Out West Vacation 2010: Los Alamos

Vacation Journal continues:

After leaving Santa Fe, we drove to Los Alamos. I wasn’t real excited by this – all I knew was that this was the site of some scientific discoveries, and I was thinking it might be similar to the bit-too-cerebral Lowell Observatory for my tastes.

Los Alamos New MexicoHappily, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Los Alamos was really fascinating! Here we are, approaching it, high on a hill/mountain.

Once there, we went to a museum which told us the story of the place.

Los Alamos New Mexico Bradbury MuseumThe museum had two films. The first told about the current mission of Los Alamos:  to protect the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons. Apparently this is a difficult task, since because of current laws those weapons can’t be tested.

The second film was the one that really captured my interest, and that one was about Los Alamos’ history. Here are the highlights, as best I remember. I apologize for any mistakes.

Los Alamos was originally a remote, pretty deserted place. There was a school here called the Ranch School in the first part of the 20th century. Apparently, this school was a place where the wealthy would send their thin, unathletic boys to toughen them up. It sounded like a pretty rigorous place (I kept thinking of Gordonstoun, the spartan school where Prince Charles was sent and he hated it).

But in the early ’40s, the US Government was in a big hurry to develop nuclear weapons. WW II was going on, and we needed to develop the weapons before the other countries did. But where could the greatest minds work on this in secret?

The government came up with the perfect location:  Los Alamos. It was remote, yet scenic enough to satisfy the “bunch of prima donnas” they hoped to attract. In 1942, the government told Ranch School that they would be needing the school and basically the whole town for a special project. The school closed, and hundreds/thousands? of brilliant scientists and their families moved to Los Alamos.

Los Alamos New Mexico Ranch SchoolRanch School – many of its buildings are still standing, some as museums.

There, for the next 18 months, they worked around the clock to develop nuclear weapons. Even their wives and families did not know what they were working on; neither did the teachers hired to teach the kids there or anyone else. The location was secret and all addresses were simply “PO Box 1663, Santa Fe NM.” Babies born there had Box 1663 listed as their birth location. Los Alamos was known as Project Y, and the nuclear project was called the Manhattan Project.

July 16, 1945, the scientists there conducted Trinity, the first test of the bomb they had developed. Less than a month later, bombs developed there were used by the US in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Later, many of scientists who had worked on the bombs regretted it.

So interesting – I definitely want to read some books on Los Alamos during that period. Can you imagine being asked to move someplace for some type of secret project, maybe even one you didn’t know the purpose of? What if you weren’t allowed to tell relatives exactly where you were living?

Today, Los Alamos looks like a quiet little town. We had a fun time eating bagels outside a bagel shop in a strip mall there.

And we were off to our next destination …

leaving Los Alamos New Mexico

6 thoughts on “Out West Vacation 2010: Los Alamos

  1. This kinda puts me to mind of a conversation I had recently with the speech teacher at Jill’s new school. She has one son and he is in the air force and works as a spy. He speaks Persian and listens in on conversations in that language. He cannot tell her where he is.
    Then I talked to another of her fellow teachers and she has two sons in the military now. I got the idea this second teacher’s sons think the mission in Afghanistan is fairly hopeless. . .
    The above is somewhat off your interesting tale, but what they told me was fascinating, too. They are two mothers who care a lot about their sons, who are all three laying down their lives so we can go on our merry way. THANK YOU MILITARY MEN/WOMEN!

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