I recently decided to post an account of a new nuclear weapons-related mishap or near disaster — each day — for the rest of the year.
Today, I’d like to share an account of the greatest near miss of them all: the first atomic bomb test, which went ahead despite concern it would ignite the atmosphere.
Detonation of a modern nuclear warhead briefly creates a temperature of 200 million °F — about 4 times hotter than the center of the sun.
Could such heat actually light the Earth’s atmosphere on fire? This was an open question in 1945.
The Nazis looked at this possibility and said: No thanks.
Possibly light on fire all of the planet’s air? That was too crazy even for the Nazis. They took a hard pass.
According to Albert Speer, the Nazi minister of armaments: “Hitler was plainly not delighted with the possibility that the earth under his rule be transformed into a glowing star.”
Nuclear weapons: Too crazy for Hitler!
Physicist Arthur Compton, the Manhattan Project boss, agreed. Once he’d been brought up to speed by Robert Oppenheimer, his colleague in charge of the bomb test itself, he recounted a fateful decision in his memoirs: “Oppenheimer’s team must go ahead with their calculations. Unless they came up with a firm and reliable conclusion that our atomic bombs could not explode the air or sea, these bombs must never be made.”
Remember: These are all pre-computer calculations.
We are talking pencil, paper, slide rules, black boards.
Enrico Fermi, one of the project’s best theoretical physicists, led a team that worked on the question for weeks. Again: No computers. Lots of assumptions. Fermi remained concerned.
In fact, the night before the Trinity test, Fermi was offering odds:
“I am now in a position to make book on two contingencies:
- that the explosion will burn New Mexico;
- that it will ignite the whole world.”
(We don’t know what odds were offered).
Edward Teller, the eventual H bomb creator, was still doing concerned calculations the evening before the first atomic bomb test. Oppenheimer’s aide told him to just open a bottle of whiskey to cope.
The official historian of the Manhattan Project said atmospheric ignition was a recurring nightmare for senior leadership. “They had to keep batting it down,” he said, as recounted in Daniel Ellsberg’s excellent book The Doomsday Machine. “Younger researchers kept rediscovering the possibility, from start to finish of the project.”
When the junior physicists would bring their calculations forward, with “considerable anxiety”, to senior colleagues, they would be told, “It’s been taken care of; don’t worry about it.”
In fact, our scientists never did convincingly demonstrate a species-ending disaster was impossible. From the Nazis’ Heisenberg to America’s Oppenheimer, from Fermi to Teller, physicists worried that unleashing a fast chain reaction could spin out of control and destroy Earth.
But in the end, they just decided to give it a whirl.
“It would be a miracle if the atmosphere were ignited,” Fermi told others on the drive to the first atomic bomb test that morning, adding, “I reckon the chance of a miracle to be about ten percent.”
Physicist Samuel Allison was the voice on the loudspeaker the morning of the Trinity test: “Ten, nine, eight …”
As he counted down, Allison told a colleague, he was thinking of “Fermi’s qualms,” and wondering, “what right had [I] to participate in an experiment that might kill off the human race?”
Mid-countdown, a young physicist in charge of the abort button — no doubt painfully aware of the doubts of Fermi and others about vaporizing the atmosphere — asked Oppenheimer, “What if I say this just can’t go on and stop it?”
Oppenheimer told him to get it together.
Allison pronounced the final words: Three, two, one ... “Seconds later,” Ellsberg recounts, “as the great light was followed by a blast wave that shook the bunkers and eventually subsided, Allison was musing, ‘Still alive … no atmospheric ignition’. ”
Ten miles away, Harvard President James Conant was among the elite observers present. He saw the blast of sustained white light and in horror thought, “Fermi was right … the whole world has gone up in flames.”
So the scientists and their direct military superiors took a gamble, and risked the life of every creature on the planet. “There is no evidence that the possibility of atmospheric ignition was ever made known to the president or anyone else in Washington D.C.,” Ellsberg notes.
What justified this desperate measure? Once upon a time, we had convinced ourselves we were racing the Nazis to develop the A bomb. But Hitler had already killed himself — more than 2 months before the Trinity test. Was he laughing at us from the grave? According to Speer, the Nazi armaments minister, Hitler used to joke that “the scientists,” in their reckless way, “might someday set the globe on fire.”
Happy nuclear near-miss Sunday!
Matt Bivens, MD, works full-time as an emergency medicine physician in Massachusetts. He is chair of Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility, an organization focused on the species-level public health threats of runaway climate change and nuclear weapons. Before medical school, he was a foreign correspondent with years of experience reporting from Russia.