Today in history

After my second marriage, we honeymooned in the Poconos. It was an interesting week, and one thing stood out as we socialized with other couples at the resort. Our “special day” did not belong to us. Dozens of other couples had been married the same day, at that resort alone. No doubt thousands of other couples had been married on the same day as us around the world.

So it is with every momentous occasion, not only is the day shared with the entire human race, but the date is an anniversary for many events in history. Today, 6 August, is remembered as the day in 1181 that Japanese and Chinese astronomers observed a supernova, along with countless other events throughout the years. In 1945, the Australian Kieth Miller scored 110 in the Victory Test Cricket at Lord’s. Earlier that day, there was another supernova in Japan.

After assembling the greatest minds in physics, and just two weeks after the first test of a different design, we managed to transport a ten thousand pound package named “Little Boy” to Tinian, an airfield in the Northern Mariana Islands, for its six hour flight to Hiroshima, Japan upon the B-29 “Enola Gay”. Along with the aircraft carrying the package were two observation craft, “The Great Artiste” and “Necessary Evil”.

At 0815 local Little Boy began its forty three second descent to an altitude of two thousand feet, at which point a little over half a gram of matter was converted into energy. The math on that (E = mc^2) works out to the equivalent of sixteen thousand tons of TNT. In the next second, seventy thousand people died, including about ninety percent of the doctors who might have treated the survivors. Over the next few months, another hundred thousand died from the effects of radiation. Little Boy missed his target by eight hundred feet, fairly inconsequential considering the blast radius of one mile.

Silhouette of human within blast radius

Silhouette of human within blast radius

Three days later an implosion weapon, using the design that had been tested, destroyed the city of Nagasaki, Japan.

The site of the Mitsubishi Ohashi Weapons Plant, which was completely destroyed, 1.3 kilometers north of ground zero. Visible in the upper left are the ruins of the Yamazato Primary School and in the upper right is the gas storage tank of the Saibu Gas Co. in Ohashi-machi.

1.3 kilometers north of ground zero. Visible in the upper left are the ruins of the Yamazato Primary School.

Since that date no nuclear weapons have been used in anger. They have been considered “deterrents”, with America stockpiling seven thousand seven hundred warheads, Russia eight thousand five hundred, the United Kingdom two hundred twenty five, France three hundred, China two hundred fifty, India one hundred ten, Pakistan one hundred twenty, North Korea less than ten, and Israel eighty. That is what we’re aware of. The weapons have been shared through NATO to several European nations. That’s sixteen thousand, seven hundred ninety five nuclear weapons scattered around the globe, that we’re aware of. And while we were busy making everything else smaller, the yield of nuclear warheads got larger. With Little Boy measuring sixteen kilotons of TNT, the largest test detonations have gone up to fifty megatons of TNT. That would be over three thousand times as powerful as the weapon that destroyed everything within a one mile radius. For some reason, our precision targeting allows delivery within one meter.

I knew a man who had flown on one of the observation craft, thirty years later he was still shaken by the memory. Today, people with very short memories control weapons that exceed their imaginations.

Following the attacks on the World Trade Centers, a young man who worked with me asked if buildings “that tall” really exist. We were in Philadelphia, about ninety miles away, and he was unaware of the tallest buildings in the country. A reward of twenty five million dollars was offered for information about Osama bin Laden, in a country where the nominal per capita GDP was six hundred dollars. Hard to imagine an amount equal to over forty thousand times your GDP. I recall one person that was interviewed thought of it as enough money to buy a goat for everyone in his village. For fifty years following the bombings in Japan, our leaders encouraged the idea that we could survive a nuclear war. After the test of a two hundred kiloton weapon in China in 1974, Strontium 90 from the fallout was detected in cows in California.

I do not believe that the leaders of several nuclear states, and certainly no terrorist who illegally obtains a nuclear weapon, can imagine the damage the weapon will inflict. Nor do I believe in the concept of a “limited nuclear exchange” between states.

Nuclear weapons are not weapons of mass destruction, they are instruments of mass suicide.


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