[Editorial] End Of Innocence: How Hiroshima and Nagasaki Changed The World

It was mankind’s greatest crime against itself and the demonstration of one of his greatest achievements. It wasn’t just the number of people killed or maimed, it wasn’t even the number of building flattened or vaporized, it was about the effect and the awe of an object never seen before. Two blobs of metal, weighing about four tonnes each and concealing inside them the results of five years of intensive research by the best minds of the world, would change history forever. Two days mark this permanent turn of history 6th August and 9th August.

There are only a few events in history, which can serve as dividers in time; any other event can be described as before or after such an event. The innocuously named atom bombs, Little Boy’ (Hiroshima) and Fat Man’ (Nagasaki), would create in its wake a world, where either mass murder could become the norm or a sudden realization may jolt Man out of its madness. It was the end of innocence.

Living under a strange shadow

The Most Unkindest Cut of All

Probably, the greatest threat from the bomb was not that it killed so many, but that the very act of deploying such a bomb involves so little emotional pain. Photos showing Hiroshima before and after the explosion tell a story, but it is up to the viewer to interpret it. Often, the interpretation of the devastation on a large scale is that of awe, not of sympathy. We’re awed by the tremendous power of the bomb, shocked by the emptiness of space in which a city once existed and, sadly, also get an ego boost from all this. Somewhere, the tiny voice of sympathy and pity for unspeakable human atrocities is drowned.

Did the utter destruction of Hiroshima (right) rob the sense of tragedy? (Left: A burn victim)

The estimates of the number of dead vary – more than 100,000 dead at Hiroshima and nearly 70,000 dead at Nagasaki are official numbers- but those are mere numbers. Five years of research went into this. The irony of the Manhattan Project, the super secret governmental project to design the atom bomb, was manifold. A congregation of the best minds in science were not involved in solving a cosmic riddle, but to tinker around with the ugly equations of engineering and design a weapon to replicate the Sun on Earth. They were driven by a fear, more than patriotism that Hitler might produce the super-bomb’ before them and he would have no qualms about using such a murder device. It was, in fact, the grizzly-haired, peace-loving Einstein, who signed the historic letter to Roosevelt, urging him to put the bomb research at the forefront.

The city of Nagasaki, before the bomb and after it. (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

The Manhattan Project

Within one year, under the supervision of General Leslie Groves, Robert Oppenheimer brought together a galaxy of stars from the world of physics that included veterans like Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller and Arthur Compton alongwith not-yet-a-PhD-but-blindingly-brilliant Richard Feynman. Housed in the secluded and, often, freezing mountains of Los Alamos, shielded from the rest of the world by intense security and allowed an indefinite amount of grants, these men dealt with radioactive substances like Uranium. Their aim: purify the Uranium ore enough so as to gain a large percentage of the fissile U-235 isotope, rather than the benign U-238 material. How ever protected they might have been from the external world, they ¬†weren’t ¬†shielded from the isotope that they regularly handled. Like a Mummy’s Curse, this would be the cause of death for most people working at the facility. They would die of radiation-induced cancer, but this was all for the country and against all-conquering Germany, with true intentions of altruistic world peace.

Carpet bombing of major cities of Germany, like Dresden, Hamburg and Wesel, following the Normandy invasion on German’s west front and simultaneous advances by Soviet troops on the East flanks, meant that the Fuhrer had no choice, but to surrender in March, 1945. Hitler is believed to have committed suicide, leaving a broken world behind. The atom’s energy hadn’t been harnessed yet.

Published by

Debjyoti Bardhan

Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.