The prosaic truth

On July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was successfully detonated. One observer of the test:  J. Robert Oppenheimer.

By Lars Schall

As has been told countless times afterwards, J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, is said to have remembered vis-à-vis the first successful nuclear weapons test a quote from the Bhagavad Gita: „Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.“

In truth, Oppenheimer’s reaction after the nuclear big bang may well have been somewhat more prosaic. US physicist Jeremy Bernstein reports: “I once had the chance to ask his brother, Frank, who was standing next to him at the time, what Oppie’s actual words were. Frank’s recollection was that he said: ‘I guess it worked.’“ (1)


(1) London Review of Books, Letter by Jeremy Bernstein, New York, under: Letters Vol. 40 No. 8, April 26, 2018; The words, „I guess, it worked“, can be seen against the background that Oppenheimer and his scientists weren’t actually certain that their bomb wouldn’t ignite the atmosphere and lead to the destruction of all life. Daniel Ellsberg, the author of The Doomsday Machine – Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner: „The fact is that the scientists who exploded that bomb, the first so-called Trinity Test in July of 1945 knew they were gambling. They thought it was unlikely, but possible that that would ignite the atmosphere and the nitrogen in the atmosphere and the hydrogen in the water and destroy all life on earth. All life. Even microscopic. In a fraction of a second.“ Cf. Robert Wiblin / Keiran Harris: Daniel Ellsberg on the creation of nuclear doomsday machines. 80,000 Hours, September 24, 2018;

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