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Monday, March 20, 2023

“Utopian and ascetic”. The Last Survivor of the Manhattan Project reveals what the city was like where the atomic bomb was made

Los Alamos was a peaceful town with young couples, many children, workers with free time to enjoy the surrounding nature and the nice weather of the state of New Mexico. After the work day you can take a walk, enjoy a movie screening for 10 cents, attend a convention, or dance at a party. The alcohol content in the available drink was low, given the compound’s military nature, but some abundant scientists secretly manufacture the alcohol, as science has many applications. In the friendly city of Los Alamos in the early 1940s, these young families were working on creating some of the ensuing horrors and forces of destruction that still haunt the world. they were making atomic bombs, The first of them which still and especially today remains a threat to the very existence of humanity.

Physicist Robert Oppenheimer (1904 – 1967) points to a photograph of the atomic bomb detonated on Nagasaki. On his side, scientist Henry D. Smith (1898 – 1986), General Kenneth D. Nichols (1907 – 2000) and scientist Glenn Seaborg (1912 – 1999) (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)Hulton Archive – Archive Photos

The macro-history of the bomb is well known: in 1938 the German scientists Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn discovered the possibility of splitting the uranium atom, releasing large amounts of energy, as established by Albert Einstein in the most famous equation in science. : E = MC², Faced with the power of this natural process and its military possibilities, physicist Leo Szilard saw the future turn around and convinced Einstein to sign a letter to the President of the United States asking him to develop weapons before the Nazis. was requested. Roosevelt started the ambitious Manhattan Project, the center of which is the Los Alamos Laboratory. That’s where Little Boy and Fat Man came in, the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and changed history forever. Since then the civilization can destroy itself quite easily. That’s where we are.

American physicist Roy J. What we can now learn in more detail, in the mouth of Glauber (New York, 1925 – Massachusetts, 2018), is the microscopic history of the place, which was the youngest of the participants in the theoretical field. Manhattan Project, and who later won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2005, among other things: his work in the field of quantum optics, a discipline in which he is considered a pioneer. His testimony is collected in the book The Last Voice (Ariel) and the documentary that’s the story (You can watch it on YouTube), Maria Teresa Soto-Sanfil, doctor in audiovisual communication and professor at the National University of Singapore, and physicist Jose Ignacio Latore, both professor at the University of Barcelona and director of the Center for Science and Technology. For Quantum Technologies of Singapore.

Maria Teresa Soto-Sanfil In An Image From 2014, Roy J.  Glauber And Jose Ignacio Latore.
Maria Teresa Soto-Sanfil in an image from 2014, Roy J. Glauber and Jose Ignacio Latore.

It all started with the drink. “We were at a congress in Benasque and I took Glauber to drink something he didn’t know, like mojitos, because you always have to treat a Nobel laureate well,” Latorre joked. Encouraged by the concoction, Glauber began telling anecdotes involving great names in 20th-century physics. Why did you know them? “It’s how I worked on the Manhattan Project when I was 18,” said Glauber, who was one of the last survivors of those collaborating on the bomb’s creation. From those mojitos, and through various casual encounters (in Singapore, at MIT in Massachusetts, etc.), the authors were recording material. Curiously, as they prepared to film the documentary, the Manhattan Project archives were declassified and they obtained 17 hours of images from that time, many of which are being shown to the public for the first time. “In our meetings, Glauber was very meticulous with the details, so he gave us a very vivid picture of the time,” explains Soto-Sanfil. “.

Barracks In Los Alamos, A Town It Always Seemed &Quot;Work Is Going On&Quot; (Nuclear Collection.com)
Barracks in Los Alamos, a town that always seemed “under construction” (atomicarchive.com)

Glauber describes Los Alamos as a utopian place on several occasions (although some dystopias have begun to arise in that little scientific utopia that keep us awake at night since), and also speaks of its austerity: It was a lost place by God’s hand, it didn’t charge much and didn’t have much to fill the time with work, “But there were elements that astonished him as a young man like that,” Latoure says, “that apparently the food was great (Glauber still enjoyed food at age 90), the weather was nice. And above all, he was surrounded by the best mind of that time”.

An intellectual force was concentrated in Los Alamos that dazzled young Glauber, who was stationed there to perform complex calculations, had not even completed his studies at Harvard. Robert Oppenheimer, Scientific Director, who had a great ability to understand physics and communicate it (for example, to General Leslie Groves, supremely responsible for the project). Glauber described him as a romantic intellectual who was highly knowledgeable about classical Hindu texts (he was fluent in Sanskrit), in contrast to the typical practical thinking of American scientists. When he witnessed the first bombings in the desert of New Mexico, he recited these verses from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I have become death, the destroyer of the world.” Director Christopher Nolan is preparing a film about his figure, which will be released in 2023.

Oppenheimer With Leslie Groves, High Command In Charge Of The Manhattan Project For The Development Of The Atomic Bomb
Oppenheimer with Leslie Groves, high command in charge of the Manhattan Project for the development of the atomic bombGetty Images

In addition, Hans Bethe, responsible for the theoretical area of ​​the project, whom Glauber, along with his colleagues, describes as highly intelligent and sensible; Enrico Fermi, able to do simple calculations and approximations to tackle problems; Or the famous Richard Feynman, a character capable of thinking about physics in another way and being the center of attention with his eternal stories and anecdotes (as depicted in his famous biography) Are you kidding, Mr Feynman?, which inspires students from all over the planet). Glauber, however, doesn’t seem entirely convinced by Feynman’s portrait, which he regards as a man focused on seducing others by playing his quirky character. “Glauber was a serious man with little to fuss, but Feynman was the opposite, who gloated,” says Soto-Sanfil, “so I considered him a little ghost, though I had great intellectual respect for him.”

Interior Of A Coffee Shop In Los Alamos During The Manhattan Project (Atomicarchive.com)
Interior of a coffee shop in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project (atomicarchive.com)

Glauber first witnessed the first detonation of the bomb, the Trinity Test, which took place in the desert of New Mexico in July 1945. He was not invited because of his position as a theoretical physicist, but along with some colleagues he positioned himself as a spectator on a mountain near Albuquerque, about 70 miles (just over 112 kilometers) from the explosion. . When the 20 kiloton bomb exploded, they were horrified. The first mushroom cloud erupted against the night sky, and at the site of the explosion, the sand on the ground melted into a shiny, green, jade-like substance, later named trinitite. Glauber described the incident as “huge and frightening”. For the next month no one in the lab wanted to talk about what they had seen.

The story of the book and documentary does not stop with the Los Alamos experience, but also chronicles the subsequent fall from the grace of Oppenheimer, a victim of a witch hunt and physicist Edward Taylor (something like the villain of this history). defended by. , who accused him of being a communist and who was in favor of continuing to develop more powerful bombs, such as hydrogen, against the first, and even after the horrors of Japan. That’s how it was done.

One Of The Checkpoints At The Entrance To Los Alamos (Atomicarchive.com)
One of the checkpoints at the entrance to Los Alamos (atomicarchive.com)

Glauber died in December 2018, with the book already in the editing stage, so that it could not see the start of the war in Ukraine, in which Vladimir Putin once again raised nuclear fears that would continue in the second half of the 20th century. worries so much. century, in the Cold War. “Then there was hardly any talk of a nuclear threat and, as we verified when showing the first edition of the documentary in various research centres, there was a definite agreement that the possibility of total annihilation kept a long peace in Europe”, It is called Latore.

The New York physicist never regretted participating in the Manhattan Project for various reasons: then he was an insignificant child who only needed to do some calculations and, moreover, at the time Thousands of soldiers were martyred “like flies” The Nazis could make their own bombs while at war. “Of course,” says Soto-Sanfil, “when the bombs were dropped in Japan, Glauber abandoned the project and never wanted to learn more about the arms race.”


Conocé the Trust Project
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