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"Forget the Rest" blog


TIME magazine

Monday, Dec. 10, 1979

Los Alamos: A City Upon a Hill
By Joseph Kane

Los Alamos is a majestic ivory mesa artificially painted onto the national landscape by men named Oppenheimer, Fermi, Bohr, Feynman, Kistiakowsky, Szilard and Fuchs. "At great expense, we have gathered on this mesa the largest collection of crackpots ever seen," General Leslie R. Groves told his assembled officers at the remote outpost in the New Mexico wilderness during the darkest days of World War II. "And it's your job to keep them happy."

Happy or not, the crackpots soon unleashed the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse, the atomic bomb. Ever since, Los Alamos, like Bethlehem in Judea, has been a place difficult to visit in a neutral frame of mind. Los Alamos is part rich, overachieving exurb beset by worldly goods and ills familiar all over the U.S., but raised to the nth power; part lonely company town. But, above all, it is an intellectual hothouse not quite like any other.

The social fallout hangs heavy in the mountain air. A rock group came to play at the high school a few years back and was threatened with nonpayment if its members dared live up to their reputation for dropping acid. Yet even the performers were aghast at the drugs being passed around by the local students. The usual tales of suburban wife swapping, alcoholism, mental illness, divorce and suicide seem intensified by isolation. Laura Fermi, widow of Physicist Enrico Fermi, once described the genesis of the town's problems: "We were too many of a kind, too close to one another, too unavoidable even during relaxation hours."

J. Robert Oppenheimer suggested the mesa between the Jemez and Sangre de Cristo mountains as the site for "Project Y" because it was one of his favorite places to hike. When the Army came in 1943 to build the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory and develop the bomb, the only real homes were the vacated faculty houses of the exclusive Los Alamos Ranch School for Boys. Their most prized features were bathtubs. The lowly had to rough it in barracks-like apartments on "Gold Street" or in the clanging metal "Denver steels" hastily built with shower stalls only. Bachelor Klaus Fuchs was the favorite baby sitter. The Fermis won everyone's heart by living down with the showers. That did not keep the bathtub from becoming a status symbol and houses from being assigned by prestige points. To this day, "Bathtub Row" is to Los Alamos what Sutton Place is to Manhattan or Nob Hill to San Francisco.

Residents claim Los Alamos has the same joys and vicissitudes as any other smallish town. Among the obvious joys are splendid skiing, fishing, riding just minutes away. But to an outside visitor Los Alamos seems uneasy, an unnatural civic transplant of 19,500 souls, where a man is known, or unknown, by the sensitized badge he wears. Directly or indirectly, the Los Alamos Scientific Lab still employs everybody in town.

Fully half of the Lab's $385 million appropriation is spent on weapons development, and the nocturnal thuds of high explosives testing tend to be reassuring rather than disruptive of sleep. Nuclear devices designed at the Lab end up as the heart of MIRV warheads in Minuteman missiles. The new Trident missile will carry a nuclear warhead designed at the Lab. Theoreticians and physicists specializing in thermodynamics are drilling holes into nearby sites to reach "hot rocks" that will provide geothermal power. A special reverence is held for LAMPF, the Los Alamos Meson Physics Facility. There, one of the most powerful linear proton accelerators in existence is using a particle called a pion to treat certain cancers. Because of the technique's pinpoint accuracy, it is a possible substitute for dreaded cobalt and X-ray therapy.

Absorbed as they are with chat about cyclotrons and linear accelerators, Los Alamos scientists entertain little but avuncular contempt for people who reject the inevitability of nuclear power "until their lights go out." Says a nuclear engineer in S division: "People will believe in myths until the energy and oil crisis is a reality. There was uncertainty and near panic at Three Mile Island, but people will realize it was not all that bad."

Technical excellence has been bought at a social price. The remoteness and boredom frustrate the wives who accompanied their husbands up the hill. "They're overeducated for the kind of life they lead," says Lab Staff Psychologist Frances Menlove. The sense of hush-hush urgency that still dominates the work of the Lab spills over into the social life. Gossip rains down like radioactive dust. Status symbols are precise and demanding, though in Los Alamos as in places like Cambridge, Mass., class is projected through such things as battered cars and withered clothes. Nuclear families here "are headed by a father who never had a stray thought, uncertainty or doubt," explains Father Ronald L. Bruckner, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Roman Catholic Church. "These are self-made men who, if they had a doubt, also had a standard deviation formula to solve it."

"Once these guys become expert scientists," gripes a school administrator, "they also become instant theologians, politicians, writers and city planners." They apply highly theoretical formulas to civic problems and arrogantly demand results. At the county headquarters each winter, when snow threatens, there is a learned controversy, sometimes complete with flow charts and probability curves, over the proper way to salt the perilous roads running down into the canyons.

Sophisticated debate also rages over whether to enact a cat-leash ordinance. George Welles, editor of the tiny Los Al amos Monitor, routinely gets letters correcting spelling and punctuation errors.

Since the use of alcohol often grows from both boredom and tension, it is not surprising that Los Alamos buys as much liquor each year as an average town of twice its size. Says Charles King, former director of the Los Alamos Council on Alcoholism: "The people here refuse to admit they can lose control, and that leads them to deny they have to drink. Once they admit they have a problem, they use the same systems analysis as on the job to lick it faster. But we have one of the worst closet drinking problems in the country."

It exists mostly among bored wives, quite a few of whom hold doctoral degrees. There are more than 250 clubs and associations designed to liven up the leaden hours of the day. "But," says King, "their self-esteem is zero. They don't want to be a hindrance to their husbands. Wives never knock the Lab. There is reverence for the Lab. It is never the bad guy."

Like women in any affluent suburb, the women resort to real estate selling, bank clerking, helping out in the school libraries. Says Marjorie Bell Chambers, member of President Carter's Advisory Committee for Women, who flies in and out of Los Alamos, where her husband is a physicist: "We have our stitch and bitch clubs, but our women get terribly upset about the lack of jobs."

Children are subjected to enormous pressure. They are bright, aggressive, tense, patronizing. Teen-agers laugh at openly intellectual classmates, called coneheads, who carry calculators on their belts, and at the "stomps," fraternity types who go about in cowboy boots. "Loadies" drink and smoke things, and any mixing with the Indians or "low ride" Mexicans down in the valley is slumming. "We are prejudiced against everybody," snarls one high school girl. "We are rich and white." Frances Mueller first realized the effects of this rarefied atmosphere when her children came back from college and whined, "Gee, Mom, you didn't tell us about poverty." History Teacher Betty Aiello once asked on a test, "What does World War II mean to you?" Two of the answers came back: "Nothing."

Teachers take up where parental frowns at a C grade leave off. Names of students accepted to college are published on the chalkboard — for all to see constantly. "If the children are abused at all," says Father Bruckner, "the abuse is psychological and emotional." One student, he recalls, requested that a class be given on "how I can have a real friend." A supercharged college-bound boy shocked his demanding father by announcing that if he had to live his life over again, he would like to try it as a Teddy bear — so he could be hugged. — Joseph Kane

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