“We Knew That If We Succeeded, We Could At One Blow Destroy A City”

A final interview with the most controversial father of the atomic age, Edward Teller

On October 31, 1952, Halloween was just getting rolling in California when, half a world away on the South Pacific island of Elugelab, the firing circuits closed on Ivy-Mike, the first practical test of the prototype hydrogen bomb. Ghosts and goblins roamed the Berkeley streets as Dr. Edward Teller, the driving force behind the new weapon, sat quietly in a darkened basement, patiently scanning for subtle, indirect evidence that he had irrevocably altered the world yet again.

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Ground Zero

Twice a year hundreds of people make a pilgrimage to the spot where the nuclear age began

 

I am standing where the great blue sky of New Mexico meets the parched white sand of its desert, and where physics changed the course of world history. It is a bright, clear day. There are no clouds, no wind, no disturbance. The circle I’m in—maybe a hundred yards across—is fenced off by barbed wire. Had I been here on July 16, 1945, at 5:29:45 A.M. , I would have been instantly incinerated by ten-million-degree heat from fissioning plutonium atoms. Not today.

 
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Memory As History

Seeking the truth of an event in the memories of the people who lived it can be a maddening task—and an exhilarating one

The chords of memory may be mystic, as Abraham Lincoln described them, but how accurate and reliable they are as evidence is a dilemma every historian must face. From the time Herodotus walked through Asia Minor two thousand years ago, asking questions, tapping the recollections of hundreds of eyewitnesses, historians have depended on the retentive faculty of the human mind for information about the past, and they have learned that such reliance has its minuses as well as pluses. Read more »

History And The Imagination

As three recent films show—one on the atomic bomb, one on women defense workers during the Second World War, one on the government arts projects of the thirties —this history of our times offers film makers arresting opportunities. Footage shot on the spot supplies a measure of raw actuality, and survivors are still available for interview. The real problem is to give abundant but diffuse materials a shape and structure. This is not, however, a problem that automatically solves itself. Read more »

“i Am Become Death…”

The Agony of J. Robert Oppenheimer

In the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer-the American physicist and scientiststatesman who directed the building of the first atomic bombs at Los Alamos, New Mexico, during World War II, whose government, discerning “fundamental defects” in his character, denied him security clearance in 1954, who died of throat cancer in 1967—some have professed to see embodied the moral ambiguities of twentieth-century science, science charging breakneck over human institutions, scientists waking compromised from Faustian dreams.Read more »