Robert Serber (1909 - June 1, 1997) was an American physicist who participated in the Manhattan Project.

Robert Serber was born on March 14, 1909, in Philadelphia. He earned his B.S. in Engineering Physics from Lehigh University in 1930 and his PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1934. At UWM, he studied with future Nobel Prize winning physicist John Van Vleck. Following graduation, he was initially going to begin postdoctorate work at Princeton University with another future Nobel Prize winning physicist Eugene Wigner, but changed his plans and instead went to work with Robert Oppenheimer at the University of California, Berkeley (and shuttle with Oppenheimer between Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology). In 1938 he took a job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he stayed until he was recruited for the Manhattan Project. He later became a Professor and Chair of the physics department at Columbia University.

He was recruited for the Manhattan Project in 1941. When the Los Alamos lab was first being organized, a decision was made by scientific director Oppenheimer to not compartmentalize the technical information among different departments. This had the effect of increasing effectiveness in problem solving and also increasing the urgency of the project in the minds of the technical workers. It fell to Serber to give a series of lectures explaining the basic principles and goals of the project. These lectures were printed and supplied to all incoming scientific staff, and became known as The Los Alamos Primer, LA-1. It was declassified in 1965. (Available at Wikimedia Commons)

Serber developed the first good theory of bomb disassembly hydrodynamics. He also was with the first American team to enter Hiroshima and Nagasaki to assess the damage that the atomic bomb had done.

In 1948, he had to defend himself against anonymous accusations of disloyalty, mostly due to the fact that his wife's family were Jewish intellectuals with Socialist leanings, and also because he tried to remove politics from discussions of the feasibility of the fusion bomb, leading to arguments with the "father of the hydrogen bomb," Edward Teller. (This was the start of a period of political paranoia in the US.)

Serber went on to be a consultant to numerous labs, businesses and commissions.


Hoddeson, Lillian, Paul W. Henriksen, Roger A. Meade, and Catherine L. Westfall , Critical Assembly: A Technical History of Los Alamos During the Oppenheimer Years, 1943-1945, Cambridge, 1993

Serber, Robert, with Robert P. Crease, Peace and War: Reminiscences of a Life on the Frontiers of Science, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), ISBN 0-231-10546-0, LoC QC16.S46A3 1998

Serber, Robert, The Los Alamos Primer: The First Lectures on How to Build an Atomic Bomb, (University of California Press, 1992) ISBN 0-520-07576-5 Original 1943 "LA-1", declassified in 1965, plus commentary and historical introduction.

Serber, Robert, Serber Says: About Nuclear Physics. Singapore: World Scientific, 1987.

Sunday, March 14, 1909
Philadelphia, PA
Date of Death: 
Sunday, June 1, 1997
B.S. Engineering Physics
Notable Achievement: 
Accomplished physicist, key player in Manhattan Project