Last month saw the 70th anniversary of the Trinity Test — the first detonation of a nuclear weapon. The event took place in the desert near New Mexico's Los Alamos Laboratory, and is the subject of WGN America's Manhattan second season.
A TV show set in the 1940s that involves a lot of physics needs experts in both history and science to make things not only look right, but also be accurate — down to details like equations written on chalkboards in the background of scenes.
Fortunately, Manhattan has two individuals who know their stuff on board: historical consultant Alex Wellerstein and science consultant David Saltzberg.
In addition to being an assistant professor of science and technology studies at New Jersey's Stevens Institute of Technology, Wellerstein is an expert in the history of nuclear weapons, with a specific interest in policies involving nuclear secrets. He even has a blog on the subject and has created an online nuclear weapons simulator.
Saltzberg is a professor of physics and astronomy at UCLA and once worked with the Fermilab in Chicago, where he helped measure the mass of the W boson, contributing to the discovery of the top quark. He's also worked with CERN and together with his students, he currently contributes to work involving the Large Hadron Collider.
Both Saltzberg and Wellerstein check scripts and meet with the writers of Manhattan to make sure that everything about the series is as accurate as possible. They also work with production designer Ruth Ammon to get the look and feel of the series right.
In an interview with T-Lounge, Saltzberg and Wellerstein discussed their jobs, as well as the science of the Trinity Test and the whole Manhattan Project.
One of the challenges of working with physics for a show based in the 1940s is that it's has come a long way since then. With Saltzberg also working on The Big Bang Theory and dealing with the concepts of modern particle physics, getting the older ideas of physics right on Manhattan can be difficult.
"What's different about consulting for a show that takes place in contemporary times vs. the 1940s is that it's not just having to get the physics right — you can't put in any physics from 1952, or it would be wrong," Saltzberg said.
"And an example of that was something that I missed – and that's how I learned I had to pay attention – someone used the word 'black hole' in their dialogue. And that wasn't coined until the 1960s. Luckily, I think one of the actors caught it, and then after I heard about that, I was on guard. But I hadn't even thought that was a problem to watch out for until then."
Of course, modern physics wouldn't exist as such without the discoveries made during the Manhattan Project.
"It's interesting because of the work I do on the Large Hadron Collider as a particle physicist: we are all direct intellectual descendants of what was happening here on the Manhattan Project," Saltzberg explained. "So particle physics grew out of nuclear physics. A lot of the names are familiar and we know the work that they did."
One of the most well-known names on the Manhattan Project is J. Robert Oppenheimer — the man often referred to as "the father of the atomic bomb." Oppenheimer served as director of the project's Los Alamos Laboratory, where one of his duties was overseeing the Trinity Test.
But how do you depict such a famous historical figure and get it right?
According to Wellerstein, "It can be a little tricky. Because aside from the writing – I can say whether this person would never have said that, or 'this is not the right attitude, they wouldn't have been this way' – there's also the performance, and the performance is a very personal aspect of the actors."
As a historian, Wellerstein has had to accept that the fictional depiction of the character is like a parallel universe, and in this particular universe, Oppenheimer isn't as friendly as we've seen in other depictions of him, but more of a "chilly, unempathetic figure."
He nevertheless likes this depiction of Oppenheimer, though.
"In other fictional depictions of Oppenheimer, he's often depicted as an everyman. He was anything but an everyman. I don't want people thinking that Robert Oppenheimer would be their best friend — he would not. And I appreciate that this Robert Oppenheimer is a very good antidote to the more common Oppenheimer depictions where he's just a really nice, saintly guy — which he was not."
One thing Wellerstein points out is that the series doesn't use Oppenheimer as a main character — which is a good way to focus on what's going on with the other characters.
One of those other characters is Frank Winter: on the show, it's Winter who discovers that the secret of the atomic bomb is implosion.
"The idea of implosion is that you're going to take some metal and compress it symmetrically," Saltzberg said. "And I think Deak Parsons, who was a military man and a very important person to the project, said it best. He said it's like squeezing a can of beer symmetrically and none of the liquid comes out."
In the series, however, the idea of implosion is met with resistance. This wasn't the case in the real Manhattan Project, but according to Saltzberg, it did take some time for the concept of implosion to catch on.
"Everyone thought it was promising and they allowed it to stay alive as a little bit of an R&D project, but it was not the main show until they realized they had this terrible problem with the wrong kind of plutonium in what they were making, and only implosion could fix it."
We actually see this problem arise in Season 1 of Manhattan, but as Saltzberg points out, there's a resolution.
"This is probably one of the hardest problems that had to be solved in the 20th century, and it was solved very quickly," he said.
A common misconception about the Manhattan Project is the idea that it was solely helmed by men. Other fictional depictions of Los Alamos have either shown only men working, or women just as secretaries and the like.
"That isn't true, and what I really like about Manhattan is – both for narrative reasons and because it's actually true – there were women scientists," Wellerstein said. "There were women chemists. There were women physicists. There were women mathematicians. They were doing a lot of the same things that the men were — they just didn't get the glory later because the 1940s was less interested in women scientists than they were in these famous male scientists."
Wellerstein points out that some of the people working at Los Alamos were husband-and-wife teams, with both having technical expertise. He shared one of his favorite accounts from his research about the project:
"There was a woman scientist on the project and she was pregnant. During the test of the first atomic explosion, she was in a nearby town – her and her husband – with a Geiger counter. And their job – because she couldn't do too much because she wasn't too mobile – was to sit there and listen to the clicks of the counter and if it got above a certain number of clicks, they had to get on the phone and say, 'we better evacuate this town.'"
Women filled other vital roles on the project, too.
"These are very important roles that are being filled by women in this, but very few people, even amongst historians, are quite aware of how many women were working on it," Wellerstein said, recommending that anyone interested in the subject read a book called "Their Day in the Sun: Women of the Manhattan Project."
"Women played very, very key roles and, unfortunately, because of the way people like to tell these stories about science in the 1940s, they get written out of the story," he concluded.
Season 2 of Manhattan premieres on October 13.