Taken as a story of human achievement, and human blindness, the discoveries in the sciences are among the great epics. — Robert Oppenheimer

In the telling it has the contours of a creation myth: At a time of great evil and great terror, a small group of scientists, among the world’s greatest minds, secluded themselves in the desert. In secrecy and silence they toiled at their Promethean task. They sought the ultimate weapon, one of such great power as to end not just their war, but all war. They hoped their work would salvage the future. They feared it could end everything.

In the cold, rainy dark of a summer morning they readied themselves, gathered in the sand at the edge of terra incognita. Their “gadget,” so diminutively named, waited in the distance: a large metal sphere studded with wires, perched atop a tall, steel tower. A countdown began. The scientists had begun a betting pool about the device’s power, or whether it would detonate at all. One wagered whether the gadget would ignite the atmosphere. Others applied suntan lotion.

At 5:29:45 AM the time came. A light greater than the sun lit the desolate mesa and mountains in hues of gold, purple, violet, gray, and blue. The shockwave rolled out and over the landscape; moments later and miles away, the scientists felt the heat against their faces. A blind woman 150 miles north of the blast asked, “What’s that brilliant light?” Beneath the cloud, molten sand rained back to earth. It coated the ground, cooling to glassy, translucent green.

Soon after, the sun rose over the desert.