February 9, 2013
"Still alive. No atmospheric ignition."

The first atom bomb test was at a site in the New Mexico desert called Trinity on July 16th, 1945.

Before the test, many things were still unknown. Most dramatically, there was still discussion whether or not the detonation of an atomic bomb would be sufficient to ignite the atmosphere of the entire planet Earth, an idea originally posed by Edward Teller. (It is the nitrogen in the air that would undergo a fusion reaction if this happened.) This was considered and deemed to have only a slight chance on the order of one in half a million. However, it was not ruled out entirely at any point, and came up again on the eve of the Trinity test.

On Sunday July 15th, the day before the test, Enrico Fermi gave a chilling speech to his colleagues in which he handicapped the odds of two situations, as after much thought he could not rule out ignition of the atmosphere.

"I invite bets," he said, "against first the destruction of all human life and second just that of human life in New Mexico."

General Leslie Groves, the Army head of the Manhattan Project, decided Fermi was making a joke. However, the senior physicists present felt he was not.

Dr. Samuel King Allison, who read the “ten, nine, eight, seven…” countdown during the Trinity test was not sure what waited on the other side of saying “zero.” In the moments after the successful explosion General Farrell, who was the Army representative at the South bunker observation site, exclaimed to Allison, “Wonderful, wonderful! What a wonderful thing that you could count backward at a time like this!”

Allison had heavier thoughts on his mind. “Still alive,” he reportedly said. “No atmospheric ignition.”

(Note: In a movie version, Allison could easily be portrayed by Alec Baldwin, right?)

Filed under: the bomb 
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