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Science and the military converged under a cloak of secrecy at Los Alamos National Laboratory. As part of the Manhattan Project, Los Alamos — both its very existence and the work that went on there — was kept from Americans during World War II.

Many of the thousands of scientists on the project were not officially aware of what they were working on. Though they were not permitted to talk to anyone about their work, including each other, by 1945 some had figured out that they were in fact building an atomic bomb.

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In 1943 J. Robert Oppenheimer was named the director of the Bomb Project at Los Alamos, a self-contained area protected -- and completely controlled -- by the U.S. Army. Special driver's licenses had no names on them, just ID numbers.

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Robert Oppenheimer's wife Kitty was not above scrutiny. All who were affiliated with the project -- and their spouses -- were thoroughly screened and had a security file with the FBI.

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Less than a year after Oppenheimer proposed using the remote desert site for the laboratory, Los Alamos was already home to a thousand scientists, engineers, support staff… and their families. By the end of the war the population was over 6,000, and the compound included amenities like this barber shop.

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Atomic Bomb Project employees having lunch at Los Alamos. Though food was often in scant supply, residents made the best of life in their isolated community by putting on plays and organizing Saturday night square dances. Some singles’ parties in the dormitories reportedly served a brew of lab alcohol and grapefruit juice, cooled with dry ice out of a 32-gallon GI can.

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Completely self-contained, the Los Alamos facility did not officially exist in its early years except as a post office box. Scientists’ families were mostly kept in the dark about the nature of the project, learning the truth only after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

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Credited with inventing the cyclotron, University of California-Berkeley physicist Ernest Lawrence (squatting, center) looks on as Robert Oppenheimer points out something on the 184” particle accelerator. Harvard University supplied the cyclotron that was used to develop the atomic bomb.

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The Trinity bomb was the first atomic bomb ever tested. It was detonated in the Jornada del Muerto (Dead Man’s Walk) Desert, near Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945. The test was a resounding success. The United States would drop similar bombs on Japan just three weeks later.

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Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves inspect the melted remnants of the 100-foot steel tower that held the Trinity bomb. Ensuring that the testing of a bomb with unknown strength would remain completely secret, the government chose a location that was so remote they had to import their water from over 150 miles away.

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Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves stand in front of a map of Japan, just five days before the bombing of Hiroshima.

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Though there was no evidence that Oppenheimer had betrayed his country in any way, several officials called his loyalty into question in the Cold War environment of 1954. After being subjected to months of hearings, “the most famous physicist in the world” eventually lost his government security clearance.

|Reprinted courtesy of TIME Magazine

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