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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

“Manhattan” Episode 7: On the Frontiers of the New World

The quest to build the world’s first atomic bomb involved much more than nuclear physics and mathematical equations. The nearby Pueblos add an intercultural dimension with reminders of old world traditions as the scientists lay the foundation for the “New World.”  With some very intense moments, Manhattan’s seventh episode contrasts the unpredicted behavior of the X-10 reactor with that of the characters. Fueled by alcohol, the characters seek relief from the intensity and uncertainty of their lives working on the frontiers of the Atomic Age.

At Los Alamos, the Pueblo Indians enriched the lives of many scientists and their families who had never before encountered Native American cultures. In the beginning of the episode, Frank and Liza Winter drive to Santa Fe to check on their housemaid, Paloma, who has been absent from work for several days.

The San Ildefonso pueblo, just east of Los Alamos, and the nearby Santa Clara pueblo provided most of the day laborers who came to the Hill by bus, returning home at sunset. Men were generally employed as truck drivers, construction workers, and gardeners while women were recruited as maids and child-care providers. Their skills were truly vital for the entire Los Alamos community.

When Liza finds out that Paloma’s brother died fighting in the Pacific and that the military was unable to recover his body, Liza becomes upset. “It means something different to them,” she tells Frank, “their whole religion is based on this land, where their people are buried…this place is important to them.”

The forty-three square miles on the Pajarito Plateau occupied by the Los Alamos community incorporated some of the San Ildefonso ancestral lands. Without the required security clearance, the Pueblos were prohibited from visiting their sacred sites. In the show, Frank and Liza agree to take Paloma and her family to the restricted area so that they may perform a sacred burial rite for her brother.

Back at Oak Ridge, the X-10 Graphite reactor is about to go critical in early November 1943. Physicists Charlie Isaacs and Helen Prins are offered the chance to load the final uranium-metal slugs into the reactor. But something goes wrong. After initially rising, the core temperature of the reactor begins to fall and the output drops inexplicably. Theodore Sinclair, an African-American and the plant’s only nuclear physicist, has been repeatedly ignored by the plant’s director and threatens to leave. After Charlie and Helen plead with him to stay, Sinclair suggests that the buildup of xenon-135 could be recapturing neutrons and poisoning the reaction.

As it turns out, Sinclair was right about the problem with the X-10 plant but the mystery was not definitively solved until nearly a year later. In September 1944, physicists starting up the B-Reactor in Hanford, Washington confronted similar behavior. “John Wheeler had been at Oak Ridge and he knew about the Oak Ridge reactor,” recalled physicist Leona Marshall Libby, “and it showed signs of misbehavior, which could have been interpreted as poison, but it wasn’t clear.”

When the B-Reactor went critical and then suddenly died, Wheeler knew it had to be caused by a fission byproduct. “If these substances formed when the U-235 atoms split, they would stop the reaction because they absorbed too many neutrons,” recalls Dale Babcock, a physical chemist tasked with helping solve the xenon problem. “John Wheeler’s analysis of the xenon poisoning at Hanford was in the Nobel Prize category; the problem appeared, it was solved, and we were going again.”

Another important theme of the episode is the unpredictability of the characters’ behavior. At Oak Ridge, the stress of solving the X-10 reactor’s problems proves too much for Charlie and Helen. Sitting on stools at the local soda shop, they surreptiously begin to drink from a flask and get progressively more drunk as the evening continues, sharing confidences and discussing the uncertainity of their lives.

The counties surrounding the Oak Ridge reservation still banned alcohol even though prohibition ended in 1933. But that didn’t stop workers from smuggling liquor past guards. “Clinton was dry,” recalls Helen Jernigan, an editor for the Carbide Courier at Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project, “so one had to go to Chattanooga or Oakdale to transport whiskey.”

Despite the site’s strict security, smuggling liquor didn’t seem too difficult: “There are many stories about how people got alcoholic beverages from outside and smuggled them in, hidden in all sorts of places like baby diaper bags and things like that.” In fact, Helen Prins manages to bring two whiskey bottles back to the laboratory in Los Alamos in her suitcase.

Back at Los Alamos, the scene is equally wild. Abby Isaacs joins her girlfriend Elodie for a night out on the town, posing as WACs and leaving their wedding rings behind. The two wander into a crowded recreation hall, with blaring music, dancing, card games and young people fueled by copious amounts of alcohol. The scene is a reminder that the average age at Los Alamos was only 25 years old.

Los Alamos was more than just a place where world-renowned scientists went to figure out how to harness the energy of the atom. As this episode dramatizes, the combination of secrecy, intensity, and alcohol proved to be a potent one for those on the frontiers of a new world order.