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.” [Read more…]