Atomic Spaces: Living on the Manhattan Project

Peter B. Hales, Author University of Illinois Press $34.95 (448p) ISBN 978-0-252-02296-8
Drawing on memoirs, declassified government files, unpublished letters and diaries, Hales, an art historian and director of the American Studies Institute at the University of Illinois, Chicago, has assembled a cultural history of the Manhattan Engineer District--more familiarly, the Manhattan Project. Calling Los Alamos, N.Mex., Hanford, Wash., and Oak Ridge, Tenn., ""atomic spaces,"" Hales tells the story of their birth by ""military fiat and necessity"" and their emergence as a ""new sort of social landscape."" Hales recounts the often uneasy alliance between the rigid militaristic code of General Leslie Groves, the ""shadowy"" overseer of the MED who stressed ""compartmentalization"" of thought, speech and action in order to insure order and security, and the radically incompatible democratic principles of the scientific community. As Hales notes, the field of atomic physics flourished precisely because information flowed freely among prewar scientists. In the midst of this conflict, there is yet a third element: the actual workers and their families and the attendant social needs of a population that numbered as many as 125,000. The organization of Hales's story is occasionally clumsy--e.g. without any apparent irony, a discussion of radioactive waste segues directly into a description of the toilet facilities in the workers' housing. And while the extensive use of anecdotes and detail often embellishes this work, (e.g., that the code name for U235 was ""`tenure': 2+3+5 = 10; uranium = ure""), at other times it is cumbersome and distracting. Nonetheless, this is an engaging book encompassing everything from utopian architectural plans to the subject of race relations and the role of women. Sixty black-and-white photographs--archival photos and Hales's own photoessay--round out the book. (Oct.)
Reviewed on: 09/29/1997
Release date: 10/01/1997
Genre: Nonfiction
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