KC native reflects on his classic book about Oppenheimer, time in Lawrence as blockbuster biopic renews interest in famous physicist
photo by: Nancy Warner
As filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s summer blockbuster “Oppenheimer” nears $1 billion in global box office revenue, Lawrence moviegoers may not realize a local tie to the story of the scientist who ushered in the atomic age.
The film is based on the 2005 biography “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, but another book remains the seminal account of the Manhattan Project. Richard Rhodes’ 1987 classic, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” which won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award for Nonfiction, was conceived by Rhodes as he worked on an earlier book in Lawrence, and the manuscripts of both remain here today.
A Kansas City area native, Rhodes moved to Lawrence in 1974, early in a career that would establish him as one of America’s most prolific and decorated authors of nonfiction. He had recently ended a decadelong stint as an editor at Hallmark, where he helped churn out a daily staff newspaper, and was writing for magazines like Playboy, Harper’s and The Atlantic.
photo by: Submitted by Richard Rhodes
“At that time I was running around writing magazine articles,” Rhodes said of his Lawrence residency during a recent telephone interview from his home in Seattle. “I wrote about anything I could think of and had to start from scratch every time. I wrote one about soybeans. Another about a psychic dog in Missouri. It took a month to write one and brought me a month’s income.”
Rhodes rented an apartment on Bristol Terrace, just west of the University of Kansas campus, to be near his two children, who lived here with their mother.
“I was glad to be with my kids,” he recalled. “Lawrence was a pleasant place to recover from a divorce. It’s a very sophisticated community.”
During this period Rhodes also worked on a novel, “Fissions,” about a Los Alamos scientist. But the rich setting and real-life personalities of the Manhattan Project stole the show, and the novel was turned down for publication. Rhodes said it was then that he realized “the way to tell this story is nonfiction.”
Back in Kansas City, Rhodes set to work in earnest on “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” poring over countless physics journals at the Linda Hall Library, which he considers “one of the best science libraries in America.”
One method Rhodes used to organize his notes reflects the challenge of research prior to the advent of the personal computer. The “Indecks” system provided note cards with numbered holes around the edges, and when note-takers had filled a card with information, they used a special hole punch to open up the hole corresponding to the number they had assigned to that subject. Later, they could search for all their notes on a particular subject by inserting a knitting needle-like rod into their stack of cards and shaking loose all of those with the right number punched out.
photo by: Dan Coleman
“This may have worked great for graduate students, but not on an 800-plus page book,” Rhodes joked. The many cards he filled with notes for “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” and the manuscript itself, now fill 10 large boxes at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library at KU, where they are collected with the rest of his papers.
Kansas Collection Curator Phil Cunningham said Rhodes donated his papers to KU in 1972, and the collection has grown to 174 boxes as he continues to send materials from successive writing projects. Cunningham, who joined the staff in February, previously worked with literary archives at the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans, which holds the manuscripts of Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, among others. The Kenneth Spencer Research Library, which is also home to the papers of Kansas journalist William Allen White and an extensive collection of science fiction manuscripts, makes sense for Richard Rhodes’ papers, Cunningham said.
“The reason Lawrence seemed appropriate is because it was in the Middle West,” Rhodes said of his decision to locate his papers at KU. “I wanted to put them somewhere that anyone studying me would be in the place I spent the first half of my life.”
photo by: Dan Coleman
photo by: Dan Coleman
Rhodes was 49 when “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” was published in 1986. It was not an instant bestseller, but won rave reviews and swept the major literary awards for nonfiction. To date it has sold over a million copies, has been translated into 12 languages, and remains the place to start for anyone wishing to know more about the Manhattan Project. “It changed everything,” Rhodes said of the book’s impact on his own life, “and made it possible to make a living writing books.”
Having authored one of the best known books on the subject, Rhodes has been frequently sought out for comment on Nolan’s new “Oppenheimer” biopic. He was stunned by the film’s depiction of the Trinity test detonation of the world’s first atomic bomb when he watched with his wife in an IMAX theater.
“I liked the movie very much,” he said.
Of Oppenheimer, Rhodes said, “Nolan sanded his edges a little bit. He was a more complicated human being. But that’s important when you’re doing Greek tragedy, which is really what the movie is.”
When asked what Oppenheimer would have thought of himself as the subject of a summer blockbuster, Rhodes pointed out the scientist’s conflicted nature. “He didn’t think much of himself for most of his life,” Rhodes said, although he did enjoy being the face of the Manhattan Project after the war.
While Oppenheimer was in charge of the scientists working at Los Alamos, Rhodes credited Oppenheimer’s boss, Gen. Leslie Groves, with managing the thousands of people who worked on the project, including those at two massive nuclear reactors in Tennessee and Washington state, which produced material needed for the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“It congealed into a myth of one man, one place, one bomb, and Oppenheimer has become a mythical figure,” Rhodes said. “But the guy who really made it all work was General Groves. Without the uranium and plutonium, you have nothing.”
But Oppenheimer, Rhodes said, served a great purpose at Los Alamos, where he assembled an unruly crew of the world’s top thinkers, and drew on his own knowledge and charisma to guide them through the problems at hand.
“No one else could have kept that going,” he said.