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Manh(a)ttan Recap: An Appetite for Self-Destruction [SPOILERS]

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The residents of the Los Alamos base camp receive a special visitor in this week’s episode of Manh(a)ttan — none other than Niels Bohr, he of the infamous model of the atom and one of the unquestioned giants of 20th century physics. Gossip abounds in advance of the great man’s arrival, namely, speculation that the Danish physicist — who has only just been smuggled out of Denmark by the Allies in the last few weeks — will be replacing Robert Oppenheimer as head of the Manhattan Project.

High-profile visitors aside, much of this episode (“The Last Reasoning of Kings”) focuses on Frank Winter and his seemingly fragile mental state, exploring just what drives this mercurial man to pursue his underdog bomb design so relentlessly, alienating pretty much everyone around him.

We open with a flashback to World War I, with soldiers huddling in a trench while being shelled by the opposition. The solders volunteer a young man nicknamed “Fathead” to venture out into No Man’s Land to rifle the pockets of the fallen for documents, because he’s the only one who’s had any college. It’s a risky endeavor: “What’s your real name, in case you don’t get back?” a fellow soldier asks. Cut to Frank Winter sitting bolt upright in bed in a cold sweat. That’s right, he was the young soldier on the front lines, and clearly still suffers from a spot of PTSD — hence his haunted demeanor, obsessive work ethic, and chronic insomnia.

Add to that the occasional waking hallucination from his WWI experiences. That insomnia is taking its toll. His mentor takes one look at him and says he once ran a study in college on sleep deprivation in rats. “Two weeks in, they looked better than you,” he says. “Three weeks in they were dead.” Alas, the army doctor refuses to prescribe any more sleep aids for him. Frank is currently viewed with great suspicion “on the hill” — code for the Manhattan Project’s on-site headquarters — because of his increasingly erratic behavior.

Does Frank take his mentor’s advice to go home and get some sleep? Do you really need to ask? He’s keen to complete the next step in demonstrating his implosion bomb design, having just been given some detonation primers for another proof-of-principle experiment. If it works, he’ll finally get his precious plutonium. While the test is officially scheduled for the following week, Frank insists it can’t wait. Even though he’s under constant military surveillance, he commandeers an MP, an army jeep, and one of his scientists, Paul Crosley (Harry Lloyd, nearly unrecognizable from his turn as the ill-fated Viserys Targaryen in Season 1 of Game of Thrones), and marches out into the New Mexico desert.

A confrontation between the two scientists is inevitable. Paul has been increasingly dismayed by Frank’s behavior — so much so that he asks Ackley to have him transferred to the Thin Man team. To Ackley’s credit, he questions Paul’s loyalty, observing that rats always flee a sinking ship. “Respectfully, passengers also flee,” Paul counters. “To a worthy captain, I’m loyal to the end.”

Ashley Zukerman as Charlie Isaacs and Christian Clemenson as Niels Bohr in "Manh(a)ttan."

Charlie Isaacs has a meeting of his own: a brief sit-down with head honcho Robert Oppenheimer, who informs Charlie that he is pulling him from the Thin Man project. He will be assigned to shadow Bohr during his stay at the base. “We don’t want him to stray,” Oppie says. “You’ll keep him on the straight and narrow and show him only our finest work, understand?” Translation: Don’t let him anywhere near Frank Winter’s group.

Charlie is not happy about being demoted to a glorified valet. Oppie responds by quoting Proverbs: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Ackley has assured him that Charlie is “iron” enough to handle Bohr: “I hope he’s right.”

Iron might be the wrong material. The Danish physicist is eccentrically stubborn but in a far more fluid, less rigid way. For starters, Bohr refuses to ride in the town car waiting at the entrance gate, opting to take a leisurely walk instead, oblivious to the top brass welcoming party left hanging at his delay. Charlie tracks him down, and finds him puffing on a pipe while regaling a few rapt soldiers with a tale of “passing out in Germany and waking up in Britain” with the worst hangover of his life.

Side note: This is actually a true story. Bohr’s harrowing escape from Nazi-occupied Denmark is legendary (for a full account, read Richard Rhodes’ masterpiece, The Making of the Atomic Bomb), and he traveled to England via an unarmed bomber aircraft dubbed a “Mosquito,” designed to fly at high speeds and high altitudes — so high that passengers needed oxygen masks. Bohr apparently didn’t hear the pilot tell him to switch on the oxygen and passed out. (The period of oxygen starvation probably did leave him with a wicked hangover.)

Eventually Charlie gets Bohr to Ackley’s lab to “meet the Gadget” (the code name for the prototype bomb), entering to a standing ovation. Bohr is less than gracious: “Will you ask these engineers to leave?” Charlie points out that the men have prepared a detailed presentation on the bomb design for him, but Bohr explains, “After my dalliance with the Nazis, I don’t relish the exuberance of crowds.” Fair enough. Discussing the Thin Man design with Charlie, Bohr calls it the “last reasoning of kings,”  a reference to the French king Louis XIV, who had the phrase stamped on cannon.

The next stop on the tour is supposed to be the metallurgy lab, but Bohr ignores Charlie’s direction and marches off in search of Frank’s lab to view “the back-up plan.” Charlie gives him the lowdown on the implosion design, his admiration for its elegance palpable: “The geometry, it’s like a star swallowing itself.” Bohr concurs that the design is impressive, but asks cryptically, “Do you think it is big enough?” That’s when Oppie barges in, clearly displeased. Charlie is summarily relieved of his escort duties.

Out in the desert, Paul sets up a camera to record to the experiment while Frank attaches the detonators, to the great alarm of the soldier guarding them. “We don’t have clearance to discharge explosives!” Frank says he’ll take full responsibility and suggests he move the jeep a little further away from the blast zone. The big moment comes — and nothing happens. Frank marches toward the blast site to check the connections. The apparatus detonates just as he approaches, the shock wave throwing him backward. True to form, despite the ringing in his ears and shrapnel cuts on his face, the first thing Frank says is, “How’s the camera?” They need the photographic evidence that the test worked. Without it, there will be no plutonium for his group.

But then the jeep won’t start, so Frank resolves to walk the 30 miles back to base. The soldier has orders to remain with any non-operating vehicle and tries to force Frank to stay at gunpoint. Frank’s response is to  invite him to shoot him point blank. The soldier hesitates and Frank disarms him, tucking the gun in his own pocket.

Paul Crosley gets stuck lugging the heavy camera, and registers his displeasure, telling Frank he’s asked to be transferred to Thin Man to work with Ackley, a man who keeps “civilized” hours. Eventually he asks their soldier escort to maybe take a turn carrying the damn thing, but the MP refuses; he is shipping off to the Pacific the following week: “I’m done chaperoning the pencil necks I beat up in grade school.” Paul is blase about the insult: “Brilliant. You’ll be graduating from taxi driver to cannon fodder.”

These two end up debating whether a single soldier can make a difference in a world war, as opposed to a team of scientists. It’s kind of the Manh(a)ttan equivalent of two nerds arguing about whether Spiderman or the Flash would win in a fight. “If it weren’t for guys like me, you’d be poking each other to death with sharpened sticks,” Paul argues, since scientists gave the military guns, dynamite, radar, tanks, airplanes, and many other tools of modern warfare. “Without science, Patton couldn’t have paddled a canoe because he didn’t understand the laws of buoyancy.” The MP doesn’t buy it: “You think you need a PhD to float?” (Jen-Luc Piquant admittedly had the same thought.)

When they start wrestling over the canteen of water, Paul accidentally drops the camera, exposing the precious film, sending Frank into a rage. Paul pushes back, hard, telling Frank he is unfit for leadership, just a padded cell. Frank takes a deep breath, says that night is coming, and nobody is coming to save them. So they’d best push on.

Meanwhile, back at the base, Liza meets with the army doctor, pretending to need a sleep aid for her own insomnia. The doc runs her through the standard psychological questions about her mental fitness. Liza, to his surprise, answers with brutal honesty, giving us a glimpse of what she has sacrificed so that Frank can be on the Manhattan Project — namely, a tenured position in the Ivy League and her own scientific research. “My husband’s research is of vital interest to the government. Mine is expendable.” Her marriage is struggling, plus she’s not allowed to work on the base and has no idea why. “I barely recognize the woman I see looking back at me in the mirror.” She gets the prescription, although the doctor isn’t fooled. He tells her to make sure Frank doesn’t take the pills with alcohol.

Liza doesn’t fit in with the other women on base, the so called Ladies Auxiliary, who pay Abby a visit, Native American maids in tow, for an afternoon of gossip, booze, and mani-pedis. The ringleaders are Dot and Gladys, who are a lot like Hamlet‘s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern — they’re pretty much interchangeable in terms of petty voyeurism and casual racism. (Frustrated with one of the maids’ inability to understand her instructions, Dot (or Gladys) gripes, “Two thousand years in this country, they still don’t speak the language.”) Liza’s rebellious teenaged daughter Callie doesn’t fit in either. Dunlavy catches her trying to escape from the base in the back of one of locals’ trucks. Let’s just say that despite some initial antagonism on her part, there was sparkage — Dunlavy is a smitten kitten. And Callie seems to like the attention.

Harry Llod as Paul Crosley

As night falls, our Trio of Bickering Misfits discover Frank has been walking all this way with a bit of shrapnel in the sole of his shoe. His foot is a bloody mess. As Paul bandages the wounds, Frank asks why he wants to work for Ackley, a man who punches a clock and keeps “banker’s hours,” while young men are fighting and dying on the front. He pulls the gun and points it at a terrified Paul, telling him that gut-level fear he’s experiencing is exactly what it’s like to be in the trenches: “There’s no comfort in battle. And no one is coming to save us — not Niels Bohr and not Reed Ackley.”

Frank, Paul and the MP eventually do make it back to base. To Frank’s surprise, Paul promptly starts packing up supplies again, telling Frank they can take his personal car back to the test site and re-do the experiment — because he’s pinched more detonation primers from Ackley’s office. Paul is back on Team Winter, having decided he’s a captain worth serving after all.

They missed the big  banquet dinner in Bohr’s honor back at the base. During dinner, Bohr accompanies Liza to the bar to refresh his drink, and when he asks after her own research, she confesses that her research had been on the sex life of flowers, but “here I’m just a physicist’s wife.” Bohr laments all the great minds forced to abandon their work because of the war, and tells her, “Flowers bloom everywhere, Dr. Winter — even in the desert.” We last see Liza meticulously making notes on a flower specimen in her notebook, having taken Bohr’s words to heart.

At dinner’s end, Oppenheimer tells the assembled dinner guests that the Danish physicist will be departing in the morning, laying to rest all the fevered speculation about a regime change and subsequent jockeying for position. It seems that Bohr’s role in visiting the Manhattan Project all along has been to serve as a morale booster. When soldiers lose hope on the front, “They get pinup girls,” Bohr tells Charlie when the young man follows him out of the dining hall. “You get a tired old man with a pipe.”

And then Bohr reminds him of his prior question: “Is it big enough?” He meant whether it was big enough to truly serve as a deterrent to end all war. “Is it big enough that no sane person would ever dare to use it?” Charlie is honest enough to answer, “I don’t know.” But he pleads with Bohr to stay; the project could use his brilliance. Bohr replies that the human race seems to be hellbent on its own extermination, with an insatiable appetite for horror. “I’ve lost mine.”

Like Frank, Bohr lived through World War I, and tells Charlie about a chemist he knew with an idea to weaponize artificial fertilizer. That was the last time scientists thought they could come up with a weapon so horrific, they could put an end to war, but instead, that chemist’s legacy “is a fog of chlorine gas.”

The chemist in question is Fritz Haber, a German scientist who pioneered a process for making synthesized ammonia, and its use in fertilizer had a huge impact on agriculture, combating famine around the world. Haber is also the one who suggested weaponizing chlorine gas, first used on April 22, 1915 at Ypres, killing 1000 French and Algerian soldiers in less than 10 minutes and wounding thousands more. (His wife, also a chemist, was so horrified by her husband’s work that she committed suicide.)  By the end of WWI, chlorine and other poison gases such as phosgene accounted for an estimated 90,000 deaths.

That’s what happened to Frank Winter in the trenches during WWI. Being sent into No Man’s Land saved his life. When he finally made it back to the trench after another intense round of shelling, he found all his fellow solders dead from poison gas. The final scene is the young Frank waking up in WWI hospital ward and pulling bandages off his eyes. A nurse joyfully tells him that the war is over and “There will never be another.”

Putting a fictionalized Bohr front and center was a bit of a risk, but I thought the depiction was charming, even though the actual Bohr was likely very different. And I thought the starstruck young scientists being in awe of the great man was entirely believable. Physics has its celebrities, too.

It’s always risky to depict real-life people in a fictionalized series (or a theatrical play, as with Michael Frayne’s Copenhagen). That’s one reason the creators of Manh(a)ttan have stressed repeatedly that — Oppenheimer and now Bohr excepted — there are no direct parallels between the characters on the series and real people. I think it’s one of the series’ greatest strengths, although hardcore history buffs probably can’t help being annoyed by some of the liberties taken. It frees the writers to take the storyline to more interesting places, create conflict and situations that never happened (but could have), and really delve into the thematic issues that underpin the series.  This was a superbly crafted episode, even without an explosive cliffhanger like the shooting of Sid Liao two weeks ago. Here’s hoping Frank’s team gets their plutonium next week.

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. engrbohn 10:18 am 08/18/2014

    There were a couple of moments that I thought were worth noting since they’ll surely play out in future episodes. Bohr asks about the pre-detonation risk in the Thin Man design, (spoiler alert?) that being one of the reasons the historical Thin Man design was abandoned. The other moment was when Bohr lets slip at the dinner table that the Project involves Plutonium fission. Liza caught that and reacted for a half-second. She obviously already knew the “radar” is a cover story, and if she didn’t figure out at the table that they’re weaponizing atomic fission, she soon will.

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  2. 2. M Tucker 11:56 am 08/18/2014

    I find this competition between the gun method team and the implosion method team for plutonium a bit ridiculous. They both needed to do the same experiments: neutron cross-section measurements. They need to do it with plutonium from the breeder reactors and not plutonium from cyclotrons. The velocity given to Bohr for the gun method is for U235 not plutonium and Bohr seems to be the only one who knows that plutonium will end up being the most available element to make weapons with.

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  3. 3. engrbohn 12:25 pm 08/18/2014

    The competition element reminds me of another part of the episode that would’ve been nice to see play out differently. Ackley may be Winters’ foil, but he’s definitely not a villian in the story. He even sorta-berates Crosley for not respecting Winters; this conversation clearly tells Ackley how far astray Winters is wandering. On the heels of that conversation, we have the Opp-Isaacs conversation in which we learn that Ackley recommended Isaacs to go help keep someone sharp. Until it became clear they were talking about Bohr, I thought Ackley might’ve offered up his best brain to help Winters and his team back on track. It would’ve been a great opportunity to highlight that Ackley isn’t poo-pooing the implosion design out of parochialism and that he really is trying to bring forth a working design, whichever form it takes.

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  4. 4. M Tucker 12:55 pm 08/18/2014

    I think Charlie WILL end up with the implosion team. Eventually the story will converge on the fact that you cannot use the gun method with plutonium. Suddenly implosion will be the only game in town and Winters will be vindicated. They will need Charlie’s “once in a generation” mind to work out the difficult calculations to make it work. Winters will be forced to recognize Charlie’s inspired genius but he will remain a dick to his workers and family. I wonder who will play the role of Kistiakowsky? You cannot make an implosion bomb without a gifted chemist who is a genius with explosives. Which of the physicists will suddenly become an expert in chemistry? I bet the writers will minimize the importance of chemistry and make it seem that the atomic bomb was the work of physicists.

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  5. 5. CWavefunction 9:49 pm 08/19/2014

    Props to M Tucker for bringing up chemistry. The chemistry of plutonium and the corresponding metallurgy which involved machining the explosive lenses to an incredible degree of accuracy was an essential part of the project. I still find myself annoyed by the portrayal of Oppenheimer as this high-handed, distant mystic when in reality he was always on top of things and physically present everywhere; even Teller told Richard Rhodes that Oppie was the best lab director he had ever known. Also not too happy with the non-existent rivalry between the two groups which in reality worked smoothly together and constantly exchanged ideas in the weekly seminar instituted by Oppenheimer. And while there was always a lot of stress, the only real bitterness in the project arose in the case of Edward Teller and Seth Neddermeyer (the latter’s work being taken over by Kistakowsky).

    However I think all this raises some good general questions about a show like this which is supposed to be fiction but still based on real events. In a sense such a show gets caught in no man’s land; characters are based on real ones but they say things and adopt roles that the real ones never did. In my opinion it’s very hard to make such a show work since comparisons with what actually happened will inevitably be made by people familiar with the history. “Manhattan” is trying hard, but as far as I can tell, while I find parts of it interesting I remain lukewarm about the whole enterprise right now.

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  6. 6. M Tucker 3:31 pm 08/20/2014

    “…even though the actual Bohr was likely very different.”

    Yeah he was. The real Niels was too energetic for the writers. I have been waiting for the Los Alamos Historical Society to post this week’s installment (comes out the Wednesday following the Sunday episode).

    The photo shows the real Niels enjoying some of the recreation offered on The Hill. In winter they built a ski slope. No lift though. Niels was still climbing and skiing the slope long after much younger men had finished for the day. Read the rest of what the Historical Society has to say about the real Niels and his visits to The Hill. He spent much more that a single day there.
    Yes they had recreation at the site. Sunday was recreation day. The writers could try to work some of that in if they gave it a little thought.

    Look Tom Wolf did a great job of fictionalizing the birth of the US space program but these writers are not Tom Wolf and they have a very different vision for Manhattan.

    My first problem with the show is this is not the Manhattan Project. This is Los Alamos. Winter might have said “welcome to Los Alamos” or “welcome to site Y” or “welcome to The Hill” but I doubt anyone who was really there would have said “welcome to Manhattan”…except the writers of this show.

    My second problem is how the few actual people the show portrays seem to be some sort of cartoon vision of what the real people were like. They could do better. Oppie’s secretary was not some matronly hatchet faced woman. She was beautiful, young and quickly attracted the attention of one of the scientists. She got married while at Los Alamos. One of the many marriages that took place. Oppenheimer was famous for the parties he threw on The Hill. He was personable and made great vodka martinis.

    My third problem is this nonsense about how the implosion method is so embarrassing that Bohr cannot know anything about it. Actually when Oppie and Groves found out that it might prove to be more efficient the team began to expand. Oppie and Groves were not stupid and realized the problems of coming up with enough uranium and plutonium to be able to have a bomb ready before the end of the war.

    My fourth problem is this nonsense about completion for plutonium. NO! The bomb teams did not do the neutron experiments. It was all given to Emilio Segre. He was the one who discovered that the gun method would not work with plutonium.

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