The ninth installment of “Manhattan” takes a mysterious turn when Frank Winter and Charlie Isaacs, leaders of the two competing bomb design groups at Los Alamos, secretly decide to join forces in an all-out effort to tackle implosion.
Charlie, who discovered in the previous episode that the Thin Man plutonium bomb design he’s been working on will pre-detonate, now has the opportunity to take charge of the doomed program as Reed Akley’s deputy. Charlie decides to accept Akley’s offer—but with three conditions.
First, he wants to bolster compartmentalization, making information available on a strictly “need-to-know” basis. Second, he wants the group to re-check the calculations they’ve been working on for months. The third is that he wants to hire Helen Prins, formerly of Winter’s implosion team, as his own deputy.
What Akley doesn’t know, however, is that Charlie’s demands are all part of an elaborate plan to secretly divert the Akley group and its resources to the rival implosion design effort. Instead of re-checking the Thin Man design, Charlie directs his group to perform the complex calculations needed to get a shockwave that can compress a solid plutonium sphere into a critical mass.
Helen is initially furious at Frank for transferring her to Charlie’s group but calms down when Frank explains: “Thin Man has the resources, but it’s flawed. Implosion is the right model, but we have no manpower. You guys can do in a day what we can do in ten.”
With Charlie’s group handling the calculations, it is up to Frank to figure out a way to obtain enough detonators and TNT to test the design. He decides to pay a visit to the head of the Explosives Division, an eccentric Russian named Lazar who works alone on the outskirts of the Project. He refuses to give Frank any of his explosives, even after Frank offers him a bottle of vodka.
Lazar’s character is likely (and very loosely) based on George Kistiakowsky, a Ukrainian-American physical chemist who served as Chief of the National Defense Research Committee's Explosives Division. In January 1944, Laboratory Director J. Robert Oppenheimer convinced “Kisty” to join the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. As the director of the Explosives Division at Los Alamos, Kisty helped develop the complex explosive lenses needed to compress the plutonium sphere to achieve a critical mass.
While the rivalry between the two design groups in “Manhattan” adds an interesting level of tension to the show’s storyline, the real physicists at Los Alamos were encouraged to collaborate with one another to solve complex problems. As laboratory director, Oppenheimer convened weekly colloquia for division leaders and key staff to solve difficult problems with open brain-storming sessions.
“At the colloquiums, there were primarily speakers from different groups and divisions stating the projects that they were working on and the progress they were making and the lack of progress due to problems,” recalls Haskell Sheinberg, who had the privilege of attending several of these sessions. “The attitude of Oppenheimer was that you talked to anybody in the laboratory who could help you in your work,” says Sheinberg, “so there was a lot of interchange and interdisciplinary interactions with people.”
Just when it seems that Frank’s problems can’t get any worse, he is confronted by his mistress Paloma’s cousin, Javier, who threatens to reveal Frank’s affair to his wife, Liza, unless Frank gives him a truck for his farm. Franks agrees, exchanging his car for Lazar’s truck so that he can give it to Javier.
At the exchange, Javier wants to know one last thing before he will end the matter: What are they building on his people’s sacred land? Frank refuses to answer. Later in the episode, an Army spy meets with Javier to find out if Frank revealed any secret information about the Project.
The Army did in fact have a network of counterintelligence agents at Manhattan Project sites across the country monitoring employees who worked on the project. “Everybody was spied on,” recalls Vincent Whitehead, an Army intelligence agent in the Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) at Hanford. “I had my own network worked up, mostly women. Some of them were stenographers, or women who worked at the hotel. If I were curious about somebody at the hotel, I would ask the girl on the desk what she knew.”
As the end of the episode, Liza Winters is working late at the hospital. After the doctor leaves, Liza takes a Geiger counter from a locked cabinet and heads to the maternity ward. As she moves the Geiger counter over the newborn babies, the counter begins to make ominous ticking noises over one of the babies.
The show ends with lingering questions about what set off the Geiger counter. Did the baby ingest contaminated milk? The popular myths that the air, water and land of the Los Alamos laboratory were significantly contaminated by radioactivity seem to have infiltrated the plotline. We can only wait until next week to know where the story is going.
For more information about the history of the Manhattan Project, check out our online store, which includes “A Guide to the Manhattan Project in New Mexico” and our bestselling anthology, “The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians.”