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Radioactive coyotes and poisoned apples

The strange history of the Manhattan Project

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Before launching season one of WGN America's terrific drama series Manhattan, which returns in fall 2015, Sam Shaw was best known as a writer on the first season of another period drama: Showtime's Masters of Sex. But Shaw had long wanted to do a drama set in the midst of the Manhattan Project and the construction of the world's first atomic bomb, and that preplanning shows in the deliberate, hugely satisfying fashion in which the cable drama's first season played out.

Of course, amid all of that conceptualization, Shaw learned a lot about the Manhattan Project.

"We have our own Alexandrian library of nuclear apocalypse in our offices," he told me, "300 or so volumes and growing."

Because truth is stranger than fiction, we asked him to share some tidbits from his research that might break our brains just a little bit. Some made it into the show, but some were just too weird to be believed and will stay in the historical record only. Below are five of the weirdest things Shaw learned while researching his show.

1) Dead coyotes were key to understanding the dangers of radiation

Sam Shaw: We mostly spent this first season at Los Alamos, which is sort of the hub of the Manhattan Project. But there were a bunch of these secret cities that were built around the country to support the project. One of them that we only glancingly even mention in the first season is Site W, which is this huge operation in Washington state. It's basically this giant factory that was built as this operation between the government and private industry to pump out the plutonium that ultimately was used in the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki.

Sam Shaw

Sam Shaw. (WGN America)

But all of the questions about the health and environmental implications of this crazy operation were completely unanswered at that time. There's this giant factory in the middle of nowhere that is pumping out huge clouds of toxic dust, and nobody knew what it was going to do. So one method the Army hit on to try to get a sense of what the environmental implications were, is that they noticed that these clouds of dust would settle on these local artemisia leaves, like local foliage. And then rabbits would eat the leaves, and then coyotes would eat the rabbits.

So these Army guys would drive around with rifles, and they would poach coyotes. And they had a monthly quota of coyotes that they were gonna kill. And they would autopsy the coyotes, and pull out their thyroids, and measure the levels of iodine in the thyroids of these coyotes.

So basically the canary in the coal mine of medical and environmental safety at Site W was the radioactive iodine in the thyroids of these crazy, nuclear coyotes.

Todd VanDerWerff: Especially as the season has gone on, the Olivia Williams character has gotten very interested in what the health implications of this are. How realistic is that to the time?

Sam Shaw:Really, this story was kind of a true-life science fiction story. Very little was known about what the ancillary implications of radiation and exposure to all of these materials were going to be on the human body. There was very little known about the physiology of irradiation.

There's a story that we tell partway through the season that involves a guy swallowing some plutonium. That actually was inspired by an event that took place at Los Alamos. There was a young scientist named Don Mastick who swallowed some plutonium. And what happened to him is actually pretty similar to what happens to Michael Chernis's character on our show, which is they immediately pumped his stomach and handed him the contents and told him to separate the plutonium from whatever he had eaten for breakfast at the commissary that morning, so that they could retrieve the plutonium and use it, because it was very valuable.

But all of the safety standards in this place were, at best, guesses, and if you're cynical, you could say they were an exercise in smoke and mirrors undertaken by the Army to reassure all of these really brainy human guinea pigs that they were safe, when in fact, the health implications of the work they were doing was completely unknown.

Manhattan WGN America

John Benjamin Hickey stars in Manhattan. (WGN America)

2) Robert Oppenheimer very nearly murdered his tutor — intentionally

Sam Shaw:We don't spend a lot of time with Robert Oppenheimer [the head of the Manhattan Project's special weapons lab and the lead scientist on the project], but he's sort of the protagonist of the big historical story of the Manhattan Project that most people are familiar with. But one thing that people may not know about Oppenheimer is that when he was a student at Harvard, he took a year abroad. He was at Cambridge, and he tried to murder his tutor. And the way that he tried to murder him was very peculiar and kind of amazing, which is that he poisoned an apple with toxic chemicals, and he left this apple out for his tutor to find and snack on. And ultimately, he went back and retrieved it before the guy had a chance to eat it. But it's a very odd thing that this person who later was entrusted with the most expensive, secret military project in human history freelanced as an attempted murderer earlier in his life.

Also a very odd thing about that is, you may know Alan Turing, a very fascinating guy in his own right who cracked the Enigma code and has a movie that is coming out soon with Benedict Cumberbatch playing him. But he committed suicide, and the theory that everybody has is that he ate an apple he had poisoned with arsenic. It's very odd that these two great minds of World War II mathematics and science were both sort of obsessed with poisoned apples. I don't really know what that suggests, other than a great sense of poetic metaphor.

Todd VanDerWerff: Oppenheimer is in this show every so often, but this is mostly a show about imagined characters. How did you decide to tell stories about people you had made up?

Sam Shaw: That was fundamental to the conception of the show from the outset. And part of it was there have been movies and stories about the boldfaced names of history who were associated with this project, about Oppenheimer and about General Groves, who is sort of the military overlord of the entire project. And those guys are incredibly fascinating.

But what really interested me as I got to get more and more immersed in the subject matter was the experience of all of these other thousands of people in this secret town whose stories I hadn't really seen before. And a lot of them, for me, were people who were marginalized in the official histories. I was really interested by the question of what it was to be a spouse in this town. What it was to be uprooted from your life and dragged to this mysterious, secret city on top of a dead volcano, surrounded by barbed wire fences, and not have your partner be able to tell you what it is he's working on at the end of the day when he comes home.

The kind of story that we wanted to tell certainly involves the history and involves the science, but ultimately isn't a docudrama and certainly not a technical history of the development of the bomb, fascinating as that is. It attempts to be a character story about the inner lives of this ensemble cast. From the very beginning, the approach was to populate this carefully researched, historically accurate world with fictional characters.

3) Nothing about life in the Manhattan Project was private

Sam Shaw: For me, the genesis of this whole project, in a way, was the moment when I first read what I think is probably the most astonishing fact of all, but somehow I just hadn't really grasped.

I'd read a little bit about the Manhattan Project, but what I really hadn't understood was that of the thousands of people who lived in this town, this really peculiar town that was built almost overnight, the vast, overwhelming majority of them had no idea what the purpose of the town was until the day in August of 1945 when they turned on their radios and heard that this city in Japan had disappeared in a fraction of a second.

The idea that it was possible for neighbors and friends to perpetrate a secret of that magnitude, it just boggled my mind. We live in this moment when Jay Z gets in a fight with his sister-in-law, and everybody on the planet knows about it 45 minutes later on Twitter. The idea that in spite of that, this $2 billion project that consisted of many, many thousands of people working in this secret city was kept not only from the vice president and Congress but from the very people who were living in those cities — that was breathtaking to me.


Rachel Brosnahan and Ashley Zuckerman play Abby and Charlie Isaacs on Manhattan. (WGN America)

Todd VanDerWerff: What were some of the ways they kept those secrets, and how did you pull those into the show?

Sam Shaw: There were very rigorous codes that dictated what you could say, what you couldn't say in a letter, on a phone call. All of the aspects of a security state that you see on the show — the eavesdropping on phone calls and the censoring of letters, the system of day passes that were issued so that your movement in and out of the place was controlled, this sense of living in a surveillance state — all of that was very, very real.

Beyond that, there were just aspects of the town itself that, by design or not, had the effect of protecting a secret. All of these people were really living right on top of each other in shoddy, ramshackle houses built by this series of companies that would come in and install round after round of these prefab, awful buildings that had paper-thin walls. Everybody was sort of aware of everybody else's business.

So there's really a feeling in the place that one never had any privacy anywhere. So the threat of getting caught if you were saying something you shouldn't be saying to the wrong person was enormous. At the same time, on a personal level, the irony is that it was almost impossible for anybody to keep anything private or to keep any secrets in their private lives. Their neighbors knew if they were having a fight with their husband, or having sex, or if their kid had snuck out. It was very interesting to me.

Todd VanDerWerff: What's the appeal of building a show where everybody's keeping secrets from everybody?

Sam Shaw: The show, it's certainly not an allegory. We didn't sit down to write a story about PRISM or Edward Snowden or the war on terror by writing about a bunch of characters building a bomb in the desert in the 1940s.

But the more I read about the Manhattan Project and the more time I spent thinking about this world, the more it felt like the birthplace of a lot of the cultural problems that we are trying to untangle now, 70 years later. The question of how much transparency we expect from our government and the people who are supposed to be protecting us, and also how much privacy we insist on or give away in our personal lives — that's very interesting to me.

4) Eastman Kodak accidentally found out about the A-bomb before just about anybody else

Sam Shaw: You may know a bit about the Trinity test, which was the first atomic detonation on this planet, a little bit ahead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in the Alamogordo Desert.

There are couple of things I think are very, very fascinating about it. One thing is there's this piece of popular lore that historians of the Manhattan Project love to talk about, which is all of these incredibly brilliant physicists basically set up a betting pool. They were all betting money on the question of what the kiloton payload of the bomb was going to be. A bunch of the Army guys who were hanging around and eavesdropping got very, very nervous, because there was a side pool set up by Enrico Fermi, the brilliant Italian physicist, and the side pool was betting on the question of whether they were going to accidentally set the atmosphere on fire and destroy the world — or possibly just destroy the state of New Mexico. It was a very interesting bet setup, because of course if you bet that the world is going to end, there's no way to collect your money once you've won.

Another great thing about the Trinity test that I absolutely love is that not too long afterward, Eastman Kodak got a lot of complaints from customers that their film was fucked up. It was foggy. And they couldn't figure out what the problem was until eventually they realized that the cardboard packaging for the film, which was made out of these husks from corn that was grown in Indiana, was contaminated with nuclear fallout from the Trinity test a thousand miles away. Customers returning fogged up film caused Eastman Kodak to accidentally discover that the United States Army had detonated the world's first atomic bomb in the middle of the New Mexico desert.

Todd VanDerWerff: The pacing of this season is very deliberate, and the series is probably building up to this detonation. Do you have a sense of how much you want to cover before you get there?

Sam Shaw: There are two answers to that question. One has to do with the chunk of history that we wanted to address. This whole season was, in its way, built around a lot of historical facts, but there was one in particular that became very important to us. In early 1944, it was discovered that the bomb design that the Army and the science staff at Los Alamos had invested basically all of their time and resources in developing was not going to work. It resulted in a very radical restructuring of the entire project. It was a really terrifying moment for everyone involved with the Manhattan Project.

Ultimately, it fell to what in reality was a ragtag operation of a few guys and a chalkboard and a much more technically complicated and in some ways conceptually brilliant change to the bomb design, the implosion bomb, to deliver a working atomic weapon. That was a fact that served as a jumping-off point for a lot of the dramatization.

We spent a lot more time talking and thinking about where we wanted to take the characters, what the relationship between Frank and Charlie would be along various points in this season. But we knew very early on that the arc of the history that we'd be biting off really had to do with this movement from Frank's place at the furthest margins of this project to a moment at the end of this season where he's essentially validated and gets what he has wanted for this whole season, but gets it in the worst way possible.


Olivia Williams stars in Manhattan. (WGN America)

5) The US had another secret bomb project underway in New Mexico. It involved bats.

Sam Shaw: Okay, well, here's the craziest one for you. This is the fact that always wins the ice cream cake for me.

In 1943 there were actually two secret bomb projects being financed by the Army in New Mexico, and the other one was conceived by this guy who was a dentist from Pennsylvania who was a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. He was vacationing in Carlsbad Caverns right around the time of Pearl Harbor, and he was hanging out in these caves full of Mexican free-tailed bats.

He learns that Pearl Harbor has been bombed, and he has this lightning strike of inspiration. He decides that he wants to build a bomb that will turn the tide of the war that will involve taking Mexican free-tailed bats and attaching little incendiary devices to their feet and then sticking them into bomb casings and dropping those bomb casings out of airplanes over Japanese cities.

The idea is a little parachute would pop out. The bats would be released. They would fly away and roost under the eaves of Japanese houses, which were traditionally built out of wood and paper — very, very highly flammable materials — and then, on a timer, the incendiary devices would explode, and whole cities would be destroyed in these fires that would run amok and terrorize Japan.

Incredibly, he made some phone calls. Eleanor Roosevelt was supportive. The Army wrote a gigantic check and set up this operation, and the project was only shut down considerably later when, finally, somebody informed whoever was overseeing the project that there was this other secret bomb mission taking place not very far away that seemed considerably more promising.

Todd VanDerWerff: Did you at any time think about making a show about the bat people?

Sam Shaw: You'll have to wait for like season 17 of our show. It's more of a farce. Maybe a half-hour. But nothing would make me happier.

Although having inflicted a cat, a scorpion, and a herd of goats on our production staff over the course of this season, I don't think anybody wants to see me writing bats into our show.

Todd VanDerWerff: You've mentioned this as true science fiction a couple of times, and it plays almost like a mystery show where we know the solution to the mystery. How do you build that tension out of a story where we absolutely know how it's going to end?

Sam Shaw: There are great perils dramatically in telling a story whose ending, at least in some meaningful way, is known by our audience, and there are great advantages. It creates opportunities for some really interesting story structures, opportunities for dramatic irony when some aspects of the end of the story are already known to the audience.

It's not an accident that you see so much storytelling in television over the last five or 10 years where the beginning of an episode or the beginning of a pilot reveal some piece of information from the end of the story, and the energy and fun of the storytelling involves the puzzling efforts on the part of the audience to figure out how we're going to arrive at that final image. It's almost now become a kind of narrative cliché.

So writ large, that's sort of the challenge with us. And, of course, there are models, whether they're aesthetically close to the strike zone for the show that we set out to make or not. Titanic is the most obvious example. But the mission for us became figuring out how to construct a story where the driving questions aren't ultimately who's going to win the war or is the bomb going to work, but they're the sort of human questions associated with it. So it becomes more of a howdunit or whydunit than a whodunit.

Todd VanDerWerff: You were renewed, but this show has flown way under the radar. What has that been like?

Sam Shaw: Here's the thing: Somebody asked me a couple days ago if I am gratified by the fact that there's so much incredibly great TV these days that it's hard to find an audience as a new show that's trying to do something interesting or not. For me, as a viewer and as somebody who works in this business, it's so exciting and so gratifying that there's so much great TV right now. I wouldn't, for a second, bemoan that fact. It's a great gift. Writing teacher Ethan Canin, the novelist, used to say he didn't consider himself a writer so much as a reader moved to emulation. And I feel the same way. I loved probably a lot of the same shows that you loved. It's a crowded field, let's put it that way.

But for us, I think there was so much work involved by so many hundreds of people to try to make a television show any good. It's enormously hard to make a TV show that's terrible, but to make a TV show that you're proud of is back-breakingly hard work. The good news, I think, for us is that I didn't really spend a lot of time sweating it or worrying about whether we had hit the zeitgeist in the way that one might hope to yet. We just set out to make the best show that we could, and we loved doing it. We're really proud of it. It's been really gratifying that WGN has been so supportive of us. The coolest thing of all to me is that we get to keep doing it now, and I really hope that some people will join the party in progress, and I hope they like what they see.

Todd VanDerWerff: Where are you at in the process of figuring out what season two looks like?

Sam Shaw: I spent a lot of years thinking about this show before we started production so I had a lot of time to think about what season two looks like, season three and beyond, so a lot of scripts are getting written somewhere in some anteroom in the back of my head. Because I'm a superstitious creature, I definitely have not opened a Final Draft document and typed "Fade In" or anything.

Lead image: Shutterstock
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