Oppenheimer’s Secret City: The Story Behind the Stealthy Creation of Los Alamos, New Mexico

We think of the atom­ic bomb as a destroy­er of cities, name­ly Hiroshi­ma and Nagasa­ki. But its devel­op­ment also pro­duced a city: Los Alam­os, New Mex­i­co, an offi­cial­ly non-exis­tent com­mu­ni­ty in which the nec­es­sary research could be con­duct­ed in secret. More recent­ly, it became a major shoot­ing loca­tion for Oppen­heimer, Christo­pher Nolan’s new movie about the tit­u­lar the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist remem­bered as the father (or one of the fathers) of the atom­ic bomb based on his work as the direc­tor of the Los Alam­os Lab­o­ra­to­ry. You can learn more about that lab­o­ra­to­ry, and the town of 6,000 con­struct­ed to sup­port it, in the new Vox video above.

Los Alam­os was nec­es­sary to the Man­hat­tan Project, as the R&D of the world’s first nuclear weapon was code-named, but it was­n’t suf­fi­cient: oth­er secret sites involved includ­ed “a nuclear reac­tor under a Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go foot­ball field”; “the Alaba­ma Ordi­nance Works, for pro­duc­ing heavy water”; “a large plant for the enrich­ment of ura­ni­um and pro­duc­tion of some plu­to­ni­um” in Oak Ridge, Ten­nessee”; and the Han­ford Engi­neer Works in Wash­ing­ton State, which pro­duced even more plu­to­ni­um.

But the bomb itself was cre­at­ed in Los Alam­os, into whose iso­la­tion Oppen­heimer recruit­ed the likes of Enri­co Fer­mi, Edward Teller, Richard Feyn­man, and oth­er pow­er­ful sci­en­tif­ic minds — who brought their wives and chil­dren along.

As a 1944 Med­ical Corp memo warned, the “intel­lec­tu­als” at Los Alam­os would “seek more med­ical care than the aver­age per­son”; at the same time, one-fifth of the mar­ried women there were preg­nant, so up went mater­ni­ty wards as well. The pop­u­la­tion of Los Alam­os grew so rapid­ly that “hut­ments were a com­mon form of accom­mo­da­tion,” though “apart­ment build­ings were also avail­able.” The hous­ing sat along­side “facil­i­ties for graphite fab­ri­ca­tion, and the cyclotron and Van de Graaff machines.” Less than 250 miles south lay what, in the sum­mer of 1945, would become the site of the Trin­i­ty test. It was there, gaz­ing upon the explo­sion of the unprece­dent­ed nuclear weapon whose devel­op­ment he’d over­seen, that Oppen­heimer saw not mere­ly a destroy­er of cities, but a destroy­er of worlds.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Oppen­heimer: The Man Behind the Bomb

Watch Chill­ing Footage of the Hiroshi­ma & Nagasa­ki Bomb­ings in Restored Col­or

J. Robert Oppen­heimer Explains How, Upon Wit­ness­ing the First Nuclear Explo­sion, He Recit­ed a Line from the Bha­gavad Gita: “Now I Am Become Death, the Destroy­er of Worlds”

See Every Nuclear Explo­sion in His­to­ry: 2153 Blasts from 1945–2015

Learn How Richard Feyn­man Cracked the Safes with Atom­ic Secrets at Los Alam­os

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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