Of all the new television shows to premiere last fall, my favorite was Manhattan, a fictionalized retelling of the development of nuclear weapons at Los Alamos during WWII. As a historian of 20th-century science and as the curator for the Tolman/Bacher House at Caltech (both Tolman and Bacher played large roles in the Manhattan Project and its aftermath), this show is especially exciting to me, but it also has the potential to seriously misrepresent the history I care about. To achieve their dramatic goals while avoiding some of this risk of pseudo-history, the show creators pursued a really interesting strategy. All of the main characters (aside from a couple of important figures, like Oppenheimer) are completely fictional, operating within the larger (mostly historical) framework. I wanted to know how much of the history and science they get “right” on the show and what that really means when you’re dealing with a tradeoff between drama and reality, so I spoke with science writer and former Director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange Jennifer Ouellette and Executive Director of the Los Alamos Historical Society Heather McClenahan about their impressions of the show. Both Ouellette and LAHS held weekly events to recap and discuss new episodes as they aired. What was the consensus? Manhattan certainly doesn’t portray everything at Los Alamos as it would have been, and some exaggerations didn’t go over well with its former and current residents. It did succeed, however, in portraying scientists at work and McClenahan noticed a decided uptick in tourism resulting from the show. Overall, everyone seems happy enough with a show designed not as a documentary, but as a vehicle to explore the timeless issues of secrecy, privacy, and surveillance. It’s been renewed for a second season, and I have reason to believe the show will have an excellent reference on hand when it comes to history. I, for one, can’t wait!
These brilliant opening titles appeared in the third episode and added A LOT to the show (for me). Talk about a way to visually represent the all-too-human connotations of “implosion.”