A Short Story By J D STUPPLE
July 16th 1945
Richard Feynman leant on the bonnet of a truck, parked in the middle of the Jornada del Muerto desert. A dozen white coats glided erratically around him, making final preparations for the first detonation of a nuclear device.
One of the white coats whispered to another,
‘It might not even go off, all this hubbub could be for nothing’.
But Feynman knew. Everything had made sense back in Los Alamos. The gadget was going to work.
Once radio communication were set up, there was nothing left to do but wait and listen for Sam Allison’s countdown. The group composed themselves for the spectacle. Kenneth began handing out the black sunglasses to each of them, every member of the group taking their glasses with the solemn dignity that the ritual seemed to demand. He reached Feynman who, when presented with his pair of glasses, frowned at them in the way one would at a misbehaving child.
‘I’ll be damned if I don’t see the thing actually go off.’
Kenneth began to insist,
‘but Mr Feynman-’
‘We’re twenty miles away. With those on, I’ll barely see a thing.’
Kenneth seemed unconvinced but had no time to argue with Feynman. He handed out the rest of the glasses and put on his own.
Sam Allison’s countdown began on the radio. The scientists stared, unblinking, into the silent desert. Feynman opened the truck’s door and sat in the passenger seat. He placed his feet up on the dashboard, ready to watch the end of the world.
A month earlier, Feynman walked down the pale white corridor of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The New Mexico sun marking the floor in horizontal lines as it shone through the blinds. He span a lock pick around his fingers like a poker player would with a casino chip.
To avoid leaks and espionage, only three of the four-dozen scientists had access to all of the group’s findings. Feynman found himself excluded from this privileged trinity. This was a source of endless frustration to him, not because of his personal exclusion but because it impeded the project. With the information fractured and distributed in this way that it had been, much of the research had been severely slowed down. For Feynman it had never been about winning the war, although that was important, it was about the puzzle. Luckily, the only barrier to every piece of this ultimate puzzle was another minor one. To his trained hand it would prove no particular obstacle, one would only need time and access to the safe itself.
Feynman turned a corner, almost skipping to his destination. It was an early Sunday morning; the rest of the personnel would either be sleeping or getting ready for church. He stopped. Looked both ways down the long corridor, making sure he was alone. There was no one and nothing. He opened the wooden door that had the words, Dr J Oppenheimer, engraved on its front.
Oppenheimer’s office was a curiosity for two reasons. Firstly, it was the only office in the theoretical physics department that was continually spotless. Secondly, it was the place that housed the safe, which sat in an adjoining room, also locked. At the end of every day, the leaders of each of the four teams would deliver their work to the office under Oppenheimer’s knowing gaze. Whereupon the safe was locked, remaining so until the next day’s start. Feynman walked past Oppenheimer’s mahogany desk, spotting a copy of the Bhagavad Gita lying open and face down next to a half-empty bottle of whiskey. He approached the second door, sliding the half-diamond pick into the keyhole. He felt for the pins, catching the first, and then second and finally pushed the third into place. The lock proved no real challenge, as simple as picking fruit. The safe stood with its back firmly pressed against the wall. It was grey, silent, expressionless. Ordinary yet, somehow, a monolith. Pushing his ear to the safe’s cold face, he methodically turned the dial, listening for its weaknesses. Closing his eyes, he slowed his breathing, making sure to notice any deviation in the dial’s uniform clicking. It did not take long.
The notes were split up, five stacks on five of the safe’s shelves. He pulled them out one by one, setting them down on the floor with the care and reverence of a priest performing Eucharist. He looked at the handwriting of his peers; each leader’s work was presented with as much artistry as technical skill. Everyone knew this was the masterpiece, their life’s work, and their legacy. Feynman piled the tomes on top of each other and carried them to Oppenheimer’s desk.
In those stacks of notes, some hand written, some typed, all coloured a murky yellow, lay the forbidden knowledge that Feynman and his colleagues had been grasping at. He devoured the notes, spreading each sheet of paper out over Oppenheimer’s desk so that he could leap from one to another. Every naked conclusion unlocked something new. Nothing existed except the information on the pages. All he could see were the numbers, the figures and the answers that, together, might form that elusive final answer. The work that had been done by his colleagues astonished him; some discoveries seemed utterly alien in their complexity. Outside, he heard the start of the church service in the on-site chapel, a moaning organ waking from its sleep of silence. This left him only three hours before he had to return the notes to their exile. Feynman hurried.
After exhausting himself in solitude with the notes, it all become clear in a moment of orgiastic clarity. It was like watching every component part of a pocket watch fall into place, then being witness to its first tick. Richard Feynman knew how to make the bomb work. He checked twice, a third time, but no correction was necessary; the answer was the same.
But how could they miss it? How could such great minds miss what he could so plainly see? But that was it. If Feynman could see the answer then the rest of them could not be far off. They were weeks, maybe days from discovering what he had. Realising this, Feynman was suddenly possessed with leaving the office the way he had found it. He collected up the notes, praying that a page had not fallen out of its intended order. He placed them all back in the safe, closed the door and spun the dial with an indulgent flourish. Feynman wanted to run down the corridors, screaming eureka through every doorway. Instead he walked quietly to his room, feeling as if his newfound wisdom shone from his body, enlightening anyone who caught sight of him.
He wanted this knowledge for himself. The joy of knowing is amplified to the infinite when what is known goes unshared. Every new mind exposed to a truth diminishes the elation that comes with learning it. This is what he thought as walked back to his room, still spinning the lock pick through his sacred fingers.
Feynman watched the horizon from inside the truck. Remembering that moment and waiting for the almighty evidence that would confirm what he was already certain of. Soon the world would know, which rendered him bitter as the countdown reached its end.
The sky burned. Its clear blue converted to a dazzling orange. The desert floor quaked and turned to glass. Earth invaded heaven.