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Published: Sunday, 5/29/2005

Life wasn't easy for scientists who developed the atom bomb

BY JULES WAGMAN
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

109 EAST PALACE: ROBERT OPPENHEIMER AND THE SECRET CITY OF LOS ALAMOS. By Jennet Conant. Simon & Schuster. 412 pages. $26.95.

Jennet Conant's 109 East Palace, on J. Robert Oppenheimer and development of the atom bomb, is first-class, as was her first book, Tuxedo Park, which described a wartime secret laboratory in the New York suburb.

Conant looks into the kitchens of Los Alamos, back to when it was created in 1943 to build an atomic bomb. We learn what those scientists were like when they were not splitting atoms.

Los Alamos is remote and the obvious question is, "Why there?" Oppenheimer, who headed the project, needed a secure site. He picked it because he knew it and loved it. The gateway to Los Alamos was behind an unobtrusive door in downtown Santa Fe, at 109 East Palace Ave.

Everyone who went to work at Los Alamos found their way first to 109 East Palace and met Dorothy McKibben. They were not always who they seemed to be. Oppenheimer, who hired her, called himself Mr. Bradley. Danish physicist Niels Bohr was Nicholas Baker.

When Bohr arrived in New York, FBI agents literally surrounded him to keep him hidden. After he was safely in his hotel room, Conant says, the agents saw that his luggage was emblazoned, "Niels Bohr."

At the University of Wisconsin, a physicist going to Los Alamos borrowed the New Mexico guide from the university library. Listed on the borrowers' card were several other physicists who had disappeared in recent months.

Conant traces the enmity between Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, the eventual father of the hydrogen bomb, to a 1942 preliminary conference at Berkeley on ways to build an atomic bomb.

Teller wanted to build an H-bomb - a fusion bomb - instead of the atom bomb, which would be fission. Oppenheimer opposed that. Higher authorities sided with Oppenheimer and ordered work on the atom bomb.

" [T]he lingering effects of that summer's tension with Teller would surface again and again," Conant writes and then quotes Oppenheimer's secretary, "Oppie had trouble with Teller in the summer of '42. After that, he [Oppie] always tried to keep him at arm's length."

Teller ended his testimony at Oppenheimer's security hearing in 1953 with " I would feel personally more secure if public matters would rest in other hands." In 1954 Oppenheimer, who flirted with communism in the 1930s, was barred from atomic energy work.

Santa Feans had no idea what was happening up on the mesa. When rumors came perilously close to reality, two Los Alamos couples were sent into town to say that they were working on rockets, but no one listened to them.

Conant describes primitive conditions in Los Alamos - unpaved streets, no electricity when labs ran experiments, insufficient water, flimsy housing. Letters were censored, guards patrolled. Inhabitants were 5,000 civilians living and working on a secure Army base.

Parties on base requisitioned 200-proof laboratory alcohol. In the first year, 80 babies were born. Average age of the scientists was 24. Electricians got $500 a week, physics grad students, $125. Oppenheimer was paid $10,000 annually. Entertainment was at a PX, a caf, and a movie theater that converted into a dance hall.

Much has been written about Los Alamos and Oppenheimer, but no one has put together so well the tensions of birthing the bomb with the everyday life of dirty diapers and little bath water.

Jules Wagman reviews books in Jacksonville, Fla.



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