Classic Roger # 8: Pilgrimage to Trinity

Note: Originally Published Sun Nov 28, 2004 at 08:07:20 PM EST courtesy kuro5hin.org. Because of the age of this article, it is likely that many links are broken.


Here and there upon the Earth are places so unique and important that many of us come to regard them as holy. Some of these places are shaped by natural forces, like the Grand Canyon, Mount Everest, the Valleys of the Vapors, or the frozen desert of Antarctica. Some attain their status because of the great or important humans who were born there, and some by the great or important humans whose lives ended nearby.

Some places become sacred because of a great or momentous event. One of the shortest but most important of those events occurred at 5:29:45 AM on the morning of July 16, 1945, when the work of a few millionths of a second brought forth a new thing in the experience of humans, of the Earth, and very possibly of the entire Universe.

Sacred places inspire pilgrimage, and on November 20, 2004, I realized an old dream of mine. I made the pilgrimage to the Trinity site, at the north end of the White Sands Test Range in central New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was exploded.


1.

“And then…” (choking up) “…the whole sky lit up. It was just like daylight. It was awesome. And down by the gas pumps the Army guys were jumping up and down and slapping each other on the back, and I heard one of them say ‘We’ve got the world by the tail now!'”

Bucky Gilmore, who saw the Trinity test at age 12, to our tour group

2.

As sacred places go, Trinity is unusually uninspiring. It is hard to get a feel for what happened there in 1945. But that is largely because of the ambivalence, and to a certain extent the profanity, of its keepers.

At Trinity there are big signs warning you that the place is a national treasure and that, in particular, removing Trinitite is a crime. Yet the site’s biggest vandal in the last 59 years has been the Army itself.

In 1947 the embarrassingly expensive and unused Jumbo was “tested” to semi-destruction; an off-center detonation blew the ends off but left the 180 ton central cylinder intact. In the early 1950’s the Army scraped up and buried much of the Trinitite crust and filled in the central depression. Through the years they also allowed the historic George McDonald ranch house which survived the blast to deteriorate as it lay abandoned.

Only in 1965 did the White Sands Test Range officials decide to mark Ground Zero with the lava rock obelisk that still stands there, and only in 1975 did the Park Service designate the place a National Historic Landmark. Only in 1982 were efforts started to preserve and restore the McDonald ranch house.

Without the marker and fencing or a radiation detector, you could pass the site a hundred times without realizing its significance. The desert ecosystem has claimed the new soil that was added in the early 1950’s, so that you must step over desert scrub and jackrabbit droppings to hunt for the remaining small bits of Trinitite, which in turn are unnoticeable unless you know to look for them by their signature green color. A low, anonymous, windowless building covers a few hundred square feet of the crater to preserve the original surface for future archaeologists.

Near the marker, the largest surviving tower footing is protected by a little guard made of welded rebar. A second footing survives only as a bare patch of bald concrete almost level with the desert sand. The presence of a third footing is revealed by a single piece of half-inch rebar, perhaps two inches long, sticking out of the sand. Of the fourth footing there is no evidence at all. Scattered around the site are hundreds of fist-sized chunky bits of metal which are probably bits of Jumbo’s blown-off ends.

Away from the fenced-in central crater rows of cedar posts survive to mark the cable runs to some of the remote instrumentation bunkers. Only one of those bunkers, West 800, still exists; and it was only recently restored and marked. All of the rest of the infrastructure — the instruments and cameras, the bunkers with their concrete slab roofs supported by massive oak beams, the controls and cables spanning twenty kilometers of desert — is gone, removed and discarded soon after the test.

3.

Events of mythic proportion inspire mythic tales. The popular understanding of atomic history is riddled with falsehoods that range from understandable simplifications to poor justifications to outright lies spread to maintain the secrecy of design elements.

Probably the biggest myth to emerge in the years since 1945 is that Fat Man and Little Boy ended the war. It’s even printed right there in black and white in the brochure that White Sands passes out to visitors. It’s the kind of simple story that makes perfect sense, is easy to believe, and makes us feel better about the awful way the world’s second and third atomic explosions were used.

The only problem is, it isn’t true.

By July of 1945, the Japanese Empire was on the ropes. Secretary of War Henry Stimson summed it up for President Truman on July 2 thusly:

  • Japan has no allies.
  • Her navy is nearly destroyed and she is vulnerable to a surface and underwater blockade which can deprive her of sufficient food and supplies for her population.
  • She is terribly vulnerable to our concentrated air attack upon her crowded cities, industrial and food resources.
  • She has against her not only the Anglo-American forces but the rising forces of China and the ominous threat of Russia.
  • We have inexhausible and untouched industrial resources to bring to bear against her diminishing potential.
  • We have great moral superiority through being the victim of her first sneak attack.

On the other hand Stimson went on to warn that an invasion would be horribly costly to us, and that he thought the Japanese would be amenable to an appropriately worded demand for surrender. He even recommended that…

“if we do not exclude a constitutional monarchy under her present dynasty, it would substantially add to the chances of acceptance.”

Was Stimson right? By July of 1945 we had cracked Japan’s military codes, and on July 10 and 11 we intercepted top-secret cables indicating that the High Command was seriously considering surrender. There was just one caveat:

“It is his Majesty’s heart’s desire to see the swift termination of the war … however, as long as America and England insist on unconditional surrender our country has no alternative but to see it through in an all-out effort for the sake of survival and the honor of the homeland.”

So we basically knew that the Japanese were ready to surrender and what approximate terms they would accept. On July 2 Stimson recommended that we offer them such terms. But on July 16 Trinity lit up the sky over New Mexico, and when the Potsdam Declaration was announced — having been delayed until after the test — it contained the very language we knew Japan would never accept.

How important was our demand for unconditional surrender, a demand we made knowing it would cause the war to go on when it might be stopped? It couldn’t have been very important, because after the atomic bombings and after the Japanese were forced to lick our boot heels, we ended up giving them what they wanted anyway. The Emperor was in fact allowed to retained his always largely symbolic throne, and the Japanese nation retained its polity.

So what we got for prolonging the war for several weeks and killing several hundred thousand people was almost exactly nothing.

4.

I could not justify travelling to New Mexico just to tour Trinity. Our “real” reason for going there was the Festival of the Cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. One of the earliest and most successful species and habitat preservation projects, the Bosque provides magnificent opportunities for birding; but as Fate would have it, it’s also close to some high geek tourist spots such as the Very Large Array, just 50 miles away, and even closer at 20 miles the Trinity test site. Wanting to give us every possible reason to come visit, the Friends of the Bosque put tours to both places on the Festival schedule.

During one bus tour of the Bosque our guide rightly bragged that the refuge had allowed a vanishing population of only 17 wintering Sandhill Cranes in 1939 to become over 11,000 today, through their deliberate efforts to mimic the shallow wetlands which once flanked the now dammed and channeled Rio Grande. “We have fossils which show that these cranes have been coming here for nine million years,” she added. “They’ve survived volcanoes and mountain uplifts, and hopefully we’ll just be another blip for them too.”

She then turned beet red as she realized what she had just said, but not one person in that bus full of humans spoke up to suggest that our own species might have a future as impressive as the Sandhill Crane’s past.

5.

The atomic explosion wasn’t just a New Thing for human beings. We can be reasonably sure it was a New Thing in the entire history of our planet. And absent the meddling of another intelligent life form like ourselves, it may have been a New Thing in the entire 13.6 billion year history of the Universe.

There are more energetic spectacles to be found out in the depths of space, but in the microseconds after the fission reaction runs its course the heart of an atomic bomb is one of the most extreme environments anywhere — even compared to the heart of a star, even compared to a supernova. And we know of no mechanism that could create such extremes of temperature and particle flux without also involving extremes of gravity and mass that tend to keep one away from the action. We know of no natural situation that could create such conditions and loose them upon the surface of an otherwise inhabitable world, before the eyes of witnesses who might survive.

Everything about an atomic bomb is spectacular. The separation of pure isotopes, whether U235 or Pu239, is a difficult and unnatural thing to arrange. They must start out in a subcritical arrangement, then be very quickly assembled into a critical mass; Little Boy performed this operation by firing a gun, Fat Man by implosion. And then, in the brief moment when the assembly is critical — because forces strong enough to assemble it fast enough will also blow it apart if the nuclear reaction doesn’t materialize — you have to introduce seed neutrons to make sure the reaction starts. Again, this must be done very quickly. The device that does this in an atomic bomb is called the initiator, and in some ways it’s even more unnatural and difficult to engineer than the rest of the bomb.

6.

We are a nation of savages. That is what we decided last night. We belong to the “most advanced” society in the history of the world, and we decided that we would rather be barbarians, hunched over fire pits, ripping meat off the bones of our enemies, raping our women, howling out at the gods for peace in the afterlife.

–The Rude Pundit, on November 3, 2004

Although the Rude One was writing of something much more mundane, he goes on to correctly observe that we have been a nation of savages since long before this year’s ugly election cycle. In addition to the genocidal way we dealt with the original inhabitants of our country, there is that little dust-up back in the 1860’s when we proved we are equal-opportunity savages, quite willing to turn our savagery inward upon ourselves under the right conditions. And a consistent history of not being able to go more than a few years without some kind of war to keep us entertained shows that we haven’t really changed.

My wife hates it when I say things like this. She likes to say “there is no ‘We.'” She doesn’t like being grouped with people she thinks of as Neanderthals (and that might even be an insult to our extinct cousins) because of the accident of her place of birth and inherited citizenship.

To a certain extent she has a point, but I think it would be a hard point to explain to one of the many, many, many, many people brutally murdered in our many, many quasi-legal “adventures” in places like Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, or Iraq. Our tax money pays for the bombs and death squads whether or not we personally fly the planes or train the goons.

What is really true, I think, is that we are two nations commingled in uneasy detente. The nation of savages certainly is there and has always been part of us; as Plato observed it will be a part of any democratically run state. But there is also within us a nation of civilized, noble people who actually believe in the words and the philosophy behind them on the documents produced by the people who founded our nation.

Sometimes the savages are ascendant and we have things like the Civil War and Vietnam and our current adventure in Iraq. Sometimes they are in eclipse, but being savages they still slink around doing savage things like Iran/Contra, and on a smaller scale generally making the lives of our neighbors miserable when they can, whether by gay-bashing the local fags or making sure every source of pleasure carries with it the risk of making the rest of your life a living hell.

The striking thing about the Manhattan Project is the number of civilized, noble people who played indispensable roles, knowing what it was they were trying to create. For various noble-sounding reasons that made sense at the time, they helped to create the ultimate tool of savagery — and handed it to the savages to use as they pleased.

7.

The second biggest myth of the atomic era is the idea that we had to build atomic bombs on the chance Germany might build them first. And in the early years of the war that was a valid concern.

But the German atomic program was beset by several factors that doomed it. Foremost was Hitler’s suspicion of “Jewish science,” which forced many of his brightest physicists to come work for us. Second, the engineering enterprises we built to realize our bomb such as the Y-12 isotope separation plant and the Hanford reactors were probably beyond the Reich’s means. (If Hitler hadn’t bungled Operation Barbarossa and gotten stuck in Russia, that situation might have been different.)

The Germans might have taken the isotope-separation route to build a U235 bomb, but they had the resources to pursue only one avenue. They tried thermal diffusion, since its inventor Klaus Clusius was on their side. But it turns out as Otto Frisch learned in 1941 that the Clusius method doesn’t work for Uranium Hexaflouride. We went on to successfully explore gaseous barrier diffusion and electromagnetic separation, but the Germans abandoned the whole idea.

And Germany’s ability to follow the Plutonium path was mostly blown by a single mistaken measurement. When Walther Bothe measured the neutron absorption cross-section of carbon in January 1940, he came up with a value high enough to rule it out as a moderator for nuclear reactors. Bothe didn’t know that, like Von Halban and Kowarski on our side, he probably had graphite contaminated with boron; but the Germans could not cross-check their result with Enrico Fermi, whose different methodology gave a much more promising number. That mistake denied them carbon as a moderator for the reactors that would be needed to breed Plutonium. Their only other option was heavy water, and when we bombed the Norsk Hydro heavy water plant in Vermork and British commandoes sunk the ferry carrying the train with the last of its output, the German atomic program became irrelevant.

Did we know any of this at the time, though? In 1943 Leslie Groves created the Alsos intelligence unit (Alsos is greek for “grove,” get it?) charged with locating German nuclear assets as the Normandy invasion rolled inland. By April 1944 Alsos had located all of the uranium ore known to be in Nazi hands and all of their scientists, and we knew that they had never had a chance at a bomb, had built only one reactor, and that their one reactor had never sustained a chain reaction.

Groves’ reaction to this happy news was to clamp it under a tight lid of secrecy. Too many of the Manhattan Project physicists were working on the project only because of the German threat, and he knew that they would not be as eager to unleash such technology against the more primitively armed Japanese.

8.

If Trinity had not happened, what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki might be forgivable. It was widely believed that an atomic bomb would not be as effective as conventional bombs delivering equivalent energy, because the bomb’s output would not be spread out over the target. Before Trinity nobody had any idea what such a blast would look like or what it would do to the landscape.

And in some respects, the Trinity test was almost defiantly arranged to prevent such knowledge from being acquired; with so much at stake you’d think they would have put some test structures around Ground Zero to see how well they survived. But one of the fairy tales told early on about Trinity is that it was more of a pure science experiment than a weapons test, even though they were using the opportunity to test tool kits and procedures necessary for assembling and dropping the bomb in the field.

When the shot worked and we had hard data about the yield and pressure wave and temperatures it created, we had no idea how such extremes would affect real buildings.

But we did have a plan to find out.

By April of 1945, when serious consideration began to be given to where to drop something like an atomic bomb, Curtis LeMay had already bombed and burned out most of Japan’s larger cities. This is why Tokyo wasn’t atomic-bombed; it was already mostly bombed out already. Hiroshima rose to the top of the Target Committee’s list mainly because it was the biggest city LeMay’s bombers hadn’t gotten to yet, and on their advice LeMay continued to spare it, so that we might accurately assess how much damage was done by the atomic bomb without the confusion of other damage to cloud the data.

And even after the Enola Gay bombed Hiroshima on August 6 we didn’t really know just how much damage it had done; we had aerial photos but no hard information from the ground. We were shocked that Japan didn’t immediately surrender. Didn’t they understand what they were up against? What we didn’t realize was that Little Boy had destroyed Hiroshima so thoroughly that reports of the devastation took time to get out, and those reports were so astonishing they were hard to believe.

So, on a schedule set even before the Trinity test, we dropped Fat Man on August 9. This mission was beset by glitches; a malfunctioning fuel selector limited the B-29’s range and weather obscured the primary target at Kokura. Bock’s Car was able to make Nagasaki, a city added to the Target Committee’s list only at the last minute. One fortuitous hole opened up in the clouds and Fat Man was set loose.

By now the news was getting around about what had happened in Hiroshima, and the Japanese government began to frantically assess the situation even as preparations were made to deliver a third bomb. That bomb wouldn’t be coming; Truman had ordered a stop to the atomic bombing. Henry Wallace recorded in his diary that Truman “didn’t like the idea of killing all those kids.”

9.

“Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.”

–Robert Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer, the single most important man in the Manhattan Project, studied Sanskrit and read the Hindu holy text the Bhagavad-Gita as a hobby.

The juxtaposition of a scientific peacenik like Oppenheimer and congenital war hawk Leslie Groves is enough to make one’s head explode. One can understand how Groves was able to deal with Oppenheimer; he was simply ruthless about it. Oppenenheimer was on the short list of people who could get the job done, and he agreed to try. Then Groves put every invasive apparattus at his disposal into the 24/7 task of following and spying on Oppenheimer to make sure he wasn’t slacking or spilling secrets to his many card-carrying Communist friends.

But what motivated Oppenheimer to enter such an obviously Faustian deal?

Historians find Oppenheimer “complicated” and “interesting.” But I personally think most people are ultimately motivated by simple things. Like most of us Oppenheimer had fealty to several interests which were not always congruent. He had his sympathies with the working man and his hopes for the ennoblement of humanity, and he had his worries and warnings encoded in the holy texts he liked to read. But he was also a scientist, and to offer a scientist the resources Groves offered to study a problem of such laser-like clarity and pinnacle importance is like offering a 15 year old boy the chance to fuck Paris Hilton. I think he saw that if he declined the opportunity he’d spend the rest of his life getting drunk and kicking himself. It probably wasn’t even a very hard decision for him to make.

Oppenheimer’s decision is interesting to me, though, for another reason. Oppenheimer was more interested and better versed in human concerns like poverty and power and transcendence than most of us are today; yet when his scientific interest came into conflict with his human interest, it was the scientific interest that prevailed. Which might be a Good Thing or a Bad Thing depending on how you look at it, but it undeniably was a Thing that was Used to turn a contemplative, introspective person into a tool which would ultimately turn against everything he ever held dear.

10.

One of the myths of the atomic era is that Ethel and Julius Rosenberg sold the secret of the atomic bomb to the Russians, and that’s why Russia was able to acquire its own nuclear arsenal. It’s most likely true that Julius at least passed on important details of Fat Man’s design. But that wasn’t the secret that made it possible for other countries to acquire their own atomic bombs.

The secret of the atomic bomb is that it is possible to build them at all.

Leo Szilard understood this and warned James Byrnes that to use the bomb against Japan and possibly even to test it would be tantamount to giving it to the Russians; but Szilard, who had pretty much gotten the whole affair rolling by conceiving of the basic idea of the nuclear chain reaction back in 1933, was widely regarded as a peacenik troublemaker and the Powers that Be ignored him.

The problem is that atomic bombs require an enormous industrial effort, but they are not really all that complicated. If you don’t know whether a bomb is possible it is very hard to justify the cost necessary to refine enough fissionable material to find out. In 1939 Neils Bohr had insisted it would be necessary to turn the whole country into factory to pursue isotope separation, and when he came to America and saw the scale of Manhattan Project constructions, he said to Ed Teller, “and you have done just that.”

But we had turned the whole country into a factory anyway to face the war, and we could afford the distraction of the possibly unworkable but oh so tantalizing atomic explosive. Few other countries could, and outside the context of World War II it’s unlikely we would have put in such a grand effort either.

It’s a dead certainty the Soviets wouldn’t have; in their years of rebuilding they “borrowed” many industrial secrets from us but Stalin instructed his spies to concentrate on proven technologies. As Harry Gold related,

“…I was told that the Soviet Union was so desperately in need of chemical processes that they could afford to take no chances on one which might not work.”

Of course, once you know atomic bombs are possible and especially that your neighbor has them the equation reverses. The only possible defense against atomic attack is the ability to mount an atomic retribution; having bombs of your own becomes a survival imperative worth whatever it costs.

And history shows that once you make that commitment, you’ll probably get the same results we got; as Richard Rhodes points out, every country that has ever set out to create an atomic weapon has succeeded on the first try.

11.

Another myth is that we developed the bomb to use against Germany and Japan. That’s certainly what our leaders told us back in 1945, but as early as 1943 it was no longer really true. And this gets back to the question of why the Japanese were goaded into continuing to fight by the unacceptable wording of the Potsdam Declaration, and why the bombs were used at all when Japan was more than ready to throw in the towel to our satisfaction.

Once we had the Battle of the Atlantic in hand and Russia ostensibly on our side, and once it was clear there would be no surprising new technologies on the Nazi side, Allied victory was only a matter of time. Hitler may not have seen it but both the Americans and Russians did, and both nations began laying plans for after the war, when it seemed inevitable that without a mutual enemy to force us into alignment we would turn on one another.

A major part of our strategy in this regard was the atomic bomb.

What the atomic bomb got us was nothing Japan could have offered; it showed the world in general and the Russians in particular what would happen to them next if they annoyed us. By actually using the bomb against a real target we showed that we were willing to use it. This is why the Potsdam Declaration was delayed until after the successful Trinity test. Although we were pretty sure Little Boy would work without testing, it was a harder bomb to build; our hopes for near-term mass manufacture rested with Fat Man. Little Boy was an ace that could be played once and perhaps occasionally, but Fat Man was a whole pocket full of aces and it allowed us to adopt a more aggressive strategy.

This attitude is reflected in the recorded comments of many people, from Leslie Groves to Henry Stimson to the nameless Army guys overheard by Bucky Gilmore on the morning of the Trinity test.

Of course the project itself also had the kind of inhuman momentum that builds up when enough money and effort is spent on anything; as James Byrnes lectured to Leo Szilard,

“How would you get Congress to appropriate money for atomic energy research if you do not show results for the money which has been spent already?”

Or as Stimson remarked upon hearing of the successful Trinity test,

“I have been responsible for spending some two billions of dollars on this atomic venture. Now that it is successful I shall not be sent to prison in Fort Leavenworth.”

But for two billion dollars, in an era when gasoline only cost 15 cents a gallon, lighting up the Jornada del Muerto may not have been enough. Knowing that as the war wound down the secrecy would lift and Congress would have time to start looking into exactly where all the money went, they may have felt only flat enemy cities could justify their actions.

It is interesting to wonder how things might have happened if President Roosevelt had not died on April 12, 1945, leaving Truman to decide the fate of a huge secret that was new and unfamiliar to him. With more experience and confidence might Roosevelt have made the decision after Trinity that Truman made only after Nagasaki? Or would he, too, have gone along with the idea that we had to impress the Russians? Some things history denies to us entirely. All we know is that it took Truman two atomic bombings before, as the most powerful human being on Earth, he stood up and acted like a human being and put a stop to something he saw was awful.

12.

Perhaps the biggest myth of the American national character is that we are the Good Guys.

Whenever this atomic subject comes up and my views come out I often get some pretty hostile responses. A lot of that is just the savages venting, but some of it comes from people who should be a bit smarter about things. A lot of it comes from people who are just like I was, before I happened to see Plate 42. And I think it’s because it’s hard, it takes a real shock to the system, to admit to yourself that your country didn’t just needlessly and horribly kill a few hundred thousand people; your country does shit like that all the time. To recognize the magnitude of the problem is to realize that we are not, in fact, the Good Guys. And that’s a very traumatic thing to have to accept.

From America’s beginning we have been a nation of high ideals but low values. We’re the kind of nation that can accept the 3/5 compromise on slavery right after ratifying a document that says “all men are created equal.” We can hear something like the Dred Scott decision and most of us are fully capable of saying “sure, that makes perfect sense.” Then we can have a big old knock-down drag-out civil war on the issue that kills a few million people, as we trip over ourselves finding ever newer and cleverer ways to kill each other. Then we can pick silly fights like the Spanish-American war just because we don’t have anything else to do.

In a sense it was an accident that we came out of WWII looking like the Good Guys; it helped that we were sneak-attacked and that the Germans really went out of their way to make us look good by comparison. Under other circumstances the atomic bombings of two inhabited cities would have been roundly and widely criticized. But it seems that Teflon, which was invented for sealing surfaces at the Y-12 diffusion plant (not as popularly believed for the Apollo space program) kept the dirt of our misdeeds from sticking even before we started to apply it to cookware.

We went on after WWII to do a lot of Not Very Good Guy things, from the Cold War missile buildup to the Cuban Missile Crisis to Vietnam to Iran/Contra to Iraq. Now there’s a typically American approach to something we don’t understand very well; befriend both sides in a nasty long-standing conflict and then screw them both over! How to win friends and influence people, American style. When you’ve got the world by the tail you can do whatever you want.

I have some familiarity with godlike fictional characters, and one of my favorites is the Gaia being in John Varley’s wonderful Titan trilogy. Gaia is introduced to human culture by television a hundred years before humans come calling on her, and she is finely attuned to the human sense of drama. As the heroine Cirocco Jones notes in the run-up to the big battle in the last book, Demon, Gaia has decided to be a movie character (in fact incarnating herself as a 50-foot-tall Marilyn Monroe), but “she knows she isn’t the good guy.” And the reason she isn’t the good guy is simple; the really interesting character in any drama is the bad guy.

Now as interesting things go, building the atomic bomb is one of the most interesting things ever to happen, and the fact that we still argue about it sixty years later is a testament to just how interesting it is. But it also, when you get down where the short hairs grow, isn’t a very Good Guy thing to have done. And America tends to be cool with things like that, even if we saw too many John Ford movies to admit we’re wearing the black hats in this show.

13.

My father was a nuclear physicist. As a child I helped him in the lab, learned to do all his student experiments, and learned to irradiate samples with a carefully shielded Californium neutron source so that a liquid nitrogen cooled gamma ray detector could read the energies of induced radioactivity, revealing the elements that were present. Dad taught me to be careful with radioactive samples but not to fear them, and I used X-ray and gamma-ray sources from his lab in my senior science fair project.

In all of my childhood I never really connected what my father did with the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. It’s the kind of thing you didn’t think about much unless you wanted to go crazy; the idea that you could be minding your business, and that at any random moment your whole world could explode in a searing fireball that would consume everything you ever cared about, is not really compatible with doing anything useful.

But around 1989 I happened to be surfing the remainder bin at a local Walden Books when an oversized trade paperback caught my eye. It was At Work in the Fields of the Bomb, a photo essay by Robert Del Tredici. It was priced to go at one dollar. I flipped through it, thought I might find it interesting, and bought it.

Later I took time to examine the images in order. I appreciated the effort that had been required on Del Tredici’s part to get some of them; he had rented airplanes and travelled all over the world to build the “big picture” of how nuclear weapons come to exist. Some of the images were familiar; I’d seen some of the very exhibits at the National Atomic Museum he photographed. Some revealed the mundane details that exist in any industry, which few outsiders ever get to see. And some were tragic; but I kept a skeptical awareness that this had obviously been assembled by someone with an agenda.

Then I came to image 41, the parents of Sadako Sasaki. At that point I had never heard of Sadako, but from the caption I understood why her parents might be making an appearance in the book; she had died at age 12 of “atomic bomb disease,” a.k.a. leukemia. Very tragic. I flipped the page.

42. Sadako’s Paper Cranes

These are the handwork of Sadako Sasaki. When she was 12 years old Sadako contracted leukemia from earlier exposure to the atomic bomb. She did not wish to die. She refused all painkilling medication and took literally a Japanese proverb that says, “if you fold 1,000 cranes, you will get whatever you wish.” She folded 645 of the tiny birds before she died. Kasuga City, Fukuoka, Japan. October 14, 1984.

I tried to flip to the next picture but my hands were shaking, and my eyes were welling up with tears. To this day it is hard for me to express what I felt when I learned of Sadako. There is something about her that simultaneously shames me and makes me proud of what it can be to be human, but there is also the ominous question of which would be worse: That she was discouraged and denied paper and therefore failed to fold the thousand cranes before she died, or had she been allowed to finish her project only to find that it didn’t save her?

I’m not the only person to be awe-inspired by Sadako Sasaki. Today there is a statue of her at the Hiroshima Peace Park, and every year children all over the world fold cranes and send them to Hiroshima, where they are strung in garlands of 1,000 in her honor.

The next day I regained my composure and completed Del Tredici’s photo essay. Then I started in on the notes, which comprise more than half the book (and alas don’t seem to be available online). Then I proceeded to read everything else I could find about the nuclear industry. It became harder and harder for me to see the technology as value-neutral, especially the technology of making prompt fission triggered weapons. Despite years of testing no atomic explosion has ever benefited humanity, despite several serious (one might even say desperate) attempts to find positive uses.

Sedan Crater was a test of thermonuclear earthmoving; the device that dug this 380 foot deep hole in the ground was 17 inches in diameter, 38 inches long, and weighed 470 lb. It released far more radioactivity into the environment than its designers expected, and no further such tests were attempted.

And thanks to the whole nuclear enterprise we are stuck with huge amounts of toxic waste, legions of people who claim to have been harmed by exposure to these toxins or radiation, atomic “secrets” easily penetrated by C students and untrained journalists like Howard Morland, and a vast expenditure dwarfing even the original Manhattan Project for which we have little positive to show.

Nuclear energy has certainly been useful at times, especially for space travel, but it never required the vast expenditure for isotope separation and plutonium production that the Manhattan Project required. Nearly all of the pure science that was done for the bomb project would have eventually been done anyway. The techniques of nuclear medicine could have been developed with a reactor technology geared more to energy production, and developed at a slower pace so as to minimize the risk and let us get a more sensible grip on how to deal with the control and waste issues.

Instead, it seems that nuclear matters of all sorts were rushed into production precisely because the Manhattan Project needed to be legitimized.

I tend to think there is a way to use nuclear energy that is not insane, but we haven’t found that way; and today when relatively sane proposals (like pebble-bed reactors) are put forth, people are rightly skeptical that things will be different than they were when we were rushing anything that looked like it might half-way work into overproduction. The waste problem still isn’t addressed, and the solution that looks best to me, of burying it in deep-ocean subduction zones, is being ignored because it would be so much easier to just bury the stuff in Nevada and hope for the best.

14.

So there I was at Trinity, the place where the world changed in a few millionths of a second on the morning of July 16, 1945, trying to get a feel for it. But there isn’t much to feel about the fireball of an atomic explosion; one moment you’re standing there, there’s a hundred foot tall tower and a bunch of roads and cables and cameras and instruments and crap, and the next moment poof, you’re very very dead. You wouldn’t even have time to feel pain or even to hear the sound of your own annihilation.

Sixty years later there are a few chunks of concrete where the tower once perched, a monument, and a bunch of scrub and jackrabbit droppings and tourists quietly pocketing little bits of green glass.

If Trinity had not happened, if we had sat on our knowledge, then two whole generations might have been spared the fear that it could all end without warning, an unprecedented state of terror that has never existed before in human history.

If Trinity had not happened and we had bombed Japan anyway then we might look back at Hiroshima and Nagasaki differently, for we could not have known what would happen when such bombs are dropped on cities. We could say “We didn’t know, and we stopped as soon as we realized just what we were doing.”

But Trinity did happen, so the world learned that the bombs could be made and it learned that we were willing to drop them on mostly civilian population centers. And then we spent the next twenty years figuring out how to do the same thing even more thoroughly and more easily with even less warning for the victims, so that one wouldn’t even see the B-29 flying high overhead before the world was ripped asunder.

And so the Soviets and the British and the French and the South Africans (!) all went out and got bombs of their own, and now India and Pakistan glare at each other across an uneasy border and the tips of their nuclear missiles, and we wonder where all the damn radioactive waste will finally end up.

15.

And the Sandhill Cranes, which have been wintering in lower New Mexico for nine million years, continue to arrive, blissfully unaware of how thoroughly the flightless newcomers are fucking up their world. But they’ve survived volcanoes and mountain uplifts, and if all goes well we’ll just be another blip for them too.

Sources

Although I’ve linked what I could find, most of the forces that have shaped my attitude toward nuclear matters are not online.

One tragedy of my trip to New Mexico is that I missed the chance to meet Richard Rhodes, who was visiting Louisiana to promote his new book about John James Audubon while I was away. Many of the events I mention can be quickly found by Amazon’s search-inside function (though you’ll need an actual copy of the book to use the results):

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb

This more obscure book also made a big impression on me; the authors make a strong case that like the Nazi doctors who perpetrated atrocities for the Reich, the scientists who build nuclear weapons use a “doubling” mechanism by which the person at work has a different set of ethics and core beliefs than the person who goes home each evening to a loving family:

The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat

Here is a meticulously laid out case against the bombings and the subsequent abuse of “downwinders” who were victimized by unnecessary atomic testing; the author was Secretary of the Interior under JFK and LBJ and a congressman from Arizona:

The Myths of August

P.S. I have only now realized, after all these years, that the photo of Sadako’s cranes which changed my life was numbered Plate 42. As anyone conversant with the landscape of science fiction knows 42 is not just a random number; in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide it’s literally the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. I made a similar joke in my own novel. Except that in At Work in the Fields of the Bomb it’s not so much a joke as a surprisingly profound statement.



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