S04E03: The Zazzy Substitution

In tonight’s episode we heard the names of many physicists who took part in the Manhattan Project, the U.S. program that built the first nuclear bombs.  We were  introduced first to the name of one of the most famous physicists of the twentieth century, the chief physicist in charge of building the so-called “gadgets”, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer.


J. Robert Oppenheimer, theoretical physicist and leader of the Manhattan Project

Unlike Sheldon (and many others),  I prefer to say “nuclear” not “atomic”.   “Atomic” tells us nothing special.  All chemical reactions use atoms, and you’d be justified in calling even T.N.T. an atomic bomb.  What is special about nuclear power is that it uses the forces in the nucleus, which are about a million times stronger than the forces holding the rest of the atom together.  It is specifically nuclear reactions, not chemical reactions, that are responsible for the extraordinary power of a nuclear bomb.

Oppenheimer was a theoretical physicist, who was reported to be extraordinary clumsy around laboratory equipment. “Oppie”, as he was called, was a fan of languages and even taught himself Sanskrit.    Those who knew him described him as somewhere between aloof and pretentious.   Either way, he had trouble dealing with people.   His brother Frank, also a physicist, reports him having said:

“I need physics more than friends.”  – J. Robert Oppenheimer

At this point I wonder, does he sounds similar to any of the fictional physicists we know?

But at the same time, Oppenheimer and our fictional hero could not be more different.  Oppenheimer had a driving ambition to be close to the political powers in Washington.  So much so, Oppenheimer even lied and falsely implicated his friend, Haakon Chevalier, as being linked to Communist espionage, ultimately causing  grave damage to his friend’s career, while furthering his own.   Like a Greek tragedy, this misstep ultimately led to Oppenheimer’s own fall from political grace, ultimately even having his security clearance revoked — a stunning blow to the man who had been the scientific leader of what was  perhaps the largest secret military project ever undertaken.

Oppenheimer also had a strong affinity toward Eastern religion, specifically Hinduism.  When the first test atomic bomb was dropped at the Trinity Site on July 16, 1945, he famously recalled pondering several phrases from the Bhagavad-Gita:

If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.


Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.

I never understood the strange grammar of that second quote, since he was speaking in translation.   Perhaps a Sanskrit-reading reader of this blog could explain below if a similar construction exists in the original.  (Updated: see comments.)

As it happens, I visited the Trinity Site last weekend.   I had given a seminar last Friday nearby, at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, home of the Very Large Array in Socorro, New Mexico.  (That’s the same array of telescopes Jodie Foster used in the movie Contact.  And yes, she really went there; they still have pictures of her visit on the walls.)  Twice per year, the Trinity is open to the public.  You can combine that with a trip to the VLA.


Your science consultant at the Trinity Site.

After a short drive through the White Sands Missile Range we arrived at the site.  You might worry about the the wisdom of  walking around unprotected where a 20 kiloton nuclear weapon was detonated.  What about the radioactivity?  After the atomic bomb test, the heat of the blast melted the sand and plutonium fallout into a glass, forming a unique  mineral called trinitite.    Small bits of the green glass are underfoot nearly everywhere you walk.


During the nuclear explosion at the Trinity Site, desert sand fused with nuclear fallout to produce a new mineral, trinitite.

For the hour I walked around,  I was exposed to radiation dose of 0.5 “millirem”.   A millirem is one thousandth of a “Roentgen Equivalent Man”, an outdated but well-known unit for measuring radiation exposure.

That may sound scary but 0.5 millirem is very small compared the natural sources of radiation which are everywhere.   The average person in the U.S. receives over a 350 millirem dose every year, mostly from radon.  Even if you try to escape radon,  the potassium-40 in your bones are constantly undergoing radioactive decay.   For my trip to the Trinity site, I received by far most of my dose from the two-hour airplane flight each way from Los Angeles to Albuquerque.  In a commercial jet you are above much of the atmosphere that normally protects you from radiation due to cosmic rays, particles from space striking the earth.   (Extra for experts:  it is not just the dose, but the duration of the dose that matters.  Doses received slowly, over the course of a year, give your DNA more chance to repair itself before possibly forming tumors than if you receive it all at once.)   It takes a 100,000 millirem dose before it starts to have measurable effects on   your blood.  At twice that, you start feeling radiation sickness.

In many other cases radiation is  outright helpful.  X-rays help doctors diagnose broken bones and the positrons emitted in PET scans allow doctors to find cancer.   Gamma-ray and other beams are often used to destroy tumors once they are found.  Biologists use radioactive markers to understand all sorts of processes important to life.   Smoke detectors rely on the decays of americium  to light a phosphor.    Nuclear power reactors provide an enormous supply of electricity while producing essentially no greenhouse gases.

Now disregarding my earlier complaint about “atomic” versus “nuclear”, let us now in all seriousness consult the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:


The Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

It is six minutes to midnight, folks.

26 Responses to “S04E03: The Zazzy Substitution”

  1. Lady Houston Says:

    I thought it was strange for Sheldon to say Atomic rather than Nuclear as well. I suppose they didn’t want to offend those who say ‘nucular’.

    Thank you for sharing this information with us. There was quite a bit in there that I didn’t know about Oppenheimer.

  2. Joe Says:

    The main reason I prefer Nuclear to Atomic, is that Atomic Physics is something completely different. Back when I was an atomic physicist, I had to fix that misapprehension in nearly every conversation I had with someone from outside physics

    • David Saltzberg Says:

      Another good reason. We would have to start with changing the name of “The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists”. But I must admit, their name sounds like a group not to be messed with.

  3. Betsy Says:

    Great overview, Dr. Saltzberg! I always enjoy your posts!

    As someone who has spent 40 years living near Fermi Lab (Chicago suburbs), I found it odd that Sheldon used the incorrect pronounciation of the name “Fermi.” Those who work at the facility are often quick to correct anyone who pronounces it “Fur-me” instead of “Fair-me.” Prior to my post, however, I found that several online websites provide both pronounciations (I was shocked!). I’m told that Enrico used the “Fair-me” pronounciation, but many locals who do not work at the lab have pronounced it incorrectly for so many years that it is now considered correct in many circles. Since the Sheldon character is so detailed when it comes to language (e.g. he doesn’t like when people pronounce the “t” in the word “often”), I find it odd that he would not use the traditional Italian pronounciation of Fermi’s name.

    Jim’s pronounciation made me cringe and I wondered if any other readers had the same reaction? As my husband just pointed out, it’s probably one of those cases of “toe-may-to” or “toe-ma-to” and I should just lighten up. Okay okay, husband, I’ll lighten up starting tomorrow. I guess I have a little Sheldon in me after all.

    • David Saltzberg Says:

      l did my PhD work at Fermilab with the Enrico Fermi Institute and I always use “fur-me”.

      • David N. Andrews M. Ed., C. P. S. E. Says:

        When I was reading physics as part of the mathematical sciences part of my study profile, I always called the man ‘fer’ (as in ‘ferric’) ‘mi’ (as in ‘milli’)… as it were. Maybe it’s partly because I am Scottish…

      • discodave Says:

        Illinois: the land where Cairo is pronounced “kair-oh”


        Chicago: sophisticated enough to have a street named after Goethe, but provincial enough to pronounce it “go-eth-ee”

        Given time, the local pronunciation becomes the correct one, rules be damned. Sure Fermi pronounced his name “fair-me”, but the locals in Batavia call it “fur-me” as it would sound in English.

    • Yves Says:

      Maybe it’s “Fur-me” because it’s the name of a cat?

    • Doug Says:

      I was gratified that the correct pronunciation (and correct full family name) of Clerk Maxwell was used.

  4. AquamanFan Says:

    I wanted to comment on the grammar of “I am become death”. The enunciation is an antediluvian vernacular commonly found in poetry. It is not used anymore. Oppenheimer seems to be the only one to use that translation.

  5. Candy Says:


  6. Zig zag zug Says:

    Oppheimer’s life is a whirlwind! I saw a nice PBS documentary on him.

    I’m pretty sure LeChevalier actually was a communist, and was known by the CIA, but Oppenheimer didn’t name him at first: he mentions “several individuals approached me on behalf on a person residing in the Soviet embassy”, never mentioning the name of those people, because he was friends with LeChevalier. Then he privately confided in his boss that it was LeChevalier, to prevent unnecessary shenanigans for security.

    (This was probably around the time Feynman was cracking safes with secret documents in them lol)

    His tragic love story with a communist supporting lady had already made him suspect to the CIA, so, a few years later, when he and Edwin Teller clashed over usefulness of the Hydrogen bomb, the pro-bomb lobby had access to years of wiretapping to embarrass him with, including his failed attempt to save his mistress’s life.

    Anyway, the point is: herding physicist is like herding cats, and, as Sheldon said:”I’m the social glue.”

    I forgot where I was going with this. ^_^

    Hey! I just thought of a sketch! You know how, when you take eggs out of a carton, the center of mass goes wonky? And if you got an impair amount left, there’s just no way to get it balanced? So, Sheldon reaches for an innocent appearing egg carton… but this is after a Penny pancake binge! So he drops the semi-filled carton, has a fit, and tries to come up with the best way to keep the center centered when an impair number of eggs is in the carton.

    It ends with a lot of oscillating eggs cartons and failed mobile designs hanging from the ceiling! How is that not good tv!?

  7. Bhagavat Purana Says:

    Very helpful 🙂 Thanks and all the best.

  8. Phil Says:

    The Very Large Array also appears in the movie “2010: Odyssey Two.” That movie’s especially amusing to watch in the year 2010 (it was filmed in 1984) in light of the end of the Cold War, and how old the Apple IIc computer featured in the computer is by today’s standards.

    It’s amusing that “Contact” used the VLA for SETI searches. While the baseline between the VLA’s antennas is extremely large the individual dishes are ‘relatively’ small by radio astronomy standards. What counts with SETI is having as big a photon bucket as possible – an extremely large collecting area. Where the VLA really shines is extremely high resolution radio astronomy.

  9. feldfrei Says:

    ‘Atomic’ vs. ‘nuclear’ is a neverending story. And though ‘atomic’ refers to the electronic shell (if you think in energy levels) or cloud (if you think in orbitals) it is easy to scare people with this term since they mix it up with nuclear physics (which is of course much more then power plants or bombs). I started my scientific life at Giessen University, Germany in nuclear phyics and when I was asked about my there for my diploma thesis I answered: “I work on a part of an atomic beam source at the Nuclear Physics Department at the Radiation Research Centre (Strahlenzentrum) of the University.” And it was enough to pick up ‘atomic beam’, ‘nuclear’ and ‘radiation’ to better not to be too close in touch with me – at least that’s what I derived from the faces of those asking me 😉

    Later (as many nuclear physicists) I switched to atomic and molecular physics (interestingly ‘molecular’ does not seem to scare people that much) and now I am literally back to the world of nuclei again while working at the [url]http://www.mpi-hd.mpg.de/mpi/en/start/[/url]. This institute is characterized by the fact that today nuclear pyhsics plays only a minor role.

    Finally I like to address the question whether the term ‘nuclear power plant’ is not a bit misleading since the energy which is released during a fission process is mainly the Coulomb repulsion of the fragments: about 200 MeV for uranium while the bound state is only a few MeV deep. Of course, it’s the strong but short-range force between the nuclei which exceeds the Coulomb repulsion there but why should one not speak of ‘Coulomb power plants’ (ok, I’m just kidding)?

    • Yves Says:

      My husband designs atomic force microscopes and similar stuff, but has learned that when going through immigration on a business trip, he’d better not use the word “atomic”.

  10. Ranga Shankara Says:

    Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  11. Cal N. Drea Says:

    “A 100 millirem dose starts to have measurable effects on   your blood.  At twice that, you start feeling radiation sickness.”

    Check your units. Clinical blood changes occur at 25 to 100 rem (or 100 rad). Not 100 mrem. We would be in trouble if radiation sickness occurred at 200 mrem.

  12. Tradução: “S04E03: The Zazzy Substitution (A Substituição Fofinha)” « The Big Blog Theory (em Português!) Says:

    […] feita por Hitomi a partir de texto extraído de The Big Blog Theory, de autoria de David Saltzberg, originalmente publicado em 7 de Outubro de […]

  13. Bragadesh Rajaraman Says:

    What a Blog! I regret that I found this very lately after seeing 4 seasons of the Big Bang Theory…. Actually, the verse from the Bhagavad-Gita that Oppenheimer quotes means this: Krishna(an avatar of Lord Vishnu) has many forms… He says, “I do everything, right from creation to destruction…..” He then takes the form of the destroyer and says that like creation, destruction is inevitable… Many Scientists have interpreted verses from Bhagavad Gita and have implemented in their lives and discoveries… Heinsenberg’s uncertainty principle and wave-particle duality were said to be inspired from the verses of Bhagavad-Gita, by scientists who interpreted them in their own way….

  14. X.Y. Zed. Says:

    “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

    This grammar is also consistent with Slavic languages, which supposedly draw their roots from the original Indo-European or Indo-Iranian peoples as does Sanskrit.

    Just like the English language uses helper verbs: “I am, I have”, so do the other languages, in different ways.

    In English: I “am” hungry but I “have” become …
    In Czech: I “have hunger” but I “am” become .

    Thus, translated into Czech:
    “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

    “Teď Já jsem se stal smrtí, ničitel světů.”

    which is an exact translation of Openheimer’s words:

    “Teď” = Now
    “Já jsem” = I am
    “se stal” = self-become
    “smrtí” = death (conjugated)
    “ničitel světů” = destroyer of worlds

  15. X.Y. Zed. Says:

    Sorry for the typo, missing second “p” in “Oppenheimer’s”

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