News and Notes

2017 in review, and plans for 2018

by Alex Wellerstein, published January 8th, 2018

Last fall was considerably more quiet on here than I intended it to be! I have not stopped blogging; it was just a combination of being unusually busy (nobody could have known that starting new projects could be so complicated), and, if truth be told, I found 2017 as a whole an unusually difficult environment to get work done in. From talking with other academics, I am aware this is not exactly an uncommon complaint. When the news cycle lurches from one horror to another, it is hard to do more than focus on what you need to get done in the immediate (such as teaching), and the blog kept getting short shifted as a result.

I've gotten some things done, to be sure. In fact, with my career, to borrow a quote from Winston Churchill, "the worse things get, the better" — the scarier the world gets, the more my work and expertise gets in demand. Being a "public expert" on top of teaching, project work, advising undergraduates, etc., has taken a fierce toll on my blogging time. I am well aware this is a situation that has its enviable aspects (being "in demand" is a good thing), but it does mean corners have been cut here and there.

I don't have a scholarly/public intellectual bucket list, but if I did, this would probably be on it... for those who track mushroom cloud imagery, this is an unusual one: a vertically compressed British test from 1956, Operation Buffalo, One Tree.

When I did do public writing last fall, it tended to be for other venues:

It's also not escaped my attention that the more scary things get in the nuclear world, the busier I get, for better or worse:

To list just a few of my recent media appearances. I even made an appearance on C-SPAN to discuss Presidential nuclear authority:

This is my serious and concerned face.

And, surreally, got re-tweeted by Edward Snowden:

I'm not 100% sure how I feel about this.

And even more surreally, NUKEMAP (but not me) made an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! (and, grossly, Breitbart; at least one can say it is bipartisan). And while this has not been a secret, I have not really talked about it on here, but I have also been a Guest Curator for the Intrepid Museum in New York City, helping to create a new exhibit for their submarine USS Growler, which was part of the first-generation of nuclear-armed submarines fielded by the United States. The exhibit will open this summer. Rest assured I will talk more on that in due time.

Anyway, I've completely revamped and updated my list of Articles and appearances, so if you're really interested in seeing my written output beyond the blog, check it out. In fact, I've revamped the blog a bit in general. The basic stylesheet had not been modified since 2011 or so, which felt like an awful long time in the web world, so I gave it some minor aesthetic improvements. (There is still some work to be done on that front, like making it responsive for phones and whatnot, but I haven't quite committed to that chore yet.)

The biggest functional improvement is that it is in theory much easier to browse the contents of the site, as I have taken my Post archives code and adapted it for tags, categories, and the search function. So now you can very easily see all posts tagged as "Bad ideas," for example. A feature you didn't even know you wanted. I'm also going to make sure that these articles and appearances get more notice on the blog (and not just my Twitter feed), which I've been bad about lately.

More substantively, I have a number of blog posts I am writing for the coming year. I am going to try keeping them mostly short and sweet, because the long ones take a lot of time and a lot more reflection than I suspect my schedule has time for (or to put it another way, the kind of effort that they require is effort I need to put into my book manuscript). I should have a new post discussing my Kyoto thesis (which has evolved a bit over the years, but is now in a publishable form) in the next week or so, with a deep-dive into a rich archival document that has, as far as I can tell, not been studied by historians.

Where does "nuclear weapons historian" fit on this scale? A question I have been pondering the last few months. Source: XKCD

On our prospects for 2018: I remain deeply worried about the possibility of a new war in the next year or so. I would be happy to be wrong. It is very difficult to sort out the bluster from the reality, the threat from the possibility. At some level, I am not sure that they can be sorted out — my reading of history is that things have often been worse behind the scenes than they even look on the surface. We have a very dangerous dynamic set up in the world today — I am certainly not the only one who has said it, but I think it is true that we are closer to a nuclear weapon being used in anger again than we have been since the Cold War, and I suspect if we are fortunate we will look back on 2017-2018 or so as being one of the key "close call" periods along with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the War Scare of 1983. If we are unfortunate we will judge it even worse, and the future will judge us even more poorly. But fatalism is not the answer — we must create the world we want to live in, we must all do our parts (however insubstantial they may feel when taken piecemeal), and I'm trying to do my part, as well. So keep an eye out.


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