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The Producers Of “Manhattan” On Science As Character And Storytelling Vehicle

Manhattan is a family drama set against the backdrop of the burgeoning atomic age. But along the way, it offers a novel take on the lure of science. Executive producers Sam Shaw and Thomas Schlamme, and physics consultant David Saltzberg discuss the idea of science as an embodiment of muse and tormentor.

The Producers Of “Manhattan” On Science As Character And Storytelling Vehicle
John Benjamin Hickey as Frank Winter [Photo: Greg Peters, courtesy of WGN]

There’s a subversive kind of tension in the scenes in Manhattan, a WGN America historical fiction drama chronicling Manhattan Project scientists and their families during World War II, as America raced to invent the atomic bomb. Beneath the more overt conflicts from human interaction and the scramble against time, is a tug-of-war the scientists endure between their families and the lure scientific discovery.

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“As someone who is not a scientist, the closest analogy I can come to is art,” says executive producer/creator/writer Sam Shaw. “Scientists are saved, tormented, and engaged by science in the way a writer or artist is by their art.”

“But as fascinating as science is, it couldn’t exist on the show for the sake of science,” adds EP/director Thomas Schlamme. “It has to be a vehicle for an emotional character story. It’s another form of mistress, passion, and love. It’s both scary and passionate as a world of discovery.”

The series, which airs its season finale October 19 on WGN America and is available on Hulu, announced its season two pick-up this week.

Manhattan’s cast of scientistsPhoto courtesy of WGN

Visualizing the esoteric

“I’m fascinated by scientists, so it’s been very exciting for me to tell this story,” says Shaw. “It’s a great American epic of genius and ingenuity. Aside from the complicated moral questions, it involved an incredible leap in concept, with the greatest minds of the world coming together to solve a problem. There’s a lot of science fiction, but not much storytelling about science itself. It posed some interesting, complicated challenges. It’s one thing to write about lawyers, since there’s more of a cultural understanding of their field. But physics is so abstruse and outside of most people’s understanding.”

(L-R) Creator/EP Sam Shaw on-set with actor Daniel Stern.Photo courtesy of WGN

“There’s a documentary about the Manhattan Project called The Day After Trinity that consists of interviews of physicists and their spouses many decades later,” he adds. “The one thing they talk about with great poetry is the trap of science. At some point, you become so immersed in the technical problem-solving of this enterprise that you lose sight of the bigger human and moral context of the world.

“It’s an interesting thing to try to dramatize,” Shaw continues. “You begin thinking about each character through the work they were doing. Who was plagued by moral questions, who was excited about the work, their relationships with science, and how they changed over time. It created an opportunity for interesting storytelling.”

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Science consultant David SaltzbergPhoto courtesy of The Daily Bruin/Chris Eldredge

How science informed story

One of the “great finds” for this project, say the producers, was David Saltzberg, a UCLA physics and astronomy professor who served as a science consultant, making sure the physics was correct and assisting with visual metaphors for the concepts.

“The writers always insisted on getting the physics right,” says Saltzberg, who was recommended by one of the writers of CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, for which he also consults. “Although it’s fiction and everyone realizes that, these characters still live in our universe. Science consultants offer another source of ideas, stories, and accuracy to help the audience suspend disbelief, and to sell the story. But it always depends on the project. Imagine if they made Back to the Future scientifically accurate?”

Saltzberg helped the showrunners come up with analogies to describe physics behind concepts like shockwaves and implosion, a detonation occurring by compressing the plutonium core. One scene has scientists comparing shockwave phase changes to ocean waves changing shape as they hit the shore, while another depicts explosion waves by watching a ripple effect emanating from pebbles simultaneously dropped in water.

“This scene was used to depict the concept of explosion–convex waves going out–vs. implosion, a circular wave moving in,” says Saltzberg. “On the face of it, it looks impossible, till they realize they could bend explosive shockwaves the way glass bends light–by changing their speed.”

The visual image also stands alone. “Even if I couldn’t understand what the pebble dropping was about,” adds Schlamme, “it was three still guys staring at something, waiting for an answer, on the brink of discovery.”

EP Thomas Schlamme directs a scene, with actors Michael Chernus and Katja Herbers in the background.Courtesy of WGN

Science in the details

Visuals also needed to simultaneously depict conflicting aspects of cutting-edge research–the scientific camaraderie and obsession needed to realize such an effort, and the chaotic nature of pushing known boundaries and unexpected flashes of inspiration.

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“I created a clubhouse you’d like to hang out at,” says Schlamme of the look and feel of the science lab. One character had a burn in the ceiling above his workstation from the explosive reactions he worked on, while another, an electronics expert, always had tape on his knuckles from handling electronics equipment.

Ashley Zukerman as physicist Charlie Isaacs Photo courtesy of WGN

Schlamme had long discussions with cinematographer Richard Rutkowski about incorporating the texture of floating chalk dust, and creating tension through hand-held camera shots and framing shots so the focus competed with foreground imagery of 1940s architecture and science equipment.

“Composition is so important,” says Schlamme, an avid photographer. “I started from the characters’ points of view, defined by the reality of a practical set, creating physical limitations that would unleash visual exploration. I wanted less of a contemporary feel that might be accomplished shooting through doors and windows.”

“It’s a Twilight Zone where science, and morality, and human ethics get mixed up together,” adds Shaw. “Masters of Sex [for which Shaw wrote] was easier to dramatize. It was hooking up electrodes to people having sex. Here, there’s some blowing things up, but a lot of time, the discovery is very internal, and Tommy had such an instinctive way of conveying that internal experience.”

John Benjamin Hickey as physicist Frank WinterPhoto courtesy of WGN

Scientific humor

Science even imbued the more comedic scenes–physicists earnestly deciphering the potential gravity of Krypton, or having scientific breakthroughs emerge through mystical insights during a mushroom trip, only to wake up to a chalkboard of indecipherable symbols.

“It’s important to let the story breathe,” says Shaw. “It’s a very intense story, so you need to find moments for levity, but in episodes that rang true. The average age at Los Alamos was 25 to 27 years old. It was mostly men, and some women, attempting to midwife this weapon into existence. What it was like to be 25 in 1943 is different than 2014, but they were still kids. It was a culture of jokes and pranks, they were socially eccentric, and had a huge amount of steam to blow off.

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“It’s also important to paint a picture of everyday thinking, because sometimes people felt the pressure of their role in this historic undertaking, and sometimes it was a Tuesday, and they were going to work with friends,” he adds. “We also had some incredibly gifted comic actors, and it would have been a shame not to use those talents.”

“Comic relief is not just about relieving the audience but about further defining character,” says Schlamme. “But making it very real to the environment. These scientists are under so much pressure that, in a way, they would be that serious about Kyrptonite. And the mushroom scene is about one of the characters succumbing to peer pressure, and Los Alamos allowing you to do what you might on a college campus.”

Vintage vs modern physics

Science also helps inform the period, in the sense that certain symbols and terminology used today didn’t exist in the 1940s. “It’s one thing to get the science right. Now add a whole other layer–is it right as of 1943?” says Saltzberg. For example, one script referenced black holes. “But those weren’t named until the 1960s. Someone else found that, but it made me realize that I needed to need to pay attention to the science that existed at that time. After that, I was on guard.”

Local physicists near the show’s Santa Fe location helped with chalkboard equations. “People think you can read a physics equation and know what’s happening,” says Saltzberg. “You can know the topic–that it’s sensible nuclear physics and shockwaves–but it doesn’t tell the complete story. It would make sense that it would not be full of famous equations, but the working world of physics–bits and pieces of calculations on a board.”Photo courtesy of WGN

Another example involved a scene in which a scientist pulls out a Ph.D. thesis. “The second page had physics of the 1980s on it, and someone would have noticed that. In the end, they just used the first page.”

On occasion, scientific corrections resulted in minor plot changes.
“In one scene, [one of the physicists] realizes that the plutonium 240 fission rate is high,” says Saltzberg, referring to the speed at which it deteriorates. “Initially, the script had him figuring that out by sheer brilliance. But that’s not the kind of thing that you figure out through pure thought, but by measurement. It created a little bit of a change in the story. A lot of the public might think that science is all in your head, but physics, at its core, is an experimental science.”

Saltzberg read some two-dozen books to acquaint himself with the era from historical to technical accounts. (The producers, he says, read even more.) “If I had to recommend one book, it would be The Making of the Atomic Bomb. There’s a lot of physics there, but it’s also for the lay public,” he says. “I got addicted to the topic. I’ve never before read so thoroughly on a topic where I saw so many different points of view of the same event.”

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Most of their exchanges took place long distance, between Saltzberg’s Los Angeles office and the show’s Santa Fe location. “Our email exchange has words like plutonium, uranium, and explosives like Baratol and TNT, so I’m sure we’ve shown up on some NSA list,” he laughs.

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.

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