The Manhattan Project

On Monday, June 8, Camille gave a presentation on THE MANHATTAN PROJECT: The Physics, the People, and the Politics, at Roosmoor in Walnut Creek, CA.

A well-known, oft repeated quote from Santayana: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

And a somewhat less known quote from Kurt Vonnegut:

I’ve got news for Mr. Santayana: we’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.

I’m in the Vonnegut camp. As far as I can see, we haven’t learned much from probably millions of years of human history, about 6000 of them “civilized”. One obvious example: we remember that war is hard on a country and its citizens, but that doesn’t stop us from engaging in wars, often overlapping, with bigger and better weapons.

For many reasons, I’ve never found history particularly interesting. But recently I’ve become fascinated by one specific period in US history – the years of the Manhattan Project.

So many issues came into play on an isolated mesa in Los Alamos, New Mexico:

• the way the military personnel and the scientific community had to work together though their usual modus operandi were so different;

• the strategy of setting up two groups of scientists with a challenge: team A tries fission; team B tries fusion. Both succeed.

• the very human emotions of fear, jealousy, suspicion that resulted in one of the most famous feuds in modern times: Oppenheimer v. Teller;

• the tremendous feat of turning bits of scientific theory and blackboards full of equations into something tangible, that worked in the real world.

It has taken many volumes to collect the data and report on the aftermath, and I have a feeling it’s not over yet.


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