I Am Become Death

“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” — J. Robert Oppenheimer/The Bhagavad Gita

The Trinity test in the first milliseconds post-detonation using raptronic cameras capable of filming at a rate of 10 million frames/second. The spikes emerging from the nuclear fireball are X-rays vaporizing the tower cables. Source: Wikipedia

While the thought of nuclear annihilation is not the most uplifting topic amidst a pandemic, it is paramount to discuss them and ignite discourse regardless, even if it seems like some far off threat (it is not).

Nuclear weapons are powerful — very powerful. When a nuclear weapon is detonated by humans, we are essentially creating a small star on Earth designed to kill a lot of people, millions, even billions if desired as in the case of a full-blown nuclear exchange. Only constrained by engineering limitations, there is no technical limit to their potential blast yield. The supreme, ungodly, and terrifying power of these sadistic tools of mass destruction and death have been engrained in our psyches since their inception in the early 1940's, yet it seems we have forgotten just how terrifying and genocidal these weapons really are and have been in our history as a species.

Operation Teapot, 1955. Source: Lawrence Livermore National Lab

We have seen over the last 75 years the horrific and homicidal tendencies of the world’s Superpowers to create and test these weapons with impunity and little regard for the biological effects of radiation on humans exposed to them. Only recently have the governments of the world decided that it may not be the best idea to detonate them within our atmosphere and even at the edge of space, such as with Operation Starfish Prime.

Operation Starfish Prime, the first high-altitude nuclear detonation conducted by the United States Military on July 9, 1962. Source: Wikipedia

At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union decided to take nuclear weapons to the extreme, detonating the “Tsar Bomba”, the most powerful nuclear explosion ever undertaken by Homo Sapiens. This bomb was absurdly powerful with a blast yield equivalent to 50 megatons of TNT (50 million tons of TNT) or 210 peta-joules (210 quadrillion joules of energy). For comparison, the “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” bombs dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had a blast yield on the order of 20 kilo-tons on TNT or 88 terra-joules (88 trillion Joules of energy). Thus the Tsar Bomba was approximately 1,500 times as powerful as the bombs dropped on the twin Japanese cities which killed around 225,000 people in total. These are conservative numbers with more than half of the deaths occurring on the first day. Humans within the blast radius were vaporized instantly while those who survived suffered from the severe effects of radiation poisoning, psychological damage, and illnesses associated with malnutrition.

Mushroom clouds over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right) as photographed by the U.S. bombers. Source: Wikipedia

As of 2019, humans possess approximately 9,500 active nuclear warheads spread across the globe, sheltered in the arsenals of Russia, China, France, India, the UK, Israel, and of course, the U.S. and North Korea. Most disturbingly, two of the most unstable human authoritarian leaders on Earth, Donald J. Trump and Kim Jong-un, have engaged in a frightening display of power dynamics, reassuring the world that they are indeed the dominant nuclear powers on Earth, aside from Russia and China.

Actual tweet from the current President of the United States in 2018.

These Superpowers have attained the ability to annihilate all life on earth within a matter of hours using intercontinental ballistic missiles, capable of reaching their destinations approximately 5,500 miles away in around 20 minutes. While global efforts have pushed to reduce current stock-piles and create treaties in place for the banning of nuclear weapons testing, our history with these weapons has scarred Earth and its inhabitants in the nearly 2,000 nuclear tests humans have performed.

A North Korean Taepodong-class intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is championed at a rally in the nation’s capital, Pyongyang. Source: Ed Jones, AFP, Getty Images

Toying with the idea of a full-blown nuclear exchange through geopolitical power dynamics is a disgusting, horrifying, and deplorable act. If just one of the Superpowers decided to launch an ICBM into a populated area, the effects would be devastating, as outlined eloquently by this sobering Kurzgesagt video:

At the peak of tension during WWII, the emerging Superpowers of the world such as the United States and the USSR scrambled to create a weapon so powerful and so immense in its destructive powers that any nation which decided to threaten them would be annihilated within an instant. They are so powerful that the mutual understanding of the world’s Superpower’s possession of them is in itself a deterrent to use them.

The United States was the first to unlock the unfathomable energy stored within atomic nuclei. The first detonation of an atomic weapon was the infamous Trinity test, conducted at 5:29 am on July 16, 1945, in the Jornada del Muerto desert of New Mexico. The Manhattan Project was a covert operation, shrouded in secrecy, with some of the brightest minds in physics weaponized to work on it including J. Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman, Hans Bethe, Leo Szilard, and Ernest O. Lawrence. The project was overseen by Major General Leslie Groves who was under the command of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, yet the bomb’s brainchild was purely that of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

J. Robert Oppenheimer photographed in LIFE magazine.

Oppenheimer, born in New York City on April 22, 1904, was an American theoretical physicist from a wealthy Jewish family that immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1888, a year before Adolf Hitler was born. Oppenheimer spearheaded the scientific endeavor in the Manhattan project, attaining the title: “father of the atomic bomb”. In the photo above, Oppenheimer’s eyes tell a story; one of confusion, amazement, pride, reverence, horror, and guilt. His creation led the way for the development of even more powerful nuclear weapons such as the hydrogen bomb and the thermonuclear warheads we have aimed at each other today.

The opening page to notonukes.org

It is up to us humans to decide whether or not we should possess such immoral weapons of mass destruction. There is a website called http://notonukes.org/ dedicated to igniting discourse and action in eliminating all nuclear weapons and vowing to never produce them again. It is up to the individual to decide what future they wish to have for themselves, our children, and future generations of humans on this beautiful yet fragile planet we call home.

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Matthew Forman

Matthew Forman

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Astroparticle physics PhD candidate at UC Irvine, Citizen Scientist, curious Homo Sapien. instagram: @human_wavefunction, twitter: @human_wavfnctn