What can be brighter than a thousand suns but another, bigger star or a nuclear explosion. This song deals with the birth of the Atomic Age, the creation of the scientists of the Manhattan Project between 1942 and 1945, that eventually led to the Cold War and the delicate balance of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD a very appropriate acronym!). Lyrically close to '2 Minutes To Midnight ', it seems also somehow related to 'Tailgunner', but in a much more serious vein. No irony here, this is no joke. Mankind has now in its possession the means to destroy itself for good after a suicidal arms race that started in July 1945 with the detonation of the very first nuclear device in history and that still somehow carries on, even long after the end of the Cold War.
The development of nuclear weapons contributed to what was known as the "balance of terror" during the Cold War, ensuring that both main blocks could deter the other from attacking by knowing that the counter-attack would be at least as destructive as the initial strike. Many other countries, however, have tried to gain some kind of independance from the major forces in presence, which led to their own development programmes. The second half of the XXth Century saw therefore, after the first US atomic test in 1945 and that of the USSR in 1949, the entry of various other countries into this insane nuclear race: the UK in 1952, France in 1960, China in 1964, and India in 1974 incidentally with a bomb code-named "smiling buddha", a desecration of the name of Buddha who is normally the most peaceful deity you can find in human religions and who would find there certainly nothing to smile about! Even almost a decade after the official end of the Cold War, a country like Pakistan did its first nuclear test in 1998. Who's next, one may wonder...
What 'Brighter Than A Thousand Suns' deplores is the birth of this nuclear age that led to the fear of global nuclear warfare until 1989, then to the worrying knowledge that this kind of power could fall into the hands of fanatics ready to blow up any target in the Western World for some preposterous usually religious reason. Whereas nuclear energy remains an efficient, cheap and reliable source of power when controlled properly (forget the dubious reactors like Chernobyl , this is not what this is about), the military use of this wonderful discovery was not acceptable in 1945, nor is it today, for whatever reason.
Back to Iron Maiden's brilliant lyrics, one could disagree with the first line of the song as, according to the legend, humans are supposed to have been made in the image of God. The Ancient Testament, in the Bible along with the Torah and the Qur'an relate the story of Sodom and Gomorrah , two cities destroyed by God himself. Aren't Hiroshima and Nagasaki a modern version of this ancient myth? In this case, we are indeed the sons of God a chip off the old block, some would say as we are capable or the same mindless and inescapable destruction as Him. We have indeed "crossed the path He trod".
The "strange love" mentioned in the lyrics is, of course, a reference to Stanley Kubrick's 1964 black comedy about the nuclear threat, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Likewise, the "trinity reformed" is an allusion to the code name of the site where the first atomic bomb was detonated, on 16th July 1945 in a desert of New Mexico, USA. This name, coined by no one else than Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, then scientific director of the Manhattan Project, the World War II effort to develop the first nuclear weapons, at the secret Los Alamos laboratory, and known nowadays as "the father of the atomic bomb". The name "Trinity" seems to have originated from one of John Donne's Holy Sonnets that Oppenheimer's former lover, Jean Tatlock, who had committed suicide a year earlier, had introduced him to. In any case, this symbol of death constitutes a pretty ironic link to the Holy Trinity of the Christian Church!
Oppenheimer , the famous "Robert" who "made war with the sun" in the lyrics, was a physicist heading the Manhattan Project and in charge of developing a nuclear weapon before the enemy would get a chance to do it. A lot of research on nuclear fission had been going on in industrialised countries in the 1930s, hoping to use it as a powerful source of commercial energy. Unfortunately, due to the political instability in the relationship between some countries, it was naturally envisaged that this source of energy could also be used as a weapon. Some Jewish physicists who had emigrated to the United States aired their worries that Nazi Germany may have set up a programme to make a powerful weapon of mass-destruction (although this particular term was not used at the time) out of this research. They drafted in Albert Einstein ("e=mc2 you can relate"), also a Jewish refugee and world-renowned scientist, to give more weight to the argument. They wrote a letter, known as the Einstein-Szilard letter, that convinced President Roosevelt to create a research committee as soon as 1939 to investigate the possibilities to produce a nuclear weapon based on uranium fission. Progress was slow, as the whole concept wasn't taken very seriously by those in charge, but independent research from the UK soon speeded things up, as it was demonstrated that only a small quantity of uranium would be sufficient to detonate a bomb whose power had never been seen before. Eventually, an "all-out effort" was authorised by Roosevelt to develop such a bomb as soon as possible. From 1942 to 1945, scientists raced to be the first ones to detonate a nuclear device, which they did on three occasions in 1945: on 16th July a test bomb exploded at the Trinity test site in New Mexico, on 6th August a uranium bomb (romantically code-named "little boy") was dropped over Hiroshima, and on 9th August a plutonium bomb (code name "fat man") razed Nagasaki to the ground. The nuclear age, with its threat of total destruction of mankind, had started.
The irony of it all is that the German physicists of the time didn't do any serious research in this field and were in fact convinced that the reports they heard about their colleagues' work in the United States were mere propaganda. The "nuclear arms race" didn't actually exist during World War II and was run only by one side. Despite the fact that a petition was circulated among scientists of the project, pleading not to use the bomb against civilian populations, as it would be both immoral and unnecessary, Oppenheimer opposed it and the infamous destruction we all know of ensued. Although he later confessed feeling horrified and guilty, he never seems to have expressed any real regrets to have headed this programme of destruction. He merely stated that:
In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humour, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.
This rather scary statement is echoed in the very last line of the song