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Achieving the Rare cover

Robert F Christy was a legendary physicist, one of the key players in some of the most dramatic events of the 20th century. He was a student of Oppenheimer, who called him “one of the best in the world.” He was a crucial member of Fermi's team when they first unleashed the unheard-of energies of nuclear power, creating the world's first nuclear reactor on December 2, 1942. On the Manhattan Project he was the key physicist in the successful test of the world's first atomic bomb, the “Christy Gadget”, at Alamogordo on July 16, 1945. Almost immediately he turned his talents to promoting the peaceful uses of atomic energy. He successfully opposed atmospheric testing of atomic bombs and fought nuclear proliferation, a campaign that eventually led to the SALT talks with the Soviet Union. His favorite subject was astrophysics where he made fundamental contributions to the understanding of Cepheids, variable stars that are crucial distance indicators in the universe.

Robert was equally fascinating as a man. In his mid-50's he became irresistably attracted to an astrophysicist, but they were a continent and a generation apart. Near his 60's they started a happy and fulfilling life together. He remained vigorous both mentally and physically into his 90's: he was still galloping his horse at age 93.

Robert's story is one of overcoming obstacles, of hope, and of fulfillment.

Sample Chapter(s)
Chapter 1: His Childhood (536 KB)

  • His Childhood
  • The Formative UBC Years
  • Exciting Graduate Years with Oppenheimer
  • The First Marriage, to Dagmar von Lieven
  • The Very First Nuclear Reactor
  • Designing the First Atomic Bomb
  • Opposing Nuclear Weapons Proliferation
  • Becoming Oppenheimer's Successor at Caltech
  • Contributions to Physics at Caltech
  • Pioneering Work in Astrophysics: Variable Stars
  • As Provost: Achieving His Dreams for Caltech
  • The Second Marriage, to I-Julianna Sackmann
  • Daughters Late in Life
  • Interim President of Caltech
  • Later Years — Teaching and Research
  • Radiation Dosimetry in Hiroshima and Nagasaki
  • The Spring Valley Ranch: Fulfilling a Dream
  • Robert's Health — Struggles and Successes
  • An Innate Grace

Readership: For interested academics as well as the general public.

Free Access
  • Pages:i–xv

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His Childhood
  • Pages:1–12

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The Formative UBC Years
  • Pages:13–19

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Exciting Graduate Years with Oppenheimer
  • Pages:20–34

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The First Marriage, to Dagmar von Lieven
  • Pages:35–46

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The Very First Nuclear Reactor
  • Pages:47–69

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Designing the First Atomic Bomb
  • Pages:70–121

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Opposing Nuclear Weapons Proliferation
  • Pages:122–133

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Becoming Oppenheimer's Successor at Caltech
  • Pages:134–148

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Contributions to Physics at Caltech
  • Pages:149–157

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Pioneering Work in Astrophysics: Variable Stars
  • Pages:158–168

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As Provost: Achieving His Dreams for Caltech
  • Pages:169–193

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The Second Marriage, to I.-Juliana Sackmann
  • Pages:194–235

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Daughters Late in Life
  • Pages:236–253

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Interim President of Caltech
  • Pages:254–287

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Later Years — Teaching and Research
  • Pages:288–300

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Radiation Dosimetry in Hiroshima and Nagasaki
  • Pages:301–309

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The Spring Valley Ranch: Fulfilling a Dream
  • Pages:310–318

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Robert's Health — Struggles and Successes
  • Pages:319–333

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An Innate Grace
  • Pages:334–340

Free Access
  • Pages:341–349

"From ‘Christy's Gadget’ (the first plutonium-based atomic bomb) and the war that it helped end, to the forces that drive a star's pulsations, to intercontinental romance, this biography illuminates the life, passions, and intellect of one of the 20th century's great theoretical physicists. It is a fitting tribute to Robert Christy, whom I admired as a man as well as a scientist."

Kip S Thorne
The Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics Emeritus
California Institute of Technology (Caltech)

"From the atom bomb to the frontiers of astrophysics, Bob Christy's contributions were brilliant and seminal. In an intimate account rich with personal detail, we see up close a man of enormous energy, grace, and wisdom."

H David Politzer
Nobel Prize in Physics 2004

"Bob Christy was an exemplary research scientist, teacher and university administrator at Caltech, playing an important role in the development of the atomic bomb and in the efforts after World War II to assure that nuclear weapons would not be used again. This informative biographical memoir by his widow reveals the warmer side of his personality, remembered by his friends but hidden from public view by his austere and analytic manner.";

Harold Brown
President of Caltech 1969–1977
US Secretary of Defense 1977–1981

"The deeper you get into this book, the more fascinating it becomes. Christy lived the problems of the 20th century which are defining many of the problems of the 21st."

Rose Bethe
widow of Hans Bethe
Nobel Prize in Physics 1967

"An accomplished scientist in her own right, I-Juliana Christy has written a richly-detailed biography. Drawing on unpublished letters and interviews, she weaves together the political drama of World War II with the personal story of Christy."

Judith R Goodstein
Founding Head of Caltech Archives and
author of
Millikan's School

"Juliana Christy has created a remarkable blend of historical biography and personal memoir. She presents here for the first time unique source material from Robert Christy's personal papers, along with interviews, photographs and other documentation, much of it newly published. The book is an intimate yet carefully weighed account of this great physicist's life and work."

Charlotte E Erwin
Head of Archives, Special Collections

"A must-read for people interested in history and pioneering physics. Mentored by Oppenheimer, Christy transformed nuclear science from intellectual theory to explosive reality. A warm and compas-sionate man, he labored mightily against nuclear proliferation."

Frank D Rubin
attorney and history buff

"The book is very well written; transcribed interviews with Christy and liberal use of historical artefacts. Where relevant the book also serves as a history text; the wider political context in the lead up to the Manhattan project is explored and the retrospective look at the German effort to develop nuclear weapons is a fascinating inclusion. Perhaps the most vivid historical inclusion, however, is the first hand description of Chicago Pile-1. With a little something for everyone, this is a fantastic read."

Mr Mark Worrall
Clinical Scientist
Radiation Physics, Ninewells Hospital, Dundee

“The unique strength of this remarkable memoir is the author's deep understanding of both Christy's scientific and administrative achievements coupled with his personal qualities: energy, wisdom, passion, modesty, and grace. Like Robert Christy, author Juliana Christy has truly "achieved the rare".”

John R Percy
Professor Emeritus
University of Toronto

“Oppenheimer, Fermi, Teller, Harold Brown, Hans Bethe, Richard Feynman — Robert Christy knew the greats of his era as both peer and colleague. This affectionate biography presents a complete picture of this national figure also as family man, horseman, skier and tennis player — a man who helped shape the world we inhabit. That is rare achievement in itself.”

Bart Paul
author of the novel
"Under Tower Peak"
and of
"Double-Edged Sword: the Many Lives of Hemingway's Friend, the American Matador Sidney Franklin"

“Those interested in academic administration in general or Caltech in particular will find additional fascinating sections, but the scientific and practical history of the atomic age stand alone in this worthwhile book, with book science and personal history well told.”

Jay M Pansachoff
Williams College

“It's the story of a boy from British Columbia who was a prewar student of Oppenheimer's at Berkeley, then became sucked into the Manhattan project where, at Los Alamos, he solved the problems that had confounded his colleagues, and changed the course of history.”

Charles Campbell
University of Southern California

“Author Juliana Christy is herself an astrophysicist, so she get the physics right. At the same time she brings out Robert's human side and family life in this well-rounded account with the aid of letters, photographs, interviews, and personal reminiscences.”

Steven C Frautschi
Professor Emeritus
California Institute of Technology

I-Juliana Christy was born in the eastern part of Germany during World War II. Her mother immigrated to Canada with her three young daughters in 1955 when Juliana was 13 years old. Juliana studied physics, astronomy, and astrophysics at the University of Toronto, obtaining a PhD in astrophysics in 1968. She first encountered Prof. Robert Christy at an international astrophysics meeting in Toronto at this time.

Juliana was awarded a NATO Fellowship and worked in Germany as a post-doctoral research fellow with Prof. Rudolf Kippenhahn at the University of Göttingen and at the Heisenberg–Biermann Max–Planck Institute for Physics and Astrophysics in Munich. In 1970 she met Prof. Robert Christy again at international conferences in England and Portugal. Juliana won a Senior von Humboldt Award in 1971, and at the end of that year came to the US to work with Prof. William A Fowler at Caltech as a postdoctoral fellow in nuclear astrophysics. Since then Juliana has continued her research in astrophysics as a Caltech faculty member.

Robert and Juliana were married in 1973; she was 31 and he was 57. Over the next four decades they built a family together, enriching each others' lives.