As the world prepared for war in 1939, a group of physicists was studying how to reproduce the behavior of a star on Earth: to split an atom, either quietly to provide a virtually unlimited source of power, or explosively to create a weapon of mass destruction. Worried that the Germans might develop an atomic bomb first, astrophysicist Leo Szilard wrote a letter to President Roosevelt suggesting that the Americans should develop the bomb first. Thinking that the letter would have more impact if it were signed by the foremost scientist of that time, Szilard made two visits to Albert Einstein’s summer home in Cutchogue, on Long Island, New York. They persuaded him to sign the letter.
Einstein’s letter had an immediate and powerful impact on Roosevelt. He immediately set in place the initial research that led to the start of the Manhattan project in June of 1942. Within three years, the first plutonium nuclear device was test detonated near Socorro, New Mexico in the Jornada del Muerto (ironically translated to Dead Man’s Journey) desert. J. Robert Oppenheimer named the actual test site Trinity, after the first lines in John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
On July 16, 1945, at 5:29:45 am, the nuclear device detonated and the atomic age began. Just one month later, two bombs were exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, and the Second World War came to a sudden end.
It is now 73 years later. On April 6 our daughter Nannette, son-in-law Mark, grandson Matthew, friend David Rossetter, and Wendee and I visited Trinity Site. It was a special and emotional experience for us. We felt the shudder and silence of those who witnessed the blinding flash of light that turned dawn into noon across that lonely desert. The power and force of the detonation reinforced the feeling of scientists there that this weapon was not a joke. It was used in combat twice, and it is now a part of history. We visited that day to experience the effect on people who felt the shock wave from 160 miles away and who had to replace broken windows in Albuquerque, where our family lives today. We didn’t see much trinitite there, as the army did an excellent job removing the radioactive glass. We did not get much exposure to radiation either; according to Army statistics, our one hour visit to Ground zero gave us at most one millirem of radiation exposure, compared to an average annual dose of 620 millirems from medical and natural sources.
As we left the site, we passed a protest going on at the entrance; after all these decades, what happened that rainy July day in 1945 still has a profound effect on the people who lived and live in the atomic age. For a second that day, humanity witnessed the process of a star here on Earth. And when I got home that night and looked up at the peaceful stars, I shuddered again.