I have been away for a well deserved trip and traveled to a favorite corner of the world, northern New Mexico. As a humbly self described amateur historian, the pulse of history that surges through this unique land could occupy me for months. The visible chapters of the untold millennia of earth’s history is unrivaled in the geologic variety and infinity vistas, and the area is just as rich in the human story of civilization since the last Ice Age. The historical books come together in the special corner of the world that forms the mesa on which the little town of Los Alamos rests. The several hundred million years since the inland seas receded and left the spectacular vistas of New Mexico at the base of the southern rockies seems, at times, eternally fixed, but the past thousand years, a geologic eyeblink, saw amazing human intersessions upon this timeless land. From the civilized mesa dwellers at Bandolier, to the Pueblos of the native American, the intense migration of the Spanish civilization, and the American merchant invasion via the Santa Fe Trail the land at Otowi, New Mexico has seen a special immersion of cultures. No migration, however, has probably had the permanent and profound effect of the human experience as did the most recent one – the 1942 migration of the scientist clan onto the Otowi mesa assuming their new home in the Los Alamos County Ranch School and changing science and history forever. From 1942 to 1945, the ancient mesa at Otowi became the center of scientific research and development that opened the secret of the atom and resulted in atomic energy and the most devastating weapon ever devised by man, the atomic bomb.
The story is best told in two wonderful books that are a must for anyone wants to understand the incredible tale of Los Alamos and the atomic quest. The first is Richard Rhodes’ Pulitzer Prize winning book The Making of the Atomic Bomb . There is no better and more understandable treatise of the incredible genius that ties Ernest Rutherford’s 1890’s discovery of the atom to the brilliant teamwork of the great collection of scientists that Robert Oppenheimer corralled in Los Alamos in the 1940’s. The human story of discovery and commitment is best told in Jennet Conant’s wonderful book, 109 East Palace. Ms. Conant captures the personalities, immense work and breathtaking achievements of the team at Los Alamos preforming under unimagined stress and complete secrecy in a more innocent time.
Los Alamos became the site for the most intense science project known to man due to a memory of the director of the search for the secret of the power of the atom, J. Robert Oppenheimer. The secret project, assigned to the Army’s Manhattan Corp of Engineers, and thereafter known as the Manhattan Project, required a special individual to be in charge and attempt to achieve the impossible in an insufferably short period of time. It required an individual of special brilliance, who could understand and coordinate physicists, mathematicians, engineers, metallurgists, explosives specialists, chemists, and warriors, hold them together, and finish the job under the enormous pressure of a country fighting for its very life in a race against its enemy for the ultimate weapon, harnessing the power of the atom. The country found such a man in J. Robert Oppenheimer from the University of California. Oppenheimer, in looking for the right secluded location for such an enterprise requiring space, water, and the capacity for secrecy, remembered the horse trails of his youth in the region of the Bandolier Indian ruins and went with General Leslie Groves to seek out the location as a home for the project in 1942. The site proved perfect and the decision was to base the project at the site of the Los Alamos Ranch School in Otowi, New Mexico. The school had been a place where children of wealthy parents could immerse their children in a life of rigor, scholarship. and self confidence that the life of the West was considered to represent. Oppenheimer assembled a team of hundreds of scientists whose average age was twenty five, who subjected themselves to the rigors of the task, with the spirit of the school that had preceeded their community at Los Alamos. In less than three years, Los Alamos proved to be the most successful science experiment in history, taking a theoretical possibility, that the atom, held together by immense forces, could be, in a controlled fashion, be persuaded to release those forces. On July 16th, 1945, in the desert outside of the town of Alamogordo, New Mexico, the forces of nature were released from a device conceived, created, constructed, and culminated by the geniuses of the little community of the Ranch School at Los Alamos, and the world for good and bad willl never be the same. The test of the atomic weapon, referred to by the group as “The Gadget” proved to all that man holds the unique ability to covert thought into reality, limitless in scope when the effort was total.
The town of Los Alamos continues to this day as a leader in science and atomic energy, and the Bradford Museum of Science located there, is very worthy of a visit to understand the task of nuclear scientists that continue to this day. The Ranch School still stands and the little museum located on Bathtub Row brings to life the community Oppenheimer led, and reminds us of the world of 1940’s northern New Mexico that made it possible.
The amazing story is told well in the documentary below, A Moment in Time. Although an hour in length, it is worth every second to bring the unique story of Los Alamos to life. The trip off Highway 25 onto Highway 502 in northern New Mexico to the little town of Los Alamos holds an unlimited amount of storyline to the human experience that make getting away to special places worthwhile.