The Manhattan Project

25 Sep 1997 18:03

When they split those atoms
It's hotter than the sun
There is a certain mode of writing history which looks for pivotal events --- often tolerably obscure ones --- and relates everything to what happened then, to the change which occured on That Day. I think this is a bad and mis-leading way of writing history, and strongly suspect it would have much less appeal in a culture which hadn't spent two millennia obsessing about the Crucifixion, but if I were to succumb to it, I would make the pivot of this century --- perhaps of the last few centuries --- the Manhattan Project. Los Alamos during the war had a concentration of raw intellectual power the likes of which had never been seen before and probably will never exist again: Oppenheimer, von Neumann, Fermi, Serge, Bohr, Szilard, Feynman, Serber, Teller, Ulam, Morrison, Wigner, Rabi, Seaborg, Bethe, Lawrence, Alvarez, Weisskopf, Peierls. (These names may mean nothing to you if you're not a physicist; take my word for it that the dullest among them were mere garden-variety geniuses.) They were assembled from all over the world by a government which, in the middle of the largest war ever, was prepared to devote about 1% of its economy to a project conceived and comprehended by a handful of professors of mathematics and the most recondite branches of physics. It was, as Rabi told Oppenheimer, the culmination of the three and a half centuries of physical science which began with Galileo (who did artillery calculations for the Grand Duke of Tuscany: plus ça change...). What they did would end the Second World War and bring on the Cold War; spawn the computer and kill the sovereign nation-state; put the end of the world into human hands. It was an incredible achievement, technically extraordinarily sweet indeed, and absolutely horrifying.
We were lying there, very tense, in the early dawn, and there were just a few streaks of gold in the east; you could see your neighbor very dimly. Those ten seconds were the longest ten seconds that I ever experienced. Suddenly, there was an enormous flash of light, the brightest light I have ever seen or that I think anyone has ever seen. It blasted; it pounced; it bored its way right through you. It was a vision which was seen with more than the eye. It was seen to last forever. You would wish it to stop; altogether it lasted about two seconds. Finally it was over, diminishing, and we looked toward the place where the bomb had been; there was an enormous ball of fire which grew and grew and it rolled as it grew; it went up into the air, in yellow flashes and into scarlet and green. It looked menacing. It seemed to come toward one.
A new thing had just been born.... ---Rabi

At the instant of the explosion I was looking directly at it, with no eye protection of any kind. I saw first a yellow glow, which grew almost instantly to an overwhelming white flash, so intense that I was completely blinded.... By twenty or thirty seconds after the explosion I was regaining normal vision.... The grandeur and magnitude of the phenomenon were completely breath-taking. --- Serber

From ten miles away, we saw the unbelievably brilliant flash. That was not the most impressive thing. We knew it was going to be blinding. We wore welder's glasses. The thing that got me was not the flash but the blinding heat of a bright day on your face in the cold desert morning. It was like opening a hot oven with the sun coming out like a sunrise. --- Morrison.

We waited until the blast had passed, walked out of the shelter and then it was extremely solemn. We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita: Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince [Arjuna] that he should do his duty and to impress him he takes on his multi-armed form and says, "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that, one way or another. --- Oppenheimer

But as I said, it's a poor way of writing history.

If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima.
The peoples of the world must unite, or they will perish. This war, that has ravaged so much of the earth, has written these words. The atomic bomb has spelled them out for all men to understand. Other men have spoken them, in other times, of other wars, of other weapons. They have not prevailed. There are some, mislead by a false sense of human history, who hold that they will not prevail today. It is not for us to believe that. By our works we are committed, committed to a world united, before the common peril, in law, and in humanity.
---Oppenheimer, 16 October 1945 [all quotations from Rhodes]

See also: Nuclear Weapons in general