Today marks the 64th anniversary of the start of the atomic age. At 05:29 on July 16, 1945, the very first atomic weapon was detonated in the Jornada del Muerto in New Mexico under the code name Trinity.
I have always been fascinated by this event. Several years ago I started to learn what I could about the origin, development, testing and use of nuclear technology. I collected videos and articles from the very scientists who developed the methods that made nuclear fission possible. It was clear from their writings that they both loved and hated what they were doing. The end result of their labor could only have one possible outcome, yet they pressed on. From some, it was the thrill of finding the answer first. For others it was a very strong feeling that this secret was going to be cracked sooner or later. Better it be ‘us’ than ‘them’.
The single most fascinating item I learned was that this whole race was essentially kicked off in Germany, where scientists there had split a Uranium atom. The implications of that discovery were obvious to a few key scientists. Given the aggression of Germany, they felt that action needed to be taken in order defeat Germany before they created the weapon above. In the long run, it was discovered that Germany was nowhere near developing a bomb. Where have I heard that before?
The single most frightening thing I learned was just how easy it is to build a bomb like the one featured above, at least on a conceptual level. Given enough time and enough leeway, any country could develop the technology and means to produce a crude atomic weapon. The plutonium implosion weapon featured above would be considered highly primitive and it still has the explosive power of twenty thousand tons of TNT. (Just to put that size into perspective, the largest weapon detonated by the US was Castle-Bravo. It came in at fifteen megatons, or fifteen million tons of TNT.)
There is a family story about my Pop, my maternal grandfather, who owned a saw mill in northern Kentucky. During the War, materials were very scare and he needed some parts to keep his mill operational. A friend of his told him to go do the dealer and tell him the parts were for the Manhanttan Project. The next day he had the parts.
I withhold judgement on whether or not the United States should have gone down the nuclear path. I leave that question for people far smarter that myself. It is of little difference to me what we did or did not do. The history of the development and use of this weapon is far, far more complex than most people realize. The players who brought this scene to life were both egotistical and humble, both madmen and saints. I do not envy the leaders who were faced with the decisions leading up to this event. I can only say that I hope that I am never in a place where I would be faced with such a terrible choice.
The title of this post is from the Hindu scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita. Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific leader of the Manhattan project, later said during an interview that this quote went through his head as the bomb detonated. The director of the Trinity test, Kenneth Bainbridge, had a more colorful remark: ‘Now we are all sons of bitches’.
And so it goes.