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:

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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

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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.

Does Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity Suggest That There Is an Afterlife?: A Theoretical Physicist Explains

“Let’s talk about the physics of dead grandmothers.” Thus does theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder start off the Big Think video above, which soon gets into Einstein’s theory of special relativity. The question of how Hossenfelder manages to connect the former to the latter should raise in anyone curiosity enough to give these ten minutes a watch, but she also addresses a certain common category of misconception. It all began, she says, when a young man posed to her the following question: “A shaman told me that my grandmother is still alive because of quantum mechanics. Is this right?”

Upon reflection, Hossenfelder arrived at the conclusion that “it’s not entirely wrong.” For decades now, “quantum mechanics” has been hauled out over and over again to provide vague support to a range of beliefs all along the spectrum of plausibility. But in the dead-grandmother case, at least, it’s not the applicable area of physics. “It’s actually got something to do with Einstein’s theory of special relativity,” she says. With that particular achievement, Einstein changed the way we think about space and time, proving that “everything that you experience, everything that you see, you see as it was a tiny, little amount of time in the past. So how do you know that anything exists right now?”

In Einstein’s description of physical reality, “there is no unambiguous notion to define what happens now; it depends on the observer.” And “if you follow this logic to its conclusion, then the outcome is that every moment could be now for someone. And that includes all moments in your past, and it also includes all moments in your future.” Einstein posits space and time as not two separate concepts, but aspects of a single entity called spacetime, in which “the present moment has no fundamental significance”; in the resulting “block universe,” past, present, and future coexist simultaneously, and no information is ever destroyed, just continually rearranged.

“So if someone you knew dies, then, of course, we all know that you can no longer communicate with this person. That’s because the information that made up their personality disperses into very subtle correlations in the remains of their body, which become entangled with all the particles around them, and slowly, slowly, they spread into radiation that disperses throughout the solar system, and eventually, throughout the entire universe.” But one day could bring “some cosmic consciousnesses which will also be spread out, and this information will be accessible again” — in about a billion years, anyway, which will at least give grandma’s reassembled intelligence plenty to catch up on.

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Is There Life After Death?: John Cleese and a Panel of Scientists Discuss That Eternal Question

Albert Einstein On God: “Nothing More Than the Expression and Product of Human Weakness”

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.

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”

No matter how little we know of the Hindu religion, a line from one of its holy scriptures lives within us all: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” This is one facet of the legacy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, an American theoretical physicist who left an outsized mark on history. For his crucial role in the Manhattan Project that during World War II produced the first nuclear weapons, he’s now remembered as the”father of the atomic bomb.” He secured that title on July 16, 1945, the day of the test in the New Mexican desert that proved these experimental weapons actually work — that is, they could wreak a kind of destruction previously only seen in visions of the end of the world.

“We knew the world would not be the same,” Oppenheimer remembered in 1965. “A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.'”

The translation’s grammatical archaism made it even more powerful, resonating with lines in Tennyson (“I am become a name, for always roaming with a hungry heart”), Shakespeare (“I am come to know your pleasure”), and the Bible (“I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness”).

But what is death, as the Gita sees it? In an interview with Wired, Sanskrit scholar Stephen Thompson explains that, in the original, the word that Oppenheimer speaks as “death” refers to “literally the world-destroying time.” This means that “irrespective of what Arjuna does” — Arjuna being the aforementioned prince, the narrative’s protagonist — everything is in the hands of the divine.” Oppenheimer would have learned all this while teaching in the 1930s at UC Berkeley, where he learned Sanskrit and read the Gita in the original. This created in him, said his colleague Isidor Rabi, “a feeling of mystery of the universe that surrounded him like a fog.”

The necessity of the United States’ subsequent dropping of not one but two atomic bombs on Japan, examined in the 1965 documentary The Decision to Drop the Bomb (below), remains a matter of debate. Oppenheimer went on to oppose nuclear weapons, describing himself to an appalled President Harry Truman as having “blood on my hands.” But in developing them, could he have simply seen himself as a modern Prince Arjuna? “It has been argued by scholars,” writes the Economic Times‘ Mayank Chhaya, “that Oppenheimer’s approach to the atomic bomb was that of doing his duty as part of his dharma as prescribed in the Gita.” He knew, to quote another line from that scripture brought to mind by the nuclear explosion, that “if the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst into the sky that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One” — and perhaps also that splendor and wrath may be one.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2020. In the light of the new Oppenheimer film, we’re bringing it back.

Related Content:

Oppenheimer: The Man Behind the Bomb

The “Shadow” of a Hiroshima Victim, Etched into Stone, Is All That Remains After 1945 Atomic Blast

Haunting Unedited Footage of the Bombing of Nagasaki (1945)

63 Haunting Videos of U.S. Nuclear Tests Now Declassified and Put Online

53 Years of Nuclear Testing in 14 Minutes: A Time Lapse Film by Japanese Artist Isao Hashimoto

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include 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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, High School Wrestling Team Captain, Once Invented a Physics-Based Wrestling Move

We know that Neil deGrasse Tyson was something of a wunderkind during his high school years. If you’re an OC regular, you’ve read all about how Carl Sagan personally recruited Tyson to study with him at Cornell. Deftly, politely, the young Tyson declined and went to Harvard.

There’s perhaps another side of the precocious Tyson you might not know as much about. The athletic side. While a student at The Bronx High School of Science, Tyson (class of 1976) wore basketball sneakers belonging to the Knick’s Walt “Clyde” Frazier. He ran an impressive 4:25 mile. And he captained the school’s wrestling team, during which time he conjured up a new-fangled wrestling move. In professional wrestling, Ric Flair had the dreaded Figure Four Leg Lock, and Jimmy Snuka, a devastating Superfly Splash. Tyson? He had the feared “Double Tidal Lock.” He explains and demonstrates the physics-based move in the video below, originally recorded at the University of Indianapolis.

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Watch a New Animation of Richard Feynman’s Ode to the Wonder of Life, with Music by Yo-Yo Ma

…I would like not to underestimate the value of the world view which is the result of scientific effort. We have been led to imagine all sorts of things infinitely more marvelous than the imaginings of poets and dreamers of the past.

– Richard Feynman

In 1955, theoretical physicist Richard Feynman gave a talk on the value of science to members of the National Academy of Sciences at at Caltech University.

In the wake of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, his involvement with the Manhattan Project had been cause for serious depression and soul searching.

He concluded that the pursuit of scientific knowledge remained valuable to society, even though such knowledge comes without operating instructions, and thus can be put to evil purposes.

In the Caltech speech, he cited the life improving technological and medical breakthroughs that are the result of scientific explorations, as well as the scientific field’s allegiance to the concept that we must be free to dissent, question, and discuss:

If we suppress all discussion, all criticism, proclaiming “This is the answer, my friends; man is saved!” we will doom humanity for a long time to the chains of authority, confined to the limits of our present imagination.

(This strikes a profound chord in 2022, remembering how some extremely vocal politicians and citizens took changing public health mandates as evidence of conspiracy, rather than an ever-deepening scientific understanding of how an unfamiliar virus was operating.)

Any child with an interest in STEM will be gratified to learn that Feynman also found much to admire in “the fun …which some people get from reading and learning and thinking about (science), and which others get from working in it.

Throughout his speech, he refrained from technical jargon, using language that those whose passions skew more toward the arts can understand to invoke the experience of scientific discovery.

His meditations concerning the interconnectedness between every molecule “stupidly minding its own business” and everything else in the known universe, including himself, a human standing beside the sea, trying to make sense of it all, is of a piece with Shakespeare and Walt Whitman.

Untitled Ode to the Wonder of Life

by Richard Feynman

I stand at the seashore, alone, and start to think.

There are the rushing waves

mountains of molecules

each stupidly minding its own business

trillions apart

yet forming white surf in unison.

Ages on ages before any eyes could see

year after year

thunderously pounding the shore as now.

For whom, for what?

On a dead planet

with no life to entertain.

Never at rest

tortured by energy

wasted prodigiously by the sun

poured into space.

A mite makes the sea roar.

Deep in the sea

all molecules repeat

the patterns of one another

till complex new ones are formed.

They make others like themselves

and a new dance starts.

Growing in size and complexity

living things

masses of atoms

DNA, protein

dancing a pattern ever more intricate.

Out of the cradle

onto dry land

here it is

standing: atoms with consciousness;

matter with curiosity.

Stands at the sea,

wonders at wondering: I

a universe of atoms

an atom in the universe

The Marginalian’s (formerly Brain Pickings) Maria Popova seizes on this interlude for the final installment of her video series, The Universe in Verse, above, collaborating with animator Kelli Anderson on a “perspective-broadening, mind-deepening” visual interpretation of Feynman’s excerpted remarks.

Flowing under and around Feynman’s narration is an original composition by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whose renown in the field of music is on par with Feynman’s in physics, and who notes in the introduction to The Quotable Feynman:

While he paid close attention to problems we face and generate, he also knew that humans are a subset of nature, and nature held for him the greatest fascination – for the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man, and nature guards her secrets jealously.

Read Feynman’s complete speech to the National Academy of Sciences at at Caltech University here.

Watch all nine chapters of The Universe in Verse here.

via The Marginalian

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Space Sex is Serious Business: A Hilarious Short Animation Addresses Serious Questions About Human Reproduction in Space

Back in the late 80s, there was a rumor floating around that Earth Girls Are Easy.

40 some years of scientific and social advancement have shifted the conversational focus.

We’re just now beginning to understand that Space Sex is Serious Business.

Particularly if SpaceX CEO Elon Musk achieves his goal of establishing a permanent human presence on Mars.

Surely at some point in their long travels to and residence on Mars, those pioneers would get down to business in much the same way that rats, fruit flies, parasitic wasps, and Japanese rice fish have while under observation on prior space expeditions.

Meanwhile, we’re seriously lacking in human data.

A pair of human astronauts, Jan Davis and Mark Lee, made history in 1992 as the first married couple to enter space together, but NASA insisted their relations remained strictly professional for the duration, and that a shuttle’s crew compartment is too small for the sort of antics a nasty-minded public kept asking about.

In an interview with Mens Health, Colonel Mike Mullane, a veteran of three space missions, confirmed that a spacecraft’s layout doesn’t favor romance:

The only privacy would have been in the air lock, but everybody would know what you were doing. You’re not out there doing a spacewalk. There’s no reason to be in there.

Shortly after Davis and Lee returned to earth, NASA formalized an unspoken rule prohibiting husbands and wives from venturing into space together. It did little to squelch public interest in space sex.

One wonders if NASA’s rule has been rewritten in accordance with the times. Air lock aside, might same sex couples remain free to swing what hetero-normative marrieds (arguably) cannot?

This is but one of hundreds of space sex questions begging further consideration.

Some of the most serious are raised in Tom McCarten’s witty collage animation for FiveThirtyEight, above.

Namely how damaging will cosmic radiation and microgravity prove to human reproduction? As more humans toy with the possibility of leaving Earth, this question feels less and less hypothetical.

Maggie KoerthBaker, who researched and narrates the animated short, notes that Musk portrayed the risks of radiation as minor during a presentation at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, and breathed not a peep as to the effects of microgravity.

Yet scientific studies of non-human space travelers document a host of reproductive issues including lowered libido, atypical hormone levels, ovulatory dysfunction, miscarriages, and fetal mutations.

On its webpage, NASA provides some information about the Reproduction, Development, and Sex Differences Laboratory of its Space Biosciences Research Branch, but remains mum on topics of pressing concern to, say, students in a typical middle school sex ed class.

Like achieving and maintaining erections in microgravity.

In Physiology News Magazine, Dr. Adam Watkins, associate professor of Reproductive and Developmental Physiology at the University of Nottingham, suggests that internal and external atmospheric changes would make such things, pardon the pun, hard:

Firstly, just staying in close contact with each other under zero gravity is hard. Secondly, as astronauts experience lower blood pressure while in space, maintaining erections and arousal are more problematic than here on Earth. 

The exceptionally forthright Col Mullane has some contradictory first hand experience that should come as a relief to all humankind:

A couple of times, I would wake up from sleep periods and I had a boner that I could have drilled through kryptonite.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

‘The Character of Physical Law’: Richard Feynman’s Legendary Course Presented at Cornell, 1964

Lecture One, The Law of Gravitation:

“Nature,” said physicist Richard Feynman, “uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so that each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.”

With those words Feynman ended the first of his famous 1964 Messenger Lectures at Cornell University, a talk entitled “The Law of Gravitation, an Example of Physical Law.” (See above.) The lectures were intended by Feynman as an introduction, not to the fundamental laws of nature, but to the very nature of such laws. The lectures were later transcribed and collected in The Character of Physical Law, one of Feynman’s most widely read books. In the introduction to the Modern Library edition, writer James Gleick gives a brief assessment of the charismatic man at the lectern:

Feynman, then forty-six years old, did theoretical physics as spectacularly as anyone alive. He was due to win the Nobel Prize the next year for his groundbreaking work in the 1940s in quantum electrodynamics, a theory that tied together in an experimentally perfect package all the varied phenomena at work in light, radio, magnetism, and electricity. He had taken the century’s early, half-made conceptions of waves and particles and shaped them into tools that ordinary physicists could use and understand. This was esoteric science–more so in the decades that followed–and Feynman was not a household name outside physics, but within his field he had developed an astounding stature. He had a mystique that came in part from sheer pragmatic brilliance–in any group of scientists he could create a dramatic impression by slashing his way through a difficult problem–and in part, too, from his personal style–rough-hewn, American, seemingly uncultivated.

All seven of Feynman’s lectures were recorded by the British Broadcasting Corporation and presented as part of BBC Two’s “Further Education Scheme.” In 2009 Bill Gates bought the rights to the videos and made them available to the public on Microsoft’s Project Tuva Web site.

Since then the series has become available on YouTube for easier viewing. As you scroll down the page you can access the videos which, “more than any other recorded image or document,” writes physicist Lawrence Krauss in Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science, “capture the real Feynman, playful, brilliant, excited, charismatic, energetic, and no nonsense.”

You can find the remaining video lectures below:

Lecture Two, The Relation of Mathematics to Physics:

Lecture Three, The Great Conservation Principles:

Lecture Four, Symmetry in Physical Law:

Lecture Five, The Distinction of Past and Future:

Lecture Six, Probability and Uncertainty–The Quantum Mechanical View of Nature:

Lecture Seven, Seeking New Laws:

You can find this course indexed in our list of Free Online Physics Courses, a subset of our collection, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Albert Einstein in Four Color Films

We all think we know just what Albert Einstein looked like — and broadly speaking, we’ve got it right. At least since his death in 1955, since which time generation after generation of children around the world have grown up closely associating his bristly mustache and semi-tamed gray hair with the very concept of scientific genius. His sartorial rumpledness and Teutonically hangdog look have long been the stuff of not just caricature, but (as in Nicolas Roeg’s Insignificance) earnest tribute as well. Yet how many of us can say we’ve really taken a good look at Einstein?

These four pieces of film get us a little closer to that experience. At the top of the post we have a colorized newsreel clip (you can see the original here) showing Einstein in his office at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where he took up a post in 1933.

Even earlier colorized newsreel footage appears in the video just above, taken from an episode of the Smithsonian Channel series America in Color. It depicts Einstein arriving in the United States in 1930, by which time he was already “the world’s most famous physicist” — a position then meriting a welcome not unlike that which the Beatles would receive 34 years later.

Einstein returned to his native Germany after that visit. The America in Color clip also shows him back at his cottage outside Berlin (and in his pajamas), but his time back in his homeland amounted only to a few years. The reason: Hitler. During Einstein’s visiting professorship at Cal Tech in 1933, the Gestapo raided his cottage and Berlin apartment, as well as confiscated his sailboat. Later the Nazi government banned Jews from holding official positions, including at universities, effectively cutting off his professional prospects and those of no few other German citizens besides. The 1943 color footage above offers a glimpse of Einstein a decade into his American life.

A couple of years thereafter, the end of the Second World War made Einstein even more famous. He became, in the minds of many Americans, the brilliant physicist who “helped discover the atom bomb.” So declares the announcer in that first newsreel, but in the decades since, the public has come to associate Einstein more instinctively with his theory of relativity — an achievement less immediately comprehensible than the apocalyptic explosion of the atomic bomb, but one whose scientific implications run much deeper. Many clear and lucid précis of Einstein’s theory exist, but why not first see it explained by the man himself, and in color at that?

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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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