The crater of the first nuclear bomb today, at Trinity, New Mexico. Photo: Steven St. John

Twilight of the Bomb

One of the last surviving Manhattan Project scientists returns to the crater of the first nuclear bomb on its 70th birthday.

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Aug 6 2015, 4:56pm

The crater of the first nuclear bomb today, at Trinity, New Mexico. Photo: Steven St. John

Murray Peshkin is standing in the crater of the first nuclear bomb, squinting out under a floppy-brimmed fishing hat. The last time he was here, it was 1945, shortly after the Gadget exploded in the New Mexico desert. Murray was working on the Manhattan Project at the time.

"There was less vegetation," he says, eyeing the scattered shrubs now helping the historic blast site to blend into its more natural Southwest surroundings. Seventy years ago, Murray was one of the first men to step foot in this crater.

The last time he was here, he walked out stark naked. Now, the 90-year-old physicist is back with considerably more baggage: a lifetime of questioning his career-making turn, earned at the expense of playing a small role in what he says may have been a war crime. He's brought his son, who's never seen the place where the bomb his father helped build once blasted vast stretches of sand into radioactive glass.

The explosion of the first nuclear bomb at Trinity.

As of this summer, the atomic bomb is officially a septuagenarian. July 16, 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the first successful detonation of the greatest weapon in history. "It worked," Robert Oppenheimer said, after it did. According to Manhattan Project lore, Oppenheimer also more famously quoted the Bhagavad Gita: "I am become death, destroyer of worlds."

Decades later, that destroyer of worlds still looms large. It hovers over our politics, as the international community still struggles to contain and regulate the bomb, and over our pop culture, where it continues to animate our dystopian fiction. It's inseparable from the image of the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, tragic reminders of its power.

It looms, but with diminished urgency. We treat it a bit like a septuagenarian, too; as if it's aging and toothless. Like the shrub-covered blast site in New Mexico, the bomb's presence in our lives is indelible yet grown-over. We don't doubt its destructive potential, but we seem to doubt we'll actually ever see it realized again. Far from the under-your-desk-kids blast drills of the 60s and 70s, far from the days of Johnson's Daisy, it has faded from view, eclipsed by other fresher apocalypses, like climate change and global pandemic. It's just one bullet point on a lengthening list of human-engineered end times, though it remains the only technology we built, essentially, for the purpose.

There are still nine nuclear nations that, between them, have stockpiled 16,300 weapons. And this network of decades-old nuclear armaments, some of which are still aimed at various strategic choke points around the globe, leaves civilizational scale death-becoming a technical possibility.

Before all that, though, the atom bomb was one of the most successful science experiments of all time. It was the product of billions of dollars in government spending, hundreds of the world's top scientists working in concert, in secret, in a city built from scratch in the desert, and a bygone patriotism united by common, Manichean cause: stop Hitler, defeat the Japanese.

Murray Peshkin, as fate would have it, had a front row seat.

That's why I asked him to come with me to Trinity, ground zero for the nuclear revolution, on the 70th anniversary of its genesis, to retrace his—and all of ours—road to the bomb.

Murray Peshkin. Photo: Steven St. John

Murray, his son Michael, and I had met in Chicago, where they both live—and, coincidentally, the site of the first-ever, self-sustaining controlled nuclear reaction, unleashed by Enrico Fermi in 1942—and we traveled to New Mexico. On the plane, we talked nonstop about the bomb.

The son of a math teacher turned high school principal, Murray grew up a self-proclaimed nerd in Brooklyn. He went to Cornell to study physics, but assumed he wouldn't stay long.

"The war was on, of course, and I expected to be drafted along with other young men," he says. It was 1943, and the military needed young men, stat, especially scientifically literate ones. "Those of us studying in technological fields were given an extra year to finish school, with the idea that we would be more useful to the Army than we would otherwise be."

Along with his wartime classmates, Murray took a heavy load, almost all mathematics and physics. Toward the end of the year, as draft day loomed, and recruiters in the Army and the Navy swarmed, one of his professors took him aside.

"He said, 'You know, there's an alternative you should consider very seriously,'" Murray says. "'I can't tell you very much about it. I can tell you that it's within the United States, that it will be a scientific and a patriotic opportunity. That you will not see your family again until the war is over, and you will not be able to tell them where you are or what you're doing except for the bare fact that you're in the United States. And I recommend that you do that.' And that was the end of it."

At the time, Murray was 18. He had no idea that this physics professor was talking about the Manhattan Project. Neither did the physics professor.

"In contrast to the other [programs] there was not a scrap of paperwork," Murray, now explains. "He simply said if you want this, say nothing to anybody, except tell me that you want it, and then go get yourself into the army, and somehow, you will be transported to this project."

Trust us, basically.

"When I look back on that, it sounds like a very intimidating situation. But at the time it wasn't a bit intimidating. This was war. It was a popular war, people were in it together," Murray says. This is a theme Murray returns to often in our talks—these were different times, marked by fever pitch patriotism, and a powerful faith in American institutions.

"So of course I trusted him. I didn't even hesitate, I didn't even think about it or say I'll tell you tomorrow. I said, 'Yes.'"

Photo: Steven St. John

The site where the first bomb was exploded, known as Trinity, is now part of White Sands Missile Range, the largest test site in the nation. Lisa Blevins, our guide from the US Army—Trinity is only open to the public one or two days a year, and they've made a special appointment to let us in—is holding a handful of dusty green glass.

"Trinitite," she says, sifting through the relics with her thumb. A small crowd—a crew of video journalists from Brazil, a two-man PBS team, a memoirist, Murray, his son, and me—gathers round.

That's the name given to the glass forged in the heat of the 1945 explosion. Robert Oppenheimer, the polymath physicist who led the Manhattan Project, is believed to have chosen the code name for the site, Trinity, perhaps after a John Donne sonnet that read "Batter my heart, three-personed God."

The mineral is found only here, where bomb met sand, and it has taken on its name. Blevins tells us that the rocks are no longer radioactive, and for that matter, neither is the site itself, much—you get about as much radiation visiting Trinity as you do spending a day in the sun, she says. Still, it's a federal crime to remove any of the glass from its resting place, though vendors hawking "Trinitite" line their booths with greenish stones on the roads back to Albuquerque.

"It was much greener, almost emerald, back then," Murray says. "And it was everywhere, in sheets." Oxidization has dulled the color over the years, but right after the Gadget blew, it layered the desert in dazzling manmade plates. In 1945, long before the anti-removal laws, he took a chunk home, and kept it in his pocket for a year, before he finally lost it.

I say it looks like Kryptonite, and Murray smiles. "It may be."

"I soon came to know that those people whom I met casually, and whose names were on the doors, included most of the famous nuclear physicists in the country"

Shortly after his mysterious indoctrination, Murray was sent off to basic training, where he stayed for a couple weeks, until he was again given classified marching orders. He was given sealed documents that landed him and a handful of compatriots on a series of trains and buses, with special treatment, that would take him on a "circuitous route" from Oak Ridge, Tennessee—another Manhattan Project test site, where giant plants were refining uranium, though Murray knew nothing of it at the time—St. Louis, Chicago, and, eventually, to Los Alamos.

"We were already seeing that there was something very powerful propelling us." The trains were jammed, but "as soon as we appeared with our orders, they'd make room for us."

By the time they arrived at the secretive lab in the middle of the Southwest, Los Alamos was packed. "It was bustling and full of people," Murray says. "There was housing for several thousand people, which had never been there before. The Army did all that in a few months. General Groves was amazing."

General Leslie Groves was the US military commander in charge not just of the infamous lab, but the entire Manhattan Project, which included uranium and plutonium enrichment facilities in Tennessee and Washington, as well as labs in Berkeley and Chicago. He's praised for selecting Oppenheimer to run the project, despite the physicist's socialist and bohemian reputation, for making sure the project was well supplied—obtaining everything from multimillion dollar state-of-the-art science equipment like Harvard's cyclotron to coils of in-demand copper wire—and for allowing an unusual amount of freedom among the scientists to collaborate, despite security concerns.

Ideas flowed freely at the Manhattan Project, which no doubt sped up the delivery of the bomb. It helped, of course, that some of the world's greatest minds had gathered there, in a collection of tossed-together facilities, in the rugged mountains.

"I soon came to know that those people whom I met casually, and whose names were on the doors, included most of the famous nuclear physicists in the country," Murray says. Richard Feynman. Edward Teller, Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, Oppenheimer, the list goes on. Even many of those he didn't recognize, Murray says, he later realized to be leaders in the physical sciences. Not only that, but Murray soon realized that he was one of the—if not the—youngest person on the Project.

"I was not only the youngest, but I was just a student—what did I know? There were things that could be done that didn't need that much background, so that's what I did." He also insists he was the least significant.

Murray joined the Theory Division, which, to his surprise, was being run by the physics superstar Hans Bethe (who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in 1967), and included luminaries like Feynman (who would also win a Nobel, in 1965, for his work in quantum electrodynamics).

It was a who's who of contemporary physics, and for a young aspirant just starting out in the field, it was a little mind-blowing. Murray, who was at first basically used as a glorified calculator, spent his early days crunching differential equations for the senior scientists. This was before electronic computers, and the grunt work had to be done manually.

After a couple weeks of the monotonous top-secret work, Murray grew emboldened. He went to his supervisor, and said, "Look, if I knew what I was doing, I might know how to do it better, and he said that was reasonable enough, so he got me cleared."

And that's when he began to realize that he was working on the math that would help unleash history's greatest bomb.

It's still, more or less, the single most potent, dangerous threat to human civilization. But for young people in 2015, the bomb is nearly as great an abstraction as it was for Murray in 1945.

"My sense is that for people under 40, these are viewed as your grandfather's weapons, or something that we don't have to worry about now," John Mecklin tells me. He's the editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the group that mans the famous Doomsday Clock, which maintains a forecast of how many "minutes" we are until the end of civilization. Right now, its hands are set to three minutes to midnight, closer than it's been in years, due to the quiet resuming of nuclear proliferation in nations like Pakistan and China, the sly modernizing of nuclear arsenals in nations like the US and Russia, as well as because of the continued threat of global warming.

Today, Mecklin says, until the Iran deal dominated headlines, and the crisis in Ukraine highlighted nuclear tensions, there was a sense that nuclear weapons had become what he called "provocative anachronisms."

"That stuff was way back in World War II, there's some assumption that threat was really taken care of," he says. "But it wasn't. It is an existential threat to humanity. So is climate change, and that's a real danger to the Earth." The difference, he says, is speed.

"Someone could make a miscalculation or a mistake and the world could be over in a few hours. And that danger is really real."

Richard Feynman with Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos.

One of the biggest brains behind those first potentially world-ending calculations was Richard Feynman, one of the most celebrated physicists in the world. And he took a liking to Murray.

"Richard Feynman, who was one of the great scientists of the 20th century, and who was the golden boy of the Theoretical Division, felt that he needed a private computing person," Murray says. "He could have anyone in the group; and he selected me." Murray still beams at this, seven decades years later, after who knows how many retellings.

"That was a stroke of luck such as you can't imagine. Because my life changed completely."

After the Project, Murray would return to Cornell, to study under Feynman. His career was launched in a secret lab, building a secret weapon, with one of the century's greatest brains. More importantly, perhaps, Feynman was open.

"He was nice to me," Murray says, recalling Feynman's goodwill in Los Alamos. "He told me what he had in mind about the problem I was working on, and about the other problems he was working on. And since all the leaders of the project came to confer with him, he would encourage me to remain in the room and listen. So I had a fascinating life then, I was a fly on the wall watching what was going on."

In fact, that attitude was common in the adrenaline-fueled ideas incubator.

"The customs were very democratic," Murray says. "There were long tables, and people sort of came in and sat down. Sometimes I found myself sitting with people like Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller." He's fond of recounting one such anecdote in the mess hall, when the two men were sitting next to each other, and someone proposed a physics problem. Teller answered immediately, and Fermi leaned in.

"'Edward, I don't know if you're a better physicist than I am or not,' he said, 'but you're certainly faster.' I thought that was hilarious."

When he talks of life at Los Alamos, Murray lights up with the wistful glow of a foundational memory; that first semester where everything clicks, that big road trip out of town, some collection of moments that you hold unique ownership of, and that hold unique ownership over you. Physics would become a lifelong love of Murray's—after getting his PhD, he'd move to Chicago, first to teach at Northwestern, where he met his wife, then to the Argonne National Laboratory, where he worked officially until 1996, when he retired—on paper, at least. But he still shows up most days, regardless, out of a love for the work.

Freeman Dyson, another eminent scientist of the day, describes this facet of the Manhattan project, in the documentary The Day After Trinity, as follows: "When I first came to the United States I got to know a lot of the young people who had been at Los Alamos, and most of them were very young, they'd just gone right into it without finishing their scientific training," he said. "And for them it was just the most marvelous time of their life."

The Gadget; the first nuclear bomb, before it was exploded.

Not for everyone, though. Murray also has plenty of stories about the other edge of the sword, even before the ultimate detonation—of the recklessness of the project, of its politics and its science.

He had near-direct contact with radioactive materials, for one. He'd handle plutonium with tongs, basically, and sometimes with his bare hands, without protective gear—work that is today done behind a partition, with robotic arms. "We didn't think anything of it, and I don't think anything of it today. It was a war!"

The understanding was that the scientists were racing the Germans, who were rumored to be nearing a nuclear bomb of their own. It was patriotic to do science here, even after Hitler was dead—the new focus was the Japanese.

Murray credits that flexibility, that lack of regulation, with the speed by which they saw results. But without regulations, there are accidents, too. Like the one that killed Louis Slothin, a 35-year-old Canadian physicist.

"They were doing what was called a critical assembly, which was a dangerous experiment," Murray recalls. "The idea was you could learn more about how the neutrons built up, by taking a hemisphere of plutonium, which was sitting on a little rack to stabilize it, and raising another hemisphere onto it."

By moving the hemispheres together, scientists could count the neutrons that escaped in the reaction created by the highly radioactive materials, and measure its intensity.

"Now, it was known you should never lower anything like that, because if you dropped it, and the two came together, you could have a supercritical mass, and you would have an explosion of neutrons. You should raise it from below. Well, they were in a hurry, and they did indeed drop it. And Louis Slotin, who had it in his hands, immediately threw the top hemisphere away," Murray says. Slotin was the second to be irradiated to death at Los Alamos, after Harry Daghlian, Jr., who accidentally dropped a brick of tungsten carbide onto a plutonium bomb core.

"The neutron counters jammed, so they knew they had flooded with neutrons. It was too late, it was all over. There was no sound." The radiation had bombarded Slothin with a sinister intensity.

"Everyone ran out the door," he says. "Louis died about ten days later."

Less regulation also meant, perhaps, easier access for spies.

Murray remembers Klaus Fuchs, the theoretical physicist-cum-Soviet spy, moving around the halls, a quiet, aloof man, though he had little contact with Fuchs. Murray was much more aware of David Greenglass, the machinist who also spied, less successfully, for the USSR, and eventually implicated his sister Ethel Rosenberg, and her husband Julius, when he was caught. Both were executed for treason.

"I knew him, but I didn't like him," Murray says, "and I didn't associate with him."

Greenglass, whose name, it can't help but be noted, seems to precisely describe the glyphic byproduct of that first bomb, served a decade in prison, entered a life of public infamy, and died, living under an assumed name, in a nursing home last year.

When July 1945 came around, anticipation in the camps swelled. Scientists and soldiers at the project site alike were aflutter when they knew the test was coming. Fermi notoriously put a black-humor bet on the bomb igniting the sky itself, with lower odds of the entirety of New Mexico getting wiped off the face of the map.

The Gadget was fitted at the abandoned McDonald ranch house, just down the road from the bombsite. Murray, Michael, and I got to drop by that site too. It's adorned with striking photos of undershirt-clad physicists lounging around, and transferring the first atom bomb from an old-fashioned car, by hand, into the staging area.

The door is painted with white text. "No, Please Wipe Feet, No, Please Use Other Door, Keep This Room Clean." The precautions taken to buffer the bomb seemed appropriately quaint here, as we quietly poked around the relics of the last few innocent moments these scientists might have.

The bomb was detonated at 5:29 AM in the morning, from rain delays. The blast could be seen, as a flicker, from miles away; it caused a commotion in New Mexico. So General Groves had the Air Force release a cover story, prepared in advance, to the press: "A remotely located ammunition magazine containing a considerable amount of high explosives and pyrotechnics exploded. There was no loss of life or injury to anyone, and the property damage outside of the explosives magazine was negligible," it read. The scientists were awestruck.

So, yes, it worked.

"Once the test succeeded, then a lot of people began to have second thoughts," Murray says. "Now, the people that I knew and spoke with never had any hesitation. We had this weapon, we were going to use it, the more Japanese we killed, the better. It would help shorten the war. And besides, they were the enemy and that's what armies did to enemies."

Remember, Murray was still just a teenager.

"But there must have been older and wiser people who had reservations. And after the Trinity Test succeeded, some large number, I think 70 people at Los Alamos and perhaps at the other labs too, wrote a letter to President Truman, urging him to warn the Japanese somehow before we used this. They sent this through channels, of course, and that channel was General Groves, and he never delivered it."

As the internal debate among the scientists raged, someone realized that they still hadn't retrieved any scientific data about the blast site. The scientists had buried gauges near the tower that housed the bomb at Trinity to measure the blast.

"Somebody had to go in and dig them out," Murray says. "I don't know how it came to be that my little five-member theoretical group got the opportunity to volunteer. I always speculated that the experimenters had thought that well, the theorists are useless anyway. Or that they had thought, they had gotten a lot of radiation already, and we hadn't."

Either way.

"We jumped at it. We wanted to see the place. It was exciting. So we did."

"We took an army vehicle and we drove down to Trinity," Murray continued. "And we stopped at the base camp, and changed into clothes we'd use there because they would perhaps become radioactive. And we drove out to where the crater was, and we got out of the car with our little shovels and a map that showed where each of the gauges would be buried in the ground and with some radiation meters so that if we received more than some trigger amount, we would leave."

"And we took these little shovels and we walked into the crater, and we discovered the famous green glass that has come to be called Trinitite, and we dug up these gauges."

At the end, Murray says, "we were kind of a comedy team. Because we were covered with blowing sand, which might be a little radioactive.

"We took off our clothes. So there were five naked men driving across the desert."

Hiroshima after the bomb.

The bomb fell on Hiroshima just three weeks later. The greatest flash of instantaneous death in history, before or since.

There is still immense controversy over the bomb that "ended the war." Some scholars claim it was an unnecessary display of American power, while others argue that it reduced casualties in the long run, and prevented the deaths of hundreds of thousands more Americans and Japanese lives.

My own second cousin, Barb Mulkey, tells me her father always thanked the bomb for saving his life—he was in an infantry unit on a boat outside Tokyo, waiting for the go-ahead for the ground invasion. The projected casualty rate of his mission was 90 percent.

But tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and children perished in a firestorm instead, and tens of thousands more died from radiation poisoning—a devastating fury that now sits, as it has for decades, as a plausible military option for any of the nuclear nations of the world.

Photo: Steven St. John

Murray has lived with that devastation for his entire life. I prod him about it as we walk in that grown-over crater.

"I wondered about it for many years. For the first 50 years, I had a very bad feeling about it. Not a bad feeling that we [built the bomb]—because we thought that we were racing Germany. But I had thought how much better it would have been if we hadn't done it."

At one point, Murray walks up to the awkward obsidian monument just beside the actual impact spot, and touches it with his hand. The desert air is dry and relatively cool for the season. His son is taking pictures of him, the crater, looking around, smiling lightly, matching setting to story.

"One of the things it did was to destroy our moral leadership in the world," Murray says. "I think people admired us. They sure didn't admire us after that."

He cites claims that more people were killed in US airstrikes on Tokyo and the surrounding cities, and that the bomb may have prevented further casualties by so decisively ending the war—a common argument put forward by the US military, and the conventional narrative in American history.

But that doesn't seem to make it much easier for him to resolve the matter, personally.

"Imagine that we had lost the war, and the victors then decided to punish the war criminals. Would they consider me a war criminal? Maybe they would. I would give the obvious defenses, so maybe I wasn't fully a war criminal, but that's what they would have said."

Photo: Steven St. John

Standing at ground zero, relaxing my eyes into the faded crater-line, for the first time, I feel as though I can really envision what the bomb would have looked like. How it must have erupted in this sprawling desert canyon flanked by mountains. (Murray says he recalls the place being referred to as "Canyon de los Muertos," but we can't find any reference to that on the books.)

It's easy now to transpose the blast, the grainy plume ingrained into all of our brains, onto this site, and I can picture the mushroom cloud pulling dust, soot, and smoke into its maw. The destruction makes me think of my family: My own grandfather worked on the hydrogen bomb, a few years later, himself a student out of Harvard in the Army. He was there in the Bikini atoll when the bombs were detonated over water, far from American soil. He has stories of being blown off the top bunks at night. Every few years, to this day, someone from the government will call him up and check in on his health.

I have just discovered that I too am going to be a father; my wife of three weeks called with the news just two days before. I have been able to think of little else, my thoughts cycling back and forth in binaries, which was fine when it was just work—you're going to be a father—work, but stranger when I am staring up at the ghost—I'm nearly a dad—of a nuclear bomb blast.

I'm thinking about the desert life, wiped away in a blink and replaced by glass. About the 40,000 people who vanished in smoke just as quickly in Hiroshima. About the abstraction of a child in a place where things like that are possible. About the child growing up and doing everything right and making exciting choices, the true power of the world locked just behind the bend of experience, or a locked government door, or the future. About everything exploding, and some things thriving.

"It changed the world," Murray said, after we'd left the crater that day. That's an understatement; it's still changing it, even if vines are growing around the arms casings. Nations are again improving their nuclear armaments, expanding their stockpiles. Nations with deep rifts with other, sometimes neighboring nuclear nations—India and Pakistan, say. And yet, we've mostly pushed this still-existential threat far from our minds—aside from Israel's hysterics, the hubbub over the Iran nuclear deal seemed more about political point-scoring than genuine concern.

But it's still the destroyer of worlds, and it still very much works.

"There is a general disconnect with nuclear weapons between what people think is going on and reality," the Bulletin's Mecklin told me. And now, these "decisions are made in really small circles. If the president decided to launch a nuclear attack, he could. There wouldn't be a vote. No congressional debate. The president can just do it. And it's even less controlled in other countries. People can just make the decision." It's a bona fide existential threat to human civilization.

"And getting that through to a young audience is difficult," Mecklin said. "This doesn't seem to be a current issue that people care about. It's so damn scary to think about nuclear weapons that ordinary people don't want to think about them."

Murray is the opposite of ordinary, I guess. He's thought constantly about the bomb, in one extension or another, for longer than most of us have been alive. So what does he think, coming back here, 70 years later, to reflect on these atomic beginnings?

"I found it very interesting," he says. "My memory, you know, you remember things wrong after sometimes one year, let alone 70. I wanted to see what the place looked like, and I'm glad I did. It looked pretty much like what I thought it would."

He says he had no emotional reaction, none at all.

"You know, I've thought about this so much over the years, all these very difficult questions, you know, should we have done it? Could we have done it differently? I think I've played out those thoughts," he says, frowning.

But there's no satisfying answer, because how could there be. A patriotic teenager, asked to join a top secret science project, pulling on the umbilical of whatever's next, groping down the road, we've all been there—but ours didn't end in Hiroshima.

Despite the fact that joining the Manhattan Project launched his career, despite his deep love of physics and having gotten to know some of its greatest minds, the weight of the bomb is such that he would give it all up to have never abetted its destruction. "If you ask me now, just given the chance to replay history?" he says, "and I should not be involved in that, which would I prefer? I think I would prefer not."

"I think the way I would put it is: It's not that I regret having done it. Under the circumstances it seemed the right thing to do. Actually, when I made the decision, I didn't know what the decision implied." Murray pauses, considers.

"But suppose I had. It seemed at the time the right thing to do."