Illustration by Angelika Manhart
The sincerest form of flattery

Missive from the Mojave

By Tobias Brosch

“Come, Dr. Oppenheimer,” said Dr. Bainbridge to his old friend and colleague, “I must have you mingle. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner.”

“I most certainly shall not. I still need to adjust the Geiger counter. Dr. Kistiakowsky fiddled with it earlier, but you know how much I detest when mediocre, merely tolerable intellects dilute the efforts of great minds such as yours and mine. You had better return to Mr. Groves and enjoy his political ramblings &c., for you are wasting your time with me.”

Dr. Bainbridge knew better than to force Dr. Oppenheimer into any unwanted sociality and left him to himself. He, and everybody else present in the large bomb shelter in the middle of the Mojave Desert, knew that the responsibility for their endeavor rested firmly and completely on the shoulders of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Trinity project, a tall, good-looking, well-groomed, highly intelligent, if somewhat impatient man, who was aiming to open Pandora’s box and unleash powers heretofore unknown to mankind, and was thus presently not all too amenable to a chatting with General Groves.

The scene inside the shelter resembled a well-choreographed bourée*: two dozen academic doctors, their assistants, and a party of military observers busily moving about, adjusting their batteries of scientific instruments, radios and binoculars, finishing the last preparations for the blast, result of three years of secret planning and development.

Finally the time for the main business of the afternoon approached. As radio broadcasts began counting the interval, Dr. Oppenheimer stared out the window, his gaze fixed on the horizon, his expression hardened, wondering whether the explosion would actually ignite the atmosphere and set the whole planet on fire, an outcome he considered highly undesirable, as potentially damaging to his academic reputation. As a burst of light was followed by roaring thunder, but by no atmospheric ignition whatsoever, his face relaxed into an expression of tremendous relief. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” he murmured, rather pleased with himself, while around him several of the observers were knocked flat by the blast. Indeed, the afternoon altogether passed pleasantly for the whole research assembly.

Later that day, Dr. Oppenheimer returned in good spirits to the mansion he inhabited with his wife Kitty. “Oh my dear Kitty,” he exclaimed as he entered the kitchen, “we have had a most delightful afternoon. The whole country was lighted by a searing brightness with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined. You should have come, my beloved.”


*French country dance, danced in quick double time, somewhat resembling the gavotte

A postdoc at NYU from 2009-2011, Tobias Brosch is now an assistant professor at the University of Geneva, where he directs the Consumer Decision and Sustainable Behavior Lab. Tobias is interested in understanding how emotions and values help us understand our complex environment and influence our choices.