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Why we need to stop comparing every Big Science project to the Manhattan Project

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

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K-25 gaseous diffusion plant at Oak Ridge, one of the biggest engineering projects in history (Image: MPHPA)

Alex Wellerstein who is a historian of nuclear science has some cogent thoughts that feed into what has long since been a pet peeve of mine: the tendency for politicians, the media and scientists themselves to compare every large-scale government science or technology enterprise to the famed Manhattan Project. As Wellerstein demonstrates in his article, such a comparison is riddled with errors on many different levels, but that hardly stops even unlikely endeavors to elicit comparison with the sprawling atomic bomb project:

“It has become increasingly common to invoke the Manhattan Project as a general exemplar of applied science. Using Google’s Alert service, one can see that almost every week someone, somewhere, calls for a “new Manhattan Project.” Apparently, we need a Manhattan Project for cancer, for AIDS, for health, for solar power, for alternative energy, for fusion power, for thorium reactors, for global warming, for cybersecurity, for nutritional supplements (!), and, most literally, for protecting the island of Manhattan from the rising seas.”

Wellerstein points out several reasons why the comparison is misguided, but here I want to focus on what I think is a very important difference purely on a technical basis, and one which is not always appreciated by the general public. The problem is that the Manhattan Project was a very specific kind of project done under very specific and very different circumstances, involving a level of government control, secrecy and expenditure that was unusual even for wartime. Flippant calls to turn other scientific projects into the Manhattan Project ignore the uniqueness and challenge of all these factors and risk misrepresenting important science projects in the modern era.

Here’s what was different about building the atomic bomb: it was much more a feat of complex engineering than physics. Even Richard Feynman said this in his popular memoirs (“During the war, all science stopped except that involved in what came to be known as the Manhattan Project. And that was not really science, it was mostly engineering”). Physicists were undoubtedly crucial in working out the basic theory of fission, but the essentials of this theory had been worked out by the summer of 1942 or so, most notably in the Berkeley study. From then on it was quickly realized that the biggest obstacle in the project would be the separation and enrichment of uranium isotopes. This endeavor was regarded to be so difficult that even a visionary like Niels Bohr did not think it possible unless the entire United States were turned into one giant factory.

Ironically, they were. Detailed histories of the enterprise attest to the stupendous manual labor, resources – including a sizable fraction of the entire domestic supply of electricity and metals like copper and gold – and industrial construction and engineering that went into the building of the electromagnetic separation and gaseous diffusion plants at Oak Ridge, which when completed comprised the biggest factories under a single roof anywhere in the world. But most of this was engineering and project management; getting the giant calutrons to work, rigging up the intense magnetic fields and the electric supply, bringing chemical engineering and chemistry strategies to bear on separation of complex uranium compounds and reaction intermediates. In fact after engineering, chemistry rather than physics was probably the dominant science involved in the bulk of the Manhattan Project (chemistry and engineering were also involved on a large scale in plutonium production at Hanford in Washington state). One piece of evidence indicating that the project was mostly industrial engineering was its culmination in a military-industrial complex comprised of assembly line-like manufacturing facilities for nuclear weapons. And while we are on the topic, it’s worth noting that the lionizing of physicists at the expense of engineers and chemists has also resulted in the neglect – in the public’s imagination at least – of the one man who was truly indispensable to the project: General Leslie Groves.

It was at Los Alamos that physicists were most important, but even at Los Alamos the engineering challenges are often obscured by anecdotes about brilliant scientists like Oppenheimer, Fermi, Feynman and Bethe. In addition as Wellerstein documents, Los Alamos soaked up only 4% of the $2 billion spent on the project. Apart from the problem of uranium isotope separation, the second great problem that arose during the project was to figure out how to make the plutonium bomb work through implosion which was then a completely novel and unknown technique. Theorists like John von Neumann did make very important contributions to this problem, but again, after the theory was worked out the major challenge was in getting a perfectly symmetric implosion that would uniformly squeeze a ball of plutonium to supercriticality. This was a job for precision engineering and electronics. It was Harvard chemist George Kistiakowsky who brought precision explosives – then a startling concept since everybody only thought of using explosives to blow things apart – to bear on the challenge. The key endeavor in tackling the issue was the machining of explosive lenses and the invention of electronic fuses and circuitry that would ensure the instantaneous, symmetrical implosion of the assembly. This was again a challenge for electronics, mechanical engineering and chemistry rather than for physics.

In addition, unlike many modern projects to which it is compared, building the atomic bomb required collaboration between ivory tower scientists and dozens if not hundreds of industrial partners and engineering firms, including DuPont and Stone and Webster. DuPont especially played an invaluable role by building the plutonium production reactors at Hanford. Corporations also loomed large in the making of the first hydrogen bomb. Today it’s much harder to imagine industry providing such extensive support to government projects, especially when the basic research arms of many once-prominent organizations like Bell Labs and IBM have been virtually obliterated and the parent companies themselves are struggling to thrive in a recession. Once again we see the unique collaboration between otherwise rather divergent research entities that can be engendered by the exigencies of wartime, a fortuitous circumstance that is unlikely to arise in the twenty-first century.

The summary of this foray into the details of the making of the bomb is to illustrate how the Manhattan Project was much more engineering and practical chemistry than pure science, how it was much more earthly project management than pie-in-the-sky thinking. It had a well-defined and rather well-understood goal and was therefore very far from the kind of pure scientific endeavors to which it is compared. This is especially true when it’s compared to today’s most high-profile Big Science project – the Brain Map initiative. Unlike the Manhattan Project, the purpose of endeavors like the brain map is to find out more about nature. Criticism of the initiative especially points to the paucity of our understanding of the human brain, a deficit that needs to be overcome if we are to launch any large-scale effort with well-defined goals. The real Manhattan project equivalent of the Brain Map project would not be the construction of an actual bomb but a foray into understanding the properties of atoms and nuclei, something that was accomplished very well by Small Science in the 1930s and would have been hard to contemplate if it had been cast under the umbrella of a tightly controlled military project enveloped in secrecy and kowtowing to a specific goal. It was only after a reasonable understanding of nuclear physics was accomplished that the properties of the atom could be put into the service of the creation of a weapon of mass destruction.

As Wellerstein nicely points out, there are other problems in comparing the project to modern day science enterprises, including the extreme secrecy imposed on the project and the moral ambiguity that resulted from its success. But the point of my post is to make it clear that even on a strictly technical level, the Manhattan Project was very different from any other Big Science project to which it is compared. So was the Apollo moon shot, another enterprise steeped in engineering and virtually removed from pure science, both in its methods and in its fruits. The Manhattan project was indeed a miracle of science, engineering, government initiative and academic-industrial coordination. But while we can certainly learn specific lessons from it, what we need is a new project for a new era. With a different name.

Some useful references:

1. The Making of the Atomic Bomb – Richard Rhodes.

2. Critical Assembly – Lillian Hoddeson.

3. Racing for the Bomb – Robert Norris.

4. A Chemist in the White House – Glenn Seaborg.

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

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

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  1. 1. JPGumby 3:00 pm 11/25/2013

    What makes a “big science” similar to the Manhattan project project is when there is a large investment that requires complex engineering and project management. A fair example is the construction of the CERN LHC.

    Link to this
  2. 2. JPGumby 3:00 pm 11/25/2013

    What makes a “big science” similar to the Manhattan project project is when there is a large investment that requires complex engineering and project management. A fair example is the construction of the CERN LHC.

    Link to this
  3. 3. marclevesque 3:36 pm 11/25/2013

    Of related interest:

    Research Funding Has Become Prone to Bubble Formation

    Link to this
  4. 4. M Tucker 4:03 pm 11/25/2013

    “…the Manhattan Project was a very specific kind of project done under very specific and very different circumstances, involving a level of government control, secrecy and expenditure that was unusual even for wartime.”

    It wasn’t just the atomic bomb either. We had to develop a plane to carry the bomb. Have you looked into the costs to develop the B-29? We are still cleaning up the nuclear waste created developing the atomic bomb…that costs money too.

    That is the difference between the Manhattan Project and every other project like the LHC. It was for war. Would it have been built if we had not been at war? Probably not. The isolationist congress would never have allocated the money. The geopolitical situation after the war was unique in history such that massive spending on defense did not go down after the war as happened after WWI but increased. The work done for Manhattan transferred to the development of thermonuclear bombs and warheads and eventually to the missiles that carry them. No science project can reasonably be compared with the Manhattan project and the project to put a man on the moon was not about science. It was primarily a political project that appealed to our lust for exploration.

    Why is the government no longer interested in manned space exploration? No strong political motivation exists like our quest to compete with the Soviet Union.

    Link to this
  5. 5. David Cummings 4:25 pm 11/25/2013

    I agree that it is highly inaccurate to use the term “Manhattan Project” to call for a big science project of your choice.

    However, I do understand the motivation of those who do so. I’m tempted to do it myself. My own pet candidate is antibiotic research. I believe there should be a huge government-organized, multiple-entity (from government, academic and corporate spheres) effort to solve the looming problem of antibiotic resistance. As has been mentioned in many blogs and articles right here in SA, it’s possible that the period of history in which the human race is living under the protection of antibiotics might turn out to be a short blip of time, with a vast ocean of time on either side in which people get regularly eaten by bacteria.

    Now, I know it’s wrong to say “we need a Manhattan Project” to come up with a solution to antibiotic resistance in bacteria. But I’m going to say it anyway.

    We need a Manhattan Project to come up with a solution to antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

    It’s inaccurate to say that… but then again, most people know what I mean.

    Link to this
  6. 6. kevin_neilson 4:27 pm 11/25/2013

    Almost as bad is when people say we need another “Marshall Plan” to repair some country or another, as if the task of restoring what had been one of the most advanced societies in the world is comparable to bringing some backward, illiterate confederation into the first world.

    Link to this
  7. 7. David Cummings 4:39 pm 11/25/2013

    Maybe we need a Manhattan Project to educate people on what the Manhattan Project actually was, and why the term is mostly inappropriate for all other large science projects.

    Then again, Ash, I can’t help thinking that what you are arguing against here is the natural drift of language. Words often change meanings in languages, and drift to take on new meanings. “Manhattan Project” isn’t exactly a “word”, but the process of meaning-drift is probably what’s going on here and you risk sounding like “in my day, we didn’t talk that way”…

    Language changes. Usage changes. I think that’s what’s happening here.

    Link to this
  8. 8. ShirleyJuan803 9:58 pm 11/25/2013

    Josiah. I just agree… Shawn`s storry is astonishing… on monday I got a great new Land Rover Range Rover from having made $8349 this-last/five weeks and-over, 10 grand this past-month. this is actually the most financialy rewarding I’ve ever had. I began this 4 months ago and practically straight away began to make over $73.. p/h. website link,…

    Link to this
  9. 9. chemjobber 9:48 am 11/26/2013

    Ash, has anyone determined what percentage of world/American experimental physicists, chemists and engineering-types were involved in the Manhattan Project? I always feel people who incorrectly use the Manhattan Project analogy always miss the forced (?) migration of top scientists out of Europe into the United States.

    Link to this
  10. 10. LabWorker 11:00 pm 11/26/2013

    As a 25-year veteran of government laboratories, I can say that this a wonderful essay. I share the sentiment.

    Link to this
  11. 11. kvom01 10:04 am 11/29/2013

    The development of the B-29 bomber was not part of the Manhattan Project, and was started even before the Pearly Harbor attack.

    Link to this

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