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J. Robert Oppenheimer


Los Alamos

Summary Los Alamos

The Manhattan Project consisted of a number of labs in secret locations around the country, each charged with solving a different aspect of bomb construction. Enrico Fermi's lab at the University of Chicago was dedicated to creating the world's first controlled nuclear chain reaction. Meanwhile, huge processing factories in Tennessee attempted to manufacture the large quantities of radioactive material that the scientists would require. The bomb would need to use one of two materials: uranium 235 (U-235) or plutonium. Both were very rare. U-235 is an isotope of uranium, and, unfortunately, ninety-nine percent of uranium is U-238, which meant that scientists needed to find an efficient way of extracting enough U-235 to create a nuclear explosion.

But the core of the project was the design and creation of the bomb itself, a task which was entrusted to a secret laboratory in an isolated location, directed by an untested administrator: Robert Oppenheimer. Leslie Groves had met Oppenheimer shortly after taking control of the Manhattan Project and was deeply impressed by the young physicist. Although Oppenheimer had never been in charge of anything larger than a class of physics students, and although the military was still suspicious of his ties to communism, Groves placed Oppenheimer in charge of the bomb design program.

Groves, obsessed with keeping the Manhattan Project a secret, kept the project decentralized in its early phases, and it was his intent that no group of scientists would ever know what another group was doing. But Oppenheimer objected, saying that this type of secrecy would hinder the scientists' work and slow the project. What was good for security was not necessarily good for science, and eventually Oppenheimer, and science, won out. Groves and Oppenheimer agreed to select an isolated location to which they would bring the country's top physicists, creating a refuge in the middle of nowhere where the scientists could work together and live together. Oppenheimer selected the location himself: Los Alamos.

Los Alamos–a name is now synonymous with the bomb project–was nothing more than a deserted mesa in north-central New Mexico in 1942. Oppenheimer was already familiar with the area, since, in 1928, he and his brother had vacationed in New Mexico and had loved it so much that they bought a cabin there. Now it would be his home for the next several years. Oppenheimer and Groves renovated the building of an old boys' school to serve as a base camp and built a set of cheap barracks that would house the physicists and their families.

The lab was ready–but would the physicists come?

Oppenheimer set off on a trip around the country to recruit the best scientists he could find. He called upon his current and former students, as well as some of the world's most famous physicists. Many, such as Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, and Niels Bohr, were refugees from Nazi Europe who knew all to well what would happen if Hitler got the bomb before the United States and were only too willing to help prevent that from happening.

Whether they were inspired by patriotism, fearful of the Germans, or entranced by the physics itself, the physicists flooded to New Mexico. Oppenheimer originally estimated that he would need housing for thirty scientists and their families, but, by the end of the war there were 6,500 people living at Los Alamos.

Many of the scientists of Los Alamos look back on it as a unique period in their lives, one in which they felt purposeful and driven as never before. One notable physicist has recalled, "It was one of the few times in my life when I felt truly alive." Despite the poor conditions–isolation, cheap housing, a poor heating system, few connections to the outside world–the scientists and their families thrived. They skied and hiked and fell in love with the southwest, and they relished the once-in-a-lifetime chance to live in a closed environment with so many brilliant people, all focused on a common–and, they believed–noble goal.

The most common complaint was, unsurprisingly, a distaste for the secrecy and seemingly excessive security measures imposed upon them by the military, who were a constant presence at Los Alamos. Groves had originally suggested that all the scientists be enlisted in the army, but the fiercely independent physicists chafed at the idea of compulsory enlistment, so the idea was dropped in a hurry. Instead, Groves and Oppenheimer compromised: the physicists came to the base as civilians but were under constant scrutiny by the military. Oppenheimer himself was being watched most closely of all. Throughout the war, the military tapped his phone, opened his mail, and kept him under constant surveillance–despite his efforts on their behalf, the government remained unconvinced of his loyalty.

And Oppenheimer was making a heroic effort. It was his job to mediate between the feisty scientists and the wary military, as well as to motivate the scientists to keep their goal always firmly in mind. It seemed that if the Manhattan Project failed to produce a viable bomb, Oppenheimer would hold himself personally to blame. Yet somehow, he managed to do it all–he kept the military happy, he kept the scientists happy, and in only a few years, he accomplished what had seemed an almost unattainable goal: the detonation of the world's first atomic bomb.

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