Los Alamos, New Mexico: Then and Now



What happens when you build a town in secret for one purpose - to build a bomb that could end a war?  And what happens when the war is over?  It is not always what you would expect. Just visit Los Alamos, New Mexico, the town where the atomic bomb was developed.

Scientists race against time to develop bomb

As World War II raged in 1943, a faint radio signal could be heard high on a mesa in the southwestern U.S. state of New Mexico - one in which announcers and performers used only their first names, and the station's location was never given.

A pianist known only as "Edward" sometimes played selections by German composer Richard Wagner.

An outsider listening to these broadcasts would have had good reason to be puzzled. There was no way to know that Edward the pianist was Edward Teller, the nuclear physicist.

At the time, Teller was living in a secret town in the Jemez Mountains with hundreds of other scientists and thousands of workers, racing the clock to develop the weapon that would bring an end to the war. The tiny radio station was one of the ways residents tried to create a sense of community in a town that officially did not exist.

Los Alamos secret revealed when atomic bombs dropped

Before the war, Los Alamos was home only to a school for boys.  After being selected as the main site for developing the atomic bomb, Los Alamos was placed under the highest security and turned into a teeming factory town with a population of more than 3,500. Of the thousands of people working on the project, only those at the highest levels knew what they were working on.

That is, until August 1945, when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan that killed some than 200,000 people. The news broke immediately. Newsreel announcers retold the accounts given by the airmen who dropped the bombs.

"The explosion was a big ball of fire. Anyone not having dark glasses would have received a visual shock several miles away," one announcer said. "One of the crew members said, 'My God,' when he saw what had happened. What had been Hiroshima was a white mountain of smoke..."

Japan surrendered less than a week later.

Far from a ghost town, Los Alamos remains research hub

After the war, some thought Los Alamos might become a ghost town.  Its singular purpose had been accomplished.  But the government had invested billions of dollars in the labs atop the mesa.  So some of the scientists stayed, and the research continued.

Today, Los Alamos National Laboratory is a 16-hectare campus that hosts a broad range of scientific research.

Terry Wallace, the lab's principal associate director for science, technology and engineering, says the concept of Los Alamos - bringing together scientists from different fields to solve a single problem - was revolutionary.

"It invented a whole new way of doing science.  And it was to make interdisciplinary teams to do very complicated problems," Wallace said. "Before that, an individual lab would focus on a particular problem anywhere in the nation. And that played over to after the war."
Those teams have led Los Alamos into computer development, disease pathology and climate change research.  Wallace says the lab also models the threats posed by bioterror weapons and disease.

"It turns out, we can monitor the particular toxin down to very minute levels. So Los Alamos is involved in building sensors to be able to give you an early warning when toxins should be available.  Bird flu is the same kind of thing - like we're making portable kits, so people can do a very simple test to find out if you've been exposed to the flu."

Some object to focus of lab's research

One of the lab's newest breakthroughs happened in June of this year, when its "Roadrunner" supercomputer, named after New Mexico's state bird, became the first in the world to complete 1,000 trillion calculations per second - something known as a "petaflop."

Among other applications, Roadrunner will help Los Alamos test the nation's aging atomic arsenal - without detonating bombs - to ensure a viable nuclear deterrent. But many people object to the lab's weapons research.

Ed Grothus used to work at the laboratory.  But decades ago, he felt bad about the nature of his work.  He quit during the Vietnam War.

"The first 20 years I worked in the laboratory, I worked most of that time in a weapons development group, making 'better' weapons of mass destruction. Make sure to put 'better' in quotation marks," Grothus said.

Now Grothus runs a nearby salvage shop that he fills with scrap purchased from the national laboratory.  Grothus calls his shop "The Black Hole."

"Everything goes in, and hardly anything goes out," he said.

"Everything" is right. You will find scientific equipment, scrap metal, file cabinets, cameras, Geiger counters, old computer parts, even plastic flowers stuffed into his warehouse and scattered across the grounds. But that is nothing compared to what Grothus has stored in two huge shipping containers - two 40-ton granite monuments, each nearly 13-meters-tall.

"The monuments incorporate an obelisk and what I call 'Doomsday Stones,'" Grothus says. "And inscribed on the stones is the story of Los Alamos in 15 languages. It's a Rosetta Stone for the nuclear age."

The obelisks are Grothus's protest against nuclear weapons.  He hopes to erect the monuments in a location where they can be seen from kilometers away.

New Mexico town, scientists far from secret today

The fact that the Black Hole exists, with its piles of used lab equipment, is testament to how much things have changed in Los Alamos.

It is not just the research; the music is different too.  Far from the days of anonymous piano concerts on secret radio stations, a group called The Hill Stompers, made up mainly of Los Alamos workers, occasionally leads pub crawls through the streets of nearby Santa Fe, dressed in outlandish outfits and trailed by a merry group of followers. Today, Los Alamos and its scientists are anything but a secret.

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