I recently visited the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History – or, as I knew it growing up in Albuquerque, the Atomic Museum. The museum has a brand new full size building, with enough room to display most of their catalog for the first time, but not quite enough money to do so professionally. The result is a brief, magic window in which rare artifacts are finally out on display, but you can touch them and bang on them and crawl around in them. Many of the larger items, including a disassembled B-52 bomber and many rocket engines, are simply dumped in rows in a dirt courtyard in back.
Somehow, I expected that I would traipse through the museum, looking at old photographs and brushing up on my nuclear weapons trivia, with perhaps some solemn moments of reflection in front of the reproductions of Fat Man and Little Boy. Instead, I found myself oscillating between uncontrollable sobbing and open-mouthed technological awe. It went something like this: “Wow, a cyclotron! Holy crap, the Potsdam declaration. (Muffled sob.) A real nose-cone from an ICBM, cool! Whoa, photos of ground zero at Hiroshima. (Fountain of tears.)” I went back the next day to take some original photographs with the intention of writing a thoughtful, well-researched article on my personal experience.
Unfortunately, I have discovered that I seem to know almost nothing about the history of nuclear arms testing and development – and this is from someone whose parents worked on the Strategic Defense Initiative (Reagan’s “Star Wars”), who read Richard Rhodes’ “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” AND “The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb”, who grew up in New Mexico, home of the Manhattan Project. More accurately, I knew some of the relevant facts, but in a vague sort of manner devoid of any connection with everyday life. They were numbers of megatons in a reference book, fictional movie plots involving lost nuclear weapons, and contrived acronyms for arms reduction treaties.
But walking through the museum, I saw brass Nazi goggles and notebooks, the car that carried the Trinity bomb to the test site, a copy of the Potsdam Declaration, movies of ordinary Japanese citizens clearing rubble with hand baskets in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the dented shells of nuclear missiles that were, for reals, lost in a midair collision over Spain and recovered after a multi-million dollar search. (Far more were lost and never found, in or over the ocean.) I saw, and touched, and yet still almost could not believe in, the outer shell of a “Davy Crockett” miniature tactical nuke – a literal “backpack nuke,” small enough that I could encircle it in my arms. I thought backpack nukes were only a theoretical possibility, and yet they were manufactured, assembly line style. I was particularly struck by how heavily the shoulder straps of the backpack were padded – a consideration so practical and down-to-earth in the face of the incomprehensible horror of the weapon itself.
And then I really got myself in trouble: I bought a copy of Michael Light’s 100 Suns from the book shop. It is a collection of 100 photographs of nuclear explosions from the U.S. nuclear testing program, during the time when nuclear tests were conducted above ground. I knew, intellectually, that Enewetak and Bikini Atolls had been practically obliterated by thermonuclear bomb tests, but seeing a 20″x26″ color photograph of the fireball of a 11 megaton explosion is… entirely different. And entirely different than seeing it on the computer screen – the image below has nothing like the power of that in the book.
|Castle Romeo test, Bikini Atoll, 1954, 11 megatons|
Each photograph in this book symbolizes and encapsulates the conflicting and overpowering feelings I had in the museum: awe, excitement, and deep grief. My favorite photos are ones of the people watching the tests – most of them are bored, or matter-of-fact, but a few of the faces show the same awe and awareness that I feel when I look at the photos of the explosions, decades after the fact. The photos are accompanied by short footnotes at the end of the book, describing the technical and political circumstances and fallout (literal and figurative) of each test.
And here, yet again, I learned how little I knew: that several of the thermonuclear bombs accidentally exceeded expected yield by several megatons and accidentally sickened people (How!? can something as complex as a thermonuclear bomb go wrong – and result in even greater power?? That’s not how computers work!), that we actually exploded nuclear weapons above the atmosphere and were surprised by the resultant EMP (I thought physicists predicted it, not that we knocked out Hawaii’s power grid by accident and worked backwards from there), that the largest nuclear explosion ever was a 50-megaton test by the Soviets in the Arctic (“test” – it was entirely for political effect), that we exploded thermonuclear bombs in the continental U.S., that U.S. soldiers were put in trenches close to bomb tests in Nevada so that they could conduct maneuvers within a few hundred feet of the smoking, radioactive craters immediately afterwards.
It never even occurred to me that thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of people had witnessed nuclear tests and that I could go talk to one of these people and ask them what it was like. And I never would have guessed that I would be jealous of them, because more than likely, no human will ever witness a nuclear explosion first-hand ever again.
I don’t know what to do now. Maybe most people already know these things, in which case it will be difficult to communicate my awe. Maybe they don’t know these things, but I won’t be able to cross the boundary between intellectual knowledge, like what I knew before I went to the museum, and the intense visceral awareness that the physical objects and photos gave me. Maybe I can’t do better than Michael Light’s magnificent book and I should just write him a positive Amazon review. Maybe I can do better, if I use all the resources available to me on this here World Wide Web.
Questions for you, dear reader:
- Which of the above facts surprised you? What is the most shocking thing you know about nuclear weapons and the Cold War?
- Do you know anyone who saw a nuclear explosion in real life? Have you asked them about it? Are they willing to talk about it?
- What is the movie/book/web site/whatever about nuclear weapons that you would recommend the most?
- Any advice for me on what (if anything) to do with this project?
Thank you for reading all the way through this.