Posts Tagged ‘Musings’


History in the flesh

Friday, May 29th, 2015

My main mode of interacting with history is through documents. Memos, reports, letters, telegrams, transcriptions, diagrams — the written word. The sociologist of science Bruno Latour calls these kinds of sources inscriptions, that which got written down, fixed into some kind of reproducible media. In Latour’s work, he emphasizes the act of inscription to highlight the gulf that exists between what gets written down and the anarchy of the raw, natural world. The inscription is a limited product of that raw world, a small subset of its multitudes of activities and phenomena and possibilities, and is always an incomplete lens by which to interrogate the world, but its very incompleteness allows it to be fixed, circulated, and analyzed. Without this act of inscription, science (and history) could not move forward, because there would be no such thing as the necessary “data.”

A small sampling of the sort of "inscriptions" I deal with regularly, the raw stuff of conjuring up the past: a typewritten report later turned into a microfilm entry (later scanned into a PDF file); a typewritten copy of a memo I got from an archive (later photographed by me and turned into a PDF); a hand-drawn diagram (evidence from the Rosenberg trial) that was later deposited into an archive (and later scanned as a TIF file).

A small sampling of the sort of “inscriptions” I deal with regularly, the raw stuff of conjuring up the past: a typewritten report later turned into a microfilm entry (later scanned into a PDF file); a typewritten copy of a memo I got from an archive (later photographed by me and turned into a PDF); a hand-drawn diagram (evidence from the Rosenberg trial) that was later deposited into an archive (and later scanned as a TIF file).

All of which might seem a little obvious once I say it. We need sources, of some sort, to do history? Tell me more. But the reason to point this out is to mention that historians are very aware that there’s lots of things that happened in the past that don’t get inscribed, and that the modes of inscription are not always reliable (even when people are trying to do their best, much less when they aren’t), and that the archive is just a proxy for understanding the past, and not in any way a full representation of the past. The job of the historian, stated in this way, is to piece together a fuller, more synthetic understanding of the past based on what is really a very shallow evidentiary base. We take half a dozen pieces of paper marked with symbols, and use those to try and conjure up an entire lost world. We take scribbles on paper and use them to try and reconstruct the subjective states of other human minds. When you put it like that, it is a pretty wonderfully mystical, kind of medieval, style of knowledge production. Which is why I love it — its flaws are obvious, its possibilities are endless, and it requires a very diverse group of skills that both empirical and creative.

But there are other ways to know the past. Being in the physical places of the past does seem to trigger a different response to it, as opposed to just reading about said places. This is one of the reasons I am so supportive of the Manhattan Project National Historic Park initiative. There is something about witnessing a historical landscape in person, that encourages a different sort of empathy with those who lived past, a seeing with other eyes.

A view from the car window, driving from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. One of about 10 million photographs I took on my trip. Eventually I will post some more. Separately, if you want a Los Alamos Ranch School mug, I was inspired to make them after my trip, and they are based on the actual seal of the school, which I saw for the first time while out there.

A view from the car window, driving from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. One of about 10 million photographs I took on my trip. Eventually I will post some more. Separately, if you want a Los Alamos Ranch School mug, I was inspired to make them after my trip, and they are based on the actual seal of the school, which I saw for the first time while out there.

I haven’t personally been to a lot of these Manhattan Project sites. Sometimes this surprises people, but it’s just been a matter of time and money. For my last Spring Break, though, I had the opportunity to spend a week in New Mexico, teaching a couple classes for my friend Luis Campos at the University of New Mexico (whose book on the history of radium was just published). My wife and I spent a few days in Santa Fe as a guest of the wonderful Cheryl Rofer, who also gave us the best unofficial tour of Los Alamos you could ask for, with assistance from Alan Carr (the Historian for Los Alamos National Laboratory) and the irrepressible Ellen Bradbury Reid, described aptly in an article as the “Eloise of Los Alamos,” which is a phrase I so wish I had come up with.

I had not previously spent too much time in the Southwest before. The landscape out there is stunning and other-worldly. On your left will be nothing but flat, scrubby desert. On your right, a towering mountain. Drive a little further and you find lushness and trees. Drive a little more and you find dryness and rock. Go up high enough and it might be snowing. Look around, feel the vastness of the area. Walk around and see the legacy of the three different peoples who have lived there: the Indians, the Spanish, the Anglos. It is an unusual place that feels as unlike the parts of California I am from as it does the East Coast urban metropolises I have lived for the last ten years. They don’t call it the “Land of Enchantment” for nothing.

All of which deepened, I like to believe, my feeling for Los Alamos during the war. What it must have meant to travel out there, to take the one good road from Santa Fe up onto the Mesa (there is a highway now, of course, but the old road is still there, albeit better paved). The way in which the various Technical Areas were nestled into the tree-lined valleys, and how you could go up those hills and look down on just miles and miles around. Today, of course, Los Alamos is a huge, sprawling laboratory. We didn’t really get to go inside of it to any real extent (there are a lot of rules governing that sort of thing), but Alan Carr took us up a hill which gave us great panoramas of the whole site. The hills around the lab are today full of dead, burned trees, the result of several forest fires that devastated them. But when you drive around the mesas near Bandelier National Monument, you get a sense for that rustic, rocky environment that so appealed to J. Robert Oppenheimer, that seemed such incredible contrast to his secular Jewish upbringing on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Nagasaki Mayor Tomihisa Taue, Atomic Heritage Foundation President Cynthia Kelly and Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui at the meeting in New York, just across from the United Nations building. I was sitting a little out of frame, near Mayor Matsui. Source: Japan Times.

Nagasaki Mayor Tomihisa Taue, Atomic Heritage Foundation President Cynthia Kelly and Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui at the meeting in New York, just across from the United Nations building. I was sitting a little out of frame, near Mayor Matsui. Source: Japan Times.

About a month afterwards, I had another unusual opportunity to experience history in the flesh. Connected with my work with the Atomic Heritage Foundation (I have joined their Advisory Committee), I was invited to take part in a meeting with the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as several hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bombings.1 The Japanese delegation was in town for the NPT Review conference, but they wanted to meet with the Atomic Heritage Foundation in a public forum to talk about concerns they had with the Manhattan Project National Historic Park. Most of their concerns were understandable and shared by us: they want the history of the atomic bomb to not be presented in a celebratory mode, and to give credence to the many different perspectives that are held on it. They want the human consequences of the bombings to be made loud and clear. They want these sites to be places where people are encouraged to make up their own minds, rather than simply being told what to think about the past. On this I think everyone was in complete agreement. The details, of course, will be tricky in practice, but such is the nature of these things.

I had never seen hibakusha before, and I was greatly honored to meet them. There are not so many of them left. Many of those who are still alive, as with the remaining Holocaust survivors, were children during World War II. Which points, inadvertently, to the immense human costs of these events, to the innocents swept up into the maw of war. I have of course read much about the Japanese victims of the bomb, but it is another thing to meet them. The incident inspired me to re-read John Hersey’s Hiroshima for the first time in a long while, and the raw humanity of his account hit me in a way that it hadn’t before — the depth of my historical empathy increased measurably.

Which doesn’t tell one how to think about the use of the atomic bomb, I feel compelled to point out. Having sympathy and empathy with the past does not tell one which particular historical point of view one should subscribe to. There are many possible points of view to even non-controversial events, much less intensely controversial ones.2

Several of the still-living Manhattan Project veterans/

Several of the still-living Manhattan Project veterans. It is unclear how many of the nearly half-million people who worked on Manhattan Project are still alive. 

Next week (June 2-3, 2015), as part of a really wonderful symposium on the 70th Anniversary of the Manhattan Project hosted by the Atomic Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, I will also get to spend some more time with other Manhattan Project veterans. These too are becoming an endangered species, along with all World War II-era veterans. It’s not the specific stories or experiences of these people that I often get the most out of. There’s something about just spending time around these historical actors (as historians like to call our human subjects) that helps you understand their world, remind you of the human content of the past.

If you are in town, the talks will be worth going to. Aside from my own talk (which will be great fun, I assure you), the other committed speakers include Kai Bird, Denise Kiernan, Robert S. Norris, Richard Rhodes, and Martin Sherwin. I have it on good authority that John Coster-Mullen will be in attendance, too. There is still time to register.

In a decade it will be the 80th anniversary of the Manhattan Project and World War II. There will probably not be any veterans to talk to then. There is an advantage to that, for the historian: living historical actors are tricky. They can disagree with you. Their individual perspectives can be intoxicating, charismatic, misleading. They can insist that their perspectives on history take precedence over the synthetic version you have constructed from inscriptions. They aren’t always right on that, as all history students are taught, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make trouble for you — the Smithsonian Enola Gay controversy in 1995 was one in part such a conflict of perspectives. It is in some ways easier to deal with the long-since deceased, because you can regard their inscriptions from something of a remove. But you do miss out on something, and its not just nostalgia. You have to work harder to reconstruct these other worlds, these other subjective states, in the absence of a working, functioning example sitting in front of you. This is why we have to preserve these spaces, and these voices, just as diligently as we have to preserve the documents, the inscriptions.

  1. Among other things, I learned that to an American ear, it is pronounced heh-bak-sha, with the u being essentially silent. []
  2. This was one of the great fallacies of the 1995 Enola Gay controversy — the idea that by talking about the victims of the bombs, you somehow took away from those who thought the bombs were necessary or important. History is complex, and we need to treat the audiences of history as if they were intelligent human beings capable of understanding multiple, possibly contradictory perspectives. If we don’t do that, we are just doing some form of crude activism for one cause or another, and the world has enough of that to go around as it is. []

The plutonium box

Friday, March 28th, 2014

I’ve found myself in a work crunch (somehow I’ve obligated myself to give three lectures in the next week and a half, on top of my current teaching schedule!), but I’m working on some interesting things in the near term. I have a review of Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control coming out in Physics Today pretty soon, and I’ll post some more thoughts on his book once that is available. And I have something exciting coming up for the 60th anniversary of Oppenheimer’s security hearing.

In the meantime, I wanted to share the results of one little investigation. I’ve posted a few times now (Posing with the plutoniumLittle boxes of doom, The Third Core’s Revenge) on the magnesium boxes that were used to transport the plutonium cores used for the Trinity test and the Fat Man bomb:

The magnesium cases for the world's first three plutonium cores. Left: Herb Lehr at Trinity base camp with the Gadget core. Center: Luis Alvarez at Tinian with the Fat Man core. Right: The third core's case at Los Alamos, 1946.

The magnesium cases for the world’s first three plutonium cores. Left: Herb Lehr at Trinity base camp with the Gadget core. Center: Luis Alvarez at Tinian with the Fat Man core. Right: The third core’s case at Los Alamos, 1946.

Just to recap, they were a design invented by Philip Morrison (the Powers of Ten guy, among other things), made out of magnesium with rubber bumpers made of test tube stoppers. They could hold the plutonium core pieces (two in the case of the Trinity Gadget, three in the case of Fat Man), as well as neutron initiators. Magnesium was used because it was light, dissipated heat, and did not reflect neutrons (and so wouldn’t create criticality issues). All of this information is taken from John Coster-Mullen’s Atom Bombs, an essential book if you care about these kinds of details.

But all of the photographs of the box I had seen, like those above, were in black and white. Not a big deal, right? But I find the relative lack of color photography from the 1940s one of those things that makes it hard to relate to the past. When all of Oppenheimer’s contemporaries talked about his icy blue eyes, it makes you want to see them as they saw them, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s just me.

The only place where I almost saw a color photo of the box is in a photo that the late Harold Agnew had taken of himself on Tinian. It’s one of a large series of posing-with-plutonium photos that were taken on the island of Tinian sometime before the Nagasaki raid. Only this one is in color! Except… well, I’ll let the photo speak for itself:

Harold Agnew with plutonium core redacted

Yeah. Not super helpful. This was scanned from Rachel Fermi and Esther Samra’s wonderful Picturing the Bomb book. They asked Agnew what had happened, and he told them that:

I was in Chicago after the war in 1946. The FBI came and said they believed I had some secret pictures. They went through my pictures and found nothing. Then like a fool I said, “Maybe this one is secret.” They wanted to know what that thing was. I told them and they said that it must be secret and wanted the picture. I wanted the picture so they agreed if I scratched out the “thing” I could keep the slide.

Thwarted by nuclear secrecy, once again! You can try to look extra close at the scratches and maybe just make out the color of the “thing” but it’s a tough thing to manage.

Ah, but there is a resolution to this question. Scott Carson, a retired engineer who posts interesting nuclear things onto his Twitter account, recently posted another  photo of the box — in color and unredacted! His source was a Los Alamos newsletter from a few years back. It is of Luis Alvarez, another member of the Tinian team, in the same exact pose and location as the redacted Agnew photograph… but this time, un-redacted! And the color of the box was…

Luis Alvarez with the Fat Man core, Tinian, 1945.

…yellowNot what I was expecting.

Why yellow? My guess: it might be the same yellow paint used on the Fat Man bomb. Fat Man was painted “a mustard yellow rust-preventing zinc-chromate primer” (to quote from Coster-Mullen’s book) that made them easier to spot while doing drop tests of the casings.

The box for the Trinity core doesn’t look painted yellow to me — it looks more like raw magnesium. Maybe they decided that the tropical atmosphere of Tinian, with its high humidity, required painting the box to keep it from oxidizing. Maybe they just thought a little color would spruce up the place a little bit. I don’t know.

Does it matter? In some sense this is pure trivia. If the box was blue, green, or dull metallic, history wouldn’t be changed much at all. But I find these little excursions a nice place to meditate on the fact that the past is a hard thing to know intimately. We can’t see events exactly as they were seen by those who lived them. Literally and figuratively. The difficulty of finding out even what color something was is one trivial indication of this. And the secrecy doesn’t help with that very much.


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. []

The Hiroshima-Equivalent: A Modest Proposal

Friday, June 7th, 2013

Given that the media community seems to love comparing all manners of energy release to Hiroshima, no matter how inappropriate, I humbly propose a new scientific unit: the Hiroshima-equivalent, abbreviated as H-e.

Hiroshima damage map

The Hiroshima-equivalent has been pegged at exactly 15 kilotons of TNT,1 which is itself defined as being equivalent to 62.76 terajoules, or 15 teracalories.

One of the many benefits of using the H-e is that one can apply it to any type of energy release, not simply things physically similar to atomic bombs. Indeed, one should not, in any way, worry about whether the phenomena one is applying it to is anything like the actual bombings of Hiroshima. The H-e is in no way logically connected to blast phenomena, heat phenomena, ionizing radiation, radioactive fallout, or deaths upwards of a hundred thousand people. It can be applied to situations involving energy releases that occur over vastly larger areas of time and space, and in situations where only handful of people are hurt or injured. What is important about using the H-e is that you use it in a way that grabs the attention of your readers who are, as you know, bored, inattentive, and continually distracted by a multitude of empty facts, bad television, and meaningless digital social interactions.

In order to facilitate easy adoption of the Hiroshima-equivalent scale, I’ve created a simple calculator below. Here you can plug in a number of different types of energy expressions and find out their Hiroshima-equivalents. Precise energy measurements, such as Joules or Kilowatt-hours or Kilocalories, have that boring, “professional” feel to them, and as such are much less interesting than their Hiroshima-equivalent values.

(The above calculator is embedded in a frame; if you cannot see it, click here to open it as a separate window.)

Because sometimes energy releases are too small to be considered in unit multiples of Hiroshima-equivalents, I have, naturally, also created metric prefixes of milli-Hiroshima-equivalents (.001 H-e), micro-Hiroshima-equivalents (.000001 H-e), and nano-Hiroshima equivalents (.000000001 H-e). I have not opted to use positive prefixes (e.g. kilo-Hiroshima-equivalents) because it is much more exciting to instead say “thousands times the size of the Hiroshima bomb,” obviously.

So using this new system and calculator, some fascinating facts emerge:

  • The bomb detonated over Hiroshima was exactly 1 Hiroshima-equivalent. As one would expect, but imagine the headlines if this had been around in August 1945: “FIRST ATOMIC BOMB IS DROPPED ON JAPAN; MISSILE IS EQUAL TO ENERGY OF HIROSHIMA BOMB; TRUMAN WARNS OF A ‘RAIN OF RUIN.’
  • The Sun deposits 61.34 billion Hiroshimas worth of energy onto the Earth every year — that’s 168 million Hiroshimas a day, 7 million Hiroshimas an hour, 117 thousand Hiroshimas a minute!
  • The USA uses about 24 thousand Hiroshima-equivalents worth of electricity per year!
  • The Haitian Earthquake of 2010 was equivalent to around 32 Hiroshimas! (Alas, not a new conclusion.) Note that this system doesn’t work for determining the yields of underground nuclear tests, because actual nuclear weapons have more complicated energy release mechanisms when underground. (Pesky details!)
  • Each year, McDonald’s sells around 26 Hiroshima-equivalents worth of Big Macs in the United States alone, 42 Hiroshima-equivalents worldwide (1 H-e = 21.4 million Big Macs)!
  • My electric bill for last month was for 4.42 micro-Hiroshima-equivalents! (Which is 126.2 nano-Hiroshima-equivalents less than this month last year!)

There are, alas, some cases in which the Hiroshima-equivalent may lose its reader stopping power. For such cases, you may use the alternative unit, the Tsar Bomba-equivalent (TB-e), which is conveniently defined as 33,300 Hiroshima-equivalents. It should be used sparingly and tastefully, along the lines of “The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami [released less energy] than that of Tsar Bomba, the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated.”

In case it isn’t clear how to use this, here are some simple instructions: Whenever there is a natural disaster, explosion, or, really, anything relating to energy that just doesn’t have enough pathos, tragedy, or excitement for your average reader, call up a scientist at a university somewhere, ask them to calculate how much energy was released in the event in question. He or she will probably give you some nonsense about “Joules” or “Kilowatt hours” or “Calories.” Take those meaningless numbers, paste them into the right places on the calculator, and you’ll instantly know how many Hiroshima-equivalents you are talking about! You simply can’t go wrong.

  1. There are lots of estimates for the size of the Hiroshima bomb. Online one can find numbers range from 12-20 kilotons of TNT. A study by Los Alamos found that the best estimate of the yield for Hiroshima was 15±3 kilotons. For the purposes of a standard unit, of course, one must simply pick a number, and 15 seems appropriate in this circumstance. I note that it is tempting to define it as the lower limit, 12 kilotons, because that would mean even more Hiroshima-equivalents for any given situation, but we must have some standards. []

Narratives of Manhattan Project secrecy

Friday, March 29th, 2013

Secrecy suffused every aspect of the Manhattan Project; it was always in the background, as a context. But it’s also a topic in and of itself — people love to talk about the secrecy of the work, and they’ve loved to talk about it since the Project was made public. In the 1940s there was something of a small industry of articles, books, and clichés regarding how secret the atomic bomb was kept. Of course, the irony is… it wasn’t really kept all that well, if you consider “keeping the secret” to involve “not letting the Soviet Union know pretty much everything about the atomic bomb.” (Which was, according to General Groves, one of the goals.)

It’s easy to get sucked into the mystique of secrecy. One way I’ve found that is useful to help people think critically about secrecy (including myself) is to focus on the narratives of secrecy. That is, instead of talking about secrecy itself, look instead at how people talk about secrecy, how they frame it, how it plays a role in stories they tell about the Manhattan Project.

One of many early articles in the genre of Manhattan Project secrecy: "How We Kept the Atomic Bomb Secret," from the Saturday Evening Post, November 1945.

One of many early articles in the genre of Manhattan Project secrecy: “How We Kept the Atomic Bomb Secret,” from the Saturday Evening Post, November 1945.

My first example of this is the most obvious one, because it is the official one. We might call this one the narrative of the “best-kept secret,” because this is how the Army originally advertised it. Basically, the “best-kept secret” narrative is about how the Manhattan Project was sooo super-secret, that nobody found out about it, despite its ridiculous size and expense. The Army emphasized this very early on, and, in fact, Groves got into some trouble because there were so many stories about how great their secrecy was, revealing too much about the “sources and methods” of counterintelligence work.

The truth is, even without the knowledge of the spying (which they didn’t have in 1945), this narrative is somewhat false even on its own terms. There were leaks about the Manhattan Project (and atomic bombs and energy in general) printed in major press outlets in the United States and abroad. It was considered an “open secret” among Washington politicos and journalists that the Army was working on a new super-weapon that involved atomic energy just prior to its use. Now, it certainly could have been worse, but it’s not clear whether the Army (or the Office of Censorship) had much control over that.

Panel from FEYNMAN by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick.

Panel from FEYNMAN by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick.

We might contrast that with the sort of narrative of secrecy that comes up with regards to many participants’ tales of being at places like Los Alamos. Richard Feynman’s narrative of secrecy is one of absurd secrecy — of ridiculous adherence to stupid rules. In Feynman’s narratives, secrecy is a form of idiotic bureaucracy, imposed by rigid, lesser minds. It’s the sort of thing that a trickster spirit like Feynman can’t resist teasing, whether he’s cracking safes, teasing guards about holes in the fence, or finding elaborate ways to irritate the local censor in his correspondence with his wife. All participants’ narratives are not necessarily absurd, but they are almost always about the totalitarian nature of secrecy. I don’t mean “fascist/communist” here — I mean the original sense of the word, which is to say, the Manhattan Project secrecy regime was one that infused every aspect of human life for those who lived under it. It was not simply a workplace procedure, because there was no real division between work and life at the Manhattan Project sites. (Even recreational sports were considered an essential part of the Oak Ridge secrecy regime, for example.)

So we might isolate two separate narratives here — “secrecy is ridiculous” and “secrecy is totalitarian” — with an understanding that no single narrative is necessarily exclusive of being combined with others.1

"Beyond loyalty, the harsh requirements of security": Time magazine's stark coverage of the 1954 security hearing of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

“Beyond loyalty, the harsh requirements of security”: Time magazine’s stark coverage of the 1954 security hearing of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

But the Feynman approach looks perhaps unreasonably jolly when we contrast it to the narrative of J. Robert Oppenheimer and his students, for whom secrecy became something more sinister: an excuse to blacklist, a means of punishment. Oppenheimer did fine during the Manhattan Project, but the legacy of secrecy caught up with him in his 1954 security hearing, which effectively ended his government career. For his students and friends, the outcomes were often as bad if not worse. His brother, Frank, for example, found himself essentially blacklisted from all research, even from the opportunity to leave the country and start over. (It had a happy ending, of course, because without being blacklisted, he might never have founded the Exploratorium, but let’s just ignore that for a moment.)

For a lot of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, secrecy ended up putting their careers on the line, sometimes even their lives on the line. In response to (fairly ungrounded) suspicions about Oppenheimer’s student Rossi Lomanitz, for example, Groves actually removed his draft deferment and had him sent into the dangerous Pacific Theatre. This narrative of secrecy is what we might classically call the “tragic” narrative of secrecy — it involves a fall from grace. It emphasizes the rather sinister undertones and consequences of secrecy regimes, especially during the period of McCarthyism.

The original "best-kept secret" story, released on August 9, 1945 (the day of the Nagasaki bombing).

The original “best-kept secret” story, released on August 9, 1945 (the day of the Nagasaki bombing).

So what other narratives are there? Here is a short list, in no particular order, that I compiled for a talk I gave at a workshop some weeks ago. I don’t claim it to be exhaustive, or definitive. Arguably some of these are somewhat redundant, as well. But I found compiling it a useful way for me to think myself around these narratives, and how many there were:

  • Secrecy is essential”: early accounts, “best-kept secret” stories
  • Secrecy is totalitarian”: secret site participants’ accounts
  • Secrecy is absurd”: e.g. Feynman’s safes and fences
    • Common hybrid: “Secrecy is absurdly totalitarian
  • Secrecy is counterproductive”: arguments by Leo Szilard et al., that secrecy slowed them down (related to the “absurd” narrative)
  • Secrecy is ineffective”: the post-Fuchs understanding — there were lots of spies
  • Secrecy is undemocratic”: secrecy reduces democratic participation in important decisions, like the decision to use the bomb; fairly important to revisionist accounts
  • Secrecy is tragic”: ruinous effects of McCarthyism and spy fears on the lives of many scientists
  • “Secrecy is corrupt: late/post-Cold War, environmental and health concerns

It’s notable that almost all of these are negative narratives. I don’t think that’s just bias on my part — positive stories about secrecy fit into only a handful of genres, whereas there are so many different ways that secrecy is talked about as negative. Something to dwell on.

What does talking about these sorts of things get us? Being aware that there are multiple “stock” narratives helps us be more conscious about the narratives we talk about and tap into. You can’t really get out of talking through narratives if you have an interest in being readable, but you can be conscious about your deployment of them. For me, making sense of secrecy in an intellectual, analytical fashion requires being able to see when people are invoking one narrative or another. And it keeps us from falling into traps. The “absurd” narrative is fun, for example, but characterizing the Manhattan Project experience of secrecy makes too much light of the real consequences of it.

As an historian, what I’m really trying to do here is develop a new narrative of secrecy — that of the meta-narrative, One Narrative to Rule Them All, the narrative that tells the story of how the other narratives came about (a history of narratives, if you will). Part of talking about secrecy historically is looking at how narratives are created, how they are made plausible, how they circulate, and where they come from. Because these things don’t just appear out of “nowhere”: for each of these narratives, there is deep history, and often a specific, singular origin instance. (For some, it is pretty clear: Klaus Fuchs really makes the “ineffective” narrative spring to live; Leo Szilard and the Scientists’ Movement push very hard for the “counterproductive” narrative in late 1945; the “best-kept secret” approach was a deliberate public relations push by the government.)

As a citizen more broadly, though, being conscious about narratives is important for parsing out present day issues as well. How may of these narratives have been invoked by all sides in the discussions of WikiLeaks, for example? How do these narratives shape public perceptions of issues revolving around secrecy, and public trust? Realizing that there are distinct narratives of secrecy is only the first step.

  1. Both of these might classically be considered “comic” narratives of secrecy, under a strict narratological definition. But I’m not really a huge fan of strict narratological definitions in this context — they are too broad. []