𝗕𝗲𝗳𝗼𝗿𝗲 𝗛𝗶𝗿𝗼𝘀𝗵𝗶𝗺𝗮, 𝗕𝗲𝗳𝗼𝗿𝗲 𝗡𝗮𝗴𝗮𝘀𝗮𝗸𝗶, 𝗧𝗵𝗲𝗿𝗲 𝗪𝗮𝘀 𝗧𝗿𝗶𝗻𝗶𝘁𝘆
𝘣𝘺 𝘔𝘢𝘳𝘬 𝘗𝘦𝘢𝘳𝘤𝘦
The spot is marked by a 12 foot obelisk composed of lava rocks. Melted earth. The area of the crater is surrounded by a barbed wire fence. In one direction is a mountain wall. The rest of the landscape is barren desert. A truly remote location. After more than 75 years, the area is still slightly radioactive.
Before Hiroshima, before Nagasaki, there was Trinity. On the morning of July 16, 1945, the world’s first nuclear device was exploded in the remote desert of New Mexico. As the morning sky was rent by the explosion, J. Robert Oppenheimer recalled the lines from the Bhagavad Gita–“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
It was a destination I knew I would have to visit in my travels. I would have to stand in the spot where the human animal, unique among the beasts, had become capable of causing its own extinction.
I stopped in Socorro, New Mexico, about thirty miles northwest of the Trinity site. In a roadside diner, I met an old timer who had been alive at the time of the blast. He told me about the night it had occurred, when the sky was a bath of white and the sound of thunder had come tearing across the desert. A few weeks later he heard about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and knew what that night had wrought.
He spoke of going to the Trinity Site as a child and collecting strange chips of stone, altered by the blast, a substance that would later be called trinitite. Then the government had arrived and cordoned off the area. He related tales of protesters who occasionally came with signs, protesting the atomic bomb, or wars, or nuclear power, or the use of the bomb at Hiroshima, or Trinity itself. And he said the people of his generation had suffered “a lot of ailments” through the years, from living so close to the bomb site. But it never occurred to him to move. This was his home. This was all he knew. To him, an atom bomb might go off in your neighborhood when you're a child. It's just a part of life.
The Trinity Site is deep inside the White Sands Missile Base. I had to pass through a barbed-wire gate and show photo identification. I was told to drive about 17 miles down a desert road until I came to the Permanent High Explosive Testing Area. I was then to turn left. I was worried I might miss the turn, but there was no chance of that. When I reached the fork in the road, an armed soldier stood sentry, making certain I didn’t accidentally stray into the Permanent High Explosive Testing Area. He didn’t feel half as strongly about it as I did.
After driving another five miles, I could see the obelisk in the distance, surrounded by a large, circular barbed wire fence, the size and shape of the blast crater. I had to exit my car and pass on foot through another guarded gate.
I stood where Oppenheimer had stood, and Fermi and Teller. There were those who had chosen not to come, like Leo Szilard, who did not want to witness what they had done.
In the final days before the detonation, a macabre humor had developed among the scientists. They had organized a betting pool to predict the size of the explosion. General Groves received disturbing reports from the Army guards—Enrico Fermi was taking side bets on whether they would accidentally ignite the atmosphere and end all life on the planet.
The device was placed on a metal grate tower with wires leading to various measuring devices. The scientists set it off just before dawn.
It has been called “The Day the Sun Rose Twice.”
An atomic tourist who looks carefully on the ground can still see examples of trinitite, a substance that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. It was created when the nuclear explosion fused the desert sand of New Mexico. A piece of trinitite is about a centimeter wide. The top surface is smooth and green. The bottom is light gray and rough and looks like concrete. The most common form of trinitite is green, but there is also black, red, and blue. Black trinitite contains occlusions of iron from the tower which held the device. Red trinitite is caused by the fusing of copper from the wires that were run from the bomb to the various measuring devices. No one knows what causes blue trinitite. It is illegal to remove a piece of trinitite from the area. All trinitite is radioactive.
After absorbing enough history, and probably more than enough radiation, I got back into my car and headed toward the state highway, glad to leave the Trinity site in my rearview mirror.
H.G. Wells, one of history’s seminal thinkers, had thought the tank so horrific—as it rolled insensate across the bodies of dead and wounded soldiers and civilians, as it destroyed fields, and ruined villages—that the world would be unable to face the horrors of such a monstrous weapon and would be forced to put an end to war once and for all. The thinkers of an earlier generation had believed the same thing about the rapid-fire Gatling gun. The next generation would hold the same belief about the atomic bomb.
I imagine that somewhere in our dim, dark past, a cave philosopher noticed that the attacking tribe was swinging sticks, and thought, "This can't go on!”
After making his name and fortune writing prophetic tales of science fiction, H.G. Wells turned his great mind to anti-war activism and spent the latter part of his life trying to save the world.
He didn’t realize the world doesn’t want to be saved.
When the earliest human discovered he had an opposable thumb, the first thing he made was a fist. ✦