Revisiting The Nuclear Age With ‘Oppenheimer’

47:19 minutes

a man in a brown suit and brown fedora smoking a pipe in a desert like landscape.
Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Christopher Nolan’s new film “Oppenheimer,” releasing in theaters on July 21. Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/© Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

an orange background, with faded images with a science-fiction theme such as zombies and astronauts, and the words "science goes to the movies"

This weekend, Christopher Nolan’s long awaited film Oppenheimer hits theaters. It tells the story of American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, and his road to becoming the “father of the atomic bomb.” With its release, audiences will be faced with the United States’ contentious history in developing and deploying the world’s first atomic weapons, marking a point of no return for the entire world.

Nearly 80 years since the bombs were first developed and tested in the New Mexican desert—and then dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—the world is still reckoning with the Manhattan Project and Oppenheimer’s legacies.

In this live call-in show, Science Goes To The Movies, we analyze the roles of scientists during the Manhattan project, hear from the people most affected by Oppenheimer’s work, and pick apart his life and legacy—one which asks to what extent scientists are responsible for the things they create.

Ira talks with Setsuko Thurlow, survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and an anti-nuclear activist, about her memory of that day, and why she’s committed her life to abolishing nuclear weapons.

Then guest host and SciFri director of news and audio John Dankosky talks with Kai Bird, co-author of the book Nolan’s film is based on, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, about who Oppenheimer was as a person and how he reckoned with his own legacy. Dankosky also talks with Tina Cordova, a downwinder affected by the U.S.’ testing of nukes in New Mexico and co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, about the overlooked history of New Mexicans, and how they’re still living under the shadow of the Manhattan Project. Finally, Dankosky speaks with Dr. Zia Mian, physicist and co-director of Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security, about the ethics of nuclear weapon development, the roles of scientists, and how the Manhattan Project changed the world forever.

Further Reading

Donate To Science Friday

Invest in quality science journalism by making a donation to Science Friday.


Segment Guests

Setsuko Thurlow

Setsuko Thurlow is a Hiroshima survivor and anti-nuclear activist based in Hiroshima, Japan.

Kai Bird

Kai Bird is co-author of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Tina Cordova

Tina Cordova is a Downwinder and is co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium. She’s based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Zia Mian

Dr Zia Mian is a physicist and co-director of the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. I’m sitting in for Ira this week. After many months of buildup, Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster Oppenheimer is here. It tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb. A man whose work ushered in the atomic age and changed the world forever.

So with the release of this film, we’re bringing you a live edition of Science Goes to the Movies looking back at 80 years of nuclear history. We’re going to explore how the first atomic bombs were built, how Oppenheimer led the charge, and what happened when they were deployed.

Now nobody understands this legacy more than our first guest, for whom Oppenheimer’s work is all too personal. Setsuko Thurlow is a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. She’s a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and an anti-nuclear activist. Ira got a chance to speak with her earlier this week, and she joined him from Hiroshima. Now this conversation may have some graphic and disturbing details, so please take care while listening.

IRA FLATOW: Setsuko, welcome to Science Friday.

SETSUKO THURLOW: Oh, thank you very much for inviting me. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: You’re Welcome. Can you describe for us your memory of August 6, 1945?

SETSUKO THURLOW: Yes, I was about 13-years-old grade eight student in a girls junior high school. In those days, Japan was losing badly against the United States. And we were recruited and mobilized to do the work for Army. So that day, I happened to be at the nearby Army headquarter. I learned how to decode secret messages for the Army. Can you imagine 13-years-old girl engaged in that kind of task?

Anyway, about 30 of us were at the Army headquarters. And at 8:00 in the morning, it was Saturday morning, I heard a plane, and at that moment, I saw the bluish white flash in the window. And I had the sensation of flying up into the air and floating in the air and that was the end of my memory.

When I regained consciousness in the total darkness, I found myself pinned under the collapsed building. I knew I was going to die. Then, suddenly, I started hearing my classmates’ voices say, God help me, mother help me. And although it happened 8:00 in the morning, 8:15 in the morning, by the time I came up it was dark like twilight.

And I started seeing some objects. And I called it ghosts because they simply didn’t look like human beings, but they were in mess. Their hair would be rising up toward the sky and the skin and the flesh would burn and blackness. And we learned how to step over the dead bodies.

And in the dark, people were simply begging for water in a very faint, quiet voice. Nobody was yelling or screaming asking for water. When the darkness fell, we sat on the hilltop and watched all night entire city burn. And next day, I was united by my father who was out of town, and my mother.

But my oldest sister, who was married and had a four-year-old child, who had been evacuated out of the city but the very night before the bombing, she came back to the city to visit us. And early in the morning, she and the child were walking the bridge to the doctor’s office. And that’s where they were simply melted really.

I saw them the next day. They simply did not look like human beings. Soldiers came, dug up the hole in the ground, and threw the body and poured the gasoline threw the lighted match. That was the so-called cremation of my dear people.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you for sharing that story. It’s been almost 80 years since the bombs were dropped. Do you still see the effects of the bombing today in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and on the Japanese people?

SETSUKO THURLOW: Well, yes, medical effects of that bombing, because of the radiation, that is affecting health of many, many survivors. By the end of 1945, 140,000 people were estimated to have lost lives in Hiroshima alone. Innocent civilians, noncombatants in war, and that’s one, a very visible effect and Hiroshima and Nagasaki both have the atomic bomb hospitals. They are still packed with the suffering people. I understand that in a much higher rate of leukemia, a cancer of the blood, among the survivors.

Another effect of that, which is a positive one as I see it, in spite of the personal tragedy, family tragedies, many survivors transcended their personal pain. And they came out determined to spread this message in the world about the horror human suffering that bomb caused in Hiroshima. And we have devoted our lives speaking out against the nuclear weapons.

IRA FLATOW: A debate has been going on for decades, as you know, about the rationale for dropping the bomb saying that the bombing ended the war and saved the lives of 100,000 Americans who would have died during an invasion of the mainland. What do you think when you hear that?

SETSUKO THURLOW: I think that kind of statement was developed, conveniently, by the politician like Mr. Truman. Those things you just said are groundless, and a lot of historical research, political research has been done and irresponsible statements were just convenient excuses for justifying what their decision caused.

Anybody who knew the history, Japan had already been exhausted. They were not in the position to continue the war. And Japan was possibly preparing for the surrender. Then Mr. Truman knew this kind of historical facts. Well, the bomb was successfully exploded, I think, in July, July 16, so with that, Americans wanted to use those bombs as quickly as possible.

IRA FLATOW: I’d like to ask you about that bomb test because that is the focus of a new film that has put J. Robert Oppenheimer in the spotlight once again. What do you think of him and his participation and his legacy?

SETSUKO THURLOW: Well, target was successful. Obviously, he rejoiced. In fact, he was delighted as a scientist. But something happened, and by the time he was asked to consider the next project of the hydrogen bomb, he was not prepared to accept that responsibility. He was against that.

After all, hydrogen bomb was 1,000 times more destructive than atomic bombs. Toward the end, he was against production of such horrible tools of mass murder. As a scientist, he made the choice to be part of that project. I think he had a personal responsibility for all of this mess.

IRA FLATOW: You have campaigned against the use of nuclear weapons, all these years. And now, again, we hear talk about it being used– the Russians possibly threatening Ukraine with them. What is your reaction to that?

SETSUKO THURLOW: I was sick to the stomach for a couple of weeks after that war broke out. I literally lost sleep, even appetite. I identify with the suffering of the people in Ukraine. I remembered my own experience in war time. Certainly, what Putin did is unacceptable, and the war must end immediately.

And all those faith in nuclear weapons accumulating all those weapons exhausted all the resources, billions and billions of dollars. When the unfortunate situation like this happens, you can’t even touch them because that would create even worse tragedy, particularly, the end of the world.

IRA FLATOW: Is there anything else you’d like to leave our listeners with, any last thoughts?

SETSUKO THURLOW: I and many other survivors of Hiroshima Nagasaki, and together with the survivors of the areas around the world from over 2000 nuclear weapons testing by the nuclear weapon states, we have been speaking out against the use of the nuclear weapon. We must eliminate. We must ban them.

But nuclear weapon states have not really paid any attention to what we have been saying. The majority of the world nations voted for the UN treaty to prohibit the use of nuclear weapons, but nuclear weapon states are not accepting it. They are pooh-poohing it. That is not good.

And we are delighted, finally, majority of the world, 122 nations have accepted that. And that’s our hope and dream. Humanity must continue to live. The planet must continue, and nobody had the right to treat the rest of the world as a hostage of this nuclear horror. 78 years have passed. That’s too long. Let’s not wait any longer.

IRA FLATOW: I want to thank you very much for talking with us today.

SETSUKO THURLOW: It’s painful to remember and to talk like this, but I am glad you gave me the opportunity. I hope my American friends pay some attention to my words.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Setsuko Thurlow is a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and anti-nuclear activist speaking there with Ira Flatow. After the break, we get to know J. Robert Oppenheimer and how the first atomic bombs came to be. And we’re going to take your calls. Give us a ring (844) 724-8255, or tweet us @SciFri. We’ll be right back after this break. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. This hour, we’re looking back at J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life and legacy and how it’s shaped the world we live in with his biography hitting the big screen today. So we’re digging in to what you should know before you see the film.

My next guest may know Oppenheimer better than anybody else. Kai Bird is the co-author of American Prometheus– the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. It’s the book that Christopher Nolan’s film is based on.

Kai Bird joins me now from WAMU in Washington DC. Welcome to Science Friday.

KAI BIRD: Thank you, John, for having me. I’ve been waiting for this moment for decades, literally.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yes, I can imagine. I’m glad we have you here to talk about it. Before we dive into the story, though, I’m wondering if you could just give me your reaction to what we just heard from Setsuko Thurlow, the Hiroshima survivor and activist.

KAI BIRD: Yes. It’s a very moving story. It’s a history from the ground, and it’s shocking to hear a survivor’s tale, very sad and difficult to listen to.

JOHN DANKOSKY: You, of course, wrote the book that the new film is based. On and you said you’ve been waiting for some time. What is it like seeing this story come to life like this?

KAI BIRD: Well, my late co-author, Marty Sherwin, is no longer with us. He died in 2021. But he spent 20 years on this project, and then he brought me aboard. And it took us another five years. So the book was in the making for 25 years.

And it came out 18 years ago. And now, suddenly, we’re getting a lot of attention because Christopher Nolan has used the book to do a magisterial biography on film. It’s just an incredible artistic achievement. And as the biographer, I have to say. I’m just gratified that the film is really authentic and historically accurate.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Right now, we’re going to be digging into some of the history. And whether or not, in our audience, you plan to see the film or not, we would love to hear from you. What do you want to know about the Manhattan Project? What questions do you have about Oppenheimer and his legacy? You can call us 844-724-8255, or you can tweet us @scifri.

So Kai, why don’t you take us back to the 1940s? Why did we rush to build an atomic weapon?

KAI BIRD: Well, Oppenheimer was motivated to do this precisely because he feared that the German scientists with whom he had studied in Germany in the 1920s were as perfectly capable as he was of building the so-called gadget. And he feared that they were going to give it to Hitler and that Hitler would use an atomic bomb to win the war for fascism. So this was his motivation.

And he was desperate. He knew that the Germans were probably– or he felt that the Germans were ahead of in the race to build this weapon by as much as 18 months. And he worked very hard to build this secret city called Los Alamos and gather some 6,000 scientists and engineers, eventually. And in two and a half years, in somewhat of a miracle, they managed to put this gadget together and test it at Trinity on July 16, 1945.

And before we get into some of that history, though, I’m just wondering if you could give us a little bit of context. You talk about the German scientists that he studied with back in the 1920s. What exactly was being talked about in the scientific community at that time? What were they thinking about the possibility of building a weapon like this?

KAI BIRD: Well, as a young man, when Oppenheimer was studying physics in Germany, he was on the cusp of learning about quantum physics. And in the 1920s, they didn’t realize that a bomb could be made. But by 1939, fission had been discovered, and Oppenheimer and every other quantum physicist in the world understood immediately that this was a possibility. The physics was there. It became simply an engineering feat about whether it could be built.

JOHN DANKOSKY: This engineering feat that you’ve already described, building it and pulling off the Manhattan Project and just a few short years, it really was a remarkable how they turned the United States into, essentially, a factory to make this weapon. Tell us a little bit more about that incredible history.

KAI BIRD: Well, the engineering feat came down to refining enriched uranium and also plutonium, these very rare materials that would be the size of a grapefruit, essentially, at the core of the weapon. And then built around it were high explosives that would squeeze the plutonium, and ignite it, and create an atomic bomb. And it took months of testing and explosive experiments. And it was very difficult to manufacture, the plutonium and the enriched uranium. They started out with literally a handful of marble-sized elements of both of these materials. And it took two and a half years to manufacture the materials.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Were the scientists who were working on this project– were they completely aware of what exactly they were building at the time?

KAI BIRD: Oh, yes. They understood that the gadget was a weapon of mass destruction. There were many people at Los Alamos who were not clued in to exactly the nature of what they were building. But the core scientists, and chemists, and engineers that Oppenheimer recruited were well aware of what they were building. And there was ambivalence about it, too. Oppenheimer himself was quite ambivalent about the weapon.

And just after July 16, 1945, after the successful Trinity test, he was walking to work one day with his secretary Anne Wilson, who I interviewed here in Washington in Georgetown, where she was retired at the time. And she told me she was walking to work with Oppenheimer, and he suddenly started mumbling to her those poor little people, those poor little people. And she stopped him and said, Robert, what are you talking about?

And he said, well, the Trinity test was successful. It worked. And now, it’s going to be detonated on a Japanese city because that’s the only target that’s large enough for such a weapon. And the victims are going to be largely women, and children, and old men, civilians. Those poor little people.

Now, what’s interesting about this story is that we realized– Marty and I realized that, chronologically, this conversation that Oppenheimer had with his secretary was in the same very week that he was briefing the bombardiers who were going to be on the airplane and instructing them at exactly what altitude the bomb should be detonated for the most maximum destructive impact and that it should be dropped on the center of the city, not on the periphery. And so he knew exactly what he was doing. And he was extremely ambivalent.

He was doing his duty, he thought, his carrying out his responsibility to present the gadget to the policymakers back in Washington for them to decide how it would be used. But also, in his head, he was very aware of and empathetic for the human tragedy that was about to happen.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And of course, we’ve talked a bit about the human tragedy in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But there’s also quite a bit of human tragedy in the places where nuclear weapons were tested. Before we turn more to that conversation, why exactly did they choose New Mexico as the place to test the gadget in the summer of 1945?

KAI BIRD: Well, this was all about Oppenheimer. As a young man, when he was 18 years old, his parents in New York City sent him off one summer to a dude ranch in New Mexico. And he fell in love. This very non-athletic New York City boy, he fell in love with New Mexico, and the high mesa, and the deserts, and the mountains, and horseback riding. And he later told his brother Frank that his ambition in life was to somehow find a way to combine his love for quantum physics with his love for New Mexico.

And he did. He was the one who suggested to the head of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves, that they should really build a secret city in Los Alamos on the high desert plain, very isolated territory. And that would provide them with absolute secrecy. But the scientists gathered inside behind the barbed wire fence would be able to collaborate together to converse to figure out how to build this gadget. And well, Los Alamos was just a few miles down the road from Oppenheimer’s own ranch that he loved so much. So he did succeed in combining quantum physics with New Mexico.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So interesting. We’re going to get to some of your phone calls in just a moment. But I want to bring into the conversation someone from New Mexico, who’s been dealing with this and thinking about this for quite some time. The first victims of nuclear warfare were the downwinders. People were harmed by the nuclear fallout and still are to this day. Tina Cordova is co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tina, welcome to Science Friday.

TINA CORDOVA: Hi, John. Thank you so much for inviting me to participate. I’m glad to be here.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I’m so glad that you’re here. Maybe you can talk about how your life and the life of people has been affected by the Manhattan Project.

TINA CORDOVA: Well, I think it’s important to note that there would have been no Manhattan Project and no Trinity test without the people of New Mexico, actually. The people of New Mexico, first of all, had their land taken by eminent domain to establish Los Alamos Labs, and they were made to do all the dirtiest of jobs. We built the roads, and the bridges, and the facilities.

And I always say that they bused the native women and the Hispanic women up to Los Alamos to cook every meal, clean every house, change every diaper. And their husbands were bused up there to clean the instrumentation of radiation. And we were also the people that mined uranium. A large part of the uranium belt of the American West is in New Mexico and across Navajo lands, Laguna and Acoma Pueblo. They extracted 32 million tons of uranium, the uranium that was used to build these bombs.

And then we were the people that lived adjacent to the Trinity site, worked on establishing that area as well. And we’re basically victims of the bomb. And so the government came here. They invaded our lands and our lives. They developed and tested nuclear devices, dumped the waste for years in the canyons around Los Alamos, have left the mine and mill sites unabated, and then detonated this really dirty bomb in an area that they always describe as remote and uninhabited.

But the reality is we know– because we’ve done the research using 1940 census data– that there were about 15,000 children, women, and men living in a 50-mile radius to the Trinity test site. And if you extend that radius to 150 miles, you’re talking about half a million people. Today, in the New York Times, there’s a new article about the actual fallout mapping. A young man from Princeton, a scientist there, has recreated the blast using today’s technology and what we know about weather patterns. And the fallout that was developed after Trinity was significant, blanketed the entire state of New Mexico and, I believe the article says, most of the United States and parts of other countries.

So this was a big happening. And of course, there are consequences associated with being overexposed to radiation. And that’s what we have been left with. That’s the legacy for us of Trinity.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And if you do get a chance to see this New York Times piece, you really will see where the fallout could go across the entire United States. I want to tell our listeners that this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

And we’re talking about the film Oppenheimer and some of the nuclear legacy in America and around the world. We’ll get to your phone calls in just a moment, 844-724-8255. And Tina, of course, there’s quite a bit of fallout directly in your family as well, health effects that have gone through generations.

TINA CORDOVA: That’s correct. I’m the fourth generation in my family to have cancer since 1945. I had two great grandfathers living in Tularosa, approximately 45 miles from ground zero. Both of them developed stomach cancer in 1955. There was no medical access to medical care for them.

They were basically told they had stomach cancer. They were given morphine. They were sent home to die, and that happened in a very short period of time. Both my grandmothers on my maternal and paternal side had cancer.

My dad died after having three different cancers that he didn’t have risk factors for. He developed two primary oral cancers. My dad didn’t smoke, didn’t drink excessively, didn’t use chewing tobacco, had no viruses. And when I asked the doctors, how does this happen, they said it’s incredibly rare. But we see a lot of it in New Mexico.

And then when I was 39, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. And the first question they asked me was, when were you exposed to radiation? In my family, we now have a fifth generation. I have a 23-year-old niece studying art in California in college, and she was diagnosed in November with thyroid cancer as well.

And it’s, obviously, upended her life. And I’ve lost count of my aunts, and uncles, cousins who have either lived with cancer or died from cancer, et cetera. And I wish I could say that my family was unique, but we are not. We’ve documented hundreds of families that are now displaying four and five generations of cancer as a result of our exposure to radiation. We are the first victims of an atomic bomb. And while we may not have died that day, it was the beginning of the end for so very many of us.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Tina, hang on for just a second. I want to get to some phone calls. We’re getting a call from Brad here who is in Wisconsin. Go ahead, Brad, quickly, if you would.

BRAD: Yes. My father was in Hiroshima a month after they dropped the atomic bomb. He was part of the cleanup in the United States Marines, and he died of leukemia in 1968 at 43 years old and the doctors told him because of his exposure to atomic radiation.

JOHN DANKOSKY: My goodness, Brad. Thank you so much for sharing the story. And I we’ve got some more people on the line who would like to share some of their stories. When we come back from our break, we’ll get some response and talk more with Kai Bird, the co-author of American Prometheus, and also Tina Cordova, who’s co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium.

After the break, we’re going to be talking about grappling with the ethics of nuclear weapons and the legacies of the people who created them. You can join our conversation. Please stay with us.

This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. This hour, we’re reckoning with a legacy of the Manhattan Project and the responsibilities of scientists. There’s a new film Oppenheimer out just now. Kai Bird is co-author of American Prometheus– the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer on which the movie is based.

Tina Cordova also joins us. She is co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, talking about some of the impacts right here in America of these weapons. Let’s get to the phones. If you want to join us, 844-724-8255. Let’s go to John, who’s calling from Birmingham, Alabama. Hi there, John. You’re on Science Friday.

JOHN: Yes. I’d like to know if the Los Alamos scientists ever thought of dropping the bomb in the ocean off the coast of Japan or on an island that wasn’t inhabited. Therefore, thousands of lives would have been saved.

JOHN DANKOSKY: It’s a good question. Kai?

KAI BIRD: Well, yes, this was bandied about briefly, a demonstration some someplace off the coast of Japan or in Tokyo harbor. Or there was even a proposal to drop it on Mount Fuji as a demonstration of the power of the bomb. But none of these were seriously considered by General Leslie Groves, in whose hands it was, really, the decision making on how to use this weapon. And Truman himself never considered it seriously.

There were arguments on behalf of this notion by some of the scientists at Los Alamos. And there was also discussion actually about whether or not they should even continue to work on the bomb project after the spring of 1945 when it was clear that Germany was defeated. Most of the scientists understood that Japan was not capable– did not have a similar bomb project. And so therefore, the urgency of building this thing, they thought, had been taken away by the fact that the Germans had already been defeated.

But in the end, General Groves, and the other decision makers in the war department, and Oppenheimer, to some extent, believed that the war had to end with a dramatic demonstration of the power and the awfulness of this weapon. And Oppenheimer himself made the argument that he got from Niels Bohr, the famous Danish physicist, that, if the weapon was not demonstrated in combat in this war, then the next war might be fought by two adversaries, both of whom would be armed with nuclear weapons. And that would mean Armageddon. And Oppenheimer understood that the weapon was terrible. But he didn’t think that people would understand how terrible it was until it was actually used.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I want to bring into the conversation Dr. Zia Mian, a physicist and co-director of the program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University based in Princeton, New Jersey. Dr. Mian, thanks so much for joining us.

ZIA MIAN: Oh, thank you.

JOHN DANKOSKY: We’re talking a lot about the responsibility of scientists and what exactly happens with the things that they create. I want you to tell a story that’s a very telling sneak peek into the Manhattan Project. And this is Fermi’s wager. Maybe you can tell us about this and what exactly it tells us about how scientists were thinking at that time.

ZIA MIAN: Yeah. So this is a fascinating story. So as the Manhattan Project scientists at Los Alamos were thinking through the physics of what happens when a nuclear explosion driven by a chain reaction happens, the possibility emerged that the intensity of the explosion might actually set the atmosphere on fire, and that this fire would run all the way around until it used up all the air in the whole world, and that, by setting off one explosion, you would basically burn the planet completely and make it uninhabitable. And so they argued over the physics of this for quite a long time, all the way up to the Trinity test itself in July 1945, where Enrico Fermi, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, took bets among the Manhattan Project scientists at the test site about the chances of setting the world on fire. And right to the last minute, they weren’t certain that they would not destroy the planet. But they were willing to do the experiment to find out.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Just even as you say that, it sends chills up and down your spine. How exactly did the scientists justify this, the idea that maybe, indeed, they were playing with the life and health of the entire planet?

ZIA MIAN: I think that this speaks to a core question about the sense of responsibility. The scientists believe that what they were trying to do was to understand the way the world works. And the scientific question was, did their understanding meet the way that the world actually works? And it was worth finding out.

JOHN DANKOSKY: It was worth finding out. And also you and others have talked about the fact that many of the scientists who were involved didn’t actually think that this bomb would ever be deployed. They knew what they were creating. But it was, indeed, President Truman who gave the order to drop the bomb. Did the scientists believe that this would really be deployed in the way that it was?

ZIA MIAN: I think many of them did not imagine this. And this goes back to even before the Manhattan Project. As long ago as 1940, years before the Manhattan Project began, the first idea of building the atomic bomb was actually proposed in a secret memo by scientists to the British government. And in that memo, they predicted the effects of a nuclear explosion and the first prediction of nuclear fallout being carried by the wind and poisoning everything it touched, wherever the wind was blowing.

And in that memo, they said, this property of atomic weapons of nuclear fallout that goes with the wind means you will always kill civilians. And they said, this may make it unusable as a weapon by Britain. And they believed that decision makers, politicians would be responsible enough not to actually do something so terrible. And I think the Manhattan Project’s, deep down, had the same sense that, really, if you understood what this would do, you really wouldn’t use it.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I want to get to the phones, 844-724-8255. People have some questions. Kalheileigh is calling from Prairie Grove, Arkansas. Hi there. You’re on Science Friday.


JOHN DANKOSKY: Hi. What’s on your mind?

AUDIENCE: Well, I was just thinking about this as I was listening to the program that, growing up, I was taught in history class that one of the reasons Truman authorized dropping the bomb was to save lives, that the reasoning was the Japanese would never surrender, that it would be better to drop the bomb now and, potentially, save lives. So based on the data that we have now and seeing the fourth- and fifth-generation impact, was that wager correct?

JOHN DANKOSKY: So Zia, what do you say? This is, obviously, something a lot of us were taught in school a long time ago.

ZIA MIAN: I think that there is now enough historical material available to put into question the entire premise of how many American military lives might be saved. But the first question is that you’re trading soldiers who are going to war against the lives of civilians. And that’s not often the way that the question is put. You’re talking about saving the lives of soldiers by deliberately killing civilians.

The second question is, how many soldiers did you think might die? And it turns out that the idea of saving a million American lives, et cetera, that was part of the story after the war was made up after the war to justify the bombing. There is no contemporary historical evidence in the documents secret which have since been declassified to show that anybody thought that many lives, soldiers lives, would actually be lost in a full-scale invasion of Japan.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And of course, Tina, so much of your life has been devoted to speaking out for the people here in America, whose lives have also been upended, lives that have ended because of the testing that happened on American soil.

TINA CORDOVA: That’s correct. And as people view this movie that’s going to premiere this weekend, I hope that people will realize that there’s a counter-narrative to all of this, that American citizens were harmed, that innocent children died in the months afterwards because a lot of people don’t understand the entire history. In New Mexico, we had a spike in infant mortality in the months just after Trinity.

We went from losing something like 30 babies per 1,000 to losing over 100 babies per 1,000. And I always say they were casualties of Trinity. These young babies died because their little bodies could not overcome the radiation load that they were receiving, not only from the environmental radiation but because their mothers were concentrating radiation in their mammary glands.

And so to me, in my mind– and remember that I’m a downwinder. I have suffered greatly. In my mind, we over-sensationalize the science and the scientists sometimes, and we don’t reflect on the counter-narrative about the damage that was done to American citizens and other people in Japan, most notably. And so I have been fighting for 18 years now to bring attention to this and for 13 years now to get the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act amended to include the people of New Mexico because the US Government has been taking care of downwinders from other parts of our country. But it’s never taken care of us, the first people exposed to radiation anyplace in the world as a result of an atomic bomb.

We want people to understand and know this history and join in this fight with us because we suffered greatly. And we continue to suffer. And there’s no end for us. The plutonium and the bomb has a half life of 24,000 years, and that radioactive isotope was spread all across New Mexico as part of this project. And so we just we don’t see an end to this for us, and we certainly deserve to be recognized and taken care of as a result of being enlisted into this test, into this project.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Let’s go back to the phones. Emily is calling from Athens in Alabama. Hi there, Emily. Go ahead. You’re on Science Friday. Hi, Emily. Are you there? Let me just put Emily on hold there, and maybe we’ll get to her call in just a moment.

Kai, with all of this talk that we’ve just had about the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima and also the decision to explode a bomb in New Mexico, Oppenheimer famously felt guilty later for what he did. You talked about that guilt maybe setting in just after the Trinity test site. What else do we know about how he felt about the bomb during that time?

KAI BIRD: We know quite a bit. We know that he actually, according to his wife, Kitty’s, letters to her friends, right after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he plunged into a deep depression. And she feared for his life. And essentially, he spent the rest of his life trying to warn Americans and others about the dangers of these weapons.

If he was with us today, he would decry the complacency that has grown up over the decades around the bomb. And as a scientist, he’d, I think, very much want to be paying attention to the concerns that Tina has raised and the concerns of the survivors under the bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And the film, I think, is going to be very useful in jumpstarting a national conversation about all of these issues about the dangers of these weapons, the need to contain them, the environmental consequences.

But also the film, I should say, it is biographical. And it tells you his whole story. And there was the story of the Manhattan Project and the building of the bomb. But then, nine years later, Robert Oppenheimer is humiliated, and tarred, and feathered, and brought down in a kangaroo court proceeding that took place in the spring of 1954 at the height of McCarthyism, of the witch hunts of that era. And he became the chief celebrity victim of the whole McCarthy era. And I think the film focuses a lot on that trial and will be a heavy reminder of the McCarthyism, the seeds of which planted our very divisive politics today. So it’s a chance for a big history lesson all around.

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

We have Emily now. Emily was calling from Athens, Alabama, actually sort of on the point that we were just raising. Go ahead, Emily.

EMILY: Yes. I’m a retired science teacher and I used to show the movie Fat Man and Little Boy in class because we would study atomic science and then, to give it a historical context, we would look at that movie. We also have a nuclear plant here in our county, so you know I felt it was important for them to understand the peacetime use versus wartime use.

But when I watched the trailer for the Oppenheimer movie, this other movie is ingrained in my mind. So one question is, contrasting the two films, what might I notice that was different. And then the other question is about education. Is this movie going to be good for teenagers to go to? If I were still teaching, would I load up a whole class on a bus and go see it?

JOHN DANKOSKY: It’s a really good question. And Zia, I’ll put it to you. I think you just watched the movie, didn’t you?

ZIA MIAN: Yes. I just came out of the theater before coming online.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK, so what would you tell Emily and her class?

ZIA MIAN: I think that the movie requires preparing young people for that experience because I think that having them able to process the information that they will be exposed is going to be enormously important because the film can be very overwhelming, just as the nuclear age itself has been so overwhelming. We’ve been talking about Trinity downwinders that Tina and her family and others and their experience.

But some of the work that was just reported today in the New York Times, done by my colleagues at Princeton, showed that the explosion from Trinity spread fallout all over the United State, with large amounts of radioactivity deposited in Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, Idaho, lots of other places. So lots of people are exposed. And the larger exposure of the whole world to the consequences of nuclear weapons, we’re still living with that. So I think you’re going to have to prepare young people for the kind of conversations that they’re going to want to have.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And among the conversations– we just have a little bit of time left, Zia– but I should ask, are scientists responsible for the things they create? This is a core question in this movie and in this entire dialogue.

ZIA MIAN: Absolutely. Why should scientists be held to any different standard than any other human being for the responsibility of the actions that they undertake?

JOHN DANKOSKY: There’s so much more to talk about. And I think, as many people see the film, there’s going to be a lot of discussion across America and across the world. I want to thank Dr. Zia Mian, who’s a physicist and co-director of the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University. I want to thank Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, and also Kai Bird, co-author of the book American Prometheus– the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Thank you all so much for your time. And Thanks to all the great questions from our listeners. Also thanks to our friends at WAMU in Washington DC for their help today. If you’re interested in learning more, we’ve put together some resources and viewing guides for you. Go to sciencefriday.com/atomic. That’s sciencefriday.com/atomic.

If you missed any part of the program or you’d like to hear it again, subscribe to our podcasts. You can ask the smart speaker to play Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky, and we’ll see you next week.

Copyright © 2023 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

Meet the Producers and Host

About Rasha Aridi

Rasha Aridi is a producer for Science Friday. She loves stories about weird critters, science adventures, and the intersection of science and history.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

About John Dankosky

John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have three cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

Explore More