TERRIBLE BEAUTY 3: “I am become Death”

(above) Atomic (nuclear fission) bomb detonating in a Nevada desert test blast, 1950s.

The detonation of nuclear fission and fusion—atomic—bombs, still the most feared WMDs, inspires many metaphors, including “hell on earth,” “a sun brought down to earth,” and the lines from the Bhagavad Gita quoted by the head of the Manhattan Project, J. Robert Oppenheimer, as he witnessed the first test of an atomic bomb in New Mexico, in 1945, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Two atomic bombs have been used on cities—Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August of 1945—though tens of thousands of nuclear fission and fusion bombs exist in the world today, in the hands of national governments that have so far been moved for various reasons not to use them in war or as an instrument of national policy. Yet they are here, a button-push away from fulfilling their terrible purpose of creating unimaginable destruction and suffering. As emerging national states and their often-autocratic leaders jockey for position and power in global society, the possession of nuclear weapons gives them leverage in being taken seriously. We hope that these weapons will never be used, but cannot be naive—we must also live with the prospect that they could be.


(below) Stills from a recent New York Times article, drawn from two new atomic documentaries, “Countdown to Zero” and “Nuclear Tipping Point,” featuring archival images of the A-bomb test blasts.

(below) In the first milliseconds after a bomb is detonated, otherworldly blossoms emerge—the first intense shock and heat waves:

(below) The fireball rises in a Nevada desert bomb test, 1955:

(below) A-bomb test in the Pacific Ocean, 1946. Two test ships are seen in vertical position, rising in the blast’s column of water:

(below) V.I.P. observers watching a bomb test in the Pacific, 1961—‘the sun-tan that lasts’:


Historical references:



A recent NY Times article:


Related reference on this blog:


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