Episode Description


Melba Phillips, who grew up on a farm in Indiana at the turn of the twentieth century, was one of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s first graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley. Together they discovered the Oppenheimer-Phillips Process, which explained a particular kind of nuclear reaction. In this episode, we explain what that is, with a little help from generative AI. Phillips did not follow Oppenheimer to Los Alamos, and was vocal in her opposition to nuclear weapons. During the McCarthy era, she lost her teaching job, and did not return to academia until 1957. In 1962, then in her mid-fifties, she finally became a full professor at the University of Chicago.

Melba Phillips in the front seat of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s car in Berkeley. We think the shadow on the car is Oppenheimer taking the picture. Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Gift of Melba Phillips.

Melba Phillips. Credit: Esther Mintz, courtesy of AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Esther Mintz Collection.

Melba Phillips. Credit: Esther Mintz, courtesy of AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Esther Mintz Collection.


Katie Hafner


Adam Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

Randy Mills, retired professor of social sciences, Oakland City University

Jill Weiss Simins, historian, Indiana Historical Bureau


Joe Armstrong

Joe Armstrong is a musician, educator, radio and podcast producer and host who lives and works in Los Angeles, California. He has released two albums, with a third due out on vinyl in July, 2024. 

Deborah Unger

Deborah Unger covered technology for Business Week magazine in New York and San Francisco. More recently she worked for Transparency International, the anti-corruption organization, and strategy+business magazine.


Art Design: Keren Mevorach. Credit Pach Brothers, NY, courtesy of AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives


Melba Phillips: Leader in Science and Conscience, Jill Weiss Simins, Untold Indiana, a history blog published by the Indiana Historical Bureau, 2016.

The Oppenheimer-Phillips Process, H. A. Bethe, Physical Review, 1938.

Oral Histories: Melba Phillips interviewed by Katherine Sopka, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, December 5, 1977.

Melba Phillips, 97, Physicist Who Worked With Oppenheimer, Dies Obituary in The New York TImes, November 18, 2004.

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