The weight of heaven upon us

It was a snowy winter day on the Columbia University campus when physics professor John Dunning scrawled these words in his notebook, “Believe we have observed a new phenomenon of far reaching consequences.”

It was Jan. 22, 1939. Dunning and his team had just witnessed a key moment in human history: the first splitting of a uranium atom in the Western Hemisphere. Dunning had been working alongside his more famous colleague, Enrico Fermi, when the pair decided to take pure uranium, bombard it with neutrons in a cyclotron and see if they could prompt the release of energy. Release it did.

It also released a huge flow of funding for the university. Dunning’s experiment made possible the first government grant for atomic research which eventually became known as the Manhattan District Project or more commonly, the Manhattan Project (Columbia is located on Manhattan Island in New York City).

Dunning conducted the experiment while Fermi was away at a scientific meeting in Washington, D.C., but it was Fermi who would go on to greatly expand the endeavor. Fermi soon built the world’s first “atomic furnace,” which would serve as the prototype for the famous graphite and cadmium “pile” at the University of Chicago. History well-records the other notable achievements of the Manhattan Project.

A quarter century later, Dunning spoke about his involvement at the dawn of the nuclear age: “The atom is the symbol of the greatest accomplishment of the human race.”

Of course Dunning’s remarks came before the Apollo moon landing, sequencing of the human genome and the Internet. The first command of atomic energy helped make all of these subsequent technological and scientific crossroads possible, but it is no longer the singular seminal moment of the modern age.

Just as that blast of neutrons split the uranium atom, the ethical and moral impact of atomic energy has split humanity. Perhaps the most notable moment of retrospection came from physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the laboratory at Los Alamos.

On 16 July 1945, the first atomic bomb was exploded near Alamagordo, New Mexico. Oppenheimer, whose work was vital to the development of the weapon, was pensive as he famously remarked: “I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita… ‘I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”’

Oppenheimer’s quote was a bit off from the original, “I am all-powerful Time which destroys all things, and I have come here to slay these men. Even if thou doest not fight, all the warriors facing thee shall die,” but the sentiment was on point.

It has remained thus, especially the phrase, “even if thou doest not fight…” The potential of this great power has propelled humanity forward at a speed hitherto unknown, but not without noted consequences. Places like Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island all stand as reminders of the atomic tiger whose tail we have collectively grabbed.

Because the great potential for good is flanked by an equal specter of absolute destruction, nuclear energy is our modern Sword of Damocles. When rogue nations like Pakistan and Iran flirt with the destroyer of all things, innumerable parallels in ancient mythology suggest themselves. As above, Damocles, but also Pandora and Sisyphus.

Perhaps the clearest parallel is to Atlas.

When the Titans were defeated by the Olympians most were banished, but Zeus had a special punishment for Atlas. He was condemned to hold the heavens on his shoulders for all time.

Such is the apparent yoke humanity has brought upon itself with its struggle to command the atom. Yes, we have split it. We have harnessed its power, but in so doing we are now tethered to its just and safe keeping.