Wed, 06/19/2013 - 15:02

The faces that made the Bomb

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J. Robert Oppenheimer

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Dorothy McKibbin

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Berlyn Brixner

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Richard P. Feynman

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Elizabeth R. Graves

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Klaus Fuchs

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Robert M. Underhill

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Priscilla Duffield

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Leslie R. Groves

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Ramon C. Gomez

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Charlotte Serber

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William G. Penney

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Theodore A. Hall

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Kenneth T. Bainbridge
Slide 1 of 15

“Project Y,” as the Los Alamos National Laboratory was known during its World War II days, looms large in the popular understanding of the atomic bomb. Even though it was but one site in the overall Manhattan Project empire, and not the most populous or expensive site by a long-shot, its combination of scientific luminaries, mysterious secrecy, and the weightiest questions relating to the manufacture and use of the first nuclear weapons have made it a subject of not only dozens of serious works of history, but also films, novels, plays, and even an opera.

Every staff member at Los Alamos was required to wear a badge, which was far more than a simple identifier: It was also a marker of who could go where and talk to whom, even within the barbed wire fences of the laboratory. During World War II, almost one out of every thousand Americans—130,000 people out of a population of 140 million—were involved in the Manhattan Project. Los Alamos was only a small portion of that number, but it still employed more than 2,500 staff members at its wartime height.

In retrospect, portraits of the people who made the bomb are surprisingly intimate. On their faces, posed for the purposes of security, not art, it is tempting to read in what is known about their life histories. Are J. Robert Oppenheimer’s haunted eyes and uncharacteristic lack of a smile signs of the heavy burdens he carried, a chafing under the requirements of security, an irritation at the photographer, or nothing at all? Does Richard Feynman’s wicked grin reflect his rebellious nature, or mask the personal struggles he hid from his colleagues? And what of the many photographs of women and non-whites, which show the limits of the standard American story, the one that focuses almost exclusively on the white, male physicists?

Above is a carefully curated selection of some of the lesser-known stories of the people at Los Alamos, mixing the well-known with the obscure, treating each seriously as the faces that made the bomb.

The enigma of J. Robert Oppenheimer is well-known, on account of all of the biographies, plays, movies, and even comic books written about his life. And yet, historians struggle to pin down “the father of the atomic bomb.” He was a deeply intellectual, left-wing, utterly impractical theoretical physicist, but he was also by all accounts the highly-successful scientific director for the largely-industrial project that produced the first nuclear weapons, and he personally recommended their use on targets inhabited by civilians. He opposed the building of the hydrogen bomb when it seemed hard to do, but embraced it when it seemed inevitable, and all the while he pushed instead for the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Despite his status as a martyr after getting his security clearance revoked in 1954, he was no nuclear pacifist.

Dorothy McKibbin was known as the “first lady of Los Alamos”—or, more literally, the first person that most new arrivals to the laboratory would meet. Cryptically instructed to go to office No. 3 at 109 East Palace Avenue, in Santa Fe, the tired, confused travelers would be met with the cheery, helpful McKibbin, who would answer as many questions as she was allowed before guiding the scientists to the laboratory on the hill. Her role went deeper than greeting, though: She also enforced security regulations whenever Los Alamos staff members would venture into Santa Fe. McKibbin had arrived in Sante Fe in 1926 as a tuberculosis patient, but was recruited by Robert Oppenheimer as a secretary for the War Department in 1943. Despite the compartmentalization, she was tipped off to the Trinity test in 1945, and watched the explosion from her car, parked on Sandia Peak in Albuquerque, some 100 miles away from Ground Zero.

Berlyn Brixner was the chief photographer connected with Los Alamos. Almost every photograph taken of the Trinity test was taken by a camera installed by Brixner. The problems of photographing the first atomic bomb were non-trivial, as nobody had ever done such a thing before, and there were a wide range of estimates for how explosive the “Gadget” would be. A result of this uncertainty was that the first frames of film were so overexposed that holes burned right through the emulsion. During the test itself, while Brixner himself manned a 16-millimeter camera, another, more personal factor came into play—his own sense of awe. As he recalled years later: “I was so amazed ... that I just let the camera sit there. Then suddenly I realized that the ball of fire was going out of the field of view … for the first 20 seconds on the standard-speed camera it’s just sitting stationary, then suddenly you will see the field of view jump as the ball of fire is going out of the top of the frame.”

A mischievous young genius, Richard Feynman became famous at the laboratory both for his physics brilliance as well as his inability to cooperate peacefully with the security practices he saw as ineffective and narrow-minded. But under Feynman’s cheerful mask, so colorfully described in his book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, was a more sober reality. While Feynman worked at the laboratory, coordinating important computational work and doing dangerous critical mass experiments, his wife, Arline, lay dying of tuberculosis at a nearby Santa Fe clinic. She died exactly a month before the Trinity test. Sixteen months later, he wrote a letter to her: “My darling wife, I do adore you. I love my wife. My wife is dead.” After World War II, Feynman never worked on anything related to nuclear weapons again.

Elizabeth “Diz” Riddle Graves came to Los Alamos with her husband, Alvin, in 1943. Both had PhDs in physics, but only he had a faculty job—his employer, the University of Texas at Austin, forbade spousal hires under strict nepotism rules. When he was courted by Los Alamos, Alvin insisted they hire Elizabeth as well, even though she likely would have been recruited as well. Given that her graduate work had been on neutron scattering, it was only natural that she was assigned to work on the development of the neutron reflector for the atomic bomb, doing careful measurements of different candidate materials. During the Trinity test, the couple—Elizabeth seven months pregnant—was assigned to stay at a motel in Carrizozo, New Mexico, some 35 miles east of Ground Zero. Armed with a Geiger counter and a shortwave radio, they listened to the countdown and watched westward as the sky lit up. Over the next day, as the edges of the nuclear cloud drifted over the town, they watched the Geiger counter briefly jump off the scale, and contemplated evacuation. Within an hour, though, the readings had dropped down to negligible levels. Elizabeth is a reminder that many of the women at Los Alamos, even amongst the wives, were skilled scientists. And even many of those who lacked prior scientific training were drafted into technical work as “computers.”

A German political refugee, Fuchs became involved with the British atomic project in 1941. A convinced but secret Communist, Fuchs offered his services as a mole to the Soviet Union in 1943. A soft-spoken, brilliant theoretical physicist, Fuchs was a valued asset in the British program, and is listed as a co-inventor on the patent for the gaseous diffusion method of enrichment. He was part of the small British delegation of physicists that was transferred to Los Alamos, where he worked on the explosive lens problem for the implosion bomb, helped to design the neutron initiator, and was also involved with diagnosing electrical system problems at the Oak Ridge diffusion plant. All of this information he quietly and efficiently passed on to his handlers, who passed it on to the Soviet Union. His colleagues suspected nothing; so trusted was Fuchs that while other, more social scientists went to parties, Fuchs was often their babysitter. His role as a spy would not be discovered until 1950. He confessed to Scotland Yard, spent nine years in prison, and was then allowed to emigrate to East Germany, where he quietly continued his career as a physicist.

This unassuming-looking man was, in fact, an unassuming university administrator. Robert Mackenzie Underhill was the secretary and treasurer of the University of California, the manager to the laboratory at Los Alamos. What this meant was the university was in charge of many of the dull-but-important administrative aspects of the project, like adding people to the payroll, paying them, and making sure everything was sufficiently insured. The latter was actually a difficult problem: Technically, the university was not supposed to know where the laboratory in question was being built—yet it could not buy insurance without knowing in what state it was to be located. Though none of the Regents of the university were meant to know the purpose of the project, Underhill alone was brought into the fold when it became clear that having at least one Regent knowing what they were doing—and where they were doing it—was necessary to getting the paperwork processed expeditiously.

Priscilla Greene had been a secretary at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory, but was loaned to J. Robert Oppenheimer when he started to organize the work on bomb design. In the corner of many of Oppenheimer’s typed letters, her presence is evident as the typist: “JRO:pg.” When Oppenheimer left for New Mexico, she followed. She found the mud and dust of the early lab made it “a pretty appalling place.” While Oppenheimer gets much credit for keeping the entire bomb project in his head, it was actually Greene who managed the director’s office and kept it organized; it was Greene who took notes on phone conversations and managed the correspondence with far-flung sites; it was Greene who helped Oppenheimer, a man who had never had managed anything in his life, stay on top of the innumerable tasks assigned to him. During the war, she married Robert Duffield, a chemist at the lab.

General Leslie R. Groves was the overall commander of the Manhattan Project. Trained as an engineer, Groves’ job before the bomb had been to organize the construction of the Pentagon. Even Groves’ own military colleagues regarded him as a difficult person. His second-in-command, Colonel Kenneth D. Nichols, described him as “the biggest S.O.B. I have ever worked for. He is most demanding. He is most critical. He is always a driver, never a praiser. He is abrasive and sarcastic. He disregards all normal organizational channels. He is extremely intelligent. He has the guts to make difficult, timely decisions. He is the most egotistical man I know.” And yet, as Nichols acknowledged, this hard-driving, no-nonsense personality was the driving force that led to the rapid development of the first atomic bombs against odds and setbacks that are easy to forget in retrospect. And yet, for all of his importance in the construction of a secret nuclear empire, whoever typed his badge identification still spelled his name wrong.

Ramón C. Gómez doesn’t look like your stereotypical Los Alamos staff member: that is, the white, male, academic type. Gómez was one of many native New Mexicans who were recruited to work at Project Y. Though their names don’t appear in the standard reference works on the history of the bomb, their contributions were still necessary for the overall success of the project. Gómez lived in El Rancho, an Hispanic community that neighbors San Ildefonso Pueblo, and his father-in-law was one of many local ranchers who lost land to the creation of Los Alamos. Gómez and his four brothers worked at Los Alamos cleaning contaminated tools that were transported to the lab by truck daily. All five brothers would later die of cancer, and their deaths are considered by the Hispanic community around Los Alamos to be part of the toxic legacy of the American nuclear program in the Southwest. (As told to the author by PhD candidate Myrriah Gómez, the granddaughter of Ramon Gómez, who is also one of the subjects of her dissertation.)

Charlotte Serber was one of the many wives of the scientists who came to Los Alamos during the war. She was also one of the many wives who had their own substantial jobs while at the lab. While her husband, Robert Serber, worked on the design of the first nuclear weapons, Charlotte was the one in charge of running the technical library. While “librarian” might not at first glance seem vital to the war project, consider J. Robert Oppenheimer’s postwar letter to Serber, thanking her that “no single hour of delay has been attributed by any man in the laboratory to a malfunctioning, either in the Library or in the classified files. To this must be added the fact of the surprising success in controlling and accounting for the mass of classified information, where a single serious slip might not only have caused us the profoundest embarrassment but might have jeopardized the successful completion of our job.” Serber fell under unjustified suspicion of being a Communist in the immediate postwar, and, according to her FBI file, her phones were tapped. Who had singled her out as a possible Communist, because of her left-wing parents? Someone she thought of as a close personal friend: J. Robert Oppenheimer.

One wonders what the locals at Los Alamos, or even Santa Fe, would have thought about this UK transplant wandering around the American Southwest. A future Baron, Penney was a member of the British delegation to Los Alamos and the future head of the British atomic bomb program. During the war, he was, among other things, charged with helping to calculate the ideal height for detonating the atomic bomb, with the aim of maximizing the blast damage to the city underneath. Penney approached the task with an eye toward ruthless efficiency: Civilian houses in Japan, he noted, could be destroyed much more easily at certain bomb detonation heights. This unassuming-looking physicist even contemplated the gristly idea of combining both atomic and incendiary bombing: “The possibility of eliminating a large fraction of the Fire Force of a Japanese town by getting the fireman into the radioactive contaminated area to fight fires is attractive and realistic. The success of a follow-up attack may be greatly increased in this way. … If a gadget can be followed or accompanied by small [incendiary bombs] the probability of a devastating fire, spreading well beyond the limits of the blast damage, will be greatly increased.”

The youngest physicist at Los Alamos, Theodore Hall’s youth is evident in many ways: his acne, his smugness, his boredom. The 19-year-old Hall was still an undergraduate at Harvard University, and perhaps felt rightly smug to be a valued contributor at a secret laboratory, passing luminaries like Enrico Fermi and J. Robert Oppenheimer in the hallways. Hall’s arrogance also led him to believe that he knew better than everyone else how the bomb should be regarded. In 1944, while on a trip to New York, he walked into the Soviet embassy and offered his services as a spy. (The Soviets, also in awe of his precocity, gave him the simple code-name of “MLAD,” or “youth.”) Hall later said his motivation was rooted in the belief that no single nation should have the atomic bomb. Though he was identified as a spy in the early 1950s, he was never prosecuted.

During the Manhattan Project, Harvard physicist Kenneth Bainbridge was in charge of setting up the Trinity test—afterward he became known as the person who famously said: “Now we are all sons of bitches.” Years later he wrote a letter to J. Robert Oppenheimer explaining his choice of words: “I was saying in effect that we had all worked hard to complete a weapon which would shorten the war but posterity would not consider that phase of it and would judge the effort as the creation of an unspeakable weapon by unfeeling people. I was also saying that the weapon was terrible and those who contributed to its development must share in any condemnation of it. Those who object to the language certainly could not have lived at Trinity for any length of time.” Oppenheimer’s reply to Bainbridge’s sentiments was simple: “We do not have to explain them to anyone.”