What It's Like to Actually See an Atomic Explosion

What It's Like to Actually See an Atomic Explosion
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Most everyone has a pretty good idea of what an atomic explosion looks like. Through images and video, we know the flash, the fireball, the mushroom cloud. Seeing it all in person is quite different, however.

One of the few firsthand accounts immortalized to paper comes courtesy of the inimitable Richard Feynman, who was present for the very first detonation of a nuclear weapon. The test, codenamed "Trinity" was carried out on July 16, 1945 in the Jornada del Muerto desert of New Mexico. The 20-kiloton blast was the culmination of years of work by the scientists of the Manhattan Project. One of those scientists, the 27-year-old Feynman, sought to view his handiwork with his own eyes:

They gave out dark glasses that you could watch it with. Dark glasses! Twenty miles away, you couldn't see a damn thing through dark glasses. So I figured the only thing that could really hurt your eyes (bright light can never hurt your eyes) is ultraviolet light. I got behind a truck windshield, because the ultraviolet can't go through glass, so that would be safe, and so I could see the damn thing. 

Time comes, and this tremendous flash out there is so bright that I duck, and I see this purple splotch on the floor of the truck. I said, "That's not it. That's an after-image." So I look back up, and I see this white light changing into yellow and then into orange. Clouds form and disappear again--from the compression and expansion of the shock wave. 

Finally, a big ball of orange, the center that was so bright, becomes a ball of orange that starts to rise and billow a little bit and get a little black around the edges, and then you see it's a big ball of smoke with flashes on the inside of the fire going out, the heat. 

All this took about one minute. It was a series from bright to dark, and I had seen it. I am about the only guy who actually looked at the damn thing--the first Trinity test. Everybody else had dark glasses, and the people at six miles couldn't see it because they were all told to lie on the floor. I'm probably the only guy who saw it with the human eye. 

Actually, Feynman wasn't the only person who chose not to don their safety glasses that day. Ralph Carlisle Smith, the future assistant director of Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, also observed the explosion with the naked eye. Here's what he saw:

"I was staring straight ahead with my open left eye covered by a welders glass and my right eye remaining open and uncovered. Suddenly, my right eye was blinded by a light which appeared instantaneously all about without any build up of intensity. My left eye could see the ball of fire start up like a tremendous bubble or nob-like mushroom. I Dropped the glass from my left eye almost immediately and watched the light climb upward. The light intensity fell rapidly hence did not blind my left eye but it was still amazingly bright. It turned yellow, then red, and then beautiful purple. At first it had a translucent character but shortly turned to a tinted or colored white smoke appearance. The ball of fire seemed to rise in something of toadstool effect. Later the column proceeded as a cylinder of white smoke; it seemed to move ponderously. A hole was punched through the clouds but two fog rings appeared well above the white smoke column."

There are other accounts, of course, from those who did not actually see an atomic explosion, but felt its effects infinitely more than either Feynman or Smith. Over 100,000 people lost their lives when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagaski. Here are a few of their stories.

Source: "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!"

(Image: Jack Aeby)

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