Trinity’s Eternity: What Oppenheimer Taught Me About the Ripple Effect

We have to deal with hopelessness. We hoped, and hoped, and ended up with the atomic bomb and the death of God.”

 – Etel Adnan

The names Hiroshima and Nagasaki only materialized in front of me when I was in high school, in history class. I flipped the pages of my textbook with one hand trying to wipe away the boredom, my chin resting on the other. The teacher was talking about the Second World War and how it impacted our country, while I was already on my second yawn. 

I stopped flipping the pages when it landed on a page with an image – or rather a silhouette, thanks to the awful quality of the print – of a cloud? A smoke? A smoky cloud? It was white, with a greyish shadow hugging the sides of the silhouette, and it looked too much like a mushroom or a banyan tree. I was terrified of banyan trees, which is why I kept on looking, it’s a way of feeding my fear with more fear to satiate it. But it didn’t look natural at all, it didn’t seem like it was a work of nature. It looked like it wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place.

It was one of the only times when I took the time to skim through the long passages of the textbook on the same page of the image, trying to figure out what that thing was supposed to be. Towards the end of the lesson, it was also one of the only times that I sat up straight and perked my ears up to listen to her explanation on it.

Alas, she only closed the topic of the Second World War with a brief “Unfortunately, the Americans bombed both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which ultimately led to the end of the war.”

I slumped back down in my seat, heavy with unanswered questions. Why did they do it? How big was it? Why did it warrant such an unnatural-looking smoky cloud above the towns? What was that even?

At that age, I hated asking questions. Part of it was because I was too shy, but part of it was also because I didn’t want my curiosity to make me look stupid or like I was taking up too much time as a student whose task is to only study, get things done, and sit for their exams. It was a silly way to think or to even believe in, but that was how it was as far as I was concerned. But the questions I had numbed that part of my brain that believed in that, and I walked up to the teacher as she was packing her things and essentially word-vomited – or question-vomited rather.

What was that picture? It was the cloud created by the big atomic explosion. Why did they use that kind of bomb? To destroy more. Why did the Americans want to destroy more of them? They wanted to end the war quickly and for Japan to give in, they did what had to be done. Why did they even go to war with Japan? Mainly because of what happened to Pearl Harbor.

She told me to come back to her during next week’s class if I had any more questions regarding the topic, and left before I had the chance to mutter my thanks. I went back home that afternoon still weighed with questions on the atomic bomb. I didn’t even know what that meant. How was the atomic bomb different from a regular one? Why was it so much stronger, enough to destroy a whole city and create a cloud so unnatural and terrifying lingering above the city? But most importantly, I was thinking about how my teacher and the textbook made it sound as if the Americans were more than justified to do so. Were they? The sentence “…they did what had to be done” rang in my ear.

I kept thinking about it, but after a few days, the question started to lay dormant inside my head as other subjects and topics started to occupy more space there until I ended up forgetting about it. Sure, I did do some research and some reading on the bombings – but they were surface level, and I learned mostly about what happened to both of the cities after the fact, the deaths and the aftermath. I never really knew what started all of it, I never really bothered to look up the bomb itself. It was devastating enough to learn about how much the bombings stole from the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, to learn about the very thing that caused so much destruction felt to me like an act of betrayal towards the dead. At the time, ignorance was an act of resistance. I was angry, therefore I refused to learn anything about what was deemed the greatest weapon ever developed.

It didn’t occur to me that years later in my early twenties I would be reading a 700-page biography and watching a film of the very person whom I could have directed my blame towards for creating the very weapon that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You could say I developed a different viewpoint now that I’m older, a way of seeing any history as history worth educating myself on. I guess I also developed a better understanding of the quote pasted in the front of every school history textbook, the one by the philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

As someone who always believes in reading the book before watching the film/series adaptation of it, the moment news of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer (2023) came out, my journey towards understanding the history of the physicist and his creation began.

I was hesitant at first, terrified by the size of the biography (one of the main resources which Nolan pulls his adaptation from). Learning that American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2005) written by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin was about 700 pages killed something in my soul. As an avid reader, we will always be going around saying how much we love big books, but the idea of being completely absorbed in a tome is more attractive than actually doing so. I was cozy enough reading my 200-300 paged books, but I was also hungry to know more about this physicist and what he’s created, the destruction he spawned. I wanted to know more, and I know I could have just waited for the film but I knew the 3-hour film wasn’t going to be able to compress all of the history into it. I knew it wasn’t going to be enough to satiate my thirst for historical knowledge. Thus, I sat down and started the preface. I promised myself that if it was too dense or too much for me, a person whose love for history was only starting to blossom, I would just step away from it and wait for the film. But before I knew it, two weeks had passed and I spent every single minute of my free time being inside the book, and I was reaching the end of the biography.

Watching the film last year, it only served to better my understanding of the history behind the creation of the atomic bomb. But it primarily made me see just how much of a ripple Oppenheimer has created, and the waves can still be seen today despite how much time has passed. There is no way of telling when the ripples will cease, meaning the impact will be felt in the future, with no way of knowing in what way. Nuclear technology has come a long way, public perception towards it is like a pendulum swing, going back and forth between acceptance and resistance, there is constant fear surrounding it today seeing how some of the most powerful countries on this planet have control of the similar tools of destruction that was used almost a century ago – this time most likely to be more destructive, powerful, stronger.

The meme that circulated during Donald Trump’s administration of the United States of the “red button” was a way to cope with the fact that when it comes down to it, nuclear power does not care about democracy or the people. Of course, it isn’t as simple as just one leader of a country deciding whether or not to press the button based on their most rational decision – the button doesn’t even exist! But really, it got close to the hopelessness and the futility of innocent people (that’s us!) in the face of war and mass destruction.

Tracing back to that first drop that created the ripple in the first place, where do we pinpoint that? Was it the birth of Oppenheimer himself? If Oppenheimer wasn’t born in the first place, would the atomic bomb still exist? Most probably yes, the Germans were already working on the bomb, it was the whole reason why the Manhattan Project was established in the first place – it was a race to create the very first atomic bomb rather than to create the atomic bomb. It must then be Oppenheimer’s success, his skills and abilities that led to the creation of the first atomic bomb in the world. When Oppenheimer and the rest of his team witnessed the Trinity test, where they dropped the bomb for the very first time to see its impact, that was the first drop of water. Everything else that came after came from this first drop; this was the beginning of the ripple.

With the existence of the atomic bomb at their disposal, it had to be used. Just as with Chekhov’s gun, it was right there, of course, it had to be fired sooner or later. And used it was, towards what is now marked as the end of World War II, when the bomb (ironically dubbed the ‘Little Boy’) was dropped on the city of Hiroshima. Not even a week went by before a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.

Oppenheimer’s apprehension came swiftly once he learned of the second bombing. He soon realized the magnitude of his own creation, the blood on his own two hands. This is where everyone began to turn their attention away. It was enough to know that Oppenheimer brought about this destruction, so much greed and ego to be the very first to have completed the development of the nuclear bomb and to have used it, sacrificing the lives of innocent people who had no idea that the only thing they were leaving behind was their shadows imprinted on the grounds after the blast.

It was ironic too, that the man who created the bomb is also the person loudly advocating for the control and ban of nuclear weapons. It didn’t make any sense on the surface of it, yes. But it is difficult not to acknowledge how much he fought for peaceful uses of atomic energy. His effort to make sure that nuclear energy did not get used again for destructive purposes paired with his questionable proximity to the Communist party in his early years brought him resentment from those around him, which even led to an elaborate security hearing (which felt like a court trial) and him losing his security clearance, meaning he had no control over what gets developed in the laboratory anymore. Even so, his perspective towards nuclear technology continued to evolve and he never backed down when it came to promoting responsible uses of the technology and proposing international treaties and agreements to stop further proliferation of the atomic weapon. In other words, he was doing penance for what he’d created.

It was the final scene in the film that reverberated within me. When Oppenheimer stood by the pond confessing to Albert Einstein how he believed his creation would destroy the world, his eyes were transfixed on the surface of the water; raindrops were causing ripples in the water, the same ripples he would see when his mind imagined the world caught in a nuclear war.

It was that ripple scene that revealed to me how whatever has happened and whatever will happen in the future, it all begins there. It will be hard to see the ripples, but it will always be there under the surface, it has been there.

The creation of the atomic power has brought about so much destruction already in less than a century. The bombings on the two cities of Japan at the end of the Second World War, yes. The nuclear arms race leading to the Cold War. Further proliferation of stronger nuclear weapons to one-up each other. Not to forget the acceptance and normalization of “atoms for peace”, leading to the development of nuclear power plants. The ripple continues to spread outwards with the tragedy of Chernobyl and the Fukushima Triple Disaster, rendering habitable lands uninhabitable, turning homes into nuclear zones, and families into individuals.

And now here we are. The ripple will wash over us as it has done in the past, the question is when and how? There is no way of knowing. We live our lives today hoping that what we have learned in history – our remembrance of it – has snuffed out the flames. We live our lives today grateful that that period of history is over and that it is merely just black-and-white photographs and long passages in the textbook. It never occurred to us that the flame has been lying dormant all this time like a beast under the mountain, that it takes one single spark to light it back up. With the state of the world right now, constant news of worldwide geopolitical tensions materializing into fear and anxiety for all of us, it seems like everything has been set in place in a game of chess. Once the wave of the ripple reaches the table, it will knock a piece into moving forward and the flame lights up again.

But for now, we remember, we hope, and we pray in our own ways. We live our own lives in search of our own joys and bask in gratitude for our times, and we hope that it will be enough to be the rock that will eventually stop the ripple.

Written By: Natasha

Edited By: Ashley

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