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Interview'Funny how a few scribbles on a blackboard changed history'

Helping the US get the bomb, this Jewish mathematician faced an ethical problem

New film ‘Adventures of a Mathematician’ follows Stan Ulam, who lost nearly his entire family in the Holocaust, as he helps his new homeland’s nuclear efforts during and after WWII

  • A still from 'Adventures of a Mathematician' by filmmaker Thor Klein. (Courtesy Dragonfly Films)
    A still from 'Adventures of a Mathematician' by filmmaker Thor Klein. (Courtesy Dragonfly Films)
  • A still from 'Adventures of a Mathematician' by filmmaker Thor Klein. (Courtesy Dragonfly Films)
    A still from 'Adventures of a Mathematician' by filmmaker Thor Klein. (Courtesy Dragonfly Films)
  • A still from 'Adventures of a Mathematician' by filmmaker Thor Klein. (Courtesy Dragonfly Films)
    A still from 'Adventures of a Mathematician' by filmmaker Thor Klein. (Courtesy Dragonfly Films)
  • A still from 'Adventures of a Mathematician' by filmmaker Thor Klein. (Courtesy Dragonfly Films)
    A still from 'Adventures of a Mathematician' by filmmaker Thor Klein. (Courtesy Dragonfly Films)
  • Stan Ulam holding the FERMIAC, an analog computer invented by his colleague Enrico Fermi. (Public domain)
    Stan Ulam holding the FERMIAC, an analog computer invented by his colleague Enrico Fermi. (Public domain)

On July 16, 1945, researchers working on the Manhattan Project got a chance to see the results of their top-secret wartime efforts for the United States government when they were invited to attend the first-ever test of an atomic bomb, nicknamed Trinity, near their lab at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

One researcher declined to go — Polish-Jewish mathematician Stanislaw “Stan” Ulam. Although he became central to the development of thermonuclear weapons, Ulam’s work on the bomb haunted him for a long time afterward. His story is shared in a new film, “Adventures of a Mathematician,” directed by German filmmaker Thor Klein.

“The basic question was, would you build the atomic bomb if you knew that Hitler was building it?” Klein told The Times of Israel over Zoom. “Most of us, including me, would agree with that scenario, that it’s something we should do. Then the war ends, the world changes, and we move on. [After that] it gets more complicated. Why are you building the hydrogen bomb? It’s a more complex discussion to have.”

Klein sees similarities with ethical challenges today: “You think about artificial intelligence, all the biotechnology, all of that,” he said. “It’s not only a moral dilemma here, it’s the story of people, relationships… All of that I wanted to explore in the film.”

As Ulam worked on the bomb, virtually all of his family was stranded in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe — except for his younger brother, Adam, whom he had sent to live with their uncle in New York. At Los Alamos, Ulam could only turn to two people for support — his wife, Francoise, and his friend and Manhattan Project colleague, John “Johnny” von Neumann.

Inspired by Ulam’s autobiography of the same name, the film was recently released in the US, France and Russia, and has been on the festival circuit since last year. Klein was able to show the finished version to Ulam’s daughter, Claire Ulam, before she died last year.

“It was really a gift that I will always be grateful for,” he reflected.

A few scribbles

Over a decade ago, Klein first learned about the mathematician at his hometown library in southwestern Germany, through the book “Who Got Einstein’s Office?” by Ed Regis. He read not only about Einstein’s work at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, but about two other researchers who worked there — Ulam and von Neumann. Like Einstein, both were Jewish emigres from Europe — Ulam from Poland, von Neumann from Hungary.

Klein calls the duo “people who grew up in a very particular time, raised in a very particular way, the belle epoque across Western Europe, broadly educated, very cultured people.”

Filmmaker Thor Klein. (Courtesy Dragonfly Films)

The film notes two significant achievements credited to Ulam. The Teller-Ulam design (which also honors his Los Alamos colleague Edward Teller) has underpinned thermonuclear weapons since their creation, while the Monte Carlo method became useful not only for research into the bomb, but also for computers and biology. Its name reflects its creator’s longtime interest in gambling. A quote from Ulam reflects his bemusement at the impact of his ideas: “It is still an unending source of surprise for me how a few scribbles on a blackboard or on a sheet of paper could change the course of human affairs.”

A still from ‘Adventures of a Mathematician’ by filmmaker Thor Klein. (Courtesy Dragonfly Films)

Klein himself wanted to be a mathematician when younger, before his literature teacher suggested he was more interested in the stories behind mathematics than in mathematics itself. As a filmmaker, he draws storytelling inspiration from past greats like Stanley Kubrick as well as the more contemporary Darren Aronofsky, whose film “Pi” also looks at math, albeit through the lens of the stock market.

Klein’s interest in Ulam’s story stretches back for years. In film school, he read the mathematician’s autobiography — which had more details about his friendship with von Neumann — and eventually got the green light to option the book into a film.

When the original leading man had to pull out, Polish actor Philippe Tlokinski joined in a serendipitous casting call.

“He started reading in front of the camera and I knew that was it,” Klein said. “I had a really strong feeling that this is the right person for Stan.”

French actress Esther Garrel portrays Francoise and Polish actor Fabian Kociecki plays Johnny. Shooting mainly took place in Germany and Poland, although some of it was done near Los Alamos, at the Ghost Ranch, the former home of artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who knew Ulam. Klein worked on editing the film closer to home — in his living room — with French editor Matthieu Taponier, whose credits include “Son of Saul.”

A still from ‘Adventures of a Mathematician’ by filmmaker Thor Klein. (Courtesy Dragonfly Films)

The original screenplay spanned 150 pages and included many additional characters, “even Enrico Fermi, a good friend of Stan,” Klein said. “At some point, I had to condense.”

He focused on Ulam’s journey from the East Coast to the western US, describing it as an immigrant story. When the film begins, Ulam is on a fellowship at Harvard. He lives with his teenage brother, Adam, and makes increasingly desperate phone calls to Poland, begging the operator to keep trying to connect him with his family there.

“Every day took a toll,” Klein said.

Difficult decisions

Life becomes more complicated for Ulam after he falls in love with Francoise Aron, a French Jew who is studying at Mt. Holyoke College in western Massachusetts. He makes a marriage proposal that relies more on logic than romance, yet it ultimately succeeds. Then von Neumann convinces him to join a mysterious project on the other side of the country. He sends Adam to stay with their uncle, damaging the brothers’ relationship.

“Stan was the older brother, more or less the only parent — or figure that could be a parent — left,” Klein said. “He, at the same time, had to leave for Los Alamos. It made their relationship not easier. These were very formative years for a teen.”

A still from ‘Adventures of a Mathematician’ by filmmaker Thor Klein. (Courtesy Dragonfly Films)

At Los Alamos, Ulam joins an eclectic group of scientists, from the brilliant but temperamental Teller to a conscience-stricken American named John Calkin to the German Klaus Fuchs, who is spying for the Soviets. Collectively overseen by J. Robert Oppenheimer, their goal — at least initially — is to beat the Nazis to the bomb. Yet they keep working after V-E Day.

When Ulam finds a way to create the hydrogen bomb, he tells Francoise, but wonders whether he should share it with Los Alamos. His misgivings throughout the project are reflected by his absence from the Trinity test.

“That intrigued me, his decision not to go to the test,” Klein said.

The viewer, too, does not see the explosion — something the director intended.

“I think, first of all, everybody has seen the vision of the mushroom cloud,” Klein said. “It’s become an icon of pop culture, Einstein’s head and the mushroom cloud. The image doesn’t have a value any longer. It detracts from the message.”

Yet the tensions behind making the bomb are omnipresent.

“It was very layered, very complex, something always there, sometimes outspoken, sometimes not outspoken,” Klein said.

The scientists engage in heated discussion, with arguments both for the bomb (that it will protect their children) and against (that it will cause the deaths of soldiers and civilians).

A still from ‘Adventures of a Mathematician’ by filmmaker Thor Klein. (Courtesy Dragonfly Films)

The Jewish topic

For Ulam and von Neumann, there were further complexities.

“These guys were from Central and Eastern Europe,” Klein said. “The Jewish topic hung above them.”

He noted, “From 1943 on, [people] knew there were death camps,” although not necessarily the full extent.

Stan, Adam and Francoise Ulam all lost their families in the Holocaust.

“[Stan] could hide his pain better than Adam probably could,” Klein said. “In Adam’s case, this was a result of survivor’s guilt. For him, he was the only one [in their immediate family], apart from Stan, to survive. I think he was troubled his whole life from it.”

Stan Ulam holding the FERMIAC, an analog computer invented by his colleague Enrico Fermi. (Public domain)

Adam Ulam went on to become a prominent Sovietologist at Harvard.

“The bond and love never died between [him and Stan],” Klein said. “I wanted to show, at the same time, unresolved conflict.”

A different kind of unresolved conflict shadowed Ulam and von Neumann following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“They found themselves in a situation where the bombs were used and people died,” Klein said. “Even if you see it in the equation of the Cold War — we have to do this in order to keep everybody safe — of course it did something to them as people.

“In Stan’s case, he used humor as a form of coping with it in difficult situations. Jokes were such a characteristic element for him. This was not an antidote, it was like a medicine, the use of jokes and humor. But it could never resolve the contradiction in their lives.”

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