10 Explosive Facts About the Trinity Nuclear Test

“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

That line, paraphrased from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, crossed Robert Oppenheimer’s mind as he became a witness to history. On July 16, 1945, at 5:29:45 AM (MT), the first atomic bomb ever detonated went off near Socorro, New Mexico. Seventy years later, we’re still feeling the political and scientific shockwaves of this high-stakes experiment.   

1. Eight Different Sites Were Considered.

U.S. military officials started looking for a suitable location in May 1944. The barrier sand reefs over by south Texas were assessed, as was an island off California’s southern coast and Rice, California (now a ghost town). Colorado's San Luis Valley region was also under consideration. 

New Mexico alone presented four separate options: the Tularosa basin, an expanse near Cuba, the deserts south of Grants, and—finally— a parched, 90-mile stretch called “Jornada del Muerto,” or “route of the dead men.” After much discussion, the latter spot was chosen. As a remote locale with an abundance of wide open space, it offered many pluses. What's more, it wasn’t far from Los Alamos, where the Manhattan Project’s bombs were under development. Base camp construction started that fall.

2. Nobody Knows Where the Code Name “Trinity” Came From.

Oppenheimer took the credit, but forgot all about his own source of inspiration. “Why I chose this name is not clear,” he admitted in a 1962 conversation with General Leslie Groves. Still, the well-read physicist did hazard some guesses. As the fateful day approached, Oppenheimer often thought of John Donne, a 17th-century poet whom he greatly admired. Invoking Christianity’s Holy Trinity, Donne began one famous sonnet with “Batter my heart, three person’d God.” But, confessed Oppenheimer, “Beyond this, I have no clues whatsoever.”

3. There Was a Rehearsal.

108 tons of TNT were placed atop a twenty-foot wooden platform and blown up on May 7, 1945. Among other things, the helpful run-through allowed everyone to calibrate their data collection equipment.     

4. Edward Teller Feared That the Test Might Ignite Earth’s Atmosphere.

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Work came to a grinding halt (at least by some accounts) when this “father of the hydrogen bomb” presented his doomsday scenario. Fission explosions, like the one America’s first nuke would create, produce unbelievable heat—think tens of millions of degrees Fahrenheit. Teller feared that this’d be hot enough to fuse nitrogen atoms throughout our planet’s atmosphere, kicking off a catastrophic release of energy. Without warning, the whole human race might be incinerated. Obviously, this was no minor concern. 

Common sense demanded an investigation. “Better to accept the slavery of the Nazis than to run a chance of drawing a final curtain on mankind,” Nobel laureate Arthur Compton would later say. Luckily, further analysis disproved Teller’s nightmarish theory. 

5. The Team Ran a Betting Pool on How Big Their Explosion Would Be.

Teller wagered that it would equal 45,000 tons’ worth of TNT.  Hans Bethe went with 8,000 tons. For his part, Oppenheimer not only chose a meager 300 tons but privately bet another associate $10 that the whole test would be an abject failure. In contrast, General Groves started getting annoyed when Enrico Fermi “offered to take wagers from his fellow scientists on whether or not the bomb would … merely destroy New Mexico or the entire world.”   

6. The Fireball Was Seen as Far as 180 Miles Away.     

Upon going off, the finished product wielded enough force to match around 20,000 tons of TNT. It also let loose a radiant burst of light which startled witnesses in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Silver City, and El Paso. 

One Rowena Baca of San Antonio, NM, only 35 miles away, suddenly found herself being shoved under a bed by her grandmother, who mistook Trinity’s handiwork for “the end of the world.” And while flying out near Albuquerque that morning, Navy pilot John R. Lugo initially thought he was watching the sun rise—from the south.

7. At First, Civilians Were Told that It Was a Simple Military Blunder.

The armed forces appeared to clear things up by releasing this statement (a carefully-written cover story), which ran in New Mexican papers hours after the fact:     

Several inquiries have been received concerning a heavy explosion which occurred on the Alamogordo Army Air Base reservation this morning. A remotely located ammunition magazine containing a considerable amount of high explosive and pyrotechnics exploded. There was no loss of life or injury to anyone, and the property damage outside of the explosives magazine itself was negligible. Weather conditions affecting the content of gas shells exploded by the blast may make it desirable for the Army to evacuate temporarily a few civilians from their homes. 

Ordinary Americans would be kept in the dark about what had really happened until after the Japanese bombings.  

8. The Trinity Bomb Used the Same Design as the One That Was Dropped on Nagasaki 24 Days Later.

Whereas a uranium-based weapon (nicknamed “Little Boy”) laid Hiroshima low, Nagasaki’s bomb (a.k.a.: “Fat Man”) relied on plutonium. The former was fairly simple and the scientists were confident it didn’t need testing, but the latter was more complicated, requiring that a core filled with this dangerous element implode before it could explode. 

9. “Trinitite” is a Glassy Substance Created in the Historic Blast.

Bits of southwestern sand were transformed by the unnatural heat, reborn as a peculiar glass-like material. Today, one can’t legally go out in the field and gather trinitite, which—by the way—is radioactive, though it becomes less so over time.  

10. You Can Visit a House that Survived the Whole Ordeal.  

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Most of the windows were shattered, some roofing flew off, and the roof itself bowed inward. But otherwise, the George McDonald ranch house remained more or less intact, despite standing only two miles away from Trinity’s ground zero. "Abandoned" by its original owners in 1942 (although they did stage a high profile armed occupation of the area in 1982), Manhattan Project personnel repurposed the building’s bedroom as a bomb assembly zone. Since then, it’s been renovated and nuclear tourists are allowed to drop by on select days. 

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When John Lennon and Yoko Ono Mailed Acorns to World Leaders
 Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

John Lennon and Yoko Ono had a big year in 1969. Following a quick wedding ceremony in Gibraltar, they hopped over to Amsterdam and used their honeymoon suite at the Hilton as a stage for their week-long “Bed-In for Peace” protest against the Vietnam War. A week later they were in Vienna wearing bags over their bodies and declaring the formation of a comical new philosophy called “bagism." Their goal, they said, was to promote "total communication" by getting people to focus on their message instead of their skin color, ethnicity, clothes, or in Lennon's case, hair length.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono with a sign reading "bagism"
Bob Aylott, Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

These attention-grabbing antics were among their most famous peace efforts, but that same year they undertook a very different project. This time, away from the cameras, Lennon and Ono mailed acorns to some of the world's most important leaders and asked that they be planted in support of world peace.

The idea had been a year in the making. While filming a part for a movie called A Love Story on June 15, 1968, Lennon and Ono planted two acorns at England’s Coventry Cathedral, which had been bombed during WWII and was later rebuilt as a symbol of peace. They were “planted in east and westerly positions,” symbolizing the union of Lennon and Ono and their respective cultures.

Then, in 1969, they decided to scale up their "peace acorn" project. Along with two acorns placed in a small, round case, they sent world leaders a letter that read: “Enclosed in this package we are sending you two living sculptures—which are acorns—in the hope that you will plant them in your garden and grow two oak trees for world peace. Yours with love, John and Yoko Ono Lennon.”

Like the proverb “Great oaks from little acorns grow,” the couple understood the power of small gestures and wanted to start a conversation that would get world leaders thinking about the possibility of peace—or in Lennon's words, to encourage them to "give peace a chance."

John and Yoko hold up a protest sign that says "War is over if you want it."
Frank Barratt, Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

They did provoke some thought, at least. In a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone, Lennon explained, “We got reaction to sending acorns—different heads of state actually planted their acorns, lots of them wrote to us answering about the acorns. We sent acorns to practically everybody in the world.”

The two acorns were “submitted to Her Majesty [Queen Elizabeth II] in due course,” according to a letter that the Privy Purse Office at Buckingham Palace sent to the Lennons. A response from Malaysia confirmed that the acorns were to be planted in Kuala Lumpur’s Palace Gardens, and another letter from South Africa indicated that they would be planted on then-president Jim Fouché’s farm.

Golda Meir, then-prime minister of Israel, reportedly said something along the lines of, “I don’t know who they are but if it’s for peace, we’re for it,” Lennon told Rolling Stone. An official response sent by Meir’s assistant director in 1970 read, “Mrs. Meir very much appreciated the gesture, the underlying symbolism of which she would indeed like to see take root within a realistic framework.”

One particularly polite response came from Cambodia's head of state, Norodom Sihanouk, who worried he had erred in addressing Lennon and Ono as Mr. and Mrs. (he hadn't). He wrote, “Dear Sir and Madam, I may have wrongly assumed the friendly donators of acorns are husband and wife, and would like to submit ‘preventive’ apologies, together with my sincerest thanks for their gift.”

Norodom Sihanouk at a naval event
Norodom Sihanouk at a naval event in 1960
Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ono saved all of these letters, and photocopies can be viewed on her website. For his part, Lennon memorialized the event in The Beatles single "The Ballad of John and Yoko." In case you've ever wondered what the line "50 acorns tied in a sack" means, the verse in question references the events following their honeymoon and return to London:

Caught the early plane back to London
Fifty acorns tied in a sack
The men from the press
Said we wish you success
It's good to have the both of you back

To mark the 40th anniversary of the peace acorn offering in 2009, Ono recreated the act and sent acorns to 123 world leaders, including Barack and Michelle Obama. Next year, for the 50th anniversary, it remains to be seen if the famous peace acorns will again make their way around the world. If you happen to be a president or the Queen, you might want to save a spot in your garden, just in case.

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11 Things You Might Not Know About Johann Sebastian Bach
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.


Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”


Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."


In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.


One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.


When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.


Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].


Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!


In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.


Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].


When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.


In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.


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