History or Herstory? The Women of the Manhattan Project

(Original picture by Laura Haney.)

(Original picture by Laura Haney.)

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR SEASONS 1-2 OF MANHATTAN TO FOLLOW.

 

Set in the 1940s, in the middle of World War II, Manhattan tells the story of scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, and gives insight into the lives of the families along for the ride. US scientists were in a race with German scientists to develop an atomic bomb that could bring an end to the war. One of the most interesting features of Manhattan is that it highlights the experiences of female scientists who were part of the project, as well as the wives and mothers of the male scientists. Although the characters in the show are fictional, the writers pulled their material from the real-life experiences of people who lived at the project site in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

While most of the people who were a part of the Manhattan Project have since passed away, the writers of Manhattan had access to over 100 oral histories taken over several decades, made available through the Voices of the Manhattan Project archive. They also drew from a book called “Their Day in the Sun: The Women of the Manhattan Project” by Ruth H. Howes and Caroline L. Herzenberg. Most characters on the show are amalgamations of stories from real people; a “stew” of personalities. That said, one of the real-life women who “haunted” the character Helen Prins was Lise Meitner, a scientist who helped to split the atom but did not share the Nobel Prize. “She was definitely part of the Helen stew,” said Manhattan writer Lila Byock.
 

(Photo credit: Skydance Media/WGN America)

Depiction of female scientists in a male-dominated field can be tricky. The stereotype of female scientists as tomboyish or socially awkward is written into many characters in modern TV shows (e.g. Temperance Brennan in Bones, or Amy Farrah Fowler in The Big Bang Theory). Not so in Manhattan. Helen Prins works side-by-side with her male counterparts, and struggles to keep her personal and professional life separate. She is seen neither as boyish or awkward, nor is she seen as a sex object in the workplace. Another scientist, Liza Winter, is also the wife of one of the leaders of the Los Alamos lab, Frank Winter. In addition to keeping their home running while her husband works in the lab, she is also a botanist with a PhD, and carries out experiments in her own backyard. I asked Byock why the writers felt the need to add another female scientist to the mix, when she was not a part of the actual Manhattan Project. As it turns out, Liza's situation was not unheard of - many of the relocated women had advanced educations. Oppenheimer's wife was a professional botanist herself. The writers included Liza because they did not just want to show the audience a stereotypical 1940s relationship between men and women. “We wanted to highlight at least one marriage of equals,” says Byock, who was quick to point out that the portrayal of the female characters is largely due to the amazing work of the lead actresses on the show - Katja Herbers (who plays Helen Prins), Rachel Brosnahan (Abby Isaacs), and Olivia Williams (Liza Winter). “Not only are they all loud and proud feminists,” says Byock, “but they would accept nothing less than complex, three-dimensional characters.”
 

(Photo credit: Skydance Media/WGN America)

While the show highlights the experience of the scientists of the Manhattan Project, much of Manhattan focuses on the lives of the families of the scientists. These were women who were uprooted from their lives and relocated to the middle of the desert without ever being told why. Many did not know what their husbands were working on until the day the bomb was dropped. Some of these women had advanced degrees, and were forced to leave their own careers to become housewives in a very isolating environment. It was actually the experiences of these families that inspired the writers to create Manhattan. While one might think that being sent to, effectively, an army camp in the middle of the desert sounds horrific, many of the families from Los Alamos recalled their time there as the best time of their lives. “They later described it as an idyllic moment,” says Byock. “They were living in a small town with some of the smartest people in the world.”

Given the purpose of the Manhattan Project, one might imagine that the characters would also struggle with the moral implications of their work. When the bombs were dropped in 1945 on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, over 110,000 people were killed [1]. But many of the scientists and engineers associated with the project were unaware that the bomb would be used on people. They assumed it was only to be used for a demonstration, and they thought would be used in the fight against Germany, not Japan. These scientists were working 7 days a week, sometimes 18 hour days. Many simply didn't have time to sit around and think about moral consequences. They were busy solving complex math and physics problems. It was exciting; they were splitting the atom. “I think Helen probably didn't have the patience for moral struggles,” says Byock. “she just wanted to do cutting edge science.”
 

(Photo credit: Skydance Media/WGN America)

Manhattan ends with the Trinity Test - the first detonation of a nuclear weapon by the United States military. But in real life, the scientists in the show had to return to civilian life when the project was over. This was an easier transition for some than others. In the show, Helen Prins points out the harsh reality for female scientists of the time. Speaking with one of her male counterparts about future job prospects, she says “After the war, you'll get tenure wherever you want... I'll fight to get an adjunct job at Podunk Junior College, but I don't give a ****, because for however long the war lasts, I get to do what I love.” Byock recalls a particular scene in Manhattan that strikes a chord with her. In the final episode, Helen is barred from attending the Trinity Test, but sneaks in anyway. She goes to see Charlie (the physicist who ultimately leads the group that creates the bomb used in the Trinity Test), and they look up at the bomb together - this “beautiful monster” that they helped create. “They both realize it was all worth it for that moment,” says Byock.

 

Season 1 of Manhattan is available on Hulu and Amazon. Seasons 1 and 2 are available on iTunes.

 

 

Laura Haney (@LauraVican)
Signal to Noise Co-founder and COO
PhD, Physics and Astronomy

 

References:
[1] "U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey: The Effects of the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki"(PDF). Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum. 19 June 1946: 9, 36. Retrieved 15 March 2009.