White Sands, New Mexico

Brighter Than A Thousand Suns by Iron Maiden

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Yellow sun, its evil twin
In the black the wings deliver him
We will split our souls within
Atom seed to nuclear dust is driven Read full Lyrics
On July 16, 1945, humanity’s destiny was irrevocably altered. Codename: Trinity - the first detonation of a nuclear weapon in history – exploded around 5:30 a.m., heralding the dawn of the atomic age. Releasing a force equivalent to the detonation of twenty kilotons of TNT, the devastating success of the Trinity test dwarfed any previous man-made methods of obliteration. The device, perched on a 100-foot-tall iron tower, erupted with such force that it left a radioactive crater of glass in the desert over 300 meters (1,100 feet) wide and 3 meters (10 feet) deep. The eerie scene is captured in the lyrics of "Brighter than a Thousand Suns": Shadow fingers rise above, iron fingers stab the desert sky. Oh behold, the power of man. Listen to the tolling of the bell.

Dunes at White Sands<br>Photo: taddtography, PixabayDunes at White Sands
Photo: taddtography, Pixabay
This song is the third track on A Matter of Life and Death (2006), the 14th studio album released by heavy metal mega-group Iron Maiden. The album’s lyrical content is centered on the atrocity of war and its relation to politics, religion and science. "Brighter Than a Thousand Suns" is about the advent of nuclear weapons in war, and takes its name from the book Brighter Than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Bomb by Robert Jungk, who in turn based the title on a verse from the Bhagavad Gita said to have been recalled by physicist Robert Oppenheimer at the Trinity test:

If the radiance of a thousand suns were to suddenly burst forth in the sky, that would be the light of the exalted one.

The lyrics, "Whatever would Robert have said to his God, of how he made war with the sun. E equals MC squared, you can relate, how we made God with our hands," refer to Robert Oppenheimer, who along with Enrico Fermi is considered the Father of the Atomic Bomb. Oppenheimer earned this namesake for his role in the Manhattan Project to develop the first nuclear weapons, of which the Trinity test formed part. After World War II and the horrors unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki because of his work, Oppenheimer sought to use his position as chief advisor to the United States Atomic Energy Commission to lobby for international regulation of atomic power and the importance of averting the proliferation of nuclear weapons. For his efforts, he was stripped of all political influence and had his clearance revoked in 1954. Oppenheimer’s other scientific work in quantum mechanics, molecular wave functions, black holes, and cosmic rays helped to advance our understanding of the universe, but these accomplishments are cursed to always pale in comparison to the unprecedented power for destruction he unwittingly released at Trinity.

The Trinity detonation happened at the White Sands proving ground, which today forms part of the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The enormous military installation stretches into five surrounding counties of New Mexico. Aside from being the location of the first nuclear detonation, White Sands has also been used in the testing of many technologies related to space travel, and in 2004 it was named a Historic Aerospace Site by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. In 1965 the Trinity site was declared a National Historic Landmark, and added to the National Register of Historic Places the following year. The site of the detonation is marked by a commemorative obelisk which is today open to public visitation on the first Saturdays of April and October each year.

Soldiers at White Sands<br>Photo: <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:White_sands_soldiers2.jpg">Daniel Schwen</a>, <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/">CC BY-SA 3.0</a>, via Wikimedia CommonsSoldiers at White Sands
Photo: Daniel Schwen, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
In the decades since Trinity, many countries have continued building and testing nuclear weapons, and today one would have a hard time counting all the atom bombs in the world. Thankfully, such weapons have never again been used in war since the detonations over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite the tensions and constant apocalyptic threat of the Cold War era, it seems that as a species we’ve recognized that weaponized nuclear power is not something we have a right to play around with. We live in an age where more and more science fiction is finding its way into reality, and it would not be exaggeration to say that we have technologically developed more in the last 50 years than we have across the totality of previous human history.

Technology may well be neutral, but the human beings who create and use it are not. Because nowadays we can do nearly anything with technology, the pertinent question has shifted from what we can do to what we should do. And if we learn anything from Trinity and its aftermath it is that recognizing our responsibility toward the technology we create is now more than ever of the utmost importance. This means not only expanding the horizons of what is possible, but also acknowledging that some possibilities are best left unactualized. Oppenheimer himself showed an awareness of the fact that he had unleashed more than humanity was ready for when he recalled another part of the verse from the Bhagavad Gita upon seeing the Trinity detonation:

Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.

Stefan Smit
March 2, 2014
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