The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Recently, while in the throes of a hypoglycemic episode, I had what I took to be a revelation. When I came to — sweating, delirious, but finally able to think again — I couldn’t recall a single cogent thought I’d had the entire time I’d been under. I was left, then, with impression of having had a revelation, minus the revelation. “I went up the mountain,” the forgotten prophet tells us. “Forgot to take notes.”


I’ve been reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb. It’s a thousand pages long. I’m on page 367 and still don’t know how to make an atomic bomb.

“Don’t tell me,” I say to my brother in law, master’s degree in history, emphasis in World War II.

I’d become interested in the Atomic Bomb not for its destructive capabilities, but for its time travel properties (ala Back to the Future), its asteroid splitting properties (ala Armageddon), its ability to restart the core of the earth (ala The Core).

All things considered, an atomic bomb seems like a handy piece of equipment to have around.

That’s crazy-talk though.

It’s impossible to consider all things.

“How big would this device have to be that could alter the course of human events?” a Nazi general asks in The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

A Nazi scientist cups his hand like he’s holding an invisible pineapple.

“Have you ever seen an invisible pineapple?”


In Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut’s 3rd best book, a man is sitting at a bar.

“Did you hear?” he says to the bar tender. “They figured out the meaning of life.”

“Yeah?” the bar tender says. “What is it?”

The man shrugs.

“Something about proteins.”


Weather Report (Tuesday May 12, 2020): Scattered thunder storms, high levels of dogwood and pollen, ozone warning mild, low of 54.


A late bloomer: At thirty-two I’m suffering from allergies for the first time in my life. J says: “Something is not agreeing with you.” At night my eyes water. It feels like I’m crying but I’m not crying. My head goes fuzzy. It feels like I’m exhausted but I’m not exhausted. My throat swells up. It feels like I can’t breathe. I can breathe a little.

“There’s a certain type of cholesterol,” C tells me, “that can make you feel suicidal.”

“But you’re not actually suicidal?” I say.

“No,” C says. “You only feel like you are.”


Which reminds me of a joke.

“Are you sure you want to kill yourself?” the therapist asked the suicidal man.

“Of course not!” the suicidal man said. “But I’m sure I won’t regret it.”


Otherwise lacking any sort of actual stakes in my life, I often perform inconsequential tasks while imagining somebody holding a gun to my head. “Find your copy of Old Man and the Sea in the next ten seconds,” he says. “Or I blow your fucking brains out.”


Something’s not agreeing with me. Or I’m not agreeing with it. “Do you think you’re abusing alcohol?” the nurse practitioner asks, when I tell her my daily alcohol consumption habits, divided by two. “Absolutely not!” I say. “Alcohol is abusing me! I’m the victim here!”


As a perk of devoting my life and talents to the large, faceless corporation — something I never thought I’d do! — I am gifted a 3-month subscription to small-batch, fresh-roasted coffee, delivered twice monthly right to my front door. The coffee is catered to my personal preferences.

“Which do you prefer,” the online questionnaire asks. “Coffee that tastes like coffee? Or coffee that tastes like something else?”

I think for a second. Then I click on “Coffee that tastes like coffee.”

“Great!” the survey says. “We’ll send you coffee that tastes like coffee!”

When the coffee arrives, I make some.

I use a French press.

“Sir,” I say to my wife. “We’re ready for you.”

She presses the plunger down into the coffee like a TNT detonator in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. When it hits the bottom, I nod.

“Albuquerque,” I say. “Is gone.”


Lieutenant General Leslie Richard Groves Jr. on being commanded to lead the Manhattan Project:

“Men like to recall, in later years, what they said at some important or possibly historic moment in their lives…I remember only too well what I said to General Somervell that day.

I said, ‘oh.'”


“Find your waffle house souvenir coffee mug in the next six seconds,” the man with the gun says. “Or it’s lights out.”


I don’t know what I’m going to do when I’ve finished reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb and I know how to make an atomic bomb. I guess I’m going to make one. I’m not really all that busy. They’re the size of a pineapple. Maybe I’ll put it in my bathroom. I read a book years ago. It said that a bunch of atomic pineapples have gone missing. They weren’t stolen. They were misplaced.


“Believe it or not,” Professor Solomon tells us in his thin 1993 volume How to Find Lost Objects, “things are often right where they’re supposed to be.”

Or, like he reminds us in principal six of his “Amazing Method!”: “You’re looking right at it.”


“It is a profound and necessary truth that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful,” Robert Oppenheimer once said, an epigraph to The Making of the Atomic Bomb, “They are found because it was possible to find them.”


Weather Report (Thursday May 14, 2020): Party cloudy, 84% humidity, 10mph wind, mild pollen count, high of 72.


The nurse practitioner tells me that allergies are particularly bad this year.

She says: “Dogwood and pollen counts.”

She says: “Flowers and stuff.”


It’s possible I’m not a thousand percent listening. Allergies aren’t that interesting to me. Anytime anyone says anything to me about their allergies my immediate reaction is to not be that interested.

“I’m not that interested in this!” I think as my eyes burn and my skin blisters and my throat closes up, symptoms not entirely distinct from those of caused by mild exposure to radiation.


Something, I think, isn’t agreeing with me.


In the days after my hypoglycemic episode I am careful not to administer my prescribed daily insulin injections for fear of triggering another hypoglycemic event. It’s easy. I just don’t administer them. Most problems, I find, can be solved by inaction. The first principal of Professor Solomon’s Amazing Method! for finding a lost object is: “Don’t Look for It.”

I read that in the 1960s, to treat severe depression, doctors would sometimes give non-diabetic patients large injections of pig insulin. Their blood sugar would drop to dangerous lows. 50 mg/dl. 45 mg/dl. That’s coma territory. They would leave them like that. I guess they wanted to see what happened. If they learned anything. If they brought anything back with them.

The deep things in science are not found because they are useful.

After a while the doctor would give the patient a glass of orange juice.

“There is,” I tell my genius writer friend John, “some euphoria to it all.”


The first atomic bomb didn’t look like an atomic bomb. It looked like a pile. They called it The Pile. A new field of study was born. Pile Physics. “Write this down,” a night professor at community college told us one evening, in Introduction to Literature, “All of us have everything we need to completely destroy our lives.”


It’s important to remember that nuclear energy wasn’t invented. It was there all along. We were looking right at it.


It was pretty obvious to all of us in the class that night that our professor was talking about himself.


Weather Report (Friday May 15, 2020): Overcast, scattered showers, high of 91.


In my early 20s I was diagnosed with a rare form of diabetes. Then, in my early 30s, I was diagnosed with it again. In between I forgot.

“You, sir, have diabetes,” the nurse practitioner told me, in my early 30s.

I remember what I said.

I said: “Oh.”

I knew that I had diabetes, of course. I’d just forgotten that I knew that. My blood sugar was 500+ mg/dl. That’s coma territory.

When your blood sugar is that high you’re not in your right mind. You’re in your wrong mind. I didn’t know how long I’d been in my wrong right mind. I suspected it had been a while.

“Blood sugar that high can make you feel miserable,” the nurse practitioner told me.

“But you’re not actually miserable?” I said.

“No,” she said. “You only feel like you are.”


My second hypoglycemic episode in a month: I am walking around the pond off Keller Springs when my brain turns into a snow globe. Hypoglycemia can mimic the effects of drunkenness. Five weeks without a drink, it’s not exactly unwelcome. I stumble around, sweating profusely, having IDEAS. I don’t write any of them down. I’m sure I’ll remember anything worth remembering, I reassure myself.


“I was supposed to tell you guys something,” the forgotten prophet said. “But I’m totally blanking.”


After finishing Richard Rhodes’s 1986, 886-page, multi-award winning, more-than-comprehensive volume The Making of the Atomic Bomb I still don’t know how to make an atomic bomb. Except I suspect that I do know how to make an atomic bomb. I just don’t understand, in any way whatsoever, what it is that I understand.


“Something about isotopes,” I explain to J.


Weather Report (Monday May 18, 2020): Clear skies, high levels of pollen and dogwood, high of 91.


The nurse practitioner prescribes Claritin-D and a daily regimen of blasting out my sinus cavities using a turkey baster and a cup of warm salt water.

“Aren’t I a little old to suddenly become allergic to all of this?” I say.

“Think of it this way,” she says. “What took you so long?”


When my next bag of small-batch, fresh-roasted coffee arrives on my front porch — flavor: coffee — I brew it up immediately in the French press we keep above the sink. I bring the carafe to J. She’s playing a video game in the office. It has something to do with animals. You make an island for them. There doesn’t seem to be a point. I make my fingers into a pistol and aim it at her head. “Sir,” I say. She presses the plunger down into the coffee, slowly, not looking, one hand still on her controller moving her guy around, sending us 45 years back in time, splitting the asteroid that’s headed for the western hemisphere, restarting the core of the earth like when we used to push-start Jason B’s ’85 Pontiac Fierro after work outside of Culver’s off 75 — this was back in 2003 or 4 — before our lives had become what it seems to me now like they had no other possible way of being.


Mike Nagel's essays have appeared in apt, Hobart, Salt Hill, DIAGRAM, and The Paris Review Daily.

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