J. Robert Oppenheimer

Los Alamos

Summary Los Alamos

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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