December 18, 2015

Trinity Test, Gadget, Spies: What’s True in Season 2 of "Manhattan?"

For the last two years, the show “Manhattan” has brought to life the world of Los Alamos and the project to build the atomic bomb in the United States. But as with most television shows, it doesn’t always get everything right.

This week, the second season of the show concluded on WGN America. We thought it would be fun to check in with Alexandra Levy and Nathaniel Weisenberg at the Atomic Heritage Foundation (AHF) about the show, the history, and their work.

[Spoiler Alert: Levy and Weisenberg briefly discuss the finale of Season 2 in this post.]

Manhattan Project in Los Alamos: Gadget atop the test tower, Base Camp, and Site 'B'

photo by: Atomic Heritage Foundation

Clockwise from left: "Gadget" in position on the test tower; base camp; the timing control shelter at Site 'B.'

Manhattan is about to finish up its second season, which focused on the Trinity test. How does it fare, in terms of accuracy, to the first season?

Season 1 and Season 2 of “Manhattan” have felt quite different from each other. Season 1 focused on the challenges of using plutonium to make an atomic bomb and the discovery that a gun-type bomb would not work due to impurities in reactor-produced plutonium. The show did a terrific job accurately explaining the science behind the bomb.

Season 2 has been more focused on spies and the security situation at Los Alamos. The military, aware that Soviet spies have infiltrated the project, are desperately trying to uncover their identities. Meanwhile, the spies commit several murders to keep their identities secret. In reality, the Soviet spy ring at Los Alamos was not discovered until after the war. The project leaders believed Los Alamos’ secrets to be safe thanks to background checks, compartmentalization, and security procedures. Nor was anyone murdered at Los Alamos during the project.

For dramatic tension, the show portrays Los Alamos as a hotbed of competitiveness, with groups refusing to pool information. But during the project, at J. Robert Oppenheimer’s direction, scientists worked together collaboratively on all aspects of the program. Oppenheimer recalled telling General Groves in their very first meeting, “‘This thing will never get on the rails unless there is a place where people can talk to each other and work together on the problems of the bomb…There has got to be a place where people are free to discuss what they know and what they do not know and to find out what they can.’ And that made an impression on him.” This cooperative spirit was one of the reasons the project was a success.

Season 2 builds up to the climax of the Trinity test of July 16, 1945, where the scientists set off the “Gadget,” the world’s first nuclear explosion. “Manhattan” accurately portrays the tension of the preparations for the Trinity test. Some of the pretests failed to work properly, leading to considerable consternation. Scientists bet on whether the Gadget would work, and if it did, just how explosive it would be.

The season concludes with a depiction of the Trinity test. “Manhattan” ramped up the drama by having one of the spies consider detonating the Gadget prematurely, with the goal of killing the project’s key leaders. In the end, he decides he can’t go through with it, and the test is a success. The season concludes with the mushroom cloud rising in the distance.

William Laurence and General Groves in Los Alamos, New Mexico

photo by: Patricia Cox Owen Collection/Atomic Heritage Foundation

Season 2's third episode features a reporter based on William Laurence (left), the New York Times reporter who was allowed exclusive access to the project. In the show, the reporter is wearing a thick, printed tie, much like the one Laurence is wearing in this photo from the Trinity test photo-op with General Leslie Groves (left).

How has Season 2 used Los Alamos as a location to highlight the secrecy and work of the Manhattan Project?

On the show, Los Alamos comes off as stifling and oppressive, but the history is more complicated. Certainly, women like Kitty Oppenheimer—one of the few historical figures who appear on the show, and who has some similarities with one of the main characters, Liza Winter—could feel trapped professionally at Los Alamos. Many Manhattan Project veterans and scientists recall the secrecy around the project, but they also remember leisure activities such as J. Robert Oppenheimer’s cocktail parties and people going hiking and skiing.

Physically, “Manhattan” makes Los Alamos look more like a desert than it really was (the show was partially filmed in Santa Fe). The show does effectively recreate certain details, from the exterior of the Technical Area to the interiors of the houses. And overall, the show’s cinematography is beautiful, from Frank Winter whacking golf balls into the darkness at the start of season 1 to the desolate Trinity site.

How has the show helped raise awareness of the work that you do at AHF?

“Manhattan” has been a terrific boon for AHF and nuclear history by raising public awareness of the Manhattan Project. We live-tweet each episode, and receive many tweets with questions about the history of the Manhattan Project. After the season 1 premiere, our website hits doubled.

Over the past decade, AHF has developed many online resources, now making it easy for “Manhattan” fans to learn more. Our resources include a Manhattan Project Veterans Database, with profiles of 10,000 scientists and workers; articles on Manhattan Project history and nuclear science; an interactive atomic timeline; and an oral history website featuring interviews with Oppenheimer, General Leslie Groves, and hundreds more Manhattan Project veterans.

The show has clearly had a positive impact on the public’s interest in atomic history and science. “Manhattan” is a unique show, fearlessly tackling the science and morality of the bomb. From dramatic love affairs to the building the bomb, the show has a little bit for everyone.

Two views of the mushroom cloud at the Trinity test

photo by: Atomic Heritage Foundation

Two views of the mushroom cloud after the Trinity test. The one on the left was taken .034 seconds after Gadget exploded.

Now we know, as of posting, that the show has not yet renewed. Knowing what happened in the finale, what would you like to see in Season 3?

If there is a Season 3, we are curious if “Manhattan” will travel across the Pacific to depict the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or if it will jump ahead to the Cold War years. There are lots of compelling potential storylines; for example, it would be interesting to see how the scientists grapple with the consequences of their work once it is no longer secret.

In particular, we wonder if the show will deal with the emerging Cold War arms race and the pursuit of the hydrogen bomb. The show could also highlight the peaceful applications of nuclear energy, such as nuclear reactors—something that was hinted at this season.

We would like to see more of some of our favorite characters, including Helen Prins, the only female scientist on the show; Theodore Sinclair, the only African-American scientist; and Liza Winter, the self-described “rogue botanist.”

Regardless of the direction next season takes, we hope “Manhattan” continues to represent how the Manhattan Project shaped the postwar world—and our world today.

Founded in 2002, the Atomic Heritage Foundation (AHF) is a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the Manhattan Project and the Atomic Age and its legacy. Most recently, the Atomic Heritage Foundation worked with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and other partners on the establishment of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

By purchasing any of these products using the Amazon links on this page, you'll be supporting the National Trust. A small portion of the sales comes back to us to support our work. Looking for other ways to support preservation? Consider giving a gift membership to the place-lover in your life.

While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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