Tracing the Manhattan Project
Alumni travel and learn together
The Manhattan Project, the subject of a recent MIT Alumni Travel trip, is a Rorschach test of sorts. Was the quest to develop the atomic bomb a Herculean intellectual effort to end World War II with the fewest possible casualties? Did the invention of nuclear weapons increase or decrease the likelihood of future wars? Last May, 25 alumni and guests traveled to New Mexico to explore these and other questions in a five-day trip called “Entering the Atomic Age: The Manhattan Project.”
Although MIT’s wartime priority was its work in developing radar, MIT had a connection to the atomic-bomb saga through Vannevar Bush, who earned a doctorate in engineering at the Institute in 1916 before serving as its dean of engineering and president of the Carnegie Institution. Bush headed the new federal agency that managed the Manhattan Project and, along with the secretary of war, briefed Presidents Roosevelt and Truman during the sprint to develop the bomb. As a public intellectual, he raised questions after the war about what it meant for scientists to facilitate destruction rather than understanding. In 1985, nine MIT faculty members who had worked on the Manhattan Project shared their views in a joint Compton Lecture titled “40 Years After: MIT, Los Alamos, and the Bomb.” Institute Professor Victor Weisskopf opened the talk: “The scientists at Los Alamos believed that such powerful weapons would make war impossible. We were naïve. We meant well. But at this moment in history, I do believe we are on a collision course.” Today nuclear-weapons policy focuses on managing stockpiles and preventing proliferation, while nuclear technology is widely used in peaceful energy production.
In Santa Fe, the travelers stayed at La Fonda, a hotel chosen because it was a favorite gathering place of the Manhattan Project’s science director, Robert Oppenheimer, and his colleagues. The first evening included a dinner and a talk by Gino Segrè, PhD ‘63, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Pennsylvania, who described the early development of nuclear science and explained how so many eminent European physicists had wound up on the 7,000-foot mesa of Los Alamos. A visit to the Los Alamos National Laboratory the next day included a behind-the-fence tour of V Site, where components of the plutonium weapon, Fat Man, were developed in simple wooden buildings, built into earthen berms in case of high-explosive accidents. Guest speakers during the trip included Manhattan Project scientists, now elderly, and experts on topics from espionage to the region’s geology. The group also toured the Trinity test site, where Fat Man’s new implosion technology was tested. These were rare opportunities–V Site and Trinity are open to the public only a few days each year.
The group also viewed The Decision to Drop the Bomb, a program produced for NBC in 1963 but never shown on television. Oppenheimer’s and other leaders’ comments about the consequences of the bomb underscored the war’s cost in human life and the questions that scientists and policy makers grappled with. The decision to use these unprecedented weapons was made after Germany had surrendered and the death toll was already in the tens of millions. Europe was in ruins and Japan was being firebombed daily. Yet U.S. leaders thought the Japanese military was so resistant to surrender that an invasion could have killed an additional one million Americans and nearly as many Japanese.
Beyond the serious topics, alumni, guests, and friends also shared personal experiences throughout the journey. At a reception for the travelers and New Mexico alumni, Segrè said that he had been in awe of Weisskopf, who headed MIT’s physics department, directed CERN, and founded the Union for Concerned Scientists. Years later, much to Segrè’s astonishment, the legendary physicist became his brother-in-law. Suddenly a man whom Segrè had considered a physics god was sitting at the family table–and boy, were the first conversations awkward.
Segrè also invited the audience to share stories about MIT faculty. Nearly a dozen voices–both travelers and local alumni–added theirs. And the years that separated the alumni from their own student days suddenly disappeared.
The MIT Alumni Travel Program offers more than 30 trips a year, featuring experiences such as visiting Japan’s volcanoes, inspecting the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland, and enjoying a family adventure in the Galápagos. Some trips include exclusive events such as social gatherings with local alumni or behind-the-scenes tours like those mentioned in this article. Learn more online: alum.mit.edu/travel.