Five French Scientists March 25, 2015Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Beer, Biology, Books, Chemistry, Cognitive Science, Einstein, Math, Nobel Prize, Physics, Radioactivity
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We’re in Paris for a week. See last week’s post for information about the A380 we flew.
Here are five French scientists we’d like to meet while we’re in France, if only they were still alive. These scientists represent the kind of thinking we appreciate, thinking outside the box and searching for novel connections.
Marie Curie (1867-1934)
Okay, she was a naturalized French citizen, but Marie Curie is at the top of our list of French scientists we’d like to meet. She was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, and the only woman to win two Nobels, one in physics in 1903, shared with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel, and the other in chemistry in 1911 for her discovery of radium. Only she and Linus Pauling have won Nobels in two separate fields. To find out more about her, we recommend Marie Curie by Susan Quinn, Marie Curie and Her Daughters by Shelley Emling, and Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, a graphic biography by Lauren Redniss. We’ve written about Curie several times before (here’s one post about Curie), and we’ll undoubtedly write about her again.
René Decartes (1596-1650)
Equal parts mathematician and philosopher, Decartes had just the sort of interdisciplinary approach to the world we appreciate. He made the crucial connections between algebra and geometry upon which much of mathematical thinking followed. He also studied refraction and gave the world a scientific understanding of rainbows. He’s the guy who uttered, Cogito ergo sum. Or, I think, therefore I am. He thought that doubt and mistakes were part of learning and innovation and that reading books was like having conversations across centuries. Because we like to have any excuse to celebrate, Decartes’s birthday is next Tuesday, March 31. In fact, the town where he was born remains so proud of Decartes that they renamed the locale for him.
Prosper Ménière (1799-1862)
Prosper Ménière may have more adept and interested in the humanities than in science, but he became a physician. Initially, he planned to teach at a university, but then a cholera epidemic called, and he got hands-on experience. Eventually, he headed up an institute for deaf-mutes and studied hearing loss caused by lesions inside the ear. Prosper Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear was named for this physician and is what grounded astronaut Alan Shepard for several years after he became the first American in space. Shepard’s disorder was cured by surgery so that he did fly Apollo 14. Other sufferers include Marilyn Monroe and possibly Charles Darwin and Julius Caesar.
Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)
Louis Pasteur argued that microorganisms couldn’t appear out of nothing and asserted the idea of contamination that has guided thinking about the spread of disease ever since. We are especially impressed that some of his most important work can be traced back to his understanding of alcohol fermentation in the making of wine and beer; published his Studies on Wine in 1866 and his Studies of Beer ten years lateen. He was also an early investigator of immunization and developer of specific vaccines. For a more recent and beautifully written book about the subject of immunity, we recommend Eula Biss‘s On Immunity: An Inoculation. At his own request, Pasteur’s private notebooks were kept secret long after his death, but his request was breeched by a descendant, who donated them to France’s national library for use after the descendent’s death. Those notebooks have revealed that Pasteur may have been a less-than-amiable character generally and a problematic researcher.
Henri Poincaré (1854-1912)
Modern man has used cause-and-effect as ancient man used the gods to give order to the Universe. This is not because it was the truest system, but because it was the most convenient.
Poincaré, as demonstrated by this statement, was a philosopher, in addition to being a mathematician and physicist. His work underpinned what would emerge as chaos theory and also laid the groundwork for topology, the geometrical study of space that focuses on connections and transformations. Poincaré worked with a team to establish international time zones, and this work led him to think about the relative speed of clocks, which, in turn, pointed to what would become Albert Einstein‘s theory of special relativity.
Interesting to Anna especially, Poincaré was a good decision-maker if he made a decision quickly, but the more he dwelled on a choice, the more difficult he had making it. A psychologist named Édouard Toulouse wrote about Poincaré‘s personality and work habits, and we think Poincaré has something to offer us as writers in this respect. For one thing, Poincaré worked on mathematics for four hours every day, one two-hour stretch in the late morning and another in the early evening, which strikes us as an ideal schedule for focusing on a large project. He would read later in the evening, a practice we like as well.
Irish Scientists March 14, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Beer, Chemistry, computers, Math, Museums & Archives, Nobel Prize, Physics, WWII
This coming Saturday marks St. Patrick’s Day, a cultural and religious holiday and general celebration of Ireland with which we grew up. In fact, more than 34 million (some say 41 million) Americans claim Irish heritage, which is roughly nine times the population of Ireland and, somehow, reason enough itself for a party. What better way for Lofty Ambitions to celebrate this week than to note some contributions to science by the Irish.
Robert Boyle, who was born in Lismore back in 1627, may be the most famous of the Irish scientists. Boyle is, after all, considered the father of the field of chemistry. He considered chemistry’s goal to be investigating what substances are made of, and he claimed the then-popular field of alchemy was not science. In fact, though Francis Bacon advocated inductive reasoning and experimentation, Boyle worked out the particulars of the scientific method still in use today. If you remember your science classes, you probably have at least a vague recollection of Boyle’s Law and also an implicit trust that, at a constant temperature, the pressure and volume of a gas are inversely related. If the volume of gas increases (more space), the pressure goes down.
William Rowan Hamilton is Ireland’s version of Leonardo DaVinci, for Hamilton knew 13 languages by the time he was nine years of age. Born in 1805, Hamilton started at Trinity College, Dublin when he was 18 and was awarded an honor in classics that first year, a recognition doled out only every two decades. As the story goes, his personal life was excruciating because, as a student, he couldn’t afford to marry the woman he loved, so she married an older, wealthier man, leading Hamilton to write some poetry, drink heavily, and consider ending his life. Luckily, he mustered on and rewrote Newton’s Laws of Motion with his own theory of dynamics. But his eventual marriage was riddled with strife, and his drinking caught up with him; he died at 60 years of age. You can find his papers, along with several other Irish scientists’ archives, at Trinity’s library and his grave at Mount Jerome Cemetary in Dublin.
Another father of a science that the Irish can claim is George Boole, who was actually born in London in 1815 on what would later become Doug’s birthday. Boole moved to Ireland in 1849 for a professorship and kicked off the field of computer science with Boolean algebra while at University College, Cork (then called, for various reasons we won’t go into, Queen’s College, Cork). He wasn’t the only one dabbling in such things, of course, for folks like Charles Babbage and Augusta Ada Lovelace (poet Lord Byron’s daughter) were laying the groundwork for computer programs and software, but Boole’s the Irish one in the lot, and we’re celebrating St. Patrick’s Day this week. For Boole, differential equations, logic, and probability were passions, though he took time to father five daughters with Mary Everest, a mathematician and education reformer in her own right. Boole remains an Irishman, buried in Blackrock, outside of Cork City.
In the days of yore in which these three Irish scientists made their contributions, few women made inroads in fields like chemistry, mathematics, and physics. Kathleen Lonsdale, born in 1903 in Newbridge, was part of a changing world for women. Her family moved to England when she was young, and she attended Bedford College for Women there and was then offered a position in W. H. Bragg’s research laboratory at University College, London. She began studying molecular structure using X-rays, eventually demonstrated that the benzene ring is flat, and eventually was appointed to head the Department of Crystallography in 1949. Earlier, by the time World War II began, she opposed war altogether and spent a month in prison for refusing civil defense tasks and the fine for not registering, after which she worked on peace and prison-reform issues in addition to science. Lonsdale was the first woman to be elected to a Fellowship in the Royal Society of London and the first woman to serve as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
More recently, Belfast native and astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell should have shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974. She was the second author of five, behind Antony Hewish, her thesis director, on a paper documenting their discovery of pulsars. Since then, she’s been lauded with honors and academic posts, including becoming a Fellow in the Royal Society and serving as Dean of Science at the University of Bath. In 2008, she co-edited Dark Matter: Poems of Space. Of this project, Jocelyn Bell Burnell says, according to the Gulbenkian Foundation, “When I started ‘collecting’ poetry with an astronomical theme some twenty years ago, I kept very quiet about my hobby. It is only in the last few years that I have dared to ‘come out’ so it has been heartening that so many of my colleagues have been so willing to take part in this unusual exercise, as well as delightful to see the results of the collaborations.”
Readers may also be interested in our post about “Beer!” that was inspired by reminiscences of a visit to the Guinness factory.
Beautiful Science December 21, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Art & Science, Books, botany, Einstein, Math, Museums & Archives, Science Writing
Last week, we wrote about a temporary exhibit at the Huntington Library. Today is the anniversary of Kelly Johnson’s death. We mentioned several of Kelly Johnson’s written pieces in last week’s blog because he was a central figure in Southern California’s aviation history. Read about “Blue Sky Metropolis” HERE.
Past that exhibit is an ongoing display called “Beautiful Science.” Most science museums, while relatively aesthetically inviting as spaces, especially in the sense of being navigable, don’t emphasize the aesthetics of science itself and the artistic representation of science. The Huntington Library uses its texts and artifacts to show the art in science as well as science as art.
Yesterday, after she submitted her grades, Anna traipsed off to a physical bookstore, a reminder that we are writers and have specific writing tasks we want to accomplish over the holiday break. Among her purchases was the annual anthology of The Best American Science Writing. In their introduction, the editors Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Floyd Skloot, Rebecca’s father and author of In the Shadow of Memory, write the following:
“[I]n our experiences, the arts and sciences are more alike than not: both involve following hunches, lingering questions, and passions; perfecting the art of productive daydreaming without getting lost in it; being flexible enough to follow the research wherever it leads you, but focused enough to never lose sight of your larger direction and goals. There’s an alchemy that occurs when art and science come together, when the tools of narrative, voice, imagery, setting, dialog, are brought to bear on biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, mathematics, and their various combinations.”
That overview echoes the impetus behind and experience of “Beautiful Science.” In fact, an early placard in the exhibition says of observation, “Our desire to understand and organize the living world has been a story of wonder, curiosity, and discovery. Observation has led to text and imagery that have matched our changing perceptions of nature’s order.” In other words, the way we write about and represent science tells us a lot about ourselves as well as about the world around us.
And the Huntington Library’s exhibit runs the gamut of the sciences, from illustrations of flora and fauna to anatomical dissection drawings to displays of dozens of light bulbs. Of course, the exhibit includes texts, notably numerous mathematical texts with varying amounts of formulas and illustration, but also a letter from Albert Einstein. Perhaps the most interesting display is of edition after edition of Origin of the Species, sweeping in linear feet along two walls.
Like any good science writing, “Beautiful Science” asks you to read, to look closely at the universe around you, and to keep thinking about the ideas it offers up.
Interview: Fred Gregory August 8, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
Tags: Math, Space Shuttle
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Frederick D. Gregory is a three-time space shuttle astronaut and a Washington, DC, native. His first shuttle flight (STS-51B) was the second Spacelab flight. On his second flight (STS-33), he became the first African-American to command a space flight. His last flight (STS-44) was in 1991, and he continued to work for NASA until 2005. All three missions ended at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
He talked with Lofty Ambitions in November 2010 at Kennedy Space Center. We were especially struck by his emphasis on the importance of a varied education, and he is an especially amiable guy.
Interview: Mike Coats May 23, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Information, Science, Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
Tags: Math, Space Shuttle
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This video launches our NEW INTERVIEW FEATURE, which will appear every 2nd and 4th Monday of the month. To mark the end of the space shuttle program this year, we’ll begin with a series of interviews we’ve done with astronauts in that program. We have a lot more in store, including interviews with Apollo astronauts Charlie Duke and Walt Cunningham as well as with the first nurse to the astronauts.
Don’t worry! We’re keeping our established format as well. Our guest blog feature continues on the 1st and 3rd Mondays of the month, and we post a regular piece every Wednesday. We include extra posts now and then too.
Today, we begin our interview feature with Michael Coats. We interviewed the Director of Johnson Space Center when we were at Kennedy Space Center for what turned out to be space shuttle Discovery’s not-launch last year. Astronaut Mike Coats flew on Discovery three times. He also grew up in Southern California so you can hear him reprimand Anna for not yet having visited the happiest place on earth.
Measurement and Scale March 16, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Other Stuff, Science.
Tags: Earthquakes, Math, Nuclear Weapons, Physics
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On March 11, 2011, just off the east coast of Japan, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake occurred. When we talk about an earthquake having magnitude, we attempt to understand its seismic energy. That number is a notch on the Moment Magnitude Scale (MMS), which, in the 1970s, replaced the colloquial Richter scale that had held sway since the 1930s. Since 1990, just one other quake of greater size than last week’s Japan quake has been recorded. (For more info on earthquakes, see the U.S. Geological Survey.)
Because of the subsequent events unfolding at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, we made an unexpected connection between the Richter scale and the nuclear age. The Wikipedia entry table for Richter Magnitude examples includes a few atomic and thermonuclear weapons tests, most uncomfortably assigning the fifty-megaton Tsar Bomba—or Big Ivan—with a magnitude of 8.35 on the Richter scale. In our post entitled “Measuring the Unthinkable” (December 8, 2010), we claimed that the measurement of fifty megatons was relatively meaningless, that we couldn’t really comprehend the explosion that was Tsar Bomba. But now, in the wake of Japan’s seismic event, we are trying to do just that. We want to understand what 9.0 means.
Last week, before the earthquake hit Japan, we were already thinking about scale because we watched the documentary film Powers of Ten (see video below and more here). The opening scene is of a man and a woman indulging in a leisurely, early fall picnic close to the shore of Lake Michigan. The film is narrated by MIT physicist and Manhattan Project veteran Phillip Morrison. (As an aside, Morrison was also the dissertation director for Chapman University’s Dean of Schmid College, Menas Kafatos.) Morrison tells us what is important in this scene: we are viewing a one-meter square image from a distance of one meter. His next statement provides the plotline for the entire documentary: “Now, every ten seconds, we will look from ten times farther away and our field of view will be ten times wider.”
With every new vantage in Powers of Ten, Morrison offers a physically meaningful context. When the field of view is a hundred meters, he tells us that this is the distance a man can run in ten seconds. Ten thousand meters become the distance that a supersonic aircraft can travel in ten seconds, and so on. Every ten seconds, we are ten times further away. After reaching 1024, the journey stops and returns to where it began. Then, the camera travels inward. As we pan back to the starting point, every ten seconds, the perspective travels ninety percent of the remaining distance. The perspective continues moving beyond the starting point, ultimately reaching what Morrison terms the “limit of our understanding” at 10-16 meters, deep in the subatomic structure of matter.
What Powers of Ten so effectively communicates are the concepts of logarithms (in this case, logarithms of base 10) and orders of magnitude (each power of ten is equivalent to an order of magnitude). By providing rough visual cues tied to our understanding of our bodies (at one meter, about half of the man is in the frame), things that our bodies can do (a man running a hundred meters), and things our bodies can see happening (an airplane flying overhead), Powers of Ten makes an intuitive appeal to take us into realms not ordinarily comprehensible, like the distance between stars.
Noise, like a seismic event, is measured by a logarithmic scale, using the unit of the decibel. Your refrigerator hums at about 45 decibels, and heavy traffic can reach 85 decibels, a level at which lengthy or repeated exposure can cause hearing loss. The danger is one of scale: for every ten-decibel increase—from the highest volume on an mp3 player (100 dB) to a rock concert (110 dB)—the sound is actually ten times as powerful. Energy, intensity—these are not the areas in which ordinary addition will do.
(If you eat a cookie, let’s say that’s 200 calories. If you eat a second, 200 + 200 = 400 calories. Imagine if the caloric intake of cookies worked on a logarithmic scale instead. That second cookie would be 2000 calories, and a third would be another 20,000 calories. That third cookie would be the equivalent of more than five pounds of body fat.)
Tomorrow, we’ll attend a reception for the closing of Measure for Measure, an art exhibit built, according to the accompanying booklet, on the “idea that we can organize and understand objects by incorporating a sense of their size—both in relation to ourselves and in relation to other physical quantities.” The curators—artist Lia Halloran and physicist Lisa Randall—chose the exhibit’s name to echo both William Shakespeare’s play and Tom Levenson’s book (the subtitle of which is A Musical History of Science). Lia Halloran was the person who reminded us, last week before the earthquake, of the film Powers of Ten.
One installation, by artist Meeson Pae Yang, of mirrored sculptures suspended from the ceiling tells us that the ocean isn’t what it appears to be, that 90% of its creatures are microscopic algae. Susan Sironi’s self-portraits use the size of her body parts to carve out layered illustrations in the books Gulliver’s Travels and Alice in Wonderland, two classics that toy with our sense of scale. The artwork by the seven artists in this exhibit reveals how our interpretation of scale “makes us question and perceive the world in new and various ways.”
As we write this, Japan’s death toll is currently relatively low, though there are more than 10,000 estimated dead in the province of Miyagi alone. The bodies—not yet those missing—are being counted. As the weeks go by, the bodies will accumulate, the missing will be tallied, and our way of measuring death will shift. Several of the largest earthquakes since 1990 caused no deaths, in large part because the epicenters were far from populated areas. Last year’s earthquake in Haiti, though, was just a 7.0—100 times less powerful than 9.0—but it caused 222,570 fatalities, in part because Haiti is, according to Newsweek, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Magnitude is one way to measure, fatalities another. Each way of measuring reveals different relationships to ourselves and the world around us.
As we finish this post, France’s nuclear safety authority says that the Fukuskima Daiichi catastrophe can now be categorized as a 6. The International Nuclear and Radioactive Event Scale (INES) is 1 through 7 and is another attempt at understanding the world around us. Three-mile island was a 5 (an accident with wider consequences), and Chernobyl was a 7 (a major accident). Tokyo, the metropolitan area where 13 million people reside, is less than 150 miles from the nuclear power plant in the town of Okuma, population of more than 10,000, presumably almost all of them evacuated. Clearly, we’ll be thinking about these ways of measuring for a very long time.
Pie with Einstein March 14, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Biology, Books, Einstein, Math, Nobel Prize, Physics, WWI
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We’re working on our regular post for Wednesday, thinking about scale in the wake of the earthquake in Japan, and wishing things were better than they are there.
For now, we’ve distracted ourselves because today is Pi Day. The shorthand for today’s date is 3/14, and that’s the start of the numerical representation of the mathematical constant pi: 3.14. A circle’s circumference is always its diameter multiplied by pi. Because homonyms matter, celebrate today with a piece of your favorite kind of pie! In fact, it’s Pie Week at the Olde Ship, one of the places where we meet for our weekly writing night.
March 14 is also Albert Einstein’s birthday; he was born in 1879. When we created tags and a tag cloud for Lofty Ambitions just more than a week ago, we discovered that beer was somehow weightier than Uncle Albert. Today, we try to rebalance our attention.
Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 for discovery of the photoelectric effect and not for his special theory of relativity, though articles on both ideas were published in 1905. Sure, the photoelectric effect is important, but the slight of his work on relativity was a snubbing of his heritage, his pacifism, and his preference for thought experiments over the laboratory.
Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson and J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life by Abraham Pais and Robert Crease both point to J. Robert Oppenheimer’s description of Albert Einstein’s character: “There was always in him a powerful purity at once childlike and stubborn.” Pais and Crease also quote Oppenheimer’s eulogy of Albert Einstein: “His presence among us stayed us from the worst folly, and touched those who knew him with the light of magnanimity.”
For another take on Albert Einstein, click HERE to read what our Guest Blogger Brain Foster, a physicist and daily practitioner of the violin has to say. For the post in which we mention Einstein’s brain, click HERE.
Of course, Einstein—his life, his work—is enough fodder for a blog post—for many posts. But since this post is one of our on-this-date pieces in which we see how much we can reasonably cover, we turn to Gervais Raoul Lufbery, the French-American World War I pilot who was born on this date in 1885. Eddie Rickenbacker, another WWI ace, a native of Colmubus, Ohio, and CEO of Eastern Air Lines, credited Lufbery with the modern airport pattern—downwind-base-final—for visual flight rules. The Lufbery circle, however, which Lufbery may or may not have invented, is a defensive tactic in which planes, especially the slower bombers, fly in a horizontal circle when they come under attack. A circling of wagons, knowing that no one would take a wagon out without packing a rifle.
March 14 is also the birthday of two other men who took to the air—and beyond. Apollo 8 and Gemini 7 astronaut Frank Borman was born on this date in 1928. Lest you think this post is a little weak on connections, Borman, like Rickenbacker, served as CEO of Eastern Air Lines. Eugene Cernan is the other astronaut born on March 14, in this case in Chicago in 1934. Cernan went to space on Gemini 9A, Apollo 10, and Apollo 17, when he became the last man to walk on the Moon. According to Rocket Men author Craig Nelson, who was in the OC last week, NASA conned the astronaut crew of Apollo 10 into believing they didn’t have enough fuel for a Moon landing, when they actually did.
But everyone talks about Einstein, and we spend a lot of blog space on astronauts. So here’s something new: Lucy Hobbs Taylor was born on March 14, 1833. Taylor was the first American female dentist. She studied and practiced in Ohio, Iowa, and Chicago—all places we’ve lived. Celebrate her birthday with Anna by going to the dentist this week!
Measuring the Unthinkable December 8, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Art & Science, Math, Movies & TV, Museums & Archives, Nuclear Weapons, Physics
In the spring of 1989, a couple of Midwestern college students might have been forgiven for believing that the Cold War was still being waged with all of its chillingly vibrant madness. The newly minted 41st President seemed in no hurry to break precedent with the velvet-concealing-hammer rhetoric of his predecessor. The fall of Die Berliner Mauer and the election of Václav Havel—and the later emergence of the Czech Republic—was still months away. The political zeitgeist, the calculus of international relations, could easily lead the laity to wonder how and when it might all end.
Sometime during that springtime, Knox College conducted a hiring search for a new Physics professor. As a small-world aside, the eventual winner of that job search, Dr. Phillip Mansfield, would later become an acquaintance of a friend, Dethe Elza, whom we wouldn’t “friend” until years later at Ohio University. The events—Dr. Mansfield’s hiring and making friends with Dethe—occurred in the days before friended was a word, and long enough ago that there’s no obvious merit to revisiting the grade that Doug earned in Dr. Mansfield’s Physics 312: Mechanics. These days, it’s a remark by another of the candidates—a man whose name is lost to us now—that has reasserted itself in whatever part of the brain is responsible for commingling long-forgotten moments with recent experience.
As a part of the interview process, the young particle physicist, who was doing a post-doc at SLAC (the Stanford Linear Accelerator), joined a small group of physics undergrads for lunch. During the meal, the physicist talked little of his work, but spent much time on the other things that interested him in life. Perhaps, he was trying to convince the assembled students, all males, that he was a fully realized human being and not one of those physics automatons that most undergrads fear greatly. At some point during the luncheon conversation, the physicist made one of those remarks that stays with you long after the name of the speaker is forgotten. He said, “When I was at CERN, I measured my bike rides in kilotons and megatons.”
What was meant to be a joke still falls flat. Presumably because of the absence of laughter, he went on to explain that continental towns and cities were geographically close enough that expressing distances in kilometers had been replaced by measurements mapped onto the nuclear kilotonnage and megatonnage of blast radii. (For blast maps, click here.) This remark was presented as common European vernacular at that time, but despite working with a variety of Europeans from the High Energy Physics community during the middle of the last decade (2004-2008) and while doing his own PhD (1999-2005), Doug has never heard another similar phrasing. Maybe, like many aspects of the Cold War, once it was over, that bit of verbiage, clearly expressing a European anxiety at being caught in the middle of a Russian-American game of nuclear lawn darts, was swept into history’s dustbin.
Even though it wasn’t much of joke, the remark does serve as a reminder of the difficulty of capturing the destructive power of nuclear weapons in a way that is meaningful to humans. We recently watched Trinity and Beyond. This 1995 film, narrated by a post-T.J.-Hooker and pre-Denny-Crane William Shatner, contains a short section about the test of a Russian thermonuclear weapon known as Tsar Bomba. The explosive yield of Tsar Bomba—or Big Ivan—has been reported as 50 megatons or maybe 58 megatons, reduced from its originally planned 100 megatons. Whatever its actual yield—50, 58, or even 100 megatons—the number is effectively meaningless to most human brains.
One comparison that does resonate can be found in the Wikipedia entry for Tsar Bomba, which provides a calculation that equates the explosion to a split-second’s output (.39 nanoseconds to be exact) of our Sun. For that evanescent moment, the explosion of Tsar Bomba was 1.4% as energetic as the Sun. Again, the numbers may be relatively opaque, but the intent is clear: that weapon produced more than one percent of the energy of the Sun! The same powerful Sun responsible for all of our plants, heat, and weather—that Sun! And we actually exploded this on our own planet? Damn. If we’d exploded 100 (and yes, we’ve exploded way more than a hundred nuclear weapons) at once, blasts on the Earth’s surface would be 1.4 times more powerful than the Sun.
Comparisons like this are meant to express a measurement of the unthinkable. While we were at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, we noticed a similar comparison, which came up in several venues—tour guides mentioned it, plaques proclaimed it. The sound of launching a Saturn V rocket was the second-loudest event on earth, second only to the detonation of an atomic bomb. One of the interesting special features on the Trinity and Beyond DVD was a real-time nuclear weapons test, in which silence surrounds the visual explosion until the shock wave finally reaches the microphone. Usually, such a film is edited, and if there’s sound, it’s synced up with the image, or, even more common, the sound is musical soundtrack designed to stir an emotional response, which is what the comparisons convey in relation to scale.
The Cold War is over now. In 1966, when the Cold War was sizzling and with five nations in the world’s nuclear club, the United States supposedly had 32,000 nuclear weapons. In 1988, when we were in college and the Cold War was waning, the Soviet Union is said to have had 45,000 nuclear weapons. This year, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, there remain more than 22,000 nuclear weapons in the world, with almost 8000 of them ready to go.