This post is not for the faint of heart. I will not sugar-coat anything. Read it only if you are prepared to look the specter of war in the face. Since it is something I am often asked about and have been asked again quite recently, I will reflect on my visit to Hiroshima and remember what I can. (We’re coming up on the anniversary of the bombing in a few days.)

The story begins for me when I was in Mr. Jones’s fifth- or sixth-grade reading class at the end of the 1970s. (I don’t remember which year it was; I had him as a reading teacher both years.) In the class, we read part of a book that is seared forever into my memory: The Bells of Nagasaki (Nagasaki no Kane), by Dr. Takashi Nagai. The excerpt we read (which may have been more “adaptation” than “excerpt”) was called “Child of Nagasaki,” and focused on the true story of Dr. Nagai’s daughter Kayano.

Dr. Nagai had been diagnosed with leukemia before the end of the war; he most likely contracted it from years of exposure to the X-ray machine used on his patients. He was only expected to live about three more years at the most. Then came August of 1945, and the bomb.

Kayano — though she lived about thirty years before our time — was a child just like us. She had a bigger brother Makoto. To keep the two children farther from potential air raids, they had been taken a short distance outside Nagasaki to stay with their grandparents. When the bomb fell, Kayano was four years old.

On August 9, 1945, Kayano saw a flash in the sky as if the sun had exploded, and a force like an invisible hand threw her across the room. When she looked up, something like a monstrous black tree made of smoke was towering over Nagasaki. And from that point on, life for her was nothing at all like the lives we knew.

Her father, also hurled across the room and half-buried in debris, had severe facial cuts from flying glass, but he stayed at the hospital for three or four days, working round the clock to treat the injured and the dying who filled the wards and lined the halls. His own home and his wife had been incinerated in the initial blast. Mrs. Nagai, a Christian, had been reduced to a soft pile of ash with her rosary nearby.

Dr. Nagai, his head swathed in bandages, trudged to the grandparents’ home to check on them and the children; he firmly warned Kayano and Makoto not to touch the strange, black rain that was falling. A short while later, the grandmother made the trek to the Nagai home and brought back some bone fragments from the children’s mother. (This is not as morbid as it sounds to western ears; Japanese cremate their dead, and the charred bone pieces that remain after cremation are handled with honor according to funerary custom. These bone fragments are called okotsu and are often kept in the home for awhile before being placed in a family grave.)

Dr. Nagai himself lived for several more years. His spiritual journey led him from Shintoism to atheism and ultimately to Christian faith. He wrote bestselling books that related the experience of Nagasaki to the world; the income thus generated was channeled into various means of helping the victims of war. Makoto and Kayano grew to adulthood; Kayano became a teacher.

That reading assignment terrified me on a deeper level than any fictional horror story I’d read. Even as kids, we were all too aware of the missiles in the silos and in the submarines: missiles aimed at the U.S.S.R., missiles aimed at all the major U.S. cities, missiles aimed at the whole world, and tense nations squared off against one another, each with the power to launch an irrevocable armageddon. I imagined the things Kayano Nagai had seen; I imagined it happening in Taylorville, Illinois. It kept me awake at night.

I knew there was nowhere to run from a nuclear holocaust. Tour guides at Mammoth Cave, answering the inevitable question, would explain that no, even a deep cave would offer little protection from radioactive fallout: a cave is an open, breathing system, full of water and air from the surface. Unlike the tornadoes that frequently devasted farms and towns in the Midwest, nuclear weapons brought more than city-leveling explosions; they poisoned the air, the water, and the ground. You were far better off if you died in the initial blast, because to be alive after it, when the black rain fell, was a nightmare beyond the power of any words to convey. One phrase used by eyewitnesses to describe the condition of still-living victims of Hiroshima was “the Death-in-Life.”

Hiroshima, as I understand it, had been spared most of the relentless bombing experienced by many other Japanese cities. On that clear, late-summer morning in 1945 (August 6th for the Japanese, because Japan is a day ahead; in the States, we remember it as the 5th), people were beginning their routines — finishing breakfast, heading for work, thinking about what a hot day it would be. There was the faint drone of a plane. . . . But just a single aircraft, not a squadron of B-29s with their payloads of thunder and fire; just a single aircraft, and very high up, barely a speck in the sky. Nothing to be alarmed at.

The plane made a sharp turn and raced away from the city. It was about a quarter past eight.

One elderly man, sitting on a porch that faced away from the blast, suddenly had the entire house flipped over on top of him. I’m guessing you’ve also heard the famous account of the man who was vaporized, but whose shadow remained on the wall behind him — a human silhouette slightly lighter than the charred surface all around. No one at first had any concept of the magnitude of the destruction. Everyone thought it was a localized cluster-bomb, and that they’d had the misfortune to be near it. No one could conceive that such damage had been done by a single bomb.

I visited Hiroshima with some friends in — as nearly as I can figure it — about 1990. (Anyone who has my newsletters from that era can check this date, and maybe you can find an important detail or two that I’ve forgotten. I would love to be able to compare my memories now with what I wrote then. Maybe someday. . . .)

I remember arriving before noon and having a picnic lunch under some willow trees beside a little river near the Peace Park. Hiroshima, since long before the war, had been famous for its willow trees. They are green and shimmering, more slender and wispy than the big-crowned weeping willows I grew up with in the Midwest. (In Japan, willows are strongly associated with ghosts — they’re the trees beneath which ghosts appear. This is an ancient belief and has nothing to do with Hiroshima, but it’s ironic.) At that picnic near the Peace Park, I remember watching some ducks swim and feeding them with pieces of our lunch. I remember thinking about what the riverside must have looked like in late 1945. I had trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that I could be standing there.

You may have seen pictures of the Atomic Bomb Dome (Genbaku Dome) — the domed, skeletal girder framework of a building that was the only thing left standing after the bomb went off. The structure remained because it was in the blast shadow, directly under where the bomb exploded. (The bomb was designed to detonate in midair to maximize the force of its destruction. Its blast spread outward from that central point, so only that one building, standing beneath the “hole of the doughnut,” was spared. Well, it wasn’t spared, it was burned to a crisp — but its framework stayed up, and was still there in the early nineties. I’m not sure it’s still there; it seems I heard a rumor awhile back that it was in structural trouble.)

And I mean, it was the only thing left standing. In the museum you can see a 360-degree composite photo taken from ground zero. (Remember when “ground zero” had a more general meaning for Americans, referring to the point at which any bomb went off? Now we have our own “Ground Zero,” which overshadows any other use of the term.) This photo is in stark black-and-white, and occupies the wall of a large, round room, so you can turn all around and see it as if you were standing there at the bomb site. It shows nothing but devastation to the horizon in every direction — no buildings, no trees, no people, no vehicles — miles and miles of nothing.

One floor of the museum has glass cases displaying artifacts: sometimes barely-recognizable globs of melted and re-hardened metal that were once everyday objects.

I vividly remember a set of maps of various major world cities. With concentric circles and shading, each map showed the range and degree of effect if an atomic bomb equivalent to the Hiroshima device were to be detonated in that city. Only a couple years before, I’d been a student in the Chicago area; I spent a long time studying the Chicago map, noticing which part of the city would be utterly obliterated, which parts would experience collapsed buildings and immolation, which would undergo shattered windows and widespread fires . . . and how far outside Chicago there would be some effects . . . and how far the deadly radiation would extend . . . and how very, very far out you’d have to be to experience no effects. Studying the impact of a similar bomb on a city I knew pretty well brought the horror home on yet another level. [And that was a little old pioneer rinky-dink A-bomb — a mere firecracker compared to the nukes of today.]

The museum had copies of the flyers dropped all across the Japanese countryside by Allied planes, flyers in Japanese urging the people to surrender, to stop supporting their government, whose policies were only leading them to increased suffering. There’s no way to measure it, but I wonder what effect, if any, such flyers had. When a farmer in his paddy picked one up and read it, did he think anything beyond “This is enemy propaganda”? I’ve heard from various friends and older people here that the Japanese government propagated the image of Americans as looking like demons, with faces like horses. (Of course American propaganda at the time portrayed much the same picture of Japanese as ill-favored, large-toothed, nearsighted monsters.) It is greatly to the credit of “the Greatest Generation” that, when U.S. troops arrived in Japan on occupation duty, people here were stunned at how different they actually were from the horrible reputation that had preceded them; I’ve heard that from several firsthand sources. Also, I knew a pastor of the Japan Lutheran Church who was a WWII veteran. He was stationed in Okinawa when American forces landed there. He’d been told to avoid capture at all costs, since the enemy would torture and kill him — so he fought like mad to escape from the tightening circle of green-clad soldiers. At last he was too starved and weak and exhausted to wriggle any farther, and they got him. And he said it was the best thing that had happened to him since the war began. He was well-treated, clean, and had food and water for the first time in many days.

But I digress. I also knew a Christian man who worked in the offices of the Japan Lutheran Church and was a survivor of Hiroshima. He was cheerful and pleasant, but had limited mobility and some spinal disfiguration.

Do you know that the city where I live, Niigata, was very nearly the recipient of the second atomic bomb? There are copies of the orders on display in the Hiroshima museum — I’ve read them. The American high command issued orders to drop the bombs on the primary targets of “Hiroshima and Niigata.” The Hiroshima bombing took place as planned. When the second plane flew over Niigata, the city was having its typical weather that I’m always complaining about: solid cloud cover. The bombardier couldn’t see a thing through his scope. So, following the Plan B protocol, the plane turned south to Nagasaki. I’ve often reflected on that. If Niigata had had nice weather on August 9, 1945, most of the people I know here would either have died or would never have been born. Dr. Nagai of Nagasaki would likely have succumbed quietly to his leukemia; his wife would have had more years to pray the rosary in this vale of tears; and Kayano wouldn’t have seen her terrible “tree” in the sky. But there would have been other Dr. Nagais, other Kayanos up here in “Snow Country.”

Finally, the thing I remember most about the Peace Park and museum at Hiroshima: one wall inside the museum is covered with pictures drawn by children who experienced the bombing. They’re bright, colorful sketches, some messy, some very neat. I don’t imagine that anyone could gaze at those images and read the children’s hand-lettered reports without feeling it on the deepest level. Even after all these years, tears are coming to my eyes at the mere memory of it.

When we were kids, my cousin and I wrote illustrated stories about zombies, or about the attacks of dinosaurs, grizzly bears, or sharks. Like most little boys, we delighted in all things gruesome. The pictures at Hiroshima are quite similar to what my cousin and I produced for fun — mayhem, body parts not where they should be, heavy use of the red crayon. But these were not stories born of the imagination. These were things the kids had seen, and the subjects of the pictures were their family members, their classmates, their teachers, their neighbors. For me, those drawings and words from children are the most eloquent and powerful testimony of what happened at Hiroshima.

Finally, two stories from a friend who was a little girl in Oosaka during the war. (Yes, that’s “Osaka,” but the “o” is actually long, or double.) Unlike the atomic bomb sites, Oosaka was very heavily hit by the conventional bombing raids. This friend of mine was the only member of her class to live through the war. Imagine that — think of those black-and-white photos from our elementary-school days; imagine X’s drawn across the face of this friend, that friend, that friend, the teacher . . . X’s drawn over every single face but yours.

She tells of how, during one bombing raid, a group of her classmates were all scrambling to get inside a bomb shelter; everything around them was going up in deafening explosions, plumes of fire, the ground shaking, rubble flying . . . for some reason, she didn’t make it to the shelter — she fell down or something. Then the next contact bomb landed squarely on top of the shelter, and everyone who had made it inside was killed.

And she tells of wandering down to the river after the bombing raid. She stood on the riverbank, but she could not see the water — not any of it — because the entire riverbed was choked with human bodies. The same phenomenon took place at Hiroshima, and probably at Nagasaki: to escape the horrible heat, the burning, and the thirst, multitudes headed for the river. No river was big enough to accommodate them all.

Hiroshima today is a bustling city again — rebuilt, like nearly all of Japan. The willows are back, and I’d guess they have plenty of ghosts appearing beneath their tremulous branches in the silver moonlight. What’s old in Japan is very old — temples and shrines date back centuries, over a thousand years in many cases. But most of Japan changes its face again and again. I’ve never seen neighborhoods morph as quickly as they do here. You come home from work and a house or building you always pass is suddenly missing. You come home the next day, and a new one has taken its place.

For an account of the Nagasaki bombing and its aftermath, I think it would be hard to find a better book than The Bells of Nagasaki, by Dr. Takashi Nagai.

For Hiroshima, I very highly recommend the book Hiroshima, by John Hersey. Some years ago, I encountered this book when I was trying to learn speed-reading so that I could get through more of the books I’m always wanting to read. I started reading Hiroshima quickly, but it’s a book that deserves a person’s undivided attention. I slowed down almost immediately and read it word-for-word. It follows the lives of several unrelated people — real people from various walks of life, one of them a priest who wasn’t even Japanese — all of whom were in Hiroshima on the day of the bombing. Through interviews and painstaking research, Hersey reconstructs their experiences of that day and the days following. And then he jumps forward a couple decades with follow-ups on what they were all doing then, what their lives had been like since the bomb. It’s one of those books that should be a part of the education of everyone living in our times; it’s a book you won’t ever forget.

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25 Responses to “Hiroshima”

  1. fsdthreshold Says:

    [This post isn’t intended to quash the game we were playing on the previous one — for anyone just tuning in, Chris has added some stories that are well worth a look! Feel free to carry on!]

  2. Chris Says:

    Very interesting post. This is one of those topics I find so amazingly interesting that I dedicated several years of my “reading life” to reading as much history/science on nuclear weapons as I could. It was somewhat of an obsession at one point.

    One of the BEST books I’ve ever read about the atomic bomb is Richard Rhodes’ “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”. It is, hands down, the BEST book on the topic I’ve read. It is densely packed with technical details of the history from the earliest work on radiation by Becquerel et al all the way up to the days after the Nagasaki bombing.

    This the duality of mankind I think. The science, the technology, itself is so amazing, so mind-blowingly fascinating that it’s only when you are faced with what happens _because_ of the technology that you recoil in horror.

    I harbor a dislike of radioactivity but the science is absolutely fascinating. From what I’ve read about some of the Manhattan Project scientists they were really _into_ the science but near the end when they realized what it was likely going to result in, there was a serious movement within that scientific community to provide a “demonstration shot” for the Japanese on an uninhabited island. But the difficulty in purifying the uranium and synthesizing the plutonium means we only had 3 bombs. The gun bomb used on Hiroshima ( a simpler device using uranium) and two “implosion” devices using plutonium.

    The use of one was necessary to test out the implosion leaving us only two. Using one, if I recall the reasoning, might not impress the Japanese sufficiently and then we’d only have one more. As it was we dropped one, waited and when the capitulation didn’t happen fast enough we dropped the second. I can only assume that the idea was to convince the Japanese that we had a lot of these monsters, but I don’t know if that was part of the calculation at the time (it has been several years since I read the books).

    I’ve been lucky to get some training in chemistry over the years and briefly worked at Argonne in Chicago as a visiting grad student, however I never did any radiological work. The lab I was in (an NMR lab investigating coal) was right next to the “hot wing” where they handled some of the really scary radioactive materials. When I started they gave us the run down on “alarms”. Tornado alarms (Illinois), fire alarms, etc. And then they said “If you hear this alarm it’s a ‘criticality alarm'” meaning that someone had accidentally assembled a “critical mass” of a fissile material like plutonium or uranium, the first step in a nuclear chain reaction.

    They even had little squares taped off on the floor in some places where if you were pushing a cart with a given amount of say a plutonium solution or uranium solution you couldn’t park the cart close enough to a neighboring cart with a similar solution in case it would accidentally “go critical”.

    Again, thankfully I had nothing to do with that stuff and can’t really claim too much knowledge of it.

    But the science one does learn about the power of the atom makes on realize how exciting and, dare I say, _attractive_ the research could be right up until the point that you realize what it is you are working to make.

    Oppenheimer’s famous quoting of the Bhagavad Gita line “We are become death, destroyer of worlds” at the initial test in Alamagordo helps you realize the real humanity of these scientists. These folks truly wanted to do the right thing and truly wanted to help and in many ways many were repulsed in some ways by the outcome, if not the science.

    And isn’t that the real nature of humanity? We are a bunch of high functioning apes fascinated by the discovery but unable to really handle our own abilities.

    If you want to read real horror there’s the books Fred mentioned, but there’s also accounts of the numerous horrible ways to die that people have experienced over the decades of the “Atomic Age”.

    Google the experience of Harry Dahglian and Louis Slotin with the “Demon Core”. Two experimenters who through some small errors wound up dying horribly at DIFFERENT TIMES when working with the same subcritical mass of plutonium.

    Or the SL-1 reactor accident in Idaho in 1961 with the grisly detail of one of the three technicians who were changing out the control rods being blow up to the ceiling of the facility where he was impaled on a control rod. His body remained there for 6 days before they could get his body down. The hands t of the technicians apparently had to be buried separately with radioactive wastes and the bodies buried in lead coffins.

    Then of course there’s Chernobyl.

    Scary but fascinating science. Such visceral horror that no amount of Godzilla movies could ever really touch.

  3. Catherine Says:

    And a cloudy day changes the fate of two cities and countless people.

    I wish someone had taken the clouds above Niigata as a sign to stop rather than to go on.

    • Chris Says:

      If I recall Hiroshima was uppermost on the list precisely for the reason Fred stated that it had been largely spared, despite being a manufacturing center. The hope being that it would be a more notable on a global scale.

      Scarily enough Kyoto was initially on the target list, but cooler heads prevailed and decided to remove the ancient city from the list.

      The target list finally chosen were: Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata, and Nagasaki.

      In a sense no “sign” would have provided reason to “stop” as there were alternatives.

      The most compelling signs were long past. As I said earlier there was a goodly size contingent of the scientists who helped develop the bomb itself that lobbied pretty hard to do a “demonstration” shot for the Japanese to avoid the deaths that were going to occur.

      But I also wonder if someone hadn’t done essentially the “Unthinkable” would future nuclear wars have been less “thinkable”? Would we _really_ understand the horror incumbent on those decisions?

      You can watch hours of nuclear test footage (as I have) and come away from it really impressed with the power but the horror stories from Hiroshima and Nagasaki put a bloated disfigured _human_ face on the horror.

      In the 1970’s McPhee wrote “The Curve of Binding Energy” (a key concept in fusion and fission atomic weapons) and if I recall correctly he quotes some analysts in the 60’s who suggested that it was to be expected over the next several decades that at least one or two cities would be vaporized every few years from nuclear attacks.

      Interestingly enough in the 60 years of the atomic age no other cities have been thus destroyed. We’ve somehow stayed our own hand. And maybe part of that is that we looked directly into the abyss and we realized what real hell was like.

      Were the innocents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki truly the sacrificial lambs that helped in no small way to bring something like salvation to the future generations? I know it’s a sick comparison (and highly charged ’round these parts), but I have to ask it.

      And in the end the only country to have done the unthinkable is OUR country. WE have so far been the only country to use a nuclear weapon on another group of humans. That is the essence of our sin and guilt. But what are the alternative outcomes had things been different?

  4. jhagman Says:

    Paul Fussell noted in his essay “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb”, that people who had their doubts were frequently people who did not have to do any of the fighting. He wrote that after the “miracle” of the bomb, he was so grateful that he spent the whole day in his tent- that men were going to get to go home, and be with their wives and girlfriends, have children and grow old. Knowing WWII combat vets (fathers of my oldest, best friends) I know what they think. I also know that many of them had very little peace in their lives after their huge sacrifices- remember: their is always sin and guilt in war- That Generation had to choose the flavor and live with it.

  5. Daylily Says:

    I studied Hiroshima by John Hersey in high school. Yes, unforgettable scenes.

  6. Philip Says:

    Masuji Ibuse’s “Black Rain” is another powerful book on the subject, although fictional.

    Didn’t Vonnegut think the bomb irreversibly changed science? Before that, you could just putter about in your lab working on this and that, happy as a clam. But after the bomb, scientists had a responsibility to think about the ramifications of their research, and refuse to work on projects that are solely for destructive purposes. Of course, that could be a very fine line; not everything is as cut and dried as Ice-9.

  7. fsdthreshold Says:

    I seem to recall that there was a geographic reason for Hiroshima to be chosen for a target as well: I think it’s somewhat of a shallow bowl, at least partially ringed by mountains. It seemed good to the decision-makers to be a very good location to study regarding the effects of an atomic bomb.

    While we’re on this posting, I would strongly recommend to everyone the movie Letters from Iwo Jima. In fairly recent times, a cache of letters was discovered, buried on Iwo Jima by an officer [I’m sorry; I’ve forgotten his rank] Kuribayashi, who was the commanding officer during the defense of Iwo Jima. This was also a bestselling book in Japan, and Clint Eastwood had the good sense to adapt it as a companion piece to his film Flags of Our Fathers to provide the Japanese perspective. In my opinion, Letters is by far the better film. Do you know that, during the bombardment, the very shape of the island was changed by the relentless shelling? Mr. Kuribayashi seems to have been quite an amazing officer, educated in the States.

  8. fsdthreshold Says:

    By the way, Chris: I knew the moral question would be raised. It’s inevitably raised regarding the A-bomb. Was the U.S. “right” to use it? I have to say that, even while I was standing there in Hiroshima, witnessing all the vestiges of the horror and unspeakable suffering the people experienced, I was thinking, “This happened when there were only atom bombs. What if it hadn’t happened yet, and we had the bombs we have now?” I think you’re making an excellent point. As horrible as it was, the bomb showed us a concrete example, with human faces, of how bad it is when nuclear weapons are used.

    • Chris Says:

      The hydrogen bomb (thermonuclear) was something Edvard Teller was thinking about even at the time of the development of the atomic bomb. The scientists realized that if a fission bomb could be made to work then surely a _fusion_ bomb would be do-able. They called it the “Super” in the Manhattan Project parlance. (this is where that “curve of binding energy” that McPhee used in the title of his book about atomic weapons comes into play).

      Some scientists felt that work on the Super shouldn’t even happen. But Teller and others also knew that if the theory was thinkable sooner or later someone would develop it.

      Teller is one of the most conflicted and conflicting characters in the story of the Bomb. A brilliant scientist, devoutly dedicated to his adopted homeland of America (he was originally born in Hungary but fled the Nazis) but also one of the more hawkish and was shunned by many in the Manhattan Project after the war when his testimony helped strip Oppenheimer of his security clearance.

      But the idea of the “genie out of the bottle” is, sadly a real concept. The idea was out there. Of course during WWII it wasn’t possible to actually build the thermonuclear bomb within the short time. In fact a thermonuclear bomb actually uses an atomic bomb to “kick off” the thermonuclear explosion. One of the more esoteric aspects of it that I recall reading but can’t quite remember the details of is that first the nuclear bomb goes off which generates massive compression on the thermonuclear fuel (something usually containing an isotope of hydrogen) but in addition generated x-rays are harnessed to help _compress the nuclear fuel_. I am so fascinated by this concept that I still don’t fully understand it. Imagine turning on a lightbulb and having the photons actually push against you.

      Apparently while photons have no mass they do, ironically, have momentum, or so a physics friend of mine tells me. I still don’t fully understand this.

      And so you can imagine the sheer level of strangeness of what is happening in a thermonuclear bomb.

      The first hydrogen bomb (“The Ivy Mike shot”) detonated in 1952 was essentially two large “building sized” pieces of equipment. Of course it took a while to make an actual bomb-sized item out of this concept. This was chosen to show the ‘idea’ of the hydrogen bomb.

      The largest bomb ever detonated was the “Tsar Bomba” by the Russians in 1964. It was originally scoped to be 100 megatons but they reduced it to 50megatons. This was 1400 times the size of the combined Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.

      It was tested over Novaya Zemlya a surreal archipeligo north of the former USSR. Apparently it’s a nuclear nightmare up there where the USSR did a lot of test shots and stashed some nasty waste.

  9. jhagman Says:

    We also need to remember that there were even more destructive raids done with incendiary bombs at Dresden and Tokyo. Curtis LeMay was quoted as saying that if we lost the war they would be tried as war criminals. From a “Scientific” standpoint nukes are amazingly destructive- but dead is dead, whether from a sword or radiation.

    • Chris Says:

      Very true. Dresden and the firebombing of some cities effected destruction albeit much less _efficiently_, but as you said “dead is dead”.

      Curtis LeMay is another of those figures in the post-nuclear world that is somewhat scary. From what little I’ve read it sounds like he was willing to consider use of pre-emptive nuclear options during the Cold War. However on his good side he also helped run the Berlin Airlift.

  10. tandemcat Says:

    I remember all too well the sound of the air raid sirens in Asheville, NC, where I lived in high school–when the Cold War was really heating up. A newspaper article was passed around our science classroom, which was placed in the corner of our building on the top floor. We were up in the air, with a magnificent view.

    The article described a hypothetical situation where a Russian jet would sneak in under the radar and then make a fancy turn in the sky, throwing the bomb up higher, where a small parachute would deploy while the plane raced away to safety (unlike some planes that we have experienced since then). One sentence, describing the descent of the bomb, terrified me for a long time, and I’ve never forgotten it:
    “The bomb reaches 2,000 feet, and Asheville is no more.”

    • Tim in Germany Says:

      If you have not yet read it, you should check out Alas Babylon by Pat Frank. It’s a post-nuclear novel set in the rural South. It was written in 1958, and it captures the cold war fears quite beautifully.

  11. Nicholas Oz Says:

    Thanks for another fantastic and thought-provoking post, Fred.

  12. Chris Says:

    For all the wonders of fiction in many ways nothing beats reality for sheer unbelievability. Imagine a world where a thing _that has mass_ can be both a wave and a particle (not talking about light here but _electrons_).

    Imagine a world where “light” can be used to compress something.

    Imagine a world where the weight of the individual pieces of a thing are MORE than the final thing when it is put together (as is the case for the nucleus of an atom and which explains why atomic bombs work).

    Imagine a world in which you can statistically estimate which of two rooms that are connected by a hallway that I am most likely to be in at some time during the day I can almost never be found _between those rooms_ at any time.

    This is just part of the world of the atom. It makes the foundation of everything around us yet it doesn’t really align with anything we can even begin to understand on a “gut sense”. It IS our everyday world yet somehow not.

    Then when the nucleus is utilized to make a bomb the world gets weirder.

    The things that happen during a fission bomb explosion include some of the most stunning numbers you’ll ever hear:

    In the case of the system tested in Alamagordo in 1945 there’s a small pit in the center that was surrounded by plutonium. The pit helped kick out neutrons to trigger the plutonium’s fission when it reached critical mass by compression.

    Within _millionths of a second_ up to 80 generations of neutron generation in the plutonium, generating MILLIONS OF DEGREES of temperature and millions of pounds of pressure. Within this time frame at the core of the bomb the conditions were similar to just shortly after the Big Bang.

    Hans Bethe does a good job explaining why a nuclear bomb looks the way it does based on how the atmosphere absorbs some of the energy and is opaque at some conditions and transparent at others. Some parts of the “shockwave” “cool into visibility”. At some point a backwards propogating shell of temperature eats back into the central fireball until it “drops the temperature” to about 9000degF at which point the only way to lose more heat is to rise due to bouyancy into the sky and turbulent mixing due to the rise.

    • Chris Says:

      Gotta clarify that the quotation marks in the Hans Bethe bit up there weren’t actually quotes from Bethe but used to highlight the terms used by the person describing Bethe’s description.

  13. jhagman Says:

    I like the parallels between physics and human nature- how on a macro level things seem predictable but as you approach a micro level everything becomes paradoxical. Is it a wave or a particle? Is a person good or bad? Should we have dropped the bomb? It all depends on the reference point of the observer- it all becomes relative. I also love the freedom all this implies, the shere amount of chaos, and lack of mechanistic determinism. We become both waves and particles in process- in a hall between rooms we were both in and never in (if you will). Created in HIS image but still arguing what that image is.

    • Chris Says:

      I like the comparison of the macro and micro worlds with seeing people on a deeper level.

      However if the quantum world is “in His image” it is a strange world indeed.

      I once heard someone describe “electron spin” by reference to a playing card. Take a face card. How many degrees do you have to spin it in order for it to look the same? 180degrees and it will look the same as it did. Electron’s “spin”, if it were like a playing card, would require you to turn it not just 180degrees but 720 degrees before it would “look” the same. That would be like having a playing card that you had to turn around _TWICE_ before it looked the same.

      On top of that there’s all the strangeness of the “observer effect” that leads to all manner of weirdness like “Schroedinger’s Cat” or the “multiverse hypothesis”. The stuff that falls out of actual physical experiments like the “Double Slit” experiment still gives a glimpse behind a very, very weird curtain.

      But interestingly enough all the weirdness has a necessity to it. The math only works out when you allow for these counter-intuitive and strange, strange things. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is a prime example. It isn’t just a place to “park our big questions”, it’s a necessity of the math.

      Discoveries of actual physical items have also fallen out of the math. The idea of “antimatter” arose because of a subtlety of the _math_. Remember solving quadratic equations where a squared value could have either a positive or negative root? Well when Paul Dirac solved his famous equation he found that one number could be positive or negative. Normally you can toss one or the other based on “common sense”. But in this case the one that didn’t make “common sense” actually turned out to be a real thing! Antimatter.

      We even use antimatter in some diagnostic medical equipment today! A PET Scan uses a “positron”, an antimatter electron which, when it meets a regular electron, annihilates and kicks out a gamma ray photon.

      The unreal made real and harnessed.

  14. Marquee Movies Says:

    Chris, I sure do enjoy your enthusiasm for science! Powerful post, Fred -thanks – that must have taken a while to put together.

  15. I return Says:

    Well well well…I go away for 10 days and everything gets really exciting. I am almost sorry to post, for fear I will kill the momentum.

    Chris’ love of science is clear and profound. You can almost see his sense of wonder. My question to Chris: All this wonder, all this magnificence: it is all by random chance, right? There is no Intelligent Designer, correct? I say to the World of Science: keep looking, for the deeper you search the closer to the signature of the Creator you will come.

    As a Christian, I am horrified by the suffering the twin atomic bombings caused. But thank God WE had the bomb first. Thank God the maniacal Japenese, who raped Nangking, who reigned with torture and terror — thank God they did not get it first. Thank God the Nazis, with their V2 rockets to carry them, did not come up with the bomb first. Thank God the communist regime in Moscow — which deliberately murdered, and starved, more of their own people than the total butchered in the concentration camps — were so far behind. Indeed, thanks be to God that it was America, who had the war forced upon her, who first completed the puzzle.

    Millions — yes, millions — of Japanese would likely have been killed had an invasion of the home islands been required. U.S. deaths would have numbered several 100 thousand.

    The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was wrought when Genda’s master stroke against Oahu was approved by Imperial Japan.

    The Enola Gay was the B-29 that carried “Little Boy” to Hiroshima. [Boxcar was the B-29 that dropped “Fat Man” on Nagasaki. I know I have the planes correct and the bomb names correct, and I think…I think…it was Boy on Hiro and Man on Naga] The Enola Gay was named for the mother of the pilot, war hero Col. Paul Tibbets. They were under strict orders for radio silence until a successful detonation. If Hiroshima were destroyed, they were to radio back to Tinian: “The daises are in bloom.” Instead, seeing (and can you imagine it?) the 35,000-ft cloud, the radioman understandably lost his composure and intially sent back these (in)famous words: “My God, my God, what have we done?”

    I too, had Mr. Jones twice for reading, but do not recall, as Fred does, the Nagasaki story he has so vividly recounted. And I am sure being in either place would be terribly moving. How can anyone approve of doing this to his fellow man?

    That said, I approve, without reservation, a decision that ended the war and, without question, saved untold lives many times over the number of dead in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (more died in Tokyo and Yokohoma in the fire-bombing raids of May 5 and 6, 1945, than in both atomic bombings combined, even considering deaths 10-years afterwards attributed to the radioactivity).

    I never feared the USSR and never fussed — even in the early 80’s — over the idea of a NATO/Warsaw Pact war or the use of nuke against each other. Too much too lose and no winner. But now, should some godless freaks get their hands on fissile material …

    Russia and the U.S. were not willing to trade Detroit for Minsk, New York for Moscow, London for St. Petersburg. But Evil is perfectly willing to swap Tel Aviv for Tehran, Miami for Karachi. May God help us.

    • Chris Says:

      Interesting question about looking deeply down into science to find the creator. I don’t quite see it the same. There’s a point at which it is impossible to see what came before everything.

      The quantum world is truly, truly weird. Weirder than anything any science fiction author could even begin to write.

      But there are two points to make:

      1. Firstly; no “design” is implied by the pieces fitting together. For instance if the atmosphere was only made up of cyanide gas oxygen breathing animals would not have developed. (There’s an interesting concept in earth science called the “oxygen holocaust” in which a small cadre of algae started generating oxygen as a waste product and ultimately helped destroy most of the dominant “anaerobic” algae/bacteria who dominated the earth at that time, thus opening the door to the development of oxygen breathing life forms).

      In a sense the conditions of the system establish what develops and thrives in that system. Especially in a system in which evolutionary processes take place and further there is no obvious evidence for outside influence.

      2. Let’s say that it is very important for one’s sense of self to believe in a “creator” who is responsible for the “strong nuclear force” or who established “half-integer spin fermions” like electrons to have half-integer spins. What does that say about the “morality” of such a creator? Does it in any way imply that that being will favor a small band of Mediterranean people called the Israelites? Does it mean he will construct a world in which, in order to ameleorate the transgressions of his own human creations he would need to invest himself as fully human/fully god and come down to earth to sacrifice himself to himself to atone for the humans’ sins against him? After creating the “Pauli Exclusion Principal” in which no two electrons can share the same 4 quantum numbers in a single atom, would He then command that “neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee.” (Lev 19:19)?

      My point being that if nature points to a creator or intelligent designer, _which_ one? And _why is it a particular one vs another_?

      (Oh and one minor correction: I believe the Nagasaki B29 was “Bock’s Car” (sometimes written “Bockscar”), I assume because the captain’s name of the plane was Frederick Bock)

  16. I return Says:

    Mea Culpa on Bock’s Car! I KNEW that but brain-farted.

    It has always been of interest to me that people who question a creator always throw evolution up. Who is to say evolution is not the very Intelligent Design itself of which we speak?

    I firmly believe in the Drake Equation. Even if he is correct one one-millionth one a time, the universe would team with intelligent life. I have always believed that to be the case, but also that the distances between those civilizations was intentionally created so that they would not easily interact.

    Why would God not choose the Christian method for Terra? Why should God not choose to use a wholly different message on, say, Reigel IV? And it is absolutely not “important to my sense of self” to believe in a creator. I believe in God because I have accepted what I shall call Truth. While I will not judge you, I hope you will appreciate that when I pray for those with unbelief that I intent no denegration, no slight and wish only for you to encounter the Grace that I have. That you should choose not to seek that Grace — or despair of finding it, as I did for 20 years — is exactly why I pray for you.

    Twas the Church that developed the Scientific Method, the system of colleges and universities. Keep searching, please, for in doing so the world’s scientists — often in spite of themselves — are serving only to bring further glory to God.

    • Chris Says:

      No offense was meant in any way by my use of “sense of self”. I always assume that since religion brings comfort and a sense of understanding to the cosmos for believers that it serves that very purpose. I always assumed that those who believe in a loving God believe that that God actually cares about them and their “selves”.

      No offense was intended by the phrase.

      I bring up “evolution” not to unnecessarily derail the thread here but because evolution _qua evolution_ (and not just evolution of life) is a mechanistic way to explain why something seems to “fit” in a given system.

      It doesn’t have to be about life or anything like that at all.

      Imagine a computer simulation in which the rules of the computer simulation dictate certain actions and movements of the pieces. After the simulation is run for a while, even if you cannot predict every single given move by any given piece, the overall simulation will spit out a result in which only those pieces that followed the rules of the simulation remain and are in positions that “fit” within the rules of the game.

      Given a set of physical laws the only beings that will wind up “still in the game” after many rounds will be those that have either adapted to the rules or never deviated from the core rules.

      Evolution in this sense is more a way of looking at the system. I once heard it summed up fantastically and I’m not sure I remember the exact eloquence of the phrase:

      The hole in which the puddle exists was not made for the size and shape of the water in it.

  17. I return Says:

    That’s funny. I once heard it said that Man had a “God-sized hole in his heart.”

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