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