Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Web 2.0 and the Manhattan Project

By Dennis D. McDonald

While listening to a podcast of a recent interview with Richard Rhodes, author of Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, I was struck by the question, “What if the Manhattan Project had been conducted using the collaborative and social networking tools we now have?”

The Manhattan Project was the U.S. program during World War II to develop the atomic bomb. It was a huge program that called on the efforts of science, engineering, manufacturing, logistics, and scores of other scientific and technical skills. Geographically it stretched from Oak Ridge Tennessee to Hanford Washington to New Mexico. Los Alamos, New Mexico housed the scientists and technicians who actually designed the uranium and plutonium bombs that were successfully tested and then dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oak Ridge and Hanford were the facilities that evolved to refine and generate the elements that provided the fissionable material required by the bombs.

J. Robert Oppenheimer was responsible for building the scientific team that the government relocated to New Mexico in a secure facility where the science and engineering of designing the bombs were conducted. Families were relocated to New Mexico. Armed guards patrolled the fences that kept curious onlookers out — and the scientists an their families in. Incoming and outgoing phone and mail traffic were closely scrutinized.

You could say that the effort was a “skunk works” project on a massive scale that was propelled by the fear that the Germans might develop the Bomb first. It was also one of the first examples of “big science” that emerged from World War II that forever altered the landscape of research and development throughout the world.

In those days — we’re talking about the early and mid 1940’s — modern computer and telecommunications technology did not exist. Calculations were done using slide rules. Web- and email-based communication that we take for granted today simply did not exist. Long distance phone calls were dependent on manual switching processes, text data were transmitted slowly via teletype machines, computing was primarily mechanical and used to calculate trajectories for military ordnance. (Advances in England’s Bletchley Park where nascent computer programming techniques were being applied to Enigma message traffic decryption were still highly secret.)

Oppenheimer and his team in Los Alamos, New Mexico relied on meetings, face to face discussions, blackboards, slide rules, and pencil and paper to convert theoretical physics into the physical reality of nuclear weapons. Also critical were the informal communications and the numerous parties that took place after hours where the young scientists hobnobbed with their chiefs.

Over all the efforts hung the nearly airtight security that prevented open communications with the outside world and which impacted even the sharing of information across the various teams at work on different aspects bomb production. (Security was not 100% airtight as was shown by the later spy trials.)

According to author Rhodes, not everyone who worked on the project was in agreement with the tight security. Some scientists complained bitterly that the security actually hindered, not helped, their efforts.

If modern communications had been available, would it have been necessary to establish the Los Alamos facility? For example, what if a secure wiki had been available to nuclear scientists much as the U.S. intelligence community is now using this technology? (See Intellipedia is a Wikipedia for spooks.)

In my opinion, despite the ability to communicate quickly via electronic means, there is still no substitute for a face to face meeting for the exchange of certain types of information. There is little doubt in my mind that Oppenheimer would have still wanted to have his core team with him in Los Alamos, due to the effects physical proximity has on the likelihood of productive communication.

But it is possible that a couple of other effects might have occurred had tools such as a secure wiki, secure RSS feeds, secure email, or secure project or topic blogs been available:

  • Ability to spread teams more evenly across Los Alamos, Hanford, and Oak Ridge. Would this have shortened th time needed to develop the physical manufacturing and refinement processes needed to isolate the radioactive substances needed for the bomb cores?
  • Reduction in the need for Oppenheimer and his boss Leslie R. Groves to travel back and forth between Los Alamos and Washington DC for status reports and meetings. While I am certain these two made productive use of their air and train travel time, I wonder if it would have been more efficient for Oppenheimer to participate in Washington DC meetings with some sort of virtual connection.
  • Ability to interact more efficiently with industry partners responsible for developing, among other things, the gaseous diffusion process cascade equipment installed in Oak Ridge.
  • Ability to consult with outside experts who were not full time members of the team to assist with solving specific types of problems that might have been eluding the Los Alamos team.

It is impossible to know for sure what impacts availability of modern tools might have had. It is tempting to say that the development of the bomb might have occurred more quickly given faster communications, better information sharing, and a reduction in the need for face to face communications.

It is also possible that modern communication and collaborative techniques might have lengthened the time needed to develop the bomb, for a couple of reasons:

  • Possibility of working on more “blind alleys.”
  • Increase of time devoted to managing non-core staff working at the “edge” of the main teams.
  • Increase in time spent on human and manual security processes.

On balance, for some projects I think there is no substitute for the “skunk works” approach. If you get the right people together in one place, you can do amazing things. If you get the right people together but located in different physical locations, modern technology also allows you to do amazing things, but at the possible expense of a more complex communication infrastructure.

Whichever way you go, there is no substitute for having the right people involved. When it comes to certain types of problems, there is no “wisdom of crowds.” I think the Manhattan Project is a good example of that.

Copyright (c) 2006 by Dennis D. McDonald

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