Eyewitness Reports in History Los Alamos and the Atomic Bomb Part 2

An eyewitness account of Los Alamos and the atomic bomb during World War II.

Los Alamos and the Atomic Bomb

The assemblage of physicists at Los Alamos was the most formidable collection of scientists ever gathered for a single project. Aside from Oppenheimer, himself of German parentage, the most brilliant men who came to Los Alamos were immigrants. Enrico Fermi, an Italian, had been responsible for the first successful chain reaction experiments in Chicago. Niels Bohr had pioneered quantum physics in Denmark before having to flee from the Nazis. Edward Teller, a Hungarian who had studied in Munich, was an up-and-coming theoretician who had previously worked under Oppenheimer in Berkeley. Both Teller and Bohr worked under Hans Bethe, a German immigrant in charge of the Theoretical Division who, among other feats, had been instrumental in developing radar at MIT.

Among the lesser-known scientists was Klaus Fuchs, who had arrived from England to take part in the project. In 1933, while a student in Berlin, Fuchs had joined the Communist party after being beaten by a gang of Hitler's Brown Shirts. His mother and sister had committed suicide due to Nazi persecution, and his father had died in a concentration camp. When Fuchs moved to England after the war started, he was classified as an enemy alien and sent to a Canadian internment camp. Upon his release in 1941, he returned to London and offered the Soviet embassy his services as a spy. Primarily through Fuchs, the Russians were kept informed of virtually every stage of the bomb's design and production.

What was originally intended to be a group of 100 scientists working out an applicable theory of bomb design grew to a city of 6,000 by the summer of 1945. How much fissionable material was necessary for a suitable explosion? How could it be assembled without exploding prematurely? What method of starting the chain reaction was most feasible? Practical answers to these questions required numerous technicians and engineers to carry out thousands of tedious trial-and-error experiments.

The work was dangerous as well as time-consuming. One of the worst accidents involved Louis Slotin, a Canadian scientist in charge of monitoring plutonium chain reactions in a device known as the "guillotine." One day the Canadian's screwdriver got jammed in the guillotine, causing the plutonium to form a supercritical mass capable of explosion. Immediately Slotin tore apart the two pieces of plutonium with his bare hands and in the process absorbed an enormous amount of radiation. The explosion was averted, but at the price of his life.

Despite the near catastrophes, the project progressed steadily, and by the time the Germans surrendered on May 7, 1945, Groves and Oppenheimer had set a date in the middle of July for the first test blast, dubbed "Trinity" by Oppenheimer. As the test date approached, scientists of the Manhattan Project tried to come to grips with the almost inconceivable magnitude of the bomb and the potential consequences of atomic weaponry. Two weeks before the Trinity blast, some of the scientists placed informal bets on the explosive yield of the bomb. Oppenheimer bet the yield would be equivalent to 300 tons of TNT. Hans Bethe guessed 8 kilotons. Edward Teller, later to father the more advanced hydrogen bomb, made the highest estimate: 45 kilotons. When the explosive power of the bomb was measured during the actual test, it registered at 20 kilotons.

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