I was born in 1945. That was when newly-invented nuclear weapons brought an end to human history’s most horrible war. Our own country, nearly untouched at home, became the undisputed world leader, while Soviet Russia continued to suffer from having fought and won the most pyrrhic ground victories in human history.
The year 1945 was also the year when the USA became the most formidable scientific R & D juggernaut in human history. This essay traces the rise and fall of that source of our nation’s greatness and suggests how we might revive it.
Most people think of the Manhattan Project as a secret military effort. That it was. With military discipline, it commandeered the nation’s best minds, hands, and materiel. It built a huge scientific-engineering enterprise from scratch, with an entire town (Los Alamos) to support it, in the mountains of Northern New Mexico. It also built secret facilities at Oak Ridge, Tennessee and at Hanford, Washington, in a desert far from the coast.
At one point, the Project’s facilities drew about one-tenth of all the electricity generated in the entire United States. Yet so secret was its work that no one outside it had a clue about its progress. The world’s first real notice came with the Trinity Explosion at Alamogordo in July 1945, which drew some curious news coverage in New Mexico. Then, a mere three weeks later, came the devastation of Hiroshima, Japan, that changed war and history forever.
But the Manhattan Project was far, far more than just a secret military project. It was also the greatest scientific research-and-development project in human history. I’d like to elaborate on this theme a bit, in part to adjust our understanding of the words “research,” “development” and “technology.” Today these words have been hijacked by investors, promoters and advertisers and distorted beyond all recognition.
The most important thing to understand about the Manhattan Project is its intellectual foundation: a then-obscure scientific theory of nuclear fission. It was an untested theory developed by recent foreign immigrants—Italians, Germans, Hungarians and Jews—many of whom had fled the rise of Nazism and fascism in Europe. We now know, partly courtesy of Ken Burns, how many others like them died in the Holocaust due to racial and ethnic prejudice against them, in the US and elsewhere, while their illustrious peers were developing the weapons that later would save democracy and change the world.
When Albert Einstein (a German Jew) and Leo Szilard (a Hungarian Jew) wrote their famous letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in August 1939, the theory of nuclear fission had worked only at tabletop scale. Just eight months before, experiments with collections of atoms had shown confusing results. Leading thinkers had interpreted them as neutrons causing fission of the atomic nuclei that they bombarded. The physicists credited with this discovery were Lise Meitner (an Austrian-Swedish woman) and Otto Frisch (an Austrian-British man).
Based on this then-recent theory, Einstein and Szilard believed that Nazi scientists would begin working on an atomic bomb and that we should, too. So they wrote their famous letter to FDR, who started the Manhattan Project. The theory itself was never applied to anything remotely like a bomb until, over three years later, Enrico Fermi (an Italian physicist) got his “atomic pile” working under the football stands at the University of Chicago in 1942. His device demonstrated, for the first-time ever, a controlled nuclear chain reaction.
It’s hard to know whether to classify Fermi’s device as research or development. No one had ever demonstrated a controlled nuclear chain-reaction before. Control was an important part of both theory and practice, as with the Bomb itself. (A bomb going off accidentally in the laboratory would probably have set the Project back!) Anyway, an atomic pile (another word for “battery”) might be useful in generating energy, but it wasn’t a weapon of war.
From there to the first-ever “Trinity” atomic-bomb explosion, at Alamogordo in July 1945, took less than two years, eight months. In scale, difficulty, ingenuity, and speed, that was probably the greatest single scientific development project in human history. On the way to its successful conclusion, its scientists and engineers had to invent things like Teflon (to prevent corrosion in stainless-steel tubes used in centrifuges to purify uranium) and sub-microsecond electronic timers (to trigger the conventional explosives used to produce an instantaneous implosion of enriched uranium parts).
Even with the general path (but not the details) well trodden—or with our stolen nuclear secrets—no one else has ever matched the speed and ingenuity of that development. But it took the united and concentrated focus of thousands of the world’s best scientists, engineers, machinists, and technicians. And it had a military commander trained in engineering, General Leslie Groves, authorized to commandeer all the physical and human resources of a great nation.
The interlocking of theory and practice—research and development—stayed with the Project from beginning to end. Six months before the Trinity Explosion, physicists Edward Teller (a Hungarian Jew) and Emil Konopinski (a Polish-American) published a quantitative theoretical study reassuring everyone that an atom bomb would not ignite the Earth’s entire atmosphere in nuclear fire and end all life on Earth. Teller reportedly was checking those calculations against actual data on the Trinity Device the night before its explosion.
The point of this history is not just that the Manhattan Project was a unique triumph of scientific research and development. It was also a triumph of human organization and administration, i.e., of government.
The Project had smart, practical, dedicated and well-organized people from the bottom—those who built the barracks at Los Alamos and fed the technical staff—to the very top—the military Commander General Groves and the President, FDR, and his “Brain Trust.” Every one of these men and women was totally focused on reaching the desired result, regardless of faith or political ideology. Every one did his or her job in complete and utter (and often counterproductive) secrecy. Everyone was competent, educated and willing to listen. Those who had esoteric knowledge of science and technology enjoyed the trust of those who didn’t. (J. Robert Oppenheimer, an American of German-Jewish descent who led the scientists on the Project, was later blackballed for suspected disloyalty only after the Project’s success.)
In assembling this unprecedented collection of international talent, the Project benefited from a unique set of historical circumstances. It had drawn almost all its great minds from a Europe plagued by war and despotism.
Nuclear physics, if not all of physics, had really been a European invention, if you include the Brits. From the landed gentry who dabbled in physics in the nineteenth century (Faraday, Kelvin) to the professors at great universities in the early twentieth, virtually all the great names were European. The only name of a native-born American physicist, not an offspring of immigrants, that comes easily to my mind is Ernest O. Lawrence, inventor of the cyclotron and Nobel Prize winner. And even his grandparents were Norwegian immigrants.
After the turmoil in Europe surrounding World War I, and then the rise of Nazism and fascism, the flood of immigrant thinkers became a torrent. While we Americans kept out ordinary Jews, Germans, Italians and Hungarians as “undesirables,” our elite had the good sense to let the great thinkers make safe homes and careers in America. Had they not done so, our efforts to turn the bare theory of nuclear fission into practical devices would never have begun. Europe’s turmoil and dark turn toward despotism had driven a golden flood of great minds to our shores—the products of great European universities that had stood for centuries.
What most attracted them? It certainly wasn’t the allure of our educational institutions, which were then focused on basic education, business and “the classics.” Rather, it was the very basics of productive human life: stability, safety and liberty.
In a few short decades, these three things allowed us to collect the great minds of a generation and put them to work exploring the unknown, ultimately boosting our war effort. Our society, while excluding “their kind” generally, recognized their talent and found places for them in universities and research establishments, where they thrived. So we borrowed, or perhaps stole, the brains of an epoch and put them to work making us smarter, richer and more powerful.
Thus the Manhattan Project is hardly just a story of nuclear weapons. It’s not just about physics. It’s a story of social organization and societal values. It’s a story about how enlightened leadership attracted and held the great minds of a generation and organized them for a single purpose.
With their help, we emerged from a period of unprecedented war, turmoil and conflict as the sole superpower and perhaps the world’s best place to live and prosper. We didn’t pick ourselves up by our bootstraps: we had had a big head start and a lot of carefully recruited help.
The contrast from today is both obvious and appalling. Physics has migrated away, along with many of its great minds. We gave up the Superconducting Super Collider in 1993, so particle physics migrated to CERN, the French acronym for the European Center for Nuclear Research, near Geneva. Some of our good minds went to China (or back to China, for some with Chinese roots), but some of them may now be returning as Xi Jinping’s new empire becomes more despotic and unstable, or as stable as death. Today’s relative stability and prosperity of Germany and Japan (even with its non-Roman alphabet) are also starting to attract leading minds.
So we no longer enjoy the same “brain-drain” advantages that we had in the early twentieth century. Maybe no single nation ever will again, at least anytime soon.
We have also set our intellectual sights so much lower. Our aspirations, it seems, are to produce billionaires and great business empires, like Amazon, Facebook and Google. But what they do, relative to what the twentieth-century scientific establishment did, now seems trivial, at least from the perspective of scientific and technical achievement.
Virtually all the great wealth of today’s Silicon Valley is based on clever but intellectually pedestrian uses of computers and software to improve the “efficiency” of communication or of logistics in sales and transport. Outside of quantum computing, most of which is top secret and has yet to make any economic impact, there is nothing to rival the invention of transistors, lasers, integrated circuits, personal computers and cell phones.
Even if you ignore their deleterious effects on labor and economic equality, today’s leading monopolies can claim little, if any, fundamental advances in science or technology. Just compare social media (Facebook, Twitter), Internet search (Google) and product-shipment and transport logistics firms (Amazon, Uber, Lyft) with real postwar advances in science and technology. In the few decades after World War II, the great minds who had joined us, with their American colleagues, had produced: television, space travel, satellite communication, nuclear energy, transistors, integrated circuits, lasers, CAT scans and MRI machines, personal computers, and cell phones.
Relatively speaking, what we have “invented” and produced since are advances in business, spreadsheets and accounting. Our reduced vision, combined with lax antitrust laws, has led to great strides in profiting from advertising that “earn” billions, while real advances in science and technology are slowly drying up.
Yet it’s still possible to imagine new things worthy of a second Manhattan Project. One is saving our species from accelerating global warming and its consequences. So many real applied-science projects could join that effort: (1) safer and smaller-scale nuclear fission power plants; (2) nuclear-fusion power plants; (3) better and more durable batteries, using less exotic, rare and expensive elements; (4) adapting hydrogen internal-combustion engines (whose only effluent is water) to air travel, long-haul trucks, and heavy equipment; (5) better and smarter electrical grids to support all the above; (6) adapting home and car batteries to grid-scale electricity storage; (7) carbon storage and sequestration—a longshot but still worth pursuing; and (8) if all else fails (and it might!) geoengineering to reduce solar irradiance hitting the Earth’s surface.
Our fight against the Covid-19 pandemic hints at what a modern Manhattan Project might accomplish. Consider the development of mRNA vaccines for Covid-19. They came at “warp speed” because they arose out of a near-decade-long government-funded push toward genomic vaccine development. The Pfizer vaccine came from the labs of Turkish-immigrant scientists in Germany—a small echo of the massive brain-drain from turmoil to stability that staffed our own Manhattan Project. The American Moderna vaccines came from not-so-massive but consistent BARPA investment of our own (gasp!) government.
But now the application of lessons learned to hoped-for nasal-spray vaccines is bogging down in proprietary claims of businesses seeking to make the most money from old technology, even at the cost of retarding the new. We seem to have become a nation of shopkeepers, more concerned with raising income and stock prices than improving our basic science and technology and making bold new technical ideas practical. A mini-Manhattan Project for new vaccines and therapies might spell the end of Covid-19 and, in the process, make our entire species far more secure against the next airborne pandemic.
Unfortunately, our memory of the Manhattan Project is tarnished with thoughts of war and destruction, even species’ self-extinction. Perhaps that’s inevitable. After all, the goal of the Project was nuclear weapons. Perhaps only the existential threat of Nazi conquest in war could have motivated such a concentrated, intelligent and practical project by a whole nation.
But suppose we could imagine a similar project today. What could it do against other, slower-moving existential threats, like self-accelerating global warming and the growing risks of ever-evolving pandemics?
To launch such a project, we would first have to overcome two big obstacles. The first is the private-profit mania that has overtaken our nation and much of the rest of the world. (Even China is fighting it, but not too successfully, and in the wrong way: with the dead hand of absolute state control, of despotism.) We Americans are living in a Second Gilded Age, in which those who ostentatiously sport historically unprecedented wealth—like Bezos and Musk and the Kochs—exercise power and influence way out of proportion to what made their wealth, let alone their personal contribution to humanity’s survival. Celebrity—often borne of or influenced by wealth—has become the coin of the realm. Science and technology sit in the back of the bus.
The second obstacle is the degradation of major democracies, like ours and the Brits’, in offering stability, safety and liberty. Whether separately or together, as the world’s two strongest and most stable democracies today, Germany and Japan are unlikely to make up for the downward global trend. So the chance of any one nation—let alone one so small—becoming the mecca for a whole generation of great minds is considerably reduced.
Nevertheless, the need is great. Never before has our species itself contributed to three ways in which we could suffer partial or full extinction: (1) nuclear war, (2) runaway global warming, and (3) a deadly pandemic spread globally in days or weeks by aircraft. If we Americans were prescient and effective enough to create the Manhattan Project to counter the Nazi threat, perhaps our species, or at least some of us, could do something equivalent to counter these very real and rapidly growing species-wide existential threats. If we can’t, perhaps we should change our self-awarded name away from Homo sapiens, to reflect our growing inability to deal with real threats rationally and collectively.