Posts Tagged ‘Musings’


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. []

On Meteors and Megatons

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

So by now, everybody has read about the meteor which broke up over the Chelyabinsk Oblast late last week. The reportage on it was pretty interesting in the beginning -- a lot of between-the-lines skepticism was being put out there by American news outlets. I was a little wary myself, too, as a lot of the initial reports from Russia were pretty sketchy, buffeted primarily by Russian dashboard cameras, which, in our Photoshop and AfterEffects age, are probably not at the top of our list of "reliable sources." For people who care about Cold War science and technology, of course, there's the additional fact that ChelyabinskOblast is a major site for secret Russian military-industrial developments. It'd be like reports of suspicious explosions around the Nevada Test Site, or Los Alamos, or Pantex. Chelyabinsk Oblast is the home of Chelyabinsk-70, the Soviet Livermore, and just north of it is the city of Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), the site of a 1979 anthrax leak that the Soviets tried to cover up by claiming it was something more "natural" in origins. Add in the legacy of the Soviet response to Chernobyl, the relative rarity of this sort of meteor strike -- once a century is the frequency that's been cited -- and the extreme rarity of something like this happening over inhabited land -- most of the planet is devoid of human occupation -- and some skepticism in the absence of solid evidence was, I think, not unwarranted. Eyebrows raised, including mine, but apparently it all checks out.

Some of the Russian nuclear weapons facilities near the meteor path. Via Hans M. Kristensen, FAS: "The odds of a meteor hitting one of these nuclear weapons production or storage site are probably infinitely small, but on a cosmic scale it got pretty close."

Some of the Russian nuclear weapons facilities near the meteor path. Via Hans M. Kristensen, FAS: "The odds of a meteor hitting one of these nuclear weapons production or storage site are probably infinitely small, but on a cosmic scale it got pretty close."

How powerful was the explosion? NASA currently is saying it is the equivalent of a 500 kiloton blast, which is a lot. 500 kilotons is (as you can see) half a megaton, is about the upper-limit of a pure-fission nuclear weapon, and is, as journalists love to breathlessly relate, some 20-30 times the power of the bombs that hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That the only result was a lot of injuries caused by windows blowing inward -- something that occurs with a shock wave of one pound per square inch or above -- is attributed to the fact that the meteor exploded many miles above the ground, away from the city.

Personally, I cast a dubious eyeball towards the comparisons of natural phenomena with nuclear weapon energy releases. It's an incredibly common trope, though. Wikipedia's coverage of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake is actually quite reflective of how this gets talked about, even if it is somewhat dorkier in its citation of units than the average journalistic account:

The energy released on the Earth's surface only (ME, which is the seismic potential for damage) by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami was estimated at 1.1×1017 joules, or 26 megatons of TNT. This energy is equivalent to over 1500 times that of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, but less than that of Tsar Bomba, the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated. However, the total work done MW (and thus energy) by this quake was 4.0×1022 joules (4.0×1029 ergs), the vast majority underground. This is over 360,000 times more than its ME, equivalent to 9,600 gigatons of TNT equivalent (550 million times that of Hiroshima) or about 370 years of energy use in the United States at 2005 levels of 1.08×1020 J.

Lots of numbers thrown around, lots of energy involved, yes, but what does it mean? I have two major objections to this form of analysis, where nuclear weapons are used as some kind of barometer for general energy release.  The first is about the character of energy release is important -- because it affects how these things are felt at the human scale. The second is about whether these sorts of comparisons are actually clarifying to the general public.

On the character of nuclear and non-nuclear blasts

The key thing about nuclear weapons is that they discharge most of their energy as heat and blast. Most of the energy release occurs over a very small amount of space and time. You can essentially regard the physics of a nuke as being a the creation of a tiny point in space that suddenly is heated to tens of millions of degrees, and this results in all of the effects that we are pretty well familiar with. The results are extremely localized: even the massive Tsar Bomba had a fireball only five miles in diameter, which is huge by human standards but minute by geological or geographical standards. The vast majority of the energy is discharged within a few milliseconds, as well. It's a bang that matters on a human level because a huge amount of energy is released very quickly in an area of space that corresponds fairly well to the sizes of human habitation centers. The fact that a huge amount of that explosive energy (around 50%)  is translated specifically as a blast wave -- the thing which destroys most of the houses and people and all that -- is perhaps the most salient thing about nuclear explosions from a human standpoint.


This is what a 500 kiloton nuclear blast looks like. This is not quite the same thing as what you saw on those dashboard cameras, is it?

One can see the point in distinguishing about the amount of energy over time and space by considering the Sun. The amount of energy from the Sun that reaches the Earth's surface every moment is tremendous -- equivalent to billions of tons of TNT -- but it is spread out over a huge area, so instead of totally obliterating us when we go outside, it pleasantly warms us and maybe, at its worst, gives us a painful, peeling burn after several hours of intense exposure. So that is a lot of energy released over a short unit of time, but it is diffused over a very large area. The converse situation can also be considered: a given city absorbs an immense about of energy from the Sun over the course of a year, but because it is spread out in time, it isn't anything like a nuclear explosive's yield.

What about meteors? Yes, there's a lot of kinetic energy in those rocks falling from the sky. But they don't translate most of that energy into shock and heat. Even the famed 1908 Tunguska event reached temperatures "only" in the tens of thousands of degrees, as opposed to the tens of millions. You can regard the kinetic energy of such a thing as 20 megatons of yield, but the actual blast effects were more than five times less than that because the energy didn't transfer very efficiently. (Still quite a blast, though!) The Chelyabinsk meteor was much smaller than that and it exploded in the atmosphere -- a reaction more like a chemical explosive than a nuclear one. So in some sense, comparing a meteor explosion to a nuke is better than comparing an earthquake or a tsunami to a nuke, but it's still not very exact.1

On the public understanding of nuclear explosions

My other issue, though, is about public understanding. The Chelyabinsk meteor exploded with an energy release of 500 kilotons. Is being told that going to mean anything to the average person, except to say, if it had hit the city, it would have been equivalent to a nuclear explosion? Does saying it is 20-30 times more powerful than Hiroshima mean anything to the average person, except the conjure up potentially incorrect misconceptions of what those effects would be for their cities? The truth is, as we've seen again and again, the average person has almost no intuitive point of reference for making sense of nuclear explosions. Heck, I barely have any point of reference and I'm constantly searching for them! The average person cannot distinguish between the results of a megaton-range explosion and a kiloton-range one unless you translate it into terms that are meaningful to them. That was the whole point of the NUKEMAP: to take these numbers and try to come up with geographical representations that make intuitive sense.

And so here's the problem: since the physics aren't the same, any intuitive generalization made from a nuclear analogy will be necessarily highly flawed. The effects of the Chelyabinsk meteor were not really equivalent to the 1952 Ivy King nuclear detonation, which was a nuclear explosion of 500 kilotons in yield. Even the Tunguska event was not really equivalent to a five megaton nuclear explosion in its phenomenological effects, even though it was a pretty big boom.

Still from a Sandia supercomputer simulation from 2007 of the 1908 Tunguska event, showing the blast wave formation as the meteor detonates above the ground. Intense! But not a nuke. Source.

Still from a Sandia supercomputer simulation from 2007 of the 1908 Tunguska event, showing the blast wave formation as the meteor detonates above the ground. Intense! But not a nuke. Source.

"Hey," you object, "we're just trying to communicate to people it was a big explosion!" Yeah, I know, but it's misleading. If you want to communicate the size of things, don't talk about the energy release in terms of nukes -- the effects aren't the same. If you want to convey the effects... talk about the effects. A better way to talk about the Chelyabinsk event is to not talk about the energy output but instead to talk about the radius and nature of effects -- exactly how many square miles of the city had their windows blown out? Even just saying that thousands were injured by broken glass does a lot more work to convey what this was -- and how scary it was -- than anything else. If you want to say, "if it had directly hit the city before blowing up" -- a big counter-factual but whatever -- "so-many square miles would have been destroyed," that too would make a lot more sense.

Using nukes as a genericized way to talk about energy output is highly misleading both from the point of view of the expert, but even more so from the point of view of the layman. I really don't see the advantage to it either way. I fear in talking about asteroids as nuke equivalents people may be trying to emphasize their threat -- which is totally legitimate -- but at the same time may end up inadvertently down-playing nukes. After all, if a 500 kiloton airburst only knocked in a few windows, what's all the fuss? Yes, we can explain why they are different -- but we wouldn't have to do that if we just described the effects better in the first place, rather than taking a lazy recourse in how-many-joules-equals-how-many-megatons equations. Rather than using nuclear terminology, and then down-scaling to explain how the effects are actually not quite the same... just tell us the actual effects and forget the nukes! If one must do things in response to nukes, do it the other way around: find out the actual effects of the meteor (or whatever), then tell us what yield nuke gives you those effects. It's less sensational, sure, but it'll help people understand both meteors and nukes better.

  1. For helping me think through the physical comparisons, and providing some interesting references, I was aided by e-mail conversations with my AIP colleagues Charles Day, Paul Guinnessy, and Ben Stein, as well as my old Harvard colleague Alex Boxer. Any interpretive errors are of course my own! []

Duck and Cover All Over Again

Friday, December 21st, 2012

Hiding from nuclear attacks under ones school desks has got to be one of the most salient memories of Americans who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. I get told about it with some regularity when I tell people about my work — the recollections of the "Duck and Cover" drills are spoken of with a sense of grim humor, in a tone of "can you believe they made us do that?"

I'm not the world's biggest critic of Civil Defense measures of this sort. Yes, Bert the Turtle is a bit condescending, but he was aimed at children, and for 1951 his message isn't too far off. In 1951 the Soviets still lacked ICBMs and had bombs no more than double the yield of the Nagasaki weapon. Hiding under your desk probably wouldn't help you much if the bomb went off right over your head, but could be significant for all of the people who were within a mile or so of the blast.

Cold War children performing a "Duck and Cover" drill.

Civil Defense became a more problematic affair in the megaton and missile ages, especially since the Civil Defense planners were often kept out of the loop as to what the actual state-of-the-art was regarding bombs and tactics. There's also a broader question about whether confidence (justified or not) in one's ability to survive a nuclear attack drives states or individuals towards more dangerous behaviors with regards to nuclear weapons. But as a whole I think we've probably gone a little too far, culturally, in ridiculing Cold War Civil Defense measures — thanks in no small part by handling such as that in Atomic Caféwhich uses these films out of context.

I grew up in California in the late 1980s. I never did any "Duck and Cover" drills for nuclear threats — I wasn't even aware of nuclear threats, to be honest. One of my first "political" memories is of the Berlin Wall coming down, when I was in the 6th grade. I remember being irritated, since I had just memorized which of the Germany's was the "good" one and which was the "bad" one — no easy task for me at the time, given that the one with "Democratic" in its name was anything but!

FEMA poster for earthquake drills

I don't remember being told to "hold" in the 1980s, but it was more or less like this.

We did have drills, though. The most common were the standard fire drills that everybody does — flee ("leave your bags!") and line up a safe distance from the school. Boring. Next on the list were earthquake drills, a staple in California. These are basically "duck and cover" drills with less fear. You hide under your desk, or you stand in a doorway. The hardest part about earthquakes is recognizing when one is happening; unless you've been through a few of them (I had some practice when I lived in Berkeley) it can take practically the length of the whole earthquake for your brain to realize exactly what's going on. What I think people who haven't been in one don't realize is how strangely noisy they are — they make doors shake in their hinges, and it is a very unusual sound, and your brain (at least, my brain) takes a little time to process this, which makes it hard to act rapidly.1

But the most unusual drill we did where I grew up was something quite different, and I was reminded of it when I read about the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School last week. I may digress a minute here.

"Stockton, California: These are the most interesting things we could find to photograph."

"Stockton, California: These are the most interesting things we could find to photograph. Two of them are the same thing from different angles."

I grew up in Stockton, California. It's right in the middle of the long Central Valley that runs through the middle of the state; it's about an hour-and-a-half drive northeast of the Bay Area, or a 45-minute drive south of Sacramento. "I've driven through there," people often tell me. Rarely anybody knows much about it though, if they aren't from California, despite its being a perennial favorite for top slots in Forbes' America's Most Miserable Cities list (#1 in 2009 and 2011!) and occasionally making the front-page of The New York Times for its economic woes (housing bubble, city government going bankrupt,  and so on).

The reason you probably don't know much about it is because there isn't a whole lot to say, and certainly very little to romanticize. It doesn't have a "company town gone bust" story (e.g. Flint), or a "former grandeur gone to squalor" (e.g. Baltimore), and nobody makes national commercials using it as some kind of comeback story (e.g. Detroit). It's a medium-sized American city that has many of the problems of other medium-sized American cities, just more so. It's problematic mixture of bad economy, crime, and mundanity isn't glamorous, and it doesn't fit into any of the well-worn American archetypes.

1989 - LA Times - Stockton massacre

But we did have a school shooting. On January 17, 1989, a disturbed loner, Patrick Purdy, brought a Chinese-made AK-47 to the Cleveland Elementary School and started firing. He killed five children and wounded 30 others, including one teacher. He then killed himself. The victims were mostly from Cambodia and Vietnam — Stockton is one of the major hubs for South Asian refugees.

I didn't go to Cleveland Elementary; I was on the other side of town. I want to make explicit that I'm not trying to co-opt any tragedy, whether the one at Sandy Hook or at Cleveland, nor am I claiming any special knowledge of these things. But I remember the day pretty clearly. Not out of horror — I don't think I was old enough to really process horror very well — but just out of awe. How does one live in a city, or in a world, where this sort of thing happens? What do you, as a kid, even think of in such a situation? (I didn't know much about my own mortality at age 8, so that didn't really factor into it.)

Michael Jackson visiting Cleveland Elementary after the shooting.

Stockton was in the national news — as always, just for something awful. Michael Jackson visited the city to show support for the children at Cleveland (very eighties). The state passed an assault weapons ban, part of a longer push for the Congressional assault weapons ban that was passed in 1994, and was allowed to lapse in 2004. The same ban that they are talking about revisiting today, as a result of Sandy Hook. As Michael Herr put it, "Those who remember the past are condemned to repeat it too, that's a little history joke." 

But, to circle back, after the Cleveland massacre, all of the elementary schools in my town had "guy on campus with a gun" drills. Specifically, if the adult "yard duty" dropped to one knee and blew a whistle in three, long tones, we were all supposed to hit the deckThis wasn't something we were just told, or that teachers had contingency plans for — we practiced it. I can remember this pretty vividly. It was our "Duck and Cover," I suppose. 

I've told this as stories to people before — prior to Sandy Hook — and their eyes widen, their mouth drops. Some have accused me of making it up! (I didn't, and I've double-checked with others who I went to school with.) One friend of mine who grew up on the East Coast suggested that as children we must have been terrified. But I don't remember being terrified. One isn't terrified of fire when one is lining up outside, one isn't terrified of earthquakes when one is standing in a doorway. The drills aren't the thing. If anything, they're either welcome interruptions to your daily routine, or they are boring activities involving standing in lines until everybody is accounted for.2

Human beings, especially children, have a tremendous capacity for normalizing the horrific, if it is presented to them as "normal," if they live it as "normal." We've gone, over the space of six plus decades, from teaching our children that they will be atom bombed by the Soviet Union, to teaching them that they will be shot by unstable loners. What was a war from above became a war from below.

"1989 file photograph: Stockton Police Capt. J.T. Marnoch holds up a Chinese-made AK-47 assault rifle that gunman Patrick Purdy used to kill five schoolchildren and injure 30 others at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)"

"1989 file photograph: Stockton Police Capt. J.T. Marnoch holds up a Chinese-made AK-47 assault rifle that gunman Patrick Purdy used to kill five schoolchildren and injure 30 others at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)"

In a way, wars from below are always the scarier threats, the ones that keep families and policymakers up at night, even though their ability to do mass damage is considerably diminished most of the time. "Conventional" threats, like other nation-states, can be understood through the sanitized lens of game theory, rational actors, and deterrence. Such a lens might not actually tell you much about real world behavior, but it makes the problem seem solvable. Threats that seem to come from everywhere at once, from the social fabric itself, are necessarily more diffuse, appear un-categorizable, and sometimes seem to have cures that are worse than the disease.

I don't know what the exact response to the Newtown massacre should be, other than a long, long-overdue patching up of gun sales loopholes and maybe a reinstatement of that lapsed assault weapon ban. But I'm glad it's not my job to try and hash out the details, or try and sell them politically. I do hope, though, it goes beyond telling children to hide under their desks, to expect that they might have to "hit the deck" to hide from their fellow countrymen. The "Duck and Cover" drills of the Cold War were evidence of a dangerous international regime — one where a "full nuclear exchange" was seen as a likely future outcome. School-shooter "Duck and Cover" drills of yesterday and today are evidence that something's very profoundly wrong with how we're doing things in this country.

  1. When we had that earthquake in DC in 2011, I was completely prepared, I have to admit. I recognized it for what it was very rapidly, and moved to a doorway. All of that California training was put to use. Part of my rapidity, then, was that I was too daft not to realize that earthquakes were so very rare in the mid-Atlantic states, and so didn't rationalize it away. I did, however, do a back-of-the-envelope reasoning about what the effects of a thermonuclear blast set off in DC would feel like at my office in College Park, Maryland... []
  2. And in any case, Stockton had enough horrors to go around. Among other things, the apparent inspiration for that urban legend about flashing your headlights at gang members was the shooting of a secretary at my own elementary school. Even that is more sensational and unusual than the more quotidian threats that one felt in a city with a pretty high crime rate, gang problems, drug problem, etc. The place was once Steinbeck country, it's now something more like Breaking Bad country. []
Meditations | Visions

One year of Restricted Data

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

Today, November 7, is the first anniversary of the launching of this site. It's gone by pretty quickly for me. I think I am allowed to do a meta-blogging post on this day, am I not? Don't worry, I'll include a few cool pictures, so you can skip the meta if you want to.

The grooviest Edward Teller graphic, ever? Yes, I bought this on eBay — it's an AP photo from July 1959. Caption on the back: "Dr. Edward Teller, who played a leading role in the development of both the atom and hydrogen bombs, feels that Russia will be the unquestioned leader in the scientific field in 10 years. He believes that it is inevitable that Russia should take the lead because educating a scientist is a long process and the Soviets currently are training more scientists than the United States. This photo-drawing by AP Newsfeatures artist Dick Hodgins Jr. symbolizes Dr. Teller's work with the atom and also his many controversies with Congress."

I started the blog, in part, as a way to stretch out my mental limbs in a public way, having previously spent 7 or 8 years thinking about the history of nuclear weapons in relative isolation (which is to say, in an Ivy-clad cloister). I had hoped that the blog would be a forum for me to interact with new people, especially those from different fields or different vantage points in life, and to also work out — through writing — various little thoughts or preoccupations of mine that had accumulated over the years. It also was meant to be somewhat of an outlet for cool things that really can't fit into the narrative of the book I am working on. In all of these things, it has been, for me anyway, fairly successful. I have a whole host of new contacts in a variety of communities (and over a fairly wide political range, I've found), and I've found that blogging regularly has helped me break out of some of overly-academic preoccupations that had been shaping my work and thinking.

As I know some people have noticed, I started with a much heavier blog schedule (three posts a week) and have since stretched that out a bit (one post a week). The initial burst was part of making sure that I really "bought in" to the idea, by investing a lot of my own time into it, and I also wanted to build up a store of content that would give people a pretty clear idea of the sorts of things I was interested in. Lately I've slowed it up, both so that I could make some more room in my schedule for other things (like writing that aforementioned book, which is coming along nicely), but also so I could spend a little bit more time on the posts, making them more like short essays than "look at this document/photo" posts. For those who prefer the latter types of posts to the former, don't worry — I'll probably start alternating them again when I have a little more time in my schedule. This is post 136.

Original drawing by the late Chuck Hansen showing the assembly of the "Fat Man" nuclear bomb, used as a reference for the more sophisticated technical drawing that appears in his U.S. Nuclear Weapons: The Secret History. From the Chuck Hansen papers, National Security Archive.

By I think any standards, this has been a very positive experience for a new academic blogger, much less an historian of science blogger. (In my heart of hearts, I'd love to call what I do here a form of creative non-fiction, as opposed to "blogging," but there are conventions.)

Much of the traffic I received was driven not by my sterling content, but by that funny creature, the NUKEMAP. It was not my expectation that it would get so crazy and drive so much traffic to the blog itself, which is still does on a regular basis. Before starting the NUKEMAP, the blog had around 2,600 unique visitors and 9,300 page views which felt very large for someone whose normal audience came from specialist journals and conference talks. Since its launching, the NUKEMAP itself attracted around 1,500,000 unique visitors and over 1,900,000 page views. It's over 8 million "detonations" by my count this morning.

Of those visitors for the map, a small number go from there to visit the blog. A small number of 1.5 million though is a relatively large number in human terms — over 30,000 people. And some number of those become regular readers. So it's been a nice "feeder" of traffic into the site, in and of itself, and the blog itself gets around a thousand hits a day as its "normal" traffic, because of this. Which is bananas, even if it is still small potatoes in the world of blogs, much less the world of adorable kittens and puppies on the Internet.

Microphotograph showing alpha tracks from plutonium particles in a sample of crushed ice taken from the site of the 1968 Thule, Greenland, B-52 crash. From "Project Crested Ice: A Joint Danish-American Report on the Crash Near Thule Air Base on 21 January 1968 of a B-52 Bomber Carrying Nuclear Weapons," (February 1970), page 61.

There have been a few, non-NUKEMAP posts that have been read by a lot of people. Some of these reasons are obvious — i.e., they were featured on NPR or elsewhere — but some of them have been surprises to me. The top non-NUKEMAP posts have been:

  1. Beer and the Apocalypse (9/5/2012) – 17,800 pageviews
  2. Rare Photos of the Soviet Bomb Project (7/27/2012) – 13,400 pageviews
  3. The Sound of the Bomb (7/13/2012) – 11,800 pageviews
  4. Hiroshima at 67: The Line We Crossed (8/6/2012) – 3,800 pageviews
  5. Mortuary Services in Civil Defense (2/29/2012) – 2,900 pageviews
  6. The Faces of Project Y (8/31/2012) – 2,000 pageviews

#1 and #3 were on NPR, so no surprise there. #5 was linked to from #1, so that's probably its boost. #4 was an anniversary, and people are into those. #6 came with a little app, which helped. But #2 was just pure unadulterated interest in weird photos of the Soviet bomb project, circulated primarily through social media. Pretty neat.

Aside from the very popular ones, here are a list of posts I really enjoyed writing and documents I really enjoyed sharing. I put them here, in no particular order, just in case you missed them (or were new here) and didn't want to wade through everything:

  1. War from Above, War from Below (1/2/2012)
  2. Edward Teller's "Moon Shot" (12/12/2011)
  3. Bullseye on Washington (12/30/2011)
  4. Do We Want Another Manhattan Project? (4/2/2012)
  5. Ol' Blue Eyes (5/4/2012)
  6. What if Truman Hadn't Ordered the H-bomb Crash Program? (6/18/2012)
  7. Targeting the USSR in August 1945 (4/27/2012)
  8. The First Atomic Stockpile Requirements (5/9/2012)

(Though, if you do want to wade through, I recommend using the Post Archives page, which is arranged via a custom script I wrote to be especially browse-able.)

The mushroom cloud of shot Franklin of Operation Plumbbob rises over a blimp at the Nevada Test Site, June 1957. The shot was a fizzle — only 140 tons of TNT, predicted yield 2 kilotons. From the DOE's Nevada Site Office. Would it be crass of me to mention that a cleaned-up version of this photo is included in my 2013 Nuclear Testing Calendar? Only $19.99, all (meager) profits support the blog...

Looking over my past posts, I've found myself surprised by the themes that I keep coming back to. My academic work, and the aforementioned book-in-progress, is mostly concerned with unearthing the origin of practices and contexts of secrecy. In many ways it is a very traditional historical approach: look for periods of stability, look at what jars them into a periods of uncertainty, then look at what gels it back into a period of stability again. Repeat. It's interesting stuff to research and write, to be sure — especially since most narratives of nuclear secrecy posit (implicitly or explicitly) a period of general stability from 1939 to the present, which just isn't what I've found. Things have been much more up in the air, much more rocky, much more subject to change than you'd think from reading the "standard narratives" of the bomb. Moreover, there is a delicious little methodological point buried in it: the apparent homogeneity of the nuclear secrecy regime is in fact an artifact of the nuclear secrecy regime — its internal debates, challenges, and fractures were often hidden out of sight.

In my work on the blog, though, what I find myself preoccupied with is recapturing the qualitative experience of the bomb and its people. I'm fascinated with how lost history can be for those of us in the present, and how taking the time to reconstruct it, as it was lived and experienced at the time — and not how it necessarily has been handed down to us in neat, edited narratives of either triumph or disgrace — opens up such a rich, unusual, and often surreal world.

So I'm interested in how nuclear explosions sound, and how people who saw them described them, and how people planning to use them thought they could be really used, how they sketched them on the backs of steno pads, and how they danced across the headlines, and how the people who made them looked, even what color their eyes were, and how hard it is to imagine the size of a mushroom cloud. I am enraptured by the visual content of these times, and what direct access it seems to give us to the eyes of the long dead as they gaze upon horrible maps or bizarre security videos or the emblems of the atomic institutions or even just one another's hairstyles.

A hauntingly grim painting that I'd love to know more about: "Atomic Landscape (Japanese Burial Detail)," Nagasaki, Japan 1946, by Robert Graham. From the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

I've always known that I was interested in such things, as a hobby, but I had never tried writing any of that down before, this obsession with the wonder of it all (to tap a phrase of James Ellroy's). My enthusiasm for such things is sometimes hard to articulate without me sounding like a madman, because the "such things" in this case are monstrous nuclear weapons or other disturbing legacies of the nuclear age. Some of my early NUKEMAP interviews came off wrong, I felt, for this reason.

But I've learned to live with it, in a sense. There's no point in pretending I don't find this stuff fascinating, even if it is macabre. I can't hide it; the answer is not to pretend to be disinterested, but just to try to be more thoughtful. That's my responsibility, if I don't want to look like I'm out of my mind, and if I don't want to trivialize a lot of suffering and potential suffering. The blog has pushed me in that direction very forcefully, and that, at least as much as everything else, has been worth the payoff. One year down — here's to the next year.