“…And these atomic bombs which science burst upon the world that night were strange, even to the men who used them”.
So quoted HG Wells in his prophetic 1914 novel, The World Set Free. Wells’ book was the first to christen the ‘atomic bomb’. And his story led non-stop to Hiroshima.
By the dawning of the twentieth century it was clear that some form of atomic energy was responsible for powering the stars. Scientists such as the great nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford and his co-worker, Frederick Soddy, realised that atoms were the seats of enormous energies. And even though Rutherford is alleged to have suggested ‘some fool in a laboratory might blow up the universe unawares’, both Rutherford and Soddy trusted nature to ‘guard her secret’. HG Wells begged to differ.
His timetable for the development of nuclear capability is unnervingly far-sighted. In The World Set Free, the 1950s scientist who uncovers atomic energy realises there is no going back. Nonetheless, he feels, “like an imbecile who has presented a box of loaded revolvers to a crèche”. Wells also envisaged a world war in 1956, with an alliance of France, England and America, against Germany and Austria.
Wells’ book predicts a holocaust. The world’s major cities are annihilated by small atomic bombs dropped by aeroplanes. This is no mere guesswork. Wells’ weapons are truly nuclear; Einstein’s equivalence of matter converted into fiery and explosive energy triggered by a chain reaction.
Wells’ visionary novel was the guiding light for brilliant Hungarian physicist Leo Szilárd. After reading The World Set Free in 1932, Szilárd became the first scientist to seriously examine the nuclear physics behind the fiction.
On reading an article in The Times by Rutherford rejecting the idea of using atomic energy for practical purposes, Szilárd was incensed. His fury, fused with his legendary quick wit, enabled Szilárd to dream up the very idea of the nuclear chain reaction that Rutherford denied while waiting for traffic lights to change on Southampton Row in Bloomsbury, London. One year later Szilárd filed for a patent on the concept.
Szilárd became the driving force behind the Manhattan Project. It was his idea to send a letter in August 1939 to Franklin D Roosevelt outlining the possibility of nuclear weapons. The two brilliant and influential Jewish scientists feared the irresistible rise of a Nazi Bomb.
Within months the Manhattan Project was launched. It would eventually possess around 130,000 employees, and a total cost of $2 billion ($20 billion in today’s figures). The project output? Detonation of three nuclear weapons in 1945: the Trinity test detonation in July in New Mexico, a uranium bomb, ‘Little Boy’, detonated on August 6 over Hiroshima, and a plutonium bomb, ‘Fat Man’, discharged on August 9 over Nagasaki.
Wells’ fiction became factual terror over Japan. As the 320,000 inhabitants of Hiroshima were waking up, the Bomb burst over the city. Thousands were slain in a second. Vapourised by light and energy; heat death. Ghostly shadows on nearby walls their only remains. They were the lucky ones. Victims further from the blast were blinded, or had their skin and hair ablaze. Later they would lose the white blood cells needed to fight the escalating disease.
Szilárd had hoped that President Truman would merely ‘demonstrate’ the Bomb. Not use it against cities as in Wells’ The World Set Free. But as the war raged on, scientists lost the power over their research.
The Manhattan Project’s lead scientist, Robert Oppenheimer mulled over the ‘atomic bomb’ first realised by Wells. Oppenheimer spoke for many physicists when he said, “In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humour, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”