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.

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdrawsi
Jim Malone
October 09, 2015 12:32 AM
The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

VOA Blogs