In the twentieth century, almost every aspect of science changed: it spread from insular universities to government, industry, and the military. New disciplines emerged and the boundaries between old ones blurred. But perhaps the greatest change was science’s growth in scale, scope, and cost, as it was transformed from an activity in which small groups or individuals conducted experiments into "Big Science" — a large-scale enterprise that is carried out by multidisciplinary and multinational groups of researchers, costs enormous sums, demands massive institutions of its own, and often represents a substantial fraction of national budgets. These changes have often been ascribed to the Manhattan Project, the allies' research during World War II that resulted in the construction and deployment of the atomic bomb. In this write-up I will discuss the effect that the Manhattan Project had on physics and the development of Big Science.

Pre-World War II

Prior to the atomic bomb, physics was already a major science that affected almost everyone in their daily lives. Although the science of high explosives and mustard gas resulted in the First World War being known as the "Chemists' War", physics also played a vital part in outcome of the conflict with work in aviation, communication and submarine detection. Significant steps were made to demonstrate the utility of academic science and cooperative relationships between academia, industry and the state. Physics was considered an important discipline and, in the 1920s and 1930s, there were already strong links between universities, industry and the military. Physicists at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge managed to secure grants from institutions such as The Royal Society and, when nuclear physics took off, apparatus that was constantly increasing in size, expense and complexity was required. In order to secure such devices, physicists maintained strong links with industry. However, government funding was hard to come by, especially during the Depression years, so private donations from philanthropists and industrial companies were sought after.

Because certain physical instruments were becoming too large and complex to be operated by just one scientist, changes were necessary in social organisation and cutting edge research became more specialised. In Europe academic and industrial interests forged new relationships and, in light of Germany's remilitarisation in the 1930s, the British government employed physicists and industrial companies to conduct air defence research. Many characteristics of Big Science were already in place prior to World War II with the beginnings of links between the military, government, industry and academic science.

The Manhattan Project

At its height, the Manhattan Project was equivalent in size to the entire American automobile industry, and its outcome conferred new prestige to science and scientists. The Project employed 130,000 people and cost a total of $2 billion - this magnitude of resources is one of the reasons why it is widely deemed responsible for the massive growth and militarization of postwar science. Since World War II, the majority of the capital for Big Science came directly from governments intending to support national interests and security. Facilities involved in the Manhattan Project came under the control of the Atomic Energy Commission and between 1951 and 1959 it received $900 million for research and development and $3.5 billion for facilities. There was an unprecedented coming together of materials, personnel and sociological goals. It can be argued that the massive scientific push of the Manhattan Project changed the shape of physics forever. In addition, the devastating use of atomic bombs on Japanese cities meant that nuclear science was viewed with a newfound awe and respect. $2.2 billion had been spent on the Manhattan Project and the scientific research had been made more efficient and streamlined. In addition, new techniques had been developed to make science more goal-directed, inclusive of various disciplines and involving multinational cooperation. The Manhattan Project was by far the most dramatic and obvious example of large scale science during the war. Physicists came out with new skills and pragmatic abilities while authorities and governments were abundantly aware of the value of large goal-orientated scientific projects.

During the war, American government funding increased ten times and continued to increase after 1945. By 1949, sixty percent of physics funding was provided by the Department of Defense. The relationship between physicists and the military meant that there was a major shift toward government funding and universities managed to attract military sponsors. In turn, military aims had a substantial influence on post-war research (although it is not fair to say that the big spending military always took advantage of physicists). The Manhattan Project focussed on large-scale science with material gains and applications – in many ways it was the origin of military-industrial-academic cooperation. Massive science projects became socially sanctioned although this was not solely a contemporary phenomenon as massive and expensive telescopes and observatories had existed since the fifteenth century. Also, there was electrochemical research in the 1800s on a grand scale and science had been gradually institutionalised since the 19th Century.


The constantly varying nature of science means that any changes must have had multifarious and far reaching causes. The Manhattan Project changed the perception and practice of science completely, but the progression toward Big Science was not complete right after World War II. Science has taken on large scale experiments many times in the past, but nothing could compare with the massive coming together of resources that was seen by the Manhattan Project. However, the grander scale of physics practised after World War II can be viewed as a simple continuation of scientific progress in the 20th century rather than being directly attributed to the atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project did not represent a radical break in the development of twentieth-century science – in some ways it merely accelerated developments already underway. However, there is no denying the role the Manhattan Project played in shaping twentieth century science and its relationship with the military and industry. It allowed for the rapid acceleration of changes toward goal directed science that required project organisation and direction combined with speedy results. Work on an industrial scale was vital to the Manhattan Project and it did much to strength associations with industry as well as interdisciplinary links between different aspects of physics. In conclusion, The Project had an undeniable effect on the shape of physics in terms of its organisation as much as scientific advances.

  • Hughes, Jeff. The Manhattan Project: Big Science and the Atom Bomb (2003).
  • Hartcup, G. The Effect of Science on the Second World War (2003).

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