Albuquerque libraries have an interesting feature that I’ve not seen before at other libraries — during the winter months a library patron can check out a pass to visit some of the local museums free of charge. Most museums in Albuquerque have an entry fee so this is a nice perk for having a library card.
We visited the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History this past weekend. Albuquerque and New Mexico were heavy into nuclear research and experimentation from the very start. The Manhattan Project was based at Los Alamos and the first atomic bomb was detonated over at the Trinity Site near White Sands.
The museum has an amazing array of relics and replicas of atomic bombs and the early years of nuclear science. They have replicas of the original Trinity device, the “Gadget”, as well as the “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” bombs used over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. There are displays showing how the Germans and Japanese were working on creating an atomic bomb and, not surprisingly, I guess, the scientists seemed to know each other. Japan bought some of it’s early equipment from UC at Berkeley. It was a tight little group of people who understood nuclear science back then.
In my case, and probably many other visitor’s, I was gripped with two reactions to the museum displays. The “Gee whiz, isn’t science grand” reaction comes from seeing how the science works and how dedicated and the early nuclear pioneers were. The challenges were seemingly insurmountable and they really didn’t fully understand what was happening in the early years. Madame Curie won two Nobel prizes one for physics and one for chemistry but died from her long-term exposure to radiation. The unknown danger and sad history of atomic warfare prompted the second reaction I had. The Trinity device that was detonated in 1945 was a a scary event. The scientists thought they understood what would happen but were not entirely sure.
There are a number of displays dealing with the bomb blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A lot of people are still conflicted about the use of the atomic bombs to end WW-II. The photographs and some few relics give an idea of how powerful and devastating the bombs were and how many people lost their lives instantly and in the months and years following the war. There are photos of the human shadows etched in the sidewalks and on walls of the few buildings that withstood the blasts. These were people going about their daily routine who didn’t know atomic energy existed. In some photos it is strange to see what survived. Tall smokestacks stand almost unscathed in the miles of broken rubble.
The power and devastation of the 1945 bombs is almost nothing compared to what was developed later. There were a number of Hydrogen bombs that were lost. I was surprised to see just how many bombs were lost or dropped accidentally. One was accidentally dropped here in Albuquerque from a height of about 1500 feet — too low for the parachute to slow it down — and it exploded on impact but was not charged for nuclear detonation…luckily. It created a huge crater but nothing else.
This is the scary part…for me, anyway…once we start sending people out in planes and submarines loaded with armed hydrogen bombs there is a strong likelihood that something unplanned will happen. It is still a scary prospect given the current world events.
As a Baby Boomer, I spent part of my school years under my desk and I distinctly recall the Cuban Missile Crisis and the fact that people were sending their kids out of the city to live with rural relatives while things heated up. Recent stories have come out that the US and Soviets were much closer to nuclear war than we even knew at the time. Later we developed and used some low-grade nuclear weapons – some fired from artillery or bazooka-type weapons….but not the big stuff. I was taken by how the atomic age was reflected in popular culture . Even while we were hiding under our desks at school, at home we were reading comics about Atomic Rabbit and Superboy’s atomic exploits.
There is a display on uranium mining in New Mexico — apparently we have a lot of the stuff. There is an old child’s board game on display where the players go out prospecting for uranium. I guess back then everyone wanted to make some yellow-cake instead of meth — science is so cool!!
There are a number of displays and exhibits on nuclear power and how nuclear reactors create electricity and how it gets to your toaster. These are somewhat technical and nothing is blowing up so it is sort of anticlimactic although maybe it’s the most important and relevant part of the museum. You have to go through the history and development first and that isn’t all that reassuring.
The museum is very interesting and it does what museums should do — makes you come away with a expanded perspective on things. There is a back lot behind the museum filled with dozens of military planes and missiles. We didn’t take the time to wander around the planes on our visit but there were a number of people who were visiting who were retired Air Force and had personal knowledge of the planes. One WW-II veteran was visiting the museum and he had first hand knowledge of the early atomic era in the military.