Being a collection of doggerel, verse, stories, politics, historical essays, satire, poetry, jokes, pictures and whatever else I damn well please on a variety of interesting (or otherwise) subjects.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

a cheerful tale

The story of the making of the atomic bomb begins, surprisingly enough, with a man named Adolf Hitler, who was the leader of a country called Germany. Mr. Hitler hated a group of people called Jews. In deciding to hate Jews, Hitler was only being lazy, since hating Jews had always been a favorite hobby of the people in that part of the world, who were called Europeans.

Adolf Hitler in 1930

Most of the other Europeans hated Mr. Hitler, but not because he hated the Jews. They hated him because of his other hobby, which was invading other countries. That sort of thing is bound to get you talked about.

Adolf Hitler visits a conquered Paris, France, 1940

It may surprise you (I know it did me) to know that Hitler was able to believe two completely opposite things about Jews. He believed that the Jews were inferior to other people and were a kind of dirty, stupid animal. He also believed that the Jews were able to control almost all the people in the world in order to make things better for Jews. People who can believe two completely opposite things at the same time are called lunatics.

From the first, Hitler made things hard in Germany for the Jews. He had all the Jews fired from their jobs as doctors, scientists and university professors. Actually, a very large number of the teachers in German universities were Jews. I only mention this because it becomes important later in the story. It became so difficult for Jews in Germany that many of these university professors and scientists left Germany for other countries in Europe. Some of them even crossed the Atlantic Ocean, to a country where the people that hated Jews were called Americans. The Americans didn't hate Jews anywhere near as much as Hitler did. They mostly had no desire to pack the Jews into boxcars and ship them off to death camps; they just didn't want their sisters to marry one.

Leo Szilard

One day in London, Leo Szilard, one of the Jewish scientists who had left Germany because of Hitler was standing on a street corner when he had an idea about how a very powerful bomb could be made from an element called uranium. The thought shocked him so much that he stepped right off the curb into traffic. Unfortunately, the bus managed to miss him and he decided he'd better get over to America, where the buses drove on the right side of the street, before he got hurt.

President Franklin Roosevelt

In America, Szilard got to worrying about the tremendous bomb that he'd thought of. He was afraid that Hitler might ask some of the scientists who he hadn't run out of Germany for being Jews to make him an atomic bomb. Szilard thought it might be nice if the Americans tried to build an atomic bomb first, before Hitler could get around to it. Szilard wanted to talk to the President of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, about the atomic bomb, but he didn't know Mr. Roosevelt. The only really famous person he knew was another Jewish scientist from Germany who had come to America. This person was Albert Einstein, who was famous for being very, very smart. Mr. Einstein agreed to write a letter to Mr. Roosevelt for Szilard, asking him to get some money and people together to build an atomic bomb. After he wrote the letter to the President, Einstein proved that he was, indeed, very, very smart by having nothing further to do with the project.

Albert Einstein with Leo Szilard

Mr. Roosevelt and other people in the government started discussing whether or not to try to build an atomic bomb. Some people were really afraid that Hitler was already trying to build such a bomb. Other people thought that the project would cost too much money and wasn't needed. They thought that Hitler could be stopped from invading other countries without using an atomic bomb. Actually, it turned out that they were right, but they lost the argument anyway.

Los Alamos, New Mexico

So, the government set up a project to try to build an atomic bomb. It had to be a very secret project, because they didn't want anybody to know that they were trying to build one, so they called it "The Manhattan Project," figuring that anyone hearing the name would look for them in New York City. Then they set up the main laboratory for the scientists to work way out in the desert in New Mexico, near a town called Los Alamos.

Soviet agents David Greenglass and Klaus Fuchs worked at Los Alamos

The secrecy thing worked pretty well, since Mr. Hitler never knew about it at all, and there were only two Russian spies working there. The Russians were on America's side in the war against Mr. Hitler, but the Americans didn't like the Russians much and were only a little bit less afraid of the Russians than they were of the Germans.

The people working on the Manhattan Project worked very, very hard in solving all the problems that had to be solved in making an atomic bomb. They were in a big hurry because they were still afraid that Hitler was ahead of them in building a bomb. A little later, when they were pretty sure that Hitler could not build a bomb, they were still in a hurry because it looked like they might not finish the atomic bomb in time to drop it on Mr. Hitler. That's the way it turned out, too. The Russians, Americans, British and French all invaded Germany and Mr. Hitler shot himself so that the Russians wouldn't be able to capture him alive.

Eric Jette and Charles Critchfield with Los Alamos Scientific Director Robert Oppenheimer

This gave the people working on the Manhattan Project a serious problem. They had been working for years and spending money hand over fist to make this bomb, and Hitler had to go and be defeated before they were ready to use it. It was pretty embarrassing.

American B-29s bomb Japanese cities, 1945

There was still one country that America was at war with, though, and the scientists thought that maybe they could finish the bomb up in time to drop it on the Japanese. They would really have to hurry if they wanted to be in time, because Japan was also losing the war very quickly.

The Trinity Test, July 16, 1945

When the scientists at Los Alamos thought they were ready, they set up a test bomb out in the desert at a place they named Trinity and exploded the first atomic bomb there. It worked really well and they were all very happy. They hurried to tell the President that the atomic bomb worked.

Harry Truman and Josef Stalin meet at the Potsdam Conference, 1945

Mr. Roosevelt had died and the new President of the United States was named Harry Truman. Mr. Truman thought that the new weapon was wonderful and wanted to drop it on the Japanese as soon as possible. Not only would that make Japan give up sooner, but it would also scare those pesky Russians, who were acting a lot less friendly since Hitler was out of the way. What Mr. Truman didn't know was that Josef Stalin, the leader of the Russians, knew all about the atomic bomb from his two spies at Los Alamos. Stalin already had scientists in Russia working on an atomic bomb of their own.

The Los Alamos scientists had two bombs ready to go. They were slightly different types of bombs. One type was a uranium bomb, which looked like a long thin cylinder. They named this bomb "Little Boy." The other type of bomb was a plutonium bomb. It was shaped more like a big ball, and they named it "Fat Man."

The bombs were sent to an island in the Pacific Ocean called Tinian, where bomber planes took off every day to drop bombs on Japan. The first atomic bomb, "Little Boy," was loaded onto a B29 bomber named "Enola Gay" after the pilot's mother.

The Nagasaki blast, photographed from the B-29 "Bock's Car"

The Enola Gay flew the atomic bomb over to Japan and dropped it on a city in Japan named Hiroshima. A few days later, another B29 flew "Fat Man" over to Japan and dropped it on a city called Nagasaki.

The city of Hiroshima, Japan, after the "Little Boy" Blast

Both atomic bombs worked well. In both cities, many thousands of people were killed instantly by the heat of the bomb, while thousands of others died a few days or weeks later from radiation poisoning. The force of the blast and the heat from the atomic bombs flattened both cities.

Conventional bomb damage in Tokyo, Japan

The Japanese people had suffered much in the war. Every day bombers were coming over and dropping lots of ordinary bombs on their cities. The buildings and houses of these cities were made mostly from wood, and the cities were being burned away. The Americans didn't tell the Japanese that they had already used up all the atomic bombs they had ready. Instead, the Americans warned the Japanese that, if they didn't surrender, all their cities would be blown up.

Japanese Foreign office and military officers surrender aboard the US Battleship Missouri

The Japanese didn't want to surrender, but they knew that the Americans and Russians would destroy their whole country if they didn't give up. They decided that it would be best to surrender to the Americans, who, bad as they were, at least weren't Russians.

"Joe 1," the first Soviet Atomic Bomb test, August 29, 1949

After the Japanese surrender, Mr. Truman thought that the Americans would be the only country that had the atomic bomb for a long time, and that there would be peace because no country would dare start anything because of the threat of having their cities destroyed. It didn't actually work out that way because the Russians surprised everyone by building their own atomic bomb, which they called "Joe 1" after Mr. Stalin, only 4 years after the war.

The Ivy-Mike Hydrogen Bomb test, November 1, 1952

The scientists at Los Alamos stayed hard at work on new and more powerful nuclear weapons. They soon had developed a much more powerful weapon called the hydrogen bomb. This bomb made the atomic bomb look like a firecracker.

...and we all lived nervously ever after.

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