Nukes, kids and the Cold War: In conversation with the creator of Nukemap3D
By David Szondy
July 25, 2013
Feeling cheerful? Why not remedy that by going online and seeing what would happen if someone dropped an H-bomb on your hometown? The browser-based Nukemap3D uses a Google Earth plug in to produce a 3D graphic of the effects of a nuclear weapon on your city of choice. All you have to do is pick your target, select your favorite thermonuclear device, and you can see an animated mushroom cloud rising over ground zero. Gizmag caught up with the creator, Dr. Alex Wellerstein, to talk about Nukemap3D.
Wellerstein is Associate Historian at the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Maryland, and specializes in the history of nuclear weapons and nuclear secrecy. He has taught courses in his specialty at Harvard and studies the question of secrecy in the story of nuclear weapons. In a telephone interview, he gave us the lowdown on Nukemap3D.
Where did the idea for Nukemap come from?
Nukemap came out of my experience of trying to teach about [the history of nuclear weapons] to undergraduates, who completely missed the Cold War and aren't thinking about nuclear weapons at all and don’t have much cultural association with them.
So the Cold War and Hiroshima were all ancient history for them?
It was really ancient history. I’m not a very old person myself. I’m in my early thirties and I have memories of the Berlin Wall coming down. My wife is a high school teacher and she’s actually had students say “oh, my God, you were alive during the Cold War!” like it was somebody saying that they fought in World War One. So, one of the difficulties of teaching the subject is getting the students to take things seriously because a lot of the concerns of the 1960s or even the '80s were very remote and very unrealistic and not something they can easily relate to. They ask, “why were people afraid of Communism?” My question was, “how can I make that fresh for somebody, so they can relate it to the big issues of the present and the issues of the past.
What got you interested in nuclear weapons as your field?
It’s hard for me to point to one date, but my friends say I was interested in them back in elementary school. But I was really drawn into it when I was a student at UC Berkeley , where I studied for my undergraduate degree in history, and I was fascinated that Berkeley, which is associated with most people today as the bastion of left wing sentiment, yet if you look at the history of nuclear weapons, it played a major role in the development of the first bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were in charge of managing the nuclear weapons laboratories up until very recently and I thought it was a very interesting area for historical disquisition where you have this very anti-war place in the country, if not the world, yet they also have the rich and concurrent connection to these very destructive weapons. When it came to the history of nuclear weapons, I was fascinated by how much information is out there now. I found that the more I looked, the more I was still fascinated. After over seventy years, there’s still so much to be found and so many stories we don’t know about. And it’s always relevant, for better or worse.
Why do you say that it’s relevant, if the Cold War is over?
We have stories about nuclear weapons on the front pages of our newspapers at least once a week. Nuclear issues and secrecy issues have become more prominent because of the way the world has been operating for the last decade than they were a decade before. For as long as we’re going to have nuclear weapons, which is probably going to be for a long time, there will be the issue of where they came from, how we got into this situation where developing countries are in a position to make nuclear weapons and how we got into a national security situation that did not exist prior to World War Two. There’s a thread that runs through this all the way from the very early days of the Cold War to the present, though the public’s awareness of this connection has definitely passed away with time, from an historical point of view, there’s an unbroken chain.
Can you give me an example of something where you've said, “this is something that hooks into that historical thread?”
Sure. One of the big issues postwar was how do you control the bomb? How do we live in a world where we aren’t in a constant arms race with everyone? The earliest thinking on this in 1945 or '46 was how do you control a technology that other people will find highly desirable? The first answer they came up with is that what we need to do is not worry about secrets so much. We need to worry about machines, the factories you need, the facilities, the reactors and the raw materials and ways to make uranium fuel rods and things like that. More importantly, controlling the information isn't going to matter that much because anybody can come up with it independently, but if you don’t have access to the right machines, the right facilities, the right materials, you can’t do anything. Now, if we look at what Iran is doing, it’s all about the machines.
That original argument in 1946 didn't carry the day and the United States focused intensely on secrets. We gave people reactors. We helped Iran before the [Iranian] revolution with a nuclear program saying, “alright, we won’t give them the secret of how to make the bomb, but we’ll give them a reactor, we’ll give them physics facilities and we’ll train their scientists.” Of course, now, that’s exactly what we’re up in arms about. Oh, they have centrifuges. Oh, they have a reactor. And all these initial postwar initiatives have come home to roost.
The question is, is it the information that matters, is it the stuff that matters, is it the training of people that matters? We took a direction in the Cold War that we came to regret later by concentrating too much on information, too little on machines, and now we’re realizing that our whole non-proliferation regime should be around machines. So, one of those early atomic episodes is directly related to modern controversies.
This is the third iteration of Nukemap. How has it evolved?
The original Nukemap is something that was thrown together in about a day. I’d looked up all the necessary parameters a long time ago. I gathered this at first for my own research to answer questions, such as what is the size of the Hiroshima bomb versus the first hydrogen bomb versus a modern nuclear weapon. So, I put the page up in 2012 and I reasoned that I’d make it into some kind of an app. Maybe people would find that useful. There were already something like it on the internet and I thought maybe I could make things look better. It gathered much more attention than I’d expected and since then it’s being used frequently. Thanks to things like Twitter, I can watch how it’s being used, how people talk about it and I found that pretty exciting. The average academic article is read by maybe a few dozen people at most, but I was getting millions of people from all over the world and they talk about it, so I started thinking, what am I going to do to improve it? I wanted to make sure it was working as a pedagogical tool. I didn't want it to give the wrong interpretation [of the information]. I think the political interpretation is ambiguous, but I wanted them to come away with the correct technical interpretation.
One of the things I felt was missing was, when you set off a nuclear weapon low to the ground, it sends up a lot of radioactive debris, which comes down as fallout. And this can contaminate areas that are hundreds and hundreds of miles downwind of the blast area itself, so I want people to appreciate this instead of saying, “well, that bomb doesn't look that big and if I’m not in that city, not in the downtown area, then I’m totally safe.” Actually, that depends upon which way the wind is blowing, so though you may be out of blast range, you may not be totally safe.
I also wanted to make it so that experts could find it a little more useful. The older versions had rigidly set parameters about the blast and I wanted to make it more flexible because an expert may not be interested in just the pressure range I put in there. They may want to know what’s the range that windows will break , which is much lower pressure than what would knock down a house.
The other really big thing I wanted was that I was quite dismayed that people would look at small nuclear weapons, such the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombs, which by Cold War standards were tiny weapons – about 20 thousand tons of TNT, which is huge for any kind of conventional weapon, but next to something with a million tons of TNT, it looks like nothing at all. People would look at “small” effects and say, “oh, North Korea set off a 10 kiloton bomb; that would take out a very small part of Manhattan.” I thought this was a bad interpretation.
These weapons are certainly not as powerful as the big Cold War weapons, but the damage that would be done by such things shouldn't be dismissed. If it was dropped on Manhattan, which is the most densely populated area in the United States, that would cause a death count in the hundreds of thousands. I want people to get a sense that big ones are certainly big, but that the small ones are pretty unpleasant, so I added a casualty counter feature. I also made the app so you can look at it volumetrically, so you can look at from a plane or from the ground and at the mushroom cloud as a three-dimensional object that is much larger than a two-dimensional ring on a map. I look at pictures and measurements of nuclear weapons every day and even I was taken aback by what a mushroom cloud looks like over my own city.
How do you think the public sees these weapons in terms of their effects?
Most people tend to overestimate them. They think that if one nuclear bomb goes off, then everything is destroyed. They've not been helped by imagery in movies where the aftermath of nuclear explosions is where everything flashes three or four times, then everything vaporizes. I think that the mind reverts to “instant apocalypse.” That’s not quite right. Even with the largest bombs, most of the area affected will be different from the center where there’s total destruction. A much larger area in the outer ring will be the equivalent of a giant earthquake or hit by winds like tornadoes over a vast area or fires on a vast scale. There are less mundane effects, like radiation exposure, which probably won’t kill you instantly, but will make you sick. It isn't a big flash and everybody dies.
My goal is to find the middle ground between the over exaggeration and the under exaggeration. You can imagine what [a nuclear strike] would be like and it would be bad. I want people to look at something like a nuclear explosion and see it for what it is; something you really want to avoid at all costs, but its not some sort of mythical doomsday. It’s something that’s understandable in human terms, if people think that nuclear weapons can end the world. They can be very fatalistic about that or they can be very dismissive about it ever occurring. Who wants to end the world?
Wellerstein is currently working on a book on the history of nuclear weapons.
Source: Nuclear Secrecy