April 28, 2013

April 28, 2013

Things I’ve Read: The Girls of Atomic City

It’s a fact of life when you work for the government that you can’t often talk about what exactly it is you do. Sometimes this is because you are Jack Bauer. Most of the time it’s nowhere near as cool. But the outcome is the same: “How was your day?” gets answered pretty summarily. You get used to it after awhile, since there are so many other things to do and talk about.

But what if your entire life revolved around work? Such was the case for the people of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a town purpose-built to enrich uranium for the first atomic bomb. The federal government seized the land, threw up a town, shipped people in, and created what I imagine to be some of the most potent paranoia this side of the Inquisition.

The book “The Girls of Atomic City” focuses specifically on a handful of women who did various things at Oak Ridge. One worked in the medical clinic. One cleaned the factory. One worked in the labs. One checked pipe welds. None of them knew (or even guessed much) about what “The Project” actually was. Partially because the utmost care was taken to keep each person focused on their tiny link in the chain. And partially because THEY WERE BUILDING THE FIRST FREAKING NUCLEAR WEAPON.

(Sorry. I get a little excited about this.)

The book cuts between the work at Oak Ridge and the work that went into discovering how an atomic bomb would even work in the first place. As someone who thinks squarely inside the box, I can’t fathom how one would just figure that out one day. Even now, having read about it, all I know is it has something to do with fission. And Fermi.

Anyway, in the throes of World War 2, everybody wanted a way to end this thing tout suite. Some people grew victory gardens, others knitted, and yet others said, “We’re gonna kick Nazi ass with science, so yippee-ki-yay!” It was this last group that got permission to build sites around the country to build “The Gadget.” (One was in Los Alamos, which you may have heard of.) An avalanche of money, men, and materials turned rural Tennessee into a factory town in like 60 days.

Word went far and wide (but quietly, because this is all hush-hush, you know) for people to come to Tennessee. To do something important. But don’t ask what. Just take the train from XXX at XXX and you’ll find out more later. Weird, sure, but it was a job. A job that could help end the war. So people went.

And then shit got real.

You know how this ends, but they didn’t. And reading about the atmosphere is fascinating. The secrecy. The social dynamics. Spies were everywhere, willing to report loose lips. All the while, THEY WERE BUILDING THE FIRST FREAKING NUCLEAR WEAPON.

(Sorry. I get a little excited about this.)

Though my interest in the book was piqued by a newspaper review, the author’s Daily Show interview sealed the deal. Maybe it will for you, as well.

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