Archive for August, 2012

Visions

The Faces of Project Y

Friday, August 31st, 2012

Security badges — identification pieces with photographs on them — are one of the more ubiquitous showings of a security state. In Washington, DC, where I live, they are an extremely common sight: a thick plastic card with a photograph and a name of an agency, strung on a garish lanyard around the neck of someone dressed extremely conservatively. Apparently among those inside this world, it is considered a standard practice to subtly glance down at the badges of other people you see around, comparing agencies, clearances, status.

When did identification badges become so common? I’m not sure. Did they have them, say, in the secret facilities employed during World War I? I’ve never seen one. I’ve seen non-identifying badges — the equivalent of a police shield — but not ones with individual names and photographs. Presumably they had a way of indicating who belonged inside the secret areas and who belonged outside, but whether that was an identification card, a sheaf of papers, or something else, I’ve no clue. The photographic identification badge, worn at all times, seems to have come out of nowhere around the time of World War II, like so many things associated with the modern American security state.

At Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project — Project Y, as it was called — badges served multiple purposes. They said who was allowed inside the facility, sure. No badge, no entry. But they were also color-coded to describe the breadth of your access. Yellow meant that you could go into technical areas of the lab, but could receive no classified information — like guards. Blue was for people who needed classified information but not technical information — clerks and warehouse employees. Red was for people who could get some technical information within a highly compartmentalized state — technicians and secretaries.  White was for those who could know it all — everything that was to be done at Los Alamos. Early on, General Groves had wanted Los Alamos to be considerably compartmentalized, but Oppenheimer and others fought it. The result was that white badgers had the run of the lab, more or less, and could attend laboratory-wide colloquia.

The old Los Alamos badges of yore are declassified and have been digitized. They make for an interesting visual portrait of Los Alamos — one that likely nobody expected would ever be compiled and shared widely. They were internal documents for internal purposes, now opened up to history. It’s tempting to read the character traits we expect into the expressions on the badges. Look at J. Robert Oppenheimer‘s badge, above. He looks small and vulnerable — brilliant but wary, burdened by heavy responsibilities.

By contrast, here is the young Richard Feynman, who looks serenely amused at the entire thing, completely unimpressed, a little bit wicked:

And then we have Klaus Fuchs, that cold fish. The spy who nobody suspected, a man whose mildness — even blankness — in appearance concealed a not-inconsiderable-amount of ideological belief and daring. The guy got beat up fighting Brownshirts in the streets of Germany, but you’d never guess it from his Los Alamos persona:

And the other major physicist-spy, Ted Hall, looks just as bored, irritated, and condescending as we’d expect from the boy-wonder Harvard undergraduate who decided that he alone could determine the fate of world affairs:

In case you’re wondering whether poor Ted “Theordore” Hall was the only one with a really obvious misspelling on his badge photo, look no further:

General Leslie R. Groves, overall head of the Manhattan Project, originally had “Grover” written on his identification tag. Which was apparently unnoticed until after the tag was glued on to the photograph, at which point it had to be corrected by hand. That’s kind of sad. What’s being the head of the Manhattan Project get you, if not some respect?

Sometime back, Los Alamos digitized a huge number of these staff photographs, though they are available only in practically microscopic dimensions online. There are some 1,229 badge photographs on the page — some of famous people, some of infamous people, and some of people that nobody has probably heard of since. It’s a fun feature, though like most people who look at it, I’ve spent most my time hunting for the famous names (Fermi, Teller, Bethe) and ignore most of the others.

But it’s exactly the others that make Los Alamos so interesting. It wasn’t just a small cabal of world-famous physicists — it was a massive collection of physicists, mathematicians, chemists, metallurgists, physicians, engineers, technicians, secretaries, librarians, housekeepers, cleaners, nurses, laborers, and other people who are necessary to make a lab function.

Being a tech-savvy fellow I realized it would actually be pretty easy1 to extract all of the images from the LANL website and turn them into one giant composite image, which I present for you below — click the image to open it up.

You should be able to click on the image to zoom or pan it, or use the controls at the bottom of the screen. It mostly seems to work on the iPad. (It struggles on old computers running old browsers, I’m sorry to say.) I highly recommend the full screen mode, enabled by clicking the little icon in the bottom right corner. The photo names are extracted programmatically from the filenames provided by LANL; there are some obvious typos, mistakes, and so forth that I haven’t tried to correct. If it absolutely won’t work for you, you can look at the full image here, but I warn you that it’s a big file.

They are arranged in alphabetical order. Hunt around and you’ll occasionally find a famous person, in a sea of the unfamous. Look at the sheer diversity of age, gender, and appearance. One is artfully blurred; there are at least two duplicate pairs — one is rather plain, while another shows a change in facial hair. (There is not much diversity in race, unsurprisingly. There are groups of Hispanic men in there — e.g., Lopez, Lopez, Lopez, and Lopez — but other than that, Los Alamos as represented here was a pretty “white” gathering. This is in stark contrast with Hanford and Oak Ridge, which used large numbers of African-American workers.)

I thought this was pretty enough to make a mug out of it. For the mug, I picked out 95 faces — including all of the famous and infamous ones, along with some visually interesting ones — and wrapped them around a mug. There’s no explanatory text, just faces, with an Oppenheimer and a Fuchs peaking out from among the crowd, plus a few people whose faces you probably don’t know, but would be amused to find in there (like Sam Cohen, the “inventor of the neutron bomb”).

If the anonymous crowd isn’t your thing, there is also a mug of The Big Four of the nuclear scene — Oppenheimer, Teller, Groves, and Fuchs — and, just on the off-chance someone other than me would find wearing a Klaus Fuchs t-shirt amusing, some clothing designs with these fellows on them. All proceeds go towards supporting the blog.

Notes
  1. I used DownloadThemAll plus ImageMagick Montage, if you are curious what goes into making this sort of thing. The image viewer was cobbled together from Microsoft’s sadly defunct Seadragon Ajax library. []
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Forbidden spheres

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

Spheres are special shapes for nuclear weapons designers. Most nuclear weapons have, somewhere in them, that spheres-within-spheres arrangement of the implosion nuclear weapon design. You don’t have to use spheres — cylinders can be made to work, and there are lots of rumblings and rumors about non-spherical implosion designs around these here Internets — but spheres are pretty common.

A photograph of a rather suspicious sphere-within-a-hemisphere, from the inside of Israel’s secret nuclear site, Dimona, taken by Mordechai Vanunu in 1986.

Spheres also happen to be fairly common sights in the non-nuclear weapons design as well. What interests me is what happens when you take a perfectly non-nuclear sphere, like, say, a soccer ball, and move it into a nuclear context. To the trained eye, it takes on a rather interesting new meaning:

Image from the cover of A.Q. Khan on Science and Education.

Presumably Dr. Khan was not using the ball above to express his love of sport, but instead was using it to convey in broad terms what the truncated icosahedron shape has to do with implosion weapons — it is the geometry of the explosive lenses used in the Trinity “gadget” and “Fat Man” bomb designs, similar to the one sketched on the upper-right side of the chalkboard above.

(I will just also note that somebody — presumably not Dr. Khan himself, but who knows — has rendered in chalk a truly excellent reproduction of figure 2.07a from Glasstone and Dolan’s Effects of Nuclear Weapons, 1977 edition.)

All of which is to say that spheres are important from a nuclear point of view, and the context of spheres can change their meaning dramatically. Nothing too surprising or controversial there, I hope.

Such is the background I want you to be thinking of when you read the below line item from the notes of a Technical Board Meeting at Los Alamos, from May 1947.1

8. The Director [Norris Bradbury] asked for an expression of opinion as to what might be the difficulties that would arise if he asked that all possibly revealing shapes in the various Tech offices be removed. For example, spherical ash trays and such things that are not actually bomb parts or models, but cause security people concern because they feel that the presence of such items makes security policing difficult. It was agreed that the Director would bring this up at the next colloquium.

Imagine the scenario: you’re a security officer working at Los Alamos. You know that spheres are weapon parts. You walk into a technical area, and you see spheres all around! Is that an ashtray, or it is a model of a plutonium pit? Anxiety mounts — does the ashtray go into a safe at the end of the day, or does it stay out on the desk? (Has someone been tapping their cigarettes out into the pit model?)

You must admit, there’s a certain familial resemblance.

All of this anxiety can be gone — gone! — by simply banning all non-nuclear spheres! That way you can effectively treat all spheres as sensitive shapes.

What I love about this little policy proposal is that it illuminates something deep about how secrecy works. Once you decide that something is so dangerous that the entire world hinges on keeping it under control, this sense of fear and dread starts to creep outwards. The worry about what must be controlled becomes insatiable — and pretty soon the mundane is included with the existential.

I’ve posted this quote before, from Mordechai Vanunu’s lawyer, but it never gets old. Secrecy is contagious:

If something is secret, and something else touches it, it too becomes secret. Secrecy becomes a disease. Everything around the secret issue becomes secret, so the trial became a secret, so I became a secret.

So, did Los Alamos actually end up adopting the policy of No Spheres in the War Room? It may very well have! Below is an excerpt from Joseph Masco‘s highly-recommended book, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico:

One weapons scientist explained to me how he breached security at Los Alamos simply by bringing a sack lunch into the plutonium facility. He left his lunch on his office desk and stepped out for a minute. He came back to find a commotion. A security officer informed him that the orange he left on his desk was, in fact, a classified object.

He learned that any spherical object became a nuclear secret once it passes over the line demarcating the secure from the open areas of the laboratory, as it could be taken as a model for the plutonium pit that drives a nuclear weapon.

The weapons scientist was told that in the future he could eat the fruit or store it inside his office safe with the rest of his classified documents, but if he left the orange out on his desk unsupervised it was a security infraction that could be referred to the FBI for investigation.

Truth, rumor, exaggeration? A distinction that’s not mine to know. But it’s still pretty amusing. One wonders how many “inappropriate lunch” cases the FBI has to investigate.

Image source: floating around the Internet.

I’ve asked some contacts I have at Livermore if they had such a policy out there, and they said they hadn’t heard of one. But maybe they’ve just never made the mistake of bringing a sphere to lunch. 

Notes
  1. Citation: Los Alamos Technical Board Notes (2 May 1947), copy in Chuck Hansen papers, National Security Archive, George Washington University, Washington, D.C., Box 51, “U.S. Nuclear Testing Program, 1944-1947, 1959.” []
Visions

Going Back to Tinian

Friday, August 24th, 2012

In my last post, I talked about what the island of Tinian was like in World War II, when it served as the launching point for strategic bombing raids on Japan — including the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A physicist friend of mine from graduate school, Alex Boxer (who currently consults the Navy about submarines, and has his own history of science blog), recently took a vacation to Tinian, and took a ton of photographs. He’s given me permission to re-print some of them here, along with some of his comments on them (which are in italics).

You can begin your virtual tour of Tinian with this movie of what it’s like to fly there from Saipan.  The planes are just little 6-seater prop-planes, and the flight is probably a grand total of 10 minutes.  In this movie (sped-up 2x to reduce its size) you can see the whole island and what’s left of the North Field runways.

There’s very little to see that’s bomb-related — it’s striking, really, it’s almost as if the US military was never there.  The only buildings which remain from that era are Japanese installations.

A random Japanese propeller located on the southern end of the island:

At North Field (located, sensibly enough, at the North end of the island) there are several Japanese buildings:

Description from a placard outside the building:

This two-story building was the World War II headquarters of the Japanese Navy’s 1st Air Fleet (Base Air Force of the Marianas), commanded by Vice Admiral Kakuji Kakuta. … Admiral Kakuta’s airfields in the Marianas and Iwo Jima served as staging areas for moving aircraft to southern Pacific battle areas and for attacks on American ships. By July of 1944, the airfields directed from the 1st Fleet headquarters had been captured or destroyed. What remained of Admiral Kakuta’s airplanes was destroyed in the naval battle of the Philippine Sea a month before the battle of Tinian. … When Americans captured Ushi Field, the headquarters building was abandoned and Ushi Field was a “ghost field” of abandoned airplane wrecks. The fate of Vice Admiral Kakuta is unknown, but was probably suicide or death. His last radio message to Tokyo was on July 30 as the battle of Tinian was nearing its conclusion. The massive concrete headquarters building was damaged by American artillery, but the building was repaired and used by American military officers after the invasion.

Another placard:

This building was the control center for the Japanese Navy’s 1st Air Fleet operations on Tinian, directing traffic on the runway to the south. It contained an office, the operations room, and a generator room. This is a standard design for World War II Japanese air operations buildings, with other examples located on Saipan and Chuuk. … The building was repaired and used as a control tower by the 20th Air Force after the B-29 runways of North Field were constructed here.

One more placard:

This massive power plant was probably build in 1939-1940 as part of the Japanese military construction of Ushi Field. the “bombproof” building was constructed of reinforced concrete and had steel shutters covering the windows. The building housed a 200 kilowatt power plant run by diesel fuel.

 And here’s what you’ve been waiting for: bomb-pits! — The pits where Little Boy and Fat Man were loaded into the B-29s that dropped them on Japan.

I was somewhat dismayed at how little there was to see.  It’s just two pits now under glass enclosures, somewhat like the entrance to the Louvre.  The glass was also highly reflective which means that most of my photos didn’t come out very well.

The loading pit is under the glass enclosure.

Tinian was fantastic because it was one of the emptiest and quietest places I’ve ever been.  I felt like I had the whole place to myself.  However, there is nominally a tourist industry there which includes a rather shady hotel/casino.  The tourists are mainly from Asia and Russia — there’s hardly anyone from the mainland US (a brief look at a map of the Pacific will make it clear why this is so).  Anyways, our silent day was enlivened by a large tour-bus.  I’m certain that these tourists are not Japanese; I’m almost, but not quite 100% certain that they are Chinese.

Interjection: just to compare, here are the actual loadings of Little Boy and a Fat Man test unit.

Or you could fly all the way to Tinian, and see the same sort of photos in the actual bomb pit:

Back to Boxer:

And as much as I’m an aficionado of atomic (or, rather, nuclear?) history, that wasn’t the main lure for me.  Here’s what I really wanted to see on Tinian:

These are parts of the House of Taga:

The site is the location of a series of prehistoric latte stone pillars which were quarried about 4,000 feet south of it. Only one pillar is left standing erect. The name is derived from a mythological chief named Taga, who is said to have erected the pillars as a foundation for his own house. Legend says Chief Taga was murdered by his daughter, and her spirit is imprisoned in the lone standing megalith at the site.

I have to admit, I wasn’t aware that the only other tourist site on Tinian was just about as grim at the first atomic bomb loading pits.

And, just for fun, here’s a lovely photo of a Flame Tree:

Very cool. Let’s all give a little round of virtual applause for Dr. Boxer and maybe visit his website while we’re at it.

Now, you might be thinking — well, Tinian’s heyday has come and gone. And you might be right. But there’s been some interesting news about it from earlier this year:

Japan Self-Defense Forces officials will arrive today to discuss with CNMI officials their plans for Tinian where two-thirds of land are already leased by the U.S. Department of Defense, and the discussions could center around Japan’s plan to help fund a U.S. military base on Tinian or the training or stationing of their own forces there.

That’s right — there’s a chance (perhaps not a great one) that Tinian might yet be the site of a military base. What would be more appropriate — or inappropriate? — than Tinian becoming a joint US-Japanese military site?

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“We all aged ten years until the plane cleared the island.”

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

The island of Tinian is somewhat of an amazing thing. This small — 41 square miles – member of the Marianas served the the jumping-off point for the late-World War II American bomber raids against Japan. In this capacity, it was also the launching spot for the B-29s that used the first atomic bombs.

View of WWII-era Tinian, from the air

During World War II, Tinian was nothing less than a gigantic airbase carved onto a tiny, relatively flat island, one that had been hard-taken from the Japanese. There was hardly anything else to the island but runways, troop housing, and all of the buildings required for a massive military airport. “Massive” doesn’t really cut it, though: imagine an airport that had to support a thousand B-29 Superfortresses, taking off for raids of 100 planes at a time.

The Manhattan Project sent a contingent of some 50 people to Tinian for the atomic bomb work. At least a third of them were civilian scientists. It was an impressive group: two of the scientists involved in bomb assembly would later win Nobel Prizes. One of these was Norman F. Ramsey, who passed away only last November, the assistant chief to the Los Alamos contingent.

Sometime after the Nagasaki run, Ramsey wrote a 12-page, handwritten letter to J. Robert Oppenheimer with his thoughts on how the operation had gone, and his thoughts for future bomb improvements. (The letter is undated, but it is clearly written sometime after August 20.) It’s a gripping read, one that conjures up the grittiness of the Tinian experience. The parts that are most interesting are those that concern Ramsey’s fears on the days of the bombings.1

Click to view PDF. Note that Ramsey hand-write “Secret” at the top of the page — secrecy without a stamp is a tedious business!

The letter begins with Ramsey lamenting the fact that he can’t communicate with Los Alamos. As the chief scientist of the Tinian operation, Ramsey had sent numerous reports to Los Alamos, some even to Oppenheimer by name. It was evident, though, that Los Alamos was not receiving them — they were asking questions that had been explicitly already answered. So Ramsey resorted to these hand-written, hand-carried letters, “only means of communication with you in which I have any real confidence.” I’m not sure what caused the communication glitch — DC would have been a complete mess at that point in things.

Ramsey then turns to the real meat of the letter:

Our experience in the delivery of the Fat Man has convinced almost all of us of the importance of one much needed improvement. It is in my opinion essential that any atomic bomb to be used in any fair quantity must be capable of being completely protected against even a slight possibility of a nuclear explosion being detonated by fire in take off of the aircraft. This will be particularly true later when atomic bombs are available in sufficient quantity that one can not safely gamble the safety of the base on merely the low probability of a fire on a single takeoff and when one can afford even a small loss of reliability to ensure the protection of the home base.

This “one much needed improvement” is a biggie — Ramsey was pointing out that if an atomic bomb of the Manhattan Project vintage caught on fire, it would very possibly detonate with a nuclear yield. This was no trivial matter. The Little Boy bomb was notoriously unsafe (not only could it easily accidentally detonate, but if it merely was dropped into salt water it would become a dangerous, uncontrolled nuclear reactor), and the Fat Man bomb, even with its complex firing mechanism, was still not very safe by later standards. Los Alamos would actually spend quite a long time trying to make sure that its bombs were reasonably safe from accidental fires or plane crashes.

Norman Ramsey on Tinian. From the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, AIP. Unrelatedly, but an awesome photograph: Norman Ramsey, age 5, celebrating Washington’s birthday.

This concern was rooted in Ramsey’s personal experience of life on Tinian:

Only twice since I have been here have I been even slightly worried or nervous but both of these times the intensity of my worry made up for the relative calm of the other periods. …[T]he worst period was that between the time the B-29 engines with the Fat Man were cranked up and the time the plane was well clear of the island. The night before the takeoff four planes in succession crashed in takeoff at the other end of the island — in fact the situation got so bad a mission of 100 planes was cancelled after only 30 got off the ground. Since I have been here I have watched several fires resulting from crashes. By actual timing a very intense gasoline fire continues for over twenty minutes. Six of eight fire engines working on such a fire don’t even making a dent. After witnessing such fires and after having sweated out one FM [Fat Man] atomic bomb take off, I can’t urge too strongly the importance of complete nuclear safety in take off for future models. … The one FM take off has been my most unpleasant experience since joining the project. … We all aged ten years until the plane cleared the Island.

Ramsey was worried about atomic bombs catching on fire because in his experience it seemed like an awfully real possibility.

Has any historian contemplated what would have happened if the Enola Gay, instead of making it to Hiroshima, had crashed while taking off, setting off a nuclear explosion on the most important forward airbase in the Pacific Theater? I would have done quite a number on the US bomber capabilities, to say the least. Talk about your counter-factual possibilities.

Ramsey also offered up some concrete suggestions to making the bombs safer:

The only sure ways I have been able to think of is a trap door model with a cylindrical plug through the HE so that the active material can be inserted in flight or the insertion of neutral material in the open space of a non-Christy. I realize the difficulty of this especially with a non-Christy model. However, I feel that this feature is so important that with future great abundance of active material even a loss in efficiency and reliability to achieve it is justified.

HE means high-explosives; Ramsey is suggesting that they could do in-flight insertion of the fissile material (that is, only put the plutonium in once the plane has cleared the most dangerous part of the flight — the takeoff) which is in fact what they did in the next generation of nuclear weapons. Below is a Mark 5 bomb from the early 1950s showing how easily you could open it up to plunk in the plutonium:

Climb on in!

It’s not a bad solution to the problem, except that it limits what you can do with the bombs. Most later bombs and missiles became sealed-pit weapons — you don’t have someone up there on the top of the ICBM trying to insert a sphere of plutonium — which introduces its own safety concerns.

Ramsey’s other suggestion was to put a solid (non-radioactive) material inside the center of a hollow bomb core. The Fat Man core was a “Christy”-type core, meaning a completely solid plutonium mass with just a tiny hole for the neutron initiator. (So-named after Robert Christy, who proved that you could do such a thing.  Edward Teller later claimed to have come up with the original idea, interestingly enough, inspired by his work with George Gamow on the compressed iron core of the Earth, but there’s no evidence that I’ve seen that he told Christy about this. I met Christy some years back and asked him if he minded having his name associated with such an invention — he said he didn’t mind.)

Basically if you put a bunch of metal inside a hollow plutonium core, it won’t be able to compress into a solid mass, and thus shouldn’t be able to become critical. It’s a clever idea — the US apparently did this with the super-dangerous Mark 18 nuclear (the all-fission Ivy King device, which had a lot of HEU in it), putting an aluminum chain inside the pit until it was ready to drop.2  Brian Burnell reports that the British definitely used this sort of system in a number of their warheads.

The Fat Man bomb on Tinian: large, unwieldy, dangerous.

Ramsey continued the letter with some thoughts on future atomic basing requirements (he favors a centralized atomic base that could deploy bombs abroad when necessary), and the Nagasaki mission (which was something of a fiasco, though Ramsey concludes that it had gone, in the end, “remarkably well” — though he attributes much of that to luck). He finished on an interesting note:

Up to 19 August this was the most successful and best managed field party that I have ever seen or heard of. Everyone did a really excellent job and the whole organization worked beautifully as a unit. Unfortunately, the orders requiring us to stop on after 20 August made a bad anti-climax. However, since then we have tried to make the best of a sad situation. I hope that you can do something to get us home. Everyone deserves at least this much of a reward.

Imagine, the worst anti-climax being told not to prepare another atomic bomb for use! What I like about Ramsey’s letter is it hammers home, again, how primitive the first atomic bombs were. We think of them as these paragons of sophistication, and in some ways, they were: they were built to previously-unheard of tolerances, and were as cutting edge as existed at the time. And yet, they were large, ad hoc, one-of-a-kind, dangerous devices. They required two future Nobel Prize physicists to assemble them. No surprise that the first work on the postwar stockpile was to “G.I. proof” the existing bombs — to make them something that could be assembled and used by people with considerably lesser talent.

 

Notes
  1. Letter from Norman Ramsey to J. Robert Oppenheimer (Undated, ca. August 1945), Library of Congress, J. Robert Oppenheimer Papers, Box 60, “Ramsey, Norman.” Via the National Security Archive. A typed excerpt is available from them here.  []
  2. A related idea pushed by Matt Bunn is that of “pit stuffing,” where you would insert a bunch of wire into stored pits, as a way of proving that you weren’t planning on using them in bombs, and didn’t want to make it easy for anyone else to use them in bombs. []
Visions

The End of the Nuclear Age

Friday, August 17th, 2012

In the twentieth century, Americans in particular seemed to have picked up a bug for defining themselves by the technologies they used. We are always apparently living in an “Age” of something. In and of itself, defining your own “Age” while you are living in it isn’t brand new — there was that whole “Age of Enlightenment” thing, of course — but our amazement at the apparently changed pace of life brought on by science and technology has sped this up quite a bit once things really got hopping in the last century.

New York Times Magazine, August 12, 1945.

Starting in August 1945, we officially began living in the “Atomic Age.” Which is to say, really, that people started saying that they were living the atomic age. We did this for awhile, and at some point transitioned to the “Nuclear Age,” the “Jet Age,” the “Space Age,” and so on.

A nice set of historical questions follow: When did those transitions between “Ages” happen? Which “Ages” were more influential, as a term of self-identification? Do “Ages” die, or just fade away?

Google’s Ngram Viewer makes this sort of thing quite fun to track, though the results aren’t necessarily straightforward. Basically the Ngram Viewer can track the usage of specific (case-sensitive) phrases across the Google Books corpus over time, normalizing them to a relative frequency of use (so that the results just don’t reflect how many books there were being published at any given time). It’s a nice way to get preliminary information about linguistic disputes, though it has plenty of obvious methodological difficulties.1

A wonderful case study: when did “atomic” lose traction to ”nuclear“? Google NGrams gives a fairly unambiguous, mostly straightforward result:

Click image to see data, details.

In the beginning (1945), “atomic” was king. In 1958 or so, it was surpassed by “nuclear.” This coincides nicely with the startup of the first nuclear power plant in the United States, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station. It’s hard not to conclude that the shift from “atomic” to “nuclear” was caused by the growth of the nuclear power industry (even if Shippingport was itself under “atomic power”).

While “atomic” was on a free-fall from then on, “nuclear” enjoyed two peaks: on in the mid-1960s, then one in the mid-1980s. This maps fairly well onto the cultural history of nuclear weapons in the United States.2 With only a slight understanding of nuclear history, the 1960s (Cuban Missile Crisis, ICBMs, Limited Test Ban Treaty, Non-Proliferation Treaty) and the 1980s (Reagan, Gorbachev, Pershing Missiles, Reykjavik, “Star Wars,” Chernobyl) conjure up periods of high cultural interest in many things nuclear.

Atomic Dining Room, 1952, Augusta, Georgia. Would anybody want to eat in a Nuclear Dining Room?

Interesting side-note: we all know that scientists and other precise-minded people consider “atomic” to be an inferior designation than “nuclear.” The energy we care about is not “atomic” in nature (which also includes the electrons) — it’s specifically involved in the fissioning or fusing of nuclei. And yet, “atomic” was what was even plastered across the official government statements in 1945 — the Smyth Report was originally meant to be titled “Atomic Bombs,” as I discussed on Wednesday. An interesting wrinkle is that Smyth himself hated the use of the term “atomic” when “nuclear” was meant, but was overruled by Groves and others. “Nuclear” just wasn’t a word well-known by the general public in 1945, whereas “atomic” has been common currency for a long time.

During the Manhattan Project, the scientists at the University of Chicago thought that they ought to use a completely new term to describe what they were doing:

We propose to use the word “nucleonics” as a name for this field. Reflecting the modern trend toward close correlation between science and industry, and following the load of “electronics”, we propose that the word “nucleonics” shall refer to both science and industry in the nuclear field.3

“Nucleonics” didn’t really take off, though. It was occasionally used by scientists, and there was a journal with the title, but in the public mind it never had any traction.

Returning to our question about the “Ages,” I ran a whole bunch of “age” phrases through the Ngram viewer. Here are the interesting results, methodological caveats notwithstanding:4

An interesting conclusion: We no longer live in the “nuclear age.” Which is to say, we no longer define our times by the fact of our using nuclear technology — which we still do, in abundance. (The United States still has well over 100 operating commercial nuclear reactors, providing around 20% of the nation’s electricity generation. The world still has thousands of nuclear weapons in it. Nuclear issues still appear on the front pages of newspapers with alarming regularity.) But since the mid-1990s, “information” has defined us overwhelmingly.

Methodological issues with these kind of keyword searches aside, these results jibe with the general feeling that our having specifically “nuclear” technology is not longer a distinguishing — or at least novel — characteristic of the times in which we live, in the same way that calling attention to the engines in our airplanes, or places we visited on a handful of occasions (outer space), soon ceased to be definitional of our times.

There’s an easy narrative one can make about this — perhaps too easy. New, disruptive technologies enter into our world. They seem to change everything. Machines completely changed the way labor worked and the nature of manufactured goods. The atomic bomb seemed to change everything about security, diplomacy, and war. The jet suddenly made distances very small indeed. Nuclear power and nuclear weapons became a mainstay of modern life. And information gradually began more and more to define how we operated in the world.

And yet, not one of these technologies replaced the others. We still have machines. We still have jets. We still have nuclear weapons and nuclear plants. But all of the others have long since ceased to impress us. Information still impresses us — we’re still in the middle of its thrall, we’re still shocked and surprised by the things it does for better and worse. So even though the information age feels a little old hat at this point, as a phrase, it’s still going strong in the zeitgeist. Until the next revolution.

But lest we feel that Information is something terribly new and shocking, take a look at that graph again: none of these, even the Information Age, hold a candle to how people talked about living in the Machine Age. One might be tempted, were one to take a long view of things, to say that the twentienth century was bracketed on one side by Machines, and on the other by Information. In between, we flirted with the Bomb.

Notes
  1. Transcription fidelity and dating fidelity are two major systemic issues with the Google Books corpus; the inability to tell what sense a given word is being used is an issue with any kind of “dumb” concordance approach. []
  2. I haven’t separated out “American English” from “British English” on these charts, though Ngrams lets you do it. Frankly, I just don’t trust the results — I don’t know how it is claiming to tell one from the other, and I fear it has to do with publisher location, which is very misleading. In this particular graph, though, there are some interesting differences in the “British English” version from the “English” and “American English” versions, which are basically the same. Specifically, the rise of “nuclear” occurs slightly later, and slower in “British English,” and has a much more impressive peak around 1985. []
  3. Z. Jeffries, Enrico Fermi; James Franck, T.R. Hogness, R.S. Mulliken, R.S. Stone, C.A. Thomas, “Prospectus on Nucleonics,” (18 November 1944), Bush-Conant File Relating the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1940-1945, Records of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, RG 227, microfilm publication M1392, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., n.d. (ca. 1990), Roll 3, Target 4, Folder 17, “S-1 Technical Reports (1942-44).” []
  4. In all cases except Information Age, lower-case capitalization increased prevalence. One might suspect that indicates weird false-positives, but a perusing of the data shows that indeed, people did refer to, say, the “machine age” in lower case: “With the coming of the machine age” … “For the sake of the argument, it may be conceded that the machine age has produced nothing comparable with the best of the painting, sculpture, and architecture of antiquity and the middle ages” … “Further, if we are to preserve our adolescents from the banal mechanizing of a machine age”… and so on. “Motor Age,” “Plastic Age,” anything related to biological sciences don’t really chart compared to the others. “Sex Age” goes about as much as “jet age” albeit a decade later, but sex isn’t exactly a technology, so I’ve left it off. And the biggest difficulty here, of course, is the fact that you can’t tell from word counts whether people are self-identifying — thus a search for “Industrial Revolution” tells you little about how people called themselves at that point, given that the phrase takes off pretty much after the Revolution in question as a way of talking about the period itself. Ditto “Middle Ages,” “Age of Exploration,” and other such phrases which are descriptive of past times rather than present times. Additionally, it should be noted that the dataset only goes through 2008. []