Though it was still early in the morning, it was already becoming hot in the Jornado de Muerto desert, about 35 miles southeast of Socorro, New Mexico. On this day, the sixteenth day of July, 1945, the world was about to change forever.
At 05:29, the United States Army detonated the first ever nuclear weapon. As huge sunlight flash subsided and the mushroom cloud rose into the air, amongst the 425 people in attendance was the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory where the bomb had been designed, Dr J Robert Oppenheimer. He later said that the sight of the explosion brought to mind words from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita:
Developing the technology behind such a device had been his life’s work, and within days of that morning in the desert the dropping of bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on August the 6th and 9th respectively, effectively ended the Second World War. The only nuclear bombs to have been used in combat, they killed between 90,000 and 146,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000 and 80,000 people in Nagasaki, with roughly half of those dying on the first day. 95% of those who died were civilians.
There’s no knowing how long the war might have continued without those bombs of course, or at what cost in terms of lives. History changed course at that point, leaving those stark figures as the epitaph to the largest war the world has ever known.
Oppenheimer’s moral conscience about his place in this history as “the Father of the Atom Bomb” was complex and nuanced. Two years after the bombs had extinguished both life and war at the same time, he would tell his peers that they had “dramatised so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war”, and connected science to the idea of sin like never before.
Yet when asked to reflect later in his life, he claimed to carry “no weight on my conscience”, seeing the scientist’s role as distinct and detached from the governments who decided to use their work. Scientists do science. Governments do war.
I’m not sure I could disconnect myself from the responsibility for my actions quite like that. But then I’ve never been indirectly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in a flash. Perhaps that would be the only way to live with it.
And here we are, a month under 67 years later, and the mere threat of those same bombs that Dr Oppenheimer came up with allows a country to invade another and no one can do anything to stop them, just in case.
Oppenheimer never could have imagined. At the very first, it was all about the science. As Jeff Goldblum’s character memorably says in the first Jurassic Park movie:
Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.
It makes me wonder about all the other people who started out with good or decent intentions, and ended up making the world worse.
The people behind Twitter is an obvious one. Created as a way to connect people all over the world, it’s ended up being a place where the positive connections and sharing and love is vastly outnumbered by the division and demarcation and disunion. Where people can anonymously shout and threaten without consequence, and conflicting interested parties can choose to create and curate hatred and vitriol.
Google was set up to “democratise information’. Now they sell our personal data to whomever wants it so they can convince us to buy shit we don’t need, with money we don’t have. They could, and didn’t stop to think if they should.
Facebook was set up by pretty grim people for pretty grim original reasons, and then morphed into something that was nice for a bit but now is as bad if not worse as Twitter. For every local community group, there are ten more sowing dangerous lies, giving legitimacy to lies which in times gone by would have died on the edges of society. Connect enough crackpots and they’ll convince each other they’re all right.
[There’s no question this extreme online discourse has leaked into society as a whole. If you haven’t seen David Baddiel’s excellent documentary on the BBC then check it out in iPlayer here.]
There’s an old cliché that “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions”, but it’s a cliché because it’s true, of course. And on much smaller levels we all have it in our own lives.
As I say, I’ve never invented an atomic bomb, but I have been so desparate to avoid having to make people redundant that I ended up making things worse in the long run. I have allowed loyalty and hope to cloud my judgment. I have had times when the utopian working environment I was aiming for looked more like a sweatshop. I have tried to make someone laugh with a joke that actually made them cry. I have tried to hold everyhing together for everyone else and ended up forgetting myself. It”s no bomb, but I can learn from my “what have I done?” moments anyway.
You’re not Dr Oppenheimer either. But imagine for a second that you could undo the thing you did that’s put you in the situation you never planned for and don’t want to be in right now. Compare that to inventing the atomic bomb. One thing can’t be undone, but I wonder if the thing you’re thinking of can?
If it can, fix it. It doesn’t matter how, although I can give you some tips on a good sorry I wrote earlier here.
If you can’t, then don’t push it away and deny it, like the good doctor. But don’t carry it with you either like a stone in your shoe. We all make mistakes, even when the intentions are good. Instead just acknowledge, learn, and move forward.
It’s not about what you’ve done. Because there isn’t a damn thing you can do about that. It’s about what you’re going to do next which makes things better.
So go. Do that.