Manhattan, an ambitious new series on the mostly obscure cable channel WGN, is about the building of the atomic bomb. It takes place in Los Alamos, N.M., where the physicist Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves led a small city with a singular purpose.
However, the show is not about those giants of scientific and military though. If the rest of the show is to be anything like the pilot, it will be a show about the drama in the lives of the minor players in the most intense production of scientific knowledge the world has ever seen.
Manhattan is not a documentary. It's a scripted show, with fictional characters, But it's worth verifying how well the TV show corresponds with the historical reality of the Manhattan project.
Fact or Fiction: Were there competing plutonium bomb designs?
The show introduces us to Los Alamos through the eyes of two main sets of characters: the Winters and the Isaacs. It's July 1943 and first we meet Frank Winter, a scruffy scientist who is working on an alternative design for a plutonium bomb. Frank likes to take his Studebaker out into the desert and hit golf balls into the dusty winds. One night while out driving balls into the desert, he has a "Eureka!" moment and realizes that in the same way a golf ball's compressed core can help it fly, a compressed core of plutonium might yield a better bomb design.
The only problem is that his ragtag team of underdogs—including a Brit, a chubby guy with low self esteem, a Chinese man and, heaven forbid, a woman—has only one day to prove to Robert Oppenheimer that their design works before he goes off to Washington. If they can't, then the army is likely to go with a design called the "Thin Man," from a competing group led by the well-put-together Reed Akley.
Besides the differences between the uranium and plutonium bombs that were eventually dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, was there an internal competition for bomb designs? Yes: The "Thin Man" really was a bomb design that competed with an implosion-style device. Like the uranium bomb, it featured a gun design that would fire a pellet into a larger mass to reach the critical mass needed to start nuclear fission. No spoilers here as to which design won out, but Oppenheimer did have separate teams working on the different designs.
Fact or Fiction: Were spies a big problem for the Manhattan Project?
Proving that his imploding core will work isn't Winter's only problem. Military Police have found that some classified documents have gone missing and think the group may be harboring a spy. Winter, who doesn't have time to deal with this, gives the MPs a verbal dressing down and they retreat, but Liao, the Chinese-American scientist, seems especially worried. He later confesses to Winter that he snuck some documents concerning his studies on x-rays so that he might secure some patents after the war is over. He has a sick daughter who needs medicine, so his fingers are sticky because he's a loving father, not because he's a spy.
Winter suggests Liao burn the documents and forget about it, seemingly convinced that Liao isn't up to anything. Colonel Alden Cox, however, isn't convinced and tries to use new IBM computers as leverage with Winter, coaxing him to give up a name from his group as a potential spy. Earlier that day, another scientist was arrested and the colonel needs more examples.
Clearly, the history shows that yes, spies were a problem for the Manhattan Project, as several Los Alamos personnel were feeding nuclear secrets to the Soviets. The most famous ones—Klaus Fuchs, David Greenglass—had strong ties to communism. But even Oppenheimer, the Project's civilian director, had been involved with communism to some degree, though Groves, the military director, overlooked this and hired him anyways.
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Fact or Fiction: Was Los Alamos really as remote and hard to reach as it appears on the show?
Our other introduction to Los Alamos comes through the Isaacs, Charlie and Abby, a young couple with a small child who are just arriving to New Mexico from the East Coast in a wood-paneled station wagon. At the beginning of the episode they're more lost than Moses in the desert, trying to find the place they're about to call home. Once they arrive, they find that the town is most certainly not "Cambridge, but with sand," as it had been described to Charlie.
Charlie is a physicist, with a hot thesis to his name, entitled, "A New Approach to Nuclear Cosmology" and the brains to see immediately that he's been brought there to help build an atomic bomb. His wife, however, wants him to be something a little more conventional, perhaps a salesman with her father's firm.
As Charlie is grappling with the implications of his new line of work, Abby quickly finds out about the crappy living conditions in town: paper-thin walls, loud explosions, head lice. A letter sent to her father in Brooklyn is censored; she certainly can't say where she is, but she can't even mention that their house is green. Other women experience the hardships too. Liza Winter can't get running water in her shack, and in search of a working tap finds evidence that there may be other hazards to living in Los Alamos: a purple tinged flower in a bed of white ones.
In real life, Los Alamos was kind of a dumpy camp and the government really didn't want people to know it was there. The town, partially selected for its remoteness, was built on the site of a boys' ranch school 40 miles from Santa Fe. Secrecy was paramount and the project went to great lengths to prevent the release of information.
According to Lansing Lamont's book Day of Trinity, babies born at Los Alamos were all given the same Santa Fe P.O box as their home address, vehicle accidents weren't even recorded, and scientists weren't allowed to open accounts in nearby banks. Censorship and surveillance was extreme.
Fact or Fiction: Were scientists exposed to dangerous amounts of radiation?
Charlie, who immediately grasps the horrific implications of building an atomic bomb, has nonetheless decided to join the project. Reed Akley has promised him that he'll "be able to watch the apple fall with Newton," if he sticks around. Still, Charlie's first day on the job is a little rough and the weight of the consequences for humanity causes him to lose his lunch in a trashcan. Or maybe it was just too much math in his head. Abby's displeasure with their living conditions is the breaking point and he cracks, telling her what it is he's been hired to do.
Frank is also beset by anxiety, which manifests in a dream where Liza and their daughter walk out the door of their house into the shockwave of an atomic blast. At the doctor's office for help with his sleep problems, he's checked for radiation. The Geiger counter is crackling like fireworks on the Fourth of July, but the doctor doesn't seem to think there's a problem. Liza, however, can't explain the purple flower she's found and knows something is up.
The implication here is that nuclear radiation has found its way into the soil and has induced a mutation in the flower. It's also gotten into Frank, perhaps it has affected him too.
With all this radioactive material around, was there a danger to those working and living in Los Alamos? Several scientists at Los Alamos did die of acute radiation poison, which is more likely to kill you than it is to induce nightmares. In August of 1945, less than a week after the Japanese surrender, a scientist named Harry Daghlian dropped a metal brick onto a plutonium bomb core that caused it to go critical and release a deadly volley of radiation. A few months later, in 1946 Louis Slotkin, died in a similar accident at Los Alamos.
While Oppenheimer died of throat cancer, as have several other Manhattan Project scientists who worked with radioactive materials, cancer has not been shown to be linked with working on the project. A study of 26 workers who had handled plutonium, conducted in 1997, found that eight of them had been diagnosed with "one or more cancers," but that this was within the expected range for the general population of men that age.
The Bottom Line
After one episode, it's hard to see a reason to get engrossed in Manhattan. Most importantly, we know how this story ends. And there are too many characters with far too little charisma to make it a deep character study. Perhaps if anything, it's the setting of Los Alamos that will make or break the show. The residents aren't going anywhere until they make an atomic bomb. If Manhattan can draw out how their personal dramas are heightened by this mini-security state and the pressures it places on them, maybe the audience will stick around until V-J Day.
Andrew P. Han is a science journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. His favorite graph is the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram.