The Manhattan Project Destroys The World

Could you even imagine being one of the physicists on-site at the first atomic bomb testing, the Trinity test in New Mexico back in 1945?  To be responsible for attempting, for the first time on planet earth, an explosive weapon using exotic physics only discovered a couple decades earlier?  You’d be pretty sure what was going to happen, but you couldn’t be *really* sure — if the test goes *well*, you’ll be creating a fireball hundreds of meters across that will be audible 200 miles away.  What might happen if the test goes *wrong*?

This must have crossed Edward Teller’s mind, because he brought up a horrifying possibility — “hey guys”, I imagine him saying, “we’re planning to create a gigantic nculear conflagration.  Do you think we might accidentally *set fire to the atmosphere*?”  That’s right — it was considered that the first bomb test might ignite ALL OF OUR AIR on PLANET EARTH.  Did that wake you up?  I get nervous when I’m entrusted to replace the plumbing innards in our toilet’s tank (which took me all day, BTW) — can you conceive the immense responsibility on the shoulders of those physicists, having to take that risk for the sake of the war effort?  “Better to accept the slavery of the Nazis”, said Arthur Compton, “than run a chance of drawing the final curtain on mankind!”

In times like these, you go to your top folks, the guys with nitrogen-cooled cojones.  The Manhattan Project physicists went to Hans Bethe, who led a team that calculated whether the atmosphere catching fire was a likely possibility.  Their conclusion?  No, it was impossible, so it was safe to continue with the test.  Pretty ballsy, especially considering that even Hitler backed off in part because of his fear of turning the earth into a charcoal briquette.  Later, during the actual test, Enrico Fermi tried to float a bet among his fellow scientists about whether an atmospheric inflagration would happen, but apparently no one took him up on it.

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