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William L. Laurence

Born in Salantai, Lithuania, William L. Laurence was an author and chief science reporter for The New York Times at the dawn of the Nuclear Age.

Laurence won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Manhattan Project, the secret US nuclear weapons program. Specifically chosen to write on the Manhattan Project, Laurence was the only journalist to receive access to US nuclear weapons activities. He witnessed the first nuclear weapons test at the Trinity Test Site in July 1945. In August, he was allowed to fly on the plane that dropped the atomic bomb over Nagasaki. After eye-witnessing these events, he wrote numerous articles and books on US nuclear weapons and the ethical implications of their use.

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In a September 1945 press release on the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Laurencedescribes his own observations of the bomb’s explosion:

By the time our ship had made another turn in the direction of the atomic explosion the pillar of purple fire had reached the level of our altitude. Only about 45 seconds had passed. Awe-struck, we watched it shoot upward like a meteor coming from the earth instead of from outer space, becoming ever more alive as it climbed skyward through the white clouds. It was no longer smoke, or dust, or even a cloud of fire. It was a living thing, a new species of being, born right before our incredulous eyes.

At one stage of its evolution, covering missions of years in terms of seconds, the entity assumed the form of a giant square totem pole, with its base about three miles long, tapering off to about a mile at the top. Its bottom was brown, its center was amber, its top white. But it was a living totem pole, carved with many grotesque masks grimacing at the earth.

Then, just when it appeared as though the thing has settled down into a state of permanence, there came shooting out of the top a giant mushroom that increased the height of the pillar to a total of 45,000 feet. The mushroom top was even more alive than the pillar, seething and boiling in a white fury of creamy foam, sizzling upwards and then descending earthward, a thousand old faithful geysers rolled into one.

Laurence's books covering the atomic bomb include Dawn Over Zero: The Story of the Atomic Bomb (1946), The Hell Bomb (1951), and Men and Atoms: The Discovery, the Uses, and the Future of Atomic Energy (1959).

For further reading on Laurence and The New York Times coverage of US nuclear testing, read News Zero: the New York Times and the Bomb by Beverly Deepe Keever, Common Courage Press (2004), ISBN 1-56751-282-8.