8. Los Alamos, NM
Scientists in Los Alamos raced to design and fabricate nuclear bombs, detonated over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan, a scant month after they were tested, bringing World War II to a summary end. The drama, secrecy and moral implications of the Manhattan Project, as it was called, are of such enduring significance that Congress is expected to debate creating a national park in Los Alamos to conserve sites related to atomic bomb development.
As you approach town on stepped plateaus that climb to the Jemez Mountains and look east over the Rio Grande Valley, it’s clear why the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer convinced the U.S. Army to locate the Manhattan Project in remote Los Alamos. “He wanted grand vistas to inspire scientists, and they did,” said Heather McClenahan, executive director of the Los Alamos Historical Society, which offers lectures on subjects as diverse as modern Nagasaki and hiking trails in Bandelier National Monument.
It was Manhattan Project alumni who created the Bradbury Science Museum, telling the social and scientific history of the great undertaking. (The Manhattan Project would give rise to Los Alamos National Laboratory.) Oppenheimer’s career went aground during the McCarthy era, but his brilliant, cultivated spirit still fosters a rich symbiosis of science and the arts in Los Alamos, which has two dance companies, a symphony orchestra and a community theater. Its calendar features art fairs and farmers markets, along with the popular Next Big Idea: Festival of Discovery, Invention and Innovation, which sponsors an international science- and math-based art contest.
The spectacular setting that inspired Oppenheimer is perhaps the crowning glory. Cached on the 7,500-foot Pajarito Plateau amid ranch lands and pine forests—lately threatened by two major wildfires—Los Alamos is in easy reach of skiing and hiking, ancient Pueblo dwellings at Bandelier National Monument and Georgia O’Keeffe’s house in Abiquiu.
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