Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Thoughts on the First Nuclear Bomb Test

Destruction Testing

Trinity Test: July 16, 1945, at 5:29:45 a.m. (Mountain War Time)
Trinity Site:  Alamogordo Test Range, Jornada del Muerto (“Journey of Death”) desert. 
Yield: 19–21 Kilotons
Image Credit: Berlyn Brixner, LANL.
Source: Atomic Archives

It was 74 years ago today in the southwestern part of the United States, in a remote desert in New Mexico in the early morning hours of July 16th, 1945, that the United States successfully tested a fission or atomic bomb. Code-named “Trinity,” this was the fruit of the Manhattan Project [1942–1946], which at its peak employed 133,000 people (mostly construction people, plant operators and military personnel) and cost $2 billion, or about $23 billion in 2018 dollars. Perhaps it’s more; it is hard to really know, other than to say that it is a lot of money earmarked for destructive use.

It was directed by J. Robert Oppenheimer [1904–1967], a theoretical physicist who led a core team of scientists, including many well-known and distinguished theoretical physicists. Notably absent was Albert Einstein [1879–1955], who was denied security clearance, likely because of his vocal pacifism. Yet, it was Einstein’s name at the bottom of the letter, written by fellow physicist Leó Szilárd, which Einstein soon sent to President  Franklin D. Roosevelt on August 2, 1939, warning that Germany might develop atomic weapons.

While primarily an American initiative, Canada and Britain were also involved in the research and the supplying of materials for producing a fission bomb. After the successful test in New Mexico, it would be a few weeks later when the U.S. would drop two atomic bombs on Japan, first on Hiroshima (with an estimated population 350,000) on August 6th; and then on Nagasaki (with an estimated population 263,000) on August 9th.

The result was an estimated 200,000 dead and injured, which is a conservative estimate. It might be closer to 400,000 dead and wounded. Precise figures are not easily determined, given the chaos in the aftermath of such a destructive event. Needless to say, it was a great loss to Japan. Five days later, Japan surrenders. and the Second World War is over. It is the only time one nation has used atomic weapons on another; let’s hope that this remains the only singular case.

Oppenheimer soon regretted what he had helped unleash on the world. A scientist who had held high ethical standards (after all, he studied for 10 years at Ethical Culture School in Manhattan’s upper west side (the private school still exists today), he had become a scientist in the service of human cruelty. In an article (“The Agony of Atomic Genius;” Number 14, Fall 2006, pp. 85-104.) in The New Atlantis, Algis Valiunas writes the following:
As Life magazine proclaimed the Los Alamos physicists superheroes of scientific intelligence, Oppenheimer was lamenting the subservience of science to innate human cruelty in an address to the American Philosophical Society: “We have made a thing, a most terrible weapon, that has altered abruptly and profoundly the nature of the world ... a thing that by all the standards of the world we grew up in is an evil thing. And by so doing ... we have raised again the question of whether science is good for man.” This public admission of personal despair at the moral collapse of the modern world’s leading intellectual enterprise could not be more nakedly penitent. The heartbreak of everlasting loss is unmistakable here: with the creation of the atomic bomb, the world will never again be what it once was. Modern science had permanently altered the nature of moral and political life.
As we have seen it has, with the start and continuation of the nuclear arms race with no end in sight. As for Einstein’s participation, it was only in sending the letter to the president. Even so, he was put on the cover of Time magazine for its issue of July 1, 1946, perhaps in recognition of getting the whole ball rolling. Although he later voiced regrets for doing so, given what he knew, it seemed like the wise thing to do at the time. Einstein, however, remained as he always was, “a convinced pacifist,” which is what he wrote in a letter (“On My Participation in the Atom Bomb Project;” September 20, 1952) to Kaizo (“Reconstruction”), a Japanese publication:
As long however, as nations are ready to abolish war by common action and to solve their conflicts in a peaceful way on a legal basis. they feel compelled to prepare for war. They feel moreover compelled to prepare the most abominable means, in order not to be left behind in the general armaments race. Such procedure leads inevitable to war, which, in turn, under today’s conditions, spells universal destruction.
Under such circumstances there is no hope in combating the production of specific weapons or means of destruction. Only radical abolition of war and of danger of war can help. Toward this goal one should strive; in fact nobody should allow himself to be forced into actions contrary to this goal. This is a harsh demand for anyone who is aware of his social inter-relatedness; but it can be followed.
I agree; social pressures to conform in many matters are always present, but in  matters of conscience, and it is always better to think about such questions beforehand, these social pressures and the need to conform to them, ought be resisted, and without much hesitation. Again, this can only happen if you have had the time to think about such ethical and moral matters and see how they fit into your over-all moral thought life.

For more of my thoughts on this subject, go [here].