Sunday, December 21, 2008

History Channel: Modern Marvels: "The Manhattan Project"

The Manhattan Project” is an important episode, made in 2002, in the History Channel’s “Modern Marvels” series, 45 minutes long, narrated by Max Raphael, produced by Sean Dash, documenting the history of the atomic bomb and of President Truman’s use of this weapon twice to end World War II. The web link is this. The name of the Project is based on the Manhattan Engineer District (MED).

The film discusses the science of chain reactions, of separation of U235 from U238, and of how HEU (highly enriched uranium) differs from plutonium. It described the “Little Man” and “Fat Boy” devices of 1945 as held together by 3M masking tape, suggesting that, for all the assembly of world scientists, there was something essentially crude about the devices, perhaps a warning in relevant to today’s world situation. The film shows the Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and even Hanford, Washington facilities, the last of which was involved in separating plutonium. I drove by that facility on a vacation trip in a rental car in the summer of 1990.

The Metropolitan Opera recently produced the opera “Doctor Atomic” by John Adams, covering some of the same material.

The actual history starts out in 1939 with a letter for FDR proposing the possibility of the device. Many of America’s best scientists (including Fermi and Zolard) were assembled in Los Alamos, New Mexico, to develop the weapon, and the most controversial and perhaps psychologically unstable was Oppenheimer. At the same time, enormous facilities were built in Oak Ridge, TN to separate and produce the necessary components. (I had a high school friend who would get summer jobs there during college in the 1960s.) Workers were recruited at both facilities, especially Oak Ridge, and promised amenities like steak dinners every night, but sworn to absolute secrecy. Society during the war was sensitive to the spread of information (and overhearing by enemies) to an extent that would shock today’s publicity-seeking world.

The film traces the Trinity test, and the fear that it could set the world on fire. The name “Trinity” came from a John Donne poem that dealt with the ability of God to recreate things by destroying them.

President Truman was told that he might be impeached if he didn’t use the weapons. The United States also feared the Soviets, and that they would try to partition a postwar Japan into north and south regions as was done with Korea and Germany. Scientists at Oak Ridge wanted to petition the President to do a demonstration drop on an unpopulated island before using the weapon on cities with civilians. The petition was squashed. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were left untouched by conventional weapons in order to be “available” for nuclear weapons.

Since World War II, the death rate from war has been steady and much lower than it had been in the first part of the 20th Century, because of the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons and “mutually assured destruction”. Scientists who worked at Los Alamos and who are still living count how many civilian deaths they were “personally responsible for” but believe that they saved lives in the long run. But in a time of asymmetry, rogue and failed states, and non-state terror groups like Al Qaeda with “no return address” the MAD doctrine seems to turn on itself.

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