A Day with Two Suns

“The separation of the uranium isotopes in quantity lots is now being attempted in several places. If the reader wakes some morning to read in his newspaper that half the United States was blown into the sea overnight he can rest assured that someone, somewhere, succeeded.” That’s a nugget that two authors, in 1942, stuck into Applied Nuclear Physics toward the end of Chapter 10: Nuclear Fission.

In that book, Ernest Pollard of Yale University and William Davidson Jr. of the B. F. Goodrich Company (back in the day when most American industrial concerns did actual research instead of counting on universities and the government to do it for them) summarized the state of the art in nuclear physics at the time. Their tidy little tome comes in at just under 250 pages and is, even today, eminently readable. The writing is energetic and speculative, pointing to the fact that they were working to synthesize information in an emerging field where far more was unknown than known.

Although the outcome wasn’t as sensational as Pollard and Davidson predicted (and didn’t involve uranium), their prescience was proven exactly sixty-five years ago today in a remote part of New Mexico when the Manhattan Project’s Trinity Test took place. At 05:29:45 (some sources have the exact time as 05:30:00) Mountain War Time, scientists, engineers, and soldiers from the Manhattan Engineer District successfully tested the plutonium-based, implosion-type, atomic bomb, known to the members of the project as The Gadget. Very few moments in human history have had as great an effect on the events that followed. On July 16, 1945, three years after Pollard and Davidson made their cheeky remark, we entered the nuclear age.

“Litanie, IV” by John Donne

O Blessed glorious Trinity,

Bones to Philosophy, but milke to faith,

Which, as wise serpents, diversly

Most slipperinesse, yet most entanglings hath,

As you distinguish’d undistinct

By power, love, knowledge bee,

Give mee a such selfe different instinct

Of these; let all mee elemented bee,

Of power, to love, to know, you unnumbred three.

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