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Summing Up

The Experiment of the Century

June 2024
5min read

It worked; and in a few millionths of a second, science became more powerful than all the age-old nation-states

The Jornada Del Muerto, the Dead Man’s Trail, a waterless seventy-five-mile stretch of alkaline desert in southern New Mexico north of Alamogordo, was named in an age when transportation depended on water and grass rather than refined hydrocarbons. In secrecy, in the spring of 1945, the last year of the Second World War, dedicated and determined men moved equipment into that emptiness to prepare to conduct the largest physics experiment ever attempted up to that time.

The United States government was sponsoring the experiment, an attempt to trigger the first full-scale fast-neutron chain reaction—that is, to explode an atomic bomb. Some government leaders believed a successful test would confirm their monopoly on an invincible new weapon of war. But the scientists who were preparing the experiment understood otherwise. They understood that success would challenge the international political system as no other innovation had challenged it before, offering it a choice between destruction or radically limited belligerency. That prospect mitigated the remorse they felt at introducing into the world a weapon capable of leveling a city. The physicist responsible for the weapon’s development, a subtle and literate theoretician named Robert Oppenheimer, embedded the paradox of a violence that might also redeem in the name he gave the test site. He called it Trinity, which alluded, he explained later, to the holy sonnet of John Donne that begins “Batter my heart, three-person’d God …” and concludes ”… for I / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”

The U.S. Army leased the David McDonald ranch in the middle of the Jornada site for a field laboratory. The physicist Kenneth T. Bainbridge, in charge of the Trinity test, marked out ground zero thirty-four hundred yards northwest. Contractors built earthsheltered bunkers, with concrete slab roofs supported by oak beams thicker than railroad ties, at compass points north, west, and south, ten thousand yards away—two for cameras, recording instruments, and searchlights, one for use as a control bunker. A base camp of tents and barracks took shape five miles south. Twenty miles northwest Compañia Hill served as a VIP scenic overlook. When the first manmade slow-neutron nuclear reaction had started up in a pile of graphite and uranium stacked on the floor of a doubles squash court under the west stands of the University of Chicago football stadium three years earlier, the VIP scenic overlook had been no farther away than the squash-court balcony. The change of scale calibrated the difference in energy release between the two historic experiments, half a watt compared with the equivalent of eighteen thousand tons of TNT.

A hundred-foot prefabricated steel tower went up at ground zero with a corrugated-iron cab at the top to house the test device. The device itself, which its inventors insouciantly called a “gadget,” was delivered in two separate shipments. The core—two silver-plated plutonium hemispheres the size of a baseball and a little walnut-sized initiator of goldplated beryllium and polonium— rode down from Los Alamos on July 12,1945, in a shock-mounted carrying case in the back seat of an Army sedan, like a visiting general. The high-explosive assembly in its five-foot conical duralumin case left Los Alamos on the back of a truck just after midnight on Friday the thirteenth, deliberate bravado timing against the day’s unlucky reputation.

Friday morning the pit-assembly team clicked the initiator into place between the two plutonium hemispheres, nested the core in a hollowed plug of uranium, and drove the heavy cylinder to the tower. A crew there, Oppenheimer among them, worked through the day to insert the pit assembly into the center of the high-explosive arrangement and button it up. They bandaged the multiple holes in the case, where detonators would be inserted, with crosses of white tape. Saturday, twisting slowly and looking wounded, the gadget winched its way into the cab at the top of the tower as the scientists watched nervously in the hot sun. With the device settled safely on its skid, another crew unbandaged it, inserted its multiple detonators, and connected them through a harness of cables to a bank of battery-powered capacitors that would charge them. Oppenheimer gave his offspring a final inspection Sunday evening; it crouched in the high cab ugly as Caliban.

The test was scheduled for Monday morning, July 16, just before dawn. Los Alamos scientists, project leaders flown down from Washington, and Army men gathered to watch it. A front off the Gulf of Mexico had blown in. Thunderstorms began lashing the Jornada at about 0200 hours. “It was raining cats and dogs, lightning and thunder,” the Columbia University physicist I. I. Rabi remembered, and everyone was “really scared [that] this object there in the tower might be set off accidentally.” But by 0315 the clouds had begun to open and a few stars were shining. The countdown started in the control bunker ten thousand yards south of ground zero. At 0529:45 the firing circuit closed.

Detonators at thirty-two detonation points simultaneously fired, igniting concentric shells of shaped charges that directed the explosion inward. A shock wave moved through the heavy uranium tamper shell that surrounded the core, liquefied it, squeezed the core itself to a critical mass less than half its former diameter, and smashed the little initiator at the very center of the arrangement, kicking free a few neutrons to start the chain reaction. And then nuclear fission multiplied its prodigious energy release exponentially through eighty generations in millionths of a second, heating the core to a fireball hotter than the center of the sun that began ferociously expanding.

It was too hot to see, but as it expanded, it cooled to visibility. Rabi at base camp felt menaced: “We were lying there, very tense, in the early dawn, and there were just a few streaks of gold in the east; you could see your neighbor very dimly. Those ten seconds were the longest ten seconds that I ever experienced. Suddenly, there was an enormous flash of light, the brightest light I have ever seen. ... It blasted; it pounced; it bored its way right through you. It was a vision which was seen with more than the eye. It was seen to last forever. You would wish it would stop; altogether it lasted about two seconds. Finally it was over, diminishing, and we looked toward the place where the bomb had been; there was an enormous ball of fire which grew and grew and it rolled as it grew; it went up into the air, in yellow flashes and into scarlet and green. It looked menacing. It seemed to come toward one.

“A new thing had just been born,” Rabi adds, “a new control; a new understanding of man, which man had acquired over nature.”

War is the ultimate determinant of national sovereignty. But science had discovered a limit to war.

What was that new control, that new understanding? Military men imagined at first that the scientists had delivered to them a decisive new weapon of war, but the scientists had done the numbers and knew better. Nuclear weapons were too destructive to be decisive. So long as one nation held a monopoly on them, it would still be possible to use them, as the United States demonstrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the knowledge required to build such weapons was no secret; it was physics. And once other nations applied it, as they soon would do, so much destructive force would become available to them that conflict between nuclear powers would be rendered suicidal.

Nuclear weapons would not put an end to all war, since wars could still be fought below the nuclear threshold. But they would raise a bar against unlimited wars like the two world wars that scarred the twentieth century. After Trinity the choice would no longer be war or peace. The choice would be limited war or general destruction. National leaders saw the futility of nuclear war almost immediately despite their desperate stockpiles and their occasional displays of brinkmanship. McGeorge Bundy, John Kennedy’s and Lyndon Johnson’s national security adviser, confirmed the transformation retroactively as early as 1969, writing that “in the light of the certain prospect of retaliation, there has been literally no chance at all that any sane political authority, in either the United States or the Soviet Union, would consciously choose to start a nuclear war. This proposition is true for the past, the present and the foreseeable future.”

The experiment at Trinity thus marked the historic moment when science as an institution, going about its open, democratic, and peaceful business of trying to understand how the world really works (rather than how we would like it to work), surpassed in power and authority the belligerent system of nation-states that had dominated the world since the eighteenth century. Niels Bohr, the great Danish physicist, who had worked on the bomb at Los Alamos, explained the change most simply. “We are in a completely new situation,” he said in 1957, “that cannot be resolved by war.” But war is the ultimate determinant of national sovereignty. Science, by discovering how to release the energy locked in the atomic nucleus, had discovered a limit to war, which forced national leaders to limit their most destructive expression of national sovereignty. In the long history of human slaughter, that is no small achievement.

Some experiment.

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