Essays Life

Trinitite: Beauty and the Bomb

I like to think I’m not someone who is easily frightened, but I do have one mostly irrational fear: atomic bombs. 

I have been told that this is silly, and I agree. It’s called an irrational fear for a reason. But I spend too much time getting elbow deep in Cold War-era spy thrillers to avoid the atomic fear echoing up out of the past. 

People my age, born during the fall of the Soviet Union, tend to laugh at the idea of “duck and cover.” Fallout isn’t death on the wind, it’s the newly anticipated video game from Bethesda. 

Trinitite, a.k.a atomsite, a.k.a Alamogordo glass, a.k.a atomic glass (via Wikipedia)

We’ve almost forgotten that atomic weaponry is a terrible thing. If you’re a Millennial or younger, I’ll just leave you with these links to read about Tsar Bomba, the Demon Core,* the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the ongoing effect Soviet nuclear testing in Kazakhstan is having on the people who live there.

It’s strange to think, but even the beautiful things that arose from nuclear bomb detonations are tainted by their origins. 

J. Robert Oppenheimer and others studying the remains of an observation tower at the Trinity test site, via Wikimedia and this very interesting Project Gutenberg publication

Trinitite is a mineral found in the blast craters of the 1945 Trinity nuclear bomb tests in Alamogordo, New Mexico. It has a couple different names: atomic glass, Alamogordo glass, and atomsite. It’s a green glass created by the immense heat and pressure caused by the atomic blasts that fused the sand with radioactive materials and pieces of the bomb itself and surrounding structures.

When scientists went out to the test sites, they described the blast crater and surrounding area as covered in a sea of jade green glass. Even though the area was supposed to be heavily guarded and secret, samples of trinitite because appearing in mineral collections. It was thought at the time that there was no risk of harm from radiation since they thought trinitite was merely a heat reaction and not caused by any kind of nuclear reaction at all.

This was… not wise. While not really radioactive enough to cause immediate danger, trinitite was still radioactive. Trinitite was crafted into necklaces and earrings, and advertised to women.

This makes me nervous. While I can’t find any accounts of even the mildest case of radiation poisoning (and a display in New Mexico uses a Geiger counter to compare the levels of radiation between a sample of trinitite and some old school Fiesta cookware.) I can’t help but wonder if some doctor is puzzled about odd cases of thyroid or skin cancer popping up in fans of retro jewelry. 

Trinitite jewelry was also used for a more sinister purpose: as a misinformation campaign against the Japanese victims of the atomic bombs dropped by the U.S. at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You see, if American women are parading around, sparkling with green jewelry created from a by product of nuclear explosions, how bad off could the Japanese be?**

Back in Alamogordo, New Mexico, the theft of trinitite was becoming a problem. The government banned people from taking trinitite from Alamogordo, and eventually the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission bulldozed over the site completely in 1953 to deter thieves and collectors. 

While samples of pre-prohibition trinitite can be found for sale online, the popularity of the mineral has caused faux-trinitite to be created and sold. While the process of making trinitite can be replicated, only true trinitite contains the radioactive traces that were produced in the Trinity blasts.

Though, if I’m going to choose… I might choose the less radioactive option.

*This is a future blog post unto itself. I have thoughts about the Demon Core. Philosophical and spiritual thoughtsThoughts I tend to think on a regular basis which keep me from sleeping. For another time, though…

**Seriously, this is an actual thing that happened. 

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