Los Alamos And The Beginning Of Our Nuclear Age

In her new book, Sarah Scoles writes about how scientists grappled with the implications of nuclear weapons.

The following is an excerpt from Countdown: The Blinding Future of Nuclear Weapons by Sarah Scoles.

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Countdown: The Blinding Future of Nuclear Weapons


We knew the world would not be the same.
— J. Robert Oppenheimer, on the test of the first atomic bomb

The slopes of Pajarito Mountain Ski Area sit two thousand feet and about fifteen minutes above the New Mexico town of Los Alamos. If you looked down from the lift, the city would seem small. Inconsequential, even. The main offices of Los Alamos National Laboratory would look even smaller, like someone threw Legos on the ground and lit them with high- powered lamps.

But it’s all about perspective: in reality, Los Alamos National Laboratory— called LANL, pronounced like flannel minus the f— is a more than $4.6- billion- per- year operation that occupies almost forty square miles of high- altitude plateau. The lab’s stated mission is “to solve national security challenges through simultaneous excellence.” It’s unclear, linguistically, what “simultaneous” means, but it’s probably classified anyway. LANL, after all, works on some of the most tightly held US secrets: those surrounding nuclear weapons. The city of Los Alamos was founded in the early days of the Manhattan Project, the US initiative to build the world’s first atomic bomb. Back then, the town’s existence was hushed. Home to the code-named “Project Y,” and so sometimes called Site Y along with Atomic City, Magic Mountain, Shangri-La, and probably a few French words, it was hidden not just from the American people but also from Congress. Its physicists toiled in obscurity to figure out how to harness the sort of power that nature had managed to master in a much earlier cosmic era. Those physicists— living in hastily constructed homes, with few amenities and little privacy from each other, even if they had almost infinite privacy from everyone else— eventually succeeded in explosively splitting atoms. And in so doing, they changed life not just on the Pajarito Plateau but also on the whole planet.

From a perch on the mountain above town, it’s easy to map the landforms bordering it. Los Alamos sits on four mesas, so cliffs prevent it from exceeding its present stretch. LANL may be able to change the world, but it has not gone so far as to alter this geophysical fact. Looking through the relatively apolitical calm of aspens that try their best to block the view, you have to remind yourself of what this place is. Of how a settlement that was, in its heyday, much smaller and more secluded than it is today nevertheless shifted Earth’s trajectory. You have to reach to remember that ghosts working with kludgy code names and poor municipal infrastructure helped bring into being a kind of weapon that could destroy everyone on the planet, with relative ease. The push of some buttons. A few correct codes. A presidential whim. A moment of panic. A straight- up mistake. A misperception. “If you think about how many of these actual nuclear weapons are out there, it’s insane that we haven’t had
an accident or haven’t gotten into a hot war,” says Aaron Arnold, a former fellow with the Project on Managing the Atom.

But if, for whatever reason, a bomb does detonate in a conflict once again, there will be no returning to the world as it was before. “Once a country starts firing them off, that’s kind of it,” says Arnold. The clock can’t run backward and undo the first strike, and so another country, or a plurality of other countries, will likely respond with atomic retaliation. “In all likelihood, that’s it,” Arnold says again, and pauses. “That’s it.” Regardless of whether the “it” eventuates, this planet will always bear
the imprint of the deadly device first devised in the flat spaces between Los Alamos’s gaps. Those scientists didn’t, of course, do it alone. And if they hadn’t done it, someone else would have, at some point. But they did do it, and they did it here, and here we are. LANL, in the twenty- first century, largely exists to manage what it and other Manhattan Project facilities wrought decades ago. Run by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the lab is tasked in part with helping maintain and modernize the United States’ stockpile of nuclear weapons— ensuring, as employees are fond of saying, that the bombs always explode when they’re supposed to, as they’re supposed to, and never explode (or do anything else) when they’re not supposed to. This idea gets shortened to the quip “always, never,” to the point where people just say, “You know, always, never.” They also know that someone who says the phrase “safe, secure, and reliable” is talking about the desired traits not of a car or a romantic interest but of thermonuclear arms.

While LANL is no longer the city’s only employer, it remains the biggest, and the community maintains the feel of a company town. Perhaps that has something to do with the county logo, where the canonical atomic symbol sits inside Los’s o. The electrons’ elliptical orbits focus the eye on where the nucleus, the center of power within an atom— and here in town— would be.

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Or maybe it has something to do with the old guard- shack replica—now a public bathroom—you pass as you enter the city limits. The original was just a small, white structure where people presented passes before proceeding. The identical building on which the replica is modeled kept Los Alamos from the public during the Manhattan Project. So, too, did the muddy, rutted road leading up from Santa Fe, which few would have found themselves traversing by accident or for fun.

Today, obviously, Los Alamos isn’t a secret. A many-lane blacktop now leads directly to Site Y. Commuters can scream up and down the hill easily, and so can information: the lab puts out press releases about its more innocuous work, its research on everything from pandemics to planetary science. The town has a McDonald’s. There’s a Starbucks, which expanded to a new, stand- alone building in 2022. You can even pick from a couple of craft breweries. A coworking space cheekily sports the original code name for this part of the Manhattan Project. There’s even a national historic park, appropriately called Manhattan Project National Historical Park, dedicated to remembering how the bomb was built here. On Pajarito hill, the Manhattan- era leader of the original project, J. Robert Oppenheimer, used to enjoy a relative lack of friction and a good view when he ascended to that vantage point to ski. That view is quite different today, but the setting sun still sets the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on fire, just as it did in Oppenheimer’s 1940s, fusing hydrogen the whole way down to the horizon.

As the star descends, empty areas between the mesas go dark; only Site Y’s interstitial spaces beam into the evening sky, showing a proverbial city on a hill or a scourge, depending on whom you ask. Regardless, it’s a place whose emissions reveal its existence, no matter what.

The result of the Manhattan Project and Los Alamos’s early research was a bomb the scientists dubbed the Gadget. No one knew for sure whether— or exactly how— it would work. We still don’t understand exactly how it or any of the thousands of other bombs we’ve since made function. The only thing that mattered, back then, was that they worked. The day of its test, an event dubbed Trinity, many of the lab’s scientists trekked out to the site, near the New Mexico town of Alamogordo, to watch their creation (hopefully) destroy itself. Colorful tales of the day abound: Physicist Edward Teller passed around suntan lotion, anticipating the radiation they’d receive like a day at the beach. Enrico Fermi got ready to drop scraps of paper to estimate the strength of the blast wave, as they flew away on the wind. A broadcast of the countdown crossed frequencies with a local radio station, and the Nutcracker suite superimposed itself over the Trinity test’s “three . . . two . . . one.” When the clock reached zero, the orchestra played on. But at the Trinity test site, a fireball erupted, blinding the researchers in the first microseconds. The closest observers were just six miles away. A column of smoke soon rose into a roiling mushroom cloud. The cloud, levitating higher and higher, seemed to suck up the earth itself, siphoning resources as it ascended toward heaven. It was purple, blue, red, violet. Violent. Glowing. Thundering. Awesome. Terrifying.

People saw the effects of the blast in three states. Those living close by wondered whether this was some kind of apocalypse. The army informed them— lying— that it was just an accidental explosion at a munitions storage area.

But the residents weren’t wrong in their assessment. As chemist George Kistiakowsky said after witnessing Trinity, “I am sure that at the end of the world— in the last millisecond of the earth’s existence— the last man will see what we saw!”

The subatomic particles ruling the bomb follow the laws of quantum mechanics, which in popular, if slightly incorrect, understanding means that they are uncertain: in multiple places at once, doing multiple things, only settling into one state when you look at them directly— like Schrödinger’s cat, a being both alive and dead.

The scientists, too, occupied several states simultaneously that day, a mix of feelings sluicing through their bodies when the Gadget erupted as intended: Pride. Fear. Regret. Joy. Anticipation.

Most of all, power. They had taken a theoretical, abstract science and alchemized it into something devastatingly concrete. In the minds of some of the researchers, this ultimate weapon would bring with it ultimate peace, because it was too horrible to ever use (after, of course, their country used it twice), especially if you knew a similar weapon could be deployed against you in response. That’s part of the basic ideology of deterrence: we have the weapons so that no one will horribly attack us, or our allies, because they know we could attack horribly back. And other countries’ weapons keep us from the temptation to horribly attack them.

Nuclear weapons, then, keep large-scale wars from breaking out. Similar deterrent ideals echo like a hymnal chorus, in eerily similar language, from scientists and engineers across LANL and the other weapons labs, Sandia and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories. Workers at these sites sometimes clutch the words like verbal talismans: “always, never,” “a credible deterrent.” But deterrence, like any other philosophy, is a belief, and one that is impossible to test, because you
cannot wind back the doomsday clock and see how various conflicts and dynamics would have played out if fission and fusion had remained scientifically opaque.

For the record, the inventor of dynamite also thought its existence would halt huge conflict, for similar reasons. And yet here these Manhattan scientists were, decades later, devising something much worse, repeating history as humans seem wired to do.

Those scientists have said a lot of quotable things about Trinity in the decades since the test. But in the actual aftermath of the detonation, most, according to Oppenheimer, were silent. Oppenheimer himself thought, famously, of the line “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” a quote from Hindu scripture.

Less poetic and more to the point was Kenneth Bainbridge, who intoned, “Now we are all sons of bitches.”

For almost two decades following Trinity, the spot was marked by a wooden sign labeled “Zero.” As in Ground Zero. As if time and space started here.

If you watch nuclear explosions in archival videos today, including footage from Trinity, it’s easy to understand how those mid- century scientists could feel their work was that cosmically significant and how they could be both completely undone by seeing such an explosion and obsessed with the idea of it. How they could love it while hating it. These weapons are the raw power of the universe— harnessed, targeted, let loose. They are also beautiful. Staring as the seconds pass, you may feel like you do when standing on the edge of a cliff: A still, small impulse urges you to jump. You’re not depressed, and you’re not actually going to jump, just like you don’t wish for nuclear war. You’re simply drawn to the abyss, precisely because of its abyssal nature. That’s the pull of a nuclear detonation. Three weeks after the Trinity test, the United States dropped a replica of the Gadget on the Japanese city of Nagasaki, a few days after dropping a different type of nuclear weapon on Hiroshima. The number of casualties is still unknown, but the high- end estimate holds that around 210,000 people died as a result of both explosions. Some were simply vaporized.

Of the bombing of Hiroshima, the White House’s press release said, “We have now won the battle of the laboratories as we have won the other battles.”

Excerpted from Countdown: The Blinding Future of Nuclear Weapons by Sarah Scoles. Copyright 2024. Available from Bold Type Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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