Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Africa (1)
Seventy years ago, a cabal of scientists, engineers and technicians cowered furtively in a concrete bunker, constructed in the remote reaches of a U.S desert. Several kilometres away, a dark, spherical contraption, with cables and tubing attached to it, rested forbiddingly atop a steel tower.
Across the expanses of the Pacific Ocean, residents of two thriving Japanese cities went about their daily business, doing whatever a war-weary people do, to meet the dictates of survival. They were oblivious to the men in the bunker—not to mention the monstrosity, perching at the tower’s peak.
Innocent as well, were Africans in various geographical locations and walks of life: Black people who had—wittingly or unwittingly—helped to incubate and nurture the monster. Their intellectual and material resources were among the nutrients that made its conception and maturation possible.
The men in the bunker, of course, could hardly lay claim to innocence. After all, they were the prime movers, the scientific midwives, so to speak, whose assiduous “modeling” and mathematical acumen had given birth to “the gadget”: Cognomen of the $2 billion bomb that was about to be tested.
The testing tower was erected on a stretch of desolate wasteland in the western state of New Mexico. The Spanish, who once controlled most of the American West, dubbed this particular area (near Alamogordo) Jornada del Muerto — the “Journey of the Dead Man.”
But not even the ruthless Conquistadors could have known how ironic and prescient the name they coined would turn out to be—or conjured up imagery like that which occupants of the bunker were about to see.
That bit of prophecy would be left to Hans Bethe, one of the scientific “Conquistadors,” on loan to the Manhattan Project (the clandestine crash programme to build the bomb) from Cornell University. Bethe, invoking the magic of modern physics, reportedly described the famous fireball—months before the test.
When it occurred though, the explosion not only vindicated Bethe but also Einstein, whose historic letter is often credited with convincing U.S. president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, of the feasibility of using uranium to construct a powerful weapon: And the urgency of beating the Germans to the punch.
Actually, it was probably Leo Szilard who wrote the letter, for Albert Einstein to sign. By this time, younger physicists had pretty much pushed Einstein aside. But everyone knew that only his prestige would solicit Roosevelt’s serious attention.
Also, as I have said before, it is doubtful that the Germans had any real chance of constructing and deploying an atomic bomb. But this hype got the project approved quickly and shook loose money to fund it. Nevertheless, I strongly suspect that Japan was always the real target.
That aside, the explosion of July 16, 1945, was everything the men in the bunker had expected—and more. According to a widely circulated report, posted by the “Avalon Project” of Yale University’s Lillian Goldman Library, the fireball came quickly after the deafening outburst of the detonation.
“The ball of fire,” it says, “rapidly expands from the size of the bomb to a radius of several hundred feet at one second after the explosion. After this the most striking feature is [its] rise…at the rate of about 30 yards per second… At the end of the first minute the ball has expanded to a radius of several hundred yards and risen to a height of about one mile [1.6 km].
“The ball now loses its brilliance,” it continues, “and appears as a great cloud of smoke: the pulverized material of the bomb. This cloud [rises] vertically and finally mushrooms out at…about 25,000 feet”.