Atomic bombs are in the news of late. Last year we marked the 70th anniversary of the first use of the A-Bomb on Hiroshima. A treaty intended to keep Iran from getting one is still being argued on Capitol Hill. All eyes are on North Korea, where Supreme Dictator Kim Jong-un grows ever closer to having a viable nuclear weapon of his own (10 kilotons as of a September 2016 test). In a perfect world, we would be the only country with an A-bomb arsenal, and we would trust ourselves to stay away from the button.
In the summer of 1939, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt to let him know that the Nazis were working to extract and purify uranium-235. Although this was quite difficult to do at the time, it was known to be a key ingredient for an atomic bomb. Nazi success in this endeavor would not end well for the rest of the free world. FDR’s immediate reaction was to kick off the Manhattan Project, with the goal of beating the Germans. And so began the atomic race.
The project was managed from start to finish by Robert Oppenheimer, who orchestrated processes of gaseous diffusion, magnetic isotope separation, and mechanical centrifuging to get “The Gadget” ready for testing in the summer of 1945. Since this had never been done before, no one was totally certain whether the test, code-named “Trinity”, would be a colossal dud or a civilization-changing event. The flash, reportedly seen by a blind girl 120 miles away, affirmed the latter and set off some profound and diverse responses.