The Manhattan Project is the name of an infamous research project carried out during the second World War. It led to the creation of the atomic bomb and is an important part of scientific history. The advent of nuclear weaponry and the subsequent fear of a war involving such weapons is a frightening thought. To this day, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain the only use of atomic bombs in war.
The Manhattan Project marked the beginning of the atomic age. Many prominent people in the field of science worked on the field as administrators and scientists. Among the long list of people that worked on the project were Robert J. Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Richard Tolman, Arthur Compton, Niels Bohr, and many more.
One such prominent figure who worked on the Manhattan Project was Richard Feynman, who worked on Hans Bethe’s theoretical physics division at the secret Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico, as well as on ensuring Uranium safety practices at the Oak Ridge facility in the state of Tennessee. As a junior physicist, Feynman did not play a central role in the Manhattan Project and was more revered for his later accomplishments in physics; for example, his work on quantum electrodynamics, which earned him his Nobel Prize, and the eponymous Feynman diagrams. Even so, his involvement with the Manhattan Project remains a major part of his scientific career. It had a lasting effect on both Feynman’s career and the history of science in general. Even today, it remains a point of contention, leaving an extensive legacy chock-full of dilemmas regarding the creation of the deadliest weapon known to man. The Manhattan Project might have brought about great advancements in our understanding of physics but questions about whether it can be justified will always continue.
Given the occasion 103rd anniversary of his birth, the following article looks at the Manhattan Project with a close focus on Richard Feynman’s role in what was arguably one of the most significant scientific undertakings of the twentieth century.
In 1938, German scientists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann discovered nuclear fission. A few months later, in a letter penned by Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard to then president Franklin D. Roosevelt, concerns were raised about the possibility of Germany attempting to use nuclear fission as a weapon in the emerging war. Roosevelt responded quickly and initially formed a committee known as the Uranium committee. Their job was to determine whether such a weapon was feasible at all. No major breakthroughs occurred until the committee’s UK equivalent, the MAUD committee, determined that an atomic bomb was indeed possible in 1941.
Consequently, the US government restructured its atomic research, which eventually resulted in the formal creation of the Manhattan Project on August 13th, 1942 after about four years of preliminary research by other labs in the US and abroad.
WHAT WAS THE MANHATTAN PROJECT?
The Manhattan Project was a research and development project during the second World War whose objective was to develop an atomic bomb before Nazi Germany. It was a collaboration between the US Government and the industrial and scientific sectors within the country.
While the initial offices of the project were located in Manhattan, hence the name, the project headquarters were soon moved to Washington DC and numerous project sites opened up across the country. The project was headed by General R. Leslie Groves with Robert J. Oppenheimer, a prominent theoretical physicist from the University of California, Berkeley, as the scientific project director. In particular, the top secret Los Alamos laboratory was where the actual construction of the atomic bomb was being planned out. This facility is also the one where Richard Feynman worked on the project.
INVOLVEMENT OF RICHARD FEYNMAN
Richard Feynman joined the Manhattan Project as a junior physicist at age 24, not long after he finished his Ph.D. at Princeton University. He was recruited by Robert Wilson, who was working on the separation of the Uranium isotopes. Initially, he worked for the atomic bomb project at Princeton. He went on to work at the Laboratory at Los Alamos in 1943, the existence of which was a secret at the time. Feynman also worked with the Oak Ridge facility to assist with enforcing better safety practices at the facility, where the required Uranium isotope for the bomb was being separated and stored.
Richard Feynman was present at the first detonation of the atomic bomb on July 16th, 1945. The detonation, codenamed Trinity, took place near Alamogordo in New Mexico. Feynman watched the explosion about twenty miles away from the detonation site. He chose to not wear the dark glasses that were passed out during the detonation. Instead, he watched it from behind a truck windshield as the glass would shield his eyes from the damaging ultraviolet radiation produced from the blast. Feynman described the detonation as a ‘tremendous flash’. He initially experienced happiness after the successful detonation, but later felt anxious about the weapon he and his colleagues had produced.
Like many people involved with the Manhattan project, Feynman stated that he joined the Manhattan project because of the fear that Germany, under Hitler, would develop a nuclear weapon before they would. Although regretting the fact that he didn’t reconsider the work he did after Germany had been defeated, he felt that his initial reasons for joining the Manhattan Project justified his involvement. His post-war comments on the Manhattan project all echoed the same sentiments. In his book, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”, he recalls that he ‘felt very strongly’ after he returned to his normal life. He goes on to say that ‘fortunately’, atomic bombs had been useless for ‘almost forty years’ at the time. Feynman did not generally comment on his opinions on the ethical dilemmas arising as the result of the atomic Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing.
As previously mentioned, Richard Feynman worked in the theoretical division headed by Hans Bethe at the Los Alamos Laboratory, also called Project Y. Los Alamos was where plans were being made for the actual construction of an atomic bomb. As a theoretical physicist, Feynman worked on calculating figures such as the energy released from the detonation of the bomb. Along with Bethe, Feynman produced a formula used to determine the energy yield of a nuclear explosive known as the Bethe-Feynman Formula.
Feynman also worked extensively on the computing efforts of the project, the need for which arose due to the sheer amounts of numerical calculation he and his coworkers were required to carry out for the project.
The plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee was responsible for the processing of raw Uranium ore for the separation of the Uranium-235 isotope, which was to be used in the atomic bomb, from Uranium-238. It was also where the U-235 was to be stored. Safety concerns arose around the handling of the purified form of the isotope, which could potentially result in massive radioactive explosions. Since the people working at Oak Ridge were largely unaware of what the Uranium was going to be used for, they did not have appropriate safety measures in place.
Two teams at Los Alamos began working on determining how much Uranium could be stored in one place, in the form of either water solutions or dry powder, before an explosion occurred. The latter of the two methods was worked on by Richard Feynman’s team. When the calculations were done, Feynman was sent to Oak Ridge to explain the safety concerns regarding the plant. Engineers at the plant drew up revised designs for the plant, which were reviewed by Feynman on completion. He continued to periodically work with the Oak Ridge facility in order to ensure that proper safety measures were in place.
LEGACY OF THE MANHATTAN PROJECT
The second World War officially came to an end after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Following the bombings, Japan surrendered, resulting in a victory for the Allied forces. The tragic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed hundreds of thousands of people and is, to this day, the only use of nuclear weaponry in war.
The Manhattan Project was a highly significant part of scientific history, but it unleashed something truly horrifying on the world. Even today, three quarters of a century after the atomic bomb was first detonated, debates continue on whether atomic bombs should ever have been created. After the war, the Manhattan Project sparked the formation of a number of similar nuclear projects across the globe. Most notably, it sparked the nuclear arms race during the Cold War between the USA and the former USSR.
Owing to his pacifist tendencies, Albert Einstein did not play a role in the Manhattan Project. Nevertheless, he deeply regretted signing the letter to President Roosevelt that arguably sparked the creation of the atomic bomb. He spoke out against nuclear warfare during the arms race taking place as the result of the Cold War. A few months after his death in 1955, a manifesto drafted by Einstein and Bertrand Russel, known as the Russel-Einstein Manifesto, was issued, warning the public of the dangers posed by the nuclear arms race. It was signed by eleven people in total, including Einstein and Russel.
The use of radioactive material has had lasting environmental impacts and clean-up efforts at Manhattan Projects sites such as Hanford and Oak Ridge continue to this day.
It must be said that the work done during the Manhattan Project has also allowed for peaceful advancements, such as nuclear energy, the efficiency of which promises to revolutionize the way we consume energy.
FEYNMAN AFTER THE WAR
Feynman left the Manhattan Project soon after the war, although research continued for a few years after. Since he was no longer working on the Manhattan Project, he was no longer exempt from the draft. Nevertheless, he received a 4F deferral from the draft on account of being declared psychiatrically unfit and continued with his teaching position at Cornell University. He later worked at the California Institute of Technology, which is where he conducted his groundbreaking work on quantum electrodynamics, for which he went on to win the Nobel Prize along with his colleagues Julian Schwinger and Shinichiro Tomonaga. He also researched the superfluidity of Helium. Following the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, he was part of the Rogers Commission, which investigated the cause behind the incident.
Feynman died as a result of cancer in early 1988. He was revered in his field and became one of the best-known theoretical physicists of his time. His career was decorated with numerous achievements and has cemented his place as one of the greatest people in physics.
Despite its complex legacy, the Manhattan Project remains a turning point, marking the beginning of the atomic age. It has brought about the creation of technology that could be both our saviour and destructor.
The Manhattan Project happened at the beginning of Richard Feynman’s career. He would eventually go on to revolutionize the field of physics in other ways. His scientific career is a long and fascinating one, that will certainly be remembered for centuries.
- “The Manhattan Project.” 2017. Atomic Heritage Foundation. Atomic Heritage Foundation. May 12, 2017. https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/manhattan-project.
- “Richard Feynman.” 2019. Atomic Heritage Foundation. 2019. https://www.atomicheritage.org/profile/richard-feynman.
- “Manhattan Project National Historical Park.” 2014. Www.lanl.gov. August 18, 2014. https://www.lanl.gov/museum/manhattan-project/.
- Gleick, James. 2019. “Richard Feynman | Biography & Facts.” In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Richard-Feynman.
- Feynman, Richard P, and Ralph Leighton. (1985) 1992. “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” : Adventures of a Curious Character. Edited by Edward Hutchings. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.