Ways to Split an Atom / An unwarranted pull


Emily Parsons-Lord Naomi Riddle

Naomi Riddle, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico (2016)

Naomi Riddle, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico (2016)

‘The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun…It was golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse, and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined.’

Brigadier General Thomas F. Farrell (1945)

‘The earth’s surface and the figments of the mind have a way of disintegrating.’

Robert Smithson (1968)

‘We had, it seems, loved the planet and loved our lives, but could no longer remember the way of them. The light was wrong. In the sky was something that should not have been there.’

Annie Dillard (1982)

The phrase ‘splitting the atom’ makes me think about that clean slice of the knife when you cut a ripe avocado in half. You can twist the fruit so easily, feeling it gently unfasten from the stone in the middle. It’s a happy acquiescence. But then I also think about a peach or a nectarine, and how you can try and cut through to the pit, but really you just end up pulling and yanking it apart. The strands of flesh resist, you can feel them tear, clasping onto the stone with all their might, before reluctantly disintegrating into a messy sodden pulp. Mostly you should never split a peach that way; you should just eat it whole, with big luscious bites and juice dribbling down the middle of your chin.

You can think of an atom as being more of a peach than an avocado.

 

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The progression from splitting the atom to inventing a nuclear bomb was a fateful tumbling of dominoes that occurred right alongside the carnage of World War I, the Great Depression and the rise of fascism.

At the end of the nineteenth century the discovery of radioactivity disrupted the firm belief that the atom was the smallest unit of measurement. In 1911 Ernest Rutherford found that an atom was not so much solid as mostly full of empty space.[i] But there were still particles hidden inside the nucleus: protons and electrons with their positive and negative charge.

It seems painful, this pulling apart of atoms, being torn to the point of collapse. Other adjectives for splitting don’t offer any relief – it’s a horror show of cleaving, chopping, undoing, and bifurcating. Splitting doesn’t even really come close. Most scientists began disintegrating or smashing atoms, beaming alpha rays at them in their quest to see what new elements they could find.

The invention of the cyclotron in 1929 by Ernest O. Lawrence meant that alpha particles could be accelerated to a far higher rate and more directly aimed at a target. Then there was the discovery of the neutron, the third part of an atom that has no discernable charge.[ii] It is without power, but this is also its strength. The neutron is what determines the characteristic of an element, but most importantly, a stream of neutrons can be fashioned into a high-energy beam that can easily split a target.

It was in 1938, when Europe was on the cusp of war, that Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn chose the word ‘fission’ to describe a curious reaction that took place when uranium was blasted with just such a stream of neutrons: ‘the atoms…had split, leaving atoms of the element barium behind, and releasing a great deal of energy, energy accountable only through Einstein’s equation:  E  = mc 2.’[iii]

 

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The state of New Mexico in the United States is one of the most sparsely populated. The landscape is vast and open; the earth is the colour of white gold. Solid sheets of rain often form in the middle of the desert plains and arrange themselves in curtains, splitting the sky into pieces.

The Trinity Test took place in Alamogordo, New Mexico at 5:31am on July 16, 1945. It was the first test of an atomic weapon. The weather had been changeable and stormy, and there had been talk that the test would need to be postponed.[iv] There was confusion at the last minute as to whether the nuclear blast could potentially trigger an uncontrollable reaction, causing the atmosphere to ignite.

Alex Wellerstein writes that ‘the detonation force was equal to about twenty thousand tons of TNT—four times larger than the expected maximum.’[v] The heat from the blast was so powerful that the sand in the valley melted, mutating into a highly radioactive green glass.

It’s fair to say that in the moments before (and most likely during) the test, the physicists crouching in their bunkers didn’t really know whether it would work. I keep imagining, naively and ridiculously, that some of them hoped it wouldn’t.

 

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Most scientists tasked with developing a nuclear weapon were caught under the spell of wartime discovery, driven by patriotism, money, fear of the other side getting the upper hand; maybe just wanting to prove that it was possible, that they were right and they could do it first. A good many were refugees who had fled from the Nazis, and who still had a sense of the hate and rage that was chasing up from behind. Many, perhaps most, worked and carried on, feeling that this invention could stop war entirely, that it would be so horrifying, so all-encompassing that military action would become redundant. There was a catch to this theory – the new weapon would have to be seen in operation. It was the age-old cop-out of false rationalism: we must kill a few to stop the suffering of many.

This is how it was then, that physicists, eminent scientists, accidentally, reluctantly, stumbled towards and then decided to build a ‘gadget’ with the capability of destroying life on earth. Perhaps the lesson is that they didn’t yet know what they were doing. For all the hypotheses, they couldn’t imagine or entirely believe in what it was they were about to create. We have the benefit of hindsight. There were a few, however, Niels Bohr and Leo Szilard in particular, who grew increasingly frantic in their efforts to alert their superiors about the dangers of using an atomic weapon. But these cries fell on deaf ears or worse, propelled their listeners to take more immediate and urgent action to complete the project.

Perhaps the lesson is even simpler: people can always find someone else to do the job.

 

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During the Trinity Test, it took thirty seconds for the sound of the bomb to reach those sheltered in their viewing bunker, which means that for the first moments of the test the explosion was viewed in silence. Brigadier General Thomas F. Farrell writes that the belated arrival of ‘the strong, sustained, awesome roar…warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous.’[vi] J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist in charge of the entire program, recollected that his first thought was a passage from the Bhagavad Gita: ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’[vii] It was an experience of a constructed sublime, where scientists and military personnel were rendered awestruck, not by Nature or an all-powerful deity, but by an unnatural device made entirely by human hands. And although those witnessing the explosion were at a physically safe distance from the test site, they were perhaps not so lucky as to be far enough away to escape another form of obliteration: the blast of this mutated sublime, the moment where the ‘mind is hurried out of itself’, where ‘we shrink into the minuteness of our own nature, and are, in a manner, annihilated.’[viii]

 

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In the Magnesian Sea is an island that has a magnetic force so powerful it sinks ships.

 

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When Mercury is in the night sky, the pull is at its greatest, and the slow insistent tugging of the island tilts trade ships off course. The ships’ iron nails loosen with every bounce of the waves, until they shoot off like bullets, compelled invisibly towards the island, hitting the metallic surface with a ting. Roaring creaks and cracks warn of the disintegrating structure as the mast, and bow, and prow gracefully detach.

 

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The island is now thick with centuries of wares: nails, compass needles, coins, fish hooks, pots and pans, hubcaps, the detritus of farming and trade; all jostling in a thick armoured skin over the island’s surface.

From the opposite shore, where the magnetic pull is not so strong, you can hear the distant clangs and groans.

Each day the silhouette of the island against the sky is different, as it shifts with the movements of Mercury and accrued spoils. It is impossible to map.

 

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Dotted along the coast is a chain of houses made entirely out of mud.

Cars are banned here, so the villagers travel on bikes of bamboo with cork tires.

You can always tell the exact direction of the island; the cutlery inside each house softly sticks to the walls, drawn to the point that’s closest to the magnetic force. The council banned the opening of all west-facing windows in case any cutlery should escape and cause injury to passing visitors. There was an occasion at the Governor’s House on a hot summer evening when all the windows were open. A power outage caused twenty dinner guests to drop their knives and forks, which then flew out of the open windows, skewering the members of the birding society (who happened to be watching a particularly rare family of Razorbilled Guillemots).

It is customary to sew short lengths of twine in to your pockets to fasten to the ends of your knife and fork, should you be invited to dinner.

 

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Sometimes visitors try to outwit the island.

A monk, in an attempt to preserve a small statuette of the naked woman he had fallen in love with, swallowed it whole. Later, when his ship was blown off course and passed too close to the island, the small statuette ripped through his belly and left him to bleed out on the deck.

 

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The air along the coast is thick with the smell of onions. It was once suggested that the juice of onions neutralises the magnetic effects of the island. There were plans to drench the entire island with onion juice to prevent further shipwrecks. In a bureaucratic feat that was coordinated across three different governments and seven different currencies, enough onions were bought and stockpiled to cover the entire surface. None of the organising committee could persuade a crew to sail out to the island. No one can remember what happened to the onions.

Strangers to the sea still wash their ships in onion juice, or wear a layer of onion skins beneath their clothes, as advised by many travel guides.

You can always smell a tourist.

 


 

[i] Albert Berger, The Life and Times of the Atomic Bomb: Nuclear weapons and the transformation of warfare, (New York and London: Routledge, 2016), p.  11

[ii] Berger, p. 19

[iii] Berger, p. 25

[iv] Alex Wellerstein, ‘The First Lights of Trinity’, The New Yorker (16/07/15): http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/the-first-light-of-the-trinity-atomic-test

[v] Wellerstein

[vi] Brigadier General Thomas F. Farrell, ‘Trinity Test, July 16 1945’, Nuclear Files: Project of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, (Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, 2017): http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/key-issues/nuclear-weapons/history/pre-cold-war/manhattan-project/trinity/eyewitness-thomas-farrell_1945-07-16.htm

[vii] J. Robert Oppenheimer, quoted in Berger, The Life and Times of the Atomic Bomb: Nuclear weapons and the transformation of warfare, (New York and London: Routledge, 2016), p.  79

[viii] Edmund Burke (1759), ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful’ in Martin Price (ed), The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 601, 603-4

 

 

Emily Parsons-Lord makes cross-disciplinary contemporary art that is informed by research and critical dialogue with materials and climate science. Through investigation into air and light,...

Naomi Riddle is a Sydney-based writer and artist working across the mediums of analog photography, archival film, text and video. She has recently exhibited at Wellington...


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