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How a young scientist saved the bomb

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in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

In July 1945, 25-year-old Don Hornig babysat the atomic bomb. It was a nerve-wracking task, but he kept his cool.

Hornig (1920-2013), a brilliant chemist and Harvard grad, helped J. Robert Oppenheimer develop the bomb in Los Alamos, N.M. On the day before its first full-scale test, Hornig and other Manhattan Project scientists were racing to succeed at their top-secret endeavor.

Their anxiety mounted with the onset of dark clouds and the threat of thunderstorms. They worried that lightning over the New Mexico desert might accidentally trigger the bomb prototype.

On July 15, the evening before the test, Oppenheimer decided that someone should keep an eye on the bomb to prevent sabotage. So he asked Hornig to ascend the bomb tower and watch over the nuclear device.

Hornig dutifully climbed the 100-foot tower and sat in a small shed alongside the bomb from 9:00 p.m. to midnight.

In the midst of a major storm Hornig understood that a direct hit might set off the gadget. He didn’t panic; instead, he remained calm by thinking, “At least I would never know about it if the bomb went off.”

Adopting an optimist’s mindset, he assured himself that the tower was grounded well. So he sat on a folding chair and read to kill time.

The next morning, the Trinity Test occurred. Hornig was inside the control bunker, holding the switch that would cut the connection between the tower and the bomb if anything went wrong. The test proceeded without a hitch.

“Up to the moment of the blast,” he recalled, “my only thought was, ‘Don’t blow it.’ I was very intent on doing my job.”

— Adapted from “No Regrets,” Andrew Szanton, Brown Alumni Magazine.

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