Before World War II, there was little U.S. government investment in science and research. Then along came the Manhattan Project — and everything changed.
The top-secret wartime project that produced the first atomic bombs served as a model for subsequent taxpayer-funded science research, leading to advances in the country’s space program and other initiatives, says Cameron Reed, the author of The History and Science of The Manhattan Project, a new book released this month by Springer Publishing.
“The cost in 1945 dollars for the Manhattan Project was $2 billion,” says Reed, an Alma College physics professor. “When you read through the documents, what impresses you is how the scientists and policy leaders accounted for every penny. Nothing was squandered. Adding 5 percent inflation every year for 75 years, the equivalent cost today would be $60 billion.”
Students of the Manhattan Project are surprised at the vastness of the project, says Reed.
“More than 100,000 people were involved,” he says. “It was not just a few guys sitting around the coffee pot figuring out how to make an atomic bomb. It was estimated, however, that only a few dozen in the top levels of government had a real sense of the whole project.”
Reed began writing his book two years ago, though his research has spanned much longer — a career — during which he has published numerous articles on topics related to both the history and science of nuclear weapons.
He describes his book as a “hybrid” of the history of the project with passages that explain the science behind the work. Early chapters focus on background discoveries related to radioactivity and nuclear fission. More descriptive chapters focus on the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing missions.
“I tried to delve deeper than some other books,” says Reed, who analyzed National Archives microfilms, research papers and technical journals. “It’s an undergraduate textbook with some appeal to a broader audience with a limited science background. Ultimately, I try to answer the question: Why did the scientists involved with the Manhattan Project do what they did?”
Reed, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Physics and a fellow of the American Physical Society, wrote his 450-page book while teaching at Alma College — a school where science is taught in a liberal arts environment.
“When I teach, I’m not just teaching physics,” he says. “This is the life that is out there. The story of the Manhattan Project has a liberal arts flavor to it. It involves political science, social science, ethics, economics, physics, chemistry, more.
“In my course about the Manhattan Project, I ask students at the end of class: If you had the options facing President Truman, ranging to both extremes, would you determine that using the bomb to end the war was a justified action or a moral abomination? Many students are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the project and the decisions that our leaders faced,” he says.
A Brief History
The development of atomic weapons began with the accidental discovery in 1938 that the element of uranium could be split — a process called fission that releases energy.
“A few people began to realize that if you gather enough of these elements in one place, it could start a chain reaction,” says Reed. “These people, including immigrant scientists fleeing from Germany, began to wonder about the potential of fission and wanted to warn the government. They wrote a letter to President Roosevelt, who formed the Uranium Committee to look into it.”
The government built three large factories in a remote location in Tennessee to purify the uranium. More than 50,000 people — most unaware of the true nature of their employment — worked in the factories. At the same time, it was discovered that the element plutonium could be used to create a chain reaction in the same way as uranium.
“Uranium is a naturally-occurring element,” says Reed. “But not so plutonium; you need to create it in a nuclear reactor. So the government acquired an area in the state of Washington and built reactors along the shores of the Columbia River and a village for the workers to synthesize plutonium.”
Both methods produced enough material by August 1945. Three bombs were made, two using plutonium and one using uranium. One was tested in New Mexico, while the other two were dropped, on Truman’s orders, on Japan, ultimately ending the war.
The legacy of the Manhattan Project is reflected in the current world stockpiles of nuclear weapons, says Reed. Since the end of World War II, more than 125,000 nuclear warheads have been developed.