Archive for the ‘Visions’ Category

Women, minorities, and the Manhattan Project

Friday, November 27th, 2015

One of the things I most appreciate about the writers of the show Manhattan is that they took the effort to get beyond the standard, most common vision of the “Los Alamos scientist.” Several of the leading characters are female scientists, good at what they do, good at navigating a profession dominated by men. In the first season, one of the scientists was Chinese-American, and there is also a recurrent character in both the first and second season who is African-American, played with intelligence, dignity, and self-awareness.

Drs. Helen Prins (Katja Herbers), , and Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zuckermann) at the Oak Ridge X-10 reactor from Manhattan episode 107.

Drs. Helen Prins (Katja Herbers), Theodore Sinclair (Corey Allen), and Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zuckerman) at the Oak Ridge X-10 reactor from Manhattan episode 107.

The textbook version of Los Alamos, and the Manhattan Project as a whole, is a bunch of genius white, male scientists (the Europeans getting the designation of “Jewish” and sometimes another nationality, i.e. “Hungarian”), who have largely been deracinated (not a yarmulke to be seen, not a religious belief to be referenced, except maybe Oppenheimer’s dabbling with Hindu mysticism). Women enter in the picture largely as wives, secretaries, and the operators of Calutrons, ignorant of their true roles. Non-whites are basically eliminated, with the exception of the Indians who served as menial laborers at Los Alamos. This is a view of “who matters” taken largely from the 1940s — it is how the earliest chroniclers of the Manhattan Project saw their world. The one exception to this is Lise Meitner, who was triumphed in the early days of the atomic bomb, largely because of irony in her having had to flee Germany, but also, I suspect, at the irony of her having been a woman.

The historical reality is a much more textured one. There were actually many women contributing to the technical side of the bomb — not just as Calutron operators, either, but as physicists, chemists, biologists, and mathematicians, among other scientific specialities. One of the most overlooked books on the history of the bomb is Ruth H. Howes and Caroline L. Herzenberg’s Their Day in the Sun: Women and the Manhattan Project (Temple University Press, 1999), and it chronicles the lives of many of the women who worked on the project. Along with their stories of individual lives, they also dig into the numbers:

In September 1943, some sixty women worked in the Technical Area at Los Alamos. By October 1944, about 30 percent, or 200 members of the labor force in the Tech Area, the hospital, and the schools were women. Of these, twenty could be described as scientists and fifty as technicians. Fifteen women worked as nurses, twenty-five as teachers, and seventy as secretaries or clerks.

Although many women’s precise job titles at Los Alamos remain unknown, rough numbers show about twenty-five of them working on chemistry and metallurgy, twenty on bomb engineering, sixteen on theoretical physics, four on experimental physics, eight on ordnance, and four on explosives. Two women worked with Enrico Fermi, who had moved to Los Alamos when it opened in 1943. These numbers are given by divisional assignment instead of by job title, so a few of these women may have held clerical jobs, but it’s clear that most of them were scientists or technicians.

The number of women working on the Manhattan Project contrasts sharply with the Apollo Project of the 1960s, which was comparable in size and scope. At its peak in 1965, when Apollo engaged 5.4 percent of the national supply of scientists and engineers, women accounted for only 3 percent of NASA’s scientific and engineering staff.1

The latter part is kind of a kicker for me: more women worked on the bomb than worked on the program to get Americans on the Moon. Why such a disparity? Because during World War II, the need for scientific labor was desperate and spread among many projects. It’s hard to be a bigot when you need every ounce of brainpower and labor you can get, and indeed World War II is famous overall for its movement of women into spaces they had previously been excluded (i.e. Rosie the Riveter). By the late 1950s and mid-1960s, though, the traditional gender norms had been reinstated, and the problem of technical labor shortages had been largely addressed by massive campaigns to increase the numbers of scientists and engineers in the United States.2 As advertisements from the later period suggest, the role of the space-age woman was as the helpful wife — not the person doing the calculations.

A relatively young Katharine ("Kay") Way. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

A relatively young Katharine (“Kay”) Way, one of the many female scientists of the Manhattan Project, and one of the rare few scientists whose work took her to all of the major Manhattan Project sites. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

There are a lot of interesting lives there, generally ignored when we tell these stories. Katharine Way is one of my favorites. She had a PhD in nuclear physics from University of North Carolina, having been John Wheeler’s first graduate student. She worked on neutron sources at the University of Tennessee early in the war, and, hearing rumors of a big project at Chicago, called up Wheeler and talked her way into the Metallurgical Laboratory. There she worked on many topics key to the operation of reactors: neutron fluxes, “poisoning” by fission products, reactor constants, and eventually the Way-Wigner formula for fission-product decay. Her work was important enough for her to warrant visits to Hanford, Oak Ridge, and Los Alamos — a remarkable feat given the high levels of compartmentalization (many of the scientists who worked at any one of the sites were not allowed to know where the other ones were located). Even before Hiroshima, she questioned the morality of the weapon she had helped produce (signing Szilard’s petition against its use), and in the postwar she was a key player in the postwar Scientists’ Movement, co-editing One World or None with Dexter Masters in 1946.3

The Manhattan character Helen Prins, played by Katja Herbers, reminds me of Way, in terms of the arc of her narrative: her gumption (imagine talking yourself onto the Manhattan Project!); the way in which, despite being relatively low in the hierarchy, her work touches on enough key problems that it leads her all over the place (which works well for a plot, but it somewhat true to life as well), and the way in which she, like many others who worked enthusiastically during the war, came to doubts about the uses to which their science had been put.

Chien-Shiung Wu at the Smith College Laboratory in the 1940s, shortly before joining the Manhattan Project. She is working on an electro-static (Van De Graaff) generator. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Chien-Shiung Wu at the Smith College Laboratory in the 1940s, shortly before joining the Manhattan Project. She is working on an electro-static (Van De Graaff) generator. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

There were also minorities on the project in technical roles, though here the lack of equal opportunity is far more stark and evident. Chien-Shiung Wu, a Chinese-born physicist, completed her dissertation in physics under Ernest Lawrence at UC Berkeley in 1940. After receiving a phone call from none other than Enrico Fermi, she was the one who identified Xenon-135 as a fission-product that was causing the Hanford reactors to lose their reactivity over time (this is the so-called “poisoning” effect). She also worked with Harold Urey on the problem of gaseous diffusion while at Columbia University, among other things. She would later become the first female president of the American Physical Society, in 1975.4

The Manhattan Project had very large numbers of African-Americans, but they were mostly working at Oak Ridge and Hanford as laborers or janitors. Peter Hales’ Atomic Spaces: Living on the Manhattan Project (University of Illinois Press, 1999) has a thoroughly interesting chapter on the “Others” of the bomb work, including African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Native Americans, and women. Oak Ridge was rigidly segregated during the war, with crude “Negro hutments” that held five men or six women in a single room (white hutments were similarly crude, but only had four occupants). The history of segregation at Oak Ridge is quite interesting — Groves apparently issued orders for a “separate but equal” set of accommodations, but his subordinates instead clearly saw the goal as creating a “Negro shantytown.” Hanford housing was also segregated, but accommodations were generally better, although in many ways the African-American laborers received fewer perks than the white ones (for example, in terms of recreational facilities built for them). These differences among sites were largely the difference of one being in located in Jim Crow Tennessee and the other in Washington State.5

Met Lab chemist Moddy Taylor (photo from 1960) — not the "typical" image of a Manhattan Project scientist. Source: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History.

Met Lab chemist Moddy Taylor — not the “typical” image of a Manhattan Project scientist. Photo from 1960. Source: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History.

There were a few African-American scientists on the Manhattan Project. Samuel P. Massie, Jr., worked at Iowa State University on uranium chemistry for use in enrichment work. Jasper Jeffries worked as a physicist at the Metallurgical Laboratory, and was one of the signatories of Leo Szilard’s petition to not use the bomb on a city without warning. Benjamin Franklin Scott worked as a chemist at the Met Lab in their instrumentation and measurements section. Moddie Taylor also did chemistry at the Met Lab, analyzing rare-earth metals. There are several others — the American Institute of Physics has a nice compilation of biographies on their website — mostly centered around the University of Chicago. With any kind of “omitted” history of this sort, one wants to honor them without overstating their importance or underestimating the effects of institutionalized exclusion.6

As a side-note, I was asked by a reporter last summer whether there were any known cases of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered (LGBT) on the Manhattan Project. This is a tricky thing to answer. There were some half a million people working on the bomb across all of its many sites — some number of them had to be LGBT based on whatever prevalence one thinks existed in the population at that time. Even if it was only 1% (which is very conservative), that would allow for 5,000 individuals across the entire project. The populations of present-day US states range from around 2% to over 5% in self-identification as LGBT, so that is quite a lot more people (especially if we acknowledge that even at our current point in time, there are certainly many people in the closet or in a state of self-denial). Of course, in the 1940s homosexuality was categorized as a psychiatric disorder and by the late 1940s it was considered a serious security risk (the “Lavender scare”). To be public about such a thing would not be conducive to working on top-secret war work, to say the least — so there had to have been quite a lot of people who were in the closet.

Alumni of the creation of the first nuclear reactor, CP-1, at the University of Chicago's Metallurgical Laboratory. Leona Woods Marshall is conspicuously outside the norm, but there nonetheless. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archive.

Alumni of the creation of the first nuclear reactor, CP-1, at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory. Leona Woods Marshall is conspicuously outside the norm, but part of the crew nonetheless. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archive.

The issue of women and minorities in STEM fields is still a real one. For those who smugly believe that large portions of the population simply don’t have the ability to contribute on technical matters, I have found Neil deGrasse Tyson’s discussions of his own difficulties as an African-American interested in astrophysics to be a useful reference. In the case of the Manhattan Project, there are interesting trends. At times things were more open on the bomb work, for women in particular, because they could not afford to write off brainpower of a certain type. For issues of labor, however, the local cultures — New Mexico, Washington, and Tennessee — all came through largely as you would expect them to.

The initial stories about the making of the bomb, however, largely wrote out all non-male, non-whites from the story. Partially this was a real recapitulation of the the hierarchy in place: there were women and there were minorities, but they didn’t generally get to run things, and the story of making the bomb was often about who was running things. But partially this was about the biases of the time, and what was considered acceptable from the perspective of the storytellers (and, arguably, society itself — imagine if a woman or minority had tried to get away with Feynman’s hijinks, whether they would be treated as amusing or not). There has been a lot of good work expanding our understanding of who made the bomb in the last 15 years, though it has not quite unseated the popular vision of a handful of brainy white men creating a weapon out of sheer cleverness and equations alone.

Notes
  1. Emphasis added. Ruth H. Howes and Caroline L. Herzenberg, Their Day in the Sun: Women and the Manhattan Project (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999), 13-14. []
  2. On the latter, see the work of David Kaiser on the booms and busts in the sciences from Sputnik onward. []
  3. Howes and Hertzenberg, 42-43. []
  4. Howes and Hertzenberg, 45-46. []
  5. Peter Bacon Hales, Atomic Spaces: Living on the Manhattan Project (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), chapter 7. []
  6. There is a very nice paper online about African-American scientists and the atomic bomb: Shane Landrum, “‘In Los Alamos, I feel like I’m a real citizen’: Black atomic scientists, education, and citizenship, 1945-1960,” (Brandeis University, 2005). There is a bit of literature on African-American responses to the bomb, as well: see, e.g., Abby Kinchy, “African Americans in the Atomic Age: Postwar Perspectives on Race and the Bomb, 1945–1967,” Technology and Culture 50, no. 2 (2009), 291-315. []

The doubts of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Friday, November 6th, 2015

The latest episode of Manhattan (Ep. 204) pivoted on the internal conflicts of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The standard, popular version of Oppenheimer as Los Alamos Director is one of infinite competence, confidence, and charm. The reality of Oppenheimer as a whole, much less Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, is a far more complex one.

Early on in my education, one of my advisors warned me against careless labeling of historical actors as “complex” or “complicated” without explaining what exactly I meant by that. In this sense, I think what it means is, this is a person who acts in contradictory, not-always-predictable ways — a person who breaks the standard narrative arc we might want to tell about their life. Oppenheimer is someone whose close examination refuses to fit into a simple narrative of heroism, tragedy, or comedy. In other words, he was a real person. And as T.H. White put it: “It is difficult to write about a real person.”

Oppenheimer as rich-rugged-cowboy-Hindu-Jewish-intellectual. At his ranch, "Perro Caliente," with Ernest Lawrence in 1931. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Oppenheimer as rich-rugged-cowboy-Hindu-Jewish-intellectual. At his ranch, “Perro Caliente,” with Ernest Lawrence (cropped out of frame) in 1931. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Oppenheimer’s longtime friend, the physicist I.I. Rabi, later said that the core conflict of Oppenheimer’s personality was a search for identity. It was a perceptive remark. As to which of the many visible Oppenheimers was the “real” one, he suggested that, “Robert doesn’t know himself.” Oppenheimer was, Rabi would later put it, “a man who was put together of many bright shining splinters.”1

Consider the oft-told Oppenheimer biographical details in this light. Oppenheimer grew up on the Manhattan’s Upper West Side, in a family of wealthy, secular, German-Jewish immigrants. This, in and of itself, seems to have driven a lot of Oppenheimer’s initial search for a new identity. He apparently was embarrassed by his father’s hands-on approach to wealth (he was a textile merchant, so nouveau riche of a sort), embarrassed by his father’s approach to secularism (his enthusiastic embrace of Felix Adler’s Ethical Culture philosophy), and simultaneously embarrassed by his Jewishness. He went to Harvard during one of its peak moments of anti-Semitism (the year he started was marked with embroiled public discussions about Harvard’s Jewish quotas), and found himself a socially-awkward exile among blue-bloods from old-American families.

His escape from the identity he was born into was to embrace something entirely different. He found friends who to him represented what a “true American” intellectual might look like — rugged, earthy, wealthy men from New Mexico. Hence Oppenheimer’s great Southwestern obsession, the one that led to the Los Alamos laboratory being situated where it was. What is more of an antonym to “rich Manhattan Jewish German immigrant” than “rugged Southwestern cowboy”? His interest in Hinduism, Sanskrit, and the Bhagavad-Gita might be filed under this antonymic approach to identity as well: leaving behind both the traditional sacred of his heritage (Jewishness) and the Western secularism of his upbringing (Ethical Culture) by embracing the oriental mysticism of Far Eastern philosophy.

Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Ernest Lawrence at UC Berkeley, ca. 1939. Note that Oppenheimer has clearly not yet taken on the identity of Scientific Director yet — too much hair. All three of these physicists would eventually recommend dropping the atomic bomb on a civilian target. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Ernest Lawrence at UC Berkeley, ca. 1939. Note that Oppenheimer has clearly not yet taken on the identity of Scientific Director yet — too much hair. All three of these physicists would eventually recommend dropping the atomic bomb on a civilian target. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

One of the more puzzling episodes in Oppenheimer’s life is related to ones of these identity crises. After graduating from Harvard, Oppenheimer went abroad to continue his physics education as a graduate student. He choose his initial venue poorly: he went to Cambridge, in England, where the kind of physics they were interested in was not to his liking (he was doing experimental physics, and he was terrible at it), and he found British class culture even more exclusive and stifling than Harvard’s had been. Oppenheimer experienced a series of crises and failures. The culmination of one of these involved him rushing back to Cambridge, telling his friends that he had laid a “poisoned apple” on the desk of the physicist P.M.S. Blackett. Blackett represented everything Oppenheimer could not be in England: successful experimentalist, movie-star handsome, and well-integrated into British class society. Was this “poison” real, imagined, or metaphorical? Nobody is quite sure — Blackett apparently suffered no physical ill, in any case.

Oppenheimer overcame this crisis and found a way forward, eventually by leaving England and studying instead on the European continent. There he learned the new theoretical physics (quantum mechanics), which he excelled at and emerged as an admired wunderkind. It was in this period, on the continent, that the character of “Oppie” (originally “Opje” in Dutch) was created: mathematically and physically adventurous, confident, quick-witted, eccentric, intellectually ambidextrous.

This trying-on of identities can help explain some of Oppenheimer’s wartime behaviors as well. Oppenheimer-as-Scientific-Director was on of his most successful costume changes, in retrospect, but it was a daring risk for him. General Groves gave him the job despite the fact that Oppenheimer lacked any real administrative experience, much less any practical experience in building anything. Oppenheimer also had extreme liabilities in his past and present: one of his identities in the 1930s had been of a “fellow traveler” to many Communists and Communist-associates in his life, including, but not limited to, his wife (Kitty), his brother (Frank), his friends (Haakon Chevalier), his girlfriend and later mistress (Jean Tatlock — more on her in a future post), and his graduate students.

Oppenheimer, General Leslie Groves, and University of California President Robert Sproul, at the Army-Navy "E" Award ceremony in October 1945, recognizing the work of Los Alamos in developing the firt atomic bombs. Source: Los Alamos.

Oppenheimer, General Leslie Groves, and University of California President Robert Sproul, at the Army-Navy “E” Award ceremony in October 1945, recognizing the work of Los Alamos in developing the first atomic bombs. Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory.

These liabilities were known by Groves and others in the Manhattan Project security apparatus. They may have been one of the reasons Oppenheimer was an appealing choice for the job — he was moldable, he was relatively compliant, and these liabilities gave them leverage, should they need it. Oppenheimer worked so hard to be successful at this newest identity (creator of weapons of mass destruction for the U.S. government) that he overcame his past hang-up of leaving scientific investigations half-finished. He did have such doubts at times that he considered resigning, but he was talked out of the notion by his friends. He cut his hair, and got the job done.

The only trade-off was that in order to assume this new role, he had to prove his loyalties, and he did that by selling out his friends and colleagues. In many of the lengthy FBI files on his students and friends, one can find, very early in the file, an account of how they got on the radar of the anti-Communist agents of the United States government: they were alerted by J. Robert Oppenheimer himself. To be sure, Oppenheimer usually prefaced his denunciations by saying that these people were harmless, but he named names nonetheless.2

Ultimately it was this conflict of identities, I think, that snared Oppenheimer himself, in the end. His own well-documented downfall in the mid-1950s was in part the conflict of two of his identities. One of them was an eccentric, politically left-leaning intellectual who could be friends with anyone and dared to think and say whatever came to mind. The other was the head of a government weapons laboratory and later top-advisor in the area of nuclear arms. For a brief moment during the Manhattan Project, these two identities could overlap. By the 1950s, they could not — they were mutually exclusive, as distinct as a wave and a particle. Oppenheimer’s attempts to embody both of these at the same time, a sort of Complementarity-of-the-self, resulted in his selling out of the ideals of the former, and being rejected by the fears of the latter.

Notes
  1. These quotes are from Charles Thorpe’s Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 16. Thorpe’s book devotes much of its study of Oppenheimer to his quest for identity, and I owe many of my thoughts here to Thorpe’s work. []
  2. To put this into perspective for my students, I tell them to replace the label “Communism” with “terrorist,” and imagine how it would go over with the FBI today if you told them that a friend of yours was a little bit of a terrorist in the past, but had seen the error of their ways and was fine now. Would the FBI be comforted? Of course not. []

Manhattan noir

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015

Season two of the WGN America show Manhattan premieres tonight. I figured this would be a good excuse to plug it, and to talk about the historical consulting I’ve been doing for it.

Manhattan Season 2

The best way I have come up with to describe Manhattan is that it is an alternate-reality version of the Manhattan Project that is heavy on the film noir. Almost all of the characters are entirely fictional, not named after actual World War II figures (there are a couple exceptions to this, that I will come to), and the stories are fictional. However they are set in the same physical universe as ours, and the historical context is based (with some diversions) on the actual one. For Manhattan, the Manhattan Project was not just a specific set of historical events that led to the atomic bomb, but an unfolding historical context that ultimately rendered deep and lasting changes to the United States. It is not so much the story of the creation of a new weapon as it is the creation of a new world.

I was approached about consulting by the head writer, Sam Shaw, last year. I had seen some of Season 1, which took the Los Alamos story up until around the summer of 1944, when the lab had to be radically reorganized to focus on implosion. What I had liked about the first season is that they took something that most people would regard as pretty obscure — the intense effort that had been made for the (eventually abandoned) Thin Man bomb design — and made it into the key pivot around which the drama turned. To me that showed a pretty nuanced historical sensibility, focusing on the “loser” of history (Thin Man) as opposed to the “winner” (implosion).

Posting at the gate of the Los Alamos set — David Salzberg (science consultant), Sam Shaw (head writer), Lila Byock (writer), and myself.

Posting at the gate of the Los Alamos set — David Salzberg (science consultant), Sam Shaw (head writer), Lila Byock (writer), and myself.

The consulting job was for me an unusual one. I have consulted for documentaries in the past, and that is a relatively straightforward gig: they want to know what happened, I want to tell them what happened. Consulting for a fictional show was something else. They did want to know what happened, but less because they were going to replicate it (in many cases, they were not), but because they wanted the “flavor” of it to inform their fictional plots. I can’t go into too many details about what we talked about (not because I am bound to not talk about the show, but because I have been asked not to say anything that might spoil any of this season’s surprises, and I’m not even sure what all of those surprises are), but I found it an immensely fun challenge, trying to give them “options” that would be true to the “color” of the times.

Many of the questions were along the lines of, “we need to do this sort of thing with the story, what were the situations that actually happened that might provide a model for how we could make this happen?” I would sit and scratch my head for awhile and then come up with a plausible narrative or two (taken from actual Manhattan Project events, often quite obscure ones), sometimes providing some documentation that might help the writers get a sense of how it looked back then.

The set of Trinity site base camp while filming the final episode — the rain was fake, but the mud was real.

The set of Trinity site base camp while filming the final episode — the rain was fake, but the mud was real.

The Manhattan crew flew me out to Hollywood for a week last winter, and I spent several days just getting my brain picked by the writing team. It was a fun experience — I have never been in an environment with so many very intelligent people who were completely obsessed with Manhattan Project details asking very good questions and delighting in the answers I could give them. The writing team were already impressively well-informed on the subject of this history before I arrived, and were impressively bright and accomplished people. They had read most of the “basic literature” on the subject, and it gave me the feeling of teaching a “master class.” (Sam Shaw, the head writer, Lila Byock, his writerly wife, and Dustin Thomason, the executive producer, spent years steeped in the historical literature before beginning the show. Sam and Lila are both graduates of the Iowa Writers’ workshop; Sam wrote for Harper’s and Lila was a fact-checker for The New Yorker prior to their moving to Hollywood. These are all very smart cookies.)

After that winter, I got many e-mail queries from writers, and also read over several scripts. In the scripts, I looked for anachronisms, occasional scientific mistakes, or things that were just very big divergences from the actual past. The latter were not so much because they would be removed or changed — again, it is explicitly a fictional show — but because the writers wanted to make sure that if they did diverge that they knew about it. The science consulting was done by David Salzberg, a UCLA physicist who also does the science consulting for “The Big Bang Theory,” so scientific mistakes were extremely rare (and mostly in the category of slight anachronism, such as use of scientific terms that came later than World War II).

A billboard from the "Los Alamos" set of Manhattan. The sets are very interesting to walk around, in part because of the juxtaposition of the faux old (fake signs), the truly old (vintage equipment), and the not-at-all old (modern technology used for shooting the show).

A billboard from the “Los Alamos” set of Manhattan. The sets are very interesting to walk around, in part because of the juxtaposition of the faux old (fake signs), the truly old (vintage equipment), and the not-at-all old (modern technology used for shooting the show).

I was compensated for my work, so I don’t expect you to take my review of the show too seriously, but I will say that my Stevens colleague, the accomplish science journalist John Horgan, watched the first season and enjoyed it, and my wife (who is also a historian of science by training) liked it as well. If you are a buff of Manhattan Project history, you have to accept the show’s central conceit — that it is something of an alternate reality — if you are going to enjoy it, because if you find yourself constantly saying, “well that didn’t happen that way” then you are just going to find it frustrating. Similarly, I know there are many Los Alamos residents who are quick to point out that the area of New Mexico where it was filmed (near Santa Fe) looks very different than Los Alamos did. It’s true, but you either accept it, or you don’t — it is not a documentary, it is historically-informed film noir.

As a historian, I have enjoyed watching the show because I can see lots of very subtle references to things that did actually happen, and I find that fun, as opposed to irritating. But I’m also a big fan of science fiction, so I find the alternate-reality aspect of it pretty fun for that reason as well. The noir/sci-fi axis is where I do much of my reading-for-fun anyway, and does inform some of how I approach the past (my tendencies towards counterfactuals, my interests in the ways in which personal power is expressed and manipulated, my unceasing desire to probe the missing or deleted parts of archival narratives), so I feel like working with them was a good fit for me. But I can also certainly see where those who want a more purist version of the history are coming from, as well. (As a general rule, I don’t watch period dramas set in periods I know a lot about, because I find them frustrating. I think I can sympathize with what Classicists feel when they watch something like Gladiator or 300.) My only caution is that some of the objections I have heard to factual matters are in fact not aware that many of the seemingly fantastical events that take place during the show are based on actual things that happened — the actual history of the Manhattan Project is much more rich, varied, and weird than many of the traditional popularizations indicate.

You can't do the 1940s with a lot of hats. This of course called to mine the famous May 1948 cover of Physics Today featuring Oppenheimer's pork-pie hat.

You can’t do the 1940s without a lot of hats. This of course called to mind the famous May 1948 cover of Physics Today featuring Oppenheimer’s pork-pie hat.

The characters are, as noted, mostly fictional. They are, however, composites of real people. The main character, Frank Winter, has a lot of interesting figures rolled into him, so much that I suggested to the actor, John Benjamin Hickey, that Winter is really not meant to be an individual physicist so much as a stand-in for the physics community. It does not spoil anything to say that he was enthusiastic and worried about the possibility of a German bomb in the beginning, and gradually became suspicious if not outright terrified of what the US government was going to do with the fruits of his labor. At times there are shades of Leo Szilard, Seth Neddermeyer, Robert Oppenheimer, Josef Rotblat, Richard Feynman, and many others rolled into Winter. Winter has his own personality, of course, which makes it fun to watch. You cannot, just from knowing the history, predict exactly what is going to happen next. Sometimes this is just because things happen differently in the show’s universe; sometimes it is done with a winking eye to the fact that not everything that actually happens gets into the historical record.

One of the few characters who is explicitly meant to be directly based on a historical figure is J. Robert Oppenheimer, who is played with haunting resemblance by Daniel London. London’s performance really hit home for me how much artistic input the actors have, well beyond the script and the writers. London’s Oppenheimer is a chilly, cold, somewhat alien figure. He is not the “chummy Oppenheimer” that some fictionalizations give you. I prefer “cold Oppenheimer” as a tonic to the more traditionally chummy ones — the Oppenheimer I spend most of my time working with, in the files, is not an everyman, is probably not your friend (or if he is, he is probably reporting on your “red” tendencies to Army security behind your back), and is under a huge amount of stress. The real-life Oppenheimer could famously be both hot and cold, whereas London’s is mostly cold, but given the way Oppenheimer comes into the plots of the show (usually he only shows up when something is not going according to plan), it fits pretty well.

Posing with the Gadget, in the middle of a desert.

Posing with the Gadget, in the middle of a desert.

This past summer I was invited out to see the sets, see some of the filming of the final episode, meet some of the cast, participate in a press junket, and go to the “wrap party.” The sets were amazingly, lovingly done. Ruth Ammon, the production designer, put a huge amount of passion and detail into them. The main “Los Alamos” set was built inside an abandoned set of hospital buildings from the wartime period, and it is impressively “rich.” Their “Trinity site” is set far out in a desert outside of Santa Fe, made of actual burlap tents and wooden shacks. The sand is real, the bugs are real, the Sun’s heat is real (as I learned while sitting under it for several hours doing press interviews). The rain was not natural, but the mud it created was. The production values are excellent and it makes the 1940s “pop” to life.

I think the approach the writers used on this season is the way that historical consulting for period dramas ought to work. They didn’t just call me in at the last moment to tell them whether this or that hat was the right one to use, or to check if their equations were correct (they actually had a retired Los Alamos scientist do all of their blackboard equations, as an aside). They got me in early, before they started crafting all of the scripts, to help with the big arcs, and then brought me in later to develop the context for smaller (but still important) plot points. That’s the best use of people like me — you can get a lot of people who can do historical fact-checking, but it takes a trained historian to give you that blend of the forest and the trees that makes the period setting be something other than window-dressing.

Trinity at 70: “Now we are all sons of bitches.”

Friday, July 17th, 2015

A quick dispatch from the road: I have been traveling this week, first to Washington, DC, and now in New Mexico, where I am posting this from. Highlights in Washington included giving a talk on nuclear history (what it was, why it was important) to a crowd of mostly-millennial, aspiring policy wonks at the State Department’s 2015 “Generation Prague” conference. A few hours after that was completed, an article I wrote on the Trinity test went online on the New Yorker’s “Elements” science blog: “The First Light of Trinity.”

The First light of Trinity

Being able to write something for them has been a real capstone to the summer for me. It was a lot of work, in terms of the writing, the editing, and the fact-checking processes. But it is really a nice piece for it. I am incredibly grateful to the editor and fact-checker who worked with me on it, and gave me the opportunity to publish it. Something to check off the bucket list.

On the plane to New Mexico, I thought over what the 70th anniversary of Trinity really meant to me. I keep coming back to the post-detonation quote of Kenneth Bainbridge, the director of the Trinity project: “Now we are all sons of bitches.” It is often put in contrast with J. Robert Oppenheimer’s more grandiose, more cryptic, “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” Oppenheimer clearly didn’t say this at the time of test explosion, and its meaning is often misunderstood. But Bainbridge’s quote is somewhat cryptic and easy to misunderstand as well.

The badge photograph of Kenneth Bainbridge, director of the Trinity project. From a photo essay I wrote for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists two years ago.

The Los Alamos badge photograph of Kenneth Bainbridge, director of the Trinity project. From a photo essay I wrote for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists two years ago.

Bainbridge’s quote first got a lot of exposure when it was published as part of Lansing Lamont’s 1965 book, Day of Trinity, timed for the 20th anniversary of Trinity. Lamont interviewed many of the project participants who were still alive. The book contains many errors, which many of them lamented. (The best single book on Trinity, as an aside, is Ferenc Szasz’s 1984, The Day the Sun Rose Twice, by a considerable margin.) A consequence of these errors is that a lot of the scientists interviewed wrote letters to each other to complain about them, which means they also clarified some quotes of theirs in the book. Bainbridge in particular has a number of letters related to mixed up quotes, mixed up content, and mixed up facts from the Lamont book in his personal papers kept at the Harvard University Archives, which I looked at several years back.

One of the people Bainbridge wrote to was Oppenheimer. He said he wanted to explain his “Now we are all sons of bitches” quote, to make sure Oppenheimer understood he was not trying to be offensive:

The reasons for my statement were complex but two predominated. I was saying in effect that we had all worked hard to complete a weapon which would shorten the war but posterity would not consider that phase of it and would judge the effort as the creation of an unspeakable weapon by unfeeling people. I was also saying that the weapon was terrible and those who contributed to its development must share in any condemnation of it. Those who object to the language certainly could not have lived at Trinity for any length of time.

Oppenheimer wrote back, in a letter dated 1966, just a year before his death, when he was pretty sick and in a lot of pain. It said:

When Lamont’s book on Trinity came, I first showed it to Kitty; and a moment later I heard her in the most unseemly laughter. She had found the preposterous piece about the ‘obscure lines from a sonnet of Baudelaire.’ But despite this, and all else that was wrong with it, the book was worth something to me because it recalled your words. I had not remembered them, but I did and do recall them. We do not have to explain them to anyone.1

I like Bainbridge’s explanation, because it doubles back on itself: people will think we were unfeeling and terrible for making this weapon, which makes it sound like the people are not understanding, but, actually, yes, the weapon was terrible. I think you can get away with that kind of blanket condemnation if you’re one of the people instrumental in its creation.

The original map of fallout from the Trinity test. There are several more "hot spots" to the South and West than are in the later more simplified drawings of it. Click to see the entire map at full resolution.

The original map of fallout from the Trinity test. There are several more “hot spots” to the South and West than are in the later more simplified drawings of it. Click the image to see the entire map at full resolution.

I have been thinking about how broadly one might want to expand the “we” in his quote. Just those at the Trinity test? Those scientists who made the bombs possible? All of the half-million involved in making the bomb, whether they knew their role or not? The United States government and population, from Roosevelt on down? The Germans, the fear of whom inspired its initial creation? The world as a whole in the 1940s? Humanity as a whole, ever?

Are we all sons of bitches, because we, as a species of sentient, intelligent, brilliant creatures have created such terrible means of doing violence to ourselves, to the extremes of potential extinction?

This is probably not what Bainbridge meant, but it is an interesting road to go down. It recalls the recent discussions about whether we live in a new era of time, the Anthropocene, and whether the Trinity test should be seen as the marker of its beginning,

Notes
  1. Regarding Baudelaire, supposedly, according to Lamont, this was going to be the code that Oppenheimer used to tell Kitty that the test was a success: “If the test succeeded, he would send her a brief message, an obscure line from a sonnet by Baudelaire: ‘You can change the sheets.'” []

Dogs in space

Friday, June 26th, 2015

Confession: I once told my students something I knew wasn’t true. It was during a lecture on the Space Race, on Sputnik 2, which carried the dog Laika into space in November 1957. I told them about how the Soviets initially said she had lived a week before expiring (it was always intended to be a one-way trip), but that after the USSR had collapsed the Russians admitted that she had died almost immediately because their cooling systems had failed. All true so far.

But then one bright, sensitive sophomore, with a sheen on her eyes and a tremble in her voice, asked, “But did they at least learn something from her death?” And I said, “oh, um, well, uh… yes, yes — they learned a lot.”

Which I knew was false — they learned almost nothing. But what can you do, confronted with someone who is taking in the full reality of the fact that the Soviets sent a dog in space with the full knowledge it would die? It’s a heavy thing to admit that Laika gave her life in vain. (In subsequent classes, whenever I bring up Sputnik, I always preempt this situation by telling the above story, which relieves a little of the pressure.)

A Soviet matchbox with a heroic Laika, the first dog in space. Caption: "First satellite passenger — the dog, Laika." Want it on a shirt, or a really wonderful mug?

A Soviet matchbox with a heroic Laika, the first dog in space. Caption: “First satellite passenger — the dog, Laika.” Want it on a shirt, or a really wonderful mug?

I’m a dog person. I’ve had cats, but really, it’s dogs for me. I just believe that they connect with people on a deeper level than really any other animal. They’ve been bred to do just that, of course, and for a long time. There is evidence of human-dog cohabitation going back tens of thousands of years. (Cats are a lot more recently domesticated… and it shows.) There are many theories about the co-evolution of humans and dogs, and it has been said (in a generalization whose broadness I wince at, but whose message I endorse) that there have been many great civilizations without the wheel, but no great civilizations without the dog.

So I’ve always been kind of attracted to the idea of dogs in space. The “Mutniks,” as they were dubbed by punny American wags, were a key, distinguishing factor about the Soviet space program. And, Laika aside, a lot of them went up and came back down again, providing actually useful information about how organisms make do while in space, and allowing us to have more than just relentlessly sad stories about them. The kitsch factor is high, of course.

A friend of mine gave me a wonderfully quirky and beautiful little book last holiday season, Soviet Space Dogs, written by Olesya Turkina, published by FUEL Design and Publishing. According to its Amazon.com page, the idea for the book was hatched up by a co-founder of the press, who was apparently an aficionado of Mutnikiana (yes, I just invented that word). He collected a huge mass of odd Soviet (and some non-Soviet) pop culture references to the Soviet space dogs, and they commissioned Turkina, a Senior Research Fellow at the State Russian Museum, to write the text to accompany it. We had this book on our coffee table for several months before I decided to give it a spin, and I really enjoyed it — it’s much more than a lot of pretty pictures, though it is that, in spades, too. The narrative doesn’t completely cohere towards the end, and there are aspects of it that have a “translated from Russian” feel (and it was translated), but if you overlook those, it is both a beautiful and insightful book.

Soviet Space Dogs cover

First off, let’s start with the easy question: Why dogs? The American program primarily used apes and monkeys, as they were far better proxies for human physiology than even other mammals. Why didn’t the Soviets? According to one participant in the program, one of the leading scientists had looked into using monkeys, talking with a circus trainer, and found out that monkeys were terribly finicky: the training regimes were harder, they were prone to diseases, they were just harder in general to care for than dogs. “The Americans are welcome to their flying monkeys,” he supposedly said, “we’re more partial to dogs.” And, indeed, when they did use some monkeys later, they found that they were tough — one of them managed to worm his way out of his restraints and disable his telemetric equipment while in flight.

The Soviet dogs were all Moscow strays, picked for their size and their hardiness. The Soviet scientists reasoned that a dog that could survive on the streets was probably inherently tougher than purebred dogs that had only lived a domesticated life. (As the owner of a mutty little rescue dog, I of course am prone to see this as a logical conclusion.)

The Soviet dog program was more extensive than I had realized. Laika was the first in orbit, but she was not the first Soviet dog to be put onto a rocket. Turkina counts at least 29 dogs prior to Laika who were attached to R-1 and R-2 rockets (both direct descendants of the German V-2 rockets), sent up on flights hundreds of miles above the surface of the Earth starting in 1951. An appendix at the back of the book lists some of these dogs and their flights.

Oleg Gazenko, chief of the dog medical program, with Belka (right) and Strelka (left) at a press conference in 1960. Gazenko called this "the proudest moment of his life."

Oleg Gazenko, chief of the dog medical program, with Belka (right) and Strelka (left) at a TASS press conference in 1960. Gazenko called this “the proudest moment of his life.”

Many of them died. Turkina talks of the sorrow and guilt of their handlers, who (naturally) developed close bonds with the animals, and felt personally responsible when something went wrong. Some of the surviving dogs got to live with these handlers when they retired from space service. But when the surviving dogs eventually expired, they would sometimes end up stuffed and in a museum.

I had thought I had heard everything there was to hear about Laika, but I was surprised by how much I learned. Laika wasn’t really meant to be the first dog in space — she was the understudy of another dog who had gotten pregnant just before. Laika’s death was a direct result of political pressures to accelerate the launch before they were ready, in an effort to “Sputnik” the United States once again. The head of the dog medical program, when revealing Laika’s true fate in 2002, remarked that, “Working with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.”

The Soviets did not initially focus on the identity of Laika. Laika was just listed as an experimental animal in the Sputnik 2 satellite. Rather, it was the Western press, specifically American and British journalists, that got interested in the identity, and fate, of the dog. The Soviet officials appear to have been caught by surprise; I can’t help but wonder if they’d had a little less secrecy, and maybe ran this by a few Americans, they’d have realized that of course the American public and press would end up focusing on the dog. It was only after discussion began in the West that Soviet press releases about Laika came out, giving her a name, a story, a narrative. And a fate: they talked about her as a martyr to science, who would be kept alive for a week before being painlessly euthanized.

Staged photo of Belka in a space suit.

Staged photo of Belka in a space suit.

In reality, Laika was already dead. They had, too late, realized that their cooling mechanisms were inadequate and she quickly, painfully expired. The fact that Laika was never meant to come back, Turkina argues, shaped the narrative: Laika had to be turned into a saintly hero, a noble and necessary sacrifice. One sees this very clearly in most of the Soviet depictions of Laika — proud, facing the stars, serious.

The next dogs, Belka and Strelka, came back down again. Belka was in fact an experienced veteran of other rocket flights. But it was Strelka’s first mission. Once again, Belka and Strelka were not meant to be the dogs for that mission: an earlier version of the rocket, kept secret at the time, exploded during launch a few weeks earlier, killing the dogs Lisichka and Chaika. These two dogs were apparently beloved by their handlers, and this was a tough blow. The secrecy of the program, of course, pervades the entire story of the Soviet side of the Space Race, and serves as a marked contrast with the much more public-facing US program (the consequences of which are explored in The Right Stuff, among other places).

When Belka and Strelka came back safely, Turkina argues, they became the first real Soviet “pop stars.” Soviet socialism didn’t really allow valorization of individual people other than Stakhanovite-style exhortations. The achievements of one were the achievements of all, which doesn’t really lend itself to pop culture. But dogs were fair game, which is one reason there is so much Soviet-era Mutnikiana to begin with: you could put Laika, Belka, and Strelka on cigarettes, matches, tea pots, commemorative plates, and so on, and nobody would complain. Plus, Belka and Strelka were cute. They could be trotted out at press conferences, on talk shows, and were the subjects of a million adorable pictures and drawings. When Strelka had puppies, they were cheered as evidence that biological reproduction could survive the rigors of space, and were both shown off and given as prized gifts to Soviet officials. So it’s not just that the Soviet space dogs are cool or cute — they’re also responsible for the development of a “safe” popular culture in a repressive society that didn’t really allow for accessible human heroes. Turkina also argues that Belka and Strelka in particular were seen as paradoxically “humanizing” space. By coming back alive, they fed dreams of an interstellar existence for mankind that were particularly powerful in the Soviet context.

Yuri Gagarin reported to have joked: “Am I the first human in space, or the last dog?” It wasn’t such a stretch — the same satellite that Belka and Strelka rode in could be used for human beings, and gave them no more space. A friend of mine, Slava Gerovitch, has written a lot about the Soviet philosophy of space rocket design, and on the low regard the engineers who ran the program had for human passengers and their propensity for messing things up. Gagarin had about as much control over his satellite as Belka and Strelka did over theirs, because neither were trusted to actually fly a satellite. The contrast between the engineering attitudes of the Soviet Vostok and the American Mercury program is evident when you compare their instrument panels. The Mercury pilots were expected to be able to fly, while poor Gagarin was expected to be flown. 

Soviet Space Dogs is a pretty interesting read. It’s a hard read for a dog lover. But seeing the Soviet space dogs in the context of the broader Soviet Space Race, and seeing them as more than just “biological cargo,” raises them from kitsch and trivia. There is also just something so emblematic of the space age about the idea of putting dogs into satellites — taking a literally pre-historic human technology, one of the earliest and most successful results of millennia of artificial breeding, and putting it atop a space-faring rocket, the most futuristic technology we had at the time.