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"A Mushroom Cloud, Recollected"
March 24, 2010 3:42 AM   Subscribe

"With the renewed interest in nuclear weapons I have been struck by how few people there still are who have seen one explode." Jeremy Bernstein looks back on the two above-ground tests he witnessed in 1957. "Smoky" and "Galileo" were part of Operation Plumbbob, a series of 29 tests.
posted by The Mouthchew (20 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
"With the renewed interest in nuclear weapons I have been struck by how few people there still are who have seen one explode."

And thank the gods for that.
posted by CRM114 at 4:02 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


He opened the door and inside on shelves were the interiors—the “pits”—of a vast array of nuclear weapons. Carson casually picked one off the shelf and handed it to me. It was about the size and weight of a bowling ball—a bowling ball made out of plutonium and, in this case, with an outer layer of beryllium. It was slightly warm to the touch from the radioactivity. In the middle of the room there was a table. On it was a pit and a man was gluing high explosives to the sphere. A woman was next to him knitting.

Chilling and absurd.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:04 AM on March 24, 2010 [4 favorites]


In the middle of the room there was a table. On it was a pit and a man was gluing high explosives to the sphere. A woman was next to him knitting.

David Lynch, documentarian.
posted by atrazine at 4:40 AM on March 24, 2010 [8 favorites]


Bernstein: "We have lost the experience of watching a nuclear explosion—perhaps the most powerful lesson about nuclear bombs there is."

What about the lesson we get not from watching the impressive fireball but from watching the effects on human bodies in newsreel footage of Nagasaki/Hiroshima survivors? That's quite a powerful lesson as well.
posted by Termite at 5:19 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


What about the lesson we get not from watching the impressive fireball but from watching the effects on human bodies in newsreel footage of Nagasaki/Hiroshima survivors?

I'm not so sure. The wounds are so gruesome, so surreal, that it becomes difficult to identify with the victims. It's difficult to realise that it could happen to oneself. Experiencing the explosion, not just seeing the fireball and mushroom cloud, but feeling the flash and the blast wave, must have made those involved much more conscious of the power of the bomb, of how they could be the victims themselves. At least that's the feeling I get from their writings.
posted by Skeptic at 5:38 AM on March 24, 2010


The series, which was the most extensive ever done at Mercury, put 58.3 million curies of radio-iodine into the atmosphere. One-thousandth of a curie is what would be used in a liver scan.

I'm reminded here of the old Asimov story "Silly Asses."
posted by octobersurprise at 6:41 AM on March 24, 2010


It's somehow in our subconscious though. I've never seen a nuclear explosion, but I don't lack for imagining one. My nightmares are littered with nuclear apocalypse, I wonder how many other people have the same root instinct? Do our world leaders fear nuclear annihilation as much as I?
posted by joecacti at 7:43 AM on March 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


I knew someone who had seen an atomic explosion test when he was in the army. He said it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He died not long after telling this story in his early 60s, with cancer and other problems showing up just about everywhere in his body. I'm not too surprised that there are not too many people left alive who have seen one.

Actually this guy's (and my) boss said that he was a student at Berkeley when they were doing above ground tests in Nevada. They were measuring radiation, and their detector in Berkeley (at least 200 miles away and on the other side of a mountain range) lit up when the bomb went off.

I'm glad they don't do nuclear tests anymore.
posted by eye of newt at 8:00 AM on March 24, 2010


My nightmares are littered with nuclear apocalypse, I wonder how many other people have the same root instinct? Do our world leaders fear nuclear annihilation as much as I?

I'm reminded of the President's dream in Dreamscape. (youtube link)
posted by crapmatic at 8:07 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


What about the lesson we get not from watching the impressive fireball but from watching the effects on human bodies in newsreel footage of Nagasaki/Hiroshima survivors?

Personally, I think some of the most striking images from the nuclear attacks on Japan are the aerial photos of Hiroshima, taken a day or so after the bomb went off. It's just rubble as far as the eye can see, with maybe the odd half-collapsed building.

In and of itself, it's not too impressive (looks like any urban environment where there's been consdierable demolition work after a natural disaster), but when you realise that there has in fact been no demolition work there, and that this destruction was brought about in a matter of seconds...

...yeah. I'm very, very glad that the Cold War is no longer going on.
posted by ZsigE at 8:18 AM on March 24, 2010


The Bomb for Beginners (via Kottke)
posted by acro at 8:49 AM on March 24, 2010


I'm not so sure. The wounds are so gruesome, so surreal, that it becomes difficult to identify with the victims. It's difficult to realise that it could happen to oneself.

It's in exactly this vein that I really quite zealously urge anyone with an interest in policy, nonproliferation, human life, all life to watch the remarkable short film Radio Bikini. (Netflix it here!) It's a staggering and unforgettable hour and conveys better than most such things how - banal? routine? normalised? - these weapons became in the fifties; how little people actually credited their awesomeness and power. Until later. It is very, very sobering.

I tend to agree that atmospheric nuclear tests were beautiful, too; I love big science, and I fear death, and these images are pretty much the apotheosis of both. I have spent hours turning the pages of Michael Light's 100 Suns.

Spoiler warning: these will hook you and you will become an atomic geek like me and your back will ache from carrying around Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun. And then you'll start reading Feynman, and after that it is all over...
posted by rdc at 9:28 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


"With the renewed interest in nuclear weapons I have been struck by how few people there still are who have seen one explode.
Vainglorious maximus.
posted by uni verse at 9:30 AM on March 24, 2010


My grandfather was at a couple of these tests and talked about how they would watch the explosion, then immediately go out in the field to study the results. I cannot believe he is still alive at 88.
posted by thekilgore at 10:22 AM on March 24, 2010


I remember standing in our driveway back in my hometown in southern Idaho on one summer night in the late 1950s, talking to my friend from across the street when all of a sudden the southern sky turned bright daylight blue up to about 30 degrees above the horizon. The daylight blue sky rose like a curtain and then faded back down in a matter of seconds.

By this point in my life, I had already seen three fireballs and an auroral display that extended from the north horizon to the zenith--but this was the most astonishing and inexplicable thing I had ever seen. It was very much a hair raising experience.

Inexplicable, that is, until many decades later, when I looked at a map and saw that we were directly north of the test range and very well could have been witnessing a night time test.

On a related note, I have a friend whose parents were big on going to Vegas back in the 50s. They told her that whenever there was a test, everyone would stop gambling and file outside for the light show. This evidently happened more than once in their trips to Nevada. Both of them died of cancer, needless to say.
posted by y2karl at 10:38 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hmm, I never thought to Google about such until just now--but now here is not one but two pictures of night time atomic bomb tests as seen from LA in the early 1950s. And here is something about atomic tourism in Las Vegas from the same time. The first image, albeit while in black and white, is much like what I saw that night, whenever it was, which tends to confirm my suspicions about what I was looking at then.
posted by y2karl at 10:56 AM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


I agree with rdc: Michael Light's "100 suns" is beautiful, fascinating, sometimes absurd... and it makes you realize there were so many tests that you could say that the Earth already has experienced a nuclear war. But it doesn't give you much of an idea of what these bombs could do to human bodies, those that survived the blast.
posted by Termite at 2:09 PM on March 24, 2010


When my father was in the Navy in the early 50s, he was part of a test of the psychological effects of a nuclear explosion. He and his shipmates were trucked cross-county from N Carolina to Nevada, got out of the trucks and lined up in ranks. A nuclear bomb went off in the distance, they were ordered back into the trucks and driven back to N Carolina.

He's dead now, but I'm sure there are many others who were in that experiment still alive.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 2:28 PM on March 24, 2010


the french government stopped nuclear testing in the south pacific in 1996. witnesses abound.
posted by kitchenrat at 3:15 PM on March 24, 2010


You're partially right, kitchenrat. France abandonded atmospheric tests in 1974, the rest of them were conducted underground.
posted by The Mouthchew at 4:49 AM on March 25, 2010


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