On the Inside of History

May/June 2002

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On the Inside of History

Associated Press

In the early morning hours of July 16, 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer and his Manhattan Project team set off the world’s first atomic explosion and watched euphorically as a brilliant flash of white light filled the New Mexican desert sky. But one team member refused to join his colleagues at the test site. David Hawkins, official historian and troubleshooter on the top-secret project, just couldn’t watch.

“I was disturbed by the enthusiasm many people seemed to have,” Hawkins recalled years later. “They seemed to have lost sight of the grave consequences of doing this job.”

Hawkins died of natural causes on February 24 at his home in Boulder, Colo. He was 88.

After World War II, Hawkins publicly criticized the project, lobbying in Washington for international controls on the development of nuclear weapons. Described as a pacifist by his wife of 65 years, Frances (Pockman, ’35), Hawkins devoted his postwar years to teaching, training math and science teachers in the education of children, and writing about the philosophy of science.

Born in El Paso, Texas, Hawkins was raised in New Mexico (he later drew upon his deep knowledge of its terrain in selecting a site for the atomic test). At Stanford, he studied philosophy, worked for the Chaparral and was a member of El Tigre.

After completing his doctorate in probability theory at UC-Berkeley, he joined the faculty there in 1941. Two years later, at the height of the race to build the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer—Hawkins’s friend and faculty colleague—asked him to join the team at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“I knew it would be history,” Hawkins once said, “and I wanted to be on the inside of history, not the outside.”

Hawkins finished writing his account of the Manhattan Project in 1946, but it remained classified for 15 years and was essentially unavailable for two more decades. In 1947, he joined the University of Colorado, teaching courses in philosophy and physical science. Al Bartlett, a Colorado professor who worked with Hawkins on the Manhattan Project, called him “one of the greatest intellects I’ve ever known.”

Hawkins also worked with his wife to improve early childhood education. Together they founded the Mountain View Center for Environmental Education, which trains elementary and preschool teachers. Hawkins received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1986, the inaugural year of the award, for his teaching and work in education.

He is survived by his wife; his daughter, Julie Fisher Peck; and two grandsons.

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