Monday, July 16, 2007

July 16

On this date in 1945, the first atomic weapon in history was detonated in the New Mexican sands. The explosion -- nicknamed “Trinity” in reference to several poems by John Donne -- took place at 5:30 a.m. at the Alamogordo Bombing Range, 120 miles southeast of Albuquerque, where the equivalent of 20 kilotons of TNT opened up an irradiated crater of glass ten feet deep and several hundred yards wide.

The weapon, which would be deployed against human beings less than a month later, amazed each of the 300 observers who witnessed its inauguration. Brigadier General Henry Farrell, deputy to Major General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, described the Trinity shot as “magnificent, beautiful, stupendous and terrifying.” In the Smyth Report, released to the public just days after the obliteration of Nagasaki, Farrell explained that
[n]o man-made phenomenon of such tremendous power had ever occurred before. The lighting effects beggared description. 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. It was that beauty the great poets dream about but describe most poorly and inadequately. Thirty seconds after, the explosion came first, the air blast pressing hard against the people and things, to be followed almost immediately by the strong, sustained, awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to the Almighty. Words are inadequate tools for the job of acquainting those not present with the physical, mental and psychological effects. It had to be witnessed to be realized.
One witness, the physicist and Manhattan Project's scientific director J. Robert Oppenheimer, claimed years later that the explosion reminded him of a line from Vishnu in the Hindu sacred text Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds."

For the next four years, the United States enjoyed a monopoly on this newest weapon of mass destruction -- a monopoly it eventually surrendered on 29 August 1949, when the Soviet Union successfully completed “Joe One,” a 22-kiloton test modeled on the Trinity explosion. By the end of the 20th century, Great Britain, France, China, Israel, India and Pakistan would join the nuclear club; to this date only South Africa and three of the former Soviet Republics have dismantled atomic weapons, with which they had previously sought to deter or coerce their rivals.

As of today, roughly 12,000 active warheads -- all of them, like Vishnu, becoming death -- continue to menace the planet.

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