Donne and the Bomb

In response to:

God in the Computer from the December 17, 1998 issue

To the editors:

In your December 17, 1998, issue, Keith Thomas, drawing on the book by David Noble he was reviewing, writes that when Robert Oppenheimer gave “the code name ‘Trinity’ to the first nuclear test at Alamogordo,” New Mexico, he “had been influenced by a poem by John Donne.” In a letter in your April 8, 1999, issue, Russell Seitz tries to contradict this statement, writing that the text Oppenheimer cited was taken not from the New Testament but from the Baghavad Gita.

But Mr. Seitz has confused the naming of the test site with what Oppenheimer allegedly said when the test took place. When in 1962 General Leslie Groves wrote to Robert Oppenheimer to ask him how he had thought of the name Trinity for the atomic test site in New Mexico where the first nuclear test was done, Oppenheimer told him it was he had been reading Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” and in particular the fourteenth, which begins “Batter my heart, three personed God….” On the matter of what Oppenheimer said immediately after the explosion, his brother Frank, who was standing next to him, told me that he heard him say, “It worked!”

Jeremy Bernstein
New York City