Yesterday, The Atlantic ran a series of photos of atmospheric nuclear tests, including one taken 25 milliseconds after the detonation of the first atomic bomb on the morning of July 16, 1945 near Alamogordo, New Mexico.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American physicist who directed the Manhattan Project, said that he remembered a line that morning from the 11th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, when Krishna reveals his true universal form, brilliant and terrible: Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.
As it happens, I’m working my way through “American Prometheus” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, their voluminous biography of Oppenheimer. It’s an absolutely fascinating read, both for the chance to see physics going through a scientific revolution and getting caught at the crossroads of history, and to get to know Oppenheimer himself.
He was a colossally complicated person. Raised in the Ethical Culture Society in New York, he became involved in left-wing politics during the Depression, before leaving his post at UC Berkeley to direct the Bomb project at Los Alamos, motivated by the fear that Hitler’s scientists—including some of Oppenheimer’s old grad-school friends—was also working feverishly to build a nuclear weapon. After the war, he felt deeply ambivalent about the results of his work, and lobbied for open communication with the Soviet Union about atomic weapons, and against the development of the H-bomb. Both these positions made him the wrong enemies in high places, and in 1954, at the height of the McCarthyite red hysteria, he was stripped of his security clearance for reasons more related to political character assassination than national security.
The Atlantic’s photo essay is really amazing, especially for someone like me who was born after atmospheric nuclear testing had ended and who grew up mostly after the end of the Cold War. The photo above so clearly captures a physical moment, as well as a moment in history. The other photos are all strange and wonderful and frightening, but it’s also striking how few you have to scroll through before you start getting used to the look of them. We humans can get used to anything.