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Wren Library displays Oppenheimer and Frisch bomb test documents

During Open Cambridge Trinity’s Wren Library features some famous and not so well-known items from its collections, including documents and eyewitness accounts of the world’s first nuclear detonation.

Trinity Librarian Dr Nicolas Bell said:

We’re delighted the Wren Library is taking part in Open Cambridge when visitors can see some famous items from our collections – including a First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays and Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica – as well as some less well-known artefacts, such as J Robert Oppenheimer’s notes about developing the atomic bomb.

In these notes, Oppenheimer – currently in the public eye due to Christopher Nolan’s box-office hit – described the ‘fast neutron projects’ he worked on as leader of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos to develop the first nuclear bomb.

An American, Oppenheimer studied physics at Christ’s College for two terms from 1925-6. The eponymous film is based on the acclaimed biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin.

The Wren Library display for Open Cambridge also includes an eyewitness account by the physicist Otto Frisch of the world’s first nuclear explosion. Code-named the ‘Trinity Test’, the detonation on 16 July 1945 in the plains of New Mexico led to the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

Otto Frisch. Photo: Trinity College Cambridge.

Frisch, who moved to England after the rise of Hitler in the 1930s, described the process by which an atomic explosion could be generated with Rudolf Peierls in 1940. By 1943 Frisch had joined the Manhattan Project, heading the Critical Assemblies Group, which was tasked with determining the amount of uranium, the critical mass, to sustain a nuclear reaction.

In a typed account marked secret and entitled ‘EYE WITNESS REPORT OF NUCLEAR EXPLOSION, July 16, 1945’, he wrote:

I watched the explosion from a point said to be about 20 (or 25) miles away and about north of it, together with the members of the coordinating councel [sic]. Fearing to be dazzled and to be burned by ultra violet rays, I stood with my back to the gadget, and behind the radio truck. I looked at the hills, which were visible in the first faint light of dawn (0530am M.W Time). Suddenly and without any sound, the hills were bathed in brilliant light, as if somebody had turned the sun on with a switch.

After the Second World War Frisch returned to England, becoming Jacksonian Professor of Physics at Cambridge in 1947 and a Fellow of Trinity.

Sub-Librarian Steven Archer said also on display was the script by Trinity Fellow Bertrand Russell of his 1955 radio broadcast about the consequences of nuclear explosions. A lifelong pacifist, Russell campaigned against the use of atomic weapons, joining forces in with other eminent scientists, including Einstein, calling for nuclear disarmament.

Other items on display include a special display to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the death of Sir Christopher Wren, and an exhibition of books printed by women in the sixteen and seventeenth centuries.

The Wren Library is open at the following times during Open Cambridge:

Saturday 9 September 10am – 4pm

Monday 11 September to Friday 15 September 12pm – 2pm

Saturday 16 September 10am – 4pm.

Following Open Cambridge, the Wren Library will be open to the public weekdays, 12pm – 2pm and during term-time also on Saturdays, 10:30am – 12:30pm.

Visitors to the Wren Library should enter Trinity via the Brewhouse Gate on Trinity Lane, not from Great Gate.

Read more about Open Cambridge and the Wren Library on the BBC and in New Musical Express

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