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Home --> Science --> Atom Balm

Atom Balm

Claim:   A blind girl "saw" the flash of the first atomic bomb test.

Status:   Not quite.

Example:   [Calloway, 1999]

[The first atomic bomb was tested] at Trinity Site in the New Mexico desert at 5:30 a.m Mountain War Time, July 16, 1945. For those who understood what was happening, it was a cosmic revelation that would change the world forever. For those who didn't, it was still one hell of a big explosion.

Georgia Green, 18, of Socorro was in a car 50 miles north on Highway 85. She was being driven by her brother-in-law, Joe Wills, to a music lesson in Albuquerque. There was a tremendous flash. "What's that?" she said. Georgia was blind.

Origins:   The atomic bomb was born in What was that? secrecy and in many ways remains shrouded in mystery over fifty years after its development. It was built during wartime as part of the Manhattan Project, a program whose existence and huge expenditures was kept under wraps so well that even Harry S. Truman, head of the Senate committee that oversaw federal defense spending, didn't know what was up. (Truman eventually learned that the money was being used for a powerful new weapon, but even as Vice-President he wasn't informed of its true nature — he was provided with details only when he took over as President after the death of Franklin Roosevelt.) It was tested only once, in a remote New Mexico desert (for which a cover story about the accidental explosion of a munitions dump at an Alamogordo air base was concocted in advance). When it was finally used, it was dropped in Japan, half a world away.

Because of all the secrecy, many Americans only learned about the bomb's effects second- and third-hand (at least until John Hersey's magnificent "Hiroshima" article was published in The New Yorker in August 1946), so it's no wonder many strange and chilling rumors (most of them apocryphal) about the bomb began to circulate. People heard accounts of Japanese who were instantly "vaporized" by the bomb, with nothing left behind but their shadows. For years afterwards, popular culture was full of images of humans who developed extraordinary powers and creatures (usually insects) who grew to enormous size after being exposed to the radioactivity produced by a nuclear explosion.

One of more common bomb-related legends grew out of that first test (code-named "Trinity") in the New Mexico desert on 16 July 1945, a tale about a blind girl who supposedly "saw" the flash of light produced by the bomb's detonation. When the accounts of the explosion and the blind girl who saw it were initially reported, the public did yet not know of the bomb's existence and still believed the blast had been produced by an accidental explosion at a munitions dump:
[Albuquerque Journal, 1945]

So brilliant was the flash from the explosion that Miss Georgia Green of Socorro, blind University of New Mexico student, said "What's that?"



[Socorro Chieftain, 1945]

An explosives magazine at the Alamogordo air base blew up Monday morning, and the flash, sound and shock were seen, heard and felt in Socorro, more than 100 miles away . . . The flash was intensely white and seemed to fill the entire world. It was followed by a large crimson glow. The flash lasted only a second or so. It was so bright that Miss Georgia Green of Socorro, blind student at the University of Mexico, being driven to Albuquerque by her brother-in-law, Lieutentant Joe Wills, asked, "What's that?"
The world learned about the atom bomb after one was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in August 1945, and the anecdote about Georgia Green was widely reprinted as newspapers rushed to print everything they knew (which was usually little) about this powerful new weapon. In true urban legend-like fashion, the details of the story changed as they were told and re-told: Georgia Green's name was omitted (she became merely "the blind girl"); she was said to have been in Albuquerque when the blast occurred Atomic explosion (rather than Socorro); she was reportedly being driven to a music lesson (at 5:30 AM? — she was being taken back to the University of New Mexico, where she studied music); and reports claimed she had seen the flash from "120 miles away" (she was actually about fifty miles from the blast site). It's easy to see why this tale still has such currency: the bomb is still an enigma to many people. We know by now that nuclear explosions don't produce fifty-foot ants and grasshoppers, but who knows what other — hitherto unknown — effects they might have on human beings. Plenty of Japanese citizens survived the initial bomb blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, only to succumb to mysterious radiation-related illnesses days, weeks, months, or even years later, so it isn't too far-fetched to believe that some unusual property of a nuclear explosion could enable a blind person to see (if only for a moment), or that perhaps such a blast produced a special kind of light that even a blind person could "see."

What, if anything, did Georgia Green "see" that day? Ms. Green passed away in the mid-1980s, but accounts from interviews with her and her relatives can be used to form a reasonable explanation. First off, in 1989 Rolf Sinclair from the National Science Foundation visited with Georgia's sister and brother-in-law, both of whom were in the car with her when they witnessed the Trinity test in July 1945. Sinclair learned that even as a young girl Georgia had sight in only one eye, and at age seven she damaged (and lost the use of) this eye when she hit it on a refrigerator door. However, although Georgia was functionally blind, she apparently could still distinguish between light and dark, and her "seeing" the Trinity explosion can therefore probably be attributed to her merely having the minimal amount of visual sensitivity required to discern the extreme difference between the dark of a pre-dawn sky and the brilliant flash of a nuclear explosion.

Lansing Lamont (author of the book Day of Trinity) also interviewed the participants and produced this account:
Georgia Green felt the flash and a sudden loss of breath. "What's that?" she gasped and clutched the arm of her brother-in-law. The car shook and swerved off onto the shoulder of the road.
Note that nothing here says that Georgia "saw" the blast; only that she "felt" and reacted to something. Maybe she did "see" the explosion in a limited sort of way, but she might also have been reacting to something else she "felt" — a blast of air, a sudden change in air pressure or temperature, or even the shaking or swerving of the car. Anything out of the ordinary might conceivably have caused her to exclaim "What's that?"

Whatever the true explanation, it's undoubtedly more prosaic than the legend of a blind girl who suddenly "saw" a nuclear explosion. The atom bomb may still have some mysteries to it, but producing a kind of light even the blind can see isn't one of them.

Last updated:   21 July 2007

Urban Legends Reference Pages © 1995-2014 by Barbara and David P. Mikkelson.
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  Sources Sources:
    Calloway, Larry.   "N.M. Gave Birth to Atomic Bomb."
    Albuquerque Journal.   19 September 1999   (p. C8).

    Hart, William.   "Remembering the Bomb."
    The Dallas Morning News.   3 April 1989   (p. A1).

    Lamont, Lansing.   Day of Trinity.
    New York: Atheneum Press, 1965.

    McCullough, David.   Truman.
    New York: Touchstone Books, 1993.   ISBN 0-671-86920-5.

    Ripp, Bart.   "Trinity Site Bears Few Reminders of First Nuclear Blast."
    The [Tacoma] News Tribune.   16 July 1995   (p. A12).

    Sinclair, Rolf.   "The Blind Girl Who Saw the Flash of the First Nuclear Weapon Test."
    The Skeptical Inquirer.   Fall 1993   (pp. 63-67).

    Albuquerque Journal.   "Explosives Blast Jolts Wide Area."
    17 July 1945.