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The Demon-Haunted World

“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

  • Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

The White Sands Proving Ground sits in the Jornada del Muerto desert, southeast of Socorro, New Mexico. On July 16, 1945, it became the test site for the world’s first nuclear detonation. The Manhattan Project – the race to build the bomb – had started modestly enough six years earlier, but as it gained momentum would go on to employ more than 130,000 people and expend the equivalent of $26 billion in today’s money.

Among the scientists and military men in attendance, there was no consensus as to what the results might be. The physicist Norman Ramsey forecast that the bomb would fail to go off completely. Robert Oppenheimer predicted an explosive yield equivalent to 300 tons of TNT. The Ukrainian-American chemist George Kistiakowsky plumped for 1,400 tons of TNT. The German-American physicist Hans Bethe went for 8,000 tons of TNT. The Polish-born physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi chose 18,000 tons of TNT (he would win the bet).

But the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi proposed a different wager altogether. He darkly suggested two options: given that the atmosphere would ignite, would the blast destroy just the state, or would it incinerate the entire planet ?

Fermi’s prediction was not as outlandish as it sounds today. Earlier in the war, in the spring of 1942, German physicists approached Hitler’s Minister for War Production, Albert Speer, to discuss the possibility of their building a nuclear bomb…

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