In the early 1940s, Los Alamos, New Mexico was a peaceful American town inhabited by young couples, many children, and working people with enough free time to enjoy the good weather and desert environment. After work, you can go for a walk, watch a movie for 10 cents, attend a conference or go dancing. Due to military regulations, only low-alcohol alcoholic beverages were available, but many scientists used their expertise to make their own libations. The bucolic scenes of Los Alamos life belied the fact that these young families were building some of the most gruesome and destructive weapons known to still threaten humanity today.
The main scenario of the first atomic bomb is well known. In 1938, German scientists Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn discovered how to release large amounts of energy through nuclear fission, as Albert Einstein had theorized in the famous scientific equation: E=mc². Physicist Leo Szilard saw the military applications of nuclear fission and convinced Einstein to sign a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt urging him to defeat the Nazis by developing a nuclear weapon. Roosevelt then established the ambitious Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which would eventually produce “Little Boy” and “Fat Man”, the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, ended World War II and changed the course of human history. . Since then, civilization has had the ability to easily annihilate itself.
Told through the eyes of American physicist Roy J. Glauber, a new book and documentary film gives audiences a glimpse into the early days of Los Alamos National Laboratory. Glauber was the youngest of the Manhattan Project’s theoretical scientists and won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physics for his pioneering work in the field of quantum optics. His memories of his Manhattan Project experiences were recorded in a recent book titled La Ultima Voz (the last voicein English) and in It’s history, a documentary film available on YouTube. Communication expert and university professor María Teresa Soto-Sanfiel and physics professor José Ignacio Latorre collaborated on the production of the book and film.
It all started over a drink. “We were at a conference in Benasque [northern Spain] and I took Glauber out for a drink – he’d never tasted a mojito – because you have to treat Nobel laureates right,” jokes Latorre. Unbound by the cocktail, Glauber began to tell anecdotes about some 20th century luminaries in the field of physics. How did he know all these people? “I worked on the Manhattan Project when I was 18,” said Glauber, one of the project’s few members still alive at the time. After that first mojito tasting session and several other chance encounters, Glauber decided to collaborate with the authors to record material for the book and film. Coincidentally, the Manhattan Project Archive was declassified just as it began collecting material for the documentary. They obtained 17 hours of footage from this archive, most of which had never been seen by the public. “Glauber was very meticulous and detailed in our interviews, which gave us a very vivid picture of that time,” Soto-Sanfiel said. “It was an image of life in Los Alamos as told by one of its protagonists, which is quite unusual.”
Glauber sometimes describes Los Alamos as a utopian but spartan home for those who lived and worked there. It was a lost world, cheap but with not much to do outside of work. “But young Glauber marveled at many aspects of life at Los Alamos,” Latorre said. “Apparently the food was very good (Glauber was still a big eater at 90), the weather was great and he was surrounded by some of the sharpest minds in the world.”
The intellectual power dazzled the young Glauber, who had not yet finished his studies at Harvard University when he was assigned to the project. There was Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the project, who had a great talent for understanding and communicating complex physical concepts to people like General Leslie Groves, the general manager of the project.
Glauber describes Oppenheimer as a romantic and connoisseur of classical Hindu writings (he was fluent in Sanskrit), a stark contrast to the pragmatism typical of American scientists. When Oppenheimer observed the first atomic bomb test in the New Mexico desert, he quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Oppenheimera film directed by Christopher Nolan, will be released in 2023.
Glauber describes Hans Bethe, who was responsible for the theoretical aspects of the project, as a very intelligent man and a collaborative collaborator. Enrico Fermi was resourceful in complex calculations and models, and Richard Feynman had a knack for seeing problems in physics in entirely new ways. Feynman was often the center of attention with his endless well of stories and anecdotes, as evidenced by his well-known biography, You must be kidding, Mr. Feynman!, which has inspired generations of students around the world. Glauber had some reservations about Feynman, whom he blamed for deliberately extravagant behavior. “Glauber was a quiet, serious man, while Feynman was quite the opposite, someone who liked the limelight,” Soto-Sanfiel said, “so Glauber considered Feynman a bit frivolous, although he had a great intellectual respect for him.”
Glauber was an eyewitness to the first explosion of an atomic bomb in July 1945 – the Trinity test – which detonated in the New Mexico desert. Because he worked on the project as a theoretical physicist, he and some of his colleagues were not invited to the test. Nevertheless, they traveled 70 miles (112 kilometers) to a mountaintop near Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city. When the 20 kiloton bomb exploded, they were terrified of the mushroom cloud rising into the night sky. At the site of the detonation, the sand had melted into a bright green glassy residue resembling jade, later called trinitite. Glauber described the first test of an atomic bomb as “massive and sinister”. For a month after the test, no one in the lab wanted to talk about what they had witnessed.
The story told in the book and the documentary does not stop at Los Alamos, but goes on to describe the disgrace of Oppenheimer, victim of the witch hunt orchestrated by the physicist Edward Teller, who accused him of being Communist. Teller had become increasingly influential due to his leadership role in the development of nuclear weapons, particularly the hydrogen bomb.
Glauber died in December 2018 while the book was still being edited. He was not alive to see the invasion of Ukraine, with its nuclear saber sounds reminiscent of the Cold War. “At the time [during the Cold War]there was almost no mention of nuclear threats and, as we saw when previewing an early version of the documentary, most people thought the specter of total annihilation contributed to a long period of peace in Europe,” Latorre said.
Glauber never regretted participating in the Manhattan Project because he had a relatively unimportant role and because thousands of young soldiers were dying “like flies” as the Nazis raced to build their own bomb. “Of course,” Soto-Sanfiel said, “when the bombs were dropped on Japan, Glauber quit the Manhattan Project and never wanted to hear about the nuclear arms race again.”