A Visit to Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the Manhattan Project

At Bandelier


Any visitor to the Taos and Santa Fe area of New Mexico should consider a trip to Los Alamos, home of the Manhattan Project National Historic Park.  Shortly after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 during the Second World War, the United States began hiring scientists to work on a ‘better bomb’ to end the war.  Secret sites were set up starting in 1942 across the country, with the beginning being in New York City, thusly named the “Manhattan Project.”  Los Alamos was chosen as the main site for a new laboratory due primarily to lead scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s house in nearby Albuquerque and familiarity with the region.  The new, secret town of Los Alamos was built in 1943 and called “Site Y.”  Hanford, Washington, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, hosted secondary labs.

Situated on the Pajarito Plateau and proximate to Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos was home to Native American Pueblo Indians over 10,000 years ago.  Remains of their stone houses are still evident in Los Alamos while more intact examples of their homes and cliff dwellings are preserved at nearby Bandelier.  Los Alamos was remote and isolated, and the government had to acquire the land from a prestigious college preparatory school known as the Los Alamos Ranch School prior to building.  This school trained boys in outdoor skills including ranching and farming.

The Fuller Lodge is one of the only buildings to remain relatively intact today from the Ranch School days.  The Lodge was built in 1928 as a dining hall and served as quarters for nurses, staff, and guests of the school.  It is impressive to walk inside and see the grand fireplaces, chandeliers, and bedrooms.  Today the Lodge serves as a public culture and event center.  The original main building for the Ranch School was built in 1917 as a dormitory and called “the Big House.”   It was torn down in 1948 by the Atomic Energy Commission to make way for a new Community Center.

Visiting the Manhattan Project National Historic Park Visitor Center next to Ashley Pond on arrival, one can get a sense of the layout of the community plus a walking tour map that highlights the location of Pueblo ruins, homes of the key scientists including Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe, the history museum, and the Bradbury Science Museum.  Both the history museum and Bradbury Science Museum are worth visits.  The history museum charges a small fee and has a wonderful exhibit about the Ranch School as well as early photos and history about constructing the village of Los Alamos.  The construction was challenged by the remoteness and getting laborers as well as scientists there from Santa Fe over rutted dirt roads.  There are great photos and home movies of folks skiing in their off time and even sledding down the Sangre de Cristo Mountains with lunch trays.

The Bradbury Science Museum is a plethora of facts about the Manhattan Project and the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s contributions to modern science, research, and technology as well as its current mission in national security.  Even today the lab is involved in working to minimize the spread and burden of infectious disease and employs scientists, mathematicians, and disease modelers at the Laboratory. By calculating the effects of countermeasures such as social isolation, travel bans, vaccination, and using face masks, modelers can “understand what’s going on and inform policymakers,” according to Sara Del Valle, an applied mathematician and disease modeler at Los Alamos National Laboratory.  The lab has been essential in research on breast cancer, the flu, and coronaviruses, to name a sample.

One of the more interesting features of the Science Museum is a display history of developing the bomb and the experiments that led to a shift from an exploding device to an imploding one, i.e., fusion vs. fission, if I remember correctly.  A key theme of the Science Museum, as well as the history museum, was the overarching goal of the work of Los Alamos in preventing future war.  Developing this weapon was to be a deterrent to war, which seems somewhat contradictory as it was designed during a massive world war to prevent all future wars, especially nuclear war.  Even Yuval Noah Harari in his book “Sapiens” seems to agree with that concept when he says Oppenheimer and his fellow architects of the atomic bomb should have been given the Nobel Peace Prize because “Nuclear weapons have turned war between superpowers into collective suicide, and made it impossible to seek world domination by force of arms.”  This belief assumes sanity and wisdom on the part of national leaders and may not always apply, of course, and catching the movie “Dr. Strangelove” on the television the night after our visit was an eerie reminder of that.  Named not for author Ray Bradbury, as I originally thought, but for Norris E. Bradbury, the second director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, the Science Museum is free.

Make it to nearby Bandelier National Monument if you do decide to visit Los Alamos.  With over 33,000 acres of rugged canyon country and 70 miles of trails, the cliff dwellings carved into the canyon walls are mostly accessible to visitors via stairs and ladders.  In other national parks that is not allowed.

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