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Friday, July 17, 2015

July 17, 2015: Trinity Sites and Texts: On Faith and the Bomb

[On July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was tested at Trinity Site, New Mexico, an explosion with numerous aftereffects and meanings. This week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of such Trinity connections, leading up to a special weekend post on a foreign film that’s also profoundly American.]
How the name Trinity helps us think about a particularly vexed aspect of the site and history.
In 1962, Los Alamos project member General Leslie Groves wrote to J. Robert Oppenheimer, the laboratory’s director, to inquire why he had chosen the name “Trinity” for the site where the first atomic bomb would be tes\ted. Groves wondered if it was just to keep the site’s specific location and purpose secret, as there were a number of geographic sites in the region with the same name. But Oppenheimer responded that it seemed to him, as he remembered his thoughts at the time, to have had more to do with John Donne, and quoted two Donne poems: “As West and East/In all flat Maps—and I am one—are one,/So death doth touch the Resurrection,” which Oppenheimer cited as a favorite poem of his and the principal connection to the site; but, recognizing that “That still does not make a Trinity,” he also referenced the better-known “Batter my heart, three person’d God.”
Even without the Donne connection, of course, the word “Trinity” has a particular, long-standing connection to Christianity, and the Holy Trinity that forms such a central part of the Christian faith. However, in other recollections Oppenheimer would connect the Trinity test to the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita, quoting two different passages from the text in attempts to capture his thoughts as he witnessed the successful explosion: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one”; and, more famously, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” And while the Donne and Christian allusions seem to suggest that the bomb represented for Oppenheimer a logical opportunity to reflect on death and mortality, and the limits of humanity in the face of those eternal truths, the Hindu quotations suggest something quite different: that in the creation of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer and his fellow scientists had become gods in their own right, or at the very least had constructed something that could do the work of a god (or perhaps a devil) quite effectively.
None of us can know with any certainty what Oppenheimer or any of his peers thought or felt at Trinity, of course; and undoubtedly, as Oppenheimer’s subsequent quotes reflect, their perspectives evolved, shifted, and perhaps changed entirely as the atomic age and Cold War unfolded. But if we take a step back from these perspectives, individual and collective, the questions of faith and its relationship to a moment and history like Trinity remain significant and complex ones. Albert Einstein, whose letter detailing and apologizing for his role in developing the bomb I referenced in Wednesday’s post, famously remarked that “God does not play dice with the universe.” The sentiment reflects, as Stephen Hawking argues in that linked talk, the role that Einstein’s spiritual determinism played in his scientific analyses of nature and life. Yet I can think of few metaphors more apt for the atomic age—in which, make no mistake, we are still living today, if without the overt reminders that the Cold War provided so frequently—than a universe of random chance, one in which the wrong roll of the dice can have immediate and catastrophic consequences. Can faith in a providential plan help us live in that world? Did Oppenheimer and his peers forever alter our sense of that world and its plans? I don’t have answers to those questions—but Trinity, in name and reality, forces us to engage with them in any case.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think?

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