Atomic bomb pioneer;
Born: May 14, 1916; Died: October 3, 2012.
Professor Robert Christy, who has died aged 96, was a former professor and administrator who helped design the trigger mechanism for the atomic bombs used in the Second World War.
He was one of the early recruits to the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos Laboratory after being hand-picked in 1941 by "Father of the Bomb" Robert Oppenheimer, his professor at University of California, Berkeley. At the time of his death he was one of the last people alive to have worked first-hand on the Manhattan Project.
He devised what came to be known as the Christy bomb or Christy gadget, a plutonium implosion device.
At Caltech (the California Institute of Technology) he taught theoretical physics and went on to serve as faculty chair, vice-president and provost, and acting president. Later in life, he opposed the further development of nuclear weapons.
He was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, and attended the University of British Columbia in the 1930s, where he studied physics during the blossoming of quantum physics.
Following the path blazed by George Volkoff who was a year ahead of him at UBC, he was accepted as a graduate student by Prof Oppenheimer at Berkeley.
He received his PhD in 1941 and joined the Illinois Institute of Technology. However he also spent time at the University of Chicago where he was recruited by Enrico Fermi to join the effort to build the first nuclear reactor, having been recommended by Prof Oppenheimer.
When Prof Oppenheimer formed the Los Alamos Laboratory as part of the Manhattan Project, Prof Christy was one of the early recruits to join the Theory Group. He is generally credited with the insight that plutonium could be explosively compressed, a crucial development in the bomb's trigger.
When the first bomb was tested at Los Alamos, Prof Christy said everyone was pleased to have succeeded in the experiment, but a month later, when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, it was a very sobering experience.
"There had been bombs dropped on cities. There had been firestorms, and so forth. I believe people nowadays don't realise that in war your objective is to beat the enemy. And unfortunately, mostly that involves killing a lot of the enemy to do that. So war is a very bloody thing," he said. "I felt then that although this was a terrible event, it probably saved many, many more Japanese lives. They probably would have lost millions if they had to defend themselves against an invasion."
Later in life, Prof Christy opposed the further development of nuclear weapons. He became a member of the National Research Council's committee on dosimetry, which studied the radiation effects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.
While at Caltech, he investigated pulsations in the brightness of stars, which are used to measure cosmic distances. He was awarded the Royal Astronomical Society's Eddington Medal for his work and was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences in 1965.
He is survived by his wife, two daughters and two sons from a previous marriage, which ended in divorce.
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