In The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages, the family of main characters visits Trinity–the site of the first atomic explosion. Both parents have been working on the “gadget” as it was referred to (in the book and in real life), and the father had been present on July 16, 1945 for the test itself. The descriptions in the book are haunting–perhaps in large part due to the fact that we, as readers, know the true impact of the test and the two bombs that were used in the weeks following the test.
As the family reaches the Trinity site, they first walk across the blast area outside the crater.
There were no plants, none at all, not even grass or yucca. Just reddish beige, sandy dirt. Every few yards there was a charred greasewood bush. Each bush was twisted at the same odd angle, like a little black skeleton that had been pushed aside by a big wind.
When they start to see evidence of bird and animal deaths, Mrs. Gordon–the voice of conscience in the book–is visibly affected.
After about five minutes, Dewey looked down and saw burned spots that looked like little animals, like a bird or a desert mouse had been stenciled black against the hard, flat ground. She looked over at Mrs. Gordon. Mrs. Gordon had stopped walking.
She stood a few yards back from the others, her lips pressed tight together, staring down at one of the black animal shapes. “Christ,” she said. “What have we done?”
Then Terry Gordon asks the question we, as readers, have been asking since they arrived at the site: “Is this safe?” Her husband, Phil, answers.
He nodded. “Ground zero’s still pretty hot. But Oppie said the rest is okay, as long as we don’t stay out too long. Ten minutes. We’ll be fine.”
I’m not sure I believe that, myself, and it’s not something I would want my child exposed to, in particular. There used to be signs posted around the site warning visitors not to put anything in their mouths or apply anything to their skins in the vicinity, due, presumably to a still-existent danger of increasing your radiation exposure. These signs are no longer present, and apparently food is available on-site these days. However, the site is only open to visitors during two Open House events per year, in April and October, due to the site still being part of the government’s White Sands Missile Range. When considering whether to visit the site, the government provides this information on relative radiation exposure from visiting the Trinity site compared to other sources. Seventy-some years on, the exposure is still higher than “normal,” so I have trouble believing it was truly benign when the Gordons would have visited.
That being said, though, at the time we (obviously) did not know the full consequences of such an event. Many of the scientists apparently carried off tokens of the event in the form of Trinitite, “the first new mineral created on this planet in millions of years,” (according to Dr. Gordon in The Green Glass Sea). And from some of what I read about the Louis Slotin accident (mentioned briefly in The Atomic Weight of Love, and which did not occur until almost a year later in May 1946), I suspect not all of the scientists would have tested their souvenirs the way Phil Gordon does in the book.
When they got back to the car, Dr. Gordon was squatting back on his heels, holding a black box with a round lens like a camera. “Good,” he said, squinting up at them. “Now hand me each of the pieces you picked up, one by one.” … It was one of the round eggshell ones, and it made the needle go all the way over. The box clicked like a cicada. He put it down by his other foot. “That one’s too hot to take home,” he said.
But back to the description of the test site in The Green Glass Sea. When they reach the crater, the description is bone-chillingly beautiful.
And then, just ahead of them, the ground sloped gently downward into a huge green sea. Dewey took a few more steps and saw that it wasn’t water. It was glass. Translucent jade-green glass, everywhere, coloring the bare, empty desert as far ahead as she could see. It wasn’t smooth, like a Pyrex bowl, or sharp like a broken bottle, but more like a giant candle had dripped and splattered green wax everywhere.
According to this site, the actual Trinitite glass was scraped up, and “bulldozed into a bunker” in the early 1950s when the crater was filled in. Most of the remaining Trinitite was subsequently removed in 1963 by the Atomic Energy Commission, except for a viewing window in the roof of a shed (perhaps the “bunker”?) where one can still see the Trinitite. I’ve had trouble finding information on why this was done, although it seems as though it would have been either because of a dawning realization that the residual radiation could be dangerous, or because of a concern about secrecy and the threat of discovery posed by a huge disk of green glass in the midst of a red desert. (As evidenced by the artist’s rendition above, it kind of stands out!) Check out the “then and now” photos below, which I found on this site with a fantastic description of a visit to the site during one of the Open Houses.
I mentioned this in my post on some of the differences between the two books I’ve read, but it bears repeating here. In The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church, the main character, Meridian, visits a lava field in the Malpais with her geologist lover Clay, without realizing that it is only about 20 miles from Trinity’s Ground Zero. *Note–El Malpais, mentioned in The Atomic Weight of Love is a different set of lava fields, located between Albuquerque and Gallup, which is why there was no mention of Trinity – the lava fields near Trinity are not the same Malpais.
While the two books were very different, and, in the end, The Atomic Weight of Love was not really about the development of the bomb, I feel I learned a lot from them–or at least a lot considering that there was almost nothing about the actual nuclear science involved, or even about the gadget itself. In both books, that was all too secret to be discussed.
Even at the time, locals were not told about the upcoming test, and the resulting health effects are only now being investigated, more than seventy years later. When locals who actually witnessed the blast (which was visible from as far as Los Alamos itself, over 200 miles away) expressed concern, the government released a statement saying there had been an ammunitions accident with no casualties.
I’m interested in learning more, and one thing that came up in my initial search, is a graphic novel called Trinity. I grew up reading my dad’s comic book collection from the 1940s and 1950s, including his collection of Classics Illustrated (my first exposure to Shakespeare!), so the graphic novel format isn’t at all off-putting to me–actually, it makes me interested in reading it together with my son. One thing I’ve noticed already about this challenge–it’s easy to get side-tracked! Note: My son and I really enjoyed this graphic novel. He loves explosions, and was really excited to learn about how the bomb worked, but he also really got the human side of it and the idea that just because science can do something doesn’t mean it should.