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Scientists at Play During Wartime

Ever wondered what life was like for scientists at a lab that didn't officially exist?
Physicist Robert Serber soaks up some rays at Los Alamos. (image: Harold Agnew) 

In 1943 the United States Army established a top secret research facility in Los Alamos New Mexico to build the world's first atomic bomb. It was the greatest assembly of the physicists the world had ever seen. Hundreds of the country's top scientists came together to win World War II by splitting the atom. Early morning on July 16, 1945, the Manhattan Project detonated Trinity, the world's first atomic bomb.

Nearly everyone's seen the famous film of a bright mushroom cloud rising over the desert in the middle of the night. But not everyone's seen footage of what daily life was like for the scientists there. About a year ago, the Lawrence Livermore National Lab released about ten minutes of home movies from physicist Hugh Bradner taken at the lab. (Bradner is also fameous for inventing the neoprene wetsuit.) Weirdly, sometime in the last year they seem to have taken it down.

In celebration of its 70th anniversary Los Alamos (re)released the footage. It's like watching someone's old home movies punctuated with a top secret physics laboratory.


0:38 Scientists ride around in a small truck with tank treads.

1:12 A look at the temporary buildings around the site. The lab was thrown together very quickly so a lot of the facilities the scientists were working in had to be assembled as quickly and cheaply as possible.

1:24 A look at the high explosive storage area. The high explosives were used to compress the plutonium core of the bomb to touch off a runaway chain reaction.

1:30 "The Concrete Bowl" was built in case the bomb fizzled. They could drop it in and cover it with sand to prevent contamination. At the end of the pan you can see a big round metal object. This looks like a scaled down version of the "Jumbo," a huge metal casing that they decided to contain a possible fizzling bomb instead instead of the bowl.

2:17 The high explosive shed.

2:40 A look at the lab's machine room.

3:16 Unloading of big cylinders of either high explosives or possibly radioactive isotopes.

3:46 "Scientists Leaving for the Trinity Test."

4:06 Home movies of people out exploring New Mexico's hiking trails, meeting locals and swimming in the Rio Grande.

5:35 A shot of British physicist James Tuck, master of high explosives.

6:50 Robert Serber, the physicist who named the bombs, takes a break from horseback riding.

7:02 Robert Wilson secures his horse's saddle. He was one of the leaders on the Manhattan Project, and would later go on to found Fermilab.

7:24 Tennis time!

7:50 Skiing at Sawyer Hill Ski Area.

9:00 The wedding of Hugh and Marge Bradner in Santa Fe.

9:30 Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist in charge of Los Alamos, sticks his head into the shot.

And just in case you haven't seen the more famous footage of the Trinity test, you can find it here (the detonation is at 8:16):


  1. So that's what Serber looked like when he was nudish.

  2. Thanks to whoever posted this! Hugh Bradner was an old friend and ismuch missed. He went on to Berkeley and worked with Alvarez, and then changed fields at Scripps in ocean bottom seismometry. Along the way he invented the wet suit and other items relating to scuba diving, had a number of patents, published an encyclopedia of the radulla of molluscs, had a museum class shell collection, and much more. I worked with him on trying to start neutrino astronomy. He and Marge lived out their days in LaJolla. Just don't make em like Brad any more!
    John Learned


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