July 16, 1945: Trinity Test

Batter my heart, three person’d God.

John Donne

At 5:29 AM Mountain War Time, seventy years ago, the first atomic bomb, nicknamed The Gadget, exploded with the force of 20 kilotons of TNT.  The test was called Trinity.  J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, gave the test its name.  He couldn’t recall why he chose the name, but suspected that his interest in some of the religious poetry of John Donne played a role, pointing to the verse at the beginning of this post as a possible source.

A brilliant physicist, Oppenheimer was inclined to be melancholy and had an eclectic interest in religious mysticism, rather at odds with his secular Jewish upbringing and the leftist academic milieu in which he led his life.

His visible reaction to the success of the test was rather prosaic:  “It worked.”

Twenty years later he said this was going through his mind:

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.

Usually taken as a confession of regret, the quotation actually has a different meaning I think.  After the quoted section of the Bhagavad-Gita, Vishnu convinces Prince Arjuna  to join in the war.  That fits in with Oppenheimer’s subsequent action in supporting the use of the atomic bombs on Japan.  After the War he had bitter regret in the role that he played in developing the bomb that led to so many deaths.  However, in 1965 the old before his time and ill Oppenheimer was honestly relating his mental state of twenty years before, when he had led the development of a terrible weapon that brought a terrible war to an end.

As West and East

In all flatt Maps—and I am one—are one,

So death doth touch the Resurrection.

John Donne

Published in: on July 16, 2015 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on July 16, 1945: Trinity Test  
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