A group of scientists, a secret city and a weapon of unimaginable power: The story of the creation of the atomic bomb is straight out of a spy novel, but its impacts are all too real. After the weapon was tested at the Trinity site in New Mexico, Robert Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad Gita: "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

More than half a century after World War II, Jennet Conant, the granddaughter of one of the Manhattan Project’s administrators, re-examines the story of the awesome and terrible weapon built in Los Alamos. In 109 East Palace, Conant spotlights Dorothy McKibbin, the secretary who signed security badges for entrance to Los Alamos at that address in Santa Fe. But McKibbin was more than just the hard-nosed gatekeeper to the secret city. She aided the wives of the scientists in their often difficult lives, and obtained supplies for Los Alamos residents even under wartime restrictions. Conant hints that McKibbin also harbored romantic feelings for Oppenheimer; the two certainly had a deep friendship and mutual admiration.

The researchers at Los Alamos faced crushing pressures and responsibility. Oppenheimer had to balance the drive to finish the bomb quickly against the risk of an accident. The scientists needed tons of high explosives brought in at once — enough to level a city block, should a mishap occur. And the worry was not only would such an accident cause many deaths, it might kill enough scientists to derail the war effort.

Conant tells a compelling story, weaving each paragraph into a tapestry of zealous research. Ultimately, she builds the foundation for an even-handed but compelling argument justifying the construction and use of one of the world’s most horrible weapons.

109 East Palace
Jennet Conant
428 pages, softcover: $14.
Simon & Schuster, 2005.