Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Manhattan Project: Hidden in Plain Sight

Mention the Manhattan Engineering District (MED) aka 'The Manhattan Project', along with the wartime Atomic Bombs, and for most of us, our first thought is a mushroom cloud rising from a dry desert bed somewhere in the dusty south west of America.

Perhaps we think of other,later, Atomic Tests from similarly dusty deserts in Nevada and Utah. And their assembly - wasn't that done in isolated big plants inevitably set on dusty plains or deserts somewhere in southern and western America ? Isn't it still being done out there, somewhere ?

We are certain of one thing - none of this is taking place - or ever took place - anywhere near the wet, green, heavily urbanized American north east - certainly not in the New York City area.


As is well known, the Atomic Bomb project was not just the most secret project in the Allied pipeline of new weapons, it was one of the few efforts rated 'Top Secret' that actually stayed truly top secret - even incoming President Truman knew nothing of it until he took office after FDR's death.

Many credit this to the mania for security to the Army Engineer Corps officer who really turned the faltering project around after he took charge in September 1942 - Colonel (and soon to be General) Leslie Groves.

Groves, born and raised in upstate New York, it is claimed, took a perverse delight in naming a project centered in rural wilderness in the South West after the biggest urban centre in the world - Manhattan - never the most popular part of New York State to its upstate residents.

Actually, it was a group decision to name the Top Secret project after Manhattan and that decision was even more brazen than any of us imagined.

The top secret project was hidden, in plain sight, in all of all places , Manhattan itself !

Most of the emotional high points of the wartime atomic project (and many of its technical solutions) happened on Manhattan or in the environs close around Manhattan and New York City.

Surprisingly, many of those warehouses,factories, office buildings and labs are still around.

Author Robert S Norris delights in reminding residents of the Big Apple that much of the world's atomic history lies all around them, unknown, as part of their daily work life environment.

It is easy to see how this confusion happened.

Most atomic authors, from 1945 till this day, have been voluntarily 'self-embedded' in the corps of the nuclear physicists, seeing the entire project through the physicists' eyes.

For the nuclear physicists, the world revolves around the Los Alamos weapons-development lab , set in the south west desert.

Without Los Alamos and its team of scientists, we won't have had the second , plutonium, (Nagasaki) bomb. But we would have had a bomb.

And it is worth noting that most of the deadly material in all of the world's Cold War nuclear arsenals was uranium, not plutonium - something you'd never gain from reading the average atomic author's breathless prose over the plutonium breakthrough.

(Uranium was a natural element, while until recently it was believed plutonium was man-made, artificial, synthetic - so it simply had to be the better and more exciting part of the atomic story.)

Actually, all of the physicists involved in the MED were, in a sense, mostly redundant after 1941 - if all had died in a plane crash in early 1942, the project would have still gone on to drop the Hiroshima bomb.

Chemists, engineers, metallurgists, factory artisans - all deserved more credit than the physicists for the first Bomb.

And in the early 1940s, most of the high tech firms and factories they worked for were headquartered or located in the greater New York City area....

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