Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Start of the Nuclear Age

This week President Obama flew to Hiroshima, site of the World War II atomic bombing, to call for an end to the use of nuclear weapons.  Monday, on our day off from working at the Habitat for Humanity build in Santa Fe, NM; Tim and I visited the birthplace of the atomic bomb, the Manhattan Project National Historical Park in Los Alamos.

The Manhattan Project National Historical Park is unique.  What I didn't know is that it is actually composed of three different places that were instrumental in the bomb's creation, Los Alamos, of course; Oak Ridge, TN where the uranium was purified and Hanford, Washington where plutonium was processed.  The National Park Service and the Los Alamos Historical Society are preserving the few buildings that remain in Los Alamos from that time.

J. Robert Oppenheimer

J. Robert Oppenheimer, the civilian director of what came to be called Project Y, in lieu of the highly classified place name "Los Alamos," realized that scientists all over the country must collaborate more closely if the United States and Britain were to beat the Nazis in the race to develop an atomic bomb first.  A site was needed away from the coasts of the United States where access could be restricted; yet, still provide the scientists a chance to unwind by hiking, swimming or horseback riding.  During our life together, Tim has kept several of his investigations a secret from me, but I'm not sure I could have packed up our bags and headed to the desert to live a life with alias names and altered birth certificates.

The Lodge was the dining hall for the Ranch School.

Recalling vacations he had taken in northern New Mexico, Oppenheimer knew that a college preparatory school, the Ranch School, was hidden away at Los Alamos.  Its buildings would be a good start towards the construction of the top-secret weapons laboratory.

Students were divided into troops similar to the Boy Scouts.

Ranch School students were the sons of wealthy Easterners deemed sickly and in need of toughening up.  They slept outside on porches in summer as well as in winter.  Brrr!  They were probably glad to be sent home when the school abruptly closed in February 1943 to allow the army to begin further construction.

Robert Oppenheimer on my right; General Groves on my left.

With his successful completion of the Pentagon, General Leslie Groves of the Corps of Engineers had a reputation of getting things done quickly and on budget.  As the military administrator, Groves began to construct a complex that was so secret all the inhabitants at Los Alamos had just one post office box number, P.O. 1663.  

Birth Certificate for Nancy Elizabeth Agnew

That was the address used on the birth certificates of babies born on "The Hill" during the 28 months it took to develop the bomb.  I found it hard to believe that the average age of the people involved in Project Y was 25 years.  I guess it's not surprising that many started their families while they were there.

Ashley Pond in the center of Los Alamos was named for the founder of the Ranch School whose name was Ashley Pond.

At the park headquarters, we signed up for a walking tour with Jim, a retired physicist who worked at the lab from 1965 to 1998.   

Home of Robert Oppenheimer

He was great!  He gave us a good overview of the Ranch School, the war years and the work of the lab today.

Bradbury Science Museum

He highly recommended a visit to the Bradbury Science Museum before we left town.  I was too busy reading placards at the science museum to take many photos, but the replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man were sobering.

Top: Little Boy; Bottom: Fat Man
One must pause with awe when looking at these bombs.  They were not impressive in size, but the destructive nature of these weapons ushered in a new age.  While I don't doubt that the dropping of these bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was necessary to save American lives and end the war with Japan, even Oppenheimer was aghast at the annihilation they caused.  After the trial at the Alamogordo test site, he quoted this phrase from The Bhagavad Gita: "If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky that would be like the splendor of the Mightly One...I become Death, the Shatterer of Worlds."

I hope and pray that President Obama's call for a world without nuclear weapons is heeded.

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