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From Part IV "Los Alamos":

Feynman tinkered with radios again at the century's big event. Someone passed around dark welding glass for the eyes. Edward Teller put on sun lotion and gloves. The bomb makers were ordered to lie face down, their feet toward ground zero, twenty miles away, where their gadget sat atop a hundred-foot steel tower. The air was dense. On the way down from the hill three busloads of scientists had pulled over to wait while one man went into the bushes to be sick. A moist lightning storm had wracked the New Mexican desert. Feynman, the youngest of the group leaders, now grappled more and more urgently with a complicated ten-dial radio package mounted on an army weapons carrier. The radio was the only link to the observation plane, and it was not working.
   He sweated. He turned the dials with nervous fingers. He knew what frequency he needed to find, but he asked again anyway. He had almost missed the bus after having flown back from New York when he received the urgent coded telegram, and he had not had time to learn what all those dials did. In frustration he tried rearranging the antenna. Still nothing—static and silence. Then, suddenly, music, the eerie, sweet sound of a Tchaikovsky waltz floating irrelevantly from the ether. It was a shortwave transmission on a nearby frequency, all the way from San Francisco. The signal gave Feynman a bench mark for his calibrations. He worked the dials again until he thought he had them right. He reset them to the airplane's wavelength one last time. Still nothing. He decided to trust his calibrations and walk away. Just then a raspy voice broke through the darkness. The radio had been working all along; the airplane had not been transmitting. Now Feynman's radio announced, "Minus thirty minutes."
   Distant searchlights cut the sky, flashing back and forth between the clouds and the place Feynman knew the tower must be. He tried to see his flashlight through his welder's glass and decided, to hell with it, the glass was too dim. He looked at the people scattered about Campañia Hill, like a movie audience wearing 3-D glasses. A bunch of crazy optimists, he thought. What made them so sure there would be any light to filter? He went to the weapons carrier and sat in the front seat; he decided that the windshield would cut out enough of the dangerous ultraviolet. In the command center twenty-five miles away, Robert Oppenheimer, thin as a specter, wearing his tired hat, leaned against a wooden post and said aloud, "Lord, these affairs are hard on the heart," as though there had ever been such an affair.

At 5:29:45 A.M., July 16, 1945, just before dawn would have lighted the place called (already) the Jornada del Muerto, Journey of Death, instead came the flash of the atomic bomb. In the next instant Feynman realized that he was looking at a purple blotch on the floor of the weapons carrier. His scientific brain told his civilian brain to look up again. The earth was paper white, and everything on it seemed featureless and two-dimensional. The sky began to fade from silver to yellow to orange, the light bouncing off new-formed clouds in the lee of the shock wave. Something creates clouds! he thought. An experiment was in progress. He saw an unexpected glow from ionized air, the molecules stripped of electrons in the great heat. Around him witnesses were forming memories to last a lifetime. "And then, without a sound, the sun was shining; or so it looked," Otto Frisch recalled afterward. It was not the kind of light that could be assessed by human sense organs or scientific instruments. I. I. Rabi was not thinking in foot candles when he wrote, "It blasted; it pounced; it bored its way into you. It was a vision which was seen with more than the eye." The light rose and fell across the bowl of desert in silence, no sound heard until the expanding shell of shocked air finally arrived one hundred seconds after the detonation. Then came a crack like a rifle shot, startling a New York Times correspondent at Feynman's left. "What was that?" the correspondent cried, to the amusement of the physicists who heard him.
   "That's the thing," Feynman yelled back. He looked like a boy, lanky and grinning, though he was now twenty-seven. A solid thunder echoed in the hills. It was felt as much as heard. The sound made it suddenly more real for Feynman; he registered the physics acoustically. Enrico Fermi, closer to the blast, barely heard it as he tore up a sheet of paper and calculated the explosive pressure by dropping the pieces, one by one, through the sudden wind.

The jubilation, the shouting, the dancing, the triumph of that day have been duly recorded. On the road back, another physicist thought Feynman was going to float through the roof of the bus. The bomb makers rejoiced and got drunk. They celebrated the thing, the device, the gadget. They were smart, can-do fellows. After two years in this red desert they had converted some matter into energy. The theorists, especially, had now tested an abstract blackboard science against the ultimate. First an idea—now fire. It was alchemy at last, an alchemy that changed metals rarer than gold into elements more baneful than lead.
   Later they remembered having had doubts. Oppenheimer, urbane and self-torturing aficionado of Eastern mysticism, said that as the fireball stretched across three miles of sky (while Feynman was thinking, "Clouds!") he had thought of a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." The test director, Kenneth Bainbridge, supposedly told him, "We are all sons of bitches now." Rabi, when the hot clouds dissipated, said he felt "a chill, which was not the morning cold; it was a chill that came to one when one thought, as for instance when I thought of my wooden house in Cambridge . . ." In the actuality of the event, relief and excitement drowned out most such thoughts. Feynman remembered only one man "moping"—his own recruiter to the Manhattan Project, Robert Wilson. Wilson surprised Feynman by saying, "It's a terrible thing that we made." For most the second thoughts did not come until later. On the scene the scientists, polyglot and unregulation though they seemed to the military staff, shared a patriotic intensity that faded from later accounts. Three weeks after the test, and three days after Hiroshima—on the day, as it happened, of Nagasaki—Feynman used a typewriter to set down his thoughts in a letter to his mother.
   "We jumped up and down, we screamed, we ran around slapping each other on the backs, shaking hands, congratulating each other . . . Everything was perfect but the aim—the next one would be aimed for Japan not New Mexico. . . . The fellows working for me all gathered in the hall with open mouths, while I told them. They were all proud as hell of what they had done. Maybe we can end the war soon."
   The experiment code-named Trinity was the threshold event of an age. It permanently altered the psychology of our species. Its prelude was a proud mastery of science over nature—irreversible. Its sequel was violence and death on a horrible scale. In the minute that the new light spread across that sky, humans became fantastically powerful and fantastically vulnerable. A story told many times becomes a myth, and Trinity became the myth that illuminated the postwar world's anxiety about the human future and its reckless, short-term approach to life. The images of Trinity—the spindly hundred-foot tower waiting to be vaporized, the jackrabbits found shredded a half-mile from the blast, the desert sand fused to a bright jade-green glaze—came to presage the central horror of an age. We have hindsight. We know what followed: the blooding of the scientists, the loss of innocence—Hiroshima, Dr. Strangelove, throw weights, radwaste, Mutual Assured Destruction. The irony is built in.
   At first, though, ground zero stood for nothing but what it was, a mirrored surface, mildly radioactive, where earlier had stood a tower of steel. Richard Feynman, still not much more than a boy, wrote, "It is a wonderful sight from the air to see the green area with the crater at the center in the brown desert."

                                 Copyright 1999 James Gleick