Ushering in the Atomic Age

Ramesh Seth recounts a visit to Los Alamos, where the Little Boy and the Fat Man were made

Replica of the Bombs: At the Los Alamos laboratory
Replica of the Bombs: At the Los Alamos laboratory.

The Little Boy and The Fat Man were developed at this building in Los Alamos
The Little Boy and The Fat Man were developed at this building in Los Alamos

SOME time back my wife and I spent a leisurely week in Espanola, in New Mexico State, of the USA. We were travelling old style, allocating weeks rather than days to any place that we liked to visit. The pleasure of being a leisure traveller is that one is not bound to, ‘If-it-is-Tuesday-it-must-be- Belgium’ syndrome. That is how we could visit Los Alamos which was way out for the average Indian tourist.

Recently, on August 6, 2005, the 50th anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, with such devastating effect, was observed. They were developed in Los Alamos.

Los Alamos, in the arid new Mexico plateau, is as inaccessible a place as any. Forget foreign tourists, even the domestic American tourists were rare in those parts. And yet when we visited the place it was like a revelation to walk among the underground chambers where the atomic breakthrough had taken place in another age and ushered the Atomic Age.

As we were staying in nearby Espanola at that time, our kindly local host took us to see Los Alamos, the site of the old laboratory where the atomic bomb was developed under Project Manhattan. It has been converted into a public museum. The modest entrance of the museum does not give indication that the whole of the facility is housed in underground tunnels.

As we entered we found ourselves walking gradually towards lower gradient till we reached the well-lit museum galleries. On the walls there was graphic description of life the staff of the Project Manhattan led in while developing the bomb.

We noted how throughout the summer of 1943, hundreds of bewildered families moved to Los Alamos to begin an unforgettable adventure into the realms of the unknown. The laboratory staff was collected from all over the world and kept in isolation. Most administrative and technical personnel knew only that they were moving to an unknown place for an unknown length of time. Scientific personnel had a general idea about the nature of the work that awaited them. They were instructed to tell their families nothing.

The overall security of the Project was in the hands of military, although the staff was mostly civilian. Military security was on verge of paranoia. A high barbed wire fence surrounded the community, and mounted guards patrolled the rugged outer boundaries. For civilians, military security took some getting used to.

Laboratory members were allowed only limited personal contact with relatives and that too within a limited distance of Los Alamos. Distance travelling was discouraged. Any meeting with any person who was outside the Project had to be reported in detail to the security force. Security personnel censored outgoing mail and monitored long-distance calls.

The staff of the project was assigned a single postal address, "P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico," through which all correspondence took place. Things were taken to such ridiculous lengths that birth certificates of all the babies born to the staff of Los Alamos project during the war even listed P.O. Box 1663 as their place of birth.

Los Alamos, situated at the height of about 6000, has a very dry climate. Since it is at the southern latitudes, it rarely snows there. Although the climate is healthy, as we found, it needs some acclimatisation. Just as we were told to drink more liquid during our stay similarly, the staff at Los Alamos was instructed to drink more liquid to counteract dehydration.

At Los Alamos, science and technology combined to produce a weapon of incredible power, enough even to end the most destructive war in history. After three years hard work, finally on July 16, 1945, an implosion bomb was developed and successfully tested near Alamogordo, New Mexico. The production of this bomb, and its gun-type counterpart, ushered in the atomic age.

We were more interested to see the real thing, the replicas of two atomic bombs. We were directed into a separate chambers where they were on display. There they lay, the replicas of the two atomic bombs, code-named Little Boy and Fat Man. It is remarkable that when sees those two modest sized bombs one cannot even imagine they could have unleashed such destruction. But they changed warfare history.

Fifty years ago, on August 6, 1945, Little Boy, a uranium gun-type device, with a force of approximately 14 kilo tonnes, was the first Atomic weapon exploded over Hiroshima, Japan. It exploded approximately 1,800 feet over Hiroshima with a force equal to 13,000 tons of TNT. Immediate deaths were estimated between 70,000 to 1,30,000.

Next, the Fat Man exploded over Nagasaki with a force of 20 kilo tonnes on August 9, 1945. It was a more complicated and powerful plutonium implosion weapon that exploded with a force equal to 20,000 tonnes of TNT. Dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945, Fat Man devastated more than two square miles of the city and caused approximately 45,000 immediate deaths. The use of those two atomic bombs against Japan ended World War II and inaugurated the nuclear age.

Over the years, I had read and heard about those two bombs at a visit to Los Alamos and seeing the replicas was altogether a different experience.