The other day, I saw a rather medium-sized, plump, stand-alone cumulus cloud hovering over Washington, D.C., and somehow my brain made the connection between it and that photo of the stemless mushroom cloud from the DIXIE shot.
Since then I’ve been playing a little game every time I see clouds like that — imagining they were the remains of something horrible. It’s been an interesting exercise in imaginative empathy, a way of getting beyond the “flatness” of the photos of mushroom clouds and trying to imagine how large they would look in person, even for “small” bombs.
The late Herbert York (who I had the opportunity to interview in 2008), in his book Making Weapons, Talking Peace (1987), spoke about the way in which being present at nuclear tests actually could lead one to under-appreciate the power of the bomb:
It’s an impressive sight, all right, but the setting completely undercuts the true horror of the bomb. In Nevada, in the days when bombs were tested there in the atmosphere, the explosions commonly took place over a dry lake bed in the middle of a great circular valley. Nothing was destroyed, except the tower supporting the bomb; nothing even burned, except for an occasional desert scrub. No one was killed or even seriously endangered. The whole operation took place in such a way as to guarantee that nothing unpleasant would happen. Safety was the rule. It was all totally antiseptic.
It was the same in the Pacific. The explosions took place on tiny islets in the middle of a great ocean. Nothing but test equipment was destroyed, nothing burned, no one was killed. If the explosion made a crater, it filled with water and sand before anyone could get a look at it.
Far more impressive to me are the photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the day after. Even in reproductions of the kind presented in newspapers, the full horror of those events can easily be seen. And in the case of of the multimegaton tests of the 1950s, observing the explosions themselves did not impress me nearly as much as seeing a map of Washington with the bomb crater laid over it, the circles indicating the reach of total destruction enclosing the entire metropolis.1
I think York has something of a profound point here about how we know the bomb. With the sole exception of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have been detonated under extremely controlled conditions. (Though not always as controlled as York makes out — there have been accidents, there have been exposures, there have even been acute fatalities, if you spread your net outside of the testing of the United States.) And controlled conditions are necessarily “antiseptic” compared to the reality of war. Such is especially the case since nuclear weapons stopped being tested in the atmosphere — underground test are far more “antiseptic,” (except when something goes wrong), and nothing is perhaps as antiseptic as a computer simulation.
Of all of the nuclear footage I’ve seen, my favorite is a silent, color reel that has been floating around the Internet for a long time now. I’m not sure of its original provenance (the folks floating it around label it as being from 1959, which is to some degree false or misleading, given that the US was in the middle of a test moratorium at the time! A reader suggests it is Desert Rock IV, from 1952, which I find entirely plausible), but, in any case, it has one shot in it that is just stunning:
It starts in a trench, with soldiers. The bomb goes off; the soldiers stand and turn to face it, their faces lit by the blast. The camera turns to the roiling mushroom cloud. A second later, the shock wave hits. The cloud rises out of the frame. Cut to more soldiers getting a mouthful of dust, cut finally to them getting out of the trenches. There’s then one great, long shot where the camera follows the soldiers walking, walking, and as it pans, the cloud then looms before them. The camera pans up and up to get the mushroom in the frame.
There’s something about this shot that restores the sense of scale to me — I suddenly get a sense for how big the cloud is, even though it must be many miles away. The tacking of the shot between the soldiers, who are at a recognizable, human scale, and the mushroom cloud, reveals the true enormity of the cloud in visual terms that I can intuitively digest.
I’m always in search of that sense of scale: ways of making the sublime horror of nuclear weapons actually accessible. It is easy to get inured to your subject matter; it is easy to get “academic” about it and lose sense of its intuitive, visceral reality. (Obviously to do so is partially a defense reflex.) This was part of my motivation with the NUKEMAP, but it’s part of a broader goal as well, and is one of the reasons I am drawn to any little tidbit which gives a taste of it. There’s an advantage to being able to manipulate one’s distance from the research — but the question of distance has to go both ways, it isn’t just about making things antiseptic.
- Herbert York, Making weapons, talking peace: a physicist’s odyssey from Hiroshima to Geneva (New York: Basic Books, 1987), 56-57. [↩]