By Published: Nov. 10, 2022

‘Adventures of a Mathematician’ tells the story of Stanisław Ulam, a critical figure in the development of the hydrogen bomb

A young mathematician leaves his home country of Poland in the early days of the Third Reich, sails to the United States, and, within a decade, joins perhaps the most famous and consequential team of thinkers of the 20th century.

It’s the stuff movies are made of, one movie in particular, Adventures of a Mathematician (2020), which is screening at the Boulder Jewish Film Festival at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 13 in the Dairy Arts Center’s Gordon Gamm Theater.

Directed by Thor Klein (Lost Place, 2013), Adventures of a Mathematician tells the story of Stanisław (Stan) Ulam, the mathematician responsible for solving the problem of how to initiate fusion in the hydrogen bomb.

Stanislaw Ulam

At the top of the page: Ulam’s friendship with John “Johnny” von Neumann facilitated his move to Los Alamos (photo courtesy of Kathryn Bernheimer). Above: Stanisław Ulam in 1945 (Wikimedia Commons).

Born in 1909 in Lwów, Poland (then Lemberg, Austria-Hungary), Ulam showed early signs of what he would later call a “mathematical impulse.” At the age of 12, for example, while learning Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity so that he could better understand physics and astronomy, he realized that, as he says in an interview published in 1985, he “needed to learn some mathematics.”  

But he didn’t just learn some mathematics. He learned a lot of mathematics—much of it on his own. “I was 16 when I really learned calculus all by myself from a book.”

Ulam went on to study math at the Lwów Polytechnic Institute, eventually earning his PhD in 1933, the same year Hitler became chancellor of Germany.

Hitler’s rise to power boded ill for a young Jewish academic like Ulam. According to Norman Bentwich in his 2012 book The Rescue and Achievement of Refugee Scholars, Hitler’s government purged more than 1,200 Jewish scholars and scientists from German universities alone.

“In 1934, the international situation was becoming ominous,” Ulam says in his autobiography, also titled Adventures of a Mathematician.

“There were increasing displays of inflamed nationalism, extreme rightist outbreaks and anti-Semitic demonstrations. I did not consciously recognize these portents of things to come but felt vaguely that if I was going to earn a living by myself and not continue indefinitely to be supported by my father, I must go abroad.”

For the remainder of the 1930s, Ulam spent summers in Poland and his academic years in the United States, during which time he made many valuable friends, including Hungarian-American mathematician John von Neumann, or as Ulam called him, “Johnny.” Then, in 1939, he secured his first semi-permanent position, a one-year lectureship at Harvard. He set sail for the East Coast, bringing with him his 17-year-old brother, Adam, as Europe was growing increasingly dangerous.

“Our father and uncle Szymon accompanied us to Gdynia, a Polish port on the Baltic Sea, to see us off on the Polish liner Batory,” Ulam writes. “This was the last time we were to see either of them.”

Eleven days later, at a hotel on Columbus Circle in New York City, Ulam received news that Germany had bombed Poland. The war had begun.

“I suddenly felt as if a curtain had fallen on my past life, cutting it off from my future.”

The war weighed heavily on Ulam. He lost family to the Holocaust. In 1943, after teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for three years, he was becoming restless.

“I was not happy with teaching,” he says. “It seemed a waste of my time; I felt I could do more for the war effort.”

So he contacted his old friend Johnny, who had recently joined a secret project in an undisclosed location in the Southwest. Though unsure what the work would entail, Ulam expressed an interest in it, and two weeks later, he received a letter signed by theoretical physicist and future Nobel laureate Hans Bethe inviting him to become part of “an unidentified project that was doing important work, the physics having something to do with the interior of stars.”

The undisclosed location turned out to be Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the “important work” was the Manhattan Project.  

Ulam accepted the job. He was 34 years old. He and his wife, Françoise Aron Ulam, two months pregnant at the time, gathered their things and made for New Mexico.

Adventures of a Mathematician Poster

The movie poster for Adventures of a Mathematician.

Klein’s film centers on Ulam’s time at Los Alamos and explores the moral dilemmas that arose there.

Kathryn Bernheimer, director of the Boulder Jewish Film Festival and author of The Fifty Greatest Jewish Movies and The Fifty Funniest Films of All Time, first saw Adventures of a Mathematician last year as a juror for the Moscow Jewish Film Festival.

“I found it interesting,” she says. It deals with the personal stories of these men, often Jewish, who, despite being “very, very committed to defeating the Nazis, had some conflicts morally and ethically over what they were doing.”

One reason for the film’s draw, Bernheimer notes, is that it is neither a documentary nor a mere listing of Ulam’s many accomplishments.

“It is a human drama about a man at the center of an international crisis, the story of an immigrant uniquely able to make a contribution to his adopted homeland by fighting the forces that drove him from Europe and decimated his people. It is the personal life story of the most significant and brilliant mathematician of his time,” she says.

Adventures of a Mathematician is precisely the kind of film Bernheimer enjoys sharing at the Boulder Jewish Film Festival, in part because it doesn’t offer easy answers.

“I always try to find films that are good conversation films,” she says. She looks for films that “you can’t stop talking about,” films that “you argue about in the car all the way home.” Adventures of a Mathematician, she says, is one of those films.

After the war, Ulam worked briefly at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles before returning to Los Alamos in 1946 to research thermonuclear weapons with von Neumann, Edward Teller, Nicholas Metropolis and Stan Frankel.

During the two decades following, while continuing his work at Los Alamos, Ulam held several visiting professorships, including at the University of Colorado Boulder, where in 1967 he became professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics.

National Center for Atmospheric Research data scientist and jazz musician David Fulker (Math’66, ‘71) took two classes with Ulam and remembers him well—not as a stuffy lecturer scribbling busily on the blackboard, face turned away, but as an open, personable raconteur who would lean against his desk, and sometimes sit cross-legged on top of it, looking his pupils in the eye.

“Often storytelling was his way of introducing a complex topic,” says Fulker. “He might tell us about something like the Dirac delta function, and that might be mixed with stories about his knowing Paul Dirac.”

It was a teaching method Fulker relished. “Ulam was one of my favorite professors,” he says.

Ulam retired in 1975. Until his death in 1984, he spent his summers in Colorado and Los Alamos and his winters in Florida. But his fascination with math and his appreciation for its far-reaching implications never waned, as he says in his autobiography:

“It is still an unending source of surprise for me …  how a few scribbles on a blackboard or on a sheet of paper could change the course of human affairs.”

'Adventures of a Mathematician' is screening in the Dairy Arts Center’s Gordon Gamm Theater at the Boulder Jewish Film Festival on Nov. 13 at 3:30 p.m.