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James L. Tuck

James L. Tuck
File:James Tuck ID badge.png
James Tuck's ID badge photo from Los Alamos
Born (1910-01-09)January 9, 1910
Died December 15, 1980(1980-12-15) (aged 70)
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James Leslie Tuck OBE, (January 9, 1910 – December 15, 1980) was a British physicist. He was born in Manchester, England, and educated at the Victoria University of Manchester. Because of his involvement with the Manhattan Project, he was unable to submit his thesis on time and never received his doctoral degree.

In 1937 he was offered an appointment as a Salter Research Fellow at Oxford University, where he worked with Leó Szilárd on particle accelerators.

At the outbreak of World War II, he was appointed as the scientific advisor to Frederick Alexander Lindemann, who was on the private staff of Winston Churchill. His research included work on shaped charges, used in anti-tank weapons. For this work he received the Order of the British Empire from King George VI.

Bomb work

His expertise on shaped charges led to his being sent to Los Alamos, where he was a member of the British delegation to the Manhattan Project and helped in the development of explosive lensing and the Urchin initiator[1]. This work was crucial to the success of the plutonium atomic bomb.

After the war, he returned briefly to England, where he worked at the Clarendon Laboratory at Oxford University. However, he found the postwar conditions there difficult and in 1949 returned to the United States, assuming a position at the University of Chicago. A year later, he returned to Los Alamos when he was invited to work on thermonuclear research.

Fusion power

At Los Alamos, Tuck took up research on fusion power, which he had learned about during his stay in the UK. Tuck suggested that the Los Alamos group pursue a pinch program similar to the one being carried out in the UK. This was only months after Lyman Spitzer had started work on his stellarator design. Both were invited to Washington to present their ideas, where Spitzer won $50,000 in funding from the Atomic Energy Commission. Returning to Los Alamos, he arranged for a similar $50,000 from the lab's discretionary budget and started a pinch project under the name Perhapsatron.

Like all pinch systems, Perhapsatron failed due to instabilities in the plasma. Theoretical work by Edward Teller and others suggested ways out of the instability problem, either pinching so quickly that fusion took place before the instabilities formed, or by using "cusped" magnetic fields. The former was developed as the Columbus while the later became the picket fence reactor design, both led by Tuck's teams.

He remained at Los Alamos until his retirement in 1972. Earlier in 1972 he had published a review in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists of the book Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Frontiers of Public and Private Science by Solly Zuckerman.

After his retirement Tuck became a prominent public supporter of research into thermonuclear fusion for power generation. He also became interested in the phenomenon of ball lightning, probably because of the connection between plasmas and their role in fusion power schemes, and in 1980 he appeared in the Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World episode 'Clarke's Cabinet of Curiosities' where he described his experiments at Los Alamos, carried out during lunch breaks, to create ball lightning using a large storage battery of the type then used in submarines.

Honors and Service


  • "James Leslie Tuck (obituary)," Physics Today, March 1981, pp. 87–88.
  • Dennis C. Fakley, "The British Mission," Los Alamos Science, Winter/Spring 1983, pp. 186–189.
  • Ferenc Szasz, "James L. Tuck: Scientific Polymath and Eternal Optimist of the Atomic West," in The Atomic West, edited by Bruce William Hevly and John M. Findlay. Seattle: University of Washington Press (1998), pp. 136–156.
  • James L. Tuck, "Curriculum Vita and Autobiography," Declassified document from Los Alamos National Laboratory (1974), reproduced with permission.