On July 16, 1945, 35 miles southeast of Socorro, New Mexico, the world’s first nuclear weapon was detonated at 5:29 am.
The test was code-named Trinity by J. Robert Oppenheimer. There is no definitive explanation for why Oppenheimer chose the name, but it is widely believed to be a reference to John Donne’s Holy Sonnets: Batter my heart, three-person’d God.
Oppenheimer had previously been introduced to Donne’s work by his mistress, Jean Tatlock, before she committed suicide the year before Trinity.
Donne’s poem reads:
Upon witnessing the detonation, Oppenheimer recalled being inspired by a line from the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
It is unclear whether Oppenheimer actually uttered those words in the early morning hours of July 16, so perhaps the most memorial line from that day goes to another scientist on the project, director Kenneth Bainbridge:
Now we are all sons of bitches.
In a letter to Oppenheimer, Bainbridge later tried to clarify his words:
The reasons for my statement were complex but two predominated. I was saying in effect that we had all worked hard to complete a weapon which would shorten the war but posterity would not consider that phase of it and would judge the effort as the creation of an unspeakable weapon by unfeeling people. I was also saying that the weapon was terrible and those who contributed to its development must share in any condemnation of it. Those who object to the language certainly could not have lived at Trinity for any length of time.
In the May 1975 issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Bainbridge shares Oppenheimer’s reply:
Years later [Oppenheimer] recalled my words and wrote me, “We do not have to explain them to anyone.” I think I will always respect his statement, although there have been some imaginative people who somehow can’t or won’t put the statement in context and get the whole interpretation. Oppenheimer told my younger daughter in 1966 that it was the best thing anyone said after the test.
In the same article, Bainbridge describes the detonation in careful detail:
The bomb detonated at T = 0 = 5:29:45 a.m. I felt the heat on the back of my neck, disturbingly warm. Much more light was emitted by the bomb than predicted, the only important prediction which was off by a good factor. When the reflected flare died down, I looked at Oscuro Peak which was nearer Zero. When the reflected light diminished there I looked directly at the ball of fire through the googles. Finally I could remove the goggles and watch the ball of fire rise rapidly. It was surrounded by a huge cloud of transparent purplish air produced in part by the radiations from the bomb and its fission products. No one who saw it could forget it, a foul and awesome display.
A few weeks later, the United States dropped atomic weapons on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki; shaking the world with their devastation.
The U.S. won the war, but the horrors unleashed by humanity that day can never be put back in the box. We made something great and terrible; a remarkable tribute to the accomplishments of science and tragic testament to the destructive power of mankind.
Now we are all sons of bitches indeed.