“Utopian and austere”. The last survivor of the Manhattan Project tells what the town was like where the atomic bomb was created

Los Álamos was a peaceful town inhabited by young couples, many children, workers with free time to enjoy the surrounding nature and the good weather of the state of New Mexico. After the working day you could take walks, enjoy movie screenings for 10 cents, attend a conference or dance at a party. The drinks available were of low alcohol content, given the military nature of the compound, but some of the abundant scientists secretly manufactured alcohol, because science has multiple applications. In the friendly town of Los Alamos in the early 1940s, these young families were working on producing some horrors to come and a power of destruction that still has the world on edge. They were building the atomic bomb. The first of those that still, and especially today, continue to be a threat to the survival of Humanity.

Physicist Robert Oppenheimer (1904 – 1967) points to a photo of the atomic bomb exploding over Nagasaki. Next to him are scientist Henry D. Smyth (1898-1986), General Kenneth D. Nichols (1907-2000) and scientist Glenn Seaborg (1912-1999) (Photo by Hulton Archive / Getty Images)Hulton Archive – Archive Photos

The macro-history of the bomb is well known: in 1938 the German scientists Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn discovered the possibility of splitting the uranium atom, releasing large amounts of energy, as Albert Einstein had established in the most famous equation in science: E=mc². Faced with the power of this natural process and its military possibilities, physicist Leó Szilárd sees the future twisting and convinces Einstein to sign a letter to the President of the United States, urging him to develop the weapon before the Nazis do. Roosevelt launches the ambitious Manhattan Project, whose epicenter is the Los Alamos laboratory. That’s where Little Boy and Fat Man came from, the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and that changed history forever. Since then civilization can destroy itself quite easily. That’s where we are.

What we can now know in more detail is the microhistory of that place, in the mouth of the American physicist Roy J. Glauber (New York, 1925 – Massachusetts, 2018), who was the youngest of the participants in the theoretical area of ​​the Manhattan Project, and who later won, in 2005, the Nobel Prize in Physics for other things: his work in the field of Quantum Optics, a discipline in which he is considered a pioneer. His testimony is collected in the book The Last Voice (Ariel) and the documentary That’s the Story (you can see it on YouTube), both the work of María Teresa Soto-Sanfiel, doctor in Audiovisual Communication and professor at the National University of Singapore, and the physicist José Ignacio Latorre, professor at the University of Barcelona and director of the Center for Quantum Technologies of Singapore.

María Teresa Soto-Sanfiel, Roy J. Glauber and José Ignacio Latorre in an image from 2014.
María Teresa Soto-Sanfiel, Roy J. Glauber and José Ignacio Latorre in an image from 2014.

It all started with a few drinks. “We were at a congress in Benasque and I took Glauber to drink something he didn’t know, like mojitos, because you always have to treat a Nobel laureate well,” jokes Latorre. Buoyed by the concoction, Glauber began to tell anecdotes involving great names in 20th-century physics. Why did he know them he? “It’s that I worked on the Manhattan Project, when I was 18 years old,” said Glauber, who was therefore one of the last survivors of those who collaborated in the manufacture of the bomb. From those mojitos, and through various fortuitous encounters (in Singapore, at MIT in Massachusetts, etc), the authors were recording the material. Curiously, when they were preparing to illustrate the documentary, the archives of the Manhattan Project were declassified and they obtained 17 hours of images from the time, many of which are being shown to the public for the first time. “In our meetings Glauber was very meticulous with the details, so that he gave us a very vivid photograph of those times”, explains Soto-Sanfiel, “it is life in Los Álamos told by a protagonist, and that is something unusual”.

The barracks in Los Álamos, a town that always seemed "in construction" (atomicarchive.com)
The barracks in Los Alamos, a town that always seemed “under construction” (atomicarchive.com)

On several occasions Glauber describes Los Álamos as a utopian place (although in that small scientific utopia some dystopias began to be generated that have kept us up at night since then), and that also speaks of its austerity: it was a place lost from the hand of God, it did not charge much and there was not much to fill the time with beyond work. “But there were elements that a young man like that amazed him,” says Latorre, “apparently the food was very good (Glauber still enjoyed food at 90 years old), the weather was good and, above all, he was surrounded by the best brains of the time”.

In Los Alamos an intellectual power was concentrated that dazzled the young Glauber, who, stationed there to do complex calculations, had not even finished his studies at Harvard. That of Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director, who had a great ability to understand physics and communicate it (for example, to General Leslie Groves, supremely responsible for the project). Glauber describes him as a romantic intellectual, highly knowledgeable about classical Hindu texts (he was fluent in Sanskrit), who contrasted with the typical pragmatic thinking of American scientists. When he saw the first bomb explode, in the desert of New Mexico, he recited these verses from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Director Christopher Nolan is preparing a film about him, which will be released in 2023.

Oppenheimer with Leslie Groves, high command in charge of the Manhattan Project for the development of the atomic bomb
Oppenheimer with Leslie Groves, high command in charge of the Manhattan Project for the development of the atomic bombGETTY IMAGES

Also Hans Bethe, responsible for the theoretical area of ​​the project, whom Glauber describes as highly intelligent and understanding with his collaborators; Enrico Fermi, capable of ingenious calculations and approximations to tackle problems; or the famous Richard Feynman, a character capable of thinking about physics in another way and being the center of attention with his eternal stories and anecdotes (as shown in his well-known biography Are you kidding, Mr. Feynman?, which inspires students all over the planet). Glauber, however, does not seem to be completely convinced by the figure of Feynman, whom he considers a man too focused on seducing others by playing his bizarre character. “Glauber was a serious man, little given to fuss, but Feynman was the opposite, someone who shined,” says Soto-Sanfiel, “so he considered him a bit of a ghost, although he had great intellectual respect for him.”

The interior of a coffee shop in Los Alamos, during the Manhattan Project (atomicarchive.com)
The interior of a coffee shop in Los Alamos, during the Manhattan Project (atomicarchive.com)

Glauber witnessed first-hand the first explosion of the bomb, the Trinity test, which occurred in July 1945 in the New Mexico desert. He was not invited, as a theoretical physicist, but along with some colleagues he posted himself as a spectator on a mountain near Albuquerque, about 70 miles (just over 112 kilometers) from the explosion. When the 20-kiloton bomb went off, they were terrified. The first mushroom cloud erupted against the night sky, and at the detonation site, the sand on the ground melted into a glowing, green, jade-like substance, later christened trinitite. Glauber described the event as “very big and sinister.” For the next month no one in the lab wanted to talk about what he had seen.

The story of the book and the documentary does not stop with the experience of Los Alamos, but also narrates the subsequent fall from grace of Oppenheimer, victim of the witch hunt and defenestrated by the physicist Edward Teller (something like the villain of this history), who accused him of being a communist and who was in favor, against the first, and even after the horrors of Japan, of continuing to develop more powerful bombs, such as hydrogen. That’s how it was done.

One of the checkpoints at the entrance to Los Álamos (atomicarchive.com)
One of the checkpoints at the entrance to Los Álamos (atomicarchive.com)

Glauber died in December 2018, with the book already in the editing phase, so that he did not witness the start of the war in Ukraine, in which Vladimir Putin has once again stirred up the nuclear fears that so worried the second half of the 20th century, in the Cold War. “Then there was hardly any talk of the nuclear danger and, as we verified when showing a first version of the documentary in different research centers, there was a certain consensus that the possibility of total destruction had maintained a long peace in Europe”, says Latorre.

The New York physicist never expressed regret for participating in the Manhattan Project, for various reasons: then he was an unimportant kid who was only required to do certain calculations and, furthermore, at that time thousands of young soldiers died “like flies” in the war while the Nazis could be building their own bomb. “Of course,” adds Soto-Sanfiel, “when the bombs were dropped in Japan, Glauber abandoned the project and never wanted to know more about the arms race.”


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“Utopian and austere”. The last survivor of the Manhattan Project tells what the town was like where the atomic bomb was created