World Science Day | ‘I Am Become Death, The Destroyer Of Worlds’

Yes, really – the tenth of November was declared World Science day back in 2001.

We’ve been a little quiet here at The Wait – life’s been getting in the way a little! – but we love a bit of science along with our literature, so World Science Day inspired us into writing a blog about an oft-quoted (misquoted) line from the epic Hindu poem the Bhagavad Gita, especially considering the World Science Day was designated in order to open up discussions about how to use science to strive for peace and unity.

In 1947, the first atomic bomb was tested. J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the laboratory, witnessed the detonation and later said that he was reminded of a passage from the sacred poetic text:

‘I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.’

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The moment and the passage has become significant to anyone pondering the destructive tendencies of mankind – the seeming regret and awe that Oppenheimer shows when he witnesses his team’s handiwork resonates deeply with anyone pondering the power that science can wield.

Misquote

Sorry, folks: Oppenheimer was actually misquoting the sacred poem. What the god Krishna actually said was this:

I am all-powerful Time which destroys all things, and I have come here to slay these men. Even if thou doest not fight, all the warriors facing thee shall die.

This is just one translation – changing from the ancient Hindu script into plain English is not an easy task, especially considering the blurred lines between the translation of ‘death’ and ‘time’. This part of the poem however appears to be a discussion of the inevitability of death, as even if the warriors mentioned do not die in battle, time will catch up with them in the end. The passage of time, that leads to a natural death for all men, is personified into an immediate, destructive force.

So, now you know. However, just because Oppenheimer was ‘technically’ misquoting the Bhagavad Gita, don’t let that stop you from appreciating the significance of the moment in history – Oppenheimer’s exclamation was a hell of a lot more poetic than, say, ‘oh crap what have I done?!’

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