Published 4 August 2016 by Stephanie Hanel

The Manhattan Project – Life in Los Alamos

Photo: Stone
Photo: Stone

Los Alamos: the location synonymous with the birth of the atomic bomb. Here is where the Manhattan Project was carried out, on a plateau 2,500 metres above sea level in New Mexico. Between 100,000 and 150,000 people were involved in the top-secret project – both directly on site and at other production locations in the country. A situation like this, involving a large proportion of the country’s top scientists living and working in a military camp with their families, is only conceivable in a time of war.

They lived under new names, required authorisation from the military for everything they needed, and were not allowed to tell their wives and children what they were working on. They could only communicate with the outside world through censored letters; visits to relatives were only allowed in exceptional cases and, here too, strict silence had to be observed in relation to every single detail about their lives. And this went on for years. However, normal life also had to go on in this exceptional situation: clothes had to be washed, food bought and children cared for.


Doing laundry at Los Alamos, Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Doing laundry at Los Alamos, Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In his lecture at the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, Roy Glauber, who was recruited for the Manhattan Project as an 18-year-old, provided a striking account of his sense of bafflement on receiving an unexpected visit from a man in a black suit. He asked to speak to Glauber in private at the university and would only reveal that he had an exciting opportunity for him. The situation at the universities at the time emerges clearly from his description: Professors were giving their last courses and all young men had to complete personnel forms stating their qualifications. For a young man like Glauber, there appeared to be no question of rejecting this “offer” and he was attracted by the adventure of it all.

The accounts provided by the scientists’ wives are downright eerie: An unexpected visitor arrived asking to speak with their husbands in private. After that, a suitcase had to be packed and they had to leave for an unknown destination for an unspecified period of time.


A grocery store at Los Alamos, Photo: Los Alamos National Library (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
A grocery store at Los Alamos, Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The place where their long journey ended was originally the grounds of a high school for boys who suffered from tuberculosis and needed to spend time in the mountain air. The main building was converted into the so-called Tech Area and could only be accessed by the experimental scientists and other authorized persons. Everyone was checked at the entrance. Theoretical scientists like Roy Glauber worked in separate buildings. Everything the camp’s inhabitants needed to live was available on site: a mixed goods store, a post office, a hospital and a school. The living accommodation was often only built after the arrival of the families, and improvised emergency accommodation was provided in the interim; occasionally they had to camp out in a multi-purpose room. When it rained, everything was muddy; bush fires were a frequent occurrence in the hot season. Smoke columns on the horizon were as much a part of everyday life as test detonations, about which questions were forbidden.

Social gatherings mainly took place in the private houses and people took turns in hosting them. The close proximity in which people lived at the camp initially resulted in the formation of a kind of ‘community of necessity’ and, later also, friendships, and it helped the isolated community to bond. Victor Weisskopf, one of the two directors of the theoretical department later wrote: “Many of the close friendships we formed in Los Alamos are still going strong today”.

Roy Glauber pointed out with amusement that the military hospital in Los Alamos probably had the highest birth rate of all of the military hospitals at the time. The people who came to Los Alamos back then were all young, he explained. With the exception of the few female scientists, who were directly involved in the research in addition to fulfilling their responsibilities as mothers, the women in the camp also worked as telephonists, librarians, cost accountants, laboratory assistants and teachers.


A family's living room, Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
A family’s living room, Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In Los Alamos, two worlds collided. The military world made its presence felt with its roll call at six o’clock in the morning but actually felt aimlessly disconnected. The scientific world did not get along with the paternalism of the military. Overall, the atmosphere was characterised by piecemeal information and suspicion. Although everyone knew that the project involved a military development, few had an idea of the scale of what was actually being researched there.

Initially, it seemed that the project could never succeed, and as far as some people were concerned that would have been preferable. At some point however, the project cast its spell over all of the participants and the opportunity to collaborate with the many outstanding minds from their own disciplines outweighed the scientists’ initial doubts. “Nevertheless, we never managed to shake off the searching question as to whether it was morally acceptable to use a weapon with such enormous destructive force,” says Weisskopf, who also reports that a group of scientists led by Leo Szilard and James Franck wrote to the Minister of War and urged him not to drop the bomb over a populated area. As we know, their appeal fell on deaf ears.

When the war came to an end, the Los Alamos community disbanded. Some of the scientists remained behind, but most returned to civil research. The facility exists to the present day. It employs around 6,000 people and has one of the world’s biggest institutes of theoretical research. It is still used to maintain the USA’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

Stephanie Hanel

Stephanie Hanel is a journalist and author. Her enthusiasm for the people behind science grew out of her work as an online editor for AcademiaNet, an international portal that publishes profiles of excellent female scientists. She is an interested observer of new communication channels and narrative forms as well as a dedicated social media user and science slam fan.