The Big Bang

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Thirty-five years ago, an obscure desert in China's far west known by its Uighur name of Lop Nor suddenly became a national symbol. It was here, on Oct. 16 at 3:00 p.m., that China exploded its first atomic device, unleashing the mushroom cloud whose image would become a propaganda staple inside the country and abroad. China had entered the nuclear age. The path to that moment wasn't easy. During the 1950s, Mao Zedong often criticized the nuclear bomb as a paper tiger. But even as he voiced those words, he had decided to join the international atomic club, regardless of the cost. In the project's first phase, from 1956-59, the Soviets provided support to China via a secret bilateral agreement on defense technology. But relations became strained in 1960, and China had to manage on its own. The first bomb was code-named 596, a reference to June 1959, when Premier Nikita Khrushchev told Beijing the Soviets would not hand over a prototype of their bomb. China was forced to compromise its closed door policy and rely for basic information on physics materials imported from the West. China's nuclear program began to take shape in 1955, when some 100 physics students from five universities--I was among them--were brought in to work at a new and highly secret department at Peking University. We were informed only that we would be learning nuclear physics and preparing for a Chinese nuclear project. At that time there were no more than 30 qualified nuclear physicists in the country, far fewer than China needed to join the nuclear club. A year later, at the age of 20, I became a junior researcher at the Institute of Modern Physics. I was part of a 12-member group studying the theory of nuclear reactors, which are necessary to produce Pu-239, a vital plutonium isotope that, through fission, can yield the greatest atomic energy. I was responsible for day-to-day operations; only one member of the group was older than 25. The biggest problem involved numerical computation. Since we lacked even motor-driven electric calculators, we relied on the abacus. During peak periods of calculation, the room sounded like an old-fashioned bank, filled with wooden clacking sounds. Few could imagine that the noise was a prelude to the deafening first atomic explosion. In addition to the thermal blast it created, the Lop Nor test generated a huge amount of national pride. To many of us it proved that China was capable of state-of-the-art achievements in science and military technology--a cherished dream for more than century. Fang Lizhi, a spiritual leader of China's 1989 pro-democracy movement at Tiananmen Square, is a professor of physics at the University of Arizona