Stanisław Ulam

Author: Kacper Janus

The outstanding Pole who invented a few mathematical formulas, taught on many universities and co-created an H-Bomb


Stanisław Ulam in front of the Santa Fe.


Stanisław Ulam was born on April 13, 1909. As a child he dreamt of understanding mathematical formulas. His dream came true just in primary school when he found out what E=mc2 stood for. Back then he was known under the name of a 'brilliant child'. Mathematics meant everything to Stan. Seeing that, Stanisław Mazur, Kazimierz Kuratowski and Stefan Banach asked him to join their scientific group working on many complex mathematical problems. Stefan Banach admitted that Stan had really bizarre ideas which, unexpectedly, always held good. At the age of 18, Ulam wrote his first scientific study published 2 years later, in 1929. He graduated from university as a mathematician.


In the thirties he travelled a lot and in 1935 he got an invitation to Princeton University where he started his job. A year after, Harvard University offered him a job as an academy teacher. In 1941, he became a professor in Wisconsin University. In 1939,  Stanisław, with his  relative, Adam emigrated to the USA permanently. Around that time Ulam was a member of a group, including John von Neumann, working on the Manhattan project in Los Alamos National Laboratory, which was probably the most important time in his life. They were attempting to create an atomic bomb. After receiving an American citizenship in 1943, Stanisław Ulam married Françoise Aron and started working with a team on creating a fusion bomb. Firstly, he suggested changing the existing theory and put forward his own idea that compression was essential to explosion, which proved to be correct. Thanks to that, he solved one major problem standing in the way to creating an H-bomb. Additionally, he advanced a few other bold theories. Edward Teller approved all of them and added his own discoveries to Ulam claims. This design under the name of "Teller-Ulam configuration" led them to creating modern thermonuclear weapons the military have used until now. Having finished his work in Los Alamos, he became a dean of Mathematics Department at Colorado University.


Stanisław Ulam, Richard Feynmann, John Von Neumann

(Starting from the left)

Stanisław Ulam not only co-created a thermonuclear bomb and participated in the Manhattan project, but he also invented numerous mathematical formulas such as Monte-Carlo method or Ulam spiral. He studied the role of maths in biology and created astronomical computer simulations of evolution during star clusters and formations of double and triple stars. Additionally, Ulam participated in the Orion project focusing on spacecrafts intended to be propelled by a series of explosions of atomic bombs. Stan also published a few books presenting his complex lifework.


Creating a weapon which can kill thousands of people may not be a good reason to boast. However, if he and his team hadn’t done that, sooner or later Russians would have, which might have resulted in serious consequences for the whole world. After retiring, Stan became a consultant of Los Alamos laboratory earning a dollar per year. Later on, between 1968 and 1975, he was a professor of biomathematics in the Colorado Medical School.  


Stanisław Ulam died in Santa Fe in 1984 because of a heart attack. Undoubtedly, he was a special person: a walking genius who had a huge self-belief. He cannot be forgotten.



If you want to read more: