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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Physicists Having Fun

J. Robert Oppenheimer hosting a party at his home in Los Alamos

The Los Alamos National Laboratory recently discovered and released never-before-seen footage of everyday life at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project.

Hugh Bradner, a physicist, had been granted informal permission to his use his video camera around Los Alamos. Albert A. Bartlett, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, wrote that cameras were not forbidden at Los Alamos but were restricted to personal use. Army officials probably didn’t know that Bradner captured footage of some of the scientific experiments that took place, including the RaLa Experiment. RaLa is a contraction of “radioactive lanthanum” and was critical in experiments testing the design for a plutonium-based weapon. The method was proposed by Robert Serber, who is shown riding horses with his wife Charlotte and Robert and Jane Wilson.

From the concrete bowl to the small buildings that dotted the hillsides, Bradner’s footage provides a breathtaking view of the Los Alamos laboratory during the Manhattan Project. The concrete bowl, 200 feet in diameter, was built in 1944 to recover precious plutonium if an atomic bomb test failed.  But then a prototype computer enabled the scientists to calculate the precise configuration of the explosive lenses for the implosion device. With greater confidence in their design, the scientists decided to move the test site further away from their work site, to Alamogordo, New Mexico. 

Los Alamos was not all work and no play: Bradner also shot video of himself and his fellow scientists having fun on weekends. He filmed his colleagues hiking to the top of the mesa; horseback riding through the pine forests; sunbathing and swimming in the Rio Grande; and skiing down Sawyer’s Hill with Nobel Prize-winning physicist Hans Bethe. Other activities included visiting Maria Montoya Martinez, a famous Pueblo potter, and relaxing at Bradner’s wedding at the Santa Fe home of Dorothy McKibbin. McKibbin welcomed Manhattan Project recruits in her office at 109 East Palace in Santa Fe.

The film also shows the scientists leaving for the Trinity test in Alamogordo. Was that Oppenheimer in his porkpie hat among the crowd? This video is truly one of a kind.