Sunday, August 09, 2015

Atomic City

Boom goes London and boom Paree
More room for you and more room for me
Randy Newman, Political Science, 1972

 There is a new web site getting some attention in the press called Nukemap. On this site you can choose a location for your nuclear device, its yield, and other details, then get a visual representation of the result of the detonation on a map.

In our era of terrorism and various scary bits, there are ways that such a web site seems natural. Lots of scary things in the world, so let's have a look at all of them, right? But if you think about it, what is the point, really? Having grown up with the cold war, this kind of thing is as a common as a cold. The image above (in black and white naturally) was on the television in WWII documentaries regularly in the 1960's and disturbingly often in news reports of the time about where the world could end up.

With the ease of all things on the 'inter-tubes', this web site has given a new spin to the slow news week in the smaller (or perhaps not so small) towns and cities around the world. One of the places to include such filler is Toowoomba (see also Washington, public radio international, and Hertfordshire and many others).

Visiting the Nukemap site has the same appeal as watching a NASCAR wreck: just how bad is it? Yes, there are still nuclear weapons in the world and yes, they could still be used. But this ain't the '60's any longer and the threats are different. It could be useful to give the gentle folks of Queensland an understandable image of a nuclear blast but there are no threats for such things in the world now. At least not for smaller cities. Dirty bombs, perhaps. Suicide bombers, possibly. Crazy people with a gun, probably. Atomic bombs...really?

By propagating this web site, newspapers are taking the idea out of any useful context and trivializing it.  Everyone is already scared of radiation. Does this add to the understanding of the risk or impact? Not really. Much like the way the Discovery or History channel generates heat but no light when they sensationalize big sharks, Bigfoot, Atlantis, asteroids, and instant ice ages, this provides no useful information. It adds no human interest.

The number and intensity of disclaimers in a sensational report just doesn't matter. People sort this stuff into categories of risk based on how often they see the problem and the believability of the source. When the Washington Post says "oh look, you could die from an atomic bomb dropped on the city" and the next day reports that there is a crazy person with a gun killing a dozen people in a theater, these bad things all get lumped together as same level of bad somehow. It is in our nature to shift the probabilities in proportion to the outcome - just as when we gamble and wishfully think that remote chance of winning is all that really matters. Tens of dead people end of being on the same level as tens of thousands.

If you really want to explore the impact of a devastating blast on a community, a better approach is to consider a book such as the one by John Hersey. In 1946 he published Hiroshima, an important first-hand account of the first atomic bomb attack from the people who were there. This book puts an human face on the event and brings the scale down to one there all of us, no matter where we live, have a chance to grasp. A normal day goes suddenly terribly abnormal and the world, not just life, is destroyed. It is different from reading that the fireball has a radius out to there. It is knowing that some will live through it to tell the tale and many will wish they had not. The disturbing part is not just that it goes boom, it is the moral considerations, the human scale, and the change in the meaning of life this brings to ponder.

Without the broader context, this kind of stuff is yellow journalism at its worst (best?).

We'll save Australia
Don't wanna hurt no kangaroo
We'll build an All American amusement park there
They got surfin', too

Read more:  Randy Newman - Political Science Lyrics | MetroLyrics