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Kathleen Bangs
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There’s an atom of Oppenheimer in all of us

As it was with the A-bomb, today's tech geniuses tout their latest AI advancement, even as they warn it might destroy us
(Illustration by Avi Katz)
(Illustration by Avi Katz)

For a lifetime, I’d wanted to experience the home of mankind’s first atomic blast. Trinity Site opens just two days a year, but I was lost in the remote New Mexico desert, with haywire GPS coordinates leading nowhere. Finally, a distant caravan led to the gates. That only a few dozen other atomic junkies shuffled inside the barbed wire surprised me. I expected a crowd.

Now, with the film “Oppenheimer,” moviegoers are experiencing Trinity Site, huddled together in the dark around a bright screen. Just as the real J. Robert Oppenheimer huddled with his team of scientists, waiting for humanity’s brightest flash to bleach the night sky.

What compels millions to witness this onscreen recreation? Historical curiosity? Sure, we’re interested in the enigmatic physicist.

But could it be there’s a part of the atomic bomb’s father in all of us?

Back inside Trinity’s gate, I made my way to the stone obelisk marking Ground Zero. A humbling privilege akin to walking a neighborhood walloped by an F5 tornado. Except instead of obliterated houses across the ground, a secret haunts the desert sand.

That on July 16, 1945, at 5:29 a.m., hell on earth unleashed where I stood. And for an instant, the blast was hotter than our sun. Sand swirled up inside the fireball and rained down as molten radioactive liquid, a new form of glassy green rock, dubbed “trinitite.”

Warning signs remind visitors that pocketing trinitite is illegal. Fat chance. Decades ago, the government hauled away or bulldozed it all underground. Yet, ants occasionally nudge pieces to the surface.

After a few photographs, I headed toward a table of Geiger counters. In the sand, something green sparkled. Radioactive trinitite. Dangerous if ingested, but safe enough for a shelf in the garage? Lucky for me, yes.

With a clandestine glance, I knelt down, feeling a mix of exhilaration and trepidation, picked up the small treasure, and slipped it into the recesses of my suede boot. The remnant carried the delineation of a world transformed. The technological equivalent of Before Christ and AD.

Oppenheimer is remembered for quoting the sacred Hindu Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Forgotten is what he said next: “I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.” It took more than one man to create a weapon capable of mankind’s annihilation. It took a village called Manhattan Project. Called Los Alamos. And, in a way, called America.

During my “Oppenheimer” IMAX matinee, the packed audience watched in popcorn-drop silence. Restrained. Waiting. For what? The film’s nude scenes were hyped, but the moviegoers anticipated a bigger tantalizing moment. Much bigger.

The mushroom cloud money shot.

As Nolan’s relentless soundtrack score paused, I turned to observe the crowd. Not a twitch. A theater of unblinking eyes. What if the onscreen characters did not activate the button? And instead, each seat had its own detonator installed. What does it say about us that we would, excitedly or reluctantly, nevertheless push that button?

We came for the blast in all its slow-motion terrifying glory. Maybe our fascination means we recognize the power of the atom to awe. And appreciate the ferocious beauty of an atomic chain reaction, even if the fallout is a lingering sense of shame.

Puzzling that we grasp the nuclear bomb’s correlation with artificial intelligence in a very Oppenheimer-ish way, but stop short of reining in AI’s spread. Tech geniuses tout their latest AI advancement even as they warn it might destroy us.

Why can’t we stop ourselves from racing inexhaustibly towards cliffs of the scientific unknown, from bombs to virus gain-of-function to AI, even as we bemoan the risks?

We plod forward on a planet made radioactive from our own endeavors. Whether or not you harbor a bit of Oppenheimer, if born after 1951, you do harbor radioactive isotopes within your body from more than 2,000 nuclear bombs exploded worldwide. Call it mankind’s telltale signature.

Maybe if we listen to our inner wisdom, as the half-life of our radiation burden decays, each generation’s gift to the next will be the absence of any new fallout. Leaving our old atomic radioactivity behind as a dusty relic. Like the trinitite in a cob-webbed corner of my garage. What might become the artifacts of our future AI regrets remains anyone’s guess.

About the Author
Kathleen Bangs is an award-winning journalist, commercial pilot, and on-air aerospace and airline industry guest commentator for major media broadcast outlets and documentaries.
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