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109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 26, 2005

4.5 out of 5 stars 189 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Conant, author of the bestselling Tuxedo Park, offers a human look at the brilliant physicists who for more than two years, along with their families, lived, laughed, despaired and rejoiced in a secret, sequestered, for some claustrophobic city in the New Mexico desert. Despite its grand name, 109 East Palace was the nondescript office in Santa Fe that served as a gateway to the Los Alamos complex. The narrative is framed by the perspective of Dorothy McKibben, who, in running that office, issuing security passes and coordinating logistics, was, says Conant, the "gatekeeper" to the hidden world of Los Alamos. Conant focuses on the day-to-day experience of the scientists, technicians and families stationed at Los Alamos, fleshing out their history in unexpected ways. While her protagonists are brilliant men and women, they're also vibrant characters who chafe at authority, fall in love, argue over housing and drink to excess. Less about the science of building the bomb, the book highlights the creation of a unique place and time in which that bomb could be built, and Conant (the granddaughter of a Manhattan Project administrator) brings to life the colorful, eccentric town of thousands that sprang up on a New Mexico mesa and achieved the unthinkable. Agent, Christine Dahl. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New Yorker

In 1943, a young widow named Dorothy McKibbin was hired as Oppenheimer's assistant to run the Santa Fe office of the secret weapons laboratory at Los Alamos. At 109 East Palace Avenue, she greeted newly arrived scientists, reminding them to use their aliases while in town and never to identify themselves as physicists. Conant, whose grandfather was a Manhattan Project administrator, mostly sidesteps political issues to focus on the absurdities of day-to-day life at the desert lab. McKibbin fielded numerous complaints from the scientists' wives, who had to struggle with massive coal-belching stoves, hand-churned washing machines, and a chronic shortage of diapers. Meanwhile, their husbands, when not handling plutonium, drank heavily and played pranks: once, the operator of the P.A. system was heard paging Werner Heisenberg, who was otherwise engaged, in Germany, designing the Nazi bomb.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (April 26, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743250079
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743250078
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.4 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (189 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #670,019 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Wayne Klein HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 7, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Everybody knows J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller and many of the military minds that directed the effort to develop the atomic bomb. Nobody outside of Los Alamos knew Dorothy McKibben. McKibben who ran 109 East Palace was like the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of this war time "Hamlet"-like drama; she viewed the action not from the heart of the research but from the outside at the gateway where she issued security passes, helped new personnel settle in, dealt with complaints about water pressure, food supplies, etc. She knew everything and nothing about the community she helped as she wasn't privy to the secret goal of the Los Alamos community.

While author Jennet Conant doesn't ignore the work they were trying to accomplish, she focuses on the human element that made it possible for the work to occur. Conant provides a detailed and intimate look into the insular community that labored to build the ultimate bomb to finish the "ultimate war". One of the most fascinating sections of the book called "Summer Lighning" deals with Klaus Fuchs who arrived at Los Alamos after doing research for the Manhattan Project on gaseous diffusion. He came to help figure out the implosion problem at the request of Peierls a German physcist working in the US. McKibben never had a suspicion that Fuchs might be betraying the secret work at Los Alamos to the Soviets until it was too late.

Conant who it is noted is the granddaughter of James B. Conant (the chief administrator on the Manhattan Project)has a unique insider's perspective. Conant doesn't shy away from the issue about Oppenheimer's loyalty; she reports that Captain Peer de Silva took an immediate dislike to Oppenheimer and believed, based on his file, that Oppenheimer would betray the United States in a hot second.
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Format: Hardcover
Ten years ago, I taught part-time at the University of New Mexico's small Los Alamos campus. One day a huge thunderstorm marooned me in the lobby of the building along with a cheerful elderly woman who, I soon learned, had come to Los Alamos as a WAC to work on the Manhattan Project. For the next half-hour, I heard her fascinating stories about the laboratory and the community during the early years. When the rain finally stopped and we parted, I reflected that, although the scientific aspects of the project had been amply documented, there was another human story still waiting to be written.

I'm glad that Jennet Conant has written that story. Besides having an "inside track" through her grandfather's involvement in the Manhattan Project, she was able to access Dorothy McKibbin's memoirs, and she also makes good use of other unpublished materials as well as interviewing the people involved. This isn't a scientific account of the project, it's the story of the people behind it: from the unlikely team of Oppenheimer and Gen. Groves, to the locals who worked as maids and construction workers in the secret community on the hill -- and Dorothy, who held it all together, and whose story is used to structure the book.

Bringing together a motley collection of physicists, engineers, and military experts to construct "the Gadget" was impressive enough -- but the project didn't exist in a vacuum. The technical staff were people who had to be housed, fed, and clothed, and many of them brought families and children whose needs had to be accommodated too. As director, Oppenheimer had to deal with both the scientific and the personal aspects of the project, and this book well describes the human dynamics that he contended with on both fronts.
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Format: Hardcover
109 East Palace presents a surprisingly engaging story about the members of the atomic bomb project in Los Alamos. The author, Jennet Conant, states early on that she is focusing on the human side of project's history: the technical aspects have been well covered elsewhere. The brilliant and colorful denizens of Los Alamos threw wild parties, worked long hours, and chafed under mandates of government secrecy.

In the midst of World War II, an undertaking this monumental had to remain strictly secret. The community was built atop a small school in the middle of the desert. The only link to civilization was across a long, unreliable road and an inadequate bridge. Naturally, logistics were strained. An entire town was built from scratch, and it was in constant construction for years. Scientists, engineers, their families, and soldiers streamed into Los Alamos. They crammed into small apartments with thin walls, and all housing for miles around was filled. Electricity was usually unavailable, and cooking took hours using ancient stoves. Rules limited their ability to leave town or communicate with the outside world.

Although these conditions caused some conflict, the citizens responded amazingly well. The insular community became very intimate. They worked at an exhausting pace, anxious to develop the bomb that could end the war and save American lives, and then released their tension by engaging in wild parties. Entranced with their beautiful environment, they went on long hikes and skied in the winter. Los Alamos became a wonderful and sociable place to live.

Although Conant describes many people, she focuses mainly on Robert Oppenheimer and Dorothy McKibbin. Oppenheimer was the intensely charismatic director of Los Alamos.
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