MIT and the Atomic Bomb: Tracing the Manhattan Project

by Nancy DuVergne Smith on May 20, 2010 · 2 comments

in Energy, Learning, Remember When...

The Manhattan Project is a Rorschach test of sorts. Was it a Herculean intellectual effort to develop the science and technology of the atom bomb to end WWII with less loss of life? Did it create weapons of such magnitude that they have tilted international politics ever since? Are nuclear technologies—fission and fusion—key to a carbon-free energy future? Or are these debates still going on?

An MIT Alumni Travel Program trip to Manhattan Project sites in New Mexico—starting today—is tracing that complex lineage and probing some of the big questions. UPenn Professor of Physics Gino Segre PhD ’63 will lecture.I’m going along as an MIT host on the five-day trip and I’ll be posting updates May 24 and 28 on Slice of MIT.  Join us virtually!

Entry to a Manhattan Project site.

Entry to Los Alamos in the ’40s.

Here’s a bit of the MIT connection:

Vannevar Bush EGD ’16, an MIT faculty member, public intellectual, and founder of the company that became Raytheon, was a central figure in the Manhattan Project. In essence, he was the one who briefed Presidents Roosevelt and Truman and led the organization that managed the Manhattan Project. His influential essay about the aftermath and emerging technologies appeared in the 1945 Atlantic Monthly article, “As We May Think.” His vision of combining government, academia, and industry resources to accomplish great things made the Manhattan Project successful—and also influenced America’s  post-war economic surge.

Questions raged decades later. Nine MIT faculty members who worked on the Manhattan Project shared their views in the 1985 Compton lecture titled 40 Years After: MIT, Los Alamos, and the Bomb. Institute Professor Victor K. Weisskopf opened the talk: “The scientists at Los Alamos believed that such powerful weapons would make war impossible. We were naïve. We meant well. But at this moment in history, I do believe we are on a collision course.” Read the April 29, 1985, article in The Tech.

Alumni are visiting a transformed Los Alamos National Lab.

Alumni are visiting a transformed Los Alamos site.

Today the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) has been called a contemporary Manhattan Project by news media because so much faculty brainpower is concentrating on an issue of global importance. Check out an MITEI white paper on the Future of Nuclear Power and a panel on options for the disposal of spent nuclear fuel. And in January, MITEI Director Ernie Moniz was named to the Department of Energy’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.

MIT Physics Professor Emeritus Aron Bernstein lectured on the science and history of nuclear weapons during IAP 2009. He notes that many Manhattan Project scientists felt the atomic bomb should be used as a demonstration only and he described nuclear disarmament activities at MIT.

Just this month, Italy and Russia announced they will build the Ignitor, an MIT-designed fusion reactor expected to be the first to achieve ignition (when fusion  becomes self-sustaining), a big step toward harnessing the nearly limitless, clean power of fusion.

Check the itinerary, Prof. Segre’s recent books, and other trip info about Entering the Atomic Age: The Manhattan Project. And join us for Slice updates about the MIT trip on Monday and Thursday.

Nancy DuVergne Smith, MIT Alumni Association Editorial Director

Update: Read the next post from the road Entering the Atomic Age and the visit to the Trinity site where the world’s first plutonium bomb was tested.

Read about new work in  MIT’s Nuclear Science and Engineering department including the 2009 update on the Future of Nuclear Power.

PS: Learn about upcoming trips with the MIT Alumni Travel Program.

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