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Breakthrough: The crumple zone – Part two

11 months ago

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David Twohig | Engineer


31 July 2023

‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’

This famous quote, from the Hindu sacred text the Bhagavad Gita, is about to get even more famous. One of this summer’s movie blockbusters is Oppenheimer, the biopic of Robert Oppenheimer, wartime head of the Los Alamos Laboratory and as such, one of the key figures responsible, if not for the ‘invention’ of the atom bomb, most certainly for it becoming a practical and terrible reality.

The legend states that as this complex, haunted figure observed the Trinity test – the first detonation of a nuclear weapon at Alamogordo at 5.30 on the morning of 16 July 1945 – he was so appalled by the blinding purplish-white flash, the wave of searing heat and the mushroom cloud towering seven miles into the dark New Mexico sky, that he was inspired to quote the famous line…and started to repent of his efforts to create ‘the bomb’.

The truth is more prosaic. Oppenheimer didn’t really come out with this elegant sound-bite, although he later claimed that it went through his mind at the time; a clear case of creative retrospect. In his defence, his mind was probably too scrambled by the sights and sounds of an uncontained nuclear blast to think in any coherent way, never mind come up with neat quotes from sacred books.

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