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Destroyer Gods and Sons-of-Bitches
November 24, 2012 12:30 PM   Subscribe

In the telling it has the contours of a creation myth: At a time of great evil and great terror, a small group of scientists, among the world’s greatest minds, secluded themselves in the desert. In secrecy and silence they toiled at their Promethean task. They sought the ultimate weapon, one of such great power as to end not just their war, but all war. They hoped their work would salvage the future. They feared it could end everything. - Prometheus in the desert: from atom bombs to radio astronomy, New Mexico's scientific legacy
posted by Artw (22 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Seems more like the contours of an end-times myth to me.

Very strange and uncomfortable to find myself wondering only a couple of generations later whether global thermonuclear war would have been as catastrophic as Global Warming looks like being.
posted by jamjam at 12:56 PM on November 24, 2012


I think in most cases, engineers just like to build cool things. Winning wars or changing the world is secondary.
posted by blue_beetle at 1:21 PM on November 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've never seen an accounting of the number or proportion of Jewish scientists and engineers who worked on the Manhattan Project, but I think their motivation might have gone a bit beyond 'let's build this cool thing.'
posted by jamjam at 1:41 PM on November 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd rather go visit the VLA than Trinity, there's enough reminders of our ability to destroy; think I'd prefer to see us being forward looking, that way I can retain hope for the future.
posted by arcticseal at 1:43 PM on November 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I did this trip back in April. I had only really planned the Trinity Site portion, and it was pretty much by accident that I found out the VLA was open on the same day.

I wasn't expecting much to actually be at the Trinity site, so I was a bit surprised by the size of the crowds and the number of artifacts they had both at the site and the McDonald ranch. (I also hadn't known about Jumbo before I saw the remains sitting next to the parking lot.) Of course, the one thing that I didn't see at Trinity was loose trinitite. The crater was covered up in the 50s and the area outside accessible to visitors is pretty well picked over, even though you're not supposed to take the trinitite. They had an interpretive booth set up that had some trinitite under glass (along with some orange fiestaware, cigarettes, radium clock faces, and a bananna).

The VLA is, true to its name, very large. It was in one of its smallest configurations when I was there, so I was confused for a second by the exempt (not in regular service) double-tracked railroad crossing as I came up to the complex, then realizing it was because the array could be set up even larger than it was. In the end I think the VLA was the more interesting place to visit (I even got the t-shirt, which I usually don't do).
posted by ckape at 1:55 PM on November 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've never seen an accounting of the number or proportion of Jewish scientists and engineers who worked on the Manhattan Project, but I think their motivation might have gone a bit beyond 'let's build this cool thing.'

Yeah, just off the top of my head, Teller, Szilard, and Frisch were all Jews who fled Europe, Oppenheimer and Bohm were American Jews, and Fermi's wife was Jewish (which is why they fled Europe).
posted by mr_roboto at 2:01 PM on November 24, 2012


It seems odd to try & attribute motivation to these scientists - scientists do science.
posted by Packed Lunch at 2:17 PM on November 24, 2012


It seems odd to try & attribute motivation to these scientists - scientist do science.

And Jews who fled Hitler build atomic bombs to try and beat Heisenberg's bomb program.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:20 PM on November 24, 2012


The best recounting of the effort to build the bomb that I've read is Richard Rhodes "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" which covers the scientists' motives and awareness of the gravity of the project in some detail.
posted by hwestiii at 3:15 PM on November 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


I looked at this link and I wondered before I clicked it whether Robert Oppenheimer's "I am become death etc." quote would be featured as a headline, sub-headline, or a block quote.

Anyone who's been to journalism school care to let me know whether it's part of "tension-building 101" that every human interest piece on the history of nuclear physics, esp. the Manhattan project, should contain this quote, preferably in red italicized text (as it is here) in order to hook the reader?
posted by anewnadir at 3:22 PM on November 24, 2012


Weeeeelll, lotta empty bragging through the ages (see for example Old Testament) but who could actually say it with any amount of truth?
posted by telstar at 4:01 PM on November 24, 2012


I grew up in Los Alamos. My dad was a physicist at the national lab there. There is a lot of other scientific work going on in NM besides just DOD support and pure research. For example, my dad was part of a nuclear non-proliferation project, where he helped design instruments for use on satellites.
posted by jenh526 at 4:36 PM on November 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


This FPP from a few years ago contains the account of someone who claims to have stolen the majority of tritinite.
posted by 445supermag at 4:54 PM on November 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Someone on reddit/r/rpg/, of all places, posted a good synopsis of the Oppenheimer "Destroyer of Worlds" quote, and why it is both apt, and misunderstood:
[useful preamble snipped] .......... Vishnu and Shiva frequently take human forms, called avatars (the word is actually from sanskrit). Vishnu, in mythology, has taken exactly 9 forms thus far. Krishna was the last.

How did he wind up as Arjuna's charioteer? In short, they're close friends and actually family (though Krishna rules a neighboring country). Because of the familial ties, both Arjuna and one of the Kauravas ask for Krishna's aid in the conflict, and he can't refuse either. So he offers them himself (unarmed) and his armies separately. Arjuna, who has come to suspect that Krishna is something greater, happily takes Krishna, to the elation of his Kaurava cousin.

So that brings us back to the battlefield, and Arjuna dropping his weapons vowing to not take up arms against his own family, friends, and comrades. Krishna begins to talk him down, explaining what is canonical Hindu philosophy: do your duty. He explains it is right to fight, why Arjuna must fight, and why the war must occur. Through the course of the conversation Krishna reveals more and more about himself, until eventually he drops all pretenses and (at the request of Arjuna) becomes Vishnu for a short while. One translation of the passage is:

A thousand simultaneous suns
Arising in the sky
Might equal that great radiance,
With that great glory vie. (11:12)

Arjuna's reaction:

Amazement entered him; his hair
Rose up; he bowed his head;
He humbly lifted folded hands,
And worshipped God. . . . (11:14)

Krishna tells Arjuna why he is there:

Death am I, and my present task
Destruction. (11:32)

The last passage is also translated:

I am become Death, the shatterer of Worlds.

Or

I am become Death, the destroyer of Worlds.

I'm trying to think of words to describe the depth of this line, but I can't find them. It's probably the climax of the poem, so it probably makes sense that I can't convey it all in just a few words.

The important things to take away: the line is about duty, divinity, and the fulfillment of purpose.

So why does Oppenheimer use such an odd quote? It seems to fit on the surface: he's just unleashed a terrible force on the world. But that's not all of it.

Oppenheimer was a pacifist. Why did he lead the effort to build the most terrible bomb ever constructed? He was a scientist and he felt he had a duty to do. Oppenheimer's usage of the quote is profoundly appropriate, reaching an incredible depth, and showing a knowledge and understanding of the philosophy he's drawing on that is incredibly deep.

Oppenheimer wasn't speaking for himself. He was saying he had just seen God himself revealed.
posted by Rumple at 5:41 PM on November 24, 2012 [11 favorites]


Oppenheimer use such an odd quote?

I recently finished American Prometheus and had started the Mahabharata (not really being sure where to start), in part, trying to get a better sense for what he was evoking. This is helpful. Oppenheimer was like, say, Teddy Roosevelt, a New Yorker with a powerful connection to the open American west and a hungry curiosity for just about everything. The fact that Oppenheimer had long vacationed in New Mexico, in the years before the war, had enormous implications for its scientific legacy.
posted by relish at 6:10 PM on November 24, 2012


One more thing: As you leave Trinity Site and the White Sands Missile Range, you hit a T-junction with the state highway. (Also the location of the roadside historic marker for the Trinity site.) Going left takes you to toward I-25, Socorro, and the VLA. There is a handwritten sign pointing right that says "Trinitite for sale".
posted by ckape at 7:00 PM on November 24, 2012


It seems odd to try & attribute motivation to these scientists - scientists do science.

Er, is this facetious or serious?
posted by eviemath at 8:31 PM on November 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's something I wrote. Maybe I'm naive.
posted by Packed Lunch at 8:47 PM on November 24, 2012


I looked at this link and I wondered before I clicked it whether Robert Oppenheimer's "I am become death etc." quote would be featured as a headline, sub-headline, or a block quote.

It's an insight on Oppenheimer's character and the mythology around him-- he was such a charismatic figure, so well-spoken, and so dramatic, both in his life as he lived it and as history remembers it.

I grew up in Los Alamos. My dad was a physicist at the national lab there. There is a lot of other scientific work going on in NM besides just DOD support and pure research. For example, my dad was part of a nuclear non-proliferation project, where he helped design instruments for use on satellites.

Yeah, there is, but the focus and the money in NM are mostly in defense, though not all of that is nuclear (and a lot of it goes to places like Sandia where they're working on secret stuff we don't know all the details of anyway). That combined with the legacy of uranium mining and the WIPP makes New Mexico an extremely nuclear state. That doesn't mean there isn't a lot of kickass science happening in New Mexico. My dad's a science writer (he links to a lot of his interesting stuff in his blog, if you're interested), so I grew up hearing about both the cool science stuff and the defense and nuclear stuff.

There is a handwritten sign pointing right that says "Trinitite for sale".

There are signs like this all over New Mexico. I recently stopped at a little place off the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere with a big "TRINITITE" sign. It's sort of a staple of highway rock shops in rural New Mexico. Nuclear memorabilia is big too-- my dad has a cone that was part of a nuke; they got bought up when they were being disassembled by places like Black Hole. It's on a bookshelf at home. He also has some salt that was dug out of WIPP around the house somewhere.
posted by NoraReed at 8:59 PM on November 24, 2012


It seems odd to try & attribute motivation to these scientists - scientists do science.
Er, is this facetious or serious?
It's something I wrote. Maybe I'm naive.

I was asking since I couldn't tell and didn't want to respond inappropriately. If serious, that makes scientists out to be like robots or computers set a program to complete, or animals acting on some sort of instinct. Scientists: not quite human, who knows what prompts their mysterious ways?
posted by eviemath at 9:58 PM on November 24, 2012


(Scientists as unknowable, not subjects that can be studied empirically, struck me as an amusingly ironic viewpoint.)
posted by eviemath at 10:05 PM on November 24, 2012


Yeah, just off the top of my head, Teller, Szilard, and Frisch were all Jews who fled Europe, Oppenheimer and Bohm were American Jews, and Fermi's wife was Jewish (which is why they fled Europe)..

Stanislaw Ulam was also Jewish I believe.

It seems odd to try & attribute motivation to these scientists - scientists do science.

To a man, Hitler would have killed each of these, either before or after using their gifts towards his goal of conquering Europe. It seems either glib or sinister to disregard their obvious motivations.
posted by newdaddy at 9:55 PM on November 25, 2012


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