LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (KRQE) – New Mexico enters the spotlight on Friday as the highly-anticipated movie Oppenheimer takes to theaters. As attention is on New Mexico, some might wonder why the scientist picked Los Alamos for the historic project.
Known as the “Father of the Atomic Bomb,” J. Robert Oppenheimer was a key player in the Manhattan Project.
“Oppenheimer was a complex person. He has a complex legacy as well,” said Alan B. Carr, Los Alamos National Laboratory historian. Oppenheimer was recruited to help work on the Manhattan Project during World War II.
“When Oppenheimer was named the director, the laboratory didn’t even exist yet. There was no facility. The place for the facility had not even been selected yet,” said Carr. The site had to be far inland and somewhere sparsely populated. Oppenheimer had spent time in the Santa Fe area.
“He came to know and love the area and was familiar with it, and when it came time to select a location for the weapons design laboratory, he, General Groves, other officials, visited Jemez Springs first, decided it was not as suitable as a location they were looking for,” said Carr.
Oppenheimer then suggested Los Alamos.
“There was not a town here. There were about 35 homesteading families and a school for boys. Everyone in the area was evicted for a point in time,” he said. The government started building Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in early 1943. The lab’s technical staff grew to about 1,700 during the war, according to Carr.
“If you had been here in 1944, 1945, you would’ve seen recruiting challenges, technical challenges, construction. All these things would’ve been going all of the time,” said Carr.
It proved to be a challenging time for LANL’s first director.
“Oppenheimer, he really was not well-equipped for the job. He had no management experience, and almost overnight, he was the director of a laboratory that had not come into existence yet,” said Carr. “He learned a lot about managing from General Groves. He learned to be decisive, and I think that these things really helped Oppenheimer along as he became the director, but it was a real challenge for him especially early on.”
Oppenheimer overcame adversity in personal and professional life.
“Oppenheimer was not a perfect individual. He was just like the rest of us. He was human. He faced a lot of adversity in his life, a lot of it was his own making, but he persevered, and he did something incredible during a very perilous time in the history of the world,” said Carr. “I think that he’ll always be remembered for that fascinating character, a great scientist, a humanist. I don’t think it’s any surprise to me at all that his story is revisited decade after decade after decade.”
Nowadays, LANL employs about 16,000 people.
“Today, you’ll find some of the most powerful computers in the world. You’ll find the world’s most powerful X-ray machine here, and a staff of thousands and thousands of people who operate these machines and do all kinds of other things to help again ensure the safety, reliability, and again effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear stockpile,” said Carr.
His complex legacy lives on through LANL.
“The laboratory is a multi-disciplinary institution and has been since the 1970s. At the heart of what the laboratory does though remains the weapons program,” said Carr. “The laboratory itself, and this has been said by other historians, is very much a part of Oppenheimer’s legacy.”