Today is the 65th anniversary of Trinity.

We all remember J. Robert Oppenheimer's reaction ("Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds" from the Bhagavad Gita) but I think the lesser known words of the lesser known Kenneth Bainbridge do the job a little bit better: "Now we are all sons of bitches."

Humans have a tendency to overuse superlatives when it comes to history. Browse the non-fiction section of your bookstore and you will find dozens, perhaps hundreds, of accounts of things that "changed the world" or were "turning points in history." This is almost always bunk, but the events of July 16, 1945 at White Sands are among the few that can accurately be described that way. I could talk for hours and maybe days about this subject but I will be as brief as I can: the moment "The Gadget" detonated, the world changed. What happened at 5:29 AM Mountain Time on that day became the dominant topic of conversation and thought for the next forty years and forever altered the way the nations of the world interact. It made World War III unthinkable and, as a result, introduced proxy wars and Marx Brothers-like misadventures of industrialized nations in isolated and unpronounceable places.

Not being a historian by trade, I can only think of a few analogous events. The invention of electricity. The printing press. The Protestant Reformation – Treaty of Westphalia combo. The conversion of Constantine I of Rome to Christianity. Marco Polo shaking hands with Kublai Kahn.

What else? I'm sure I've only scratched the surface of the list of events that legitimately altered the course of human history. There must be more, such as the historic and planet-changing election of Barack Obama.

62 thoughts on “NPF: THE NUCLEAR FAMILY”

  • "Corks in the bottles of beer in the basement of the home popped out from the wave of compression, a light like lightning and a roar like a giant piece of roofing tin being shaken by a monster moved across the land…"

    The Alamagordo News reports on the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium and

  • The ability to create fire (who the fuck knows)

    The invention of agriculture/domestication of animals (10,000+ years ago)

    The industrial revolution (250+ years ago)

    The invention of (practical) computers/internet (30+ years ago) discovered by a publishing company and Ed is asked to publish his scathing political commentary for billions of dollars (TODAY?!? *cue dramatic music*)

  • 16shellsfromathirtyaughtsix says:

    The black death. No black death, no labor shortage in medieval Europe, no subsequent increase in wages, no demand among the general populace for spice, no shutting down of the overland travel from Europe to China that had financially supported the Muslim golden age, no Columbus. Or a Muslim/Chinese Columbus. More likely a Muslim Columbus, considering the Chinese had the explorer Zheng He but the government brought him home and shut exploration down.

  • 16shellsfromathirtyaughtsix says:

    Caeser crossing the Rubicon?

    If only because it led eventually to Augustus.

  • The birth of Christ (though if he hadn't been born, perhaps another "prophet" would have created a similar effect).

    Hitler's decision to invade Russia.

  • Newton's Principia Mathematica. Before Newton, we were all post-Aristotelians. After him, the world was Newtonian.

    The Greek victory over the Persians. Bam–East and West divided, West gets most of the good stuff, intellectually speaking. Then Christianity pretty much squashes a lot of it, but still.

    Columbus, as previously noted.


  • The Haber-Bosch process for synthesizing our own mineral nitrogen from air. Fritz Haber's discovery in the early 1900's radically changed the nature of war and agriculture. The energy-intensive process requires a source of hydrogen, which is typically disassociated from natural gas, and then synthesized with atmospheric nitrogen (the major gas of the air we breathe) under extreme pressure and temperature. By some estimates, without this singular industrial process, 40% of humanity wouldn't exist, as world population growth would have been limited solely to natural sources of soil fertility.

  • Oh, and let's not forget the agronomist Norman Borlaug, who developed high-yielding varieties of wheat to take advantage of Fritz Haber's seemingly inexhaustible supply of fertilizer. Borlaug launched "the green revolution" in agriculture, which contributed to a forever altered relationship between humans and the fields we once tended. The ongoing demographic shifts from rural to urban settlement throughout the world can be attributed in part to the industrialization of agriculture.

  • This is like asking which domino is more important…Columbus brought smallpox to the "New World" were the latest estimates put 25 million "Native Americans". That is more than the rest of the estimated western/eastern world population at that time. Humans, if anything, are revisionist historians.

    The West conquered nothing when they invaded the Americas, they assumed control of a diseases ravaged continent. Is it any wonder after 200 years of their people dying from disease, so many of the Native American societies were death worshipers?

    @16shellsfromathirtyaughtsix: I never thought about the impacts of the black death like that though…Magna Carta may not even have come about without the reality of the black death forcing those pressures on society. Even if we control Malaria in Africa…2 million per year by some estimates killed…what happens when that many more mouths are to be fed?

  • Magna Carta in the hizzouse!!! Yeah! The law and shit! We've allegedly improved upon the original idea so much so that roughly 1 in 8 citizens is a criminal (*possible faulty statistic alert*. Three cheers for progress!

    And let's not forget when the peanut butter truck t-boned the chocolate truck and gave us Reese's Peanut Butter cups. Two great tastes blah blah blah.

  • Planes & Automobiles. I think we're so close to these that we forget that they are only a litlle more than 100 years old – Wright Bros: 1903 / Karl Benz: 1895
    Just try to imagine life without them.

  • Lets try to expand our scope beyond such a Euro-centric perspective.

    ~400/500- Invention of Hindu-Arabic numerals. Have you ever computed using Roman numerals?

    632- Muhammad's conquest of Mecca. Sets the stage for the unprecedented spread of Islam through trade and conquest across Asia and Africa.

    1206- Ghengis Khan begins his military invasions. The Mongols get a bad rap. Sure they destroyed alot, but they were also amazing empire builders and administrators, establishing rule of law, enabling trade and communication (even establishing a postal system) across a tremendously vast territory. As most here seem to prefer European events, let me bring it back, the Mongol invasion of the Kievan Rus led to the disbursement of the Slavic peoples across Eastern Europe and to the eventual rise of the Russian Empire.

    1526 (?)- Bobur found Mughal Empire in India. The basic architecture of this empire (with its tremendous ethno-linguistic and religious diversity and tolerance) is still the backbone of modern India (also known as- where all the jobs are now).

  • Some of these are really important events, but they aren't instances–the Black Death (which didn't happen until 130 years after the Magna Carta, so there's no way in this universe that the plague could have a causal role in King John's signing that document) wasn't a single instance–it happened over years.

    Now, you could say that the development of the bomb was the result of years of theoretical and physical work, and you'd be right. But there is still a single moment where all of it paid off.

    I can't really think of anything that compares to such an instant. The closest I can come is imagining Galileo looking through his telescope and seeing the moons of Jupiter–that was the very first time that a human had conclusively observed a celestial body orbiting something other than earth. It was a breaking point for us thinking of ourselves as the center of all there is, and it must have been one hell of a realization.

  • Forgot this doozy…
    1954- Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Marked death knell for European colonialism and inspired violent anti-colonial revolutionaries around the world especially in Algeria, Kenya and Malaysia. Also began chain of events leading to Vietnam war.

  • Wow I have to say my population figures are way off though…

    "The Black Death is estimated to have killed 30% to 60% of Europe's population, reducing the world's population from an estimated 450 million to between 350 and 375 million in 1400."

  • The most important events, I think, are those that might not have happened, points where history could have gone another way. The Bomb, for instance… I've seen claims that it wasn't really known how practical it was, and that there was a gigantic initial investment which had to be performed (the Manhattan Project); if the Project had disbanded when Germany fell, or hadn't been successful, then nuclear energy and medicine would still have been invented, but the world wouldn't have lived under the shadow of the Bomb.

    It's too bad that Oppenheimer is quoted in isolation; I, like many others, read "I am become Death" as a paraphrasing of "I am a mad scientist who made something awesome and kaboomy", which couldn't be further from the truth. That bit of the Bhagavad Gita involves Prince Arjuna hesitating before beginning the charge against an army that includes his own family and friends; he turns to his charioteer Krishna, who persuades him to do his duty. As Oppenheimer said in that same interview, "We knew the world would not be the same."

    16shellsfromathirtyaughtsix: More likely a Muslim Columbus, considering the Chinese had the explorer Zheng He but the government brought him home and shut exploration down.

    There's one–the Chinese recalling Zheng He. If they hadn't, the Chinese would have probably invaded the New World from the west.

  • Elder Futhark says:

    Using a parabolic mirror, I lit a cigarette with the flash off of Trinity.

    Okay, it wasn't me, it was Ted Taylor. He and I laughed and laughed about it, because it was so sick on so many levels.

    "A lot of people are going to think this is a big fucking deal" I remarked, wiping spittle off my tie.

    "Nah. Ulam has the next step figured out. This?" replied Ted, waving his hand in the direction of the cloud, "This is pretty much what we expected. Give it a few years, and even that half-wit MacArthur will want to use it. But "Mike"? Well…"

    "Yeah, but by then, everyone will be used to it. Teller has a major hard-on for it. Truman will buy into it. Do you think they'll understand?"

    "Only once we have a few gigatons built up on both sides. Even then, it's not enough to end the world. How much?" I broke out my slide rule. "If we merely wish to bury the bombs, there is no limit to their size….."

    "Relax. It's still early. Plenty of time left in our history for WWIII"

  • anotherbozo says:

    Prior to visiting G&T this a.m. I was asked to fire off a last-minute appeal to the FCC, begging them to retain net neutrality. I made the point that the net was my lifeline for political info unfiltered by corporate influences, and independent bloggers were an important function of my continuing education.

    As good as Ed usually is, it's the commenters today who provide evidence of this latter. What a stimulating way to start the day! I am only a worm myself, with nothing to add, but there are certainly a lot of points here to ponder, and information admittedly new to me.

  • Elder Futhark says:

    "There's one–the Chinese recalling Zheng He (sic). If they hadn't, the Chinese would have probably invaded the New World from the west".

    If the Eunuch had landed in Mexico, 35 million people would still have died. And later, some stinky, hairy, unwashed, lice-ridden, foul-breathed Catalan religious maniacs would still sail up the Mississippi and find huge vacant cities along the banks.

  • Bugboy–there were recurrences of what was most likely bubonic plague, probably starting with the plague of Justinian in the 530's CE. But the Black Death was the mid-14th century iteration of it.

    Don't wanna be too nit-picky here, but there was only one Black Death.

  • I'm curious about the photo. It looks to me like a mushroom cloud contained by a giant layer of desert sand fused into glass. Could that be the case? It doesn't look like any mushroom cloud I've seen since (fortunately not in person).

  • The Battle of Hastings, 1066. An arrow hits the English king in the head and kills him, effectively ending the battle and paving the way for the Norman Conquest. French and Latin become the languages of the nobility and vulgar respectively, while English is relegated to the backwater yokels for a couple hundred years. By the time English comes back into use, it is so altered that its earlier form is nearly unrecognisable. The Norman Conquest leads to the modern royal family, the Acts of Union, more wars with the French, the modern English language, British imperialism and more. It changed European history forever.

  • Ed, as a practicing historian (i.e. a PhD, not a buff who wastes his time wanking off to the History Channel), I can tell you that its pure bunk. There is no one event that changes history forever. Its Heraclitus. Its the river, it changes constantly, without end. Anybody who resorts to saying, "On this one day, the world changed forever," is trying to sell you something (usually an eschatology). The world will not end. We are stuck with it. We can make it a mess or we can fix it.

  • Just to try a slightly different angle, you ever wonder why the older a written historical source is, the more seriously it is taken? E.g. the Roman writer Suetonious. Almost all modern histories take his biographies of the first twelve Caesars completely seriously, when in fact the guy's work was the ancient latin equivalent of the National Enquirer.
    P.S. Following up on greeneye's observation on Dien Bien Phu- it was the Japanese that really killed off the great European empires in East Asia. When they captured Signapore from the British in January 1942 that pretty much shattered the myth of the White Man's invincibility.

  • Matt L, okay sure, that is nice and all but if that is what you seriously believe why even bother studying it? Everything matters…ok. But some points matter more…we may say that some moments change the path of the river much more than others.

    As a historian, I expect that you understand the importance of contingency. Well, some contingencies result in institutionalization and if you study institutions, you understand the importance of critical junctions and/or path dependence. With a different contingency at time A, outcomes at time B are different.

    If some moments are not more important or crucial than others, than why should we ever bother with another history of say, the French Revolution or the Mau Mau rebellion or the collapse of the Soviet Union? Is it all about masturbatory reflection and interpretation based on contemporary mores or could it be some events are objectively important relative to the quotidian?

    Finally, if you are going to appeal to your authority as a professional expert on the flow of history, why not link to some of your published works?

  • While Matt L's comments about historicity and also the observation that our remarks are unremarkably Eurocentric are well-taken, I'd like to nominate

    Equal Temperament

    /Music Theory Nerd

  • Of course, I forgot the most important moment in the history of ever: When Glenn Beck and Ayn Rand teamed up to defeat socialism and fascism and restored the world to the way it was supposed to be before Obama forged the One Ring.

    I don't know how that slipped my mind.

  • It's interesting, Ed, that two of the six things you first thought of are related to Christianity. Maybe you put them on the side of the ledger with the Gadget detonation and not on the side with the printing press and electricity, but it caught my eye.

    In any case, to put myself squarely in the bullseye here I'll offer the fact that hundreds of millions of people sincerely believe that a singular definitive event was the turning point in all of history. We celebrate it on Easter.

  • seconding anotherbozo's second paragraph.

    I desparately want to contribute, but don't know how. Still, here are some events that probably had significant impact on the world.

    Gutenberg (the Bible printing guy, not Steve, although Police Academy did introduce us to Michael Winslow). Damn it, Ed already mentioned the printing press.

    What about the mobile engine (e.g., the steam engine, or the internal combustion engine), or one of it's later consequences—railways or automobiles or airplanes or motorized ships…?

    There must be something related to water purification or aqueducts or sewage.

    Germs, Pasteur, Penicillin, etc.?

    Formalization of the Bertrand trap/prisoner's dilemma as a means of interrogating co-conspirators

    I'm sure there's some profound impact due to medicine that we have not yet realized (e.g., the use of statins or anti-depressants or MDMA or something even more significantly shifts the balance between 1st/3rd world countries)

    Introduction of rocket-deployed satellites

    Radio Communication and Information Theory (Radar, remote-controlled drones, battlefield communication, espionage, …)

    Many other international conflicts probably changed a lot of successive conflicts significantly (e.g., in terms of interrogation, battlefield strategy, etc.)

    Hell, 9/11 changed a lot, worldwide. Or, rather, a lot changed right after it.

    The creation of Israel was significant, and the resultant turmoil in the region has impacted governments since then.

    On the West Wing, I remember some discussion of the development wheat that grew shorter, so that it wouldn't break in savannah winds, as a significant impact to reducing starvation, worldwide.

    I'm sure some Marx, Engels or Smith publication changed things.

    Instant ramen.

  • 1796–Edward Jenner develops the first modern vaccine, for smallpox.

    1928-The discovery of penicillin.

    The germ theory of disease.

    Between the three of those, we got a huge shift in mortality patterns, and we went from disease being mostly random to something you could buy your way out of, at a lower and lower price.

  • Strangepork says:

    In any case, to put myself squarely in the bullseye here I'll offer the fact that hundreds of millions of people sincerely believe that a singular definitive event was the turning point in all of history.

    Was it that Saturday night where God and his roommate Chugs were arm-wrestling, then God lighted one of his farts and the Universe was born?

  • CT, it's not a mushroom cloud. It's 0.016 seconds after detonation, so that's the expanding fireball.

    Matt, that simply isn't true. The world with and without nuclear weapons, to use just one example, was and is an entirely different place.

    Kevin, Christianity is obviously historically important, but it didn't become historically important contemporaneously. The Roman empire's abrupt turn from persecuting it to endorsing it was more important historically than the event itself, which might otherwise have remained inconsequential had the religion not become ingrained in western society.

  • Double-dipping, here–ages ago, at summer camp, I was lectured to by a creepy genius kid about how the invention of the transistor was the single most important technological development since the ability to make fire. While he was clearly the child of a conspiracy theory nut, I've always remembered that talk, and whenever I check his claims, he seems to be right. Such a little thing, but oh my God did it change everything.

  • For what it's worth, concerning: We all remember J. Robert Oppenheimer's reaction ("Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds" from the Bhagavad Gita) . . .

    Listening to today's Writer's Almanac podcast (read by Garrison Keillor), we learn that Oppenheimer's immediate reaction to the blast was "It worked." This is repeated twice in the podcast. He wrote about his (revised) reaction, with the Bhagavad Gita quotation, some years later.

  • Anyone interested should watch James Burke's documentaries.
    Connections 1,2 and 3 and The day the universe changed.

  • Well everyone beat me to what I was going to say, so I'll just say that there was a column in the Albuquerque Journal today with the headline: "New Hope for Trinity Downwind Residents."

  • Disturbing and maddening. One thing to add: The b.c. pill was pretty momentous. Not on the scale of the bomb, to be sure, but pretty darn huge.

  • I was a B-52 aircraft commander towards the end of the Cold War.

    I can tell you that it is a very strange feeling to sign for an aircraft with 16 nuclear weapons loaded on it.

    And the ones we carried would have made Trinity (or Hiroshima) look like a firecracker.

    In typical sick military humor we called them "crowd pleasers".

  • Ed, I didn't mean Trinity didn't matter… your picking that date privileged a certain narrative about the post world war two world. Its one that dwells on gadgets, the great men, and political decision makers that invented and used them. It lays down a whole bunch of markers that obscure contingency. For example, most Americans assume that the USSR backed down over the 1948-49 Berlin Blockade because of the US atomic monopoly. Nonsense, it was because they had just finished fighting a war that cost them 20 million dead, wounded and missing citizens. Even Stalin was unwilling to send another million people to their deaths in a fight over the rubble of central Europe. If he thought the burnt out hulk of the Third Reich was worth while, he would have ponied up another five million.

    Thats what I mean by eschatology. A historical narrative that begins with Trinity automatically shuts out other narratives and other actors. A narrative that starts with the pill pushes a different set of actors forward and offers another perspective.

    Material culture is great, but I think we should be suspicious about the narrative that starts with Trinity. Its the story we told ourselves to justify a headless arms race not only in nuclear bombs but in conventional weapons as well. This arms race continues, even though the cold war is over and the US spends more on its military than the next five closest nations combined.

    Thats why we need to be critical of a "gadget narrative" that tells us this one invention changed the world. Otherwise, you end up with as Ben says, not a history of 'big things' but of 'neat things.'

  • Development of the field of sanitation engineering in the 19th century. Saved more lives then and now than any medicines ever developed.

    Also discovery voyages of James Cook since not everybody thinks the US is the best thing in the world. For a start, baseball is matched for world-wide unpopularity only by US foreign policy. But that is off topic. Probably the devlopment of modren capitalism has had more effects of social, political, military and environmental issues than any other thing in the past 1000 years.

  • Cai Lun invents paper, c. 100-110 CE

    Bamboo strips and silk cloth, the most common writing materials in China prior to Cai Lun, were not easy to work with. Within 50 years of Cai Lun's invention, paper had become the nearly universal writing medium in China. China would soon surge ahead of the rest of the world in technology.

    In 751, the method of creating paper was introduced to the Islamic world — and it quickly became the universal medium for writing. The start of the Golden Age of Islam was the mid 700s — thanks to paper.

    Paper was first manufactured in Christian Europe in the 1200s. When it comes to great works written between 500 and 1250, little from the Christian West comes to mind. Between 1250 and 1400, as paper replaced parchment, we have Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Chaucer, as well as the birth of humanism. The Christian nations of Western Europe started to emerge from the Dark Ages just after they learned how to make paper.

    I don't think that this pattern is a coincidence.

    Paper is just so ordinary nowadays that people tend to overlook the impact it made on civilizations across the globe. Several people have mentioned the invention of printing, which was important. However, printing required paper in order to work. One could theoretically print on parchment, but there just weren't enough animals around to meet the demands of all the printers. The supply of paper could meet the demand, however.

  • I had a history professor that once pointed out that the two most significant events to occur in the Western hemisphere were in Philadelphia 1787 and Los Alamos/White Sands 1945. I have trouble disagreeing.

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