On July 16, 1945 thunderstorms and lightning had rolled into Socorro County and into its mountains and deserts, once the territory of Apaches — Victorio, Cochise and Geronimo had once used the San Mateo mountains as a refuge. In good years the ‘Southwest Monsoons’ begin in the last week in June and extend into July, and thunderstorms in July and August bring more rain to New Mexico; nature has adapted accordingly. After one downpour, an anxious and sleepless Emilio Segre, a physicist, one who had escaped from Mussolini’s Italy, came out of his cabin at Base Camp, about 10 miles from Zero. He heard a noise, a scrambling hooshing-splashing that he could not identify. He clicked on his light and “found hundreds of frogs in the act of making love in a big hole that had filled with water (667).”*
At precisely 5:29:45 in the morning of that July 16 an automatic timer switch activated and “detonators at thirty two detonation points fired simultaneously” sending off shock waves that set neutrons free from uranium that then struck a plutonium core the size of a small orange and began a chain reaction that squeezed that ‘orange’ to the size of an “eyeball” and produced a fission that “[multiplied] its energy release through eighty generations in millionths of a second, tens of millions of degrees, millions of pounds of pressure.” For a moment, “conditions within the eyeball resembled the state of the universe moments after its first primordial explosion (670).”*
At Base Camp one witness wrote that at the moment of the resulting explosion “there was an enormous flash of light, the brightest light I have ever seen or that I think anyone has ever seen. It blasted; it pounced; it bored its way right through you. It was a vision which was seen with more than the eye. It was seen to last forever (672).”*
Little Boy, the first atomic bomb, the product of years of intensive, communal work by the most brilliant physicists in the world, dropped from the belly of the Enola Gay and exploded over Hiroshima on August 6. Hiroshima is a water city. The city lies on the delta fan of the river Ota and its seven channels. Outside the blast zone, the water boiled in its channels.
Hiroshima, March, 1946
A survivor of the blast saw a boy blown through windows in his house and wandering the street, “his body stuck full of all the glass it could hold. …he was completely covered in blood… (716).”* Another saw “three high school girls … completely burned … who held their arms out in front of their chests like kangaroos with only their hands pointed downward, … their peeled off skin” dangling from their bodies “like thin paper. …they stagger exactly like sleepwalkers (718).”* Many survivors, shielded from the initial heat wave, reported seeing birds erupt into fireballs in mid-flight – one remembered a warbler snapping into flame a few feet above her head.
I began to think about all these intolerable moving parts when I came upon the description of the frogs, helpless creatures really, ultra-sensitive to their environment, their skin as permeable and thin as steam, hundreds of them awash in goop and mud, making new life, using the rarity of desert rain as the trigger to their urge. And ten miles away men will soon detonate what Robert Oppenheimer later characterized as “death, the destroyer of worlds (676).”*
What moral calculus do we use to analyze the frogs surging together to create life in close proximity to the recovery of the universe’s moment of creation at the heart of the Bomb’s convulsion? What equations do we summon that will balance the burning children of Hiroshima, and the boiling river, and the birds (the warbler especially, that one bird flaring like a match head and then gone) against the work of Japanese Kamikazes at Okinawa who sank 21 American naval vessels and damaged more than 5 dozen more — eighteen year old Seamen Apprentices were burned to death by the score – many completely immolated? Their survivors’ accounts are filled with as much horror. Do Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the incendiary burning of Tokyo cancel out the many Chinese cities bombed and their populations ravaged by the Japanese? Chinese children died as well, almost certainly more than a million. What integers are we to plug into the calculations to help us make sense of these dreadful fusions.
The torrents of horror-show information we now must attempt to thread our way through, understand, arrange, and morally judge and balance has made the act of listing opposing carnages in our heads commonplace – where are we to begin: with the oncoming mass extinction of a quarter of the world’s animals, or the abduction of hundreds of girls in Nigeria, with the ongoing Narco wars of Mexico, or the daily toll of death in Syria, or with the malignant rules governing women in the tribal lands of Pakistan and Afghanistan and over much of India. Or closer to home with one of our drone strikes blowing men, women and children to pieces as they celebrate a wedding, or with another strike that gets the man who built sophisticated IEDs that blew our men and women to bits? Are we just supposed to pick and choose, become blind to one event, grimly acknowledge the justice of another?
Maybe this is how it must be: eventually we all come to our individual moment of recognition where we begin to feel the enormity of history’s carnage and of our species’ fixed moral rifts and fissures. Eliot called it the “still point of the turning world” where even “the light is still,”** and that is where we discover that we can bear much less reality than ever before — and that is where the person across from us, or the family, or anything small and graspable, the immediately observable — only these become our deliverance.
* The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes
**Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot