Tuesday, March 31, 2009


We humans often spin fantasies by way of explanation for those things that we understand poorly or not at all. Superstition is only one manifestation of this tendency. Another, more rarely acknowledged, is the supposed separation of the "objective" from the "subjective." The rigours of objective observation, after all, are filtered through an individual's subjective observations, with all of their individual biology and history creating the lenses through which one observes. The critical mass of multiple subjective observations, more or less subscribing to a discipline of procedures, eventually results in a largely consensual "objective" reality; but this can be a tricky business.

This was brought home to me while recenly touring the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada. This exhibition is sponsored in part by the SmithsonIan Institute, itself no stranger to controversy over the perspective of some of its presentations. One must also note that the test site in central Nevada, established after the late 1940's testing in the Pacific proved to be complicated, expensive, and generated political fallout due to the radioactive fallout, was a military-industrial business that profited, and even entertained the region. Any presentation is bound to defend itself because of those realities. Indeed, during a film interviewing some of the physicists and engineers of the project, one of them addressed public controversy about nuclear weapons as a "freedom" that the Bomb actually provided because of its deterrance of those totalitarian regimes who would themselves restrict those freedoms (although one elderly member of the audience loudly exclaimed "BULLSHIT!" to that statement).

How can so controversial a presentation of these terrible weapons achieve a reasonable balance? One should rely heavily on uninterpreted historical facts whenever possible, presenting a timeline and recording blunt events along that route. The Museum does just that, with dates scrolling across the walls from room to room of both political events and of technical developments. Provide full, unedited documentation linked to those events that the observer may review and parse according to their own personal methods, and copies of letters from Albert Einstein to President Roosevelt, technical briefings, correspondance, and supply manifests, do that as well. Finally, some effort needs to be made to provide the social context in which these weapons were developed, used, and tested. The Atomic Testing Museum attempts this by adding to the timeline dates of sociocultural note both large and small such as the development of penicillin, rayon, or the mainframe computer; Civil Rights marches, riots, and treaties; dance crazes, television shows, and art movements. In fact, at regular intervals there are monitors looping related media clips - actor Ronald Reagan rousing the troops and newsreel of Jap atrocities, Fibber McGee and Molly, and advertisements for War Bonds and John Deere tractors; President Eisenhower dedicating public works, Milton Berle and the Texaco Hour, the challenge of Sputnick; Kennedy's Race to the Moon, Ed Sullivan and the Beatles, dogs and fire hoses in Selma, and so forth. And at each turn, still and motion pictures of underwater nuclear detonations, aerial detonations, underground detonations. The radiation? "Yes, there were risks." "Yes, there was a price to pay." Again, we must remember the bias; this was a business, and the livelihood of many technical, and support personnel. The righteousness or mendacity of this military venture? Well... what's your opinion?

I will add that some of the artifacts and sets were fascinating, and some factoids, disturbing. There is a concrete bunker from which you can "watch" an above-ground nuclear test that delivers blinding light, a shaking theater, and a stiff blast of air as the "shockwave" hits. There are massive, alien drillbits used to dig out underground tunnels, glass dials, rubber-insulated cables, and bakelite knobs and dials on test rigs that make you appreciate what could be done with brute-force industrial technology. And discovering that the first several generations of nuclear weapons were indeed subject to accidental detonation and fission-explosion makes one recognize what dumb luck our civiliztion has had, and you can only pray that our luck holds as our technology continues to outrace our social development.

Perspective -- cultivate it if you can. It may be one of the fragile firewalls between the survival of our species, and armageddon.

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