(Sixty years ago this month the first nuclear explosion announced the triumph of big science. It was the beginning of "The End of Nature," as Bill McKibben entitled his book on global warming, ironically a worse threat than global radiation. It introduced a modernist hero, the enigmatic "American Promethius," J. Robert Oppenheimer. Here is my article, which is a permanent feature of this site.)
Asked for his first thought when the Trinity bomb went off, J. Robert Oppenheimer said, "I am become death, the shatterer of worlds," words from the Bhagavad-Gita, which he studied in Sanskrit. He was a strange physicist, mixing science and sacred text. "Trinity" itself, was his allusion to a Christian poem by John Donne.
The Bhagavad-Gita is a justification of war and warriors that also speaks of "wondrous forms not seen before," and "the light of a thousand suns" and "time grown old, creating world destruction."
That's the way it was, for some, at Trinity Site in the New Mexico desert at 5:30 a.m., Mountain War Time, July 16, 1945. For those who understood what was happening, it was a cosmic revelation that would change the world forever. For those who didn't, it was still one hell of a big bang.
Georgia Green, 18, of Socorro was in a car 50 miles north on Highway 85. She was being driven by her brother-in-law, Joe Wills, to a music lesson in Albuquerque. There was a tremendous flash. "What's that?" she said. Georgia was blind.
Richard Harkey and his dad, Sparkey Harkey, were waiting in the dark for a train at Ancho station. "Everything suddenly got brighter than daylight. My dad thought for sure the steam locomotive had blown up." They were 50 miles and a mountain range away from Trinity Site, built in super secrecy in a place so desolate the Spanish called it Jornada del Muerto, or journey of death.
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John R. Lugo was flying a U.S. Navy transport at 10,000 feet 30 miles east of Albuquerque en route to the West Coast. "My first impression was, like, the sun was coming up in the south. What a ball of fire! It was so bright it lit up the cockpit of the plane." Lugo radioed Albuquerque. He got no explanation for the blast, but was told, "Don't fly south."
Rowena Baca, among those interviewed by the Albuquerque Journal's Fritz Thompson on the 50th anniversary, remembered the red light reflecting off the walls and the ceiling in her grandparents' house at San Antonio, 35 miles northwest of Trinity Site. "My grandmother shoved me and my cousin under a bed," she remembered, "because she thought it was the end of the world."
Her grandfather Jose Miera owned the Owl Bar, where scientists and soldiers had been stopping for months. Although they were working on the world's most important secret, he knew from watching and listening that something was up. And the night before, some MP's had tipped him that if he'd stand in the street before dawn he'd see something he'd never seen before. Sure enough.
Grace Lucero of San Antonio said soldiers who stopped at her husband's place, another bar in the little roadside town, disclosed they were building a tower in the desert. "They said they didn't know what it was for."
At daybreak, rancher Dolly Onsrud of Oscuro woke up and looked out her window and saw a strange cloud rising from the other side of the mountains -- right about where her cattle-grazing land had been before the U.S. Army took it over three years earlier.
William Wrye and his wife, Helen, on their ranch 20 miles northeast of Trinity, also had slept through the event. They were eating breakfast when some soldiers with a black box appeared near the stock tank. "I went out there and asked what they were doing, and they said they were looking for radioactivity. Well, we had no idea what radioactivity was back then. I told them we didn't even have the radio on."
Later that summer, Wrye's whiskers stopped growing. When they came back a few months later, they were white, then returned to black. Cattle sprouted white hair along one side. Half the coat on Wrye's black cat turned white.
Bill Gallacher, then 15, was up early at the family ranch at the north end of the Oscura range, 30 miles from Trinity. The flash lighted the sky and the rooms in the house, much brighter than a bolt of lightning. His father, evidently a man of few words, was just getting out of bed.
He said: "Damn." Then he went to have his morning coffee.
The world's top physicists – Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr, Leo Szilard, Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, Emilio Segr‚ Edward Teller, among others – knew immediately that the new theory of matter and energy was verified. Six kilograms of an element not found in nature had produced an explosive power equal to 18,600 tons (the calculation was done later) of TNT. They had released the binding energy of the atomic nucleus. The effects were in the ballpark of their predictions, although the deadly mysteries of the radioactive fireball and of the colorful cloud floating away in the wind would not be completely understood for years.
For physicist Joe McKibben, the Atomic Age came in the back door without knocking. For technician Jack Aeby it slipped blindingly through a crack in his welder's goggles. For photographer Berlyn Brixner it rose in dead silence like an awesome new desert sun.
The Manhattan Project, as it was code named, cost about $2 billion at a time when the average annual per capita income in the United States was around $1,000. The brilliant emigr‚ scientists working under the American Oppenheimer were essential, but the project also involved hundreds of engineers, machinists, technicians, photographers, secretaries, police officers, drivers and builders – military and civilian.
It could not have been done without the wealth of the American government and the ingenuity of American industry. More than 100,000 civilian workers were involved in making the materials for first atomic bombs. The director for all the sites – Tennessee, Washington, Idaho as well as New Mexico Í was a military man, Maj. Gen. Leslie R. Groves, who had supervised the building of the Pentagon.
The crash program, with all its inefficiencies and trials and errors, had come down to this: 6 kilograms, or about 13.6 pounds, of the new artificial element plutonium, delivered from a massive plant on the Columbia River at Hanford, Wash. The design theory was to slam together two carefully machined hemispheres of the new metal with absolute explosive precision, creating a critical mass and a chain reaction.
The only New Mexican in Oppenheimer's inner circle probably was David Hawkins. Designated as the official historian of Los Alamos, he was high enough on the "need-to-know" pyramid that he had seen one of the super-secret plutonium hemispheres.
He held it in his hands, he told me. It was warm, like a living thing.
His father was William Ashton Hawkins, a New Mexico lawyer whose work on water law is still a classic, who represented railroad developer Charles B. Eddy and who served a long time as chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party. William Hawkins' brother John M. Hawkins had been an editorial writer in Albuerque.
David Hawkins was born in El Paso, but grew up at La Luz, near Alamogordo. I interviewed him in 1995 at his home in Boulder, Colo. He was 82 and a beloved emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado when I interviewed him. His distinguished career included a McArthur Foundation "genius" award. But on this day, Hawkins fondly dwelled on memories from his childhood in the New Mexico desert.
"I had horses to ride, and I had a Model A Ford pickup truck to drive. We wandered all over the Tularosa Basin, one way or another, looking for minerals, looking for excitement, looking for rattlesnakes, looking for adventure of the desert kind."
His buddy on some of the explorations was Berlyn Brixner, a boy from a poor family who loved photography. As a result of their friendship, Brixner would become chief photographer for the Trinity test and would spend the rest of his life at Los Alamos.
Hawkins and Oppenheimer met at the University of California, Berkeley, where Hawkins was completing his doctoral work in mathematical probability and Oppenheimer was teaching. They had leftist politics and New Mexico in common.
Oppenheimer's parents had sent the brilliant young New Yorker on a horseback tour of northern New Mexico between high school and college. During the trip he saw the Los Alamos Boys Ranch, which he would choose as the secret site for his laboratory.
The Berkeley politics they had in common would lose them both their security clearances in the McCarthy era of the 1950's. "We were the self-appointed left-wing protectors of political wisdom on the campus," Hawkins said. It seems tame in retrospect: their main leftist activity was to help organize a teacher's union, he said.
Their group also tried to focus political attention on the Spanish Civil War and the Nazi military buildup. Oppenheimer's family, American Jews with relatives in Germany, "knew a lot more about Hitler than most Americans at that time," Hawkins said.
Oppenheimer "had a high-powered intellect of a certain type that would grasp the essence of an argument or a situation and be able to describe it to great eloquence -- in any field he turned his serious attention to," he said.
As a young man Oppenheimer published poetry and essays in a literary magazine called Hound and Horn that was, Hawkins said, "very elite poetry and prose of a rather precious kind."
After his three-year blaze through Harvard with honors, Oppenheimer studied in Germany and Denmark. "He was one of the people who quickly assimilated the ideas of Niels Bohr, which were still new and still causing much distress to traditional-minded physicists," Hawkins said.
When Oppenheimer returned, "he was probably the only physicist in the United States for a while that was a real master of this developing discipline called quantum mechanics. What came out of it was the physics of the atom and in particular the turning of attention to the nucleus of the atom," he said.
Soon physicists were probing nuclei with high-energy particles. Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago had what Hawkins called "an intuition about the heavy metals, particularly Uranium," and Fermi accomplished the first controlled nuclear reaction. Leo Szilard had already conjectured that some heavy elements might fission in a chain reaction, creating an atomic bomb.
In late 1941, Oppenheimer became scarce at Berkeley, and early in 1943, Hawkins got a call from him on a bad circuit, saying, "We need you."
"I knew immediately that this thing was on, and I didn't want to be excluded from knowing about it. I was intrigued by the thought of being part of this extraordinary development. And it was still of course in those days entirely focused on the terrible thought that the Germans might get this weapon and win World War II."
Hawkins, with his wife, moved to New Mexico. "The spirit at Los Alamos was one of excitement about this extraordinary new technology. These were academic physicists, but they were on their way to becoming -- we invented the word -- weaponeers."
Soon he was Oppenheimer's unofficial troubleshooter, and his first task was to mediate disputes between the Los Alamos scientists and the Army. "The military created the place as an Army post, and being in their own traditions accustomed to the fact that the military in such a place would be on top and the civilians would be under them, it was a hard struggle to accept the attitude of the scientists, which was that the military were their servants."
The usual story, not based on much evidence, is that Oppenheimer and Groves were natural-born adversaries. But Hawkins never saw them fight. "They were like this," he said, holding together two fingers. "They needed no mediation."
He went on, "It is well known that Groves picked Oppenheimer against the advice of other physicists who considered themselves perhaps senior to Oppenheimer. But Groves had a belief that Oppenheimer was the man who could do this job, and he was right. Oppenheimer had a kind of presence, a kind of style, that enabled quite senior physicist types to accept his leadership happily. It's a remarkable talent.
"He could be quite obtuse about some things. That's not too surprising. Many people with tremendous rapid intellectual qualifications can miss the boat," the retired professor said.
Groves, on the other hand, "wasn't an ideologue. He had some kind of imagination. It didn't make him more attractive, but it made him more respectable," said Hawkins, adding: "Oppenheimer really did, I think, make a deal with Groves."
The deal was Oppenheimer would be free to run the lab as he wished and Groves would protect him from the FBI and G-2 military intelligence. "They'd already reported to him about Oppenheimer's left-wing activities, and of course this was a time when the anti-Communist scare wasn't what it became later publicly, but it was very powerful then. Communists were demons, especially in the intelligence world," Hawkins said.
Early in 1945, the Army began looking for a place to test the bomb code-named "The Gadget." Hawkins remembered his childhood explorations and the isolation of the Jornada del Muerto. He believed he was the first to suggest the general location that became Trinity Site.
By July, the confiscated McDonald ranch there was a secret military installation with 20 miles of straight blacktop roads, thousands of miles of cables, a base camp with rows of barracks and hard water, concrete bunkers and a 10-story prefabricated steel tower.
On the day of Trinity, at 5:10 a.m., the amplified voice of physicist Sam Allison began what's now called a countdown. "Minus 20 minutes" boomed over the loud speakers and short-wave radios in the dark Jornada del Muerto.
By space-age standards, it was a very short countdown, but it was probably the first in the about-to-be-born world of big science. "Sam seemed to think it was," said Joe McKibben, interviewed in his subdivision home at White Rock in 1995 at age 82. "He told me, `I think I'm the first person to count backward.'"
Just as Allison is remembered for the Trinity countdown, Joe McKibben is remembered as the guy who pushed the button. "That kind of annoys me," he said, folding himself down on a couch in his cluttered study in White Rock. "I consider it a minor part of my work."
It wasn't minor at the time. McKibben, a lanky Missouri farm boy, sat at the Trinity control panel. For three months he had been wiring 360 square miles of desert around the 100-foot steel tower. The fat implosion bomb, 5 feet round, 5 tons heavy, squatted in a harness of cables on a platform on top. And the desert floor was scattered with instruments.
Wisconsin-trained physicist McKibben had spent the night at the tower on guard duty with two Harvard physicists, Trinity director Kenneth Bainbridge and Russian explosives wizard George Kistiakowsky, a former Cossack.
It was another night of uneasy thunder storms in the Jornada. McKibben remembered that the night before lightning struck so close the assembly chief, Navy Commander Norris Bradbury, called him by phone from a bunker. "He said,~ `Did lightning strike the tower?' I said, `Well, I'm still here, aren't I?'"
McKibben fell asleep under some tarps on the clean linoleum floor at the tower base where the final assembly team had done its job carefully, very carefully, inserting the plutonium core.
And McKibben had a dream. It was simple, peaceful. "I started dreaming Kistiakowsky had gotten a garden hose and was sprinkling the bomb. Then I woke up and realized there was rain in my face."
Soon the rain paused, and Bainbridge rescheduled the shot for 5:30 a.m. After closing the last open circuits, the three physicists drove south in a jeep as fast as they could on the straight blacktop road.
They were the last men out of the zone of lethal heat, blast and radiation. The nearest humans were in bunkers called North 10,000, West 10,000 and South 10,000 because each was 10,000 meters (5.6 miles) from Ground Zero.
"We got to South 10,000 (the control bunker) at 5:10, and that was the time I needed to throw the first switch," McKibben recalled. Allison took up the microphone in the countdown booth. A quick young Harvard physicist named Donald Hornig, who would become President Johnson's science advisor 18 years later, took his place near McKibben at an abort switch. Hornig's job was to stop everything if the detonation circuit faltered, in order to save the plutonium.