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The First Atomic Bomb


No event in the history of New Mexico is as significant as when the world's first atomic bomb was built at Los Alamos National Laboratory and tested at Trinity site on July 16, 1945. After this, the world changed as we knew it. This article gives you a quick overview of this key event in both Southwestern USA and world history.

The Second World War was already heating up in 1937 with Japan lashing out at China and in 1939 with the German invasion of Poland. Also in 1939, the German chemist Otto Hahn and Austrian physicist Lise Meitner discovered how to produce nuclear fission. (Neither were Nazis and Meitner was Jewish.) Could this have happened at a worse time? Probably not – unless you remember that Hitler's ascension to power in 1933 caused the best and brightest of the world's physicists, many of whom were German Jews, to escape to the United States and Britain. Among these gods of science were Max Born, Enrico Fermi, James Franck, Edward Teller, Erwin Schrödinger, Leó Szilárd, and Albert Einstein. Several of them enthusiastically involved themselves in the Manhattan project.

Also in 1939, American-Hungarian physicists Leó Szilárd and Eugene Wigner drafted an urgent letter with Albert Einstein's endorsement to convince President Franklin Roosevelt to prioritize what would become the Manhattan project. They warned the president that the Germans and the British were both developing nuclear weapons programs and urged the stockpiling of uranium ore and the acceleration of efforts to explore nuclear chain reactions. Roosevelt put the army in charge of the new project because out of all the branches of the military, it had the most experience with big construction projects.

Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, though very young, was selected to lead the project by Colonel Leslie Groves of the Army Corps of Engineers who had achieved prominence through his work on building the Pentagon. Previous to this new assignment, Oppenheimer had been a rising star professor at University of California, Berkley. Groves seemed to find Oppenheimer to be the only real choice for project lead because of Oppenheimer's breadth of knowledge (useful for uniting specialists of several different disciplines) and his ambition. So why did the Manhattan project end up at Los Alamos in northern New Mexico? The remote location was supposed to deter Soviet spies, who relentlessly tried to infiltrate the project. Also, Oppenheimer had an almost mystical connection with the desert, ever since he vacationed for several weeks at a New Mexico ranch which he later purchased.

Imagine life "on the Hill" for the army and the scientists thrown together in a pressure cooker world of urgent deadlines and total secrecy. The scientists, who were mostly leftist intellectuals from Jewish families torn apart by the Holocaust, were not exactly the types to meekly knuckle under and submit to military protocol. Meanwhile, the high-ranking officers such as Groves must have felt that they were trying to herd cats every time they attempted to control the scientists. For example, physicist Richard Feynman would crack safes and remove classified material just for fun, often leaving behind a note saying, "I did this!"

The atomic bomb was tested at Trinity site at White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico on July 16, 1945. The (public domain) photo shows a black-and-white image of the bulbous Trinity test fireball 16 seconds after the explosion. Oppenheimer was not the kind of guy to waste an opportunity for a memorable sound bite, so he went on record with the following reaction after witnessing the horrific mushroom cloud billowing up to the sky: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." He was quoting the god Krishna from The Bhagavad Gita, which he had studied extensively in its original Sanskrit. However, his brother said that his unscripted response was to blurt, "It worked." The explosion was so powerful that it could be heard 200 miles away. An unsuspecting pilot flying near Albuquerque saw the ball of fire which appeared so bright that it looked like the sun rising in the south. Twenty-two days later, the world's first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The world as we knew it would never be the same.

Check out my review of the pilot episode of the new t.v. series that uses fictional characters to explore life on the Hill during the making of the atomic bomb: Manhattan.

Enjoy the free, weekly, no-spam Southwest USA newsletter emailed to you each Wednesday.
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Content copyright © 2014 by Karm Holladay. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Karm Holladay. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Karm Holladay for details.

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