Put your nukes down everybody and back away slowly.
In the year 2023 — an enlightened Age of Information launched by a computer game called “Oregon Trail” in 1971 — everyone knows about the Manhattan Project.
But that wasn’t always the case.
The Manhattan Project was led by the United States with the participation of the United Kingdom and Canada and its purpose was to develop nuclear weapons before the Nazis could. The project resulted in the world’s first nuclear bombs, two of which were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Before 1945, the Manhattan Project was top-secret — highly classified. Not only were those working on the project sworn to secrecy, but many also didn’t even know the purpose of their work until after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Thousands of scientists, engineers, and support staff from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada worked on the project, as well as many contractors and facilitators across the United States.
The secrecy around the project is understandable, from a national security standpoint and a human one. How many of those thousands, knowing the truth, could have gone through with it?
Most of the scientists working on the Manhattan Project, including project leaders J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Richard Feynman, had reservations — as well they might. The prospect of splitting the atom was exciting, as were all the potential applications of nuclear energy.
The prospect of instantly killing the population of an entire city, however, and dooming many more to suffer a gruesome slow death by radiation poisoning was terrifying.
Manhattan Project scientists didn’t want to be, as Oppenheimer poetically quoted after watching his life’s work test fired into terrible fruition, “the destroyer of worlds.”
What was more, some of the eminently qualified physicists working on the Manhattan Project were afraid that setting off The Bomb would ignite unstable gasses in the earth’s atmosphere and turn the planet into a giant fireball. As in, presto: The Milky Way gets a new sun.
These were some of the finest minds in the world, top in their fields of theoretical and applied advanced science. Nuclear physicists are such a well-qualified bunch, they sometimes refer to all the other sciences disdainfully as, “rock collecting.”
Concerns about the worst-case scenario, i.e. the instantaneous destruction of every living creature on planet earth, weren’t unfounded.
“Hydrogen nuclei are unstable, and they can combine into helium nuclei with a large release of energy, as they do on the sun,” Oppenheimer himself reportedly mused to a Manhattan Project colleague. “To set off such a reaction would require a very high temperature, but might not the enormously high temperature of the atomic bomb be just what was needed to explode hydrogen?”
“And if hydrogen, what about hydrogen in seawater?” Oppenheimer went on before considering what he called the “terrible possibility.”
“Might not the explosion of the atomic bomb set off an explosion of the ocean itself?” Oppenhemier wondered. “The nitrogen in the air is also unstable, though in less degree. Might not it, too, be set off by an atomic explosion in the atmosphere?”
Such a chain reaction would have vaporized the earth.
And they did it anyway.
By the time the first test was conducted, a majority of Manhattan Project scientists had mostly concluded this doomsday scenario was very remote at best, perhaps impossible.
That didn’t stop astrophysicist Enrico Fermi from indulging in a bit of gallows humor on test day, taking bets from his colleagues as to whether or not their bomb would result in the heat death of planet earth.
Like scientists working on the Manhattan Project in 1945, the leaders of a scant handful of nations in 2023 are acting as if the prospect of global thermonuclear war doesn’t scare them senseless.
The United States is “on the verge” of escalating its current conflict with Russia, according to Putin’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov. Russia, according to Ryabkov, is prepared to abandon the nuclear arms treaty negotiated between the two countries in 2010.
“The United States has supplied more than $27 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since Russia invaded the country on Feb. 24, including over 1,600 Stinger anti-aircraft rocket systems, 8,500 Javelin anti-tank missile systems and over 1 million 155 artillery rounds,” reported Reuters on January 30, 2023.
Despite warning last year that doing so could escalate the conflict, President Joe Biden has since agreed to provide Ukraine with tanks.
How long until Vladimir Putin labels this support a violation of the U.S. peace agreement with Russia? How far is too far? Where is the line?
No one knows for sure.
The scientists on the Manhattan Project were lucky; the atom bombs they built did not bring about the end of the world — yet. Though the innocent people who lived through the 1945 bombing of Japan probably thought otherwise.
No one knows the future. The law of unintended consequences is immutable. When wars start, no one knows how long they will last, how far they might spread, or how many lives will be lost.
The next war we start might kill some of us.
Or all of us.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)