In 1942, one of Robert Oppenheimer’s colleagues came to him with a disturbing suggestion: in the event their work on the Manhattan Project succeeded and they built the world’s first atomic bomb, it was quite possible the explosion would set the skies on fire. Shaken, Oppenheimer privately told one of the project’s most senior figures, Arthur Compton, who responded with horror, according to a biography of Oppenheimer:
Was there really any chance that an atomic bomb would trigger the explosion of the nitrogen in the atmosphere or of the hydrogen in the ocean? This would be the ultimate catastrophe. Better to accept the slavery of the Nazis than to run a chance of drawing the final curtain on mankind!
Compton told Oppenheimer that “unless they came up with a firm and reliable conclusion that our atomic bombs could not explode the air or the sea, these bombs must never be made.” The team ran a series of calculations and decided the math supported their case that the “gadget,” as the bomb was known, was safe. Work continued. Still, at the site of the Trinity test in New Mexico on July 16 1945, one of the scientists offered the others a bet on “whether or not the bomb would ignite the atmosphere, and if so, whether it would merely destroy New Mexico or destroy the world.” Luckily for us, it did neither.