Dark Miracle: Trinity, The Manhattan Project And The Birth Of The Atomic Age
by Joshua Ellis
There’s an old story that in the hours before dawn on July 16th, 1945, a young woman named Georgia Green was being driven back to school at the University of New Mexico by her sister Margaret and her brother-in-law Joe. Suddenly, she saw a bright flash of light, and she gripped Joe’s arm hard enough to make him swerve the car. “What’s that light?” she asked.
The thing is, Georgia Green was blind.
At that moment, some fifty miles away, a tall, gaunt man in a porkpie hat was also staring at the light, through a pair of darkened welder’s glasses. He was the architect of Georgia Green’s dark miracle, and he was very, very tired — as tired, perhaps, as anyone can be and still move and breathe. It had been a long road coming out to this empty desert spot, which he called Trinity. It had been a long war.
Some of the men around him cheered. Some of them wept. A few, mostly scientists, were quietly sick in the sand beyond the dim lights of their camp. But he just stood and watched the great glowing mushroom cloud that rose in the darkness like a judgment from one angry god or another.
I am become Death, thought Robert Oppenheimer, remembering an ancient Hindu text. I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
* * *
Here are the facts: at fifteen seconds before 5:30 in the morning, Mountain Standard Time, on July 16th, 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated, at a site code-named Trinity. It was the culmination of almost two and a half years of intensive work, done primarily by a group of scientists and engineers in a secret city roughly a hundred and fifty miles north of Trinity, called Los Alamos. The project’s director was a brilliant and depressive Berkeley physicist named Robert Oppenheimer.
On August 6th, a bomb called “Little Boy” was dropped by a bomber named the Enola Gay on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later, another bomb — “Fat Boy” — was dropped on Nagasaki. The combined death toll is estimated to be between 100,000 and 220,000 people, possibly much higher if later deaths from radiation exposure are counted. Almost all of the casualties were civilian.
The bombings had replaced Operation Downfall, a planned invasion by Allied forces of Japan. Estimates by the American Secretary of War suggested that such an invasion would most likely result in as many as fourteen million casualties — most of them Japanese. This was the justification for the bombings; horrible as they were, it was felt by many in the Allied chain of command that the alternative was far worse. The use of atomic bombs, they were sure, would cause the Japanese Emperor Hirohito to surrender.
They were right. On August 14, 1945, Hirohito surrendered to the Allies, ending World War II — a war which had caused an estimated sixty-two million deaths in fifty-one countries around the world.
Immediately after the bombing, many of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project — including Oppenheimer himself — urged American President Harry Truman to share the bomb with the world, giving control of atomic weapons to a transnational organization of some kind, to prevent any one nation from using atomic weapons.
Truman demurred…but unbeknownst to him, a spy at Los Alamos named Klaus Fuchs had already given detailed plans for the Trinity bomb to the Soviet Union.
And so the Cold War began.
* * *
The Manhattan Project and Trinity have become one of the most powerful of modern fables: a reworking of the ancient myth of Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods and bringing it to humanity; a parable of human morality and its ambiguities. It’s a part of the legend of the American Dream, where a bunch of immigrants from storm-tossed shores come to these vast, open lands and apply good old-fashioned American pioneer spirit to the cause of saving the world from fascism. And it’s also part of the American Nightmare — the beginning of the Cold War, the beginning of air-raid drills and Civil Defense newsreels and ducking and covering and knowing where the nearest fallout shelter is. Since that morning in the empty desert of central New Mexico, every living thing on the planet has lived in the shadow of Oppenheimer’s bomb.
I’ve been fascinated by the Manhattan Project since I was a little boy. Growing up in the 1980s, I was part of the last generation of Cold War children. We still lived, as our parents and grandparents had, with the terrible fear that the Soviets in their madness would drop the bomb on some unsuspecting American city, like New York or Los Angeles or Chicago…or my own hometown of Dallas.
I can’t remember where I first read about Oppenheimer and his elite cadre of physicists, toiling in the high desert air outside of Santa Fe, but I remember asking myself the question which, more than anything, lies at the center of the myth of the Manhattan Project: why did they do it?
I moved to Las Vegas, Nevada in 1998, and found myself in another atomic city. The Mercury test site — where most of the atomic testing done in the continental United States took place — is only 90 miles north of the city, and there are still old folks around in Vegas who remember sitting on the rooftops of the casinos in the 1950s and watching the mushroom clouds rise above the mountains.
So when I discovered that Trinity site is open to the public twice a year, on the first Saturday in April and in October — I decided that it was time to make my pilgrimage, to visit Los Alamos and Trinity, and maybe try to answer that question that has bothered me for more than half my life.
* * *
It’s about a 12 hour drive from Las Vegas to Los Alamos, across the Hoover Dam, through Kingman and Flagstaff and Winona and Gallup and Albuquerque and a whole lot of emptiness in between. I rented an inexpensive Chrysler Sebring convertible from Avis, put the top down, and headed out of Vegas on Thursday afternoon.
When I told my friends where I was going, a few of them blinked at me. “Be careful,” they said. “That’s, like, The Hills Have Eyes territory.” I promised to pack at least a machete, somewhere in the car.
I giggled at the thought as I drove across the barren landscape between the Dam and Kingman, where the I-93 meets up with the I-40. How many B-movies have been made over the years that used the horrors of the Bomb as their motif? The original The Hills Have Eyes, the sequel and the remake (which is still in theaters at the time of this writing); Attack Of The 50-Foot Woman; The Beast of Yucca Flats; Horror At Party Beach; It Came From Outer Space; hundreds more, most of them forgotten. The Internet Movie Database lists 58 films with the word “atomic” in their title, 54 with the word “mutant” and 41 with the word “nuclear”. And those are just the ones that put the terror right out front on the marquee.
The Bomb was something new and different — it wasn’t just a bigger, badder version of existing munitions, a souped-up version of a hand grenade or the bombs that were dropped on London and Dresden. Horrible as WWI was, nobody ever made a movie called The Gatling Gun Nightmare or Attack Of The Mustard Gas Victims, so far as I know.
At Kingman I turned east onto the I-40 and got comfortable; I was going to be on the freeway for almost 450 miles, until I hit Albuquerque sometime in the middle of the night. I stopped for a burger and a Coke in a town called Seligman, about fifty miles from Kingman, in a place called the Roadkill Cafe (“You kill ‘em, we grill ‘em”). Seligman, I was informed by a plaque at the edge of town, was the birthplace of Route 66, that fabled highway that runs from Chicago to Los Angeles. (“Flagstaff, Arizona, don’t forget Winona, Kingman, Barstow and San Bernadino”, as the old song goes.)
“So how is Seligman the birthplace of Route 66?” I asked my waitress as I paid my bill. “If it runs from Chicago to LA, I mean.”
“You know, I’m not sure,” she said. “I think they started building it here.”
“Oh, like, they started here and worked in both directions?”
“I think so,” she said. “I don’t really know.”
In stopping at Seligman, I discovered that Arizona was much colder than Nevada, so I reluctantly put the top back on the convertible and headed out, the sun setting behind me.
* * *
Los Alamos the city did not exist before 1943. Before then, it was the Los Alamos Ranch School, founded by a man named Ashley Pond in 1917, a place for pampered wealthy boys from the East to come and learn how to hunt and fish and ride — to be men, in other words, by the standards of the day. William S. Burroughs attended the Ranch School, and so did Gore Vidal.
Robert Oppenheimer, contrary to legend, did not, though his family owned a ranch nearby. When General Leslie Groves, the Project’s military liaison, was looking for a location in which to build the bomb — someplace isolated, with temperate weather and ready supplies of water and local workers — Oppenheimer thought of the Ranch School, and suggested that the Army ought to buy it. They did, and the last class of the Los Alamos Ranch School left in the early winter of 1943.
If you were one of the scientists and engineers invited to join the Manhattan Project, you took a train out West to the tiny town of Lamy, New Mexico, the nearest train stop to Santa Fe. Upon reaching Santa Fe, you went directly to the Project’s nondescript office at 109 East Palace Avenue, where a kindly woman named Dorothy McKibben (nominally Oppenheimer’s secretary) would make arrangements for your transportation and security clearance.
You would then drive (or be driven) fifty miles out of Santa Fe, into the high desert, along twisting roads that were muddy in winter and dusty in summer. Finally, after a few hours, you would reach a security gate, where you would display your new credentials to a guard. And then, you were in Los Alamos.
These days, it’s a bit easier: you simply take I-25 from Albuquerque north to Santa Fe, where you get on US 84/285 headed almost due north. When you reach the tiny town of Pojoaque, you turn left onto NM 502, a road which narrows quickly as you head up the mesa, twisting and turning until finally, you come across the town.
It is almost as surprising a place now as it was back then. Modern Los Alamos is a thriving small city of almost 20,000 people that resembles nothing so much as a Northern California college town that has been express-shipped to the middle of nowhere in the Jemez Mountains. The Manhattan Project became the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1947, and the town became demilitarized in the 1950s.
The architecture is an odd blend of 1950s Norman Rockwell and millenial modernism, due mostly to a devastating fire in 2000 that left more than 400 families homeless. Many of the houses date from the original Manhattan Project — prefab duplexes and quad-plexes that have been extensively retrofitted by various owners over the years. It is easy, looking at some of these houses, to imagine physicists such as Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe or Edward Teller or Leo Szilard sitting on their porches, discussing different approaches to building the Gadget, as they called it.
It is an odd little place — beautiful, to be sure, but it seems devoid of the sort of small-town closeness that other small American cities like it possess, where everybody knows everybody else. There seem to be a lot of strangers living next to one another in Los Alamos.
The h2g2 website’s entry on Los Alamos contains this amusing anecdote :
A theory believed by many of the New Age adherents in nearby Santa Fe is that the karmic effect of the [original Ranch] school and the school’s closing ensures that no intimate relations between human beings ever take place within the town’s limits. The town’s population of children is not sufficient evidence to refute this theory. In short, if you plan to stay here a while, either come married, and with your spouse, or plan to do a lot of reading, hiking, and visiting nearby towns.
There is only one bar in Los Alamos that keeps regular hours, the Canyon Bar and Grill. It gets busy on Thursdays, according to DeeDee the bartender: Thursday is karaoke night. “And not even good karaoke,” she tells me, horrified. There are two other bars — Trinity Beverage and the VFW hall — but they close early. In fact, everything in Los Alamos closes early. The only businesses apparently open after 8 p.m. are the Smith’s supermarket and a Sonic drive-in restaurant.
This runs completely counter to the sociological norm in small, isolated American towns, where there are usually more bars than gas stations and you can almost always find at least one 24 hour diner. But everyone I talked to in Los Alamos told me the same thing — the locals do their drinking at home.
“If you get a DUI, you lose your security clearance,” Chuck tells me. Chuck’s a tall, affable cat with a passing resemblence to an older, grayer Penn Jillette. He’s worked at the lab for five years or so; before that, he worked for DuPont chemicals doing modeling and simulation. He and his wife Sally are playing pool. “So there’s a lot of closet drinkers here.”
I suspect that the cause of most of the weird vibes in Los Alamos is, of course, the Lab itself. Since almost everyone in town is either employed by the Lab or owes their livelihood directly to it, you end up with a majority of citizens who live in a constant, low-level state of paranoia, particularly in the wake of the security scares that have made national news over the last few years. Nobody talks about what they do for a living, and nobody asks. The general feeling towards the Lab in town seems to be a sort of amused irritation, the same as you’d get in any company town, from Detroit to Las Vegas. But almost everybody, deep down, loves the Lab.
Everybody, that is, except for Ed Grothus.
* * *
Ed Grothus came to Los Alamos in 1949 to work as a machinist. He soon moved over to a weapons group, working to reduce the size of nuclear bombs while increasing the explosive yield.
A year after serving as an alternate delegate for Eugene McCarthy at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, Ed left the Lab. “I’ve lost all my faith,” he says, “not only in the bombs but the schemes and dreams of nuclear power.”
These days, Ed runs the Black Hole, a massive surplus store/junkyard/museum/monument near the edge of town, at the foot of Jemez Mountain. It fills a converted Piggly-Wiggly supermarket, a church, the parking lot between them, and as much of Ed’s house as his wife will allow.
In a surreal town, the Black Hole is the most surreal spot. A sign outside reads BLACK HOLE MUSEUM OF NUCLEAR WASTE. The parking lot is full of old desks, rackmounts for electronic equipment, filing cabinets, chairs, even a (presumably decommissioned) missile or three. A small display shows Ed’s plans for a ‘Doomsday Monument’ of two obelisks, commemorating all the deaths from atomic power over the years.
To go inside the Black Hole, you pass through an old military security gate, and you are greeted by the ticking sound of a Geiger counter, marking off the background radiation. This may prepare you for what you see.
Imagine…well, imagine an old supermarket, filled from wall to wall and nearly to the ceiling with the collected ephemera of six decades of Big Science. The shelves hold everything from micrometers and Dewar flasks and centrifuges to burned-out lasers and aging Macintosh desktop computers and Dictaphones and camera tripods and bins of screws, bulbs and obscure forms of electronic cabling, ion chambers and Geiger counters and molded chairs and capacitors and televisions and radiation warning systems. In one far corner sits a fermentor, a device which can be used — according to Ed — to make chemical weapons. “In a fermentor like this, you can make up to fifty liters of anthrax, and those other biological bad things,” Ed told me.
“They’ve been looking all over Iraq for one of these, but they can’t find it…because I let Saddam Hussein hide right here in the Black Hole,” he says, straightfaced. I laugh. “Bush has now shown an interest,” he continues. “He wants to buy it, smuggle it back into Iraq, they’ll find it” — he throws his arms wide — “and justify their war. He can do all that for $50,000. Even I have a price.”
Ed’s had his run-ins with the law. For Christmas, 1996, he sent a can marked ORGANIC PLUTONIUM to then-President Clinton. “In my cover letter, I said ‘If you eat this, you’ll walk with a halo’,” says Ed. “‘If you feed some to Socks [Clinton’s cat], the cat’ll walk with a halo.'” The Secret Service was not amused, and — as Ed commemorates in a newspaper clipping he proudly displays near his front desk — they showed up to “see if there was any insanity in my family.”
Eight years later, the FBI showed up to confiscate a hard drive, some magnetic tape and printed stickers marked ‘Secret’ that Ed had on display. It turned out that the items were one of Ed’s little private jokes — he’d written ‘Secret’ on the items himself as a joke.
Once again, the Feds were not amused.
Every August, Ed stands downtown with an American flag and a banner that reads WE ARE SORRY FOR HIROSHIMA AND NAGASAKI. It’s not a widely-shared sentiment in this city of bombmakers; sometimes Lab workers show up with signs that read NO WE’RE NOT, ED, and sometimes passers-by yell and swear at Ed. This may, in fact, be the only place that I’ve ever heard anyone express the opinion that nuclear bombs are a good thing.
In 2004, Ed was joined by a group of between three to four hundred peace activists, including a Nagasaki survivor and actor/activist Martin Sheen, who was arrested along with 70 other protestors for trespassing on Laboratory property. (They marched to the gates.)
Ed is getting up in years and is rather hard-of-hearing; he has a posse of cronies who help him organize and run the Black Hole on a volunteer basis. They sit outside the place and talk about the sort of things that old men talk about: the weather, local politics, thermonuclear war and its discontents, the tensile strength of various metal alloys. One of them told me that the city has been trying to shut the Black Hole down for years, on whatever grounds they can — fire safety, pollution, whatever. But the Black Hole stays open. It has become as much a part of Los Alamos, in some ways, as the Lab itself; it is the Lab’s polar opposite.
“I point to the sun,” Ed tells me as I record a video clip for my website. “That’s the only good nuclear reaction around. The site is ideal at ninety-three million miles, the power output is essentially infinite, and the power distribution is everywhere.
“We’ll survive on this planet…if we learn to live with the output of that power supply.”
* * *
There are two ways to reach Trinity from Los Alamos; you can go out the easy way, which is the reverse of what I’ve already described…or you can go the hard way.
The hard way runs south, over a bridge and past the Laboratory (which is off limits to everyone, and particularly journalists, thank you very much) and up the side of Jemez Mountain on a narrow, twisty two-lane road that takes constant switchbacks up the steep slope.
Beyond lies the Valles Caldera, one of the largest inactive volcano craters on the planet. On the first day of April, it is still snowing lightly in the Caldera as you come over the crested edge; it stretches away for miles of rolling fields and forests. It is easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in my life.
Beyond the Caldera is San Diego canyon, which winds through the Jemez Native American reservation. As my altitude drops the snow turned to a gentle pattering rain that kept up with me through the town of San Ysidro, onto the 550, through Albuquerque and down the I-25 towards Trinity.
It’s about a hundred miles from Albuquerque to Exit 139, which leads off through the tiny town of San Antonio towards the Trinity Site. Trinity is located on the grounds of the White Sands Missile Range, which covers an improbably large chunk of central New Mexico. It is empty, desolate territory, full of sand devils kicked up by the high winds.
About fifteen miles from the freeway, there is a small road headed south, next to which is a plaque commemorating Trinity. But you are not there yet; this road leads to the Stallion Gate entrance to White Sands.
This is the Jornada del Muerto, the “journey of death” as Spanish explorers called it, a wide empty valley full of nothing but dust and sunlight. There are mountains all around, but they are far away.
I’m surprised by the huge number of cars heading out to Trinity — families in Winnebago, goth kids in a van, tourists with license plates from all over America. One by one the cars pass through the security checkpoint, about fourteen miles further down the road from the turnoff, where an armed military policeman asks for ID and checked each car for alcohol and weapons. (I don’t mention the hand ax I have in my backpack in the trunk of the convertible. After all, this is The Hills Have Eyes territory.) The policeman advises me not to take any pictures until I reach Trinity itself, and waves me on.
Not that there’s much to take pictures of. A water tower painted with orange and white stripes; a few temporary canvas buildings that look like they had long passed the temporary stage; a geodesic dome; a few small dirt roads leading off into the desert, labeled with odd signs like MARTHA and ZUMA, guarded by soldiers with four-wheeled ATVs and M-16s, to keep the hapless tourists from wandering onto Secret Government Territory.
I turn on my CD player and Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire” comes on, unexpectedly; I’d forgotten that I’d burned it on my mix CD. I chuckle and crank it up, slapping the door of the car to its chugging rhythm and cheery horns.
I fell into a burning ring of fire I went down, down, down And the flames went higher And it burned, burned, burned The ring of fire The ring of fire
And finally, after another five miles, a soldier blocking the road in an SUV and pointing the caravan of sightseers off to the left, where a makeshift parking lot is set up.
Welcome to Trinity.
* * *
The caravan carrying the Gadget left Los Alamos a minute past midnight on the 13th — two years, three months and thirteen days after the Manhattan Project began. It took nearly eight hours to travel the 175 miles or so to Trinity from Los Alamos; the roads were rocky and the package sensitive, to say the least.
When it arrived, it was immediately taken to the nearby McDonald ranch house for assembly. Or rather, almost immediately — the driver demanded that Groves’s deputy, Brigadier General Thomas Farrell, sign a receipt for the plutonium, which was, after all, all of the plutonium in the world. It was worth approximately a billion dollars in the currency of the time.
The government had appropriated the ranch from George McDonald as part of the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range (which eventually became part of White Sands) and it was swarming with soldiers and scientists. It was dusty and windy, and hot, much hotter than Los Alamos — as the scientists discovered when they tried to insert the core into the bomb housing. It stuck. Luckily, it was simply due to heat expansion, and after they let the temperature of the parts equalize, it slipped perfectly into place. Afterwards, the men went swimming in the water tank east of the ranch house.
The next morning, the bomb was lifted to the top of a 100 foot steel tower which had been assembled at the actual site, two miles south of the ranch house. The detonators were attached. The Gadget was ready to go.
As Ed Grothus will tell you, an atomic bomb looks like a soccer ball. The central core of the bomb is made of a radioactive metal such as plutonium or uranium that’s constantly sending off alpha particles. Around it are placed hexagonal and pentagonal explosive charges that look like the faces of a soccer ball.
To detonate the bomb, these charges are simultaneously set off. The key word, here, is simultaneously; in order to work, the charges have to detonate within a few hundred millionths of a second of one another. Designing the charges and the detonation mechanism were two of the major achievements of the Manhattan Project.
When the charges are detonated, they compress the radioactive core very fast and very hard, which causes it to become smaller and denser — more massive, in other words. Past a certain point, this causes a chain reaction, in which the nucleus of the plutonium atoms begin to split. This releases massive amounts of both gamma radiation and kinetic energy in a matter of milliseconds.
In other words, a nuclear explosion.
* * *
All the way up to the actual test, there were problems — problems with the wiring, problems with the detonators, problems with everything. No one was quite sure that it was going to work.
On the 15th, the spectators and project leaders began to arrive in earnest — Oppenheimer, Groves, others. VIPs were stationed at Compania Hill, 20 miles northeast of the site, while others like Groves watched from base camp, ten miles southwest. Oppenheimer and other key scientists were stationed in wooden bunkers 10,000 yard from Ground Zero.
The weather turned bad late in the day; a thunderstorm came in. There were already teams ready to evacuate nearby towns and settlements, and Groves had called the governor of New Mexico to authorize evacuating the entire state if things got strange; it was feared that the thunderstorm might carry fallout as far as Albuquerque, and the test was postponed from the original time of 4 a.m. to 5:30 a.m.
Oppenheimer was already quite understandably high strung, and the delay and possibility of cancellation put him right on the razor’s edge. The fact that several of the scientists started taking bets on the actual explosive yield of the bomb probably didn’t help. Edward Teller believed that it would exceed 40 kilotons, and the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi was heard to take bets that the gadget would start a chain reaction that would ignite all of the oxygen in the atmosphere, burning the whole planet like a cinder. Another physicist is reported to have wondered if the explosion would ever stop; if we would simply have a tiny small sun sitting out in the middle of the New Mexico desert until the end of the world.
They didn’t know. They couldn’t know. No one had ever done anything like this in the history of the human race. Their guesses were educated ones, but they were guesses nonetheless.
At around 5 o’clock, the weather cleared. At ten after five, the countdown began. Oppenheimer must have been chain-smoking like a madman.
At 5:29 precisely, a scientist named Joe McKibben (no relation to Oppenheimer’s secretary Dorothy) threw the switch that started the precision timer at Ground Zero.
Forty-five seconds later, Georgia Green saw the light.
* * *
[The] whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined. Seconds after the explosion came first the air blast pressing hard against the people, to be followed almost immediately by the strong, sustained awesome roar that warned of doomsday and made us feel we puny things were blasphemous to dare tamper with the forces heretofore reserved for the Almighty.
* * *
There is not much left of that early morning in the Jornada del Muerto anymore. Two small bits of concrete and rebar mark all that is left of the giant tower upon which the bomb was placed; the rest was almost instantly vaporized by the blast. The crater was filled in many years ago, and now it’s no more than a slight depression, surrounded by two chain-link fences.
A makeshift parking lot sits nearby, presumably for visiting VIPs and for the two days a year that the public is allowed in this place. On those days, vendors sell books and t-shirts and hot-dogs and Cokes to the visiting crowd; at a small booth between the two fences, White Sands PR people show off various radioactive substances such as spent nuclear power balls, packs of cigarettes (all tobacco is radioactive now, due to the plant’s absorption of the polonium released into the atmosphere by sixty-odd years of testing and accidents), and bits of trinitite, the shiny green glassy mineral that was created when the bomb fused the sand of the desert. It is a federal crime, apparently, to take trinitite from Trinity, though it can be purchased in nearby towns and on eBay. It is still radioactive, as is Trinity itself, though it’s not especially dangerous. You get more radiation smoking a pack of Marlboros.
The McDonald ranch house is still there, two miles away; school buses take tourists there from the parking lot. Though it fell into decay after the test, it has been restored, and looks as it did on that day, down to the handpainted signs by Oppenheimer on the doors leading into the plutonium assembly room, warning oblivious soldiers not to wipe their feet and to keep the place as clean as possible.
Today, someone has placed the rotting skull of a small bird or rodent very carefully on the adobe wall behind the ranch house. Perhaps it’s some sort of offering in this place of death; maybe it’s just some weird kid’s idea of a joke. I don’t know, and never will.
I file along with the rest of the tourists, snap my pictures, get back on the bus to the parking lot. I’ve taken a bunch of video of myself at Ground Zero, but when I get home the next day I discover that the relentless wind of the Jornada del Muerto has left me with nothing more than footage of a long-haired overweight man in a cowboy hat pantomiming over the modulated bass rumble of the desert wind.
And then it’s time to go; the soldiers are about to start herding people out, and I’ve seen what I need to see. I throw the cameras in the trunk and get back in the convertible for the long drive back to the highway, and back to Las Vegas.
* * *
I still don’t have the answer to my question — why — but maybe I understand a little bit more than I did. Ed Grothus helped me, and Richard Rhodes, whose The Making Of The Atomic Bomb was my guidebook.
Maybe they did it because they were afraid — afraid of Hitler, afraid of losing the war. And maybe they did it because the science was so exciting, and the opportunity to be surrounded by so many fine minds in a place where there was nothing to do but talk about the science.
Ultimately, I think, they did it because it could be done, which is why anyone really ever does anything important. In that impulse are the seeds of both humanity’s potential for survival and our potential for destruction.
And they lived with it, all of them, the knowledge of what they’d brought into the world. At the end of Jon Else’s 1980 documentary The Day After Trinity, a black and white camera focuses closely on Robert Oppenheimer’s face, many years after Trinity, as he describes the moments afterwards. His hair is white and his face is seamed with age, but his eyes are still as mesmerizing as ever. Like his voice, quiet and halting, there is something in them — a guilt, perhaps, that no other human would ever feel or really understand.
“We knew the world would not be the same. Few people laughed. Few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita…”
His voice almost breaks, and he wipes his eye.
“Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty. And to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form, and says ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’
“I suppose we all felt that, one way or another.”
* * *
Georgia Green died in the mid-1980s. Trinity was the last bright light she ever saw.
After the war, Oppenheimer was, for a time, the chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, and he also became the director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.
But the jealousy of lesser men, and Oppenheimer’s arrogance and lifelong refusal to suffer fools, cost him dearly. In 1953, he was accused by envious colleagues on the AEC of being a Communist sympathizer and a security risk. Thanks in part to a betrayal by Edward Teller, his former friend and colleague, he was publicly humiliated and stripped of his security credentials. His involvement in the making of policy concerning his Gadget was over.
He died of throat cancer in 1964, a man who had lived like a wounded and betrayed animal for the last decade of his life, and his ashes were spread over the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Caribbean.
It was a place that he loved.
My video of Ed Grothus at the Black Hole