If you spend a lot of time on the history of nuclear weapons, you see a lot of mushroom clouds photographs. There were over 500 atmospheric nuclear tests conducted during the Cold War, and most of these were photographed multiple times. (There were over 50 dedicated cameras at the Trinity test, as one little data point.) The number of unique photographs of nuclear explosions must number in the several thousands.
And yet, most of the time we seem to reach for the same few clouds that we’ve always reached for. How many books, for example, have this shot of the Castle Romeo mushroom cloud on their cover? Romeo was an American H-bomb test from 1954, 11 megatons in yield. It gets used, however, for all sorts of things — like the Cox Report’s 1999 allegations about China stealing advanced (much lower-yield) thermonuclear warhead designs, or illustrating Soviet nuclear weapons, or illustrating (most incorrectly) nuclear terrorism (which would not look like this at all). It’s a great photo (dramatic, red, well-framed), but it’s not a generic mushroom cloud — it is a really high yield weapon, and arguably ought to only be used to illustrate very high yield weapons.
OK, I’m a pedant about this kind of thing. I get annoyed with poorly-used mushroom cloud photos, and repetitive photos, because there are just so many good options out there if the graphic designers in question would just search beyond the first thing that comes up when you Google “mushroom cloud.” But re-using known clouds is not as bad as, say, mistaking a fake, computer-generated mushroom cloud for a real one.
This photo is often labeled as the “Tsar Bomba” cloud and it is not even an actual photograph of a nuclear test — it is a CGI rendering, and not even a very good one. I don’t think you even have to be a nuke wonk to recognize that, and that people’s CGI-savvy would be better than this, but I guess not. An animated version is circulating on YouTube — the physics is all wrong regarding the fireball rise, the stem, etc., and the texturing is off. Apparently a lot of people have been fooled, though.1 There is film of the actual Tsar Bomba explosion, and one can readily appreciate how different it is.
The above photo is also sometimes labeled as the “Tsar Bomba,” and was recently featured on the cover a book about the British atomic bomb, labeled as a British thermonuclear weapon. It is actually a French nuclear weapon, specifically the test dubbed “Licorne,” a 914 kiloton thermonuclear shot detonated in 1970 at the Fangataufa atoll in French Polynesia. I do admit finding the confusion about this one amusing, especially when it is mislabeled as a British test. (As an aside: I do not blame authors for the photos on their book covers, because I know they often don’t have anything much to do with the cover images.)
There are actually four shots from this same test that I don’t think most people realize are of a sequence, showing first the brief condensation cloud that formed in the first 20 seconds or so (which exaggerates the width of the actual mushroom cloud, similar to the famous Crossroads Baker photograph), and then tracks the mushroom cloud as it rises. When you resize them to the same scale (more or less), you can see that they are not four different shots at all, just differently timed photographs of the evolution of a single shot’s mushroom cloud:
There is also a film of the test, though the quality isn’t that great. The whole sequence represents less that a minute of the bomb detonation; as I’ve noted previously, most of our photos of mushroom clouds are from the first minute or so after their detonation, and they can get pretty unfamiliar if you watch the cloud evolve for longer than that.
Does it matter that we re-use, and sometimes mis-use, the same mushroom clouds over and over again? In a material sense it does not, because the people who use/misuse these clouds are really not using them to make a sophisticated visual or intellectual argument. Rather, they have chosen a “scary mushroom cloud” image for maximum visual effect. And these fit the bill, except maybe the fake one, which will turn off anyone who can spot a fake.
But it does represent the way in which a lot of our cultural understanding of nuclear weapons has stagnated. The same visuals of the bomb, over and over again, mimic the same stories we tell about the bomb, over and over again. Culturally, there is a deep “rut” that has been carved in how we talk and think around nuclear weapons, a sort of warmed-over legacy of the late Cold War. I am sometimes astounded by how deep, and how deeply held, this rut is — on Reddit, for example, people will fight vehemently over the question of dropping of the atomic bomb, sticking exclusively to positions that were argued about 20 years ago, the last time this stuff was “hot.” They aren’t aware that the historiography has moved quite a distance since then, because you’d never know that from watching or reading most historical discussions of the bomb in mainstream media.
Fortunately, I think, these obvious ruts paradoxically create new opportunities for people who want to educate about the bomb. It is one of the ironies of history that the more firmly entrenched an existing narrative gets, the more interested people are in compelling counter-narratives. The fact that there is a rut in the first place means that there is already a built-in audience (as opposed to history that people just don’t know anything about), and if you can find something new to say about that history, then they’re interested.
“New” here can also mean “new to them,” as opposed to “new to people who spend their lives looking at this stuff.” This is what I was talking about when I was quoted in the New York Times a few weeks ago — things that known to scholars are being discovered and re-discovered by mass audiences who are surprised to find how many different and apparently novel photographs and stories are out there.
As an aside, if I were going to give graphic designers a set of “mushroom cloud use guidelines,” they would be, more or less: 1. don’t use the first cloud you find (there are so many unusual and dramatic ones out there, if you poke around a little bit); 2. don’t use extremely historically-specific clouds (i.e. Hiroshima and Nagasaki) as generic images; 3. don’t use multi-megaton shots (i.e. giant red/orange/yellow cloud fireballs) if you are talking about kiloton-range weapons (i.e. terrorist bombs); and 4. if you are going to label something as British, make sure it is not actually French!
As part of my annual contribution to people becoming better acquainted with “new” mushroom cloud photographs, I have released a new and updated version of my Nuclear Testing Calendar for 2015. It features 12 unusual photographs of nuclear detonations, all of which I have carefully cleaned up to remove scratches and dust spots. All of the images are courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Here is a little preview of some of the unusual clouds you will find in this calendar:
There are also over 60 nuclear “anniversaries” noted in the calendar text itself. And because 2015 is the 70th anniversary of the Trinity test, I have also reissued last-year’s Trinity test calendar. Both calendars are being offered for $18.99. The site that publishes them, Lulu.com, also often has a lot of coupons on a regular basis — please feel free to take advantage of them! All proceeds go to offsetting the costs of my web work. More details about the calendars and other nuclear delights at my updated Calendars, gifts, tchotchkes page.