Archive for the ‘News and Notes’ Category

Public lecture: “The Secret Histories of Laser Fusion”

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Sorry for the radio silence last week! A lot has been going on over here. More on all that pretty soon. Tomorrow morning I will be putting up a post on the death of David Greenglass.

I wanted to let people in the greater New York City metro area know about a public lecture I am giving on Wednesday, October 29, 2014, as part of the New York City History of Science Society Consortium, at Columbia University.

Meeting of the New York City History of Science Society Consortium

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014, 6:00-7:30 PM

Faculty House, Columbia University, 64 Morningside Drive

Wellerstein - Laser fusion talk

“Clean, Limitless, Classified: The Secret Histories of Laser Fusion”

Alex Wellerstein, Stevens Institute of Technology

The invention of the laser and its proliferation in scientific settings created a unique problem for the United States government starting in the 1960s. The Cold War regime of nuclear secrecy had required an absolute legal distinction between “peaceful” civilian technology and “dangerous” military technology: the former needing wide dissemination and development by the private sector, the latter being tightly regulated under penalty of imprisonment and death. But the emergent technology of laser fusion began to challenge and blur these Cold War categories. For its proponents, which included both international scientists and private entrepreneurs, laser fusion held out the hope of clean, limitless power generation during a time of increasing energy instability. But at its heart was a form of physics that was, for government censors, far too near to the methods used in the design of advanced thermonuclear weapons. This talk will use newly declassified files to tell the international history of laser fusion in the 1960s and 1970s as a case study for looking at the unusual classification problems of late Cold War nuclear technology. 

This is a very fun talk, one I’ve been working on (and workshopping on) for a few years now. It is based on interviews with some of the pioneers of laser fusion technology, and a whole lot of documents I got declassified by the Department of Energy relating to the declassification of laser fusion technology in the 1970s, the KMS Fusion affair, and international development of inertial confinement fusion. In a world where some new fusion hype seems to be bursting out (or petering out) on a weekly basis, this is a history with more relevance than ever, and has some moments in it that are sure to shock and delight. For those who are more interested in the weapons side of the nuclear picture, there’s a lot going on related to that in this as well, in describing the back-and-forth between the work of H-bomb designs and the work on “civilian” applications, and the complete mess that this put the Atomic Energy Commission in as they tried to figure out their classification policies and priorities. There’s a lot going on in this one.

All are welcome — there doesn’t seem to be a need to RSVP. I don’t know if it is being recorded. I don’t think it is being streamed.

John Wheeler and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Monday, July 14th, 2014

Just a quick plug: as noted previously, I’m moving out of the Washington, DC, area very soon, to start a new job at the Stevens Institute of Technology in the New Jersey/NYC area. My last talk as a DC denizen is going to be next Monday, July 21st, at the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Maryland, from 12-1:30pm.


Here’s the information:

The AIP History Programs invites you to an ACP Brown Bag Lunch-Time Talk:

John Wheeler’s H-bomb blues:
Searching for a missing document
at the height of the Cold War

by Alex Wellerstein, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for History of Physics

Monday, July 21, 2014
12–1:30 pm

Conference Room A
American Center for Physics
1 Physics Ellipse
College Park, MD 20740

There’s never a right time to lose a secret document under unusual circumstances. But for the influential American physicist John Archibald Wheeler, there might not have been a worse time than January, 1953. While on an overnight train ride to Washington, D.C., only a month after the test of the first hydrogen bomb prototype, Wheeler lost, under curious circumstances, a document explaining the secret to making thermonuclear weapons.

The subsequent search for the missing pages (and for who to blame) went as high as J. Edgar Hoover and President Eisenhower, and ended up destroying several careers. The story provides a unique window into the precarious intersection of government secrecy, competing histories of the hydrogen bomb, and inter-agency atomic rivalry in the high Cold War. Using recently declassified files, the AIP Center for History of Physics’ outgoing Associate Historian will trace out the tale of  how Wheeler ended up on that particular train, with that particular document, and the far-reaching consequences of its  loss—or theft—for both Wheeler and others involved in the case.

It’s a very fun paper, drawing heavily on John Wheeler’s FBI file, and one that I will be turning into an article fairly soon. It is open to the public if you RSVP. If you’re in town and want to see me before I go, please feel free to come! To my knowledge it will not be live-streamed or recorded or anything like that.

Changing venues: from DC to NYC

Friday, May 16th, 2014

I haven’t posted as much as I’ve wanted to this month. The main culprits have been teaching, grading, writing, and a week of stomach flu. All of which are pretty OK by me except the last one, which was the exact opposite of pleasant. But I’m better now. But one of the other things that has been brewing has been me finalizing and preparing for a new job. As many of you know, for the past three years I’ve been the Associate Historian at the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics, in College Park, Maryland, which is just outside of Washington, DC.

Where I've been for the past three years: the American Institute of Physics.

Where I’ve been for the past three years: the American Institute of Physics, in College Park, MD. 

The position was a postdoctoral fellowship. It gave me the flexibility to start the blog, to make the NUKEMAP, to do a lot of talking with people in DC, to write whatever I wanted, and to teach at Georgetown in the Spring 2014 semester. It has been a wonderful place for me to explore what kind of work I wanted to produce, and one couldn’t ask for a better incubator for someone who was recently out of grad school and was still figuring out exactly what I wanted to be doing.

But it was always a fixed-term (3 year) position, destined to end in the late summer of 2014. So I’ve spent some time over the past eight months or so thinking about what I wanted to do next, and see who would take me. It was important to me that wherever I landed that I be allowed to continue the kind of scholarship that I’ve been doing for the last few years, including the digital projects. Aside from the professional benefits it has conferred upon me from the increased exposure (I’m plugged into communities now that never knew I existed before), it has helped me develop my writing (my “voice”) and helped me to think about ways to use the unique benefits of the web (e.g. interactive data visualization/manipulation that is massively scalable and distributable) to further public understanding of issues I care about.

So I’m excited to announce that I have accepted, a tenure track position as an Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. It’s a small engineering school with a lively humanities division, and they’ve made it clear that they like what I do as I’ve been doing it and want me to do even more. This is a huge draw for me, because I knew that my Internet-related activities, however hard this may be for any of my readers to fathom, would not be a great fit with many more traditional academic departments. And hey, they want me to teach a class on the past, present, and future of nuclear technology my first semester there — what’d I say about a good fit?

Also, the location is pretty impressive. This is my obligatory, “where is this place” photograph, taken from one of their promotional brochures, of course:

Stevens Institute of Technology

Where I’m moving to: the Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, NJ, just outside of NYC.

Stevens are the buildings above and to the right of the main athletic field above. The body of water is the Hudson River; the skyscrapers on the other side are midtown Manhattan. The big one is the Empire State Building. So basically I’m going to be a short ferry across (or train/bus ride under) the river from New York City. So you could call this my Manhattan Project, if you wanted to be punny about it. My wife has also managed to find a good job in the area, too, which is one of the things I was waiting on before announcing this. She is going to be teaching at one of the best prep schools in the country out there, which I think is going to be a great fit for her. We are feeling exceptionally fortunate.

As with all job changes and moves, there is a bittersweet aspect to this. I’ve really enjoyed living in Washington for the last three years. I thought it was a fun, exciting town, and there’s probably no better place in the world for people who study secrecy and nukes. So many interesting people, so many interesting talks, so many interesting events. Fortunately the train ride from New York to DC is very pleasant, so I hope my DC friends and acquaintances will consider me not too far away. Or, as I like to put it, you’ve got another friend in the NYC area.

I’ll be moving there over the summer, sometime in late July or early August. Don’t worry, the blog is going to keep chugging along — during and after the move. Now that teaching is done I want to squeeze in a few more DC archive research trips while I still live a few blocks from the Library of Congress, and I have a few blog posts I’ve been working on for awhile. The visualization/app work may even be accelerated in the years to come, because at Stevens they want me to try and teach students how to do similar things, and that always leads to more little inspirations. Keep an eye on this space. I thank you, and AIP in particular, for the support that made this possible.

Webcast: “What’s become of our nuclear golden age?”

Monday, September 9th, 2013

A 1959 advertisement for Union Carbide in the Saturday Evening Post.

We no longer live in the nuclear age, or, at least, we don’t think we do — so I concluded awhile back. But that won’t stop me from talking about it! This Wednesday, September 11th, 2013, I will be participating in a live webcast at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia:

On Sept. 11, 2013 the Chemical Heritage Foundation will present a live online video discussion, “Power and Promise: What’s become of our nuclear golden age?” Guests Alex Wellerstein and Linda Richards will take stock of our turbulent nuclear past and look at how it has shaped our current attitudes, for better and for worse.

Some say we are on the verge of a bright nuclear future in which nuclear power will play a major role in responding to climate change. Others say that we should expect more Fukushimas. Whichever way our nuclear future goes, there will be energy and environmental tradeoffs. On CHF’s blog you can decide on the tradeoffs you are willing to make. Tweet to vote your choices. Viewers can also tweet questions to the guests before or during the show by using the hashtag #HistChem.

“Power and Promise: What’s Become of Our Nuclear Golden Age?” will air at 6 p.m. EST.  Watch the livecast episode at

Guest Bios:

Alex Wellerstein is an associate historian at the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics. He holds a Ph.D. in the history of science from Harvard University and his research interests include the history of Cold War technology, including nuclear technology. He blogs at

Linda M. Richards is a former CHF fellow and will be returning in 2014 as a Doan Fellow. She is working on a Ph.D. on nuclear history at Oregon State University. Her dissertation is titled “Rocks and Reactors: The Origins of Radiation Exposure Disparity, 1941-1979.” In 2012 she received a National Science Foundation grant that took her to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, UN agencies and archives in Geneva, and to North American indigenous uranium mining sites.

About the Show:

#HistChem is a monthly interactive livestreamed show produced by the Chemical Heritage Foundation. It features topically compelling issues that intersect science, history and culture. Hosts are Michal Meyer, editor of Chemical Heritage Magazine, and Bob Kenworthy, a CHF staff member and chemist. The first episode, “How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Zombie Apocalypse,” debuted in August, 2013. Follow the show and related news at

About the Chemical Heritage Foundation:

The Chemical Heritage Foundation is a collections-based nonprofit organization that preserves the history and heritage of chemistry, chemical engineering, and related sciences and technologies. The collections are used to create a body of original scholarship that illuminates chemistry’s role in shaping society. In bridging science with the humanities, arts, and social sciences, CHF is committed to building a vibrant, international community of scholars; creating a rich source of traditional and emerging media; expanding the reach of our museum; and engaging the broader society through inventive public events.

This should be a fun thing, as Linda and I take somewhat different approaches (both interesting) to many nuclear issues, and the CHF team asks great questions. You can Tweet in questions for the show with the right hashtag (#HistChem) and it may somehow magically get to us while we’re talking. And hey, I’ll be wearing a suit!

Update: The video has been posted online, enjoy!

The NUKEMAPs are here

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

I’m super excited to announce that last Thursday, at an event hosted by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Study, I officially launched NUKEMAP2 and NUKEMAP3D. I gave a little talk, which I managed to record, but I haven’t had the time (more details below on why!) to get that up on YouTube yet. Soon, though.

A Soviet weapon from the Cuban Missile Crisis, centered on Washington, DC, with fallout and casualties shown.

A Soviet weapon from the Cuban Missile Crisis, centered on Washington, DC, with fallout and casualties shown.

NUKEMAP2 is an upgraded version of the original NUKEMAP, with completely re-written effects simulations codes that allow one a huge amount of flexibility in the nuclear detonation one is trying to model. It also allows fallout mapping and casualty counts, among other things. I wanted to make it so that the NUKEMAP went well beyond any other nuclear mapping tools on the web — I wanted it to be a tool that both the layman and the wonk could use, a tool that rewarded exploration, and a tool that, despite the limitations of a 2D visualization, could work to deeply impress people with the power of a nuclear explosion.

The codes that underly the model are all taken from Cold War effects models. At some point, once it has been better documented than it is now, I’ll probably release the effects library I’ve written under an open license. I don’t think there’s anything quite like it out there at the moment available for the general public. For the curious, there are more details about the models and their sources here.

The mushroom cloud from a 20 kiloton detonation, centered on downtown DC, as viewed from one of my common stomping grounds, the Library of Congress.

The mushroom cloud from a 20 kiloton detonation, centered on downtown DC, as viewed from one of my common stomping grounds, the Library of Congress.

NUKEMAP3D uses Google Earth to allow “3D” renderings of mushroom clouds and the nuclear fireball. Now, for the first time, you can visualize what a mushroom cloud from a given yield might look like on any city in the world, viewed from any vantage-point you can imagine. I feel like it is safe to say that there has never been a nuclear visualization tool of quite this nature before.

I got the idea for NUKEMAP3D while looking into a story for the Atlantic on a rare photo of the Hiroshima mushroom cloud. One of the issues I was asked about was how long after the detonation the photograph was taken — the label on the back of the photograph said 30 minutes, but there was some doubt. In the process of looking into this, I started to dig around the literature on mushroom cloud formation and the height of the Hiroshima cloud at various time intervals. I realized that I had no sense for what “20,000 feet” meant in terms of a cloud, so I used Google Earth to model a simple 20,000 foot column above the modern-day city of Hiroshima.

I was stunned at the size of it, when viewed from that perspective — it was so much larger than it even looked in photographs, because the distance that such photographs were taken from makes it very hard to get a sense of scale. I realized that modeling these clouds in a 3D environment might really do something that a 2D model could not. It seems to switch on the part of the brain that judges sizes and areas in a way that a completely flat, top-down overlay does not. The fact that I was surprised and shocked by this, despite the fact that I look at pictures of mushroom clouds probably every day (hey, it’s my job!), indicated to me that this could be a really potent educational tool.

That same 20 kiloton cloud, as viewed from airplane height.

That same 20 kiloton cloud, as viewed from airplane height.

I’m also especially proud of the animated mode, which, if I’m allowed to say, was a huge pain in the neck to program. Even getting a somewhat “realistic”-looking cloud model was a nontrivial thing in Google Earth, because its modeling capabilities are somewhat limited, and because it isn’t really designed to let you manipulate models in a detailed way. It lets you scale model sizes along the three axes, it allows you to rotate them, and it allows you to change their position in 3D space. So I had to come up with ways of manipulating these models in realtime so that they would approximate a semi-realistic view of a nuclear explosion, given these limitations.

It’s obviously not quite as impressive as an actual nuclear explosion (but what is?), and my inability to use light as a real property (as you could in a “real” 3D modeling program) diminishes things a bit (that is, I can’t make it blinding, and I can’t make it cast shadows), but as a first go-around I think it is still a pretty good Google Earth hack. And presumably Google Earth, or similar tools, will only get better and more powerful in the future.

Screen captures of the animation for a 20 kt detonation over DC. These screenshots were taken in 10 second intervals, but are accelerated 100X here. The full animation takes about five minutes to run, which is roughly how the cloud would grow in real life.

Screen captures of the animation for a 20 kt detonation over DC. These screenshots were taken in 10 second intervals, but are accelerated 100X here. The full animation takes about five minutes to run, which is roughly how the cloud would grow in real life.

If you’ve been following my Twitter feed, you also probably have picked up that this has been a little bit of a saga. I tried to launch it on last Thursday night, but the population database wasn’t really working very well. The reason is that it is very, very large — underneath it is a population density map of the entire planet, in a 1km by 1km grid, and that means it is about 75 million records (thank goodness for the oceans!). Optimizing the queries helped a bit, and splitting the database up helped a bit. I then moved the whole database to another server altogether, just to make sure it wasn’t dragging down the rest of the server. But on Monday,just when the stories about NUKEMAP started to go up, my hosting company decided it was too much traffic and that I had, despite “unlimited bandwidth” promises, violated the Terms of Service by having a popular website (at that point it was doing nothing but serving up vanilla HTML, Javascript, and CSS files, so it wasn’t really a processing or database problem). Sigh. So I frantically worked to move everything to a different server, learned a lot about systems administration in the process, and then had the domain name issue a redirect from the old hosting company. And all of that ended up taking a few days to finalize (the domain name bit was frustratingly slow, due to settings chosen by the old hosting company).

But anyway. All’s well that ends well, right? Despite the technical problems, since moving the site to the new server, there have been over 1.2 million new “detonations” with the new NUKEMAPs, which is pretty high for one week of sporadic operation! 62% of them are with NUKEMAP3D, which is higher than I’d expected, given the computer requirements required to run the Google Earth plugin. The new server works well most of the time, so that’s a good thing, though there are probably some tweaks that still need to be done for it to happily run the blog and the NUKEMAPs. There is, though I don’t want to make it too intrusive or seem too irritating, a link now on the NUKEMAP for anyone who wanted to chip in to the server fund. Completely optional, and not expected, but if you did want to chip in, I can promise you a very friendly thank-you note at the very least.

Now that this is up and “done” for now, I’m hoping to get back to a regular blogging schedule. Until then, try out the new NUKEMAPs!