Would you stand under a nuclear blast?

By Phil Plait | July 24, 2012 7:00 am

As a rational human, I’m aware of finding my emotions and prejudices conflicting quite often with my knowledge of science and reality. Being reasonable is relatively new to us apes, and a hundred million years of evolving reactionary emotions usually takes precedent.

So I find myself pretty conflicted about his video, which shows five men in July, 1957, standing around in the Nevada desert while a nuclear weapon is detonated above their heads.

[Note: the video says the detonation was 10,000 feet above their heads, but that is erroneous; it was more than 18,000 feet.]

This video comes from NPR via my own Discover Magazine. [Given what follows below, I'll note that the NPR article shows that these men were not adversely affected by the blast, and most lived to be old men. I strongly urge you to read that entire article, in fact. It's fascinating.]

When I watched the video, my feelings were curious. My first reaction was visceral: basically just "Aiieeeeee!"

But that was immediately followed by, "Well, the blast was low yield and about 18,000 feet up, so the odds of them getting hurt by it were pretty small."

The thing is, both thoughts are right! Here’s why.

The blast was indeed a small one. It was not a fusion bomb (usually called a thermonuclear or H-bomb), but instead was a fission bomb, an A-bomb. These release far less energy when they explode, though it’s nothing to be trifled with. This particular test was done using a 2 kiloton yield; in other words, it exploded with the energy of 2000 tons of TNT. For comparison, the only two atomic weapons used in wartime – by the US over Hiroshima and Nagasaki – had yields of about 13,000 and 21,000 tons of TNT. Hydrogen bombs have yields typically measured using megatons, or millions of tons of TNT.

So the explosion in this video was bigger than a usual conventional bomb, but not nearly as big as what we normally think of as a nuclear bomb. Right away we have to be careful how we think of this!

Second, the explosion was at a height of well over 5 kilometers (3 miles). As I pointed out in a recent BAFact, Earth’s air is quite good at absorbing various types of electromagnetic radiation (a fancy name for "light"), including X-rays and gamma rays. The men under the blast probably received no direct dose of ionizing radiation in that form. It’s possible the intense high-energy light from the bomb created secondary forms of radiation – high-speed electrons and so on – but again, the bomb yield was low, so all that air probably did a pretty good job stopping all that.

Third, what about fallout? This is radioactive material from the blast that falls from the sky. In an atomic (or an H) bomb, radioactive atoms are created and dispersed. In low altitude tests, the heat from the explosion can draw up dust from the ground, mix it with these materials, and create a radioactive cloud that can travel a long way. Raindrops can form, and the radioactive brew can literally fall out from the sky.

However, this was not a low-altitude test, so no dust got drawn up. And the radioactive material from the bomb would’ve blown sideways from the wind, away from the men underneath. Let’s be clear: that sucks monumentally for anyone downwind, but these men were spared from that.

So really, in most ways, these men were pretty safe. In fact, the radiological effects on the men were measured to be extremely low. The worst effect from all this would’ve been potential eye damage from looking at the blast itself, which is very intense. Note that one of the men is wearing sunglasses and is looking up, while the other four are looking away. I suspect that one guy was, ironically, in the most danger from this. Sunglasses dim visible light, and your eyes respond by opening your pupil to let in more light. When the bomb went off, that meant more ultraviolet and infrared light entered his eye. This is why looking at the Sun is, in general, a bad idea.

So rationally, logically, and scientifically, this test was probably pretty safe for these five men (and the cameraman, too).

However, here’s the thing: in those days, a lot of this wasn’t really clear. This explosion was part of Operation Plumbbob, which was designed in part to test nuclear radiation and its effects from bombs. While a lot was known by this time – we’d been testing for over a decade at this point – any number of things could’ve gone wrong. In fact, the Starfish Prime explosion of 1962 (almost exactly five years after this test) showed that in spades, when the electromagnetic pulse from a hydrogen bomb detonated in space blew out traffic lights in Hawaii hundreds of kilometers away, shocking the scientists and engineers involved.

While the risk in this Plumbbob test was low, it wasn’t zero. So both my reactions, I think, were right: the initial WTF, followed by Well, in fact, this is probably not nearly as bad as it looks.

And let me be clear: there were a lot of really bad after-effects from all that nuclear testing. A lot. Large numbers of people involved in testing developed radiological problems like cancer, and many died from these issues. I look back on those days and wonder what we were thinking. I understand the historical context, and also understand that through the lens of current understanding it’s far more difficult to place ourselves in the shoes of those making decisions at the time.

So all in all, I’m glad I saw this video. It’s terrifying, disturbing, enlightening, and like so many videos from the historic archives reveals us for who we are: conflicted, complicated, curious humans. We are emotional creatures, and to deny that is irrational. We need to understand that and embrace it to make sure that our decisions are based on reason and rationality, but also on our positive emotions which inform our morality. We shouldn’t let our emotions rule our decision-making, nor should we deny them when trying to make the wise choice.


Related Posts:

- The 50th anniversary of Starfish Prime: the nuke that shook the world
- What the hell were we thinking?
- Repeat after me: cell phones don’t cause brain cancer (and a followup post dealing with the same emotional vs logical issues)
- xkcd radiates

Comments (71)

Links to this Post

  1. LOVE – A TRUE WEAPON « The Largest Democracy | July 29, 2012
  1. Just heard a RadioLab short that told the story of a Japanese man who was at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki and lived to be 93, despite some serious health issues right after the bombings. The human body is pretty amazing.

  2. This makes me think of the Death Star II exploding over Endor at the end of RotJ

  3. Stan9fromouterspace

    Not even a beekeeper’s hat. My flabber has now been officially gasted.

  4. Georg

    This was “safe”, and in 1957 there was enough knowledge
    on radiation and men.
    (Of course american military denied that, they did not
    like to give away their most ambitious plaything)
    For that reasons, what was the “idea” to make this
    film? Propaganda? To show Americans that atomic
    bombs are neat? Impress Russians? Strange, I do not
    find some real reason, besides there was a film production
    unit who had to do its output, before somebody had the
    idea to close it for being not useful….?
    Georg

  5. Papabear

    Operation Spongebob, huhh, huhh…

  6. Jon Hanford

    Interesting that this was a test of an *air-to-air* missile. Was this weapon to be used primarily to knock down incoming Soviet bombers?

  7. K

    Of course, they all DID get cancer later.

  8. noen

    “The human body is pretty amazing.”

    No, that’s like saying a winning lottery player did something “amazing” to win when they were merely lucky. People or organisms that survive exposure to radiation have not done anything special and there is nothing special about them that made them better able to survive radiation. It was just luck.

    The same is true for very successful businessmen. They think there is something special about them that they did to merit their success. In fact they simply won the lottery. They happened to be in the right place at the right time investing in the right company when it’s product became successful.

    People are naturally narcissists and magical thinkers.

  9. David

    If you ever really want to experience that awe/horror/its beautiful/it’s terrible combination, check out a documentary called “Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie”. It has a lot of really great footage of the various tests.

    In many ways, the fireball can be astonishingly beautiful, and then you remember what it would do to structures, people, etc. The movie will leave you conflicted, but it’s worth seeing.

  10. Peter Davey

    Who was it who said: “The more I practice; the luckier I get”?

  11. George

    Hey Phil,

    What do you make of this:

    http://io9.com/5928274/the-universe-could-tear-itself-apart-sooner-than-anyone-believed/

    I hope they don’t mean my lifetime.

  12. F16 guy

    noen:

    “The same is true for very successful businessmen.. In fact they simply won the lottery.”

    I’m hoping you are being wildly sarcastic. If not, you are incredibly naive.

  13. ColinR

    The weapons was indeed a nuclear tippd ait to air missile , the AIR-2 Genie , the aircraft firing the hillile was an F-89Scorpion , and the Genie was one of its primary weapons.

    the idea seems to have been to use it to destroy massed Russion bomber formations coming in from the North , after the tests in 59, the Genie remained a front line weapon with US based interceptior , (F-101, F-102 & F-106s) until the late ’60s ..

    Those were very differnt days

    http://www.boeing.com/history/mdc/genie.html

  14. Renee Marie Jones

    What is really striking is the silliness of these “tests” … it is not science, it is like a little kid playing scientist. What measurements did they get that they could not have gotten without the people? I get the feeling that the military had all these cool “toys” and they just had a need to play with them and blow things up, and “science” was an excuse that everyone would accept.

  15. Tim Gaede

    The flash occurred just before the 1:00 mark and the “ground wave” arrived just after the 1:12 mark. Did he mean “shock wave”? I suspect the commentator may have witnessed prior explosions far from ground zero, where waves traveling through the ground arrive well before those traveling through the air.

  16. Tom Boucher

    The speed of light and speed of sound are aptly demonstrated. I admit I actually laughed out loud when the boom came, those dudes were bad ass for standing there but they still jumped out of their skin when the boom came.

  17. K (#7): Nowhere could I find any reference that these six men got cancer. In fact, they all lived to be old men, as I said in the article.

  18. TerryS.

    Assuming the footage hasn’t been edited, the time between the visible flash and the shock wave is approximately 12 seconds. Using an average speed of sound of 320 m/s (it varies with altitude) I get a distance of ~12,600 feet.

  19. Matt

    Reminds me a little of ‘The House in the Middle (1954)’. If you have not seen it, set aside some time to watch it. It is well worth it.

    http://archive.org/details/Houseint1954

    Lesson: always keep up your house, or you will be incinerated by a nuclear blast!

    -Matt

  20. Jim Atkins

    A guy I worked for in college saw this- he was camping with his boy scout troop near Death Valley. The missile was a Douglas AIR-2 Genie, original code name was Ding Dong (who thinks these up?) and it was supposed to break up Russian bomber formations and to knock down bombers with the shockwave. Evidently this was in service with Air Defense Command interceptors through the mid-1980s, when the last F-106s were withdrawn from service.

  21. George

    @Georg #4 and everyone wondering about the reason for this test:

    This was just nuclear Jackass 1957. I bet you that those MTV guys would do EXACTLY the same thing today if they could.

    And I am only half-joking.

  22. Meg Challinor

    Thomas (#1): Actually thats quite an interesting story, the BBC program “QI” did a show which talked about this and got in quite serious trouble with the Japanese Government, the show if you haven’t seen it is a comedy quizshow with celebs that talk about and answer “Quite Interesting” questions (absolutely awesome show and well worth a watch).

    Anyway, they ended up laughing about how unlucky this one man must have been (It should be added, not in a nasty way but in a ‘wow he should play the lotto’ way), anyway the Japanese did not see the humour in it :S

  23. babs

    The pilots died three weeks later.

  24. Pete Jackson

    “So rationally, logically, and scientifically, this test was probably pretty safe for these five men (and the cameraman, too).”

    The opening titling says “a tape recorder was present to record their experiences”. This was, I believe, before the days of videotape, even in classified military scenarios, so they presumably mean an audio tape recorder. But, the image never shakes or shows any signs of a cameraman, so I assume that a film camera had been set to run automatically by one of the five men present, i.e there was no sixth man present. Further evidence is that the scene never moves, or pans, or even zooms.

    Scenes of the explosion aftermath in the sky were likely shot from some nearby location, perhaps a bunker.

  25. babs (#23): Do you have a link or reference for that claim?

  26. But science does not support this assertion

    “A lot. Large numbers of people involved in testing developed radiological problems like cancer, and many died from these issues.”

    About 170 excess cancers (radiation-related cases) are projected to occur among more than 25,000 Marshallese, half of whom were born before 1948. All but about 65 of those cancers are estimated to have already been expressed. The 170 excess cancers are in comparison to about 10,600 cancers that would spontaneously arise, unrelated to radioactive fallout, among the same cohort of Marshallese people.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20622547

    I am against nuclear weapons testing of course. And one could say that 1 excess death is quite “a lot” for a perfectly dispensable activity as nukes testing, but you should put some numbers in a proper context.

  27. TM

    I like the guy that lights up a cigar immediately after a nuclear blast goes off over his head.

    The 50′s were a wonderful time.

  28. Funny, I was just thinking about aerial blasts when I saw the Dark Knight Returns.[SPOILER ALERT] I was wondering just how high, or how far away from the city, the protagonists would need to get a fusion bomb (I think they said it was 4 megatons?) before it explodes. I’m pretty sure they didn’t give themselves enough space.

  29. Joe G

    What’s chilling was how they went on about how “beautiful” and fantastic the detonation was.

  30. Gary

    The trailing aircraft appears to be larger than the F-89, perhaps a B-57.

  31. mike burkhart

    Are these guys nuts? Hear I thought I was crazy. Reminds me of the end of Preadator ,where the preadator activates his wrist nuke and Arnold runs.

  32. Keith Bowden

    That was scary.

    @14 Tim Gaede – I thought he said “sound wave”.

  33. Robert Woodhead

    My first thought when I saw the film a few days ago was “If I have to be 5km from a low-yield above-ground a-bomb, then directly underneath it is EXACTLY where I’d want to be.”

    But I’d definitely want a hat and some good sunblock.

  34. The Bobs

    Being extremely familiar with the Nevada landscape, these men were most likely standing at an elevation of about 4000ft. This accounts for most of the difference in reported altitude.

  35. Paul

    Phil: since the highest dose any of the aircrew got was 5 roentgen, I doubt any of them died three weeks later.

    (See references at the wikipedia page you linked to.)

  36. Naked Bunny with a Whip

    The government was just trying to distract from the Roswell incident by giving American soldiers superpowers and having them mimic alien spacecraft to discredit serious UFOlogists.

  37. roger

    @Joe G. #29: Chilling? C’mon, Joe! Watch some nuke-porn. Stop worrying. Learn to love the Bomb.

  38. Infinite123Lifer

    Would I stand under a nuclear blast?

    No, I would quickly calculate (based upon my evolving reactionary emotions) whether I should start running or bury myself. I imagine after running around in circles and not being able to bury myself in rock I too would light a cigar . . . BEFORE it went off.

  39. Andrew Horn

    Now, obviously, this is real- I don’t doubt that. it’s just funny how much the scenes of the men on the ground look like they were shot in a studio, with a sky backdrop. Honestly, if you saw that scene in a 1957 Hollywood movie, you would be sure that’s how it was shot. Of course, then the men would all start to grow, or shrink, or become lizards, or something.

  40. Kyle

    @Gary, good eye that is a B-57 and I got beat to the punch both times in identifying it, dang it. All my old airplane trivia keeps going unused :-(

  41. khms

    I stand under a nuclear blast all the time (well, maybe not so many this year). About 150 million kilometers under one. Though you do have to be careful to avoid getting cancer from the radiation.

    In fact, when I read the post title, that’s what I expected it to be about.

    Better than the video I remember about what happens to soldiers in a ditch when the shock wave his, created with real soldiers and a real nuke.

  42. Mark Hansen

    Pete Jackson (#24) there is definitely a sixth man present. From the 1:47 point in the movie there is a pan shot of the five men where handshakes are being exchanged all round.

  43. qguy

    @Renee Marie Jones (#14)

    You say, “I get the feeling that the military had all these cool “toys” and they just had a need to play with them and blow things up, and “science” was an excuse that everyone would accept.”

    As a former Air Force officer, I can assure you that even though people in the military may have often thought of certain things as “cool,” or “awesome” (even today), they were deadly serious about what they were doing. And I use the word “deadly” intentionally.

    The 1950s was not today’s world. Communism really was a geniune threat to the world. The Soviets were publicly dedicated to spreading it globally. And as we know all too well today, communism’s evils are manifold. We didn’t have the capability to detect information around the world that we have today. Intentions were murky. All we had to go on in many ways was the Soviets’ mlitary capabilities. We had to plan to counteract it and tried nearly every way we could think of.

    Many weapons were experimentally developed in an effort to keep it at bay. Some were adopted for use; others were abandoned as impractical. Most were eventually considered impractical at some point and set aside later. We made mistakes, sometimes plenty. There were surprises, as we know. If we knew then what we know now, there would be many paths which wouldn’t have been taken. And others that would. Simply because we now know more about what works and what doesn’t, about what is effective and what has too much risk.

    You know the cliché about hindsight.

    This particular test was in pursuit of a defensive weapon which could be used to down as many Soviet bombers as possible (which might’ve been thought to be carrying city-targeting nuclear bombs) when other methods had failed. The thinking—not entirely unreasonable—was that a small nuclear blast would be a small price to pay to prevent a large number of Soviet nuclear bombers from making their way to American cities.

    And simply preparing to do so would deter the the Soviets trying it, thinking such an attempt would be unsuccessful. (Which arguably it did.)

    To equate the intense and hard work of exerimenting, developing, testing, improving, and implementing or abandoning tools for defending one’s country—however misguided you may think the effort—with children playing with their toys is actually very insulting. As with anything, I’m sure you can find an exception here or there if you look hard enough, but these were extremely sober-minded people doing serious work in defense of their country.

    Apologies for the long post; I’m just so tired of the “soldiers and their toys” nonsense that crops up from time to time.

  44. Wzrd1

    @4, Georg, actually, the military didn’t own nor control atomic weapons, the Atomic Energy Commission owned and controlled them. The military had to sign out the weapon and atomic pit (for removable pit models) before any air missions involving nuclear deterrent or bomber patrol. Testing was even MORE rigidly controlled by civilian authority. If the AEC said it wasn’t to go, it didn’t go. Period.
    If radiation was so well understood in 1957, kindly explain the massive number of shoe fitting fluoroscopes in shoe stores, which caused extremely high numbers of cancers in shoe store employees? Explain the lack of shielding around old x-ray equipment?
    The knowledge was still coming, all through experimentation, long range health effects was totally unknown at that time. Indeed, even today we lack a great deal of understanding about radiation effects on complex organisms.
    Hence, the surprise at natural rebound around Chernobyl.
    Hence, the amazement when someone views the survival rate from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after the initial radiation deaths occurred. Fallout deaths and cancers were MUCH lower than most would expect. Regrettably so, for if they were abominably high, perhaps the nuclear arms race would have ended early, rather than threatening an entire planet for generations.

    @40, Andrew Horn, I thought they did any of the above or gained supernatural powers, then fought crime? ;)

    @Cris, it’s been decades since I reviewed both downwind hazard charts or blast charts, however, if one is trying to be safe from a 4MT device, one has to consider if it’s air burst or ground burst. As Phil mentioned, ground burst or close to ground burst pulls debris and earth into the cloud, where it becomes irradiated and quite hazardous. All to rain back down in the surrounding area and downwind.
    So, for a ground burst, I’ll stay at LEAST 20 miles UPWIND, with the motor running in case the wind shifts.
    Air burst, 5 miles is pretty safe, with a reinforced building between you and the burst, though you’d have to replace glass on your vehicle (we won’t go into being INSIDE of said vehicle)…
    From memory, anyway.

    @Phil, there WOULD be SOME particles from the missile that would survive as fractured components of both warhead (including some of the fissionable core), reflector components, tamper and missile body. It isn’t all vaporized by the fireball, quite a bit is expelled in fragments, to the tune of a half ton of debris for some systems. So, being underneath isn’t the safest place on the planet. Think along the lines of hundreds (at least) of irradiated components the size of thumb drives raining down from the blast.
    But, for fallout of public common knowledge concern, you are correct. The area would have been littered with radioactive debris that had to be cleaned up later. Which the men would have to travel through, resisting the urge to pick up chunks of debris…

  45. Michael Wallis

    @Georg (#4) – my guess would be that the 5 guys ran the numbers and determined it “should” be safe to be directly under a small yield detonation 18,000 feet up, and set up a demonstration to show that it would be.
    Why?
    Because if you’re going to have an option to use nuclear weapons (even small ones) over the heads of your people/troops, you want to know that it’s not going to be more deadly to them than the enemy.

  46. Brian Too

    To answer the question “Would you stand under a nuclear blast?”

    Well no, certainly not. But my friend is such an idiot, I have to help him out. By standing under a nuclear blast with him.

    ;-/

  47. MadScientist

    Air 5+ km above is nowhere near as effective a shield as air along a horizontal path. You won’t see me volunteering for such an experiment.

    The people who designed that test would also have figured that the volunteers (and the camera man who was not a volunteer) would not be badly physically injured from the blast; there was already a huge amount of information from previous higher yield devices so the pressure wave and the radiation exposure could be estimated.

    As someone pointed out on another blog, there were weapons with even smaller yield (~15t, about 1/1000 of the Hiroshima bomb’s yield, or 2 ‘daisy cutters’) such as the Davy Crockett.

    @Georg #4: This was not intended for the public – it was to convince the president and military officers and tacticians that small yield tactical nuclear weapons were ‘safe’ (whatever that means) and something which should be in everyone’s arsenal.

    @ColinR#13: Ah … I guess “MB-1″ is “Magic Bottle – 1″

  48. Wzrd1

    @MadScientist, I agree, *I* wouldn’t want to stand under the thing either. However, I believe the prompt radiation exposure would be less than a dental x-ray. For one thing, inverse square. For the other, air tends to be opaque to x-ray and gamma, as it gets REALLY excited by them. Indeed, the initial fireball is so highly ionized that it’s a few shakes before the x-ray and gamma can even escape the warhead detonation area (as in a few FEET). I’d have to go into my old files on my old notebook to get the exact numbers, but I seem to recall something around 7 shakes before it can be considered an explosion, rather than a fission or fission-fusion event by shockwave formation.
    I only remember that from considering the older numbers and equations and considering newer discoveries in physics when I reviewed those old notes a decade ago, it made my eyes turn upside down considering the subject with chaos theory in mind…

    I also recall the low yield, dial a yield and the layer cake…
    Frankly, when I first started in that field, a few decades ago, I was enthusiastic. Then, I got to see the still classified photographs and films from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Things that make all fiction pale and STILL can disturb my dreams today.
    To me, a nuclear weapon as defense is like using a hand grenade as a defense against a home intruder. Yes, it’ll work, but will the house be useful for anything after? With that great hole in the floor, walls and ceiling, it most certainly won’t be inhabitable!

  49. Rasem Brsiq

    Suppose for a second you’re in the decidedly unenviable position of planning to defend a sizable part of the world — certainly your homeland, at least — from the very real threat of numerous bombers carrying nuclear bombs coming over the horizon, one fine summer day (or, as the case might be, one particularly dark and gloomy midnight).

    Suppose also that you have no accurate anti-air weapons. At least, none accurate enough for the expected numbers of bombers. Especially considering that each bomber that gets away effectively means one more deep-fried city: the only effective defense you have is low-yield nuclear air bursts.

    Finally, suppose that there is the reasonable chance that the attack might come so suddenly that there is the very real possibility that by the time you can scramble your defenses, said bombers will be over populated territories and possibly cities; either your own or friendly ones.

    Taking all that into account, does this test now make more sense to you…?

    And though I have no solid data on the subject, I am sure that earlier tests must have been conducted with instrumentation instead of people: it’s not, after all, the very first air burst nuclear test! But there would still remain the nagging feeling that just maybe a human body would react differently due to unknown or poorly-understood aspects of the human body itself — It’s not just nukes that we now understand better, you know! Especially when the evidence needs to be used to convince non-scientist types: “yes, those numbers are all very well and good and I believe you; I truly do! But tell me, what about the eternal human soul…?”… I know, I know, it’s a ridiculous thought once you consider how all the human race is so perfectly rational and so on… ;-)

  50. Valhar2000

    Is there any safe way to test nuclear weapons? How far away form the Earth would the explosions have to happen to prevent the problems previous tests in space have caused?

  51. Nigel Depledge

    Qguy (44) said:

    The 1950s was not today’s world. Communism really was a geniune threat to the world. The Soviets were publicly dedicated to spreading it globally. And as we know all too well today, communism’s evils are manifold.

    Except that what the Soviets called Communism wasn’t actually communism. IMO, Karl Marx would not have recognised it.

  52. qguy

    @ Nigel (52)

    “Except that what the Soviets called Communism wasn’t actually communism. IMO, Karl Marx would not have recognised it.”

    OK, we’ll stipulate that what the Soviets had was worse. Thank-you for strengthening my point.

  53. Savino

    You americans are the sickest people in the world!!!

  54. Nigel Depledge

    Valhar2000 (51) said:

    Is there any safe way to test nuclear weapons? How far away form the Earth would the explosions have to happen to prevent the problems previous tests in space have caused?

    IIUC, there have never been any nuclear weapons tests in space.

    There have been high-altitude atmospheric tests such as Starfish Prime that the BA mentioned only recently. Perhaps it is to these you refer?

    In terms of how far away a nuke would need to be from Earth to have no effect, I think we can reason this out.

    In terms of the immediate radiation (x-rays, gamma, light, heat) it would probably only need to be a few hundred miles up to have no discernible effect. Our atmosphere is effectively opaque to X-rays and gamma radiation.

    I think the main danger would be from radioactive fragments of the device itself. a fist-sized lump of metal would burn up as it re-entered the atmosphere and form dust that would then gently fall to Earth, in rather the same way as comets and meteorites add dust to the Earth to the tune of about 60,000 tonnes / year. I don’t think we would want a significant amount of radioactive dust spread across the surface of the planet.

    Then again, what is significant? Would 10 or 20 tonnes of radioactive dust spread across a wide area add a measureable amount to background radiation? That I don’t know.

    However, assuming the fragments of the device to be undesireable, one would need to position the device in such a way as to ensure that its debris and the Earth would never meet again. IMO, the best way to do this would be to boost it out of Earth’s gravity well and then decelerate it relative to the Earth’s orbital velocity so it would adopt a lower-energy heliocentric orbit. Preferably a highly-inclined one.

    So, the answer is : it depends where it’s headed.

  55. Nigel Depledge

    @ Qguy (53) -
    While I agree that Soviet leaders (particularly Stalin) were bad guys (to steal the words of GWB), you are still assuming that communism is itself a bad thing.

    While I (and, I guess, you) would not choose to live in a communist society (not even one that applied a pure, Marxist form of communism), that does not make communism intrinsically bad.

    And are there not bad aspects to capitalism too?

  56. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    I stand under the Sun every day, and I have a blast. In fact, in most cases it is the most enjoyable part of a day. [Added in posting: I see #42 got there before me.]

    That said, would I stand near an artificial and non-hydrostatically balanced blast? No.

    Nitpick: It likely was a prepositioned automatic camera, as they used a lot of those and wanted reliable documentation. See #24 for more.

    And what is it with all these throw away “they got cancer and died” nuts? Destructive and so scary doesn’t mean unknowable.

  57. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    #50:

    “Suppose for a second you’re in the decidedly unenviable position of planning to defend a sizable part of the world — certainly your homeland, at least — from the very real threat of numerous bombers carrying nuclear bombs …

    … does this test now make more sense to you…?”

    Defending against nuclear weapons with nuclear weapons? Seems MAD. (O.o)

    Really, outside of military weapon stocks and the citizen gun stocks of US, who uses more of the problem to “solve” a problem?* First rule of holes: when you are in a pit, stop digging.

    ———-
    I can think of exactly one exception, when you *want* to adapt better to a bad situation. Such as using parasites to busy the immune system with triggering on not self instead of auto-immune diseases “self”, or when you learn how to handle accidents by way of training.

  58. qguy

    @ Nigel (56)

    My point was not that communism was/is bad. My point was simply that those involved in what was described by BA’s post were not silly, thoughtless people playing with “toys” (contrary to comment 14). They took what they were doing very seriously indeed.

  59. VinceRN

    A bunch of smart guys that did the math and figured out a visceral way to show that their answers were right.

    Atomic bombs are dangerous and scary, far more so than regular bombs. I certainly hope they are never used or even tested again. However, they are not magic, nor are they evil. They are machines, they are applied science. They are knowable and understandable, and they are predictable.

    These six men used science rather than emotion when looking at these explosions, as should we all.

    Also – to the discussion about Marx and Soviet Communism: Stalin followed all 10 of Marx’s points exactly. Not only would Marx have recognized Soviet Communism, he would have been quite proud of it. Perhaps Marx would not have approved of the murder of so many millions, but he most certainly place the value of the state above that of human life, and would likely have had a problem only with the extraordinary scale of the murders.

  60. Paul A.

    I would have liked to see a continuation of the missile streaking away from the fighter that launched it. It seemed to me like the time between launch and detonation was extremely short, and close to the plane. The planes must have immediately banked sharply to avoid the fireball.

  61. Tom Terrific

    There is a decent Wiki article on the Genie air to air missile. It says the gamma and neutron radiation doses to these men were measured and considered insignificant. I believe one of the men is still alive. This happened 55y ago. The rank insignia I see are field grade so their ages were probably 35-45. Do the math for their ages now.

  62. Nigel Depledge

    Qguy (59) said:

    My point was not that communism was/is bad.

    I recognise this. However, when you say things like:
    Qguy (44) said:

    And as we know all too well today, communism’s evils are manifold.

    This sure sounds like you are assuming that communism is intrinsically bad. My point was that your assumption is unfounded.

    I doubt not that the other point you were making is valid, and I was not disputing it. But in your peripheral commentary you appeared to be making an assumption that I do dispute.

  63. Nigel Depledge

    Vince RN (60) said:

    Also – to the discussion about Marx and Soviet Communism: Stalin followed all 10 of Marx’s points exactly. Not only would Marx have recognized Soviet Communism, he would have been quite proud of it. Perhaps Marx would not have approved of the murder of so many millions, but he most certainly place the value of the state above that of human life, and would likely have had a problem only with the extraordinary scale of the murders.

    I’m not so sure.

    Marx did not espouse that the people should be ruled by an elite minority (the Politburo), nor that members of this elite should be accorded special treatment and privileges. In fact, IIUC, Marx’s ideal was to get rid of the ruling elite, whereas the Soviet form of communism replaced one ruling elite with another ruling elite.

    Although you may indeed have a point about the supremacy of the state, that was not really the thrust of my argument that Stalin’s communism – even if it did follow the Pocket Guide version of Marxism – was not really what Marx was on about.

  64. Gary Ansorge

    I love the discussion of debris. At 20 million Kelvins or so, anything within the immediate blast radius, say 30 feet or so, would be vaporized, ionized and accelerated away from the blast zone at a small percentage of light speed,( in other words, far beyond earths escape velocity), except for the part more or less under the blast and we’ve already discussed that.

    Communism is just another word for communalism, ie, common ownership of societies means of production. It’s the people running the system that are the problem. It’s ALWAYS the bosses that are the problem. Which is why capitalism works at all, because impersonal greed means everyone keeps an eye on the greediest among us…

    GAry 7

  65. Mike

    9. David – see, this clip just makes me wanna watch Trinity and Beyond all over again.

    However, this clip should be watched afterwards. Just to send a real shiver through your bones.

    http://youtu.be/I9lquok4Pdk

    And people wonder why everyone gets cancer these days…

  66. I’d totally do it, if only so that I could say that I did. I doubt there’s a better attention-getting dinner party/pickup line then “Did I ever tell you about the time I stood right under a nuclear explosion?”

  67. MaDeR

    @Nigel Depledge
    I do not care about your excuses and no true scotman fallacies. This is simple: every and each time someone announced they introduce communism to some unlucky country, a greater or smaller mountain of dead bodies follows.

    Why next one, asserting that it is THIS time “real communism” with puppies, rainbows and ponies, would be any different?

  68. Miles Archer

    I stand under a thermonuclear reaction every day. It’s called the sun. And I probably will get cancer from it someday.

    And at night, I stand under thousands of thermonuclear reactions going off.

    Having said that, I sure hope humans don’t use thermonuclear devices as a weapon of war again.

  69. Chew

    The dose the men on the ground received was equal to living in Denver for 6 hours.

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