Most films of nuclear explosions are dubbed. If they do contain an actual audio recording of the test blast itself (something I’m often suspicious of — I suspect many were filmed silently and have a stock blast sound effect), it’s almost always shifted in time so that the explosion and the sound of the blast wave are simultaneous.
This is, of course, quite false: the speed of light is much faster than the speed of sound, and the cameras are kept a very healthy distance from the test itself, so in reality the blast wave comes half a minute or so after the explosion. Basic physics that even a non-technical guy like me can understand.
It’s rare to find footage where the sound has not been monkeyed with in post-processing. So I was pleased when a Russian correspondent sent me a link to footage digitized by the National Archives of a 1953 nuclear test. The footage is very raw: it hasn’t been edited much, and is a bit washed out, but the audio is still in “correct,” original sync.
The video starts off pretty dark and muddled, but don’t let that turn you off. What’s interesting about this clip is not the visual aspects. The test looks like any old nuclear test, but with poor film quality.
The audio is what makes this great. Put on some headphones and listen to it all the way through — it’s much more intimate than any other test film I’ve seen. You get a much better sense of what these things must have been like, on the ground, as an observer, than from your standard montage of blasts. Murmurs in anticipation; the slow countdown over a megaphone; the reaction at the flash of the bomb; and finally — a sharp bang, followed by a long, thundering growl. That’s the sound of the bomb.1
The test itself was the ANNIE shot of Operation Upshot-Knothole, March 17, 1953. Carey Sublette reports that:
In an effort to calm public fears about weapons testing, Annie was an “open shot” – civilian reporters were permitted to view it from News Nob, 11 kilometers south of the shot-tower. Annie was a weapon development test, it was an experimental device (code named XR3) that provided additional information to normalize the yield-vs-initiation time curve. It was a Mk-5 HE assembly using a Type D pit, and used a betatron for external initiation (the third such test). Total device weight was 2700 lb, predicted yield was 15-20 kt.
There were U.S. troops there as well, as part of Operation Desert Rock V. They provide a huge amount of ambient noise. Whistles, “WHOAS!”, and “JEEZ!” follow the blast wave’s arrival.
Obviously watching a grainy black and white video on YouTube is not really going to give you that elusive sense of scale. But with a good pair of headphones, you really do get immersed in it — good audio triggers something special in the brain, above and beyond what you might expect it to do. So give it a shot, and cozy up to the real sounds of the bomb.
At the complete other end of the spectrum, there are films that the DOE has produced a number of silent nuclear test explosions… which someone thought would sound better with extremely cheesy synthesizer music behind it.
Seriously. Wait for the “lasers.” In my experience, this is what a lot of promotional videos produced by the military look like, but I don’t know who is responsible for this particular atrocity. If you haven’t gotten enough with that one, here’s another.
Personally, I think silence is preferable to… that. The original, silent footage of the preparations for the Trinity test is much more haunting, in its way, than the many versions which add music or narration. But nothing really compares to the actual sound from the actual time — unedited.
- Robert Serber, on the sound of the Trinity test: “Some time later, the noise of the explosion reached us. It had the quality of distant thunder, but was louder. The sound, due to reflections from nearby hills, returned and repeated and reverberated for several seconds, very much like thunder.” [↩]