According to Roy Glauber, the majority of the scientists working at the Los Alamos laboratory “were very busy making families.” In a little over two years, some of the greatest minds of the 20th century turned the finest intellectual achievements of civilization into a weapon of annihilation. Over the following decades, the Cold War turned mutual nuclear destruction into an existential threat for families the world over, including those of the scientists who were involved in the Manhattan Project, the majority of them in their twenties and thirties, who applied their knowledge of the atomic nucleus and explosives to the creation of the ultimate weapon of mass destruction.
Between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, global nuclear catastrophe was substituted by another sword of Damocles created by scientific and technological progress: climate change has represented the most likely source of the apocalypse for the last generation. Now, the threats of Russian President Vladimir Putin against NATO as a result of the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine have brought to mind the reasons that a small group of scientists (led by military top brass and politicians) changed the course of humanity forever during the Second World War.
Glauber’s recollections form part of a recently published book, La Última Voz (The Last Voice), which collates conversations with one of the youngest scientists to have participated in the Manhattan Project. Glauber, who was 18 when he was assigned to Los Alamos and who died in 2018 at the age of 93, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2005 for his research in quantum optics. His recollections, compiled by José Ignacio Latorre and María Teresa Soto-Sanfiel, offer a unique first-hand insight into the dawn of the nuclear age.
Glauber’s narration blends the epic with scientific and technical discussions and elements of his personal history. Like many other young American physicists of the era, Glauber was spared the horrors of the Pacific War because of his scientific prowess. The US government would later justify the use of the atomic bomb as a strategic tool to hasten Japan’s surrender and prevent the loss of hundreds of thousands of young lives. Even though Glauber, like many of the Manhattan Project scientists, was aware of the terrible aim of the undertaking, he displays few moral disquisitions about his work and explains how life went on much as normal while the members of the group worked on the most important scientific and technological project in the history of mankind. Robert Oppenheimer, the married director of the Los Alamos laboratory, snuck off for a couple of days to visit Jean Tatlock, an old girlfriend who was a Communist Party member. Romance remained a fundamental part of life for the prodigious minds caught up in one of the most secretive projects ever undertaken in human history. Glauber recalls there were few women working at Los Alamos, and they were not short of requests for dates.
Glauber insists he was merely an observer – “albeit a very good one” – who was not involved in any serious decision-making. He never published the solutions to some relevant problems he came upon while he was working on the Manhattan Project. He did not want to remembered for it. Neither did Lise Meitner, who together with Otto Hahn discovered nuclear fission in 1938, showing that building an atomic bomb was genuinely viable. She refused to take part in the Manhattan Project: “I will never have anything to do with a bomb,” she said at the time.
I will never have anything to do with a bombPhysicist Lise Meitner
Although the physicists made the bomb possible, they were never involved in the discussion as to what to with it. Robert Wilson, who would go on to become the architect and first director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, which remains the United States’ biggest particle physics research center, was among those who asked that the project be halted after the surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945, two months before Trinity, the first test of a nuclear weapon, carried out in New Mexico. Even though Japan had no parallel nuclear program, the US military decided the project should continue with the aim of demonstrating its destructive power on a city, and not in an uninhabited area, which was the preference of the vast majority of the Manhattan Project physicists. Glauber mentions that the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, were not very different from the conventional destruction wrought on a daily basis during the Second World War, a point of view that surely helped the architects of the Manhattan Project cope with the results of their work. The authors of The Last Voice also make note of the intervention of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, to have Kyoto removed from the list of possible targets. Stimson had visited the city twice and had been moved by its beauty. He stated that it should be preserved for future Japanese generations.
It is likely there will never be another project in the history of mankind with such transformative results as the one that resulted in the atomic bomb but that was far from the only scientific breakthrough achieved by the scientists gathered together in a remote corner of New Mexico. Hans Bethe, head of the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos, published research on how stars produce their energy; James Chadwick discovered the neutron; and Luis Álvarez put forward a previously unexplored theory that a massive asteroid impact 60 million years ago in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Glauber himself produced work that has been of use in trying to build quantum computers, machines that would revolutionize computing.
Neither the scientists, who were far more forward-thinking than most, nor their families suffered the tragedy of witnessing the power of their greatest achievement unleashed. However, unraveling the secrets of matter did not spare them from suffering after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After leading the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer faced a hearing at the United States Atomic Energy Commission and had his security clearance revoked due to his Communist Party affiliations and for donating money to Spain’s Republican government during the Spanish Civil War. Edward Teller, one of his colleagues at Los Alamos, testified against him. Oppenheimer and his wife Katherine, who according to Glauber and other testimony was an alcoholic, had a son, Peter, in 1941 and a daughter, Toni, in 1944, when he was still head of the project. Toni committed suicide in 1977, 10 years after the death of her father.
Glauber also suffered from the professional jealousy of his colleagues – which he details at length in the book – who employed every trick in the book to undermine his pioneering work on quantum optics in the mid-1960s. In 1975, Glauber reveals, his wife asked him for a divorce and granted him custody of their two children, who he raised on his own. This task, of which Glauber was immensely proud, limited his scientific output, which would never reach the same heights again. The recognition of the Nobel Committee, four decades after he produced the work for which he won the award, seemed a joke to Glauber, who had all-but forgotten the power of his results. Much like citizens of the world at large, who for two decades were able to banish from their minds the destructive power unleashed in the New Mexico desert almost 80 years ago.