Created during WWII to build the first atomic bomb, the project was headed by General Leslie Groves and directed by J. Robert Oppenheimer. Following the successful building of a fission pile in a football stadium in Chicago, the Hanford Atomic Reservation was built, and thousands of scientists were sent to Los Alamos to build the bomb. The secrecy extended beyond wartime, creating a Cold War machine with little exposure to public opinion, and damage to US citizens and environment.

The fission pile was created by Enrico Fermi, and it wasn't exactly 'in a football stadium'; it was a squash court, that may have been located by the stadium.

A primitive affaire, this first nuclear reactor, built of interlocking blocks of graphite as a moderator, and uranium, with cadmium rods to control the reaction.

In the event of an uncontrolled chain reaction, there was one person whose job was to use an axe to cut the ropes holding the cadmium rods out of the pile. Then everybody had to scram!

Initally the Manhattan Project was begun in
the basement of Pupin physics building in Columbia University. Columbia University is located in Manhattan.
This is the origin of the name of the project.

When they were constructing the pile at the University of Chicago, they had to assemble tons of uranium into stacks, or piles. That's where the name Atomic Pile came from. The uranium slugs were delivered in wooden crates which the workmen neatly stacked on the side of the room. One day when Fermi was touring the site, one of the workmen commented to him that the stack of crates resembled the actual pile. Fermi turned white and immediatly pulled out his slide rule and started furiously calculating. After a few minutes he was sure of his results and relaxed. It had occured to him that with all of the uranium stacked so close toger in the crates, it was possible that a critical mass could be achieved. This would have started a chain reaction like the one that powers a nuclear reactor, which would have been a bad thing(tm). His calculations however made it clear to him that the wood in the crates would act as an efficient neutron regulator so that no such event was possible. None the less he requested that the workers space the crates out around the room.

Anyone familiar with what I have written in the past is may be aware of the nature of my work, those who are familiar with my physical form are aware of my inexorable link to the Manhattan Project. Just as a fair warning this is the Manhattan Project from the other side of the fence. I.e. this may not be the most fact filled thing I have ever written. You see I am a child of the bomb, so to speak.




When I was a born my father was in the last throes of graduate school and facing a life of certain academia and the endless debate over how the universe works. The little pieces like quantum electrodynamics and other areas of small particle physics that make everything from Everything2 to the fact that you are sitting possible. Things change.

Fourteen years later we would move from Livermore, California to Los Alamos, New Mexico and what was to be home. The memory of driving up the back canyon road at twilight for the first time has not dimmed. The desolation and sparsely wooded ash cliffs pink in the sunset of early June and a single lane highway into White Rock. Scrub PiƱon pines gnarled like arthritic hands under the dry desert sun; bark the same slate gray of a winter storm's sky. The Jemez caldera in the background and it's own forests of Fir interrupted occasionally by lighter Aspen groves marking the site of fires caused by lightning strikes five hundred years ago. Up unto that time I had been aware of the fact that this was where it all began, where men would become obsessed to the point where it would consume their souls by something called 'the Dragon.' Enrico Fermei, Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller and Richard Feynman all worked here when the streets were dirt and the only physical address was a house just off of the plaza in Santa Fe. Working for a government and a society at war over the last dregs of imperial monarchies that had dominated the face of the Earth for the last two thousand years. The half-moon shapes of Anasazi cliff dwellings hanging just under the rim of the mesas, abandoned homes of a society that the Navaho speak of in a term of deference. The name means 'Ancient Ones.'

The town was built around a boys school that had hosted the affluent and 'ill' when it was believed that the thin mountain air would do them some good, make men of them. The Army Corps of Engineers invaded and one of the oldest Boy Scout troops in the United States (Troop 22, of which I was a member for several years,) faded into the background until the fences finally came down. When they came they brought the best of the best, the cutting edge of physics unified in one place and then set to a specific task. Build something that would change the face of our world forever. Their humanity and the lives of every victim, every casualty of the Cold War, would forever be linked.

To this day there are ties that bind all of us together into a single catalogue of experiences. People who were there then still talk of 'Oppie' as a sort of martyr to the world of physics. The Son crucified by the fallen Teller and his twisted sense of nationalism, Feynman to later become the Holy Ghost with his work in QED, Einstein acting as untouchable God weeping in the background over the sins committed by his children. Einstein hated the hydrogen bomb and believed that one weapon was enough. Accurately predicting what he foresaw as a war of proliferation several others (Oppenheimer included) gravitated to his side and opposed Teller's push to develop the next generation of hydrogen weapons. The ties to communism through a mistress confirmed, Oppenheimer would be the first victim of a now very well known political fury in its fifth decade of active operation as of this writing. (My own family moved to Los Alamos because of Teller, different story for a different day though.) Then, the Army laid the razor wire, put up the guard posts, put the land mines in the ground that are there to this day and then watched carefully as Manhattan did everything intended.




The tragedy lies not in the fact that the weapons were developed, that the people who were there succeeded or even that the device was actually used to stop something far more horrible from happening. I do not belong to the revisionist camp that does a nice job of deluding themselves into thinking that we are at fault for what happened during the Second World War. Mistakes were made, good people on both sides died horribly and miserably thousands of miles from their homes screaming the names of their loved ones. War is an atrocious act by nature. I will not condone, endorse or approve of the actions undertaken by either side as everyone acted stupidly. Both Imperial Japan and the United States knew very well what they were getting into. I would recommend that anyone under the impression that Japan had not been preparing for an expansionist campaign in the Pacific since before the First World War should go look into something called the Meiji Restoration and the subsequent sociopolitical effects. These politics were at the very heart of the Manhattan Project whose sole end goal was to stop the war sooner with fewer American casualties than what we were prepared for with an invasion of the Japanese home islands.

The point of waging a war (in case anyone has forgotten,) is to kill more of your enemy faster than they kill you in such quantity that the enemy leaders will eventually give up. Whether waging tactical, operational or strategic warfare the point is to kill everyone on the other side in a uniform. Now if the people of your nation are galvanized toward something called a 'Total War Society' then this technically makes everyone the enemy. Think about that, what it means when your whole country is concerned with the tools and trade of killing, maiming or otherwise brutalizing humanity. The necessity of forcing anyone you can find to "endure the unendurable" quickens the end of a war or at least this is the way that the theory goes. It never works so neatly; the origami of diplomacy catastrophically unfolds and makes a mess of anyone's hands caught in the way. I understand what war is, what war means, what nuclear war would do to this planet and the people living on its surface. I never, read this if nothing else, never want to see that happen.

Deterrence and the presence of a real and credible threat provide a means to make that previous statement a reality. The nuclear arsenal developed at the cost of uncountable lives has provided this country with the ability to dictate policy chapter and verse to a large number of institutions and national governments that would have otherwise taken hostile action against the United States. The Cold War was brought to an end because the Russians simply did not possess the financial or technological means to advance as fast as the United States and its allies were. Once the genie was released from the bottle we could not have put it back even if we had wanted. The specters of weapons systems so powerful as to render conventional infantry tactics obsolete are a powerful thing for any defense planner at the national level. Just as one spear would not be enough, one bullet, one rifle, one nuclear weapon does not slake the lust for destruction on an incomprehensible scale. Einstein was right, no doubt about that at all. We engineered a victory through the threat of untold horror and patted ourselves on the back the entire time. Deterrence and proliferation are inseparable cousins conjoined at birth by the reflexive instinct to raze those who would threaten "Our American Way of Life" or "Great Mother Russia." Once we started we were aware that the Soviets would follow and anyone that followed them should we win would have to develop an arsenal as awesome as our own in order to scare us into defeat.

Tactics imitating poker in a way only the problem is we do not quite know when it is time to fold and go home for the evening. Stuck at the table like junkies the pot will continue to grow regardless of policy changes at any national level. Defense policy is impossible to separate from the nuclear deterrent because it is defense policy at an extreme level. The threat of a shotgun in a knife fight is enough to stop the other participants from even drawing a blade. Painful as it is we as a species crossed that line with our first weapon. Not Trinity, no, not July 16, 1945, the first time Homo Sapiens picked up a rock in anger and went into the world spoiling for blood. The Manhattan Project started then.




Nuclear weapons are incredibly complex devices that require intense education followed by at least a decade of practical experience in the design field before any real results can be expected. Some of the largest proponents of censorship on the internet have stated numerous times that there are the plans for nuclear weapons available to the public. What they are not aware of is that the information that is available is approximately equivalent a blindfolded child's crayon rendition of an object being described to them second hand.

There are segments of society that draw in broad strokes grandiose and (admittedly) altruistic plans for the total disarmament of every country on this planet. Humanity is not ready to put down the guns and forget the genocide, remember we made a nice mess of ourselves for a few thousand years with stones, sticks, ropes and knives. Exchanging one weapon for another solves no problem in that the difficulty lies with the people and their thousand year old 'Holy Wars,' 'Ethnic Cleansings,' 'Purifications,' and 'Low Intensity Conflicts.' I cannot stress enough that the real and credible threat of overwhelming response stop an attempt by any nation on this Earth from using nuclear weapons in a strategic setting. The safety that they provide is invaluable despite the fact that these devices are some of the most vilified objects known. The debate over the national security issues behind deterrence and the employment of nuclear weapons as a primary vehicle for that is a serious and rabid one. Environmental groups and most extreme liberal politicians would like to see at a minimum a drastic reduction if not total elimination of this nation's nuclear arsenal. The Union of Concerned Scientists has said in the past that the United States could maintain sufficient conventional forces as an acceptable substitute for the security provided by a nuclear arsenal. Do not mistake stupidity for security.




In the back wall of the Los Alamos Science Museum there is an exhibit placed there at several people's behest entitled 'Why the Bomb?' As an examination of why the Enola Gay took off from Tinian, (part of the Northern Marianas Islands and approximately fifty miles from Saipan,) and dropped Fat Man and then Little Boy onto the citizens and terrain of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and an attempt at healing. Most of the people working in Los Alamos understand what it is that they are doing to the degree that it lives in haunted eyes and late night conversations.
There are pictures, prayers, attempts by scores of relatives and actual survivors of the bomb to bring closure to what happened in the final days of the Second World War. Both sides have a chance to speak there, both opponents and proponents of 'the Bomb' speak through volumes of visitor's logs that tell the tales of the hands slowly wearing away at the exhibit walls. There are pictures of counter protests staged by Los Alamos residents during a 'Peace Celebration' that made a valiant attempt at besieging the town several years ago. There are the vain and stupid words WHY WHY WHY scribbled in large letters no more than a few pages away no matter how many times the books have been filled and replaced, the ineffectual and abused peace symbol now corrupted for consumer market salesmanship. Thin lines of kirigana or kanji, signatures of veterans from various military services and numerous nationalities who were there or came after.




The Plutonium Facility sits atop one of the larger mesas in Los Alamos up a steep slope off of one side of Pajarito Road behind three razor wire fences and a barren box of land. Guards at tank traps sit behind aquamarine bulletproof glass armed with 7.62 M249's and M-16's with attached M79 40mm grenade launchers with orders to shoot first and ask questions later. You do not go near this building without good reason; you do not stop and take pictures of the sniper towers and arc sodium lights that create an eerie artificial daylight at the darkest hours of a snowy night. You drive on your way to high school or work past the nexus of this nation's weapons program distorted in glass reflections. Nothing goes into this building and nothing comes out of it for any reason. Moving material to or from the Plutonium Facility means that all of Pajarito road is closed for two to three hours. The armored trucks turn anyone at either end around, the traffic goes to SR-4 and life goes on as usual.

The lab now has other foci including geothermal power research, medical technologies, practical fusion power and the everyday grinding work involved in the science powering one of the greatest scientific institutions in existing today.

With little to distract attention from work aside from backpacking through the Jemez, occasional trips to Santa Fe and the Pajarito Ski Area during the winter, Los Alamos is a model environment for these people to work inside. Physicists are very easily amused; I think having been raised by a pair of them I am somewhat qualified to make that statement. These people buy beer, watch television, live in houses, eat food and go places other than New Mexico on vacation. (Getting a theoretician to actually go on a vacation is something of a different matter.) They are not monsters and they do not hate irrationally.

The weapons designers that I have met in the past are somewhat troubled by the mechanics of what it is they have wrought upon the world. I have eaten dinner with some of the principle designers of the first Russian weapons, my enemy now my friend sat across the table of the dining room in my house and ate off of plates I remember my mother picking out some years earlier. She made the food, set the places, I simply observed and made pleasant conversation as I slowly came to the realization that these people were just that. They had a job to do, they did what they were supposed to and it worked very well in the end. In their eyes I saw the same sadness I had become used to in the haunted look of the black and white pictures of Oppenheimer shortly after Trinity. Over Mom's cooking we all look the same, we all wish to exorcise the same demons and rid ourselves of the old ghosts. All the gates, the security, all of it still there under the unblinking stare of the Dragon. The legacy of the Manhattan Project is still very much alive and well.




"OPPIE LIVES." -Guest register, Los Alamos Science Museum

Imagine an undergraduate physics major, a sophomore. Someone who has always done well at everything, someone with grand ideals and long hair. Imagine that this person is suddenly finding himself failing--at everything--including physics, which he loves, and love, which he has come to feel suspicious of. Imagine how this affects the confidence of a person, how he doesn't sleep at night, how he can't finish his meals, how he walks off the soccer field, in disgust, unable to focus enough to even prevent his own injury. Imagine this person sitting in a full lecture-hall, absolutely captivated by a quiet voice, with a perpetual half-smirk which reminds the person of something, which makes him always feel as though he is in the presence of...something. Imagine that half-smirk presenting the best lecture of their career. It is about the mathematical description of a drop of water. How the surface tension holds the whole together, and how random fluctuations in the shape of the drop can be suddenly amplified, reinforcing themselves, until the drop is no longer spherical. In fact it becomes so stretched, so pinched in the center as to form almost two separate spheres, and then there is a snap, and there are two separate spheres. Imagine the half-smirk revealing, in that quiet voice, that this description is also useful when examining the structure of the nucleus of an atom. Imagine forty heads nodding in appreciation of the connection, leaning in, because it is here, in tying together apparently unrelated phenomena, that physics is so beautiful, and so magical. Imagine the quiet voice then showing how this model can be used to predict the stability of each of the elements in the periodic table, and even the relative abundance of each. Imagine that even the long-haired individual, the one who doesn't sleep, understands perfectly. Imagine how wonderful that makes him feel, how powerful, as though the lecture is meant for him, how intoxicating it is to follow the graceful equations on the chalkboard and feel as though nature has been revealed, and to feel, at last, as though he is part of this magical quest toward understanding.

Now imagine that the half-smirking face asks for the lights to be turned out, and he leaves the room for a moment to arrange the slide projector, and he comes back in, and silently projects black and white photographs of the New Mexico desert, that blinding light, and then Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.




Imagine how that felt, imagine the tears in the eyes of the long-haired fellow, the dreadful silence in the room. Imagine how magical, and wonderful, and powerful it can be to understand the connections between things which previously seemed unrelated.

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