[5 November 2013]
There’s an eery moment in Trinity where Manhattan Project head Robert Oppenheimer is jolting through the Los Alamos desert in a military Buick to test the world’s first atom bomb. Top scientists have been working in lockdown for this day when a Nietzschean blackness surrounded an atomic reaction so bright that it blotted out all other light around it. It is still not clear if we were ready for the knowledge they unleashed that morning in 1945. Our lives are touched every day by the atom bomb, in ways that are mostly destructive. It’s just too bad that Trinity doesn’t give us a clearer story of how we got here, although the book does show even the most sickening piece of nuclear aggression in gorgeous stark detail along the way.
The momentum takes off from that pre-dawn moment before the test at Trinity, and Oppenheimer is smack in the heat of the action, muttering asides to whoever is standing nearby—his driver, the general, eventually Harry Truman—about the philosophical ramifications of their discovery. A lean man with sharp eyes, constantly smoking and always in a fedora, he was a controversial and charismatic figure. A psychological breakdown during his PhD in physics at Cambridge during which he attempted to poison a professor. A known association with socialists—he identified as a “fellow traveler.” A precocious child. He graduated Harvard in three years and studied chemistry, physics and Sanskrit.
During the Trinity test, as the team braced themselves in the command center near ground zero, Oppenheimer began calling up scripture from the Baghavad Gita, “by your own radiance you heat the universe…I see all men plunging into your mouths like moths that wheel into the searing flame,” as an enormous lush black rolled out from the reaction, the explosion drawn here as an unfurling cloud of light and sketchy radioactive skirts. There are a lot of detours in this book into the science and politics behind making the Manhattan Project happen that jerked me away from the Trinity site and its ripple effects, but Oppenheimer pulled me back time and again to the question of not only could the atom bomb be made, but should it have been.
After the inconceivable force let loose on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—shown here as a bomb dropping towards a distant street grid, the bright orb detonating in the air, houses vaporizing, rivers full of dying people who jumped in for relief and a close-up of a small boy burned and screaming—Oppenheimer became convinced the it shouldn’t have been made. There is a fairly hilarious scene when he visits Truman in his office and complains that he has blood on his hands. Truman suggests he wipe them off and help them work out how to avoid a nuclear standoff with Russia. When Oppenheimer leaves, he tells his staff he never wants to see that son of a bitch in his office again.
There’s some similarly amusing friction with Grove, the military general who pushed the Manhattan Project towards completion, a man so accustomed to obedience that on that morning at Trinity he tells one of the scientists that the performance of the weather was unacceptable. One of the great pleasures of this book is watching the running standoff between the mentality of the military men who were trying to keep everything top secret and on schedule and the genius of the scientists—many of whom emigrated from Europe to escape militarism—who wanted just as badly to give Truman an edge against the Nazis but required freedom to collaborate. Grove was able to keep the Manhattan Project completely unknown to the public and Congress by compartmentalizing each aspect of the job so that no one branch of the government knew the whole picture. He tried to do the same thing with the research team but found the scientists outright ignored him. The compromise was to isolate completely within the compound at Los Alamos. Complete freedom within, but nothing must leave. Blocky signs drawn to either side of a dusty drive leading past the barbed wire show an ever-present eye with a swastika in the pupil warning to “guard your talk.”
This all should be riveting. I should be unable to put it down, missing my stop on the subway, getting the pages wet in the bath. These scientists are figuring out how to make an alchemist’s dream come true, changing one element into another two. Energy released 70,000,000 times bigger than fire. There’s a war with the Nazis to be won. But instead of following that central thread, the story kept leading me far away into the science of nuclear physics, the history of military weapons, Napoleon’s dismissing the steamship as fantasy and other pieces of background. There’s a moment before the test when someone is digging into live explosives with a dental drill to fix some air pockets, but this little feat is summarized in favor of giving the man’s biography. Some of this is necessary to understand exactly how nerve-wracking it must have been to be in that bunker at Trinity waiting for the detonator to go off, and why two bombs then got dropped over Japan, but the book reads more like a well-drawn textbook than a single account. And perhaps it’s intended to be, but a good history textbook would also be laid out in a less confusing timeline.
There’s a promise made early in the book that the discovery of nuclear fission would “reveal some of the deepest mysteries of the universe,” though what is shown most clearly is human nature. One scientist predicted that sharing the discovery of the atom bomb would create a world without war because war would be too dangerous. Whether this would have proven true, Truman chose to guard the national interest and keep the technology a secret, and the result was the cold war, dozens of test detonations and trace radioactive poisoning in our bodies. Children were taught to “duck and cover” from the bright flash of nuclear attack from the 50’s through the 80’s, and nuclear armament of an enemy state still lurks on the horizon. Trinity is a beautifully rendered look back at the aftereffects of that day in 1945 when a generation of top scientists at Los Alamos proved they could unleash the power of the atom, and that once the nuclear reaction had begun, the political and environmental effects were just as unstoppable.