Posts Tagged ‘Graphic design’


Art, Destruction, Entropy

Friday, December 13th, 2013

Are nuclear explosions art? Anyone who has taken even a glance into modern and contemporary art knows that the official mantra might as well be “anything goes,” but I found myself wondering this while visiting the exhibition “Damage Control: Art and Destruction since 1950” that is currently at the Hirshhorn Museum. The first thing one sees upon entering is a juxtaposition of two very different sorts of “work.” On the right is a fairly long loop of EG&G footage of nuclear test explosions, broadcast in high definition over an entirety of a wall. On the left is a piano that has been destroyed with an axe. This, I thought, is at least a provocative way to start things off.

Edgerton, Germeshausen, and Grier (EG&G) was a contractor for the federal government during the Cold War, responsible for documenting nuclear test explosions. Quite a lot of the famous Cold War nuclear detonation footage was taken by EG&G. They are perhaps most famous for their “Rapatronic” photographs, the ultimate expression of MIT engineer Harold “Doc” Edgerton’s work of slowing down time through photography, but this was only a part of their overall contribution. The film they have at the Hirshhorn is something of an EG&G “greatest hits” reel from the 1950s, and its affect on the others in the audience was palpable. Adults and children alike were drawn to the blasts, displayed one after another without commentary or explanation.1 Their reactions didn’t strike me as one of disgust or horror, but of amazement and awe. Most of the footage was from the Nevada Test Site, so the bombs were generally just blowing up desert scrub, and occasionally houses constructed for effects testing.

The destroyed piano, by contrast, got reactions of shock and disgust. It was the remains of a piece of performance art conducted by Raphael Montañez Ortiz, one of several he’s done, apparently. My wife, a piano player and a nuclear historian, also found it disturbing. “If you know what goes into making a piano…,” she started to say. “But then again, if you know what goes into making a city…,” she caught herself. I overheard other people say similar things.

The difference in reactions isn’t too surprising — it’s a common theme that it is easy to appreciate the destruction of something at a human scale, difficult to appreciate it at the scale of nuclear bomb. A lot of what I’ve spent time doing, with the NUKEMAP and my writing, is to try to understand, and to impart, the scale of a nuclear explosion. A lot of this has involved looking at the attempts of others, as well, from official Cold War visualizations made for secret committees to popular films, as they have tried to communicate this to their target audiences. The hardest thing is that our brains appear only to be wired for empathy at the individual level, and don’t readily apply it to large groups or large areas. The best work in these areas conveys both the broad scope of destruction, but then ties it into the personal. They individualize the experience of mass ruination.

And the EG&G footage isn’t trying to do that. It was data meant for very specific technical purposes. It was developed in order to further the US nuclear program, and defense against Soviet nuclear weapons. Which is why I somewhat question its inclusion, or, at least, its decontextualization. It is art only in the sense that it has aesthetics and it has been put into an art gallery. One can read into it whatever one wants, of course, but it wasn’t created to have deep meaning and depth in that sense. (Whether one cares about authorial intention, of course, is its own can of modern art worms.) Just as a small example of what I mean, Andy Warhol famously made a print of mushroom clouds for his own “disaster” series (a few of which, but not this print, were featured in the exhibit):

"Atomic Bomb," Andy Warhol, 1965.

“Atomic Bomb,” Andy Warhol, 1965.

Now Warhol is a complicated character, but since he was explicitly an artist I think it is always fair game to talk about his possible intentions, the aesthetics of the piece, the deeper meanings, and so on. Warhol’s art has generally been interpreted to be about commercialization and commodification. The mushroom cloud in repetition becomes a statement about our culture and its fascination with mass destruction, perhaps. Coming in the mid-1960s, after the close-call terrors of the early years of the decade, perhaps it was maybe too-little too-late, but still, it has an ominous aesthetic appeal, perhaps now more than then.

Because I don’t think this image was widely circulated at the time, I doubt that Warhol knew that Berlyn Brixner, the Trinity test photographer, had made very similar sorts of images of the world’s first nuclear fireball at “Trinity”:

TR-NN-11, Berlyn Brixner, 1945.

“TR-NN-11,” Berlyn Brixner, 1945.

Brixner appreciated the aesthetics and craft of his work, to be sure. But the above photograph is explicitly a piece of technical data. It is designed to show the Trinity fireball’s evolution over the 15-26 millisecond range. Warhol’s instrument of choice was the silkscreen printer; Brixner’s was the 10,000 fps “Fastax” camera. There’s a superficial similarity in their atomic repetition. You could make a statement by putting them next to each other — as I am doing here! — but properly understood, I think, they are quite different sorts of works.

Don’t get me wrong. Re-appropriating “non-art” into “art” has been a common move over much of the 20th century at the very least. But the problem for me is not that people shouldn’t appreciate the aesthetics of the “non-art.” It’s that focusing on the aesthetics makes it easy to lose sight of the context. (As well as the craft — Brixner’s work was exponentially more difficult to produce than Warhol’s!) The EG&G footage in the exhibit doesn’t explain much of how, or why, it was made. It seems to be asking the viewer to appreciate it solely on its aesthetic grounds. Which I think is the real problem. Many of the tests they show resulted in significant downwind fallout for the populations near the Nevada Test Site. Many of them involved the development of new, ever-more elaborate ways of mass destruction. Many of them were the product of years of top scientific manpower, untold riches, and a deep political context. To appreciate them as simply big, bright booms robs them of something — no matter how aesthetically beautiful those big, bright booms actually are. 

Gustav Metzger's "auto-destructive" art.

Gustav Metzger’s “auto-destructive” art.

What makes it more ironic is that the exhibit actually does give considerable context to some of the works that are explicitly “art.” You have to explain the context of Gustav Metzger’s “auto-destructive” art — it involves him filming himself painting on canvases with a strong acid, so the artwork destroys itself in the process. Without the context there, what is left is just a boring, not-very-comprehensible movie of a man destroying a blank canvas. But anyway.

In terms of the audience at the exhibit, which was fairly well-attended when I was there with my wife, the most interesting part was the handling of children. The Smithsonian museums are of course explicitly places that people take their children while visiting the city, so it’s no surprise that you probably find more of them at the Hirshhorn than you would at MOMA or other similar institutions. But children add a level of anxiety to an exhibit about destruction. They were wowed by the wall-o’-bombs but not, it seemed, by the piano. Parents seemed to let them wander free through most of it, but there were several films where I saw kids get yanked out by their parents once the parents realized the content was going to be disturbing. In one of these films, the “disturbing” content was of a variety that might have been hard for the children to directly understand — the famous film of the Hindenburg going up in flame, for example, where the violence was real but seen from enough of a distance to keep you from seeing actual injuries or bodies. The one I saw the kids getting really removed from (by their parents, not the museum) was footage of the 2011 Vancouver riots. I wasn’t impressed too much with the footage itself (its content was interesting in a voyeuristic way, but there seemed to be nothing special about the filming or editing), but the immediacy of its violence was much more palpable than the violence-at-a-distance that one saw in most of the other such works. It’s cliche to trot out that old quote attributed (probably wrongly) to Stalin that one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic, but there’s something deeply true to it about how we perceive violence and pain.

Damage Control exhibit site

There are a lot of works in the exhibit. As one would expect, some hew to the theme very closely, some are a bit more tenuous. Overall, though, it was pretty interesting, and if you’re in town, you ought to check it out. The original comment my wife made about pianos and cities stuck with me as I looked at all of the various meditations on “destruction.” In it, I kept coming back to the second law of thermodynamics. On the face of it, it is a very clinical, statistical law: “the entropy of an isolated system never decreases.” It is actually quite profound, something that the 19th-century physicists who developed it knew. Entropy can be broadly understood as “disorder.” The second law of thermodynamics says, in essence, that without additional energy being put into it, everything eventually falls apart. It takes work to keep things “organized,” whether they are apartments, bodies, or cities.2 Ludwig Boltzmann, who helped formulate the law, stated gnomically in 1886 that:

The general struggle for existence of animate beings is not a struggle for raw materials – these, for organisms, are air, water and soil, all abundantly available – nor for energy, which exists in plenty in any body in the form of heat Q, but of a struggle for [negative] entropy, which becomes available through the transition of energy from the hot sun to the cold earth.

In other words, life itself is a struggle against entropy. Our bodies are constantly taking disordered parts of the world (heat energy, for example, and the remains of other living things) and using them to fuel the work of keeping us from falling apart.

But the other way to think about this law is that generally it is easier to take things apart than it is to keep them together. It is easier to convert a piano into a low-energy state (through an axe, or perhaps a fire) than it is to make a piano in the first place. It is easier to destroy a city than it is to make a city. The three-year effort of the half-a-million people on the Manhattan Project was substantial, to be sure, but still only a fraction of the work it took to make the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and all that they contained, biological and material, in the first place.

Of course, the speed at which entropy increases is often controllable. The universe will eventually wear out — but not for a long time. Human civilization will necessarily go extinct — but it doesn’t have to happen anytime soon. What hits home with the “Damage Control” exhibit is how we as a species have to work so hard to keep everything together, while simultaneously working so hard to find ways to make everything fall apart. And in this, perhaps, it is a success, even if I left with many niggling questions about the presentation of some of the works in particular.

  1. Various guys in the audience would occasionally try to give explanation to their loved ones, and they were generally incorrect, alas. “That must be at Alamogordo… That’s got to be an H-bomb…” no, no, no. Of course, I was there with my wife, and I was talking up my own little storm (though less loudly than the wrong guys), but at least I know my stuff for the most part… []
  2. The key, confusing part about the second law is the bit about the “isolated system.” It doesn’t say that entropy always increases. It says that in an isolated system — that is, a system with no energy being input into it — entropy always increases. For our planet, the Sun is the source of that input, and you can trace, through a long series of events, its own negative entropy to the Big Bang itself. []
News and Notes | Visions

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!


The 36-Hour War: Life Magazine, 1945

Friday, April 5th, 2013

When NUKEMAP first got very hot, the Washington Post’s blog declared its popularity a sign of our jittery times. Those were Iranian jittery times, if we remember back all the way to a year ago — today we are jittery again, this time regarding North Korea. And so people are flocking to the NUKEMAP again, trying to see what North Korea’s latest weapons would do to their cities if they were used. I’m almost tempted to push out the new one early, just to take advantage of the interest, but I have faith that we will be jittery again whenever the new one is done. Nuclear jitters aren’t a new thing.

Visualizing nuclear war is an old media pastime. How old? One of the most vivid early depictions of this sort of atomic apocalyptic thinking come from Life magazine’s issue of November 19, 1945 — only a few months after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

From the cover of the issue, you’d have little to suspect about its contents. “Ah, big beltsFascinating! I love big belts!”

Life magazine - November 1945 - Big Belts

But once you get beyond that, the interior stories are much more interesting. For people interested in World War II and the Cold War, there are a lot of great stories in here: articles about what should be done with postwar China, what was going on in postwar Poland (with some impressive, awful photographs), plus an article on occupied Tokyo (with some amazing illustrations), and another on the OSS (spies!). There was even, at the very end, a reproduction of the Jack Aeby photo of the “Trinity” test, in full color (which was apparently just “orange,” after going through Life’s printing processes).

But the real stunner story of the issue was something much more grim. Once you get past a lot of fluffy stuff, you’re greeted with this horror:

1945 - Life - 36-Hour War - 1

“The 36-Hour War.” This long, feature story is a description of what nuclear war in the future will look like. It was based on a report by General “Hap” Arnold, the chief of the Army Air Forces during World War II and the later founder of Project RAND, which became the RAND Corporation, the epitome of a Cold War think tank. (He was also, incidentally, the guy who gave Curtis LeMay his job in the Pacific theatre.)

The report in question was the “Third Report of the Commanding General of the Army Air Forces to the Secretary of War.” Hunting around a bit, I eventually located a copy of the original online, if you’d like to look at it. It was published only a week before the Life story on it, which is pretty impressive given the illustrations involved in the article. The report is concerned both with summarizing what had happened in the air war during World War II on both the European and Pacific fronts, as well as a concluding section on “Air Power and the Future,” which is the subject of the “36-Hour War” article. Like many strategic bombing advocates, Arnold downplayed the importance of the bomb for World War II, emphasizing that the only reason the atomic bombs, or any bombs, could be delivered at will was because they had already won strategic superiority over the island. It’s the future where Arnold thought atomic weapons will really matter.

1945 - Life - 36-Hour War - 2

And it’s a grim future: rockets plus nuclear weapons equals “the ghastliest of all wars,” according to Life. The implications of ICBMs somewhat understood well over a decade before they were technologically realized.

The Life story starts with a large illustration of Washington, DC, getting nuked (hey, at least it’s not New York again, right? But why are they nuking RFK Stadium?), and then follows with a two-page spread showing 13 “key U.S. centers” getting wiped out by the Soviet Union. “Within a few seconds atomic bombs have exploded over New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boulder Dam, New Orleans, Denver, Washington, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Kansas City, and Knoxville.” (Sorry, Boston, but you didn’t rate! Austin, you are fine for now!) They guess that 10 million people would be killed in the initial attack. “The enemy’s purpose is not to destroy industry, which is an objective only in the long old-fashioned wars like the last one, but to paralyze the U.S. by destroying its people.”

Amusingly, the Life writer suggests that these Soviet missiles came from silos in equatorial Africa, “secretly built in the jungle to escape detection by the UNO Security Council.” Ah, the naiveté of 1945, believing that it would be a taboo of some sort to build ICBM sites! Believing that some kind of international order would be assembled that might affect the conduct of nuclear war! Sigh.

1945 - Life - 36-Hour War - 3

But on the whole the Life story is not bad (except for the ending, which I’ll get to). On the page above, it talks about radar as an early warning technique which they claim would give perhaps 30 minutes warning in the event of an ICBM attack. But they also point out that radar can be evaded by low-altitude missiles and smuggled atomic bobs. And they recognize that 30 minutes is really not that long of a period in time — “even 30 minutes is too little time for men to control the weapons of atomic war.” At best, they suggest, such warning could be used to fire defensive rockets at the incoming rockets, a topic they cover on the next page.

1945 - Life - 36-Hour War - 4

“Our Defensive Machines Stop Few Attackers.” Dang. In this hypothetical future, the US has a missile defense system that works pretty much like you’d expect one to work today — maybe it might destroy a few of them, “but inevitably it would miss some of the time.” The illustration above shows the enemy rocket “coasting through space” in its final descent, with the interceptor missile coming up from the ground. Some nice copy: “When the two collide, the atomic explosion will appear to observers on the earth as a brilliant new star.” It doesn’t actually work that way, but whatever, it’s a nice sentence.

In his report, Arnold outlines three approaches to “defense” against atomic attack. First, you basically try to make sure nobody is making nuclear weapons. Not a bad start, you have to admit. Second, you should try and develop defenses against launched attacks — e.g. missile and bomber defense. A bit more problematic. Third, you redesign the entire country to make it harder to attack with nukes. This is basically the “dispersal” theory of defense — if you don’t have all of your infrastructure and people living in a few, centralized locations, then the vulnerability to all but the most apocalyptic attacks is a lot lower.

But finally, he emphasizes — in the manner befitting a general, I suppose — that the best defense is a good offense. That is, deterrence. And to do that, you need a good second-strike capability, to use the lingo of a later time.

1945 - Life - 36-Hour War - 5

The Life writer and illustrator decided to combine both of these last two ideas, creating a rather amazing fantasy nuclear installation. Take a look at that spread — it’s a huge underground city devoted to producing ICBMs and launching them en masse. It has underground streets and underground cars and underground trains. I’m not sure that Arnold was suggesting anything like this, but it’s pretty amazing. It doesn’t seem very practical, for a lot of reasons (those firing tubes look pretty vulnerable to attack, which would moot the whole installation), but it’s wonderfully imaginative for 1945. Philip K. Dick wrote about crazy installations like this in some of his short stories, but those were written in the 1950s and 1960s.

1945 - Life - 36-Hour War - 6

Towards the “war’s end,” enemy troops would show up. This is because, according to the Life writers, “in spite of the apocalyptic destruction caused by its atomic bombs, an enemy nation would have to invade the U.S. to win the war.” Win the war? Here you see a little bit of divergence from what would be a more common narrative: that nuclear war is really just about a “knock-out punch,” as opposed to conventional notions of taking over a country.

The illustration above is pretty interesting. OK, obvious cheesecake fantasy going on there, as gas-masked Soviet thugs step over the somehow-still-beautiful corpse of a telephone operator whose blouse has almost been knocked open by atomic bombs. The Soviet soldiers are attempting to repair the telephone infrastructure and get the country back up to (occupied) speed, and are walking around destroyed streets with bazookas (a less-sung wonder-weapon of WWII). The Life staff estimate that 40 million would be dead at this point “and all cities of more than 50,000 population have been leveled.” New York’s Fifth Avenue is merely a “lane through the debris.” 

But, but! Have some hope! Improbably, “as it is destroyed, the U.S. is fighting back. The enemy airborne troops are wiped out. U.S. rockets lay waste the enemy’s cities. U.S. airborne troops successfully occupy his country. The U.S. wins the atomic war.” Wait, what? We won the war? How? A little hand-waving was all that was needed. I know, they nuked all our major cities and landed troops with bazookas, but don’t worry, we managed to (within 36-hours, mind you!) launch a devastating counterattack that included occupying his country. Well. I am relieved and can move on to the article on big belts, no?

1945 - Life - 36-Hour War - 7

Well, hooray. Of course, the country has been reduced to radioactive rubble — “By the marble lions of the New York Public Library, U.S. technicians test the rubble of the shattered city for radioactivity.” But chin up — we won the war!

It’s an amazing place for the article to just… end. A preview of un-defendable, horrible destruction, and then a quick deus ex machina that resolves it. And what a resolution! 40 million dead, no more big cities, but don’t worry, we got ‘em back! It’s really not very satisfying. It has the whiff of a heavy, least-minute editorial hand: “we can’t end on such a grim note, and then expect them to just move on to other articles. We’ve gotta win, in the end! Give ‘em some hope!”

One wonders: what was the public supposed to take away from this? Support for international control of the bomb? Support for better defenses? Fear of the future? It’s really a wonderful mess, the sort of thing you’d expect only a few months after the bomb made its debut, to be sure. Not all of the clichés had codified, the genre was still new.

Speaking of which — remember that devastating sequence from Fog of War, where Robert McNamara describes the firebombing of Japan, telling you what percentage of each Japanese city was destroyed, and then telling you an American-sized equivalent? The Arnold report in question did it first, and may have been the source for the data (the percentages and cities seem to match exactly):

1945 - Arnold map - bombing of Japan

Which makes a wonderful full-circle, doesn’t it? Something originally used to brag about performance has now become a touchstone for explaining the barbarity of the Pacific campaign.


More nuclear symbolism

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

Two small graphical things I wanted to share that came from feedback on a few recent posts.

The first is an explanation, of sorts, of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority’s very unusual emblem:

UKAEA Coat of Arms

I had ragged on the AEA’s design as being particularly stodgy, but I’ve been corrected. It’s just unduly weighed down by obscure symbolism, as a commentator pointed out. It was, apparently, designed by the Royal College of Arms with the following visual references:

  • The central shield is black denoting the core of a graphite reactor, with inserted rods of silver uranium.
  • The inverted triangle shows gold and scarlet bolts of heat and power.
  • The energy released by splitting the atom is controlled by a pair of red pantheons, which are ferocious heraldic beasts. They are firmly held to the ground by thick golden chains to ensure the energy is firmly controlled.
  • The pantheons have 13 six-pointed stars and two seven-pointed stars, totalling 92. These represent the 92 natural elements found in creation and also the atomic number of uranium.
  • The five spikes on the collars signify the atomic number of boron, which was used to shutdown the early reactors.
  • There are numerous representations of 8 for the atomic number of oxygen, 2 for helium and 1 for hydrogen – suggesting water. The whole gives insights into the four medieval elements of earth, air, fire and water.
  • The sun represents the power of fusion, and the small shield with the black bird (a martlet) is the Coat of Arms of Lord Rutherford. He is recognised as the founder of nuclear physics.
  • The steel helmet signifies the arms of a corporate body.
  • The whole is placed on the earth on which flowers and plants are flourishing normally. [???]
  • The motto “E minimis – maxima” means; ‘from the smallest, the greatest‘.

I thought that was interesting enough to share. Any resemblance between the “pantheons” and mutated horse-dogs is apparently entirely coincidental. And despite the barren, Moon-like appearance of the “earth,” it is apparently “flourishing normally.” Actually, the above image, painted on the doors of the Dounreay Prototype Fast Reactor, is slightly different than the other image of the emblem I had posted, which does have a more flourishing-looking ground cover, as well as a knight’s head.

All of this is a stark contrast from the US Atomic Energy Commission’s emblem, whose symbolism seems to have been, “it’s an atom, stupid.” I hereby promote the AEA’s emblem from “most boring” to “not as boring as I thought,” which leaves the current Department of Energy seal as the “most boring.”

Secondly, I have another cryptic drawing referencing the history of the hydrogen bomb, again by George Gamow. This one has been reproduced here and there, but a friend of mine came across an original version in the Gamow papers at the Library of Congress awhile back, and sent me his photographs of it and its captions. The drawing follows:

H-bomb history drawing, by George Gamow

The attached caption (written, as always, in Gamow’s amusing handwriting and bad English) was as follows:

A drowing made by G. Gamow (with photographic inserts) which was handing [hanging?] in his office in the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory during the dispute about the political necessity of developing an H-bomb and during the early stages of its developement after President Truman sayd: “Yes, go ahead.”

Top left is Comarade Stalin carrying the A-bomb made in the USSR.

Top right is Dr. Robert Oppenheimer who was objecting against H-bomb project on the basis that it is extremely difficult (actually it took less than two years) and will induce USSR to do the same (actually Russians worked on H-bomb when this discussion was taking place).

The coffin with the Harvard University coat of arms belong to Professor Dr. James B. Connant who said that: “H-bomb will be built only over his dead body.”

On the bench below are Dr’s Stan Ulam, Edward Teller, and George Gamow, demonstrating their proposals for making H-bomb. The simbolism of these deviced cannot be explained because AEC classified them as “SECRET”. 

The “simbolism” is fairly cryptic. The caption dates it around February 1950, so that might make it even harder to make sense of, as we’re talking about fairly early days when it comes to the final H-bomb design, but I’m not sure how reliable I find that dating. (The H-bomb debate was in late 1949-early 1950, though the caption was obviously written at a much later time.)

Looking for some insight into the technical discussions that were happening at this time, I took a gander at Anne Fitzpatrick’s quite detailed thesis on the early history of the H-bomb, “Igniting the Light Elements: The Los ALamos Thermonuclear Weapons Project, 1942-1952,” (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1999), which was issued as LA-13577-T. Fitzpatrick’s work is notable as one of the few H-bomb histories that have been written by a non-participant but also with access to classified information. (The whole thing was, of course, screened for security, and she notes in a few places where she was asked to label things merely as “special” to make them more vague.)

Fitzpatrick notes that Gamow spent a sabbatical year at Los Alamos in 1949-1950, to help with work on the H-bomb, which matches up with his caption above. While there, he seems to have produced a bevy of H-bomb-themed drawings, of which she reproduces three. One shows the complexity of the energy flow problem in a Super, another portrays the hydride bomb (“Elmer”) as “unattractive and clumsy” in comparison with a lower-yield water penetrating fission bomb (“Elsie”/”L.C.”), and the another portrayed Ulam and Teller themselves as the ultimate Super design:

Gamow's Can't Lose Model for the Super

But back to the original, “simbolic” Gamow image. Ulam’s spittoon almost surely references the fact that you’re using forces at a (relative) distance to compress the secondary, right? Whether one does that by hydrodynamic lensing (Ulam’s original proposal) or radiation implosion (the later Teller-Ulam design) doesn’t seem to be distinguishable. On the other hand, Ulam didn’t propose that until 1951, so this might be something else entirely. Fitzpatrick’s thesis doesn’t spell out any additional Ulam proposals that I saw.

Teller’s is much more cryptic. Looking at Fitzpatrick’s thesis, she says that at this time, Teller was championing a device dubbed “Little Edward.” (Oh myyyy.) This was, she says, “a giant, high-yield multi-crit gun device proposed by Teller that was supposed to produce x-radiation to ignite the D-T mixture in the Super.” Could that be the string of beads with the giant Omega in the middle of it? It sounds like an ungainly device, and indeed, it was eventually dropped as being very wasteful and without much guarantee that it would do anything better than other designs on the table.

And lastly, there’s Gamow’s. According to Fitzpatrick, Gamow’s design was known as the “Cat’s Tail.” She says that it was “a variation on the large fission detonator purported to ignite the Super… Gamow theorized that the Cat’s Tail needed less T[ritium] than had been assumed in the ENIAC Super problems, but could not guarantee this.” Since, as far as I know, Gamow’s designs have never been discussed openly (and were not successful), it’s pretty difficult to try and correlate such an image to an actual bomb design.

Presumably there were no cat-driven hydrogen bombs, though having owned a cat, I can see that one might be seriously tempted to exploit some of their malicious energy in this way. I welcome any and all additional interpretations.


The story behind the IAEA’s atomic logo

Friday, January 11th, 2013

Since my post last week was such a bummer, I thought I’d do something a little more fun and trivial today.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has, without much competition, the coolest logo of any part of the UN.1 Heck, I’ll go so far as to say that they have the coolest logo of any atomic-energy organization in history. I mean, check this thing out:

IAEA flag

It’s not only an atom, it’s an atom with style. It’s got a classic late-1950s/early-1960s asymmetrical, jaunty swagger. Those electrons are swinging, baby! This is an atom for love, not war, if you dig what I’m saying. An atom that knows how to have fun, even when it’s doing serious business, like investigating your nuclear program. The James Bond of atoms.

The staid seal of the US Atomic Energy Commission cannot really compete for hipness, though it gets major nostalgia points and I love it dearly. The emblem of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran is arguably the only real runner-up — check out that minimalism! Most worldwide atomic energy organizations/commissions have variously tacky rip-offs of the original AEC logo. The UK’s Atomic Energy Authority gets props for having the least cool emblem of any atomic energy agency, and also the least obviously atomic (the little sun at the top, and the Latin, somewhat give it away). On the other hand, it’s the only one that looks like it would be perfectly at home inside a Lewis Carroll book.

For awhile, I’ve been kind of obsessed with finding out who drew this thing. It looks remarkably similar to the aesthetic adopted by the Swiss designer Erik Nitsche, who did a lot of other groovy atomic posters for General Dynamics. This poster of Nitsche’s from 1955 has similarly jaunty orbitals, though I don’t think they’re meant to be electrons:

But upon further investigation, I’ve not found any evidence that Nitsche was involved, sadly. In fact, all signs point to an anonymous staffer in the US State Department, but the story is a bit more fun than just that.

The IAEA was founded  in 1957 as the UN organization that would try to enact the “Atoms for Peace” plans of the Eisenhower administration. It wasn’t yet the nuclear watchdog organization; that came later, with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Its first head was W. Sterling Cole, a former US Congressman who had been a member of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. From pretty much the very beginning, the IAEA started using a little atomic logo on its letterhead:

IAEA letterhead, July 1957

The first instance of this I’ve found is the above, dated July 1957 (though the document was published in August), which is the same time as the IAEA came into being, more or less. By October 1957 they were using a white-on-black approach but it was basically the same thing. An internal IAEA history chalks its creation up to someone within the US State Department or the US Atomic Energy Commission — which is another way of saying, they have no real idea, except that it seems to have come from America. Fair enough, I suppose, though looking at what the Atomic Energy Commission’s own stab at an “Atoms for Peace” logo, I find it really unlikely that they had anything to do with it:

It’s a pretty different aesthetic: that staid AEC atom (perfectly symmetrical), plus a dog’s breakfast of other generic symbols (microscope! medicine! a gear! wheat!). It’s a lousy emblem — it’s messy, it’s generic, and it has finicky details that wouldn’t reproduce well at a small size, which means that it always looks too big.

Anyway, the first IAEA logo, as you can see, was a somewhat informal thing — it’s not as stylized, and its lines aren’t very confident, but the essence of the final emblem is there, hidden within it. It doesn’t have little dots for electrons, and the asymmetry looks only somewhat intentional. They used this up until 1958 without anybody raising any fuss, and without formally adopting it.

But at some point in 1958, someone with just enough education to be dangerous noticed that their little peaceful atom had three electrons. What element has three electrons, typically? Lithium. What’s lithium most associated with, in the area of atomic energy? Hydrogen bombs. Lithium deuteride is the main fusion fuel in hydrogen bombs. When the lithium nucleus absorbs a neutron, it turns into tritium and helium. Tritium and deuterium readily fuse. It’s a nice little reaction — if you’re a weapon designer. If you’re an “Atoms for Peace” agency, it’s a little more problematic. So someone — again, nobody seems to know who — flipped about this. An easy fix was proposed: add another electron! Then it’s no longer lithium… it’s beryllium. Let’s all collectively ignore the fact that beryllium is also used in nuclear weapons, and is also fiendishly toxic, to boot. If they’d just added one more orbital, it would have made boron, which is a neutron absorber that keeps you from getting irradiated — a little more on target, but nobody asked me.

You can see the extra orbital somewhat crudely added to the original emblem in this backdrop at the Second Annual General Conference of the IAEA, from 1958:

They’ve also added little dots for the electrons, too. The version above is somewhat wildly, problematically asymmetrical — the orbitals don’t intersect well in the upper-left corner at all.

Once they started messing with it, though, things got a little out of control. Why stop with just another electron? Now here’s the part where I can clearly see an American governmental influence… they started mucking it up. To quote from that IAEA internal history I referenced before:

Once the process of altering the emblem had started, further suggestions were made and soon a design evolved in which the central circle had been expanded into a global map of the world and five of the eight loops formed by the ellipses contained respectively: a dove of peace with an olive branch; a factory with smoking chimneys and surcharged with a train of three gear wheels; a microscope; two spears of grain; and finally a caduceus, to symbolise respectively the peaceful, industrial, research, agricultural and medicinal uses of atomic energy.2

If that isn’t the most god-awful design-by-committee creation, what is? Another fun fact: they made it gold.

I’d love to show you a version of that one, but I can’t find a copy of it. It sounds wonderfully awful. The helpful folks at the IAEA archive have been unable to track down a drawing of it — at least, within as much energy as they are willing to expend on such a folly, which is understandably limited. I’ve gone over every image I could find from the time period looking for a picture of it. No dice. But, just to have some fun, here is a “creative interpretation” of the above, which I have myself drawn up for you:

IAEA 1958 logo (artist's interpretation)

Ah, but they didn’t stop there. Cole, the IAEA Director General, apparently enjoyed this enough that he had the new emblem printed in gold on a blue flag, and put it up above the United Nations flag outside of the Third General Conference of the IAEA in 1959.

Apparently in UN-world, this was seen as a major scandal. A representative of the UN Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjöld, saw it, flipped out, and had it immediately removed. And it was never seen again. 

Shortly after this flap, it was decided that perhaps they ought to have a formal procedure before creating their emblem. They rolled back all of the modifications except the extra orbital, and cleaned up the layout a bit, and added a set of olive leaves to match the UN flag. On April 1, 1960, this finalized emblem was adopted by the IAEA Board of Governors, in a document that the IAEA archives folks were willing to dig up for me and post online:

INFCIRC/19 - The Agency's Emblem and Seal

As with all things, we’re left with the final product and generally no indication that there was a process to get to it. But, as with all things, there is a process: there is a history. Emblems don’t just pop out of nowhere fully formed, just as institutions, organizations, and policies always have to follow a messy path when coming into existence. The emblem, aside from being a piece of natty graphic design, is one of those typical organizational by-products. Somebody started drawing it, not knowing what it was, and they’ll continue drawing it forever just because… with a slight detour to make it especially ugly after having found a conceptual problem in their original, ad hoc, implementation.

Anyone who has dabbled in graphic design will also recognize this process. You start with half an idea, one imbued with a germ of goodness inside it, somewhere. You try to elaborate on the idea, inevitably making things worse temporarily  Finally, scaling things back, you return to the original, and find that beautiful thing that was hiding in it all along, just out of sight. The snazzy, modern emblem wasn’t achieved on the first go round — it had to pass through design hell before its potential for good could really emerge.

UPDATE (9/2014): The ugly logo has been located! Read all about it here.

  1. Technically the IAEA is autonomous from the UN though under its aegis. []
  2. Paul C. Szasz, “The Law and Practices of the International Atomic Energy Agency,” [IAEA] Legal Series No. 7 (Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency, 1970), 1001-1002. []