This entry is part 9 of 10 in the series New Mexico


Batter my heart, three-person’d God

— John Donne, Holy Sonnet XIV

Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
— Vishnu, Bhagavad Gita

In 1938, German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman discovered the possibility of nuclear fission. Physicists Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch realized the breakdown of radioactive elements could produce a weapon of planetary proportions. This nuclear dawn coincided with the rise of fascism in several areas of Europe. When World War II erupted, the death and destruction of the conflict were shaded with the prospects of an even greater evil.

The Allied forces feared the frightening possibility of Hitler or Mussolini with an atomic weapon, so they developed a program to beat the Axis Powers to the bomb, called the Manhattan Project.

The undertaking created the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, which was led by theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Between 1942 and 1946, some of the world’s greatest and most recognizable scientists, including Enrico Fermi, Richard Feynman, Edward Teller, and John von Neumann, attempted to solve the puzzle of the atom.

At a location in the New Mexico desert, the tiny building blocks of the universe transformed into the biggest bombs in the world.
J. Robert Oppenheimer in 1944 - Department of Energy

Nearly all the time and 90% of all the money spent on the Manhattan Project went to enriching uranium and plutonium. With contemporary technology, scientists estimated it would require 27,000 years to produce one gram of uranium-235. To make a bomb would necessitate multiple kilograms of the proper material. It took the brightest minds in the world three years to devise and design a method to yield the uranium and plutonium needed. All the while, the clock ticked. The German war machine, which had successfully developed rocket technology, poured money and sweat into the development of an atomic weapon.

Finally, by 1945, enough material for a bomb arrived. The scientists of the Manhattan Project had a prototype bomb ready to test. Following the lead of Robert Goddard, the pioneering rocketeer, who recognized the wide-open spaces of the American southwest as a prime spot to test new technology, they chose a site in what is now the White Sands Missile Range to sample “The Gadget.”

Oppenheimer christened the test Trinity.

Trinity Map - Location in New Mexico (upper right inset); Tularosa Basin (blue area); White Sands Missile Range (green outline); White Sands National Park (brown outline); Trinity Site (red mushroom cloud) - map by USGS - poorly annotated by Kyle Stout
The Trinity Site from the air - photo by NASA

The code name stemmed from Oppenheimer’s poetic bend. At the time, he leaned heavily into John Donne, the famous English metaphysical bard. Religion loomed in most of Donne’s work and Oppenheimer connected the primal yet transcendent work of nuclear physics with the realm of the divine. He also fully recognized the destructive power of the technology they developed. In a letter from 1962, Oppenheimer noted Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV as the reason behind the Trinity moniker, while also citing his poem Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness:

As west and east
In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,
So death doth touch the resurrection.

So great was the dearth of useable radioactive material that a proper test of atomic bomb technology almost never transpired. Not only was the material difficult to come by, but, if the test were a failure, the military leaders of the project worried about informing Congress and the President that years and billions of dollars had shown the entire project a bust.

To that end, the project developed Jumbo. At the time, the container was the heaviest item ever shipped via railway. In case Trinity did not properly explode, Jumbo had the chance to contain the bomb’s plutonium, which would allow the project to recover some material to reuse. In the end, they did not employ Jumbo, rolling the dice. The receptacle survived the explosion, though its scaffolding did not.

Jumbo arrives at the Trinity Site - Department of Energy
Jumbo after the test - Department of Energy

On 16 July 1945 scientists and members of the military gathered in the early morning hours to witness the first nuclear explosion on Earth.

No one in the vicinity knew how the test would unfold. Some scientists believed the bomb would fizzle. Others predicted success. A few wondered if the trial would be too successful. Enrico Fermi offered to take wagers on whether the chain reaction would spiral out of control, igniting the atmosphere and potentially destroying life in New Mexico or the entire world. Though theoretical physicist Hans Bethe had calculated that Fermi’s proposal was nearly impossible, it wasn’t completely impossible.

The weather forecast showed a great window for the test between 18 and 21 July, but President Truman wanted it to occur before the Potsdam Conference, so he could negotiate with an extremely strong hand. On the morning of the 16th, a storm raged around coordinate zero. If you wondered about potential issues of a lightning storm around a nuclear bomb, you’re not alone; the scientists worried about premature detonation.

By 5:30 AM, however, the skies had magically cleared and Trinity was a go.

The Trinity explosion, 16 milliseconds after detonation - Los Alamos National Laboratory
Trinity's mushroom cloud - Department of Energy

Trinity exploded with a force of 25 kilotons of TNT. The mushroom cloud rose 7.5 miles above the ground. Citizens felt the shock wave 100 miles away. A Navy pilot at 10,000 feet and 30 miles east of Albuquerque thought the sun was rising from the south. The sand beneath the detonation turned into a radioactive green glass, dubbed trinitite.

Thomas Farrell noted, “The lighting effects beggared description. The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined.”

Ralph Carlisle Smith wrote:

“I was staring straight ahead with my open left eye covered by a welder’s glass and my right eye remaining open and uncovered. Suddenly, my right eye was blinded by a light which appeared instantaneously all about without any build up of intensity. My left eye could see the ball of fire start up like a tremendous bubble or nob-like mushroom. I dropped the glass from my left eye almost immediately and watched the light climb upward. The light intensity fell rapidly, hence did not blind my left eye but it was still amazingly bright. It turned yellow, then red, and then beautiful purple. At first it had a translucent character, but shortly turned to a tinted or colored white smoke appearance. The ball of fire seemed to rise in something of toadstool effect. Later the column proceeded as a cylinder of white smoke; it seemed to move ponderously. A hole was punched through the clouds, but two fog rings appeared well above the white smoke column. There was a spontaneous cheer from the observers. Dr. von Neumann said, “that was at least 5,000 tons and probably a lot more.”

Trinitite - photo by Shaddack

Mushroom clouds are now synonymous with atomic blasts, but you can see the eyewitnesses working through the never-before-seen imagery. These humans observed something no one else ever had. How could you describe what you see? 

The reactions were a mixture of elation, awe, and solemn realization.

Reporter William L. Laurence noted, “A loud cry filled the air. The little groups that hitherto had stood rooted to the earth like desert plants broke into dance, the rhythm of primitive man dancing at one of his fire festivals at the coming of Spring.”

The experiment had worked, but the implications quickly set in for the scientists. Physicist Kenneth Bainbridge told Oppenheimer, “Now we are all sons of bitches.”

Oppenheimer once again turned to religious poetry to explain the explosion and the feelings afterward. He said when he watched the explosion he recalled a quote from the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita:

“If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.”

In the 1960s, discussing the mood of scientists post-Trinity, Oppenheimer offered his now-famous words, which once again cited the Bhagavad Gita

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

Marker at the Trinity Site - photo by Samat Jain

Indeed, the world would not be the same.

Just under a month later, on 6 August 1945, an atomic bomb obliterated Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, another nuclear weapon destroyed Nagasaki. The end of World War II quickly followed.

Though the threats of the campaign were quashed, the specter of a nuclear holocaust was born. At any point, we could vaporize human civilization with the push of a button.

Today, one can visit the Trinity Site on two open dates per year, one in April and the other in October. The juxtaposition of the serene beauty of the white sands of the New Mexico desert and the awesome power that first erupted there is sobering. Magnificence and brutality come from the same atoms. 

Further Reading and Exploration

Trinity Site – National Park Service

The Trinity test – Los Alamos National Laboratory

The Nuclear Age’s Blinding Dawn – Albuquerque Journal

Trinity by Kenneth Bainbridge

Holy Sonnet XIV by John Donne

Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness by John Donne

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