Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Manhattan Project and the Atomic Bomb

In the 1930’s, chemists realized there was a tremendous amount of energy locked in the atomic nucleus, the only problem was accessing this energy.1 Subsequent discoveries, such as a breakthrough in nuclear fission technology by German chemists Hahn and Métier, opened the door for expansion into nuclear chemistry.1 However, the current state of affairs and constant conflict in the world quickly led to speculation about weaponizeing the technology. As the scientific community became both concerned and interested in the varied uses of nuclear technology, significant investments of time and money were made in the field, culminating with the creation of the atomic bomb as a result of the Manhattan project. The Manhattan Project was a significant scientific initiative to develop the first nuclear weapon. The project called for cooperation between the United States, UK, and Canada and represented a breakthrough in nuclear chemistry, one whose effects extend to present day.
The Manhattan Project was the first scientific endeavor that represented exploration into nuclear technology from a militaristic standpoint, and its origins lay in the conflict that had taken hold of almost every world power, World War II.  The project was first started out of fear that the Germans were working to develop nuclear weapons.2 Warnings of German advances in nuclear technology were first made in the Einstein-Szilard letter, written by leading German scientists Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard.1 They informed President Roosevelt that the Germans were nearing development of a powerful bomb of new nature and that they feared the German potential to use it. After witnessing the German invasion of Poland, Roosevelt decided to take action. On October 11, 1939, President Roosevelt created the Advisory Committee on Uranium that, after English advances demonstrated the feasibility of nuclear weapons and possible approaches, went to work and made significant scientific advances. Although government support was weak at first, the committee made unprecedented breakthroughs during 1940 and 1941, including potential pathways for enriching Uranium-235.1 However, as the war went on, foreign pressure and growing fear of German technological advancement forced Roosevelt to take a more direct approach. In December 1941, President Roosevelt authorized the formation of the Manhattan Engineer District of the Army Corps of Engineers (termed the “Manhattan Project”) to oversee the development of the atomic bomb.1 The Project officially began on September 23, 1942 and was centered at sites including Oakridge, Tennessee; Hanford, Washington; and Los Alamos New Mexico.3 High profile scientists such as Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, and Ernest Lawrence worked feverishly through the next two years and by Spring of 1945 preparations began in the pacific for use of the atomic bomb.4 The Manhattan Project, grown out of the Advisory committee on Uranium, was a representation of four years of labor that culminated in a test ready atomic weapon.
Robert Oppenheimer.9
Albert Einstein.7

Enrico Fermi.8


             On July 16, 1945, a teat device code named “Gadget” was detonated at the Alamogordo bombing range in New Mexico.1 The successful test of Gadget marked the first detonation of a nuclear weapon and served as a testament to the beginning of the nuclear age. Gadget and the two other atomic weapons created during the project were implosion-triggered devices based on nuclear fission.5 When the bomb’s outer casing of TNT was detonated, a shockwave was created to compress the core.5 The compression began the nuclear fission reaction and detonated the bomb.5 After President Truman (Roosevelt’s successor) received word of the successful test, he began to consider the atomic bomb a viable military option, one that he saw advantageous from a strategic standpoint. The surrender of Germany on May 8, 1945 shifted the focus to Japan and called up possibilities of a nuclear strike.1 Japan’s refusal to surrender prompted Truman to seriously consider using an atomic weapon on the country. After debating the possible implication and alternatives, including conventional warfare, Truman decided that the use of an atomic weapon would be in the best interest of the United States by avoiding prolonged conflict for the U.S. armed forces. On August 6, 1945, the first offensive atomic weapon was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.1 The first bomb was codenamed “Little boy” and consisted of conventional explosive shell and an inner core of Uranium-235. The estimated damage of the first atomic strike was devastating, however the Japanese still refused to surrender. The dismissal of unconditional surrender by Japan encouraged a second attack. Three days later, on August 9, 1945, an atomic bomb codenamed “Fat Man” was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan.1 “Fat Man” was a Plutonium-239 based bomb, similar to the test bomb “Gadget” but more advanced than the Uranium-235 based “Little Boy.” The second devastating strike proved to be too much for Japan and On August 14 Emperor Hirohito announced unconditional surrender. The use of the atomic bombs developed during the Manhattan Project remains one of the most controversial foreign policy decisions to this day.4

Test of Gadget.10

Associated Press video about the first atomic bomb in Hiroshima.11

            Though the Manhattan Project and its contribution to the development of atomic weapons did end World War II, the endeavor had many other significant scientific and political implications. Positive advancements of he Manhattan project can be observed throughout the late 1900’s. For example, it demonstrated the ability of talented scientists to make significant discoveries in limited periods of time, prompting further funding of scientific research such as space exploration.6 The project also presented nuclear power as a possible alternative energy, and pursuit of nuclear power continues into the modern age and is seen by some to be a viable six for the world’s energy crisis.6 Moreover, the use of the atomic bombs created during the Manhattan project are suspected to have saved the lives of thousands of members of the U.S. armed forces because the bombings alleviated the need for further armed conflict in Japan.6 However, there were multiple disadvantages to the project as well, the most devastating being the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Manhattan project is also credited with ushering in the atomic age and prompting development of large-scale weapons by multiple countries. This nuclear and atomic arms race spurred the cold war and nuclear proliferation continues to be a major concern in many parts of the world.6 The positive and negative effects of the Manhattan project are a testament to the major impacts of the project itself, and the ability of a scientific initiative to alter the course of world history
The Manhattan Project and the successive development of atomic weapons served to drastically alter multiple scientific fields while changing the scope of worldwide foreign relations. The long lasting impacts of the development can be seen in modern day and the controversy surrounding the project and use of atomic weapons will continue for years to come. Both the positive and negative impacts of the Manhattan project truly changed the trajectory of society and served to usher in the atomic age.

Works Cited:

1. Kinard, Frank W. “Manhattan Project.” Chemistry Explained-the Chemistry Encyclopedia. N.p., 2000. Web. 26 Mar. 2011. <‌Ma-Na/‌Manhattan-Project.html>.

2. “The Atomic Bomb and the Surrender of Japan.” How Stuff Works. Discovery, 27 Feb. 2008. Web. 26 Mar. 2011. <‌world-war-ii/‌the-atomic-bomb-and-the-surrender-of-japan.htm>.

3. “The Manhattan Project (And Before).” Nuclear Weapon Archive. N.p., 6 Aug. 2001. Web. 26 Mar. 2011. <‌Usa/‌Tests/‌index.html>.

4. “Manhattan Project.” Nuclear Nuclear age Peace Foundation, n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2011. <‌menu/‌key-issues/‌nuclear-weapons/‌history/‌pre-cold-war/‌manhattan-project/‌index.htm>.

5. Freudenrich, Craig, PhD, and John Fuller. “How Nuclear Bombs Work.” How Stuff Works. Discovery, n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2011. <‌nuclear-bomb5.htm>.

6. Norris, Robert S. “Lessons of the Manhattan Project.” National Resources Defense Council. National Academies’ Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy, 5 Sept. 2008. Web. 26 Mar. 2011. <‌nuclear/‌files/‌nuc_08100901A.pdf>.

Video/Picture Sources:

7. Karsh, Yousef. Albert Einstein. N.d. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2011. <‌Physics/‌Bios/‌AlbertEinstein.html>.

8. Enrico Fermi. N.d. Nobel Nobel Prize Foundation, n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2011. <‌nobel_prizes/‌physics/‌laureates/‌1938/‌fermi.html>.

9. J Robert Oppenheimer. 20th Century. San Francisco Chronicle. Web. 27 Mar. 2011. <‌cgi-bin/‌blogs/‌goldberg/‌detail?entry_id=38387>.

10. Trinity Atomic Bomb Test. YouTube. N.p., 26 Aug. 2006. Web. 26 Mar. 2011. <‌watch?v=FFZvCJYDme0&feature=player_embedded>.

11. U.S. Drops Atomic Bomb On Hiroshima, Japan - August 06, 1945. Associate Press. YouTube. Web. 27 Mar. 2011. <‌watch?v=N-OWTkXJUms>.