Los Alamos: How the town that didn’t exist changed history

Los Alamos and Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Independence, Missouri
25 Comments

I‘m a child of the Atomic Age. Literally. I was born on August 8, 1945, two days after the U.S. bombed Hiroshima and one day before the bombing of Nagasaki. I obviously knew nothing of the catastrophic events that led the world to that pivotal point. But my parents knew—and must have felt great relief that World War II was finally over.

Los Angeles Times headline from August 9, 1945

For my generation, children of the 50s, it was just the beginning of the Atomic Age. We had repeated bomb drills, squeezing under school desks with thumping hearts and scraped knees. We folded our arms over our heads to protect our faces. Later they decided that hiding in hallways, crumpled into little balls, was safer. It was further away from shards of breaking glass and blinding flashes of otherworldly light.

Los Angeles Times photo of an atomic test from Nevada lighting up the LA city hall building, circa 1953

The light was not theoretical. I remember waking up around 5 am once or twice to an eerie glow outside. I didn’t imagine it. The United States conducted about 100 atmospheric tests of atomic and hydrogen bombs at the Nevada Test Site about 65 miles from Las Vegas. That atomic light emanated for 250 miles, all the way to Los Angeles, permeating my dreams and turning sunsets into projections of fear.

In those days personal bomb shelters were sought-after accessories for new homes. It was also the time when the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists created the Doomsday Clock to impress the world with how close we were to catastrophe. Currently the clock is set at 100 seconds to midnight—and that was before Putin invaded Ukraine.

Where it all began

Over the decades my personal doomsday clock shifted to the climate, and the old duck-and-cover drills receded from my consciousness. That was until I met Charlie McMillan in an online photo workshop I took at the height of the Covid lockdown in 2020.

Charlie lives in Los Alamos, New Mexico. “Do you work at the lab,” I asked during a Zoom chat, referring to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the birthplace of the atomic bomb. “I retired as director a couple of years ago,” Charlie mentioned casually. “If you get to Santa Fe, please come visit.” And so when David and I went to Santa Fe in July 2021, we called Charlie and arranged for a personalized tour of the national historic site.Books, 109 East Palace by Jennet Conant and The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard RhodesBut first, Charlie gave us some homework. “Check out 109 East Palace by Jennet Conant and  The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes,” he suggested. I left the heavy science tome to David, the son of an engineer and once upon a time a chemistry major. I dove into 109, where I learned about the social trials and tribulations of the scientists of the Manhattan Project, sent to a secret destination that officially did not exist. All they knew was that they were to report to 109 East Palace Avenue in Santa Fe to get their clearance papers and instructions. They were to tell no one where they were going or what they were working on.

One by one or with their wives, renowned physicists and mathematicians from Princeton, Yale, Harvard, MIT, Cornell, Caltech, the University of Chicago and UC Berkeley disembarked at the Lamy, New Mexico, train station, about 60 miles from the mesa at Los Alamos. Theirs was a heady assignment: to build the first atomic bomb. It was an idealistic mission—advancing pure science while fighting fascism—especially for the many scientists who fled Nazi Europe before their stints at American universities. The list of scientific luminaries included Hans Bethe (Germany), Leo Szilard (Hungary), Edward Teller (Hungary), Enrico Fermi (Italy) and Niels Bohr (Denmark)— many of whom had experienced the heavy hand of fascism firsthand.

Lamy train statioin with tracks in front, New Mexico

Intrigued by stories of their arrival, David and I drove south from Santa Fe to the Lamy station, now an Amtrak depot. Like an old one-room schoolhouse, it stands as a reminder of earlier times, when railroads knit the nation together. But it’s still basically in the middle of nowhere. I tried to imagine what these urbane scientists thought as they arrived, with no city or laboratory in sight, just miles and miles of cactus and desert sand.

Two flowering cactus in the countryside near the Lamy train station, New Mexico

In those early months of the project they were billeted at guest ranches and inns commandeered by the military, under utmost secrecy, including code names for the scientists—a source of endless confusion.

109 East Palace Avenue, Santa Fe, New Mexico, site of the Santa Fe office for the Manhattan Project from 1943-1963

They got their new names and other details of their new lives at 109 East Palace Avenue, an inconspicuous office behind a walled garden in a one-story adobe dating from the 1600s and the Spanish conquistadores. The office was run by Dorothy McKibbin, a practical local fixer who knew how to get things done around Santa Fe. She became the gatekeeper to Los Alamos, keeping its secrets safe from the curious who wondered what all those people with unusual accents were doing in town.

Photo of Dorothy McKibbin, administrator of the Manhattan Project office at 109 East Palace Ave., Santa Fe, NM, as shown in an exhibit of the Los Alamos Historical Society

It’s easy to wander into the space that once housed Dorothy’s top secret office. Today it’s the Rainbow Man gift shop, selling southwestern and Mexican tchotchkes, including colorful crickets, strands of hanging peppers and ghoulish skull planters.

A plaque on the back wall of the patio commemorates the building’s place in history as the Santa Fe office of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory from 1943-1963. The inscription reads: “All the men and women who made the first atomic bomb passed through this portal to their secret mission at Los Alamos. Their creation in 27 months of the weapons that ended World War II was one of the greatest scientific achievements of all time.”

Plaque commemorating the 109 East Palace office of the Manhattan Project from 1943-1963, Santa Fe, NM

Up the hill to the mesa and the rooms where it happened

We left Santa Fe in the hot July sun to meet Charlie on the Los Alamos mesa. We passed the town of Pojoaque and the San Ildefonso pueblo lands. In 1943 workers from those communities were hired to build the instant town that changed the world. In those days the roads were dirt, subject to flooding and rutting. Just perfect for transporting sensitive scientific equipment, we joked. As we started up the hill after crossing the Rio Grande, the sky darkened, threatening rain from a summer storm in the Jemez Mountains to the west. With a slight shiver, I felt the tension that was always inherent in the Manhattan Project—the undisputed scientific triumph and the unimaginable destruction it wrought.

Little white building with sign, Los Alamos Project Main Gate, Los Alamos, NM

Before we got to the town itself, we passed the old Los Alamos Project main gate, now a historic relic. That’s where everyone had to show their credentials before being admitted to the mesa. Additional credentials were needed for lab access. A few minutes later we connected with Charlie, who “introduced” us to two of the main figures who made the Manhattan Project work.

Statues of J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves in front of Fuller Hall, Los Alamos, NM

The first, of course, was J. Robert Oppenheimer, a dazzlingly gifted theoretical physicist, holding simultaneous positions at UC Berkeley and Caltech when he was chosen as the scientific leader of the Manhattan Project. Just 37 years old at the time, he was charismatic and quick to the point of rudeness. Oppenheimer used his magic touch to scour the nation, recruiting—sometimes raiding—world-class scientists from other institutions to complete the project ahead of the Germans.

The early German work in nuclear physics so alarmed Hungarian-born Columbia University physicist Leo Szilard that he entreated his personal friend, Albert Einstein, to warn FDR. That warning resulted in the creation of the National Defense Research Committee in 1941. The brilliant Oppenheimer was hired to helm the development of the atomic bomb by the NDRC chairman James Conant, who had been one of his professors at Harvard.

“It was with good reason the Allies were concerned about what the Germans might do,” Charlie told us. They were worried about who was going to figure out how to create the bomb first because German scientists were quite advanced. “Most of the American scientists in that period had been educated in Germany. Part of what Oppenheimer was trying to do at Berkeley and Caltech was to establish an American presence in physics that would rival the German universities.”

Painted portrait of General Leslie Groves in Fuller Hall, Los Alamos, NM

The second great personality helming the project was General Leslie Groves, a military engineer trained at MIT and West Point. Groves had overseen the building of the Pentagon for the Department of Defense. He was a stickler for security and wanted the project to be decentralized with information shared on a need-to-know basis. But theoretical scientists don’t work that way. They collaborate and pool information think-tank style, gnawing at problems as a team until they get to the core of a solution. And, as academic scientists, they defiantly did not want to enlist in the military.

Oppenheimer  pushed Groves to consolidate the secret scientific work in one laboratory complex, and he knew exactly where he wanted to it to be: Pajarito Plateau, the site of the Los Alamos Ranch School in northern New Mexico. From a security standpoint it was ideally situated far from both coasts and major cities. It had available water and pre-existing buildings. After rejecting a canyon site nearby, Groves, Oppenheimer and the search team drove up the winding dirt road to the 54,000-acre school. It was a go. Now all Groves had to do was procure the property.

Exterior of Fuller Hall, Los Alamos, NM

“The school was for rich kids from the east who needed to be toughened up,” explained Charlie. They wore shorts all year, slept on an open porch, cared for the horses, and went swimming and skating on the lake. “Interestingly, when I came to Los Alamos, there was a guy who had been a student at the school when it closed down in 1942. His name was Stirling Colgate,” recalled Charlie. “You can guess which family he came from. He was a very good physicist, and he continued working at the lab until he was a very old man.”

Life on the Mesa

The Los Alamos of the Manhattan Project was part summer camp, part science fair and part college campus under lockdown. The average age of the inhabitants was 25. The place itself was known only as Site-Y. With the high level of security, letters were read and phone calls monitored. The scientists and their wives often grew exasperated.

“Hardly anyone in Santa Fe knew what was going on. Literally thousands of people poured through Santa Fe to come up here. It was as if they all disappeared into the wilderness,” laughed Charlie.

Interior of Fuller Hall, Los Alamos, NM

He ushered us inside Fuller Lodge, a log structure reminiscent of the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite. The center of school life until the army took over, Fuller Lodge became the social hub for the Manhattan Project, hosting everything from critical scientific seminars to the cafeteria and dances.

Where would you qualify to live poster on exhibit in Los Alamos, NM

From day one housing was an issue. A school built for 40 students, faculty and staff just wasn’t going to cut it for a laboratory of 5,000 at its peak in 1945. That meant that building had to happen, pronto. Some of the new construction was dorm-style for the hundreds of young physicists, engineers and machinists. Small apartments were built for married couples and their burgeoning families. Eighty babies were born during those 27 months. The obstetrician was one of the most popular people on the hill.

Bathtub row house from the Manhattan Project, 1043-45, on exhibit in Los Alamos, NM

Larger cottages, former faculty homes and classrooms from the Ranch School, were covetously labeled “Bathtub Row.” You guessed it. They were premium real estate because they had bathtubs. Hans Bethe’s house has become an exhibit based on life at Los Alamos during the 1950s. From there we wandered over to Oppenheimer’s former home.

Interior of J. Robert Oppenheimer's living room at his home in Los Alamos, NM

As director, Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty got the prize home. With its stone walls and timber beams, it was a perfect mountain cottage. After Oppenheimer’s Los Alamos tenure, the house was occupied by mathematician Helene Suydam and her husband Jerry, who was recruited to work at the lab after the war. At the time of her death in 2020 at 100, Helene had lived there for 63 years. The couple donated their historic home to the Los Alamos Historical Society, which is refurbishing it for public exhibition. Maybe next time we visit we can go inside.

Charles McMillan, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, peering into the interior of J. Robert Oppenheimer's former home in Los Alamos, NM

While Charlie peeked into Oppenheimer’s former living room, I asked him to reflect on the physicist’s legacy in light of his later Cold War travails. “Oppenheimer was a complicated man who didn’t suffer fools gladly,” he said. From 1950-54, at the height of the McCarthy era and the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, Oppenheimer was called to testify several times.

“It was a dark period in American history. I think Oppenheimer was a loyal American,” said Charlie. “Had he been a member of the Communist Party? He said no. Had he been closely associated with people who were formally members? Yes. This is not surprising given that the 30s were a time when many academics were fascinated by the ideals of communism.” Oppenheimer’s former associations finally came back to bite him, and after the war he lost his security clearance. “Ultimately was he a patriot? I think so,” answered Charlie. “The evidence that has emerged since the hearings of the Gray Commission supports that conclusion.”

The decision to drop the bomb—Independence, MO

As the war raged on in Europe and Japan, the nuclear science and munitions engineering progressed rapidly, bringing the atomic bomb closer to reality. Tension mounted as the Trinity test firing at White Sands in the New Mexico desert approached. In the meantime, FDR died unexpectedly in April 1945.

ROOSEVELT DEAD headline from Iowa on April 12, 1945, on display at the Truman Library and Museum, Independence, MO

For the rest of the story, David and I took advantage of a wedding trip to Kansas City to visit the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri. We were escorted around the excellent exhibits by the museum’s education director, Mark Adams, one of the most knowledgeable and delightful storytellers I’ve met.

Exterior of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum with a blue Kansas City heart in front, Independence, MO

Truman was a senator from Missouri when he joined the Democratic ticket as FDR’s vice president in 1944. “Truman met FDR only twice in the three months of their administration, and he didn’t know anything about the Manhattan Project,” Mark explained.

On his first day as president, Truman received an urgent letter from Henry Stimson, secretary of war. “I think it is very important that I should have a talk with you as soon as possible on a highly secret matter.” It took twelve days for them to get together. That’s when Truman learned the details of the Manhattan Project.

David Newman looking at letter from Henry Stimson, secretary of war, to President Truman about Manhattan Project in 1945. At the Truman Library and Museum, Independence, MO

The Nazis surrendered just three weeks later on May 8, Truman’s birthday. In the meantime, the team at Los Alamos was rushing to finish up construction of “the gadget.” From there, events moved quickly. In June, Truman went to San Francisco for the founding of the United Nations. In July, just as the Trinity test took place, he was in Potsdam, Germany, meeting with Churchill and Stalin to craft the postwar peace.

But the war in Asia was not winding down. Despite Allied victories on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and the destruction of several Japanese cities, Japan wouldn’t back down. Surrender was not in their vocabulary. What to do? The handwritten notes on this ordinary National Geographic map of Japan show how seriously the White House contemplated an invasion of Japan’s home islands.

Map of Japan that presidents Rooseveldt and Truman used during World War II's Pacific campaign, on display at the Truman Library and Museum, Independence, MO

After the successful Trinity test, Truman and the generals knew the U.S. had a weapon unlike any other. It had been designed to use against Nazi Germany, but Germany had already surrendered. As Truman weighed the human cost of a land invasion of Japan, considering both American soldiers and Japanese civilians—who were being trained to fight with sharpened broomsticks—70 scientists from the Manhattan Project wrote him a letter:

“The liberation of atomic power which has been achieved places atomic bombs in the hands of the Army. It places in your hands, as Commander-in-Chief, the fateful decision whether or not to sanction the use of such bombs in the present phase of the war against Japan.” It goes on to suggest that the U.S. use news of the bomb to persuade Japan to surrender.

The letter never got up the chain of command to Truman. He and the generals made the fateful decision to use the bomb to end the war. As Truman wrote in his journal, “We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world…This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th.” And so it was. Twice. Once in Hiroshima on August 6 and again in Nagasaki on August 9. The unimaginable destruction caused Emperor Hirohito to override his military leaders and sue for peace. Nearly four years after Pearl Harbor, the war was over.

Green and black safety plug from the Fat Man atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, on display at the Truman Library and Museum, Independence, MO

Mark showed us an artifact from August 9, 1945, the safety plug from Fat Man, the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki. The safety plug, which keeps a bomb from detonating accidentally, was kept as a souvenir by Phillip Barnes until the 1980s, when he donated it to the Truman Library and Museum.

Virtually transparent origami paper crane made by Sadako Sasaki, who died of radiation poisoning after the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, on exhibit at the Truman Library and Museum, Independence, MO

Nearby we saw the most touching exhibit of all, a paper crane folded by Sadako Sasaki, a survivor of the bomb blast, who at age 11 was hospitalized with leukemia from radiation poisoning. In her hospital room she folded more than a thousand origami cranes before she died a year later. In 2015 her brother, Masahiro Sasaki, gave one of the last cranes to one of Truman’s grandsons, Clifton Truman Daniel.

Peace quote from Sadako Sasaki, who died from leukemia after the bombing of Japan, on display at the Truman Library and Museum, Independence, MO

Reflections from the distance of time

Before David and I left Los Alamos last July, I asked Charlie his opinion about whether the U.S. should have used the bomb against Japan. “I think that question is best left to policy makers, military analysts, and historians, and I’m none of the above,” he said. “It’s a difficult question on which thoughtful people have differed and probably will continue to differ into the distant future.”

My take, after visiting the sites and reading, is that the science was known. Physicists and mathematicians from Germany, England, the U.S.S.R. and even Japan were close to unlocking enough atomic secrets to create weapons of mass destruction. During World War II, the Allies were justifiably afraid that Hitler was going to get there first. Who knows, maybe the horror visited upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki had a deterrent value that has lasted three-quarters of a century.

History is full of ambiguity. For that matter, today’s choices are equally full of ambiguity. Existential choices must be made with inadequate and conflicting information. If you tilt the lens in one direction, you get one answer. Tilt it another way, and a different choice emerges. Weighing the lives lost in a land invasion against those lost in a nuclear attack is playing god. Either way, precious lives are lost that must be witnessed and remembered.

To learn more …

Check out Los Alamos Today, for Charlie McMillan’s comments about the lab’s current projects.

For tours and information about the museums in the Los Alamos historic area, contact the Los Alamos Historical Society or the Manhattan Project National Historic ParkFor a more comprehensive exploration of the science around the lab’s historic past and exciting future, plan to visit the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos.

For an excellent interpretation of Harry S. Truman’s time in office, including the end of World War II, the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO, the Cold War and the creation of the state of Israel, visit the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri (about 20 minutes from Kansas City).

And for movie buffs, Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” began filming in New Mexico in spring 2022. Starring Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer, Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves and Emily Blunt as Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, the film is slated to open in July 2023.

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25 Comments

  1. What a great read! Bravo!

    Reply
    • Freni, thanks so much. It was an interesting … and definitely significant … event to research. Meeting Charlie in an online class started it off, and then the trips worked out so I got more than one perspective on the story. Sadly, we haven’t been to Japan yet, so I don’t have that perspective to add.

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    • This was extremely interesting to a Watergate baby who thanks God the atomic bomb was not used to achieve “victory” in Vietnam. Thank you for the work and the post!

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  2. Informative and thoughtful, full of the fabric of daily life that we recognize and relate to. Thank you for taking us with you on your journeys.

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    • Thank you Martha.

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  3. Fascinating and detailed account of difficult period in our history with many questions still to be answered. I also remember “duck & cover” drills at school, but no strange light made it to Waco, TX. Many years later, when my father renovated our house, he built a bomb shelter; it was used as a wine cellar at first then later to store junk.

    Reply
    • Thanks Carolyn. Yes, we all endured those terrible drills. I feel for the kids now who have those same kinds of drills for active shooters. That’s even scarier and sadly much more likely.

      The one place I would disagree with you is about “questions still to be answered.” After 77 years and more from the beginning of the project, the researchers have combed the archives and have interviewed the players. Their dilemma was a binary moral choice: excruciating land war or use the bombs. Either way, the outcome was going to be bad, and they deeply wanted the war to end. As for the creation of the bomb itself, it was going to happen by someone. The science was moving in that direction, and the means to make atomic weapons was on the cusp of discovery. With the Manhattan Project, the U.S. and Britain just accelerated the process.

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  4. Wow. Thank you for this look into a piece of history. I had no idea Oppenheimer was so young. I can only imagine the many late night conversations…

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    • Thanks so much Janis!

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  5. You have a gift for writing and photography. We were there many years ago. Fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

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    • Thanks so much Roz. This was a particularly interesting topic given that as kids we all lived with our awareness that there was something dangerous out there. It was good to look at it from the perspective of our parents and other Americans who just wanted the war to be over.

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  6. Beautifully written story, documented with your fabulous photographs. A moving tribute to a piece of history we seldom have an opportunity to experience. I especially loved your housing references which brought the page of history to life for me.

    Thank you, Ellen for your article!

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    • Thank you so much Betsy. I agree about the housing part of the story. That’s why I really liked the “109 East Palace” book. I could really relate to the stories she shared. By the way, her grandfather, James B. Conant, was the Washington, D.C. administrator of the project … and the man who hired Oppenheimer.

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  7. Wow – what a great read! Thank you for digging deep into this subject and sharing the history but also the conversations and sights you saw along the way. Prior to reading this – these are not locations I would have on my “to visit” list- but they are now. You have truly offered me “hidden insites” in this piece!

    I particuarly liked you asking Charlie if he would have dropped the bomb -and his answer is understandable but I imagine as you toured the same thought may have been on your mind too.

    I really enjoyed your ending:

    History is full of ambiguity. For that matter, today’s choices are equally full of ambiguity. Existential choices must be made with inadequate and conflicting information. If you tilt the lens in one direction, you get one answer. Tilt it another way, and a different choice emerges. Weighing the lives lost in a land invasion against those lost in a nuclear attack is playing god. Either way, precious lives are lost that must be witnessed and remembered.

    Great piece!

    Reply
    • Thank you Laurie. Both Los Alamos and the Truman Library are worth a visit if you are in the area.

      I firmly believe that understanding history demands the power of imagination, which doesn’t always feel good. This time I found it fascinating to learn and imagine more about something which was in the background of my life.

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  8. Great story Ellen! I would venture to say that none of us would want to be in Truman’s shoes—-deciding which course to take.

    Thank you for the insights on this interesting piece of history!

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    • Tonya, thank you for stopping by. I wouldn’t have wanted to be in any of their shoes. The tension of the scientists as the test came close must have been intolerable. And even their wives (who lived right there) didn’t know what they were working on.

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  9. Nice interweaving of the historical events with your August birthday. Really enjoyable to share our travel perspectives when we have visited the same locations.

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    • Weirdly, lots of history has taken place on my birthdate. That’s the day Nixon announced his resignation. That was one to cheer about! And thanks for the tip about the Oppenheimer movie. I hadn’t heard about it as we were there a few months before they started filming in New Mexico.

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  10. This was a complicated piece to pull together. Ellen noted that I got the assignment of reading Richard Rhodes’ “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” It took me a couple of months, but it covered essentially the entire history of nuclear physics, from the first theoretical descriptions of the atomic nucleus and the discovery of radioactivity to the discovery in the 30s that uranium fissions — and that the byproducts of fission have ever so slightly less mass than the original uranium. Where did that mass go? It became energy (E=mc-squared).

    But Rhodes also had access to individuals and troves of documents that illustrated the politics of the decisions along the way to develop, build and ultimately use the bomb. And he makes clear the massive scale of the project. In addition to Los Alamos, where the serious science was happening, there were enormous facilities at Hanford WA and Oak Ridge TN where the uranium and plutonium to be used in the bomb were being produced, all under incredible secrecy.

    Perhaps most fascinating was what the story tells about how science works, collaboratively, by fits and starts, and by careful observation of things that weren’t quite what people expected. As Isaac Asimov said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science…is not ‘Eureka’ but ‘That’s funny . . .’”

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    • David, thanks for taking care of the science part of the story. I am amazed by science and what has been discovered, but I always have the “how in the world did they figure that out” perspective. I can read the first paragraph of a popular science story, but then I get absolutely lost. So thank you for being my guide to the science along with Charlie.

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  11. A wonderful recap of the challenges and solutions that went into a remarkable—and frightening—episode of American history and achievement.

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  12. What a thorough, descriptive, and interesting piece. The photos are beautiful and poignant. So interesting to see and imagine the numerous young men, women, and (later) babies, converging in secret to create this weapon of mass destruction in a camp-like atmosphere. Raises many questions. Thanks for your work on this and sharing your travel experiences!

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  13. I thoroughly enjoyed your interesting and thorough discussion and photos of Los Alamos. Claire and I visited several years ago and were also quite moved. A turning point in man’s destructive capacity that I pray we will never again experience.

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  14. Thanks for writing on such an interesting topic. For whatever lost reason, my dad ‘made’ me read about Oppenheimer years ago. He had friends of older friends who were known to have worked on various aspects of those projects…I appreciate the thoughtfulness you brought tying science to the people and how it was possible (back then) to disappear into the desert.

    Reply

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