I think we all must be here for different reasons. The elderly gentleman with the Navy cap and decorations – this bomb may have saved his life, along with those of his shipmates and upwards of 100,000 more that the Navy estimated would be lost in an assault of the Japanese mainland. The young Japanese couple, walking the fence line, reading the placards? Their country has become living memory of the atom’s destructive potential. Campers and kids, walking the dusty quarter mile from the parking lot to Ground Zero – the original Ground Zero – well, it’s something to do, another little adventure.
The Trinity Test Site was christened in fire on the morning of July 16th, 1945, when “The Gadget” -a five-foot sphere looking like nothing so much as a heavily-instrumented metal Pokemon ball – lit up the sky and shattered windows 125 miles away.
We learned all the details yesterday, while poring over a full-sized replica at the National Museum of Nuclear Science. They’d propped it up on a 100 foot metal tower, and apparently put a mattress on the ground under it, in case the thing failed to detonate properly. They needn’t have bothered.
It was tiny by modern standards, knocking a crater less than five feet deep, and only a couple of hundred feet across, but the fireball was unlike anything the humanity had ever seen before. An elderly man Devon was talking to had come down from Albuquerque; he remembered the morning well: no sound where he was, but for a few seconds, the twilight sky to the south lit up bright as day. Army announced that a munitions depot near Alamogordo had gone off – they had announcements prepared for each of the possible outcomes. Okay – not all of the possible contingencies; Oppenheimer thought that there was some small chance the heat would ignite the atmosphere, triggering a chain reaction that would scour the earth in fire. Always the optimist, he was – if he did brief the Army on this possibility, I think they were practical enough not to prepare a press release for that contingency.
The base of one leg of the tower is still visible, driven into the ground about 20 feet from the stone monument commemorating the center of the blast. Most of the Trinitite has been cleaned up too – there are only shards and traces of the broken green glass sea that flowed in the crater when the bomb’s heat melted and fused the sand of the desert floor.
Today’s pilgrims walk the site slowly in clumps, some in quiet introspection, but many clearly looking for a glint of green off the stone-scattered sand. It’s illegal to actually remove Trinitite – plenty of signs warning us of that – but I’m sure a little leaves each year during the two days the site is open to the public. Still, there seems to be a custom: here and there people have gathered the green fragments into little piles, presumably so others can share in the find.
We’ve been warned not to pick anything up – as well as not to eat or anything (or apply cosmetics – little danger there) while on the site. Plenty of folks are wandering around though, saying “Hey honey, look what I found!” while waving a chunk of something. Some of the old-timers are poking through the dirt, Geiger counters in hand, exchanging stories of the old days at White Sands. Jeremy befriends one of them and gets a lesson in something or another. These folks have plenty of tales to tell, and Jem’s all ears today. He’s at Ground Zero of Trinity – practically heaven for him.
As we walk, Miranda spots a lizard – there are lots of them here amid the scrub grass – with a bright green tail. It’s a different green than the Trinitite, closer to the intense turquoise that adorns every man-made creation within two hours of Albuquerque. We make the obvious speculations about how he got it, as she grabs my camera and tries to maneuver for a clean shot.
I’ll repeat here (hi Mom!) that it’s not hazardous to be here. We got twice as much radiation on the flight from San Jose to Albuquerque as we’re getting on this visit. But still, I’m not picking anything up. And we’re all going to give our shoes a good washing when we get home.
Anyway – me. Why am I here? Don’t think I ever asked myself that before. Maybe it’s because I’m a scientist, and an engineer. I’m on record as saying that I believe technology is inherently neutral, and it’s the obligation of its creators to ensure that it is used for good. (Note: if Miranda keeps reading over my shoulder instead of doing her math, I’m going to apply some technology to her that ensures… right, right, for good only. Sorry).
Where was I? Oh yeah. Here. Why, and all that. Maybe Trinity is a reminder for me. A palpable you-are-here reminder of the obligation I’m undertaking with that belief. A sort of geophysical alternative to the place-your-hand-on-the-Bible ritual our legal system has adopted before taking testimony. If you’re going to be a scientist, maybe you need to stand at Ground Zero of Trinity, or at Hiroshima, or Bhopal, or one of the other places where science has wrought destruction on innocents, and declare that you will really, truly think out the implications of your work, and use your powers only for good.
At the Nuclear Museum, there was a picture of Oppenheimer and Lawrence, leaning against a car during a roadtrip of their own. Oppenheimer looked like a young Bob Dylan – crazy curly black hair and a devilish smile, wearing cowboy boots and looking mischievous as all hell. The photo was taken a decade before Trinity, before they found themselves tasked with ending the war, with unleashing the terrible things they would need for that purpose. In the later pictures of Oppenheimer – and there were plenty of them – he still had the crazy hair, the outlandish, inappropriate clothes. But one thing was different, I noticed: he was never smiling.