In Search of a Sense of Scale

by Alex Wellerstein, published June 8th, 2012

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.

  1. Herbert York, Making weapons, talking peace: a physicist’s odyssey from Hiroshima to Geneva (New York: Basic Books, 1987), 56-57. []

17 Responses to “In Search of a Sense of Scale”

  1. krepon says:

    In the not-so-distant past, some argued that an occasional demonstration shot would help remind folks of the horrors of nuclear weapons’ use. Herb York’s excellent rebuttal wasn’t part of the conversation, as I recall. Paul Warnke used a different rebuttal: some national leaders might watch the demo and think, “I want one of those.”

  2. Mike Lehman says:

    I’d guesstimate the date of the film as probably no later than 1955. After that, even the military, whom one AEC worker described as “favoring liberally dosing the troops” (or words to that effect, vaguely remembered from Bart Hacker’s book), backed off from its early practice of placing troops in close proximity to test shots. Just one example of how the looming recognition of fallout risks was affecting policy.

    It’s also important to remember that the troops were part of the experiments going on during testing. The government was very concerned about the psychological responses of the troops, as well as other short term effects that could affect combat effectiveness. While dosages of those participating were tracked somewhat haphazardly, it’s rather interesting how little interest the government showed in the long term effects of radiation exposures until veterans and downwinders started raising the issue decades later.

    Of course, early on the government wasn’t much interested in what fallout did once it left the test site EXCEPT for intelligence purposes. That’s why you have the maps that show the tracks of fallout strewn across the US. Not because the AEC was interested, as the Air Force generally only brought it samples within a 200 mile radius for test diagnostics under what it called “cloud tracking.” Outside that radius, aerial sampling was considered “long range detection” as such fallout was used for exercising and training sampler crews and keeping track of our fallout so that we could more easily differentiate Soviet fallout from our own. That’s what happened in the air and doesn’t address the USPHS ground network, etc, most of which came about after 1954’s CASTLE BRAVO fallout event.

    York’s comment is interesting and typical of many in the AEC.

    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.

    All true if one is talking about the short term. Surely York was aware of the implications of linear no-threshold theory, though? I haven’t dug through his stuff enough to determine his opinions on health safety theory to know.

    However, it’s not like NTS contained the fallout with some mysterious force field or that it didn’t eventually cause harm, perhaps grievous harms, to many people later on. Sure, there’s no easy breadcrumb trail of cause-and-effect to follow on the issue of fallout risks, but it’s rather remarkable that both the discourse and radiation risk/fallout and the lack of experimental interest in the issue reflect convenient policy assumptions.

    BTW, the May/June BAS has an excellent series on radiation risk models, with a particularly good one on the issue of the inherent conflicts between science versus policy in evaluating risks from low-level radiation by Gordon Thompson:

    • I agree that York’s line about the safety is, well, wrong from the perspective of soldiers, downwinders, even many test site personnel in general, and I don’t doubt that York would have (even in the 1980s, certainly later) acknowledged that. My interpretation of that paragraph is that it is about the perspective of the laboratory brass — a perspective that does matter, especially for the context he’s talking about, losing sight of the real effects of nuclear war.

      • Mike Lehman says:

        Your evaluation of York fits. He’s one of those interesting characters, like Oppenheimer, who never shut down his thought process simply to facilitate policy. Hindsight makes these things seem obvious now, but in the politico-social context of the times they truly were brave people willing to call them as they saw them.

        Returning to the difficulties of evaluating the scale of nuclear weapons, this factor is one that applies exponentially to fallout. Since it can’t (usually) be seen, the challenge of depicting its environmental ubiquity, for instance, is magnified. One really has to think about its implications, even when one is cognizant of its characteristics. I tend to differ a bit from Spencer Weart’s analysis of the role of images in creating nuclear fear. What’s the scariest thing in a horror movie? It’s the unseen monster lurking just out of sight, fallout in this case. The seen and unseen are a sort of the yin and yang of nuclear fear, dependent on each other.

        Your comments on the graphic of CASTLE BRAVO’s deadly fallout plume are important. York’s description actually falls short by placing its destruction as if centered near Washington, an example of how even after seeing it on paper an expert may still somewhat diminish its scale in his description. In fact, the bands of the plume placed fatal levels of fallout almost all the way to Boston. This plume superimposed on the East Coast as if it hit Washington DC was perhaps the best contemporaneous image of fallout produced during the era of atmospheric testing. Even then, it’s still hard to comprehend how vast an area would be contaminated to fatal levels (~6000 sq miles, IIRC) from a single high-yield weapon and the destruction this would cause to society as we know it. The mind boggles when considering what a dozen, 100, or more such weapons hitting the same area in a general nuclear war might do.

        Yep, the scale of nuclear weapons is difficult to convey.

        Also reminds me I need to see if I can track down when the CASTLE BRAVO plume graphic was declassified. IIRC, it was relatively early, perhaps before 1960?

        • The RDD-7 says that the “pattern” of Bravo’s fallout would have been definitely declassifiable under the 1956 Joint AEC/DOD Classification Guide. I don’t know exactly when it really became something easily accessible, though. It’s in Glasstone and Dolan’s 1962 edition of The Effects of Nuclear Weapons (figure 9.101, page 462), and not in the 1957 edition. I’m not sure if it was widely circulated earlier than that, but it’s an interesting thing to look into.

  3. Here’s a black and while film from 1953 by the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project showing the same test and troop maneuvers – I posted some photographs of the “Dog” test here years ago –

    • Thanks, Stephen! That’s perfect. Part of me wants to say that it’s a real shame that the only tests that help you get a sense of the human scale are the ones that very adversely affected the humans in question, but I guess that is almost necessarily the case.

  4. Bruce Roth says:

    I find it somewhat absurd that all those soldiers had their rifles in the ready position.

    • J B says:

      The intent was probably to be ‘realistic’.

      This is very similar to the tactics used in WWII and Korea when covering open ground.

      • My understanding is that a lot of the point of the “Desert Rock” series was to see whether soldiers could act “normal” under atomic conditions (as opposed to running around like chickens with their heads cut off, I suppose). Of course, even then, it feels fairly “antiseptic” compared to what any kind of real warzone would be like…

        Of course, the Americans weren’t the only ones to do this sort of thing… at least they weren’t riding horses?

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  11. Radbert Grimmig says:

    This is what struck me even more on my visit to Trinity Site.

    There’s hardly anything to see there that would help you experience the violence of the test. Nothing that was destroyed in it. There is this little glass house that used to give you a glimpse of the ‘glass’ desert floor that has been plowed under in all of the rest of the terrain, but it’s filled up with sand by now, so you don’t see anything. There are some remains of girders in the grpund but they are not from the shot tower but a later structure. There is a concrete observation bunker a few hundred yards away near the parking area but it has since been repainted.

    There’s ‘Jumbo’, the steel container inside of which they originally planned to explode the gadget, for fear of losing all the precious plutonium in a fizzle. Now that started out quite impressive, all torn and broken up. By the time of the actual Trinity shot, the scientists had become reasonably sure it wouldn’t fizzle and juts put Jumbo underneath the shot tower. However, it was *not* torn up and destroyed in the blast but survived it intact! The destruction happened years *later*, when they exploded a conventional high-explosive bomb inside it for some reason.

    From what I hear, there is a broken window pane at the McDonalds’ ranch two miles away. I didn’t visit it bceause you need to queue up fairly long for one of the buses that go there.

    Other than that, the only real evidence to be found is the odd, fingenail-sized (and smaller) shard of ‘trinitite’, which you have to look for really hard.

    A bland experience of no significance.