Within the Chihuahuan Desert in south-central New Mexico, an ancient tectonic drift formed the Tularosa Basin. At its south edge, during the last ice age, gypsum runoff created a lake, which thaw later evaporated into White Sands, an albino desert. To the north, a barren waste of lava field stretches across 150 square miles of the basin—malpaís in Spanish, because the land itself is bad. Nearby, another, smaller flow of sharp, igneous darkness called the Carrizozo Malpais streaks across the earth like a scar.
There, 75 years ago this morning, humankind exploded the first nuclear weapon, a cable-encrusted steel sphere nicknamed “the Gadget.” The site took on the code name of the detonation, Trinity, which its architect, J. Robert Oppenheimer, had chosen, inspired by a John Donne holy sonnet: Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for I, except you enthrall me, never shall be free.
The first atom bombs worked by nuclear fission—splitting the nucleus of a uranium or plutonium atom by striking its core with a neutron. The force looses more neutrons from the targeted atom, along with energy, and the chain reaction continues: more neutrons, more energy, more neutrons, more energy. . . .
Edward Teller, one of the Manhattan Project physicists, feared that the explosion could extinguish all earthly life. Once set off, he imagined, the chain reaction might extend into the nitrogen in the air, igniting the atmosphere. That didn’t happen, so three weeks after the Trinity test, the fission energy of 140 pounds of uranium and 14 pounds of plutonium were released over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing at least 140,000 civilians.
Along the way, the site of the Trinity test became a tourist attraction, albeit one tightly controlled by the U.S. military. . . . . .[In the 80’s] Sting released a single that year about “Oppenheimer’s deadly toy”; in its refrain he sang, “I hope the Russians love their children too.” Nuclear war was a thought as common as the weather. This trip was a visit not to the past, but to the anxious present.
The Atlantic: A Bomb in the Desert ; access this link for the complete story.