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Inventing Los Alamos: cultural and social changes

How did the community of Los Alamos assist in the creation of the atomic bomb during World War II? How did Los Alamos help create the atomic age after the war? As Los Alamos grew richer, what was its effect on neighboring communities? What is the future of nuclear research?



Dr. Jon Hunner, NMSU associate professor of history (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)


These are some of the questions Jon Hunner, associate professor of history at New Mexico State University, will explore at 3:30 p.m., Tuesday, February 21, as the university's College of Arts and Sciences continues its spring 2006 colloquia. The event will take place in Room 107 of the NMSU Science Hall.

During his presentation, Hunner will explore how Los Alamos has changed, both culturally and socially, since the development of the bomb.

"A lot of people from traditional communities would go up to the hill (Los Alamos), get high-paying jobs, return to their traditional communities and continue a lifestyle that had been going on for centuries. In a way, it's paradoxical. For example, the money from Los Alamos allowed people to continue acequia farming at times."

Another significant change occurred during cultural code-switching as people became interested in the Hispanic and Native American cultures. The greatest example of this was J. Robert Oppenheimer, who borrowed from the "Bhagavad Gita," a sacred Hindu text, and said "I am the shatterer of worlds."

"Here's a guy who understood physics, but to explain the fuller implication of what was unleashed in the desert on July 16, 1945, in Alamogordo, when the U.S. tested the world's first atomic bomb in Alamogordo, Oppenheimer switched to Hinduism," Hunner said.

Many of the scientists who converged upon Los Alamos to work on the bomb were highly educated men and women from California or the East Coast. Others emigrated to the U.S. from Europe, fleeing the Nazis and Fascists, Hunner said.

"Some people said Los Alamos was like a mini-United Nations, not just because of the European countries, but also because of the Native American and Hispanic cultures. Scientists who returned to Europe or Cornell or Columbia or the University of Chicago went back with not only an appreciation of technology, but also an appreciation of Native American and Hispanic cultures," Hunner said.

Hunner started digging into the history of Los Alamos in January 1991 when he began his thesis for his master's degree. The more he dug, the more surprises he found, which energized him to dig even further.

"One thing that surprised me is that Los Alamos became more of a suburb of Washington D.C. than of Santa Fe. It had a huge role in national policy, with scientists giving expertise to Congressional committees and the president about what to do with atomic energy. People around the country looked to Los Alamos for guidance in what to do in an atomic age or at least some assurance that everything was going to be okay. Anyone who saw the photos that came out of Hiroshima and Nagasaki said, 'This could happen where I live.'"

As the public looked for reassurance, reporters were not allowed into the lab, Hunner said.

"So Los Alamos became this poster child proclaiming better living, better schools, better families and better community centers. As the public looked at Los Alamos, the view stopped at the fences surrounding the laboratory."

Other colloquia presentations scheduled for this spring semester include:

-"Flying Over Everest: How Do Birds Do It?" - Marvin Bernstein, Department of Biology, Feb. 28, 2006
-"Frank Zappa was Right! Perspectives on the Future of Jazz and Classical Music" - James Shearer, Department of Music, March 14, 2006
-"Crustal Extension and Historical Earthquakes in Central Greece" - Greg Mack, Department of Geological Sciences, March 28, 2006
-"Engine and Enigma: A Learner's Journey" - Kevin McIlvoy, Department of English, April 11, 2006
-"Saving the Ranch: Conservation Easements in New Mexico"- Jack Wright, Department of Geography, April 18, 2006
-"Mexican Descent Youth at the Crossroads of Sameness and Difference: A Mosaic of Youth Cultures and Border Identity" - Cynthia Bejarano, Department of Criminal Justice, April 25, 2006