The received story of the building of the atomic bomb is a well-known narrative of triumphant scientific advancement. But there is another story about the moral and psychological complexities that confounded the (mostly) Jewish scientists who built the bomb and the heavy price they paid for their exhausting labor in a confused political environment, a story steeped in the mythological and religious symbolism of their Jewish culture. It is the personal story of the men who built the bomb, their passions, the clashes of their immense personalities, their naivete, their sense of power, their arrogance, their ambition and their despair, the messy, chaotic understory of scientific achievement, which was in fact a runaway train of human calamity.
July 16. Five o’clock in the morning. Teller is a groggy, irritable man. They are twenty miles away from the tower where the gadget has finally been hoisted into place with the plutonium core nestled inside the wired aluminum sphere. There is no hint of sun yet in the sky. He wants to get this over with. Then everyone can ooh and ahh and can get on to the real business of showing Stalin what we are about. Nobody mentions this, but this is really why they must drop the bomb. The Japanese are history. Stalin is the issue.
The bomb jockeys have dropped the uranium slug into place like they are setting a cowboy into the saddle of a bucking bronco. Like they’ve strapped his hand to the saddle horn with rawhide and they are about to fling open the gate of the stall and let ‘er rip. The slug looks like a box of nothing in particular, like a cheap radio or something. Good morning New Mexico! Rise and shine! (Feynman sincerely hopes.) He knows some people are hoping it’s a dud.
A bit early in the morning or is it late at night for a pipe, so Oppenheimer smokes his handrolled cigarettes, one after another. He is handrolling them now like a practiced GI, not because he fancies himself a soldier but because it slows him down a bit. His smoker's cough is even interrupting his sleep these days. And it gives him a minute of peaceful concentration on a simple but delicate task and he needs that twenty, forty, sixty times a day for his sanity.
He has his back to the view. He will know when to turn around or when to smack his head into the concrete bunker because it’s a dud. The gadget looks like something out of The Wizard Of Oz, like they’re giving the Tin Man an EKG, now that he’s got his heart, no that’s not right, he never gets a heart, he gets a Testimonial from the Wizard. But that is much the same thing according to Frank Morgan, who is a very funny man; he used to take Jean to Morgan’s movies, and they would laugh till it hurt. Maybe the Wizard is right. You don’t need a heart as long as everybody thinks you’ve got one. He wonders what has become of his heart since Jean died. It kicked briefly back to life when FDR died. Then it went still again. But this is not the time for that. He’s thinking worst case now. What does he do if it doesn’t come off? There’s only enough uranium for one lousy bomb. Everybody thinks he has a heart. That will have to do for now.
Feynman has spotted Sir James Chadwick in the crowd, the guy who discovered the neutron. Has he come to see the damage he has done, god bless him? He hopes Chadwick is proud of himself. The premise of the betting pool is how many kilotons will the plutonium bomb yield. Oppenheimer took a very conservative position, a 3 kiloton yield. He didn’t want to appear cocky. Maybe he didn’t want to offend the gods. Bethe came in at 5 kilotons. Rabi put his money on 8 kilotons and Teller—how else would he stick out in a crowd—took 40 kilotons. Fermi is taking bets on whether the bomb will ignite the atmosphere, and if so, will it incinerate just New Mexico or the whole planet. Ha! The guy is a madman!
There is a glimmer of light in the east. Most of the guys can’t see it. They’ve got their welding goggles on because they were told they might go blind from the light of the explosion. Feynman is a cool customer. He is handing out suntan lotion to break the tension that is evident in most of the party on Compania Hill. Perhaps the sun will never rise today.
There is no warning. There is just light, light everywhere. Oppenheimer thinks of Arjuna on the battlefield seeking enlightenment.
Holy mother of God. The damn thing works. The light is pure white. It feels like it’s inside Feynman’s head like Benny Goodman is inside his head when he listens with the headphones on, Krupa to one side banging on the tom-toms, the horns on the other and Benny in the middle playing every note in God’s creation and they are all perfect.
Teller stands up. He wears no goggles. He looks right into it. The pain of the light is intense for the briefest part of a second, but it’s nothing he can’t take. It’s like the primordial light of the universe. It is everywhere. It is everything. It condenses into a cloud that rises and rises majestically. It is beautiful. Only he has the nerve to look it in the face and take it for what it is. Only he truly sees it. He is filled with pride. His heart swells. If might makes right, the bomb has just become the absolute truth. If right makes might, the scientists of Los Alamos have manufactured victory from First Principles. Either way, God bless America. And God bless the atomic bomb.
Now, Oppenheimer knows a hundred thousand people who were going to be dead in a couple of weeks.
Rabi is thinking he is about to witness eternity. And that His ark is become a thirty-foot tower. His desert is New Mexico. He is again, as He was in ancient days, a pillar of fire by night and a column of smoke by day. And we shall carry him out to do battle with our enemies. And all of Canaan will fall to Yahweh. Shema Yisroel, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai echod. Hear O, Israel, the Lord Our God, The Lord is one. The very words in his head are muted by a devastating assault of sound and a mighty wind that rushes over the desert.
And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the nether part of the mount. And Mount Sinai was altogether in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly. And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long and waxed louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by a voice.
And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them. For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me, and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
Oppenheimer did not get up. He barely lifted his eyes to meet Izzy’s gaze. He was in the armchair by the window but the curtains were drawn and the lights were not on.
“Are you sitting shiva, Oppie?”
He smiled the faintest of smiles. “Izzy, how good to see you.” He was already lying, wasn’t he? Maybe he wasn’t. Maybe Izzy could be of some help, although he couldn’t imagine how.
“How are you feeling, old man?”
“Please, Izzy. No direct questions. Not this early in the day.” Was it early? He wasn’t sure. Psychologically, it was the raw dawn of a night with little sleep.
Rabi noticed the reconnaissance photos on the coffee table. They were arranged neatly, fitted together like a puzzle he had solved. “Mind if I open a curtain?” he asked.
That was better, an indirect question. “Please do,” he said and the light fell on the photos. “Have you seen them?”
“I’ve seen a few,” Rabi replied and looked at him more carefully. He wore no tie and went barefoot, no belt on his trousers, as if he had given up halfway through the task of dressing. “Have the others seen them?”
“Oh, they all came running.”
“What did you expect, Oppie?”
“I don’t know what I expected. I didn’t expect this.” He was looking at a photo of a vast expanse of wreckage coated in thick white, presumably radioactive ash that had fallen from the sky and blanketed the city in a death of snow. There was a road slicing through the ashen silence of the photograph, and running down both sides of the road were the charred remnants of telephone poles like burnt arms thrust up from the earth begging the skies to stop.
“The Romans would set up a mile of crucified soldiers along the road leading into a conquered city. They groaned and died and rotted there till they cut them down.”
“Oppie, there is no need…”
“They look like crucifixions, don’t they, but where are the bodies? They have blown away on the wind. No need to cut them down.” He placed a hand on the slick finish of the photograph and let his fingertips rest on the destruction of Hiroshima. “What have we done, Izzy?”
“I don’t understand you, Oppie. Did you think it would be otherwise?”
He had thought, oh well, there will be a blinding flash and a fireball, as they say, but we will be far away watching it from a bunker on a hill. Had it really not occurred to him how it would be when there was a city and not a desert beneath the cloud? “Maybe I pictured London during the blitz. This is not the blitz. This is unspeakable. This is insanity.”
The next one was of a road running across the scene, and behind it three tall, black, bare trees with powerful roots gripping the earth from small hillocks that stood out where the rest of the soil had been blasted away by the explosion. The one in the middle was tallest and nearest. “This one looks like Golgotha. Like the version by Tintoretto. Have you seen it?”
“No I don’t think I have.”
“It is heartbreakingly beautiful.”
“There’s also a good one by Altdorfer.”
“They are supposed to be about redemption, aren’t they? Can you see some kind of redemption here?”
“No, Izzy. I see nothing of the kind.”
“Maybe you will in time.”
“Teller was here. He could barely contain his excitement.”
“They are calling you a hero, Oppie. You ended the war in one fell swoop.”
“I called an assembly. ‘The War is over.’ I walked in like the heavyweight champion of the world. With my hands clasped over my head. Can you picture that, Izzy? That is a scene I would like to erase from my mind. Sometimes you can’t see your hand in front of your face. I mean ethically.”
“Stop, my friend.”
“How did I not see this coming? I must have been willfully blind.”
He was examining the next one, two women with folded umbrellas walking down a wide asphalt street after a rain. The roadside rubble seemed to have washed up on shore from a sea of devastation on either side. He wondered where they were going. “Maybe they are going to visit relatives in Nagasaki.”
“You see what you are doing? You have to stop this mea culpa.”
“Groves was here. He shook my hand so hard I nearly cried out. He said one of us should run for president and the other could be his VP and fuck that tailor Truman. He said FDR was an architect. This guy is not even a carpenter.”
They sat in silence for a few moments and he sank into thought. He surfaced for a moment to ask Izzy if he wanted coffee or maybe tea. Izzy said tea would be nice, but he did not get up.
“This one, Izzy.” He pointed to a photo of a stone temple that had been reduced to chunks of rock except for the Buddha who sits among the ruins. His serene stone head is burnt black. He holds a scorched palm frond in his right hand. “Look at the peace on that face. See how he is tipped forward? Is he about to fall over or is he bowing in reverence to a greater deity?”
Rabi looked closely. “He could also be The Man In The Iron Mask.”
He thought, yes, that’s me, my face locked away from the world as I gaze upon its destruction.” He said, “Remind me how the story goes.”
“His enemy has stolen his identity and locked him in the mask so he cannot prove who he is, but he finds the mask useful as he enacts his revenge.”
“Yes, right.” And who was the enemy who would steal his identity? And what would be his revenge?
“Do you know the Book of Job, Oppie?”
“Of course I do.”
“Have you read it?”
“Do I have to read it to know it?”
“I think I read it somewhere along the line, don’t ask me why.”
“You see, you are like Job. Look at you. You are in sackcloth and ashes. You scrape your sores with pottery shards. God has punished you, his favorite son.”
“A messenger has come. Three messengers. ‘I alone am escaped to tell thee.’”
“Yes, I remember that. So I must have read it.”
“And what did they say, Oppie?”
“Everything you had is gone. Your family, your fortune…”
“Yes. And Job asks, why has God done this to me.”
“Izzy, the question as I remember is this. Did Job love God because God was good to him? Or was God good to Job because Job loved God?
“Yes, there you have it in a nutshell. God was not sure which way it was with Job.”
“He lacked confidence in Job.” That got a smile from Rabi.
“So, He tested him to see what might happen. You know, Yahweh is not like Jesus, Oppie. He is an old-fashioned God. He cannot look into your heart. He can only see how you act. So he tests you.”
“So, I am being tested?”
“It seems so.”
“And what is the test?”
“I think you know.”
“But I don’t believe in God like that.”
“But you can still be tested.”
“In what way?”
“Do you love life because life has been good to you, or has life been good to you because you love life?”
“Maybe it’s a coincidence, Izzy.”
“Ah, you have rejected both answers and you propose a third. Now that is Talmudic thinking, Oppie.”
“How is that Talmudic?”
“The rabbis of the Talmud were more highly evolved than we are. They were focused on the questions. They were humbled by them. They knew there are no answers.
“Rebbe, forgive me but this does not sound like the Orthodox line on the Book of Job.”
“I am not that kind of Rabbi, my son.”
“But why did God give me this bomb to build, why did he make me the architect of death.” Me, his favorite son. “And when I say God, you know I don’t mean Yahweh, I mean something else.”
“One of the points in The Book of Job is this: nobody knows why God did it, so nobody knows what to say to Job.”
“Ah I see. They all get it wrong. You are to infer it is a mystery. Is that it, Rabi?”
“You are to infer there is something wrong with the question, my son.”
“But God answered him out of the whirlwind, did he not?”
“And what was his answer?”
“He said stop questioning my motives and humble yourself before me.”
“I don’t know how to do that, Izzy.”
“Who does, Oppie? Who does?”
Rabi got up to go and said he was leaving Los Alamos and hoped Oppenheimer would shut the place down and get out as soon as he possibly could, but he could hardly look up to meet Rabi’s gaze.
“You must stop looking at them, Oppie. This does you no good.”
“I wanted it so badly. With every breath in my body. I let nothing get in my way. This kind of desire is a sickness.”
“I say this out of respect and love, my friend, but you sound like hell and you look like hell. You have lost twenty pounds. Your coughing is nonstop. You must rest. You must find peace. You must get well. We need you, Oppie. You are still in charge. You have the moral authority now, not Groves, not Truman, not Teller, none of them have it. You have it. I want you well so you can use it wisely.”
“We were like a monastery of Tibetan monks who were assembling a mandala grain by grain. Have you ever seen them, Izzy?”
“Yes I have,” he replied, his face gone blank.
“Forgive me, Izzy. I hear you but I have to speak. I don’t know any other way.”
“Tell me about the mandala.”
“Did you know they assemble them one painted grain of sand at a time? It takes years and years to get one done. And then it’s done and it’s big and beautiful and it’s filled with the iconography of Tibetan Buddhism; it might be the Seven Bardos or the Wheel of Time or the Eleven Faces of the Bodhisattva all laid out and beautifully designed, as beautiful as a Michelangelo or a Titian. And then the monks all come together for a ceremony and they admire the mandala and chant over it and bless it. And when they are done, they blow it away with their combined breaths, and it is gone as if it has never been. Because it is the temporary illusion of the material world that they are looking at, and it has no real meaning. Maybe that’s why we built the bomb, Izzy. To blow it away. To remind ourselves the world had no meaning. What does it matter that we incinerate a hundred thousand civilians along the way?” His mouth was thick with the taste of ash from his cigarette.
“Oppie, I listen to you, and I hear you say these things, and I fear for your soul. You know we bury fast in the Jewish religion. We put the body in the ground, and we say our goodbyes. Please my good friend, you must put the body in the ground and say goodbye.”
“Maybe this is why God made the world, Izzy, so we could destroy it because He knows it has no meaning.”
“I hope you are wrong, Oppie, but I fear you may be right.”
There was one photo he could not show Izzy, an image of the broken base of a wall, all that remained of a large house except for a bare chimney thrust up like a pious but disbelieving steeple, and on the wall a human silhouette painted in charcoal, the shadow of a man who had passed through the brick and into the next world. He thought of the soldier who took the photo, a tourist on a trip to hell. How could he not have known that people would be vaporized? A hand of sorrow grabbed him by the chest but released him before he could cry out.
Two thousand years ago I tried to save mankind from the mess I created. I sent myself into the world to be their savior. But what a stupendous disaster. How little they learned. How little they changed. I gave them my SON. And what did they do? They massacred my chosen people and they created this abomination they call Holy Mother Church. Fine. I’m done with them. You cannot say I didn’t try.
And now I am returned, incarnated again as a plutonium core encased in a jacket of TNT that is sculpted to perform a spherical implosion. I have come back to destroy what I created. If this doesn’t work, I have other means. I can poison their climate. I can send a plague. I can raise up a despot, a madman who would take it all with him when he dies.
Rabi got up to go. He didn’t want him to leave. He needed to say the one thing he had not been able to bring himself to say.
“I feel a tremendous sense of sin, Izzy. I have blood on my hands.”
“If not you then another man, Oppie. Your sin is not murder. Your sin is pride.”
“Pride?” He was incredulous that Rabi would say that. “Pride that I wanted the glory?”
“Pride that your leadership would be necessary or sufficient. The bomb was unstoppable. You did not make it. You could not have prevented it. That is the lesson we have learned. That I have learned, at any rate.”
But he knew he would be punished. He knew he could not escape it.
When Rabi was gone, he looked again at the broken stone Buddha. Who was he inside his own stone mask? Was he a conquering hero? Was he a pious fraud? Was he a craven war criminal? Would he ever show his true face to the world or even to himself? He threw away the other photos and kept the Buddha. He lay down on the couch and felt the tears sting his eyes. O, my offense is rank. It hath the primal eldest curse. Pray can I not. He gasped in shock at the pain in his heart and began to weep, and he shook with weeping that rose and fell till he was weak from it and it subsided for the time.
He was sailing down a river in a small boat in the night. The creak of the boat was comforting. On both sides of the river, long white houses were lit from within with warm yellow light. He knew the way one knows in a dream that this one on the left was where the party was. He walked up the lawn and entered through French doors. She was standing in a crowd at the far side of the room. She turned to look at him. He thought he heard her say his name through the din of conversation.
On this day in 1946, a sturdy Egyptian shepherd in Nag Hammadi discovered a trove of documents in a cave where they were buried and forgotten two thousand years ago. They are sometimes called the Gnostic Gospels. Thinks of them as an antidote to the Torah. You see, Genesis makes it all sound so simple. God spoke to Moses. Moses heard God. Moses wrote down what he heard.
And God said, Let there be light. And there was light.
And God saw the light, and it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.
It’s a nice story, but no. You cannot imagine how long the calculations took me. For a long time I thought I might do it with one force only or two at the most, which would have been hard enough. And when I say “time,” I, of course, refer to something that did not then exist, something I was then creating, or rather, I should say discovering because it was really a happy (ironic that) byproduct of my efforts. I had thought in some vague way to place it all in some unexplained now without past or future, but that never-ending present gave way to the long, abysmal stretch of time that rose up out of my calculations and devoured it. I found I required complexity to make a man. I needed four forces, not one. And I needed time. I wanted something that would surprise me with an almost incomprehensible beauty.
But there was another story men told themselves as they became more aware. It was written down in the aftermath of Jesus’ coming and going and then buried for two thousand years, until men were ready to hear it.
They said God did not make light where there was only darkness. He made them both at the same time and then He mixed them together and the light caused the darkness to shine and the darkness crippled the light. And the world became dim.
Yes, that’s good, a closer approximation of the Light that I created for them.
Now of themselves they first wrote in their Book of Genesis
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground,
And breathed into his nostrils the breath of life;
And man became a living soul.
Yes, that’s very sweet, isn’t it? They were like children in those days, so I told them a children’s story. I was their God. They bowed down to me. They wrote a book, their geniuses, their madmen, their poets, their scribes, and in it they worshipped me, a very messy book, no discipline to their writing. Well, what would you expect? I do not admit of simplicity. Eventually they saw themselves more clearly and they saw more clearly their place in my Creation.
And so they said the angels grew jealous because man had come into being through their efforts and they had given him their power, but now his intelligence was greater than theirs, greater even than Mine. And they went mad with jealousy because they saw that man was luminous and he was free from wickedness and in their jealousy and rage they threw him down into the lowest region of creation, the region of base matter that rots and dies. And in doing so they made him the most magnificent creature in all my Creation with a spirit whose luminosity increased almost to infinity because unlike them (and Me) he lived in the face of death.
You see? They were growing into the truth of their being. I gave them wit so they could gaze upon my Creation and be enlightened, and instead I have driven them to the brink of madness. I was wrong to think a divine soul could prosper in this material world. In my arrogance, I gave them an impossible task. I relieve them now of their responsibility to live here in righteousness. It cannot be done.
So you could say, yes, I did surprise myself but it was not a happy surprise.
It is one thing to find your way to God. It is another thing to return unharmed.
You think it is easy to create a world? It is not. You think it is easy to destroy it? That is much harder.