In her first book,
, best-selling author and journalist Jennet Conant told the mostly forgotten story of Alfred Lee Loomis, a Wall Street financier and amateur scientist who converted a New York mansion into a secret laboratory filled with many of the greatest scientists of the 1920s.
In her newest book,
109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos
, released this month by Simon and Schuster, Conant revisits another secret science project: Los Alamos National Laboratory.
109 East Palace
tells the story of The Manhattan Project through the eyes of Dorothy McKibbin, a young woman who came to Santa
Fe to recover from tuberculosis and ended up as the main gatekeeper at
109 East Palace-the Santa Fe clearinghouse for the secret bomb work occurring up the hill. The story had particular significance for Conant, whose grandfather, James B Conant, was one of the main administrators of The Manhattan Project.
SFR interviewed Conant by telephone from New York about her newest work, and presents a chapter excerpt (in SFR's print edition only) from
109 East Palace
in advance of her readings and signings in northern New Mexico this month.
Did you see 109 East Palace
as the sequel or companion book to
Sure I did. At the end of
, all those physicists are starting to disappear under assumed names and go out on trains to New Mexico, and I think I knew as I ended the book I was going to go on that journey, and see what happened next, because it was too tempting having gone so far with them. And because so much of my grandfather's story was about Los Alamos and I had heard those stories so much growing up that I had to go myself to Los Alamos.
You say in your book's preface that Los Alamos was the chief morality tale of your childhood. Can you elaborate on that?
The morality was that it was a double-edged sword. As much as my grandfather was a hero, and I viewed him as one of the scientists who brought our country through
World War II and helped end the war quickly and
thought of him as a great man-as many people did-I also went to Hiroshima when I was about 11. I went through the ruins and saw the museum and the harrowing documentary they have there of the aftermath, and that documentary and museum really represent the bombing of Hiroshima as a holocaust, so I saw it also from another point of view. And I understood very
clearly that while my grandfather saw it as a wholly justified act, that there was always a certain moral ambivalence to taking 10,000 civilian lives even though it was in a calculation he thought would save many, many more. But it was a desperately hard decision and as he got older he often worried about it, the verdict of history and how what they had done would be interpreted. He never directly expressed doubt about that original decision, but he had many misgivings about the Nagasaki bomb and what happened afterwards with nuclear proliferation.
You chose Dorothy McKibbin, Oppenheimer's assistant, as the viewpoint for this book. Was it difficult to understand her?
Not really in the sense that she was a pretty forward thinking woman for her time, raised in a sophisticated well-to-do Kansas City household. She had gone to Smith, she was a bright, unusually modern woman who struck off on her own with her little boy to live in Santa Fe, which was an unusual thing to do. She was widowed at a young age. It was very easy to understand that she would fall for Oppenheimer, and it was wartime and people were really inspired by patriotism to work for the country, for war-related projects, so that was understandable to me. What I found amazing was that it was a very brave thing to do, to run that office, more or less on her own and live that double life for 27 months, not telling her family or friends and protecting their secrecy.
There's an interesting narrative here about men and women, the roles of the male scientists versus that of their wives.
[General Leslie R] Groves did not want women at Los Alamos. He saw it as a classified laboratory with men working around the clock. It was Oppenheimer who said 'These guys are not soldiers. You can't ask brilliant men of this caliber to leave their
labs and lives and also their families for an undetermined amount of time. We have to have women there and we might as well make use of them.' It was an incredibly
forward-looking notion; they trained these young women to do math, calculations, welding, and all kinds of tasks for the bomb laboratory.
Another really interesting sub-theme in the book is illness. Both Dorothy and Oppenheimer had bonded because they'd had respiratory illnesses that brought them to the Southwest.
It's funny, it's one of the things I found most fascinating. A lot had been written
about how Los Alamos had come to be, but in some ways it really came down to TB, because Oppenheimer was ill and sickly as a teenager and went out there and suffered tuberculosis and went back there to recuperate. And it was his love of the area that first inspired him to buy his ranch in the Pecos, that's what drew him to put the lab there. And it's such a strange coincidence
because Dorothy was drawn out because of TB in her early 20s. When you think about it it's why Santa Fe is such an eclectic town, all of those artists and painters at the turn of the century went there to recuperate, so it was part of the culture.
The topic of secrecy at Los Alamos is both familiar and loaded. Last year the lab closed for a month because of supposed security breaches, lost classified discs that turned out, they said, not to have even existed. Is secrecy at Los Alamos a narrative that won't change?
I think those Manhattan Project laboratories have a little bit lost their way, which is a pity. Obviously its heyday was when it had this absolute purpose and
war was over they had to redefine themselves and in some ways they did that successfully. But you have to keep redefining to make the work important and relevant and keep your staff focused. I'm not sure our national labs, whether it's Livermore or Los Alamos, have done that. And clearly they have not been that successful in doing that when you think that the great hope for nuclear power was that, in addition to it being a weapon, it would prove to be a source of
clean abundant power-we have a lot to do to make it a safe source of power and deal with the waste and byproducts.
At one point in your book, after Nagasaki, Laura Fermi reflects that the isolation of Los Alamos might have helped foster the scientists' lack of realization about the consequences in the real world of the science they were creating.
It's the ivory tower syndrome. I thought the point she made was very interesting-scientists were ivory
tower creatures anyway, they did science 24 hours a day and were very focused beings anyway. Then you took them to Los
Alamos which was a very cloistered world, they really didn't think about the consequences.
One could argue they couldn't afford to, they just had to do their duty. That really did work against them when they realized what had happened with the weapon. The argument that physicists peak early and have to
be that focused is valid, but I think the lesson of Los Alamos and World War II is that scientists can't afford to be that cut off, they can't afford to be that trusting that they just hand over their inventions to governments and the military.
I read your article on the death of Philip Morrison, in which you referred to him as a citizen scientist and discussed the legacy of Oppenheimer's life, being, in part, fear among scientists to speak out.
Well my grandfather's biggest regret-and I know Phil Morrison felt this way-was that they did their duty in creating the bomb, but they felt terrible remorse
that they handed it over unquestioning and abdicated their responsibility for pushing for international control. And, as he got older, Oppenheimer felt this way, certainly
Niels Bohr did too. They felt the scientists had to speak out, to be active and not go back to their laboratories and not hide their heads in the sand and push for what they knew to be right. Now the pity is, perhaps because of the fallout of Oppenhiemers' own hearing and repressive politics, scientists became depoliticized. Now, when we're at war over weapons of mass destruction, and hearing either Iran has it or North Korea has it, all this saber rattling, we need our scientists to speak out again…there's sort of a deafening silence at the moment.