History Lessons from the Trinity Site

Twice each year, the U.S. government opens the Trinity Site to the general public. It was the location of the first atomic bomb detonation in 1945, and is noteworthy on several accounts. The snap below was taken when I was there in 1997.


Last updated

17 September 1998


Tozier at Trinity Site


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SFI is the place where we study Complex Systems

I worked in Santa Fe, NM, at the Santa Fe Institute, for several months on and off in 1996-1997, and when Trinity Day came around that fall, some of us decided to take a road trip and see the Big Hole. Scientists, coworkers of mine, administrators at SFI. We piled into two cars and drove south through Albuquerque and Belen and Socorro first thing in the morning.


The terrain thereabouts is eerily blasted. Not by Atomic Evil, but rather diligent millenia of application by our Big Atomic Friend, Sol. The White Sands Missile Range is real desert, of the kind you don't see in northern New Mexico until you come down around Socorro and light out cross-country. Alas, pictures, they are forbidden, except the mental sort.



At the site, you park, then you walk through a narrow corridor of meters-high fencing through twisty yucca and mesquite sunblast until you pass into a sort of ballpark-sized fenced-in bullpen, tramped into paths semi-annually by the thousands of visitors. There is a memorial black cairn or obelisk. A row of photographs taken during the explosion is tied to the wire fence. A quonset covers the last remaining trinitite missed by sightseers and Douglas Coupland characters. There isn't a Big Hole; they almost immediately filled in the crater.

Douglas Coupland's novel Generation X features a bottle of trinitite as an ominous symbolic thingie.


But there is still a sort of shallow grade where the Big Hole used to be, and little specks of trinitite can still be found here and there among the scrub. One is left with the impression, out almost literally in the middle of nowhere, that there really wasn't a lot going on when it blew. Somewhere down the road, reached by a bus loop that runs on these visitors' days, is the MacDonald ranch, which was used at the time as a sort of setup base. Quiet, quiet place.

"Afterwards the depression was filled and much of the Trinitite was taken away by the Nuclear Energy Commission."

Good thing, I suppose. Hate to have an explosion like that happen where there was something. But that's the point, isn't it?


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Now then. We are all of us carriers and creators of a corpus of questionable lore, picking up notions and passed them along to others as we make our way through life. Scientists and those who live alongside them perhaps more than anyone else. Who knows where or when I heard or imagined the notions I held when I walked away from Trinity: whether they were written on the Black Cairn, or mentioned in the caption of the placarded photos or the pamphlet I picked up, were something eavesdropped from my traveling companions, or first arose in a half-imagined National Geographic article I read in 197X? For instance, let me pass along a notion or two from the stack I still carry around with me:


There is a web transcription of the Trinity Site Pamphlet.

When the blast occurred, brush on the miles-away ridges shielding the site caught fire immediately. People were wandering around in the Big Hole nearly the same day, as soon as it had cooled off, in just their uniforms. They filled in the crater as soon as they could so it wouldn't be seen from a spy's passing airplane. The sound of the blast was heard in Santa Fe. In Los Alamos. In Texas. In Kansas.


Who knows? Possible. A potent thing happened there. Something on a scale at which our own experiences cannot be used to gauge.


But I know that my own contribution to this corpus of questionable lore originated with my father, and has since that time been carelessly filtered through my own memory. From the '40s until he retired in the '70s he worked at NACA and its modern successor, NASA, first at Langley Field and later as head of the instrumentation labs at NASA Lewis Research Center in Cleveland. I clearly remember -- is it true, imagined, or merely overheard? -- his account of being "involved in the Manhattan Project," and something about "the photographs, the high-speed cameras."

NASA Lewis has become perhaps the major research institution for microgravity engineering.


Cut to the high-speed images of the blast, taken in fractions of a second while the fireball ballooned out and before the mushroom even had its stalk -- these were tied in chronological order to the fence at Trinity. Visitors made that fence into a museum wall by silently strolling along, bending to peer at the captions in the blinding sunlight, shaking their heads. 1/100 second. 25/100 seconds. We've all seen them, I think; they've always been impressive and useful enough that similar images were no doubt taken of every aboveground nuclear explosion there ever was. I don't doubt that thousands of them exist, now, in archives around the world.


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These are the ones, I decided when I saw them there on the fence -- these are the images my father made. Or his people, or his people helped build the cameras. That's what I have constructed out of my own memories and the power of that hot noontime in the desert bullpen. It is a personal truth, and I have the same suspicion I try to apply to all truths that it nonetheless has very little to do with the Actual World. Nonetheless I have passed it on to other people, just like the story of the sound being heard in Kansas was passed to me from some unknown source, and it has now become an item of others' received knowledge. Maybe, if we listen very closely, they will repeat it among themselves and I will hear it again someday. And of course that would make it more believable for me, add extra weight to my own convictions. Independent confirmation.


My father was never in New Mexico that I know of, and though I have never read them I am sure his name is not in the histories of the Manhattan Project. (I do not find this a particularly sad thing, since as someone who works on a regular basis with people who are or will be prominent in history books, the effect of such a record is actually rather slight, and does not grant any special benefits in terms of personality or demeanor.)


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Nonetheless, I expect that I will go on repeating the story of my father's responsibility for the cameras (or the triggers of the cameras, or maybe the cabling connecting the cameras) that took those images of the blast at Trinity. It has equal weight, in my head, with the other facts I learned while at Trinity. More, maybe.


Astute readers may have noted that I haven't written about the "sad lessons I learned at that awesome place, in the light of the beginning of the destruction of the world," nor about the pain caused to so many at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nor even about ournation's great victory in the "Last" World War. Never once mentioned the Military-Industrial Complex or the insidiousness of gamma-irradiation of food. Others have already written at great lengths about those aspects of history, no doubt more and perhaps better than I could manage.


Frankly, visiting Trinity didn't make me think about gross issues of responsibility or guilt, which are frankly things to which I am not especially prone. Instead, it reminded me of the stories I believe I heard as a child, and from those memories I have now connected with a real piece of history (at least the history of some photographs). And yes, I built that history; but unlike most people, I was paying attention when I did it.


If you want a moral to a long-winded and indulgent essay like this (which really just started out life as a caption to that photo up there), I suppose that will do: remember that history is built, and always after the fact. It emerges from the roil of our memories, and from their occasional and sparse external records, like photographs and others' previous opinions. It is not "written by the winners," unless you're speaking tautologically in same way we speak of "survival of the fittest" -- the ones who write history are the ones who get read and believed, and no more. Nor, regardless of what people might say, can it be actively suppressed by insidious tyrants or revisionists -- not, that is, without the compliance of every one of their victims. History is just what most of us think happened.


Don't call me a relativist because of this, or I'll be sorely tempted to box your ears for not listening. But do think about the way the small stories, about the quonset or camera builders, flex and twist as we rediscover them after the fact, and ask carefully whether these are different from the bigger stories. The Real History, like the one we learn in school. From our relatives. From our community leaders. In church.


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If you get a chance, I strongly recommend a trip to Trinity. You can see my father's pictures.

copyright 1998 by William Tozier