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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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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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