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Manh(a)ttan Recap: The Human Cost of Wartime Scientific Progress [SPOILERS]

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


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Last week’s episode of Manh(a)ttan closed with a bombshell — the shooting of physicist Sid Liao, who was being interrogated on suspicion of leaking classified documents — and as expected, this week’s episode (“The Hive”) dealt with the fallout from that cataclysmic event, both personally and professionally. (It also featured a snazzy new opening title sequence.) This made it a bit less action-packed, but still plenty compelling.

The most immediate professional consequence is the implementation of even stricter security measures on the base, a policy dubbed “compartmentalization,” essentially putting the teams into isolated “silos,” such that they can’t share information and can’t have access to anything other than what is directly relevant to their research. Apparently this was a bona fide policy on the real-life Manhattan Project, and Popular Science quotes physicist Leo Szilard recalling how this delayed the bomb effort significantly: “Compartmentalization of information was the cause for failure to realize that light uranium U235 might be produced in quantities sufficient to make atomic bombs. We could have had it eighteen months earlier. We did not put two and two together because the two two’s were in a different compartment.”

Oh, did we mention the random searches and ban on socializing with anyone outside of Los Alamos? Way to crank up the tension and paranoia, military guys!

Colonel Cox (Mark Moses) is particularly paranoid. He arranges a conversation with Private Cole Dunlavy (Jefferson White) — the soldier who panicked and shot Liao because he thought the scientist was reaching for the gun on the passenger seat of his car — at an isolated watering hole far from base (“The walls in the base are so thin they don’t need ears.”). Dunlavy is wracked with guilt over having taken a civilian life, and half expects to be discharged. Instead, Cox promotes him and gives him a position in his own office, in exchange for sticking with the official military story. He’s to testify that the military found classified files under the seat of Liao’s car — a lame attempt to justify a civilian shooting, but one that will likely prove effective, if nobody asks too many probing questions.

Meanwhile, Frank Winters is battling dueling demons: guilt over his role in Liao’s demise, and anxiety over whether he can salvage the research for which he sacrificed his best mathematician. He is pondering the remnants from his failed implosion test in the desert, when a box is dropped off at his office door. It holds the late Liao’s personal effects, but Frank is struck by what’s missing: all of Liao’s papers, specifically his work on the shock wave analysis of the TNT at the core of the detonated test bomb, a crucial element to Frank’s implosion design.

It will be difficult to determine what went wrong with the test without those numbers. Ackley’s group has done similar studies — but what are the chances Ackley will hand them over, especially with the new compartmentalization policy in place? First Frank tries the direct approach,an appeal to Ackley. He bribes a guard with ration stamps to get Ackley to meet him, and gets Charlie instead, who tersely informs him that his boss “doesn’t take walk-ins.”

Charlie won’t hand over the reports either — not because Frank insults him at every turn and throws “a lousy dinner party,” but because he doesn’t want to get fired for violating the new security rules, especially after Frank’s team tricked him into giving them plutonium. And he admits, “As much as it galls me to say it, implosion is an elegant solution.” This ticks off Frank even more; he declares Charlie “worthless” and a coward. Charlie fires back: “And you’re a self-righteous old man on his professional deathbed.” Burn! I swear, the snotty exchanges between these two are worthy of a Real Housewives cat fight. Frank tells Charlie to “watch out for the man on his death bed, because he’s got nothing to lose,” adding, “Ackley might not know what you really are, but I do.” Hmmm.

Frank’s team does their best to duplicate Liao’s work, but as one scientist points out, “That guy could get through a differential equation faster than I can get through a hamburger.” This prompts some bittersweet reminiscences of Sid Liao’s time in the lab, including the spurs he bought in Santa Fe because he dreamed of being the first Chinese cowboy. (He even played Custer in an on-base re-enactment of Custer’s last stand.)

Anyway, Frank goes back to the implosion test site to try and recreate Liao’s calculations himself. “It should have worked, this math is flawless!” he tells his colleague and mentor. Frustrated, he starts scheming for another way to get his hands on that data — which means going over Ackley’s head and appealing once again to Cox. Except this time he won’t find the military man so receptive: the colonel flatly refuses to see him. Frank storms out, but the newly promoted (and still guilt-ridden) Private Dunlavy overhears the whole exchange.

It’s no wonder Charlie is a bit testy. He hasn’t really bonded with the other scientists in the group, who tease him for working too hard: “This office is Everest. Stop acting like a sherpa.” But Charlie is the conscientious genius, and Ackley has assigned him a seemingly impossible task: calculating  the neutron velocity distribution of a plutonium bomb.

It just so happens that UCLA physicist David Saltzberg (technical consultant for The Big Bang Theory) has also provided a bit input for Manh(a)ttan (although he is not the primary consultant), and helpfully weighed in with some of the details of precisely what poor Charlie was struggling with.

“The velocity distribution of neutrons is a critical part of understanding if your bomb will work and how big it needs to be,” Saltzberg told Roxanne Palmer in an article at the World Science Festival blog. “Every time a neutron induces fission of plutonium it releases 2 or 3 more neutrons.   You need at least one of these neutrons to induce another fission to have a chain reaction.  Moreover, you actually need even more than one of them to induce another fission in order to have a chain reaction that grows exponentially with time– as in the bomb. Knowing the velocity of every neutron, and whether they are near the edges where they can escape, hence the distribution as a function of radius, would be something that they would have to know, but also very difficult to calculate.” Palmer helpfully translates:

Think of it like a complicated arrangement of pool balls on a table: you’ve got lots of clusters of balls set up, and you want to hit a cue ball at one cluster such that other balls will fly off and strike other clusters, that strike other clusters, and so on and so forth, continuing for a long time. Knowing the math behind the movements of the billiard balls informs you how best to set up the table, and where and how hard to hit that first ball.

The difference is, though, that on a pool table, the speed of the balls drops because energy is conserved; inside a nuclear bomb, each fission reaction (akin to a new cluster of balls breaking up) adds energy to the system. And while the scientists can’t control the arrangement of plutonium atoms they way you can arrange pool balls on a table, they can figure out how much fissile material they need and if that fuel needs to be shaped differently to increase the likelihood of an exponential chain reaction.

Suffice to say, Charlie’s assignment is “nontrivial,” as they say in physics. He finally snaps when his office mates chide him at the end of the day for having done nothing but stare at the blackboard. “Physics is 90% thinking, 9% writing, and 1% talking,” he retorts. “I’ve never met so many One-Percenters in my life.”

Oh snap! He’s channeling his Inner Real Housewife again. When told he’ll end up like Frank Winter — “another tortured genius who pisses on everyone from his high horse” — and he should join the group or join up with Winter, Charlie proceeds to humiliate them all by going from blackboard to blackboard and solving in a few minutes the calculations they’ve been struggling with for weeks. He dismisses them as “vacuous, the empty space between stars,” concluding, “There is no group. There is Reed Ackley and there is me.” It’s the first time we’ve seen just how smart Charlie really is — the other scientists aren’t anywhere close to his league — and why Ackley is so eager to have him on the team.

On the B-plot front, Charlie’s wife, Abby, gets a new job, prodded  by the other wives, all of whom do some kind of work, because “Eleanor Roosevelt says we mustn’t stand in our husbands’ shadows.” I suspect the slogan is motivated more by the need for cheap labor; when Charlie jokes he never thought they would be a two-income family, she points out it’s more like one income and some pocket change. Her job as a “listener” — a telephone operator who monitors phone calls and alerts security to any high-risk words and phrases, which now includes things like “chop suey” because Liao was Chinese and, well, racism –  pays 40 cents an hour. She has to undergo an uncomfortable lie detector test, and memorize everyone’s extension because there is no printed director, and her first day on the job she ends up listening in on a phone sexcapade. But she also makes a new friend (with a frisson of same-sex attraction for good measure), so yay.

Meanwhile, Liza Winter is mourning the death of Liao by setting up a bee hive, listening to classical music and savoring a nice glass of scotch. Her grieving is interrupted by the arrival of Dunlavy, looking for Frank. She invites him in, and his guilt doubles when she tells him Liao had a five-year-old daughter: “On the bright side, in a couple of years she won’t even remember him.” He admits he was the one who fired the fatal shot, and while he sticks to the official story — he was just ensuring the safety of the base, there were confidential files in Liao’s car, yadda, yadda– he starts rambling about how the on-base chaplain is a Baptist and doesn’t take confessions. “I said 20 Our Fathers but I’m not sure it’s enough.”

Liza relents and asks the Catholic Dunlavy to take a seat, whereby we learn he hails from an Iowa farm family who lost half their crop in the dust bowl. But he enlisted out of a sense of honor, unable to sit idly by while other young men were dying overseas. Then Frank comes in, and when Dunlavy expresses regret for his loss, he shrugs it off. “You got nothing to apologize for. You did what you had to do.”

It’s a humanizing moment, and here is where the “hive” metaphor of the episode’s title starts to become relevant. People (well, some people) are trying to put their differences aside, reaching across the lines drawn in the sand, rebelling against the enforced compartmentalization, trying to find common ground in the wake of Liao’s death — the best defense against suspicion, fear, and paranoia, sowing the seeds for a true community.

But first, Frank and Liza’s evening is once again interrupted, this time by Frank’s arrest for purportedly stealing a file from Cox’s office. Turns out Frank did so deliberately because it was the only way to get in to see Cox; the file in question was a study on the chemistry of magnesium sulfate, a.k.a. Epsom salt. “If it falls into Hitler’s hands, he’ll enjoy a warm bath,” Frank snarks. But Cox refuses to intercede with Ackley for the shock wave studies, reminding him that the last time he did Frank a favor, it ended with Liao’s death. And he says if Frank ever tries to contact him again, he will tell his team that Frank was the one who turned over Liao to the military.

Meanwhile, at the on-base bar, Frank’s team is trying to drown their grief over Liao at the time same time Dunlavy’s fellow soldiers are celebrating his “heroism” in killing a dirty Chinese spy — including a pretty blonde female soldier who seems more than willing to help Dunlavy lose his virginity. A brawl is inevitable, and it erupts over the pool table, with one of Frank’s scientists telling Dunlavy that the man he killed was geometry wizard who would have kicked his ass in a game of straight pool — before landing a pretty decent punch to the face. Dunlavy refuses to fight back, even taking a second punch, before his fellow soldiers pile on in his defense.

Nobody is having a quiet evening, it seems, because Ackley shows up to talk to Charlie about hurting the poor baby fee-fees of his fellow team mates. He tells Charlie to apologize, and says he assigned him the toughest problem not as a hazing, but because he was the only one capable of solving it: “You are a once in a generation mind.” But he knows somebody even smarter — not Oppenheimer (Charlie’s first guess), but Werner Heisenberg, who is heading up the bomb development efforts for the Third Reich. “That is the man you’re competing with,” he tells Charlie — a stark reminder of just what’s at stake.

Those stakes are why Frank is more than just a bitter aging scientist with poor social skills who will do anything to get his way, including sacrificing his own men — and straight out stealing the shock wave analysis studies from Ackley’s lab, from under a sleeping Charlie’s nose. (He also erases Charlie’s equations from the blackboard, which should outrage any self-respecting physicist.) Liza knows this, remembering how much Frank loved and admired the Chinese physicist; Liao was his first choice when he hand-picked his Manhattan Project team. That said, “Whatever we’re doing here, please tell me it’s worth it.” Frank responds, “If it works, we won’t just end this war, we’ll end all war forever.” (Oh, the irony.)

But does he really believe that? In the final scene, Frank recreates the implosion test using the data from the stolen shock wave studies — and this time it works. Rather than feeling triumphant, he hallucinates the bloodied ghost of Sid Liao, sadly looking on: “You did it.” Science has progressed, but at great human cost. Nobody asked Sid Liao if it was worth it.

[NOTE: This week's recap was delayed a few days on account of my local cable doesn't carry the WGN America channel in our zip code, and new episodes don't stream on Hulu until three days later. So Jen-Luc Piquant caved and signed up for Hulu+, which gives access to new episodes the day after the original airing, so the recaps should appear Monday evenings from now on.]

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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  1. 1. Klynch 10:04 am 08/15/2014

    test

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  2. 2. M Tucker 11:29 am 08/15/2014

    I keep testing but nothing shows up.

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  3. 3. M Tucker 12:42 pm 08/15/2014

    OK. Here is what I have been trying to post since you began the summary, and I really like your summaries.

    I think Manhattan is a wonderful dramatic fiction that only tangentially is about what actually happened from 1943 to 1945 on that mesa in New Mexico. I am pessimistic that the writers will actually portray the supremely difficult process that resulted in the atomic bombs. I am disappointed that Oppenheimer is portrayed as a poetic mystic not involved in the daily struggle. I am disappointed that none of the others who contributed so much will not be named so that all the audience will learn is that implosion was experimented with from the beginning of the project and it eventually became the only hope of real success. In the end: only one uranium bomb using the gun method and three plutonium bombs ( two bombs and one unused core) that depended on the success of implosion. I fear the series will portray Winter, and possibly Charlie, as the inventors. That is a very disappointing shame. Most people cannot name the real geniuses responsible and that they were not at Los Alamos from the beginning.

    I get it. If the writers are going to invent some fiction about a supposedly truly inspired physics genius who surprisingly thought that he could get a patent by submitting secret government documents, stolen documents, and have us continue to believe he was a genius, they wouldn’t want to associate that episode with one of the real historical figures. I have such a hard time trying to imagine that anyone, let alone a genius, would think that a prison cell is preferable to a tent in the Pacific. I cannot believe that a man who cares about his family, and is a genius, thinks the best move it to become an armed fugitive. I am hoping that since he is now dead we can move on to better fictional drama but I fear we will be plagued by continued scenes with Dunlavy (Dunlavey? Perhaps Dunleavy?). Will the writers bring up the real scandal that actually occurred involving some female soldiers trading sex for money?

    For some reason, in spite of all my issues with some of the story so far and some of the historical mistakes the writers have made (dinosaurs and meteors – NO! Not in 1943), I find the series very entertaining. Maybe I get a kick out of being a critical jerk. Maybe it is the costumes and music and cars. Maybe it is the quality of the acting. But I will keep watching and keep reading your summary.

    For those who would like to get a bit of real history as they enjoy each week’s episode I suggest visiting:

    Atomicheritage.org and select NEWS from the top menu – summaries with some actual history

    Losalamoshistory.org under News, Updates & Events you will find: TV Series Manhattan Viewing and Discussion.
    The folks from the Los Alamos Historical Society answer audience questions.

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  4. 4. curiouswavefunction 4:45 pm 08/15/2014

    Great summary! I echo some of what M Tucker said. I of course understand that it’s a completely fictional account, but being someone who is quite well-versed with the history, I do wince a bit when characters loosely based on real ones do or say something that that real ones never did or said. I also think that the makers are losing some good opportunities to focus on the exciting science that was at the heart of the project. The historical inaccuracies also sting a bit sometimes; for instance while compartmentalization was enforced, Oppenheimer also got his way in arranging a weekly seminar in which all scientists above a certain rank could freely talk. Thus, unlike what’s portrayed in the show, the two design teams for Fat Man and Little Boy were never at each other’s throats. All that being said, I think the show would serve a valuable purpose if it gets young people interested in that part of the history. Keep up the excellent synopses!

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