Remember Los Alamos

The Bradbury Science Museum tells the story of the making of the atomic bomb in the place where the bomb was born.

By Sarah Reisert | August 15, 2014

Bradbury Science Museum
1350 Central Avenue
Los Alamos, NM 87544

The Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), best known for its role in the Manhattan Project, is a secret facility on a remote mesa where the brightest minds in the country came together to create the most destructive weapon the world had ever seen. LANL is still a functioning lab today and remains the largest employer in northern New Mexico. One tiny part of the lab is devoted to the Bradbury Science Museum, whose origins date to the early 1950s. Robert Krohn, director of the early nuclear tests, decided the laboratory needed a museum. At first the collection was open only to official lab visitors because of the classified nature of the material. But 10 years later the public museum was born after unclassified exhibits were added.

The Bradbury Science Museum (named for Norris Bradbury, LANL’s second director) is small but visually appealing from the first glance. An enormous aerial photo of Los Alamos and the vast red vista of the Jemez Mountains greets visitors, with local landmarks and laboratory buildings marked with tiny, colored pins. Behind the panel a short video promises an overview of what LANL is up to today, but it is only the opening sequence from a television show about the lab; I came away dissatisfied, hoping the rest of the museum would flesh out what the video only sketched.

Each of the Bradbury’s three galleries has a doorway topped with illuminated titles: one reads “Defense: Strengthening Global Security”; another, “Research: Science Serving Society”; and the third, “History: The Nuclear Age Begins.” The defense and research galleries share one large room with many small stations ranging from a timeline of World War II to a nanotechnology exhibit. There is little rhyme or reason to the placement, and exploring the brightly lit stations made me feel a little like a ball bouncing around in a pinball machine: Plutonium! (Ching!) Fuels from algae! (Dingaling!) Underground testing! (DING DING DING!) Many of the stations provide a phone number to call to listen to a current Los Alamos scientist discuss his or her work on a particular topic, lending a personal touch to subjects that are frequently vast in scope. A 16-minute film, Stockpile Stewardship: Heritage of Science at Los Alamos, runs in a theater off the defense gallery, giving the hows and whys of maintaining the United States’ aging nuclear weapons.

The history gallery is more self-contained and better thought out. Timelines of both the Manhattan Project and the world at large stretch along the room’s main wall, which is dotted with screens playing historical video clips. Copies of newspaper articles and photographs, personal letters from laboratory staff, and even the camera that recorded the Trinity nuclear test took me back in time. Life-sized, all-white models of Norris Bradbury and J. Robert Oppenheimer stand by the wall like frozen ghosts haunting the gallery. At the end of the room a display of trinitite—sand melted into greenish glass by the Trinity test—offers both old and new theories of how the explosion created it. Also on display is a model of the detonation mechanism for the “Fat Man” type of plutonium-core bomb (like the one dropped on Nagasaki), with a refreshingly clear explanation of how it works.

Along a wall in the history gallery are framed black-and-white photographs of those who worked at LANL during World War II. The exhibit is titled “They Changed the World: The People of Project Y at Los Alamos, 1943–1945,” and each portrait is accompanied by a small panel with the subject’s name, what they did (from sergeants and scientists to schoolteachers and secretaries), and their thoughts on being part of the Los Alamos community at that crucial time. A second theater leads off this gallery, showing The Town That Never Was, a 16-minute film on the Manhattan Project and the work carried out at Los Alamos between 1942 and 1945. While reminiscent of early newsreels, it is downright kitschy in places.

Average sightseers might not find a visit to the Bradbury worth the cliff-hanging, hour-long drive through the Jemez Mountains from Santa Fe, and those already versed in the lab’s history won’t learn anything new. But if you’re an aficionado of the Manhattan Project, it might be worth the pilgrimage if only to stare out over the rugged mesa and think, as General Leslie Groves did when he first selected the site, “This is the place.”