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Transcripts

"Kaboom!"

PBS Airdate: January 14, 1997
Go to the companion Web site

NARRATOR: Tonight on NOVA the power, the magic, the chemistry of explosives. From the secret experiments of early alchemists to the lethal legacy of Los Alamos. Explore the way we blow things up. Kaboom!

__: NOVA is funded by Prudential.

__: Prudential. Insurance, healthcare, real estate and financial services. For more than a century bringing strength and stability to America's families.

__: And by Merck. Merck, pharmaceutical research. Dedicated to preventing disease and improving health. Merck. Committed to bringing out the best in medicine. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and viewers like you.

NARRATOR: In the back of this van there's enough explosive power to blow apart an entire building. It's part of a test to understand the nature of explosions. A task that has become increasingly important in a world haunted by the threat of terrorists bombs. Today Ground Zero is a test range of the New Mexico Technical Institute where explosive scientists have been conducting trials for the FBI. Remote cameras, installed behind blast-proof slabs of steel, will capture what happens when the van blows up. The explosion will be filmed at several thousand frames per second through a mirror. Metal fragments are expected to be thrown thousands of yards, so everyone on the site must take shelter in an underground bunker.

__: Clear set. OK. Here we go. Countdown. Five, four, three, two, one.

NARRATOR: When an explosive detonates, there is a rapid rearrangement of atoms which sets off a powerful train of events. A supersonic shock wave ripples across the sand. It rises above the New Mexico skyline. The initial shockwave shatters everything in millionths of a second. The airblast which follows spreads debris over a mile. Finally, half a second after detonation, a rock shatters the mirror. The devastation is frightening, even in this barren landscape. So, how can a simple rearrangement of atoms unleash enough energy to scatter fragments over two miles?

SIDNEY ALFORD: Ah, hello! The experiments are very nearly ready.

NARRATOR: Few people know the secrets of explosive power better than Sidney Alford, an internationally-renowned explosive engineer. Like a modern-day alchemist, he can persuade the most innocent household ingredients to unlock their chemical bonds to reveal explosive potential. His cottage in England is littered with less innocent remnants of his clandestine explosive operations around the world. But this will be a controlled, backyard explosion, reduced to the simplest elements. To create a simple explosion requires three essential ingredients: a means of ignition, a fuel source, and oxygen to support the rapid combustion, which, if confined, will produce an explosion.

SIDNEY ALFORD: And there we have a very elementary explosion. We had flour, an everyday substance, which constituted the fuel component, and we had oxygen in the surrounding air, constituting the oxidizing component. We had a combustion chamber, now full of smoke, and we had a source of ignition in the cannon, now extinguished. The degree of confinement was minimal. Flour is not known for its high energy content, and therefore, we had a very gentle explosion.

NARRATOR: The first explosive mixtures were discovered by accident. In the ninth century, Chinese alchemists produced a thick toffee made from honey, saltpeter and sulphur. They hoped that by eating the substance, they might live forever. In fact, it nearly killed them. The mixture burst into flames and burnt down the alchemists' hut. They had unwittingly prepared a crude form of gunpowder. An ancient Chinese manuscript urges readers not to repeat the experiment. Eleven centuries later, Christopher Cullen, an ancient Chinese history scholar, ignores the warning and invites Sidney Alford to help him try out the forbidden recipe.

CHRISTOPHER CULLEN: One of the experienced pyrotechnicists, so I think we'll trust your judgement to the proportions. If I would say, a little more sulfur.

SIDNEY ALFORD: All right. Let's try the a little more then.

NARRATOR: Sidney Alford was skeptical of success. Honey contains water, which he thought might dampen any pyrotechnic prospects.

CULLEN: OK. Another slight stir. The whole aim of all this that's going on here is to find a way to make the human body as perfect and as long-lasting as the universe, to achieve physical immortality. So, really, it's the beginnings, ultimately, of the entire pharmacological industry, the same basic aim.

CHRISTOPHER CULLEN: Is this what you're trying to achieve, Sidney, when you make gunpowder?

SIDNEY ALFORD: No, I tend to try to make things explode rather than achieve immortality. Possibly limit the mortality of other people.

CHRISTOPHER CULLEN: Yes, that's the awful paradox, isn't it? Here they were trying to find a way how to make everybody live forever and the result is something that kills people. We've also got texts talking about all kinds of mixtures that go off—WHOOSH!—including this one that we're trying here, which a ninth century text actually gives in a list of dangerous procedures that no one should ever attempt. How's it going? Any bungles?

SIDNEY ALFORD: I think I would prefer a longer mixing stick fairly soon.

CHRISTOPHER CULLEN: Right.

NARRATOR: Being prudent, our intrepid alchemists decided to brew a small test batch.

ALFORD: Yes, double (inaudible).

CULLEN: (inaudible)

ALFORD: That looks like it.

CULLEN: And this is looking—Chemistry is just beginning to happen, now. It's getting dark a bit.

ALFORD: This is the art of chemistry and so far it's just been physics and they all made things up and mixing them, and—

CULLEN: Surely, this is—These fumes are not water alone, no. Because it's not dispersing. Dissipating.

CULLEN: No, no, no. I can see the yellow there.

ALFORD: Something's happening now.

CULLEN: Oh, something is going to happen now.

ALFORD: And there it is!

CULLEN: Very good!

ALFORD I like that! Nobody read—

CULLEN: Sorry about that! Sorry (inaudible).

NARRATOR: Alchemists playing with fire.

ALFORD: I told you it would!

NARRATOR: Some things never change.

CULLEN: (inaudible) well done.

ALFORD: We never doubted it, but—

CULLEN: They never believed me!

ALFORD OR CULLEN: Look at these greenish grassy leaves—

NARRATOR: From these early experiments, the Chinese developed gunpowder for use in rockets and firebombs. These were the world's first pyrotechnic weapons. They were also used to make the first fireworks. Fireworks hold an irresistible attraction.

REV. RON LANCASTER: Now, it only burns (inaudible).

NARRATOR: The Reverend Ron Lancaster enjoys mesmerizing children with his demonstrations.

REV. RON LANCASTER: . . .when it stops burning. The fireworks obviously have force. I mean, you are releasing a tremendous amount of energy. As the reaction proceeds, the subatomic particles which are involved are getting more and more excited in order to produce the effects that you are producing. And whether there is some kind of connection between the various electrons getting excited and people getting excited at the same time, I don't know. But certainly, the two things go together. There's no doubt about it.

NARRATOR: In an unlikely trinity, the Reverend Lancaster used to combine God, fire, and brimstone, until he stopped teaching chemistry to concentrate on fireworks, an interest he shared with his school friends.

REV. RON LANCASTER: Whilst all the other friends that I have obviously lost their interest, I didn't. The only explanation I can give you of that is that once you've smoked black powder, it's with you for the rest of your life. In other words, there's a suggestion that for some people, it's sort of in the blood, and that's certainly, without any doubt, the case with me.

NARRATOR: The Reverend Lancaster now has his own fireworks factory, and with his son Mark, who also has black powder in his blood, he is preparing for one of the biggest fireworks displays ever to be seen in London. It will celebrate the end of the Second World War.

MARK LANCASTER: One of the main kinds of fireworks we will be using at VJ Day are star shells. Star shells, which this is just a baby one, are a kind of firework which actually get fired out of these mortar tubes, so you'd place a star shell inside the mortar tube. And then the gunpowder lifting charge forces this out of the tube and the large ones go up to the heights of about—up to about a thousand feet, and then explode. Here, we have some of the larger shells that we will actually be using on the Thames. This is an eight-inch shell.

NARRATOR: This is one of your specials, is it Ron (inaudible)?

REV. RON LANCASTER: Yes. Yes. Those are very much my department, yes. Still. And Mark Lancaster makes them as well.

MARK LANCASTER: I'm not sure it's that simple. I've made a six-inch one, and he's made an even bigger one, the eight-inch one. Perhaps when I get out, I'll be able to make those as well. But, not yet. To launch it, you actually put it inside this eight-inch mortar and lower it all the way down to the bottom, and that means that this mortar will fire the shot for about a thousand feet, and then it explodes, does at least three interesting things before going out, and has a spread of about three hundred feet. So, it's a pretty serious firework.

(music)

MARK LANCASTER: It's really like nothing else on earth. You have to remember that you're standing on a very small, hollow, steel barge with about four tons of explosive surrounding you with nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and once it starts going off, the whole barge can move up to six inches down in the water. The sound is unbelievable. It's wonderful. You really feel as if you have entertained and earned your keep for the day.

(music)

NARRATOR: The explosions that engulf the London sky celebrate the end of a conflict that saw an escalation of explosive power, culminating with the atom bomb. Indeed, the tarnished history of explosives has been dominated by dangerous experiments that many perpetrators vainly hoped would never be repeated. The man who lit the fuse of European warfare was an English friar who perfected more explosive blends of gunpowder.

[ROGER BACON]: When the flame of powder toucheth the soul of man, it burneth exceeding deep.

NARRATOR: At a Franciscan monastery in Oxford, Roger Bacon spent several years investigating the magical properties of gunpowder. Medieval travellers from the east probably brought the basic recipe to Europe. Gunpowder consists of three ingredients. The most important is the white powder called saltpeter. Its modern name is potassium nitrate. It contains chemically-bound oxygen that supports rapid burning of the two fuels, sulphur and charcoal. Properly refined and mixed, they form an explosive mixture originally called "black powder." Making black powder burn was easy. Making it explode, much harder. The secret lay in the quality of the saltpeter.

SIDNEY ALFORD: If you put saltpeter on the fire, it's very obvious that something special happens. It causes the fire to burn very fiercely locally, to generate sparks. And the greater the extent to which saltpeter is purified, the more violent this reaction. Saltpeter is very often the white stuff that you can scrape, very fine crystals, from the walls of cellars. It's also the stuff that can—that oozes out of piles of soil and earth contaminated with vegetable rubbish.

NARRATOR: Because saltpeter naturally appears in soil, it is often contaminated. Roger Bacon found a way of purifying the brown sludge by concentrating the mixture and crystallizing out the white powder. Many of the things Roger Bacon tried in 1242, Sidney Alford repeated as a schoolboy in 1942. By increasing the ratio of saltpeter to charcoal and confining the powder in a paper tube, he discovered an extraordinary property. Bacon had made his first bang. Roger Bacon was a scholar who laid the foundations for modern science. He always wrote up his experiments, but his black powder investigations frightened him. He foresaw the dangers if this formulation fell into the wrong hands and decided to encode the recipe in an anagram in the Latin text. The passage ends with the words, "And so thou wilt call up thunder and destruction if thou know the art." Nothing so dangerous could remain secret. He knew that the more the powder was confined, the bigger the explosion. Roger Bacon didn't understand the chemistry, but what happens when gunpowder ignites is a violent transformation of solid ingredients into a rapidly-expanding mixture of hot gasses. If trapped inside a container, they will also cause an explosion.

CHRISTOPHER CULLEN: Now, it should take exactly the same quantity of gunpowder, but this time, confined in a cardboard tube. The effect will be rather different, and I think it would be a good idea to do this outside. This enhanced confinement will increase the speed of burning. So quite a high pressure can develop and should give more oomph, to use a technical expression. Five, four, three, two, one.

NARRATOR: Enough oomph to blast the helmet fifty feet into the air, and enough oomph to change the course of European history.

CHRISTOPHER CULLEN: Think what is shown by the fact that in 1449, the king of France did a tour of Normandy, and using his siege train, knocked down castles held by the English at the rate of five a month. It was the death knell of the old feudal system based on the stone castle, the mounted knights, and so on, and the whole social system that went with that. And what it meant was that the people who could dispose of the power to produce gunpowder weapons were the ones who could control society.

NARRATOR: For nearly a thousand years, gunpowder ruled the world. Because it will only explode when confined, it's called a low explosive. But there's a different type of explosive that will unleash its fury in the open without confinement. This unstable oil has fuel and oxygen chemically combined in one molecule. Its name is nitroglycerine. It's a high explosive which can be triggered by a hammer blow.

BOB TORRY: Now, nitroglycerine, and quite a lot of other explosives, decompose in a very different way from gunpowder. Gunpowder essentially burns. People in the trade use a fancy Latin word for it: deflagration. But it means no more than "burns." In the case of nitroglycerine however, the mechanism is very different. Not only does that material contain much more chemical energy for a given mass, but also, it decomposes very much more quickly. And this makes the explosion much more violent.

NARRATOR: The first high explosives were discovered by accident in the nineteenth century when chemists began adding nitric acid to organic compounds to make new medicines. The Italian scientist, Esconio Suprero, started experiments with organic glycerine. He created a new oxygen-rich compound: nitroglycerine. He did not realize how dangerous this liquid was until his lab exploded. Many chemists have been mauled by this beast. It held an irresistible fascination.

BOB TORRY: I'm not sure that he would have realized the full potential of this new material that he just prepared. Certainly, he would have suffered a very severe headache through tasting the nitroglycerine. The power of nitroglycerine far surpassed other explosive materials. Yes, I suppose it did have a—a certain attraction. But, being a liquid material, it wasn't very easily handled and it wasn't very safely handled.

NARRATOR: Breaking the bonds between nitrogen and oxygen, the so-called nitro groups, creates the gasses which release the explosive energy.

DOUGLAS OLSEN: Many explosives contain nitro groups, because it—it stores a lot of energy. The way to make an explosive is to store chemical energy inasmuch as possible. And so, if you have hydrocarbon material and you put nitro groups on it, that sort of winds up a spring, stores potential chemical energy in there. The more you put on a molecule, the more energy there is. And it's—It's just that—That's a good way to store a lot of energy in the molecule.

NARRATOR: Some chemical bonds are so unstable they can be triggered by the touch of a feather.

PETER DICKSON: If I wanted to demonstrate an explosive then I have it made, demonstrated for over twenty years now. For me, it's no school boys. It's called nitrogen trioxide. Now, this is an explosive composed of nitrogen and iodine in a very unhappy relationship. And I describe it as being a very unhappy marriage. These elements are just waiting for an excuse to suddenly burst apart, they're so sensitive. So sensitive that even a fly running on it might set it off. So, if you'll kindly put on your ear protection and your eye protection, I'll now demonstrate.

NARRATOR: In this laboratory, scientists study the anatomy of an explosion using the ultimate in slow motion photography. To capture a moment of detonation on film requires a camera that can run at a million frames per second.

PETER DICKSON: Historically, the term "high explosive" refers to an explosive which is actually detonating. Whereas the term a "low explosive" refers to something that's merely burning very fast. And that can be very fast. That could be burning at speeds of maybe a thousand meters per second, but it's still just a fast burn. It isn't actually detonating. The process of detonation is a very specific and different phenomenon.

DOUGLAS OLSEN (?): If you were going to start a detonation, you might have a burning reaction, or you might have something that generated a small pressure wave. And as that goes through some of the explosive material, it compresses it, which heats it and raises its pressure, and so the reactions, the chemical reactions, start going faster and faster.

NARRATOR: As the shock wave travels through the explosive, it triggers a series of chemical bond ruptures which release enormous amounts of energy. When the chemical reaction accelerates, it drives the shock wave at supersonic speed.

DOUGLAS OLSEN: The chemical reactions behind the shock wave give it the push that keeps it going, and you can produce pressures that are like a hundred thousand atmospheres, which can go through—You know, can make holes in steel plates and you can do useful things with it.

NARRATOR: The incredible power of high explosives can be demonstrated on a three-inch-thick slab of steel with a simple weapon that Sidney Alford has developed.

SIDNEY ALFORD: This device is a shape charge. It's almost full of explosive, and it has a metal cone in the front. They line up, forming a sort of slug, and it will travel very, very fast.

NARRATOR: This metal cone will be compressed by the explosion into a projectile.

SIDNEY ALFORD: Ready. Four, three, two, one. Well, one set of steel, one rotten rod (?) hole. The copper cone, which was about that diameter, four inches in diameter, was squeezed down to a projectile of about one and a half inches in diameter, and it was travelling extremely fast, several times the speed of a rifle bullet. It would have penetrated this at tens if not hundreds of meters of range. And this is mild steel. It does it on armor.

NARRATOR: The warhead of this armor-piercing shell is full of high explosive. Back at the New Mexico test range, they investigate the characteristics of different explosives. In this case, they want to see if the shell can be accidentally detonated by a stray fragment from a bomb blast. To avoid accidents, most modern explosives are designed to be difficult to set off, but they need to be tested to make sure. Using a sled track, the engineers will fire a lump of metal on the end of a rocket to simulate debris hitting the warhead at high velocity.

__: OK. Going to be a countdown. I'll shoot it on zero.

NARRATOR: The target warhead contains special explosives that should not go off under these conditions.

__: Eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.

NARRATOR: It fails the test. The unpredictability of high explosives has always been a problem since investigations first began. The father of high explosives was Alfred Nobel, the Swedish industrialist. In the 1850s, gunpowder was the only available explosive, so the commercial potential for something more powerful, like nitroglycerine, was clear. But its tendency to explode without warning made it too dangerous to handle.

MICHAEL NOBEL: Danger has never been a deterrent among scientists that are obsessed by following an object to its end. On the contrary, it can provide a powerful stimulant for them to tame a dangerous substance or instrument. If you look at the work with the atom bomb and so on, you find the same. Madame Curie and radium, and so on. They knew it was very, very dangerous, but they still kept at it.

NARRATOR: Nobel realized that unless nitroglycerine could be detonated reliably, it had no future. He experimented with the idea of using a small gunpowder charge to act as a detonator. These prototypes were like firecrackers with a long fuse. It was a significant breakthrough. Without the invention of the detonator, handling high explosives would have remained a perilous act. Although nitroglycerine was now much safer to set off, it remained hazardous to manufacture. Alfred Nobel and his family began producing nitroglycerine by the bucketful. He was tempting fate. In 1864, a violent explosion destroyed the laboratory, killing his younger brother Emil. Alfred was devastated but refused to halt work on the treacherous liquid.

MICHAEL NOBEL: One might guess that he was, in fact, trying to conquer the enemy that had killed his younger brother's life and to render this beast harmless, and of course, his personality being what it was, he went on, regardless of criticism or objection from his family and so on, because the true scientist often has a manical side to him.

NARRATOR: In the next ten years, he built dozens of nitroglycerine factories. Few survive today. Most have blown up. This one in Norway is a working museum. Inside the reaction vessel, cooling coils kept the chemistry under control, but if the temperature rose by even a few degrees, it was time to run.

PER LOVÖ: All around the nitroglycerine plant, you will see barriers built, built barriers to protect against fragments, because sometimes they had the explosions, and of course, these explosions would then cause a lot of the wooden pieces being thrown for hundreds of yards through the air.

NARRATOR: To help avoid accidents, open pipes and gravity controlled the flow of nitroglycerin. Pumping was out of the question. Friction between moving metal parts would have been fatal.

PER LOVÖ: The abbreviation of nitroglycerine is NGl, and that's why this strange device here is called NGlbuggy. There are no moving metal parts. You see rubbers in here, rubber pipe, wooden clamp. And the nitroglycerine was then transported to the next production house.

NARRATOR: Raw nitroglycerine does not like being moved. In the 1860s, it was killing so many people that it was giving Nobel a bad name. Nitroglycerine was banned in America. We had to find a way of making it less reactive and tried absorbing it with inert powders. One of the most successful was a porous white clay called kieselguhr, which could absorb four times its own weight of nitroglycerine. This was Nobel's most famous invention: dynamite. It was used for rock blasting everywhere and made him one of the richest men in the world. Even though Nobel's business empire was huge, he never stopped experimenting. One night, he was awakened by a sore cut on his finger. He dressed it with a protective film of nitrated cotton, a preparation called newskin (?). This gave him the idea of mixing a similar solution with nitroglycerine. The result was blasting gelatin, which retained the power of nitroglycerine and was as safe as dynamite. Blasting gel is still used today. Demolition engineer Mark Loizeaux is setting charges inside a large apartment complex scheduled for destruction in Dundee, Scotland.

MARK LOIZEAUX: It's got a lot of power, a lot of shattering ability, and the cantilevers that we're dealing with are highly reinforced. They're carrying a tremendous load of the seventeen-story building above it. So, with all that reinforcing steel, we needed to be sure that we took the cantilevers out. We've got about 1,570 separate charges in the building, and they're all wired together in what is called "parallel series." Once we push the button, all of them go off on a given cue.

NARRATOR: On this job, Mark is helped by his daughter Stacey.

STACEY LOIZEAUX: This center will be the first point of motion, center of the structure, and it will walk this way.

MARK LOIZEAUX: And the point is, it will move when it's ready. We simply give it a bit of a push, and we wait for the structure to respond, and then our timing, with delays, moves just ahead of what the structure is likely to do. We call it cajoling, forceful persuasion. That's what explosives are all about. They're a catalyst, nothing more.

NARRATOR: They set up their firing post several hundred yards from the building.

MARK LOIZEAUX: Five, four, three, two, one, fire. I think the fascination that people have with explosions demolition is very similar to the fascination that people have with car crashes at racetracks. People like to flirt with danger. They like to flirt with death, and when they see a building coming down, they're doing just that. They come out. Who knows, maybe they'll see us mess up. Hopefully, they've got a long wait. Explosions are tools. It's a tool that affects everyone's life. People don't realize that the highways that they ride on, the buildings that they live and work in, were partially put there with explosives. The quarrying operations to make the concrete. People don't think about explosions as being an everyday thing.

NARRATOR: The Loizeaux family has masterminded some of the world's most spectacular demolition jobs, like the Dunes Hotel in Los Vegas, which was accompanied by a cascade of pyrotechnic effects. Three generations of Loizeaux have dynamite in their blood.

STACEY LOIZEAUX: My father said, "This is mine, and this one's yours." Gave me a (inaudible) labor and sent me on my way with a diagram and checked on me quite a bit, but really gave me pretty much free rein there. And I fell in love.

NARRATOR: And how old were you then?

STACEY LOIZEAUX: Fifteen. Fifteen years old.

NARRATOR: Now, the Loizeaux family is in Hungary preparing to destroy old Soviet scud missile launchers. NATO top brass will be coming to witness the decommissioning, so they are planning to turn it into an explosive event. They are using whatever explosives are locally available, in this case the plastic explosive Semtex.

MARK LOIZEAUX: This is a fourth of a 2.5 kg Semtex block that we're suspending inside the cabins. We don't want to put it against any elements, because it would sent it much too far, there's so much energy here. That'll do it. Semtex is a Czechoslovakian product and it is what we in the industry say "hot." Because you literally can mold it, it is a plastic explosive. You can mold it into any shape that you want. It also is forgiving in that you can handle it pretty aggressively. It's not that it's difficult to set off, but nothing that I'm doing is going to create a problem, that's for sure. It's going to take a blasting cap, or, in this case, a piece of detonating cord, to set it off. But once the Semtex gets going, nothing is going to stop it.

NARRATOR: So, one small chapter of the arms race will soon come to an end. The man who made the race possible was Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. The nature of warfare was transformed by his ideas. Nobel was quick to realize that if his high explosives were used in weapons instead of gunpowder, there would be enormous advantages.

SIDNEY ALFORD: Now, the trouble with gunpowder as a propellant for small arms, you can see, is that smoke. You can see it. You can't but see it. Imagine you're firing with perhaps twenty colleagues using the same sort of powder. You can be sure that the enemy can most certainly see it. That's very unhealthy. Nobel realized that it would be most advantageous if he could develop a powder which didn't produce that awful smoke.

NARRATOR: By mixing nitrocellulose with nitroglycerine, Nobel was able to produce a smokeless powder. He called it ballastite, and it's still used today.

SIDNEY ALFORD: Now, smokeless powder has another very considerable advantage over gunpowder. The first bullet I fired has stopped within this block. The second one has gone through five blocks and lodged in the sixth. It has considerably more penetration power than the one driven by black powder. The reason for which this is possible is there is certainly more energy available in a given mass of powder. This means that much higher pressures can be generated in the breeten (?) of course, in the barrel of the weapon, and of course, the terminal effect is much more devastating.

NARRATOR: Nobel saw the opportunity for making new weapons that would use his smokeless munitions, and he bought the Swedish gun manufacturer, Bofors. However much he loathed the stigma, he was now an arms merchant. Yet he claimed to be a pacifist.

MICHAEL NOBEL (?): Now, he explained this contradiction by saying that he was trying to perfect the ultimate weapon so that in this way, he would make war impossible in the future, like the atom bomb. Also, he explained that they were evil arms, but they exerted a very powerful fascination for him, but I believe that such an intellectual man would easily find himself in a quandary as to his attitudes, on one hand, the peace advocate, and on the other hand, the arms merchant.

NARRATOR: Eight years before he died, Alfred's obituary was mistakenly printed in a French newspaper which described him as "The Merchant of Death." He was haunted by his reputation. He resolved to leave a legacy that would never be forgotten: the Nobel Peace Prize. Further awards would honor excellence in literature, science, and medicine. This was how he wanted to be remembered. He became obsessed with his own death. He endured terrible headaches from working with nitroglycerine. Yet, ironically, later in life, he had to take it as a medicine for his heart disease. Nobel had built an empire founded on an unstable molecule which would kill millions of people. He was a lonely man, tortured by his own success. His conscience would never be clear. Millions of tons of high explosives were fired in the First World War. It was a stark equation. One ton of munitions for each human life lost. Over the century, the roll call of high explosives lengthened: TNT, Amitol, Torpex, Semtex, each growing in chemical complexity and power.

[ALFRED NOBEL]: I should like to be able to create a substance or a machine with such a horrific capacity for annihilation that wars would become impossible forever.

NARRATOR: In the New Mexico dawn of 1945, Nobel's ghost was aroused.

__: You are here to participate in an atomic maneuver. Atomic weapons are truly powerful, but they don't mean the end of all life as so many people think. You can live through an atomic attack, and by taking commonsense precautions, live to fight another day. Watched from a safe distance, this explosion is one of the most beautiful sites ever seen by man. You're probably saying, "So, it's beautiful. What makes it so dangerous?"

SIDNEY ALFORD (?): You can have a chemical explosion in which the heat and gasses produced by the energetic decomposition of a—of a material, an explosive, or you can have a nuclear explosion, where the product is really just energy. There's no—There was no gas given out, as such, in the course of a nuclear explosion. And the blast that you get from a nuclear explosion is purely caused by vaporization of surroundings. And what's happened is, there has been direct conversion of mass into energy by Einstein's famous equation, E=mc2. And that is where the energy is coming from. It's only a fraction of the mass of the original atom that's been lost, but that fraction, when you sum it over all the atoms of plutonium or uranium in a nuclear device, that provides a huge amount of energy.

NARRATOR: Bacon and Nobel would have recognized Robert Oppenheimer's symptoms, that irresistible urge to witness a new form of explosive power. This time, it was a bigger bang in a bigger backyard. But the dream was the same: a belief that the experiment was so dangerous it need never be attempted again.

__: Before dawn on July 16, 1945, at the Alamagordo Army Air Base in New Mexico, a small band of military and civilian technicians waited (inaudible).

NARRATOR: After the bombs had been dropped on Japan, the scientists returned to re-stage the first test for the cameras.

__: Two minutes to go.

__: Stretched out on the sand, tensely expectant, were General Groves, Dr. Bush, and Dr. Conant. In the control shack was Dr. J.R. Oppenheimer, who, assisted by Dr. I. Rabbi and others, had directed the making of the bomb itself.

__: The automatic control has got it now. (inaudible) this time the stakes are really high. It's going to work all right, Robert, and I'm sure we'll never be sorry for it.

__: When they first started planning these tests, there was some fairly strong consideration that the detonation of a nuclear weapon would start an atmospheric chain reaction, and obviously, that would be the end of the world. But, the calculations that they did at that time showed quite conclusively that there was no danger of an atmospheric chain reaction. But, it was a worry to begin with.

__: Minus ten seconds. Minus five seconds. Go!

[ROBERT OPPENHEIMER]: When it went off in that New Mexico dawn that first atomic bomb, we thought of Alfred Nobel, and his hope, his vain hope, that Dynamite would put an end to all wars.

NARRATOR: The outtakes from this atomic melodrama are painful to watch. The pathos of the script, all too obvious to Oppenheimer.

__: This time, the stakes are pretty high.

__: It's going to work all right, Robert, and I'm sure we'll never be sorry for it.

NARRATOR: Twenty years later, the script had changed.

__: A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the scripture, the Bhagivad Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form, and he says, "Now, I'm become death to destroy (inaudible). I suppose we all thought that one way or another."

NARRATOR: In the nuclear standoff which followed, there were times when the end of the world did seem close. Yet, the cold war was a war of words, a war which never happened. Now, the old weapons are lined up, linked together by shock tube and Semtex, awaiting annihilation.

MARK LOIZEAUX: This is a large megaphone, and it is going to focus—

STACEY LOIZEAUX: A lot of sound directly at the audience.

MARK LOIZEAUX: Right at the audience. Right there. Oh, they're going to like this a lot! Yeah.

__: What do you put inside?

MARK LOIZEAUX: Everything.

STACEY LOIZEAUX: Everything we have left over, we're going to make like mortar out of it and project sound and a lot of sparks and stuff like that as a finale.

MARK LOIZEAUX: Why not?

NARRATOR: Can it be that simple? Is that the end? The search for the ultimate explosion will not stop, and one day, there'll be another experiment that we'll wish had never been attempted.

(music)

__: A fuse is lit. A shell launched. Gunpowder explodes in a blaze of light and color. It's a pyrotechnic show at NOVA's website. For the anatomy of a firework, head to pbs.org.

__: To order this show for $19.95 plus shipping and handling, call 1-800-949-8670. And, to learn more about how science can solve the mysteries of our world, ask about our many other NOVA videos.

__: NOVA is a production of WGBH-Boston.

__: NOVA is funded by Merck. Merck, pharmaceutical research. Dedicated to preventing disease. Merck, committed to bringing out the best in medicine. And by Prudential.

__: Prudential. Insurance, health care, real estate, and financial services for more than a century bringing strength and stability to America's families.

__: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and viewers like you.

__: This is PBS.

 

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