All Roads Lead from Trinity: Nuclear Engineering, Quantum Computing, and the Birth of the Modern World as We Know It

When people think of nuclear, they may consider the power of the future, or more importantly, knowing the difference between tritium and plutonium. They may think of John Hershey and his interviewees. They may remember the ghosts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, those innocent apparitions in concrete, black brockenspectres of carbon frozen in time, ever haunting the landscape of lost humanity. As a person of Ryukyuan descent, and indeed, someone of Japanese origin, it is impossible for me not to imagine the terrors my forebears were victims of and held witness to. Between the two bombings, over a hundred thousand Japanese people lost their lives. These atomic strikes ended the Imperial era of Japan and cemented a monolith of American power into Asia. The restitution is ongoing and incomplete. Nuclear engineering catalyzed a new kind of war, giving birth to the Space Race, the Computer Age, the Age of Generative AI, the Modern Life and perhaps the crisis of meaning as we now know it.

On July 16th, 1945, at 5:29 a.m. MST, the United States military detonated the first nuclear weapon in the sands of the Jornada del Muerto desert, just 35 miles from Socorro, New Mexico.

Perhaps it is too soon to say, but this particular era of the Anthropocene may be demarcated by the advent of nuclear exhibitionism. Films such as Colossus feature AI entities programmed on human intent becoming their own agents. The risk of a world-ending scenario is one of the factors that are calculated in “first-strike”, where the scale of harm is the key to risk in negotiations with nuclear world powers. The computer engineered during WWII to crack cyphers, used to track down nuclear-powered German submarines, is the source from which these AI are born. Later, such methods pioneered by Manhattan Project alumnus Richard Feynman directly contributed to the development of quantum computing. These days, some of the top buzz words in science communication are AI, quantum computing, and nuclear fusion. Typically, technologies follow a curve, whereby governments are the primary funding source of science and technology. Then, said tech flows out to consumers, saturates the market, and eventually obsolesces – planned or not. Given the priority militarization of tech first, it would seem that we, as a species, channeled these greatest horrors of war into digital ghosts and then refined, assembled, and poured their base elements straight back into our waking lives. Before this moment in history, civilization was marked by expeditions, extractions, and enslavements. Put it simply, humanity waged war for resources and cultural supremacy with our fists and with sticks and stones, and then eventually with our ideas and with automatic guns; now we may do so with particles, with bits of information rather than direct physical violence. That the result of such engineering may ultimately be driven by the desires of the collective is a haunting suspicion. Indeed, we are heading into uncharted territory.

“Eckles says he once had a commanding officer who insisted that the Trinity site is second only to Bethlehem—the birthplace of Christ—in world importance. That sounds like crazy talk, but think about it: This is the spot where the modern world was forged in fire. Nearly every major international conflict since 1945, every Cold War nightmare of a holocaust raining from above, every paranoia-fueled overreach by nuke-fearing politicians, every incident in which humankind stepped right up to the line of self-immolation, every child’s suspicion that ducking under a school desk might not be enough, is touched by the scorched tendrils that stretch from Trinity. That’s because Trinity follows you home.”

NatGeo

Trinity Site obelisk. The black plaque on top reads: “Trinity Site Where The World’s First Nuclear Device Was Exploded On July 16, 1945 Erected 1965 White Sands Missile Range J. Frederick Thorlin Major General U.S. Army Commanding”. The gold plaque below it declares the site a National Historic Landmark, and reads: “Trinity Site has been designated a National Historical Landmark This Site Possesses National Significance In Commemorating The History of the United States of America 1975 National Park Service United States Department of the Interior”. Photo in the public domain.

The historical connections between quantum mechanics, computing, and nuclear engineering date back to the 1940s, when scientists at the Manhattan Project developed the first computers to crack cyphers and track down German submarines. This power has become a part of our everyday lives, spawning applications of the quantum from the nuclear to the industrial scale. The implications of these technologies have far reaching consequences as of yet to be fully comprehended, and the legacy of this first detonation has shaped the world and continues to shape our future. Humanity may very well be in its middle age, and yet, our technology is in its infancy. It may very well outlive us, evolve, and speciate the planet and other worlds, to flourish as we could not.

“Back when the earth was still unscarred, when technology meant only accrued acts in a fire, a Sioux Indian had warned, “This is the fire that will help the generations to come if they use it in a sacred manner. But if they do not use it well, the fire will have the power to do them great harm.” Technology had come to mean a great deal more by December 2nd, 1942. On that day at 3:25 PM in a secret improvised laboratory beneath the football stadium at the University of Chicago, Enrico Fermi and a team of scientists set off a self-sustaining atom-splitting chain reaction in this first controlled experiment. They achieved nuclear fission. The Atomic Age was born. Again, the choice was life or death. The Atomic Energy Commission put it much the same way as the Sioux Indian long before. Nuclear weapons and atomic electric power are symbolic of the atomic age. On one side, frustration and world destruction; on the other, creativity and a common ground for peace and cooperation. We have lived since that time under what President Kennedy called “a nuclear sword of Damocles”. The single hair holding the sword back is our own determination that the final button shall not be pressed. We are a generation born into a world capable of possible self-annihilation because the sword sometimes dips close to our necks.”

from the Center for the Humanities, 1972 (see related post: Human Values in an Age of Technology)

The manipulation and simulation of particles on a subatomic level utilizes the principles of quantum mechanics to create vastly more powerful computers with a much greater ability to process data. Even more powerful computers will soon be built with a much greater ability to process data: as of today, quantum computers can solve a problem 158 million times faster than the fastest (standard) supercomputer. Quantum computers perform tasks that would take traditional supercomputers 10,000 years to complete, in just four minutes. Quantum computers use quantum mechanical phenomena, such as superposition and entanglement, to perform calculations that are difficult or impossible for classical computers. This has led to a number of new technologies and applications, including the development of AI. Research originally pioneered by Manhattan Project scientists has enabled the creation of more powerful and efficient computer systems, as well as the development of quantum computing, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning algorithms (Biamonte et al., 2017).

The developments of nuclear technology and quantum computing are closely entwined, with the principles of quantum mechanics playing a crucial role in the development of nuclear technology. This has led to the development of more efficient nuclear reactors as well as the potential to explore new sources of energy, such as fusion. One of the key ways in which quantum mechanics has enabled the development of nuclear technology is through the concept of nuclear binding energy. Nuclear binding energy is the energy required to break apart the nucleus of an atom into its constituent protons and neutrons (Gamow, 1928). The concept of nuclear binding energy is important in the development of nuclear technology because it allows scientists to predict the stability of different atomic nuclei. For example, if the binding energy of a nucleus is high, it is more stable and less likely to undergo nuclear reactions. On the other hand, if the binding energy of a nucleus is low, it is less stable and more likely to undergo nuclear reactions. In addition to the concept of nuclear binding energy, quantum mechanics has also enabled the development of nuclear technology through nuclear fission. Nuclear fission is the process by which the nucleus of an atom is split into two smaller nuclei, releasing a large amount of energy (Fermi, 1934). This process occurs when a nucleus absorbs a neutron, causing it to become unstable and undergo fission. The binding energy of a nucleus can be calculated using the following equation:

BE = M(nucleus) – [M(protons) + M(neutrons)]

where BE is the binding energy, M(nucleus) is the mass of the nucleus, and M(protons) and M(neutrons) are the masses of the protons and neutrons, respectively.

Nuclear power is produced by harnessing the energy released during the process of nuclear fission, in which the nucleus of an atom is split into two smaller nuclei (International Atomic Energy Agency). This process releases a large amount of energy, which is used to generate electricity in nuclear power plants. Nuclear power plants have several advantages over other energy sources, including their ability to generate electricity on a large scale and their low carbon emissions. However, they also have major disadvantages, including the potential for critical accidents and the logistical problems and hazards of the long-term storage of nuclear waste. Nuclear is considered a ‘pink’ energy source, as these cons are but modest drawbacks compared to the facts: nuclear power currently supplies around 10% of the world’s electricity and has the potential to meet the energy needs of a growing population while drastically reducing carbon emissions, a feat unaccomplished by wind and solar, and whereby cleaner and safer nuclear solutions may fill the gaps in energy demand.

The potential of quantum computing is not limited to energy production and space exploration. The development of nuclear technology has also enabled the development of medical treatments that use radiation to diagnose and treat diseases, such as cancer and heart disease. In addition, quantum computing has enabled the development of powerful AI and machine learning algorithms that are being used to create new drugs and materials, optimize supply chains and logistics, and improve weather forecasting. By utilizing quantum mechanics, physicists can use quantum computing to simulate the behavior of subatomic particles, allowing them to better understand how nuclear reactions occur. This has allowed for the development of more efficient nuclear reactors, as well as the potential to explore new sources of energy, such as the design of tokamak and other compact reactors for fusion energy. By allowing for the simulation of nuclear reactions on a quantum level, scientists are able to develop better and more efficient reactors. This has allowed for the development of new energy sources, as well as the potential to explore the use of nuclear power in new and innovative ways.

Quantum mechanics has enabled not only the development of nuclear technology on Earth, but also in medicine and space exploration. In medicine, quantum mechanics has enabled the development of technologies such as MRI, PET, and CT scans, which are used to diagnose and treat diseases (World Nuclear Association, 2020). Nuclear medicine, a field of medicine that utilizes radiation to diagnose and treat diseases, has been greatly advanced by the principles of quantum mechanics. Nuclear medicine techniques, such as positron emission tomography (PET) and single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scans, use radiation to create images of the body and to diagnose and treat diseases such as cancer and heart disease. In space exploration, quantum mechanics has enabled the development of sensors that can detect and measure particles in space, such as radiation, allowing for the exploration of planets and other celestial bodies (International Atomic Energy Agency). The principles of quantum mechanics have also enabled the development of nuclear technology for use in space exploration. Nuclear propulsion systems, such as nuclear-electric propulsion (NEP) and nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP), have been developed to provide propulsion for spacecraft, allowing for faster and more efficient space exploration (World Nuclear Association, 2020). Nuclear reactors have also been developed and used to provide power for spacecraft and planetary exploration, such as the Mars Science Laboratory on the Curiosity rover (which is powered by a plutonium-238 based nuclear power system). Pioneer 10 was the first spacecraft to use all-nuclear electric power and explored millions of miles beyond our solar system (NASA).

Nuclear engineering and quantum computing have enabled us to explore new frontiers and to create powerful tools that have been used in almost every aspect of our lives. Despite the reckless race to build weapons brought on by the developments and strategies of the Cold War, many helpful technologies have arisen from the struggle that erupted from ground zero at Trinity. Yet the scars remain: to this day, nuclear disarmament remains a pipedream despite the many accomplishments brought on by breakthroughs in science. These technologies have been used to improve almost every aspect of our lives and have enabled us to expand our frontiers, despite what many are calling an impending collapse of cultural norms and societal stability due to future shock and the rapid decline of widely shared intersubjective experiences. As a consequence of information technologies and the normalization of busyness, we may have expanded our consciousness while diluting the potency of our overall intent. Although it may seem that our attention shifts like a deck of cards on a given day, it is clear that there are still many potential applications of these technologies that have yet to be explored, as it is said, for better or for worse. From medicine and space exploration to the development of powerful AI, these technologies have irrevocably changed our species, even directing our evolution as we have yet to understand it. We may yet be able to create a world where the greatest technology is for the benefit, much rather than the domination, of humanity and our ecosystems. Perhaps the greatest of these is not in the atom, but within our hearts and imaginations, after all.

Adlai Stevenson said, “Nature is neutral. Man has wrested from nature the power to make the world a desert or to make the desert bloom. There is no evil in the atom. Only in men’s souls.”

Human Values in an Age of Technology. Center for the Humanities, 1972.


References

Books

Feynman, R. (2000). The pleasure of finding things out. Perseus Books.

Hawking, S. (1988). A brief history of time. Bantam Dell.

Gribbin, J. (1984). In search of Schrödinger’s cat: Quantum physics and reality. Bantam Books.

Journal Articles

Deppe, F. (2010). Quantum computing. In M. Rieth (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (pp. 796-817). American Scientific Publishers.

Feynman, R. (1982). Simulating physics with computers. International Journal of Theoretical Physics, 21(6-7), 467-488.

Berger, M. J. (2004). The Manhattan Project and the beginnings of the Nuclear Age. Physics in Perspective, 6(1), 75-103.

Biamonte, J., Wittek, P., Pancotti, N., Rebentrost, P., Wiebe, N., & Lloyd, S. (2017). Quantum machine learning. Nature, 549(7671), 195-202.

Fermi, E. (1934). On the possibility of observing the neutrino. Zeitschrift für Physik, 88(11-12), 161-169.

Gamow, G. (1928). Zur Quantentheorie der Atomkerne. Zeitschrift für Physik, 51(3-4), 204-212.

Webpages

International Atomic Energy Agency. How nuclear power works. https://www.iaea.org/topics/nuclear-power/how-nuclear-power-works

IBM. Quantum applications and use cases. https://www.ibm.com/quantum-computing/applications-use-cases/

World Nuclear Association. (2020). Nuclear power in the world today. https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/current-and-future-generation/nuclear-power-in-the-world-today.aspx

National Geographic. Trekked to a nuclear crater to see where the atomic age first began. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/trekked-nuclear-crater-to-see-atomic-age-first-began

National Geographic. Einstein, Szilard, and the refrigerator encouraged development of nuclear weapons. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/nuclear-weapons-atom-bomb-einstein-genius-science

National Geographic. How the advent of nuclear weapons changed history. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/how-advent-nuclear-weapons-changed-history

Manhattan Project History. Retrieved from https://www.osti.gov/opennet/manhattan-project-history/Events/1945-present/public_reaction.htm

The Trinity Test: the Day the Nuclear Age Began. Rare Historical Photos. https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/trinity-test-day-nuclear-age-began-1945/

Norsar. (2020, July 16). 75th Anniversary of the First Atomic Bomb. Norsar. https://www.norsar.no/in-focus/75th-anniversary-of-the-first-atomic-bomb

Sidorov, P. (2023). Quantum Computing in Business. MDPI, 4(1), 10. https://doi.org/10.3390/app4010010

Egan, J. (2023, February). The computer that will change everything. Chicago magazine. https://www.chicagomag.com/chicago-magazine/february-2023/the-computer-that-will-change-everything/

Techopedia Contributors. (2021). Is Quantum Computing for Real? Techopedia. https://www.techopedia.com/is-quantum-computing-for-real/2/34913

Crist, E. (2021, September 21). What is quantum computing? Livescience. https://www.livescience.com/quantum-computing

NASA. Pioneer 10: In Depth. https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/missions/pioneer-10/in-depth/

NASA. Mars Science Laboratory Rover Power. https://mars.nasa.gov/msl/spacecraft/rover/power/#:~:text=The%20rover%20requires%20power%20to,heat%20of%20plutonium%27s%20radioactive%20decay

Ducheyne, S. (2021, September 30). We’ve always been distracted (or at least worried that we are). Aeon. https://aeon.co/essays/weve-always-been-

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