Watching the World Go Bye-Bye
Our urge to destroy is timeless, but we sure worry more now

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, April 1, 2007

Entrenched in the modern mind is the fear of apocalypse, of the end of everything, of some kind of surpassing calamity that will obliterate the world as we know it. Nuclear war, for example. A plague. An asteroid impact. "American Idol" going to five nights a week.

Most of us pray that the world doesn't come to an end, and that, if it does, it will not be particularly unpleasant. Also, it would be nice if you could be certain that the end did not come about through some mistake of your own. You want to be able to turn to the person next to you and say -- in that final, awful, white-light moment of horror before the immolation of all that we hold dear -- "Well, hey, don't look at me."

All of which is by way of introducing the true story of how atomic scientists in 1945 worried that they might destroy the world.

Both the United States and Germany wanted to make an atomic bomb. Neither knew whether it was possible. And both contemplated one very frightening possi-bility: that a nuclear chain reaction, if started, wouldn't stop. In fact, the force of the explosion might cause the atmosphere to catch on fire. Even the oceans could ignite. As the science writer Chet Raymo has put it, physicists worried that they "might inadvertently turn the entire planet into a chain-reaction fusion bomb."

Which would be bad. Indeed, when Adolf Hitler learned of the possibility, he got a bit rattled. You know to be nervous when Hitler thinks it sounds crazy.

The Germans abandoned their A-bomb program, but the Americans kept going, with leading physicists gathering at Los Alamos, N.M., to put their giant heads together to figure out how to make a bomb that would kill only tens of thousands of people, not millions. They turned to a certain Hans Bethe (pronounced BAY-tuh) to figure out what would happen in a nuclear chain reaction. He did some calculations. His conclusion: Earth wouldn't burn up.

His colleagues agreed. Edward Teller worried that the explosion might get "out of control," but, he reasoned, "we had discussed these things repeatedly, and we could not see how, in actual fact, we could get into trouble."

But they were never totally sure. No one had ever made an A-bomb before. They were going to detonate the first one out in the middle of the New Mexico desert, and they didn't know what kind of bang they'd get for their buck. The equivalent of 300 tons of TNT? Or 10,000? Or 40,000?

The night before the test, Enrico Fermi offered to take bets on whether the atmosphere would catch fire, and, if so, whether New Mexico would be destroyed or the entire planet. Some people found this annoying.

So they all went out in the desert before dawn on July 16, 1945, and, wearing tinted goggles, watched the bomb explode from 20 miles away. The fireball was like a sun. A mushroom cloud rose. It was "a foul and awesome display," one witness said.

And surely they all thought: If the world ends, we'll blame Hans.

But it worked. They were jubilant. They strutted and slapped one another on the back. And Hans Bethe, by all historical accounts, was never worried. He was confident in his math. He never awoke at 2 in the morning fretting that he'd forgotten to carry a 1 in there somewhere.

Was the math that unambiguous? Or were the scientists reckless? One way to look at it is that we happen to live in a universe that is describable mathematically, statistically and geometrically, and thus you should feel free to detonate atomic weapons so long as you've done well enough on the math portion of the SAT.

But I think it's also a period piece: This is how people behaved during a time of Total War, with the planet already in flames. At some level, calamity had become the norm. Sure, blowing up the world would be bad, but blowing up New Mexico could probably be excused.

All of human history had been a headlong dash. To control nature was a noble goal. If the world caught fire, who knows, maybe it would help clear forests to allow for new agriculture.

And we have to remember that people of that era weren't worriers and fretters and agonizers the way we are today. Cars didn't have seat belts. Food packages didn't list the percentage of saturated fats. The "environment" hadn't been invented.

Even the idea of standing around and watching an atomic bomb go off didn't seem that hazardous. The scientists at Los Alamos took a precaution: As they stood in the predawn darkness and waited for the detonation, they put on sunscreen.

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