Countdown to The Cold War: The Language of Trinity

Two weeks ago, we wrote about the 70th anniversary of the Trinity test. This was the first detonation  of an atomic bomb. Being writers and lovers of words, we are following up by examining more closely the language and literature that surrounded the Trinity test and the birth of the atomic age. Here, we also take a look at some of the other intriguing facts, occurrences, and ideas associated with this landmark event.

Oppenheimer and Groves at Trinity Site (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
Oppenheimer and Groves at Trinity Site (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Today, the event is simply known as Trinity. In 1945, Trinity was the name of both the test site—located nearly two hundred miles from Los Alamos in southern New Mexico—and the test itself. Locally, the site chosen for carrying out the Trinity test was known as the Jornada del Muerto, or Journey of Death.

Read Anna’s poem at Drunken Boat (with audio of her reading her words) at http://www.drunkenboat.com/db17/anna-leahy.

Trinity is possibly a reference to the poem “Batter My Heart” by the British metaphysical poet, John Donne. Or, given project director J. Robert Oppenheimer’s familiarity with Sanskrit and Hindu texts, Trinity might refer to a trio of Hindu gods: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

Witnessing the Trinity test brought out a remarkable level of eloquence in some of the eyewitnesses. Physicist and Nobel Prize winner I. I. Rabi described the event this way:

It was seen to last forever. You would wish it would stop…Finally it was over, diminishing, and we looked toward the place where the bomb had been; there was an enormous ball of fire which grew and grew and it rolled as it grew; it went up into the air, in yellow flashes and into scarlet and green. It looked menacing.

Physicist Joan Hinton, one of the few female scientists at Los Alamos, had this to say:

It was like being at the bottom of an ocean of light. We were bathed in it from all directions. The light withdrew into the bomb as if the bomb sucked it up. Then it turned purple and blue and went up and up and up. We were still talking in whispers when the cloud reached the level where it was struck by the rising sunlight.

Trinity Explosion
Trinity Explosion

Hinton’s poetic description of the quality of the light associated with the atomic bomb belies the quantity of light produced in that moment. Like a too-curious child told not to stare at the Sun, future Nobel laureate Richard Feynman—despite having been given welder’s glass for viewing the explosion—was momentarily blinded when he stared directly into the blast. The converse of this experience, that a blind woman seemingly saw the Trinity explosion has long been repeated after appearing in a flawed Associated Press article. Another article that appeared in the press was actually a statement prepared on behalf of General Groves and the Manhattan Project by embedded New York Times journalist William L. Laurence. Laurence’s article reported “a heavy explosion which occurred on the Alamogordo Air Base reservation this morning.” The article went on to blame the explosion on a mishap at the air base’s ammo dump.

The news of the success at Trinity made its way back to Los Alamos quickly. In her book Inside Box 1663, Eleanor Jette, who arrived at Los Alamos with her metallurgist husband in January 1944, describes the day after Trinity:

Monday, the sixteenth of July, was a flawless day. The adults who remained in town were jubilant. Women, whose husbands were at Trinity, shooed their children out of the house if they were of shooable age, and toured the town. Other such women, tied at home with tiny children, hung over porch railings or rushed out their back doors making the famous Churchillian V for Victory sign.

There were tears and laughter[…]. The fact that we didn’t know its exact nature nature didn’t dampen our enthusiasm in the least—IT WORKED!

[…]

One woman broke out a treasured bottle of whiskey at ten A.M. We toasted our men, the men and women of the Manhattan District and the end of war.

As Jette makes clear, the denizens of Los Alamos celebrated even if they couldn’t be quite specific about what it was that they were celebrating. Speculating about atomic bombs and their powerful effects had been going on for decades even while their development was top secret and confined to a relatively short period of time. In Los Alamos and the Development of the Atomic Bomb, author Robert W. Seidel notes:

Los Alamos had succeeded in producing a nuclear weapon only 2 years, 3 months and 16 days after it was formally opened.

British author H. G. Wells introduced the world to the term atomic bomb in his novel The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind, when he wrote the following:

[T]hese atomic bombs which science burst upon the world that night were strange even to the men who used them.

Trinity Aerial View (US Government Photo)
Trinity Aerial View (US Government Photo)

Although it’s oft been noted that Wells was conceptually mistaken about how atomic bombs would function, this quote has a nice ring of uncertainty to it that played out early and often in the reality of the Manhattan Project. At one point early in the project, a group of scientists were briefly concerned that the heat from an atomic bomb might set Earth’s atmosphere on fire. As plans were being made for Trinity, the level of uncertainty surrounding the plutonium-based implosion device—the bomb type tested at Trinity—was high enough that a 200-ton steel vessel known as Jumbo was built as a container and test apparatus for the device. Jumbo was designed so that, in the event of a so-called fizzle—an incomplete detonation—the irreplaceable plutonium would remain inside Jumbo. Although how the thoroughly deconstructed plutonium would have been retrieved from Jumbo’s insides beggars the imagination.

In Applied Nuclear Physics, Ernest Pollard of Yale University and William Davidson Jr. of the B. F. Goodrich Company made this eerie prediction in 1942:

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.

Fortunately, Laurence’s post-Trinity article only had to faux-report that an ammo dump had gone up in an unfortunate explosion, not that New Mexico, Arizona, and California disappeared in a conflagration. Although it isn’t about atomic bombs (it was published in 1937), the post-apocalyptic Stephen Vincent Benet short story “By the Waters of Babylon” echoes these doomsday possibilities that hung in the air in July 1945 and also haunted Doug during moments of his Cold War childhood.

It’s arguable that no other event in human history remade the reality of our existence as wholly or as swiftly. The conclusion of Rabi’s remarks speaks directly to what had been achieved:

A new thing had just been born; a new control; and new understanding of man, which man had acquired over nature.

Years later, Oppenheimer’s familiarity with Sanskrit and Hindu scripture would lead him to claim that watching the first atomic bomb explosion would remind him of lines from the Bhagavad-Gita:

Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.

HERE is a link to an interview with Oppenheimer during which he recollects this memory. Oppenheimer’s words serve as the final ones for our posts about Trinity and also as the introduction to next week’s post in The Countdown to The Cold War. August 1945, of course, brings us to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

2 thoughts on “Countdown to The Cold War: The Language of Trinity

  1. Doug, I wonder how many of us owe our lives to the invention of this weapon. I know my dad was in service in the Air Force in the late 1950’s and early sixties. Without the deterrence of nuclear weapons I think the cold war would have turned hot, with a large loss of life. And as the “grandfather paradox” goes if you go back and kill your father you will no longer exist.

    Jerry

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