After Hours

Geek Trivia: Which Manhattan Project scientist won the group's infamous 'doomsday' betting pool?

Manhattan Project scientists set up a betting pool for the likely yield for the first atomic weapon. The winner is perhaps the most distinguished physicist in modern medicine.

On July 16, 1945, the world's first atomic bomb was detonated in a remote stretch of New Mexico desert, inaugurating the era of nuclear weaponry — for better or for worse. And, for all that an age of nuclear proliferation has brought us, the worst could have been much, much worse.

During the early stages of weapons planning at Los Alamos, scientists began calculating the likely yield of an atomic weapon. Much of the math was supposition, as exact needs for critical mass, the speed and power of a fission chain reaction, and the amount of light, heat, and force (and radioactive fallout) created by said reaction were all guesses founded upon guesses until some preliminary experimentation took place. The ultimate experiment would be the Trinity Test itself, when the first atomic explosive would actually be detonated. However, scientists needed a general ballpark of the likely Trinity results, if only to know minimum safe distance for observers.

Terrifyingly, some early math suggested there would be no minimum safe distance, as there was a slim chance the first atomic explosion would be hot enough to ignite the Earth's atmosphere, exterminating virtually every living creature on the planet. Those calculations were rather quickly dismissed as inaccurate (or, at least, almost infinitely unlikely), but they did inform the rather morbid humor that surrounded the Trinity Test. Case in point, the Trinity Betting Pool.

Manhattan Project scientists actually set up a betting pool for the likely yield — in kilotons of TNT — for the first atomic weapon. While the extermination of all Earthbound life wasn't an available wager (Enrico Fermi actually set up a mock side-pool for that bet, which also included wagers for "only" wiping out all of New Mexico), it did include a remarkably accurate bet that was won by one of the most distinguished physicists that modern medicine has ever known.


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Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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