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Seven Decades Ago, A New, Enormous Kind Of Explosion


Seventy years ago this week in the New Mexico desert, U.S. Army scientists detonated the very first atomic bomb. To mark that moment, we called up one of the physicists involved. Benjamin Bederson is professor emeritus of physics at New York University. And back in the early 1940s, he was a New York City kid showing lots of promise studying physics in college. All that got put on hold for World War II. Bederson, along with hundreds of other young scientists, was recruited to join the top-secret Manhattan Project, and he soon found himself in Los Alamos, N.M.

BENJAMIN BEDERSON: We were all young kids in their early 20s with science backgrounds. We lived in barracks. Our bosses were all senior scientists, mostly physicists, many with worldwide reputations. But even the most famous physicists require hands, and we were really the hands of the Manhattan project.

GREENE: Bederson's team worked long days, focusing on a key part of the project.

BEDERSON: We were assigned to design, develop and test the triggers that would trigger the explosives surrounding the plutonium core that would compress the plutonium and produce a critical reaction.

GREENE: Now, by the time of the first test in the New Mexico desert, he'd already shipped off to the South Pacific to ready the bomb that would be dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. Bederson says to understand how honored he and the other young scientists felt being part of this project, you have to place yourself in that moment.

BEDERSON: There was a furious war going on in both Europe and the South Pacific. I was thrilled with the idea that I was working on a project that might help end the war sooner than anybody had dreamed it could happen.

GREENE: The bomb Bederson was working on was dropped with devastating effects on Nagasaki on August 9. And six days later, Japan surrendered. Physicist Benjamin Bederson spoke with us on this 70th anniversary of the first atomic explosion. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.