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Manhattan Project: Los Alamos
The Manhattan Project required a facility where scientific and engineering research and development, finishing of raw materials, final assembly, and testing of the atomic bomb could take place. This aspect of the Manhattan Engineering District was code named Project Y and came to be located at Los Alamos, NM. Los Alamos guided the work of the Manhattan Project from initial theoretical calcuations to the production of raw materials at Oak Ridge and Hanford, to the test explosion at Trinity and the manufacturing of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Path to Los Alamos
The discovery and demonstration of nuclear fission in December 1938 raised the possibility of an explosion from the energy released. Many physicists around the world recognized that potential. Three refugee physicists from Hungary - Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller, and Leo Szilard - worried by the implications of a fission bomb in the hands of Nazi Germany, obtained the cooperation of Albert Einstein to send a letter to President Roosevelt asking the U.S. Government to undertake atomic bomb research.
In January 1942, Dr. Arthur Compton organized the Metallurgical Laboratory (Met Lab) at the University of Chicago to consolidate the research on fission for the U.S. In June, the brilliant J. Robert Oppenheimer of the University of California, Berkeley joined Met Lab to lead the effort on fast neutron physics. In December of 1942, Enrico Fermi (photo, left) directed the historic startup of the atomic pile under the west stands of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago, a pile of black bricks that contained 22,000 pieces of uranium oxide and 800,000 pounds of graphite. That activity later moved with many of the personnel of Met Lab to Los Alamos.
Oppenheimer organized a group of theorists during the summer of 1942 to develop preliminary plans for designing and building a nuclear weapon. By September 1942, the difficulties involved in coordinating activities at universities scattered throughout the country, as well as the need for a facility where the unique and top secret atomic bomb work could be concentrated, indicated the need for a laboratory dedicated solely to that purpose.
In March 1943, the new Manhattan Project commander Gen. Leslie Groves selected Oppenheimer to lead the Manhatten Project Laboratory, naming him the Scientific Director of the project. Oppenheimer recommended the site of the Los Alamos Ranch School, located about 35 miles northwest of Santa Fe as an ideal, secluded location for the top secret facility. The Manhattan Project acquired the school and construction of the new laboratory began almost immediately.
The Work of Los Alamos
The team Oppenheimer assembled in 1943 had the task of turning the theory of nuclear fission into a practical weapon that could be used to win the war. Overshadowing everything else was the possibility that Germany would create a working bomb first, certainly a possibility at that time. Although after the war it became clear that Germany did not have the scientific or industrial capability for an atomic bomb, that was not to be known until well after the invasion of Europe in 1944. In the end, it was not Germany but Japan that had the atomic weapon used against it to end the war.
In 1943, crucial questions remained to be discovered about the properties of fast neutrons. To answer these questions, as well as to tackle the engineering of the bomb mechanism, Los Alamos assembled the top scientific and engineering talent of the nation: Oppenheimer, von Neumann, Fermi, Serge, Bohr, Szilard, Feynman, Serber, Teller, Ulam, Morrison, Wigner, Rabi, Seaborg, Bethe, Lawrence, Alvarez, Weisskopf, Peierls, Bacher, McMillan, Manley, Serber, Allison, and Wilson. These names and others are a constellation of stars never before or since gathered in one place, some already well established and others at the beginning of their careers, some consumate theoreticians and others world-class experimentalists, engineers or R&D managers. In addition to original research and coordinating the work of many university laboratories in the theory and workings of fission, the team also designed the industrial processes that guided the work of building and operating the vast plants at Oak Ridge and Hanford where the bomb materials were refined, all unprecedented and unanticipated before the war. Edward Condon, who had directed the Westinghouse Research Laboratory, was Oppenheimer's deputy for the industrial sphere.
British Scientific Mission
Great Britain, one of the two principal allies of the United States during World War II, knew of the Manhattan Project and contributed to it. Churchill provided key technical personnel and other help to the Manhattan Project. United Kingdom scientists were sent to Los Alamos and, among other contributions, provided much of the early critical mass studies of uranium. Althought the British provided both technical and managerial skills to the project, they were heavily overshadowed by the Americans (and recent refugees to the U.S.) such that the U.K. contribution is generally unrecognized.
Soviet Spies at Los Alamos
The other "ally" of the U.S. was the Soviet Union -- they were not informed of the Manhatten Project. The Soviets had their suspicions, however, and managed to penetrate the project. At least three Soviet spies worked at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project period: Klaus Fuchs, Theodore Hall, and David Greenglass, the latter the younger brother of Ethel Rosenberg, herself later convicted as a spy and executed along with her husband Julius. Two of these three spies, Hall and Greenglass, were native United States citizens who nonetheless worked for the Soviets. Hall was a Harvard physics prodigy who seemed to be motivated by a misplaced idealism. Greenglass, who was an Army machinist coincidentally sent to Los Alamos, was recruited by his Communist sister to pass information to her Soviet controllers. Fuchs had escaped from Germany as a refugee from the Nazis and was working at a nuclear lab in Great Britain when, by chance, he was chosen to go to Los Alamos. He was already a Soviet spy in the U.K. and managed to continue from New Mexico.
Recommended books on Los Alamos
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