They were told as little as possible.
Their orders were to go to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and report
for work at a classified Manhattan Project site, a location so covert it was
known to them only by the mysterious address: 109 East Palace. There, behind a
wrought-iron gate and narrow passageway just off the touristy old plaza, they
were greeted by Dorothy McKibbin, an attractive widow who was the least likely
person imaginable to run a front for a clandestine defense laboratory. They
stepped across her threshold into a parallel universe—the desert hideaway where
Robert Oppenheimer and a team of world-famous scientists raced to build the
first atomic bomb before Germany and bring World War II to an end.
Brilliant, handsome, extraordinarily charismatic, Oppenheimer
based his unprecedented scientific enterprise in the high reaches of the Sangre
de Cristo mountains, hoping that the land of enchantment would conceal and
inspire their bold mission. Oppenheimer was as arrogant as he was
inexperienced, and few believed the thirty-eight-year-old theoretical physicist
Jennet Conant captures all the exhilaration and drama of
those perilous twenty-seven months at Los Alamos, a secret city cut off from
the rest of society, ringed by barbed wire, where Oppenheimer and his young
recruits lived as virtual prisoners of the United States government. With her
dry humor and eye for detail, Conant chronicles the chaotic beginnings of
Oppenheimer’s by-the-seat-of-his-pants operation, where freshly minted
secretaries and worldly scientists had to contend with living conditions
straight out of pioneer days. Despite all the obstacles, Oppie managed to forge
a vibrant community at Los Alamos through the sheer force of his personality.
Dorothy, who fell for him at first sight, devoted herself to taking care of him
and his crew and supported him through the terrifying preparations for the test
explosion at Trinity and the harrowing aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Less than a decade later, Oppenheimer became the focus of
suspicion during the McCarthy witch hunts. When he and James B. Conant, one of
the top administrators of the Manhattan Project (and the author’s grandfather),
led the campaign against the hydrogen bomb, Oppenheimer’s past left-wing
sympathies were used against him, and he was found to be a security risk and
stripped of his clearance. Though Dorothy tried to help clear his name, she saw
the man she loved disgraced.
In this riveting and deeply moving account, drawing on a
wealth of research and interviews with close family and colleagues, Jennet
Conant reveals an exceptionally gifted and enigmatic man who served his country
at tremendous personal cost and whose singular achievement, and subsequent
undoing, is at the root of our present nuclear predicament. Download and start listening now!