The Santa Fe Institute brought together five people who individually would have had hours of interesting topics to present. Together these individuals had many perspectives and thoughts about the history and implications of the Manhattan Project to give a multi-dimensional view of what led to, happened during and came from the Manhattan Project.
Harold Agnew is one of the few survivors and witnesses remaining who saw firsthand how the Manhattan Project came together and congealed to build an atomic weapon that Niels Bohr said “can never be done unless you turn the United States into one huge factory.” Agnew’s recollections and sense of humor captivated the room. He does not mince words. He lets others know exactly what he thinks. And, at 91 years old and a lifetime of experiences that changed the world, his perspectives and opinions are cause for thought.
One of my favorites quotes from him this weekend:
“I didn’t want my film to end up like a stuffed owl in a museum.” Harold “squirreled” (in his words) an 8 millimeter home movie camera onto the plane Great Artiste and gave it to the tail gunner to shoot the Hiroshima bombing while Harold, Luis Alvarez and Larry Johnson were in charge of tracking equipment being dropped by the Enola Gay that would measure the yield of the nuclear blast. Harold knew that he had to be closed-mouth about the film when he landed otherwise security personnel might confiscate it. He sent the film by courier to Albuquerque to a shop that could process the film. A few weeks later the film was returned. Word got out that he had color film of the bombing. The Smithsonian contacted Harold for rights to the film, but he turned them down as he was afraid the film would be put somewhere that would offer little access to Americans.
Murray Gell-Mann received the 1969 Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the theory of elementary particles and discovery of the quark. He is the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Theoretical Physics Emeritus at Caltech, a Distinguished Fellow and co-founder of the Santa Fe Institute. Murray is thoughtful and measured in his responses. He has an incredible memory for details. His story about his Russian counterpart opposing and then supporting an Anti-Ballistic Missile plan stood out. The United States decided to develop a series of missile systems with the ability to shoot down incoming ICBM warheads. Murray was part of a meeting in Russia that discussed pursuing this technology and strategy. There were several people there from RAND who were pushing this new idea. Murray thought it was ridiculous because an ABM could be overwhelmed with warheads. During the meeting his Russian counterpart approached him and said “I have very many Russians ask me how we can defend ourselves against American nuclear weapons. I always tell them Russian science will keep us safe because we will always figure out what to do to protect ourselves. But now you RAND people are talking about ABM? You are crazy!” Two years later, the Russian showed up at another conference and found Murray to tell them “You know, you are not so crazy about the ABM.” And that strategy helped fuel the Soviets to reach strategic parity with the Americans.
Stan Norris brought in a historic perspective of the Manhattan Perspective with details of how it was organized. By looking at it through the eyes and actions of General Leslie Groves, Stan was able to fill in many blanks that scientists alone did not know. General Groves played a significant role in assuring the success of the Manhattan Project through choosing the right kind of people and ensuring that they were supplied with what they needed at the right time to ensure successful. His book Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, the Manhattan Project’s Indispensable Man is full of interesting stories and facts associated with what it took to implement the Manhattan Project. Very few could have implemented that plan in such a short time. Stan pointed out how so much of what we are bogged down now as a country in terms of security, secrecy and all the bureaucracy and redundancy associated with national security started within the Manhattan Project and then grew exponentially afterwards.
Gregg Herken expert on the political forces that drove the Cold War and author of Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller. He complemented the other speakers with his insight on all of the main personalities within the Manhattan Project as well as lots of interesting data. During the conversation mentioned above with Stan, Gregg added “Stan, you touched on the role of Congress. Before it the organization took a “common good” focus for the country. Now we have individual Congressman with individual interests.” The Manhattan Project created the sizable nuclear complex, which grew even further during the Cold War. What seemed like a huge response to the threat of Soviet nuclear weapons in the 1950s pales in comparison to the response to the 911 attacks. Gregg recommended the book Top Secret America that reports there are 17,000 facilities and $2 trillion dedicated to counter-intelligence and other efforts since 2001.
Gino Segre a nuclear physicist and author of several books on the history of science, including Faust in Copenhagen had much to offer but also asked many questions that inspired great discussion. “How sure are we that the stockpile will work without nuclear testing? There has been no nuclear testing in this country since 1989.” This spurred many responses about how testing is done now by breaking down existing weapons and testing their components. Harold Agnew went on to talk about the Labs pushing for new designs that could be more reliable than the current models in the stockpile. Harold believes that the existing models are sufficient in design and went on to say that there is no “better” weapons design than the next – “a megaton is a megaton is a megaton.” In another discussion with Santa Fe Institute associates Cormac McCarthy, David Krakauer and Jessica Flack, the topic of whether current tools and analysis could be used to predict the likelihood of someone using a weapon in the future. Gino responded: “There is essentially no data associated with using nuclear weapons. There is only data around the thinking of using nuclear weapons.”
The weekend was full of discussion and insight that started in the 1930s and ended up with current proliferation issues and nuclear threats. The time flew for everyone. If I had to choose just one Manhattan Project Legacy from this conference it would be Stan Norris’ response to Linda Cordell’s question: “What was the most unintended consequence of the Manhattan Project?” Stan didn’t miss a beat: “A nuclear arms race of monumental proportion.”