When Brigadier General Thomas Farrell groped to describe (in an official government report) the subjective effect of the first atomic explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico, at 5:29:50 A.M. on July 16, 1945, he found himself, like many a would-be writer of the sublime before him, at a loss for adequate terms and tropes – stupefied, dwarfed, reaching for hyperbolic endterms like “doomsday” and “blasphemous” and resorting to spaced-out adjectives such as “tremendous” or “awesome” that 19thcentury Americans had reserved for more manageable spectacles of God's grandeur such as Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon. Though a military man and no poet, as Farrell registered this history-shattering event in words, he struggled to command some rhetoric of ultimacy before nuclear “effects [that] could well be called unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous and terrifying”:
No man-made phenomenon of such tremendous power had ever occurred before. The lighting effects beggared description. The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse, and mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined. It was the beauty the great poets dream about but describe most poorly and inadequately. Thirty seconds after the explosion came, first the air blast pressing hard against people and things, to be followed almost immediately by the strong, sustained awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to The Almighty. Words are inadequate tools for the job of acquainting those not present with the physical, mental, and psychological effects. It had to be witnessed to be realized.
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