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In Los Alamos, a bomb and a baby boom: Opening a long-closed door to a secret city

109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos, by Jennet Conant. Simon & Schuster. 432 pages. $26.95.

The 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki this year has unleashed a flurry of books about the Manhattan Project and some of its most colorful figures.

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But in 109 East Palace, Jennet Conant stakes out less-trafficked territory, producing an engaging portrait of life on the remote mesa that served as backdrop for the world's most audacious scientific enterprise. Located 35 miles northwest of Santa Fe, Los Alamos was the picturesque home of a rustic boys school until 1943, when military bulldozers transformed it almost overnight into a bustling secret city that was code-named Site Y.

Drawing on histories and memoirs, including previously unpublished accounts, Conant describes how the nearly 5,000 scientists and their families -- average age 24 -- who ultimately inhabited the secret enclave coped with being cut off from the outside world for the two-plus years it took to build the bomb.

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Described by one new resident as a cross between "an alpine resort and a mining camp," the thrown-together community started out as an ugly outpost of muddy unmarked streets and cramped pre-fab housing with paper-thin walls. Blackouts, spoiled food and water shortages were common. Residents frequently found algae, sediment and even worms emerging from their taps.

Steel fencing and barbed wire, meanwhile, gave Los Alamos the air of a scientific prison camp. Guards demanded passes to enter or leave. Mail and telephone calls were zealously monitored. Secrecy took its toll. Doctors coined a new term to describe the stress-related symptoms they began seeing: "Los Alamositis."

Many scientists blamed Gen. Leslie Groves, the Manhattan Project's military overseer, for their troubles. Ridiculed as a crusty fussbudget, Groves' attitude toward the scientists under his supervision was hardly more charitable.

"Here at great expense, the government has assembled the world's largest collection of crackpots. Take good care of them," Groves ordered Berkeley physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer soon after hiring the troubled genius to oversee the bomb-building effort at Los Alamos.

Some of Groves' nitpicking became legendary. When he overheard several Italian physicists, including the brilliant Enrico Fermi, chatting animatedly in their native tongue, Groves barked: Stop "speaking Hungarian!" He told Oppenheimer he expected English to be the only language spoken on the multi-national mesa.

Other aspects of Los Alamos life were comical in their absurdity.

With so many young couples and so few after-hours diversions, a senior military medical officer lamented in a memo to Groves that "one-fifth of the married women are now in some stage of pregnancy."

As their combined progeny threatened to overwhelm the mesa's free hospital and its small staff, Groves ordered Oppen-heimer to do something about the baby boom -- apparently unaware that his scientific director's own wife was pregnant.

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Conant, whose grandfather, former Harvard University president James B. Conant, was a key advisor to the Manhattan Project, packs her book with colorful, little-known details that bring the quotidian side of the bomb-building effort to life. But the book is not without its flaws.

Her explanations of the frenzied scientific effort fueling Los Alamos' growth are half-hearted. Only readers familiar with other A-bomb histories will likely have the slightest idea what she is talking about.

The other problem is that Conant chooses to tell her story primarily through the eyes of Dorothy McKibbin, a young widow hired by Oppenheimer to run the nondescript office at 109 East Palace in Santa Fe that served as the portal to the hilltop complex.

It's easy to see why Conant chose McKibbin. A motherly figure whose job included issuing security passes to newly arrived recruits and directing them up the treacherous switchbacks that led to the Hill, she laid eyes on just about everyone recruited for the project and forged a lifelong friendship with Oppenheimer.

But McKibbin's insights and observations, many of which Conant draws from an unpublished memoir, are frequently less interesting than those of other observers. As a result, her role in the Los Alamos story -- and in Oppenheimer's life -- ultimately feels unduly inflated.

Michael Stroh is a science writer at The Sun.


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