Podcast: Manh(a)ttan Brings Nuclear Physics to Primetime

This fall, a new primetime drama appeared on the television network WGN America, featuring scientists at Los Alamos working tirelessly–desperately, even–to develop nuclear weapons during World War II, all while maintaining utmost secrecy. Manhattan draws on the rich underlying history of its namesake, the Manhattan Project, but steers clear of documentary tendencies. Whereas the premise of the show and several key figures are largely based on their real-life counterparts, the main cast is populated by fictional characters, whose personal and scientific struggles acquaint us with the broader themes of privacy, government surveillance, and trust. Today on the podcast, we discuss how Manhattan brings nuclear physics to primetime TV, and what’s gained or lost along the way.

A replica of the Fat Man bomb detonated over Nagasaki during WWII.
Image Credit: US Department of Defense

Jennifer Ouellette, science writer and former director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, is impressed with Manhattan’s creative and dramatic storyline, and notes that the on-screen science, vetted by several technical consultants, is not only presented accurately, but also motivates much of the narrative and character development. While she acknowledges that the central conflict of the first season–a rivalry between two different designs for the atomic bomb–was magnified for dramatic purposes, Ouellette maintains that it makes for “more powerful storytelling, and there’s always going to be that tradeoff.” In reality, both bomb designs, the gun-type Thin Man and the implosion model, were developed into working weapons, and one of each type, Little Boy and Fat Man, were dropped on Japan in 1945.

Although she recognizes that Manhattan portrays a fictional version of events, Executive Director of the Los Alamos Historical Society Heather McClenahan isn’t happy with all aspects of the dramatization. For one thing, the series was filmed in a dry, dusty region south of Santa Fe, whereas Oppenheimer specifically chose a mountainous location for its inspirational views. The depiction of the Manhattan Project director himself has been another disappointment. The Oppenheimer of Manhattan is cold and detached, unlike the competent, hands-on leader beloved by the Los Alamos community.

Despite these meanders from historical accuracy, Manhattan has been good for business, sparking a wave of curiosity in the real Manhattan Project and boosting Los Alamos tourism almost immediately. It also showcases the human aspects of science as a process, and Ouellette is impressed with the show’s diverse cast of complex characters. Manhattan’s producers do their best to balance science, history, and storytelling. Do they succeed? With a second season in the works, the outlook is good so far, but we’ll have to wait and see what happens next.

You can catch up with all of Jennifer Ouellette’s episode recaps on her blog, Cocktail Party Physics, and check out her Q&A with Manhattan creator Sam Shaw and executive producer Dusty Thomason.

The Los Alamos Historical Society’s weekly discussion groups based on each episode are summarized on the society’s blog.

Here are two highly recommended books from the Los Alamos Historical Society: Standing by and Making Do: Women of Wartime Los Alamos, and Inside Box 1663.

To learn more about the Manhattan Project and nuclear weapons development, check out Alex Wellerstein’s comprehensive blog, Nuclear Secrecy.

-Podcast and post by Meg Rosenburg.

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