We think of the atomic bomb as a destroyer of cities, namely Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But its development also produced a city: Los Alamos, New Mexico, an officially non-existent community in which the necessary research could be conducted in secret. More recently, it became a major shooting location for Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s new movie about the titular theoretical physicist remembered as the father (or one of the fathers) of the atomic bomb based on his work as the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory. You can learn more about that laboratory, and the town of 6,000 constructed to support it, in the new Vox video above.
Los Alamos was necessary to the Manhattan Project, as the R&D of the world’s first nuclear weapon was code-named, but it wasn’t sufficient: other secret sites involved included “a nuclear reactor under a University of Chicago football field”; “the Alabama Ordinance Works, for producing heavy water”; “a large plant for the enrichment of uranium and production of some plutonium” in Oak Ridge, Tennessee”; and the Hanford Engineer Works in Washington State, which produced even more plutonium.
But the bomb itself was created in Los Alamos, into whose isolation Oppenheimer recruited the likes of Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, Richard Feynman, and other powerful scientific minds — who brought their wives and children along.
As a 1944 Medical Corp memo warned, the “intellectuals” at Los Alamos would “seek more medical care than the average person”; at the same time, one-fifth of the married women there were pregnant, so up went maternity wards as well. The population of Los Alamos grew so rapidly that “hutments were a common form of accommodation,” though “apartment buildings were also available.” The housing sat alongside “facilities for graphite fabrication, and the cyclotron and Van de Graaff machines.” Less than 250 miles south lay what, in the summer of 1945, would become the site of the Trinity test. It was there, gazing upon the explosion of the unprecedented nuclear weapon whose development he’d overseen, that Oppenheimer saw not merely a destroyer of cities, but a destroyer of worlds.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.