Review of “Inventing Los Alamos” – Atomic utopia and urban paradox



I just had the pleasure of reading a most interesting book entitled, Inventing Los Alamos: The Growth of an Atomic Community by Jon Hunner.  Part historical account, part urban planning study, Inventing Los Alamos is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in nuclear science, the Atomic Age, military history, World War II history, land use planning, politics, and even sociology. The book presents a detailed description of the city’s founding as a secret government installation for the development of the atomic bomb and its gradual transformation into an open, scientific community located in the scenic remnants of an extinct volcano.

In certain respects, Los Alamos may have felt utopian to those working and living there, given its setting; federally funded housing, infrastructure, and economy; stellar school system; security; and other positive aspects. But, beneath those layers of glossy veneer also resided some of the most lethal research known to humankind, along with the potential for adverse side-effects from groundbreaking nuclear science. Few places its size can claim to have sites called “Acid Canyon” or known radioactive dumping grounds less than a quarter-mile from a school. Few other cities could be rendered inhabitable for centuries due to a minor miscalculation or an error in judgment. And few other cities were the A-number one target on the Soviet military’s atomic/nuclear weapon hit parade.

The level of detail in Inventing Los Alamos is quite impressive. Furthermore, Mr. Hunner does a masterful job of highlighting the paradox between the positive aspects of living in Los Alamos, while never pulling punches about the moral and ethical issues, let alone the inherent dangers, associated with the work/research that took place there, particularly during World War II and the Cold War. Here are a few quotes from the book that will provide a glimpse about it:

  • “To be sure, the laboratory at Los Alamos did concoct a new weapon and usher in a new age, but it also invented a new community.”
  • “…the residential area was the first place in the United States that families encountered the challenges of the Atomic Age and invented identities to respond to that challenge.”
  • “Due to the consuming urgency of the bomb project and wartime shortages, the initial attempt to create a utopian community at Los Alamos failed, but the town received a second chance. During the postwar era, it self-consciously reinvented itself as a model community of the future, an Atomic City on the Hill for all to see.”
  • “Despite their pride in ending the war, and the jubilation, many residents of Los Alamos held mixed emotions about their creation.”
  • “For a town that didn’t exist, Los Alamos attracted a lot of people.”
  • “One had to be careful in the atomic landscape surrounding Los Alamos because it held a treacherous beauty.”
  • “The strong school system at Los Alamos was an advertisement for the promise of the atom and an atomic utopia.”
  • When young people left the Hill [nickname for Los Alamos], they experienced a world alien to the one they knew, where nuclear weapons sometimes evoked negative reactions.”


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