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Manh(a)ttan Recap: Assembling a Nuclear Family

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Jen-Luc Piquant was eagerly anticipating the premiere of the new series, Manh(a)ttan, on WGN America, a historic 13-episode (to start) drama set at Los Alamos in the early days of the Manhattan Project. We’re such huge fans of physics history, after all, and the World War II era is particularly rich fodder for both big and small screen. Series creator and executive producer Sam Shaw has said he wanted to write about war, terror, secrecy and national security, and the toll that can take on families. He initially envisioned a contemporary setting but then became fascinated by the birth of the atomic bomb — which ushered in “the birth of the military-industrial complex, the birth of the American security apparatus.”

It’s not an easy task to create drama and suspense when the history is so well known. Manh(a)ttan opts for a leisurely pace, letting the story unfold slowly. The pilot opens on July 2, 1943, 766 days before the bombing of Hiroshima. We see physicist Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) practicing midnight golf swings in the desert, in the midst of a wind storm, as the radio recites the names of the US soldiers killed that day overseas. Staring at a golf ball and thinking about its structure, he has an insight that could solve a knotty issue with the “Gadget” being designed at the fledgling Los Alamos National Laboratory — little more than a makeshift military outpost in these early days — and rushes back to base to test it out.

Specifically, it takes a year to manufacture the weapons-grade plutonium needed for the bomb. Winter’s insight comes from pondering what makes a golf ball fly: its dense, compacted core. And he hypothesizes that if one could super-compress the core of the bomb, that higher density would mean they would need less plutonium — and hence less time. Time is what young soldiers don’t have, after all. Reducing that time even by just a few days could save lives, in Winter’s mind.

Meanwhile, we meet Charlie (Ashley Zuckerman) and Abby (Rachel Brosnahan) Isaacs, a young Jewish married couple en route to Los Alamos. Charlie is another brilliant physicist, a recent PhD, lured to the project by the prospect of making his mark on science, while Abby just wishes he would accept a job offer from her father already, rather than dragging her and their young son out to the desert. Their first glimpse of the Los Alamos site does nothing to allay her concerns. As a worker tells Charlie, it’s just Post Office Box 1663: “No name, no street signs. Welcome to nowhere.”

Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) strolls down a boardwalk at the site of the Manhattan Project.

The pilot deftly sketches out the key conflicts at play. For instance, there are two teams with two different designs for the bomb, competing for director Robert Oppenheimer’s (Daniel London) approval, and lab leaders with vastly different personal styles. Ackley is dapper, clean-shaven, politically savvy, and the clear frontrunner in the game, compared to the stubbled, scruffy underdog, Winter. (Charlie Isaacs is quickly snapped up by Ackley.)

There is also conflict between the military officers and soldiers and the working scientists, further inflamed by wartime paranoia and the need for utmost secrecy. A colonel suspects someone in Winter’s lab is selling state secrets — an act of treason — although it’s more a case of a young Chinese scientist, Sid Liao (Eddie Shin) pocketing a couple of patent designs in hopes of selling them after the war is over. He has a sick child at home, with mounting medical expenses. Winter doesn’t immediately report Liao, which puts his good name in jeopardy.

The highly classified nature of the work — apparently even the vice president of the US doesn’t know its true purpose — means mail is monitored, living quarters are bugged, and the scientists can’t share any details about their work with their wives, straining some of those relationships.

The period detail in the series is exquisite, from the clothes, technology, and cars, to the rough-hewn outbuildings housing the scientists and their families — not to mention the restrictive class and gender roles. Local natives, several of whom don’t speak English, are bused in to act as household servants. Women are wives, or daughters, or secretaries, or “computers” — young women hired specifically to crunch numbers as needed for the busy scientists, persuaded to sometimes put in overtime in exchange for nylons (notoriously in short supply during World War II).

The cast of "Manh(A)ttan."

There are exceptions: Winter’s lab has one female scientist, and his wife Liza (the luminous Olivia Williams) is also a scientist, as we learn when she complains of the poor quality of the produce available on-site. The military officer in charge dismisses it as poor soil and snottily tells her that while her husband might be a brilliant scientist, that ring on her finger doesn’t make her an expert in produce. Which is when Winter appears and says, “No, but a PhD in botany does.” Oh snap!

Her expertise, I suspect, will prove relevant later on. She’s already noted the presence of purple chrysanthemums (they’re supposed to be white), which has her wondering about just what’s going on with that soil.  It also inspires a lovely speech, as tension grows with her secretive-yet-clearly-tormented husband, in which she weaves a metaphor for their marriage using a rare purple orchid she studied, that can thrive in almost any conditions — provided it has its partner, another organism that attaches to its root, thereby forming its own little ecosystem. (Her more literal-minded husband kind of misses the point.)

The pilot mostly hints at the dangerous nature of the research; the realities of radiation poisoning will likely feature prominently in subsequent episodes. During a medical checkup for his nightmares, Winter is screened by a Geiger counter and given a clean pass. Liao gets drunk at the Fourth of July Party and has to be forcibly removed, ranting about how those with families could lie to their wives and let their children go to school “right next to it.” And Charlie Isaacs mysteriously vomits mid-calculation, and later gets a nose bleed.

There’s plenty of foreshadowing of the inevitable human toll of a detonated nuclear bomb as well. It’s the source of Winter’s nightmares, and young Charlie also wrestles with his conscience. In one scene, he tells Winter the story of the Golem: a rabbi in Prague created the creature from soil and breathed life into it so it could serve as a protector of the Jewish people in that city. But he couldn’t control his creation. First the Golem killed their enemies, and then it turned on the Jews themselves. “And how many Jews do you think are left in Prague today?” Winter counters. That’s the ethical quandary. Young men are dying daily on the battlefield, with no end in sight, not to mention the systemic execution of the Jewish population throughout Europe. Whoever wins the race to build an atomic bomb wins the war, with devastating consequences.

As for the science, it’s mostly pretty good, although there is the occasional stumble. For instance, Charlie is a bit put out that Winter rejected his paper, “A New Approach to Nuclear Cosmology,” during peer review. When confronted, Winter shrugs and tells him the approach wasn’t new. But the field of nuclear cosmology didn’t exist until the 1950s — Charlie’s approach would have been new, indeed, a good decade ahead of his time. Seriously, though, that’s a really minor nitpick; it doesn’t detract from the scene at all. On the whole, Manh(a)ttan strikes a good balance between ensuring sufficient scientific accuracy to make this world believable, and allowing enough leeway for dramatic license.

By episode’s end, Oppenheimer has decided to give the bomb design to Ackley (a design code-named “Thin Man” — which really was a project at Los Alamos, although it was later abandoned. (The two famous bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were dubbed “Fat Man” and “Little Boy.”) Winter’s lab has been stripped and his team dispersed to other assignments around the country. Poor drunken Liao has been summarily kidnapped and held for interrogation. We can assume it will not be pleasant. To placate Abby, who is distraught that Charlie has committed to Los Alamos for the duration of the war, he tells her about the top-secret “Gadget” — except he might have deliberately misled her. When Abby lets slip to the other wives that she knows something about her husband’s work, she tells them it’s a cutting-edge radar system.

Did Charlie tell Abby the true nature of his research? What’s the deal with that nose bleed? Will Oppenheimer realize his error in choosing Ackley’s design over Winter’s? What will happen to Liao, and the rest of Winter’s band of underdogs? Will the Winters work out their issues, or will Frank succumb to the attractions of their housekeeper? I guess I’ll just have to tune in next week to find out.

Jennifer Ouellette About the Author: Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer who loves to indulge her inner geek by finding quirky connections between physics, popular culture, and the world at large. Follow on Twitter @JenLucPiquant.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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