Historical Society's take on first episode of Manhattan

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There was an amazing turnout for the Los Alamos Historical Society’s viewing of the premiere of WGN’s new series, Manhattan, a fictionalized look at life in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. There was a great discussion following the show, and the Society has collected some of the common questions that we heard that night and on social media. Every week the Society will be updating a bulletin board in the Museum to continue exploring questions and reactions as the 13-episode series continues.

Join the Los Alamos Historical Society Sundays at Time Out Pizzeria in Los Alamos from 8–9:30 pm for a viewing and discussion of Manhattan.

Why does Los Alamos look like a desert?

            The show was filmed (in part) at the Bruns Army Hospital near the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, so our trees and mountains are missing.

 There aren’t scorpions in Los Alamos, are there?

            They’re not common, but yes there are! PEEC even has one you can visit (and is looking for a sponsor to name it).


Where was Dorothy McKibbin?

            The episode didn’t show McKibbin or her office at 109 East Palace in Santa Fe where she welcomed new arrivals. But you can see the gate to her office in the History Museum.


Where were the émigré scientists?

            Many of the scientists at Los Alamos had fled from the threat of Nazi Germany and came to work for the Manhattan Project. In the show, Paul Crosley is a member of the British Mission on Frank Winter’s team, but we didn’t spot any other foreign-born scientists.


Did Oppenheimer let the Army decide on the bomb design?

            No. General Groves accepted Oppenheimer’s scientific decisions, which were based on the best knowledge of the scientists and engineers at Los Alamos.


Were there spies here during the Manhattan Project?

            Yes. However, none of them were discovered until after the war. Klaus Fuchs, David Greenglass, and Ted Hall all spied for the Soviet Union. Some members of the Project that were considered to be suspicious or pose a security risk were sent to remote areas for the duration of the war.


Did groups compete like Winter’s and Akley’s do?

            Not really. One of Oppenheimer’s great strengths as a leader was his ability to get prima donna physicists to work together. However, groups did pursue several possible solutions to problems (like that of the design of the plutonium bomb) in parallel. There was a massive restructuring of research groups after it was discovered that the gun-type plutonium bomb would not be effective—but scientists were not “reassigned” to other Manhattan Project sites like Winter’s group was in the show.


How did the civilian scientists and the Army interact?

            There were tensions between civilians and the military, and there were minor security lapses which were punished, but the show exaggerated these tensions. Largely they worked well together.


Did they light fireworks?

            We do know that George Kistiakowsky raided a supply shack to create makeshift fireworks to celebrate V-J Day.


Computers were women?

            Yes! At the beginning of the century, women’s minds were considered better suited for detailed, repetitive tasks. Some of the computers brought brilliance and innovation to their work despite men’s underestimation of their abilities. Before the Manhattan Project, computers worked in the Harvard College Observatory in the 1890s. Henrietta Swan Leavitt made discoveries which allowed for the realization that our universe is expanding. Computers also worked for the Army during WWII at the University of Pennsylvania on ballistics research. Some went on to be among the first programmers for the ENIAC.