WASHINGTON, D.C.—The WGN America television show “Manhattan” has galvanized the interest of millions of viewers. Shown on Sunday nights, national audiences are riveted by the dramatic tension between rival groups of scientists and the omnipresent security police in Los Alamos in 1943. “Manhattan” follows the scientists as they confront the challenges of making a workable atomic bomb while dealing with an intrusive military force, intense rivalries, and strained marital relations where couples can no longer confide in each other.
The show is a blend of fact and fiction. The primary characters are entirely fictional including the main scientist, Frank Winter; Chinese-American physicist, Sidney Liao; and wunderkind Charlie Isaacs and his most attractive wife, Abby. But “Manhattan” has preserved at least two real persona, J. Robert Oppenheimer as the director of Los Alamos, and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr who visits the laboratory to offer his advice.
The central tension is the race to develop two different approaches to a plutonium-based bomb. Winter believes an implosion bomb offers the best option but most of the scientists—including Oppenheimer—are more confident in a gun-type plutonium bomb similar to the design used for the uranium-based bomb. While the enmity between the two groups is exaggerated for television, “Manhattan” does a good job showing the challenges the scientists and engineers faced knowing little about the newly discovered and quite bizarre element plutonium.
In a 1965 interview with journalist Stephane Groueff, J. Robert Oppenheimer recalled: “I think the set of problems connected with implosion was the most difficult, and it required very new experimental techniques. It was not a branch of physics anyone was very familiar with. It was, from a theoretical, an observational, and a practical point of view, quite an adventure. Plutonium was a terrible test from beginning to end and never stayed quiet: it gets hot, it is radioactive, you cannot touch it, you have to coat it, and the coating always peels. It is just a terrible substance.”
Protagonist Frank Winter, who was wounded in a chlorine gas attack in World War I, is driven to solve the difficult puzzle of a plutonium bomb in order to end as the war as quickly as possible. He listens on the radio to the day’s war news and casualty count, becoming grimly determined. “Manhattan” illuminates the very real fear that the Los Alamos scientists shared of Nazi Germany developing an atomic bomb.
In an interview in 1985, Leona Marshall Libby, the top female scientist in the Manhattan Project, explained: “Everyone was terrified that we were wrong, and that the Germans were ahead of us. That was a persistent and ever-present fear, fed of course by the fact that our leaders knew those people in Germany and had gone to school with them. The Germans led the civilized world of physics in every aspect at the time that the war set in, that Hitler lowered the boom. They led, not we. Very frightening time.”
To beat the Germans, the best scientific and engineering minds in the country were plucked from their laboratories and universities and sent to Los Alamos. One of the remarkable things about the real Manhattan Project was that so many “one in a generation minds” gathered at Los Alamos to collaborate on designing and building the bomb. The Manhattan Project boasted eight Nobel Prize laureates, and after the war, over a dozen Manhattan Project veterans would go on to win Nobel Prizes.
“Manhattan” emphasizes the brilliance of the scientists bent on developing the world’s deadliest weapon. Much of the show focuses on tense relationships, between husbands and their wives who feel trapped in the small, desolate town of Los Alamos; and between the scientists and the military who intrude into every aspect of the scientists’ work and private lives.
While it has achieved great moments of dramatic tension, “Manhattan” falls short in conveying the project’s lighter, more human side: the martini parties at the Oppenheimer’s, hiking and horseback rides, and other recreational activities that were essential to release tension. While there have been a few lighter moments, the constant pressures of the war, interpersonal rivalries, and invasive security measures predominate.
As the result of the show, the public’s interest in the history of the Manhattan Project has skyrocketed. Since the premier of “Manhattan,” the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s website and “Voices of the Manhattan Project” oral history website have received double the average daily hits. National newspapers, including the Washington Post, Daily Beast, Variety, and New York Times, have reviewed the show. Blogs that traditionally do not cover topics like the Manhattan Project, such as women’s blog Bustle and television blog Vulture, are covering it for their fans. As a result, more people than ever are being exposed to the drama of the Manhattan Project.
Congress is currently considering legislation to establish a Manhattan Project National Historical Park this year, with sites at Los Alamos, New Mexico; Hanford, Washington; and Oak Ridge. On May 22, the House of Representatives approved the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015, which included a bipartisan provision to establish a Manhattan Project National Historical Park. Now it is up to the Senate. With bipartisan, bicameral support, there is a good chance that Congress will enact the legislation to create a Manhattan Project park.
Thanks to “Manhattan,” the public is becoming fascinated with the top-secret story of spies, science, and society. Very few units in the national park system deal with science, technology, or engineering and their impact on history, economics, and society. The National Park Service has only one historic park site on the Cold War and nothing that tells the story of the Manhattan Project. Now is the perfect time to create a Manhattan Project National Historical Park and ensure these historic sites and their significant history are preserved for future generations.
Cindy Kelly, President, Atomic Heritage Foundation
Alexandra Levy, Program Manager, Atomic Heritage Foundation