explosive lenses needed to compress the fissile plutonium pit.[27] Work on molding the explosives into the right shape continued into 1945. The lenses needed to be flawless, and techniques for casting Composition B and Baratol had to developed. Fortunately, the ERL managed to devise a procedure for preparing Baratol in a form that was easy to cast.[28] In March 1945, Kistiakowsky became part of the Cowpuncher Committee, so-called because it rode herd on the implosion effort.[29] On July 16, 1945, Kistiakowsky watched as the first device was detonated in the Trinity test.[30] A few weeks later a Fat Man implosion-type nuclear weapon was dropped on Nagasaki.[31]

In addition to the work on implosion, he contributed to skiing in Los Alamos by using rings of explosives to fell trees for a ski slope - leading to the establishment of Sawyer's Hill Ski Tow Association.[32] He divorced Hildegard in 1942 and married Irma E. Shuler in 1945. They were divorced in 1962, and he married Elaine Mahoney.[33]

White House ServiceEdit

During the Eisenhower Administration Kistiakowsky was appointed to the President's Science Advisory Committee in 1957, and succeeded James R. Killian as it chairman in 1959. He directed the Office of Science and Technology Policy from 1959 to 1961, when he was succeeded by Jerome B. Wiesner.[34]

A rocket takes off from the launch pad.

Atlas, a first-generation intercontinental ballistic missile

In 1958, Kistiakowsky suggested to President Eisenhower that inspection of foreign military facilities was not sufficient to control their nuclear weapons. He cited the difficulty in monitoring missile submarines, and proposed that the arms control strategy focus on disarmament rather than inspections.[35] Subsequently as part of arms control planning and negotiation, he suggested, in January 1960, the "threshold concept". Under this proposal, all nuclear tests above the level of seismic detection technology would be forbidden. After that agreement, the US and USSR would work jointly to improve detection technology, revising the permissible test yield downward as techniques improved. This example of the "national means of technical verification", a euphemism for sensitive intelligence collection used in arms control, would provide safeguards, without raising the on-site inspection requirement to a level unacceptable to the Soviets. The US introduced the threshold concept to the Soviets at the Geneva arms control conference in January 1960, and the Soviets, in March, responded favorably, suggesting a threshold of a given seismic magnitude. Talks broke down as a result of the U-2 Crisis of 1960 in May.[36]

At the same time as the early nuclear arms control work, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Nathan F. Twining, sent a memorandum,[37] in August 1959, to the Secretary of Defense, Neil McElroy, which suggested that the Strategic Air Command (SAC) formally be assigned responsibility to prepare the national nuclear target list, and a single plan for nuclear operations. Up to that point, the Army, Navy, and Air Force had done their own target planning. That had led to individual targets being multiple targeted by the different services. The separate service plans were not mutually supporting, as, for example, by the Navy destroying an air defense facility on the route of an Air Force bomber going to a deeper target. While Twining had sent the memo to McElroy, the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff disagreed on the policy during early 1960.[38][39] Thomas Gates, who succeeded McElroy, asked President Dwight D. Eisenhower to decide the policy.[40]

Eisenhower said he would not "leave his successor with the monstrosity" of the uncoordinated and un-integrated forces that then existed. In early November 1960, he sent Kistiakowsky to the SAC Headquarters in Omaha to evaluate the SAC war plans. Initially, Kistiakowsky was not given access, and Eisenhower sent him back, with a much stronger set of orders that told SAC officers to cooperate with Kistiakowsky. Kistiaknowsky's report, presented on November 29, described uncoordinated plans with huge numbers of targets, many of which would be attacked by multiple forces, resulting in overkill. Eisenhower was shocked by the plans, and focused not just on the creation of the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), but on the entire process of picking targets, generating requirements, and planning for nuclear war operations.[41]

Later lifeEdit

After the Manhattan Project, and then after his White House service, he was a professor of physical chemistry at Harvard. When asked to teach a freshmen class in 1957, he turned to Hubert Alyea, whose lecture style had impressed him. Alyea sent him some 700 4 by 6 inches (10.2 by 15.2 cm) index cards containing details of lecture demonstrations. Aside from the cards, he never prepared the demonstrations. He later recalled:

I didn't think that was giving mother Nature a sporting chance. I would come into the lecture hall, glance at the chemicals and pile of cards and announce to the students "let's see what Alyea has for us today". I never used a text book, only your cards. I would glance at the instructions and carry out the experiment. If it worked we would bless you and pass on to the next demonstration. If it didn't work we would curse you, and spend the rest of the lecture trying to make it work.[8]
He retired from Harvard as professor emeritus in 1972.[42]

From 1962 to 1965, he chaired the National Academy of Science's Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP),[43] and was its vice president from 1965 to 1973.[44] He received a number of awards over the years, including the Department of the Air Force Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service in 1957. He was awarded the Medal for Merit by President Truman, Medal of Freedom by President Eisenhower in 1961, and the National Medal of Science by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967. He was also a recipient of the Priestley Medal from the American Chemical Society and the Franklin Medal from Harvard.[45][46]

In later years he was active in an antiwar organization, the Council for a Livable World. Kistiakowsky severed his connections with the government in protest against the US involvement in the war in Vietnam. In 1977, he assumed the chairmanship of the Council for Livable World, campaigning against nuclear proliferation.[42] He died of cancer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on December 17, 1982.[46] His body was cremated, and his ashes were scattered near his summer home on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.[33] His papers are in the Harvard University archives.[47]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 Dainton 1985, pp. 379-380.
  2. Heuman 1998, pp. 7-8, 213.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Heuman 1998, pp. 37-38.
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Kistiakowsky, George B. (George Bogdan), 1900- Papers of George B. Kistiakowsky : an inventory". Harvard University. Retrieved 7 May 2013. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Dainton 1985, p. 401.
  6. "Chemistry Tree - Max Ernst August Bodenstein Family Tree". Chemistry Tree. Retrieved 7 May 2013. 
  7. "Vera Kistiakowsky". Cambridge Women's Heritage Project. Retrieved 7 May 2013. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 Dainton 1985, p. 382.
  9. Stewart 1948, p. 7.
  10. Stewart 1948, p. 10.
  11. Stewart 1948, pp. 52-54.
  12. Stewart 1948, p. 88.
  13. Dainton 1985, p. 383.
  14. Noyes 1948, p. 27.
  15. Noyes 1948, p. 28.
  16. Noyes 1948, pp. 36-42.
  17. Clode, George (June 12, 2012). "Back to the Drawing Board – Aunt Jemima". Retrieved May 4, 2013. 
  18. Noyes 1948, p. 51.
  19. 19.0 19.1 Noyes 1948, pp. 58-64.
  20. Chapman, David Leonard (January 1899). "On the Rate of Explosion in Gases". London. pp. 90–104. Digital object identifier:10.1080/14786449908621243. ISSN 1941-5982. LCCN sn86025845. 
  21. Noyes 1948, p. 73.
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 Hoddeson et al. 1993, pp. 130–133.
  23. 23.0 23.1 Hoddeson et al. 1993, p. 137.
  24. Hoddeson et al. 1993, p. 166.
  25. Hoddeson et al. 1993, pp. 236-240.
  26. Hoddeson et al. 1993, pp. 241-247.
  27. Hoddeson et al. 1993, pp. 294-297.
  28. Hoddeson et al. 1993, pp. 298-299.
  29. Hoddeson et al. 1993, p. 316.
  30. Dainton 1985, p. 384.
  31. Hoddeson et al. 1993, pp. 394-396.
  32. Gibson, Michnovicz & Michnovicz 2005, p. 78.
  33. 33.0 33.1 Biography for George Kistiakowsky at the Internet Movie Database. Accessed May 10, 2013
  34. "Previous Science Advisors". Office of Science and Technology Policy. Retrieved May 10, 2013. .
  35. "Foreign Relations of the United States 1958-1960". US Department of State (summary by Federation of American Scientists). 1961. FRUS58. 
  36. Burr, William, ed. "The Making of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, 1958-1963". George Washington University. Retrieved May 10, 2013. 
  37. Twining, Nathan F. (20 August 1959). "Document 2: J.C.S. 2056/131, Notes by the Secretaries to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, enclosing memorandum from JCS Chairman Nathan Twining to Secretary of Defense, "Target Coordination and Associated Problems,"" (PDF). The Creation of SIOP-62: More Evidence on the Origins of Overkill National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 130. George Washington University National Security Archive. Retrieved September 22, 2007. 
  38. Twining, Nathan F. (5 October 1959). "Document 3A: JCS 2056/143, Note by the Secretaries to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 5 October 1959, enclosing Memorandum for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "Target Coordination and Associated Problems,"" (PDF). The Creation of SIOP-62: More Evidence on the Origins of Overkill National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 130. George Washington University National Security Archive. Retrieved September 22, 2007. 
  39. Burke, Arleigh (30 September 1959). "Document 3B: attached memorandum from Chief of Naval Operations" (PDF). The Creation of SIOP-62: More Evidence on the Origins of Overkill National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 130. George Washington University National Security Archive. Retrieved September 22, 2007. 
  40. McKinzie, Matthew G.; Cochran, Thomas B.; Robert S. Norris, William M. Arkin (2001). "The U.S. Nuclear War Plan: A Time for Change" (PDF). National Resources Defense Council. 
  41. Burr, William, ed. "The Creation of SIOP-62 More Evidence on the Origins of Overkill". George Washington University. Retrieved May 10, 2013. 
  42. 42.0 42.1 "George B. Kistiakowsky". Los Alamos National Laboratory. Retrieved May 9, 2013. 
  43. "Origins of COSEPUP". National Academy of Sciences. Archived from the original on April 23, 2007. Retrieved September 22, 2007. 
  44. Dainton 1985, p. 386.
  45. Dainton 1985, p. 400.
  46. 46.0 46.1 Rathjens, George (April 1983). "George B. Kistiakowsky (1900-1982)". pp. 2–3. Retrieved May 10, 2013. 
  47. "Kistiakowsky, George B. (George Bogdan), 1900- Papers of George B. Kistiakowsky: an inventory. Harvard University Archives". Harvard University. Retrieved May 9, 2013. 


Further readingEdit

  • Lawrence Badash, J.O. Hirschfelder, H.P. Broida, eds., Reminiscences of Los Alamos 1943-1945 (Studies in the History of Modern Science), Springer, 1980, ISBN 90-277-1098-8.
  • Confessions of a Weaponeer, PBS Nova, with Carl Sagan

External linksEdit

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