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Spotlight on Los Alamos: The little town that could

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By Roger Snodgrass

SANTA FE – Historic Los Alamos took the spotlight Sunday with a reminder that its founding story – a cliff-hanging race for survival led by the most brilliant minds of the age – continues to capture public attention.The unofficial capital of the Manhattan Project, Los Alamos was the subject of several brief talks Sunday in the St. Francis Auditorium of the New Mexico Museum of Art.The weekend event marked publication of an anthology edited by Cynthia Kelly, president of the Atomic Heritage Foundation. The book – “The Manhattan Project” – is among the outstanding commemorative works the organization has carried out over its nine years in existence.The new book is a compendium of excerpts, representing the best that has been thought and said about the famous crash program to deliver the first nuclear weapon. Kelly’s notes introduce and provide the context for a collection of essential insights and reflections.Short pieces by dozens of eye witnesses and participants, as well as reflections by leading historians, illuminate the daily life of Los Alamos, the science and politics and the aftermath of the weapon that hastened the end of World War II.As Kelly observed, the occasion was one week short of the 65th anniversary of Gen. Leslie R. Grove’s selection of Los Alamos to be the location for the top-secret laboratory where the atomic weapon was to be made.Talks by George Cowan and Ellen Bradbury Reid, among the book’s contributors, offered distinct facets of the period and heritage, followed by a book signing in the courtyard.George Cowan, who worked at Los Alamos for 39 years, was also a founder of the Los Alamos National Bank in 1963 and of the Santa Fe Institute in 1983. One of the most widely influential citizens of Los Alamos, his memories of the early years have the unmistakable authenticity of a silent movie comedy, fraught with uranium pyrotechnics and narrow escapes from slapstick predicaments.While flying in a B-16 observation plane at the 1946 nuclear tests known as Operation Crossroads, Cowan remembered that when the shock wave from the explosion hit the plane, the photographer fell out.“He was hooked to a strap and we had to haul him back in,” Cowan said.Appropriately, a speech he delivered at an Atomic Heritage Foundation symposium last year provided the closing chapter in the new bookIn it, Cowan weighed the possibilities for another Manhattan Project, noting that the Apollo project to reach the moon was a success, although he added in the talk, it was more about prestige than survival.“The war on terror might lead to another Manhattan Project,” he said, adding that it would take more than what happened on 9/11.Global warming might be a worthy problem to take on, Cowan said, as would a program of atomic forensics to identify the source of a nuclear attack.It would be better, he concluded, if the forensics capability could be used to help prevent a catastrophe rather than following one.Ellen Bradbury Reid came to Los Alamos with her father, Ed Wilder when she was almost six years old.One day during a medial emergency, she recalled, her father had to take her “behind the fence” at the lab, but cautioned that they had to be careful because something very secret was being built there.“It looked pretty boring to me,” Bradbury Reid said. But she noticed there were white ducks on the pond. She counted 11 of them and decided that that must be the secret.Her anecdotes of childhood innocence, as she vowed to become a spy and tell the world about the white ducks on the pond, were a reminder of the fundamental humanity of the people who came to the Hill.As the world now knows, Los Alamos was birthplace of the atomic bomb, an emphatic new force of nature. In this much-studied location, complex heroes and many relatively ordinary men and women performed remarkable feats and left ambiguous consequences long after the issues of World War II were resolved.The events on Sunday were another reminder of the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s ongoing historic preservation work. Having raised private funds that spearheaded the award-winning restoration of the High Bay building at V-Site, where the Trinity weapon was assembled, the Foundation and the New Mexico Historic Preservation Office are now out to save two more structures from the era of the Manhattan Project: the Gun Site and the Trapdoor Site.“These are not monumental buildings in the traditional sense,” said Katherine Slick of the preservation office. “They were monumental in what occurred there.”Kelly also signed copies of the book at Otowi Station Bookstore in Los Alamos on Monday.