Manhattan is a great drama about the problems of science careers

Two bodies: Liza Winter (Olivia Williams) and Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) are both Ph.D. scientists—but only Frank works in a field useful to the Project. (WGN America)

Two bodies: Liza Winter (Olivia Williams) and Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) are both Ph.D. scientists—but only Frank works in a field useful to the Project. (WGN America)

Some of the best dramatic fantasies project otherwise commonplace struggles and worries into extraordinary circumstances. Make that awkward teenage girl a vampire slayer, and put her in a high school that is literally built over a gateway to Hell. How do we feel about that military occupation if it’s reimagined as humans subjugated by their out-of-control cybernetic creations? A love affair is a lot more compelling if it involves the President of the United States and the woman who helped fix his election. So maybe it shouldn’t be all that surprising that the most compelling television show about the daily drama of academic science is a historical drama about building the first atomic bomb.

Manhattan, which airs on WGN America and streams on Hulu, follows physicists designing what will become the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, starting about two years before August 6, 1945. The project staff and their families are living in a laboratory campus built and hyper-secured by the U.S. military in the desert near Los Alamos, New Mexico, but in many respects they could be working at any research university today. Here’s my (spoiler-y) list of the parallels, which are sometimes dangerously on-the-nose:

Administrators versus academics. The physicists may be responsible for the success of the Manhattan Project, but the Army Corps of Engineers is in charge, and extremely concerned about secrecy. Discussing project details with unauthorized personnel—whether family members living on the site or members of a different research team—is forbidden. Outgoing mail and telephone lines are censored, and lab equipment and supplies are inventoried and rationed to the last microgram of plutonium. Taking your lab notebook home for the night could earn you a visit by military police.

On the show, it all plays like a preview of Cold War paranoia. But the sense that science is secondary to arbitrary and onerous rules is a melodramatic mirror-image of anyone you’ve heard complaining about how long it takes to get reimbursement for their field trip expenses, how hard it is to navigate the campus purchasing system, or all the paperwork required to get a protocol approved by the institutional review board.

The two-body problem. Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey), who heads a team of scruffy, under-resourced underdogs working on an alternative bomb design, is married to another scientist. But Liza Winter (Olivia Williams), is a botanist—and there’s no need for someone with a Ph.D. in the pollination systems of monocots (ahem) on the Manhattan Project. So Liza has left a tenure-track job to follow Frank to Los Alamos, where she has nothing to do but keep house for him and their teenaged daughter, and to try to drum up some publishable research using a microscope she “borrows” from the on-site elementary school.

The Doctors Winter face pretty much exactly the problem faced by Ph.D. couples when one lands a faculty job and the other’s specialty isn’t in demand on the same campus. Except that, in this case, Liza’s attempt at bee-keeping fails when her hive succumbs to what is probably radiation poisoning, and she needs to pass a background check just to volunteer at the Los Alamos clinic.

Impostor syndrome. In real-life science, every beginning graduate student (and many a scientist at later career stages) deals with times when he or she feels like the only one in the journal club who isn’t really smart enough to be there. This can build to a creeping fear of being discovered as an unworthy impostor—or “impostor syndrome.” On Manhattan, Paul Crosley (Harry Lloyd), a member of Frank’s team, is horrified when a former colleague arrives at Los Alamos from England—and that former colleague reveals that Crosley has fabricated an upper-class upbringing.

It’s all about the work. Academics, especially scientists, take a kind of perverse pride in working insane and unsustainable hours. Silly as this is, the time we spend in the lab, going without meals or exercise or a social life, is treated as an index for our commitment to the work, and its vital importance to society.

So what happens when you’re designing a war-ending super-weapon, and the lab that might scoop you is working for Adolf Hitler? Frank marks time in terms of how many men have died on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific. He and his team work endless all-nighters, sometimes fueled by booze and hallucinogens, and Frank will trade anything—even people—for equipment and supplies he needs to complete the design.

Except for women and people of color. If the sciences are overwhelmingly white, straight, and male in 2014, they’re all the worse in 1944. There’s one woman on Frank’s team, but the overwhelming majority of women who could legitimately be said to be doing scientific work at Los Alamos are computers, in the original sense of the term—they sit in a room full of adding machines and slide rules and do calculations for the physicists.

The only African-American we’ve seen on the project (so far) turns up at the Oak Ridge reactor in Tennessee—where, although he’s an accomplished nuclear physicist, he’s relegated to the role of secretary for the reactor’s manager. There’s even an old-timey homo at Los Alamos, though, refreshingly, he doesn’t seem too miserable—and he uses his below-the-radar connections to help a friend on at least one occasion. In fact, one of the nice things about the depiction of all these folks on Manhattan is that they’re shown helping each other out—and failing to do so.

The only headline scientific career issue I can think of that Manhattan hasn’t depicted is the insanity of the academic job market—maybe that will wait for the next season. And I really hope there will be a next season. Taking the day-to-day problems of working scientists and gives them a (heh) nuclear-powered boost makes for pretty great melodrama, and if you haven’t been watching, I highly recommend it.› ❧