July 18, 2012

"Five Men Agree To Stand Directly Under An Exploding Nuclear Bomb."

"It happened! The mounds are vibrating. It is tremendous! Directly above our heads! Aaah! A perfect shot!... It's a very odd cloud... I've never quite seen a cloud like this from atomic detonation... It was just beautiful."

62 comments:

Unknown said...

So what? Remember, the first experimental test of a controlled nuclear fission reaction took place on a University of Chicago squash court—if it had failed, half of Chicago would have been blown to smithereens!

traditionalguy said...

Orgasmic!

Lyle said...

This reminds of the U.S. Army officers who purposefully contracted malaria to determine once and for all that malaria was transmitted from mosquitos. This happened in Cuba not long after the Spanish-American War.

Everyone volunteered for the experiment and some of the men died.

chickelit said...

Pretty cool. Feynman watched the first one through a pair of welder's glasses and described it.

The genie was out of the bottle. Atmospheric testing was stopped, but the Soviets still needed stopping. Deny that.

chickelit said...

Unknown said...
So what? Remember, the first experimental test of a controlled nuclear fission reaction took place on a University of Chicago squash court—if it had failed, half of Chicago would have been blown to smithereens!

Not true. There would have been uncontrolled fission, heat, fires, radiation poisoning, skin melting, & deaths, but no explosion like that. That required the engineering done at Los Alamos--how to compress the critical material very quickly and precisely.

edutcher said...

Something fishy here.

When the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Ground Zero was the parade ground of the Japanese 15th Area Army, where the HQ company was doing its morning PT.

IIRC, nobody survived.

Although, I have to say the line from the article, "one of the stranger moments is how the bomb bursts in complete silence. We see a sudden white flash.", rings true. I remember a teacher talking about interviewing a Catholic priest who was there, sick in bed, when the bomb was dropped. He said that the first thing he knew, there was a great light, but no sound, and the shock wave picked him up and threw him across the room.

MadisonMan said...

So I wonder if these volunteers had any health issues from the event.

MisterBuddwing said...

According to one of the NPR commenters, the cameraman, George Yoshitake, was interviewed by The New York Times in 2010, at age 82.

My feeling is, if I'm close enough to see a nuclear explosion, that's way too close.

Leland said...

So they were at least 2 miles away from a 2kt nuclear explosion. I don't think they understand radiation all to well, but the other thermal effects were probably not noticeable. Even on radiation, much of the earth's atmosphere is below 18,000 feet. It's not just empty space.

Just some thoughts on why this is entirely possible and not completely crazy.

I do think there's a lot of exageration about the effects of nuclear weapons. Science fiction made up a lot of myths that don't make sense. At the same time, there was some gain in the exageration. It's one thing to stand below a 2kt explosion. But both the US and USSR were getting into the 2megaton level and higher.

I've always been interested in nuclear weapons, because my father, as an officer with SAC, watched one cookoff, though from a few miles horizontal from ground zero.

Paco Wové said...

Something fishy here.

2 kilotons at 18,500 ft. vs. 16 kilotons at 2,000 ft.

edutcher said...

You may be right, but that's still one Hell of a sauna.

Original Mike said...

I might very well have volunteered. It had to have been a hell of an experience. What was their resulting dose?

MisterBuddwing said...

I thought I'd have to pay for the Times article, but here it is, for free:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14atom.html?pagewanted=all

Quaestor said...

If it had failed, half of Chicago would have been blown to smithereens!

No. Bad physics makes bad opinions. If Fermi's reactor had gone rogue the stadium above would have been destroyed by the ensuing explosion and fire (That first reactor used graphite bricks as neutron moderators, which would have burned furiously. The Chernobyl unit also used graphite, btw) along with all the scientists and technicians, but there would have been no Hiroshima-type blast. The Chicago Pile 1 used moderately enriched uranium fuel which cannot sustain a super-critical chain reaction.

The real danger would have been the radioactive debris which could have been spread for miles around, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, and the likely end of Chicago as a habitable city. (Oddly even this scenario is debatable. Recent studies in the evacuation zone around the Chernobyl reactor facility (partly in Ukraine and partly in Belarus) show that wildlife is flourishing like no where else in the region, including megafauna like European bison, red deer, elk and gray wolves. They're all radioactive, often far above the supposed safety limit, and they show no ill effects at all! They live normal life spans, reproduce normally, look and behave just like their non-radioactive kindred elsewhere. Very Odd, indeed; should be a lesson to armchair physicists everywhere.

PS
I see chickelit has beat me to the draw, but I'll post anyway.

damikesc said...

Maybe a dumb question --- but why didn't the EMP issue cause a problem here? Isn't the theory that a nuclear detonation in the atmosphere would kill electronics in a large area?

BarryD said...

"Science fiction made up a lot of myths that don't make sense. At the same time, there was some gain in the exageration."

Science fiction, or just fictional science?

This is an interesting reminder of the "nuclear Winter" scare, with relevance for today: https://www.cfa.harvard.edu/~scranmer/SPD/crichton.html

A lot of the scare was politically motivated. It was easier to try to convince people during the Cold War, that a nuclear exchange would be suicidal and therefore pointless, than it was to convince them that we should just quit making bombs and let the Soviets take over. "Nuclear Winter" was propaganda, not science. The same goes for other scares about using nukes.

That said, nukes have a lot of nasty side effects, to be sure, and I'm glad the Cold War never did erupt into a nuclear exchange.

chickelit said...

damikesc said...
Maybe a dumb question --- but why didn't the EMP issue cause a problem here? Isn't the theory that a nuclear detonation in the atmosphere would kill electronics in a large area?

Electronics that rely on sensitive means of transmission. Back then they still built things clunky but reliable. A camera was a chemo-mechanical device, not electromagnetics.

chickelit said...

@Quaestor: You may not alway get there first but you always cover all the bases.

William said...

I'm not sure what they hoped to prove. Nuclear weapons are our friend? Nuclear explosions are a kind of fun ride? Why waste hours in the tanning salon?..... Whatever they were hoping to prove, they proved the opposite. This film doesn't inspire trust and confidence in the judgement of military officers into whose care nuclear weapons were entrusted.

chickelit said...

@William notes: This film doesn't inspire trust and confidence in the judgement of military officers into whose care nuclear weapons were entrusted.

Perhaps that's why it lay hidden for so long--until the Soviet threat had passed?

Peter said...

Well, it's 1957 and the attitude at the time was that nuclear weapons were just another type of bomb, and infantry could learn to deal with it.

In hindsight, the creation of thermonuclear weapons had already obsoleted that PoV, even it it ever had any validity.

There has also been a significant re-evaluation of the harm caused by ionizing radiation since then.

ndspinelli said...

Michael Crichton gave a great speech comparing the unfounded fear regarding Chernobyl[see Quaestor, aka: Billy Mumy] and global warming. He was promoting his book, State of Fear.

Comanche Voter said...

Oh come off it William.

The "nuclear weapon" these guys were standing under was an anti-aircraft rocket fired by a Northrop F-89. The F-89 was an all weather interceptor routinely flown out of Alaska and the northern part of the United States. Its mission was to defend against incoming Soviet nuclear bombers.

The rocket in question had a nuclear tip. It was intended to be shot into the middle of an incoming bomber fleet. That would have spoiled the Russki pilots' day, and maybe saved a US City.

These Air Force officers whose judgment you question wanted to see what effect use of such a weapon--and an explosion at an altitude of ~20,000 feet might have on people below.

Now the real question(s) are: 1. If the weapon was used against a real Soviet bomber fleet, would there be secondary explosions--i.e. the Russki nukes exploded; and (2) if that happened would it better if it happened over Northern Canada--or over Minneapolis?

Canadian opinion would, understandably, vary from that of folks in Minnysota.

dmoelling said...

The Chicago Pile did not operate for more than a few minutes at very low power (fission products are proportional to power) so the amount of radioactive material was miniscule.

There were three Grad students on top of the pile with liquid cadmium salts to pour into the pile if the control rods failed to enter. I used to work with one of them and I'm pretty sure they all lived to ripe old ages.

You can talk about times filled with fear, but at least then you didn't go into a panic over ingesting homeopathic amounts of chemicals like today. People lived fuller lives

Quaestor said...

Ground Zero was the parade ground of the Japanese 15th Area Army

The aiming point was the Aioi bridge, chosen for its distinctiveness (the bridge was shaped like a capital T). Due to crosswinds Little Boy missed it target by 800 feet to the southeast and exploded directly over the Shima Surgical Clinic. See this picture The 15th Army HQ was about 1200 yards NE.

Richard Dolan said...

"It was just beautiful."

I'm sure it was, in a shock-and-awe way, even for a small nuke.

People are fascinated by the raw power of natural phenomena. Today's version of this would be the videos of the tsumanis that devasted Thailand at Christmas a few years ago, and Japan more recently. It also explains why so many tune in to the Weather Channel for hurricane coverage. The guys standing on the beach as the huge waves pound away are not all that different from these Air Force officers standing (more or less safely) under the bomb explosion.

Donna B. said...

My husband was stationed on Christmas Island during Operation Dominic in 1962. By that time, officers and scientists were wearing protective clothing and dosimeter badges. Enlisted personnel were only issued very dark sunglasses.

Quaestor said...

William wrote:
I'm not sure what they hoped to prove. Nuclear weapons are our friend? Nuclear explosions are a kind of fun ride? Why waste hours in the tanning salon?.....

Witty... very, very witty. You're a veritable Oscar Wilde, are you not?

In the 1950's the USSR was trying every means possible to isolate the US and break up the our alliances. In keeping with that effort the usual suspects (lefty academics at McGill and other Canadian universities as well as reliable journalists) were stirring up resentment over the fact that an attack by Soviet bombers against the US would have been intercepted by US and Canadian fighters over Canadian territory, some of those fighter would have carried Genie air-to-air missiles with nuclear warheads. The Soviets hoped to create a crisis that would have resulted in the imposition of severe restrictions on what weaponry US planes could deploy against a Russian attack, if not sever the alliance all together.

Simply put the demonstration was counter-propaganda. Here endth the lesson.

Indigo Red said...

The only non-volunteer was a Japanese-American. hmmmm

Quaestor said...

William wrote:
I'm not sure what they hoped to prove. Nuclear weapons are our friend? Nuclear explosions are a kind of fun ride? Why waste hours in the tanning salon?.....

Without nuclear weapons the US would have been forced to keep 50 or 60 full strength divisions in Western Europe with their attendant bomber and fighter wings from VE Day to who knows when, even then it's unlikely another general war could have been avoided. A lot of our post-war prosperity came from the fact that we could maintain the peace without a hugely expensive land army in position overseas.

Nukes have kept the peace for 68 years. What other "friend" as done as much for us? Green energy? Here endth another lesson. Stick with me, William, and you'll gain be up to speed on that Modern History in short order.

Quaestor said...

Maybe a dumb question --- but why didn't the EMP issue cause a problem here? Isn't the theory that a nuclear detonation in the atmosphere would kill electronics in a large area?

In 1957 solid state electronics was in its infancy; the working technology was based on vacuum-tubes, what our British cousins call valves. All electronic devices are vulnerable to EMP (inducted overload), but semiconductors are much more so than the tube technology of the Fifties. In fact it wasn't until the "Ivy Mike" test±11 Megatons that the effect was even noticed (Much of the uncertainties surrounding that first thermonuclear detonation comes from the failure of monitoring devices due to EMP)

William said...

I have read the history of WWI. Every year men who went to church on Sunday developed improved weapons to maim and kill their children with greater efficiency and in greater numbers. They were really quite inventive. Gas to liquefy the lungs. Every year a new invention, and it went on year after year.....To date, nuclear weapons have worked out very well for us, but I'm not certain that the final chapter has been written. Black swans don't just poop on derivative markets. I feel a certain amount of unease about the gee whiz enthusiasm those officers demonstrate in the presence of a nurclear explosion. Picture some Iranian officers jumping around in excitement and glee at their first successful nuclear test and tell me that my misgivings are paranoic.

edutcher said...

Quaestor said...

Ground Zero was the parade ground of the Japanese 15th Area Army

The aiming point was the Aioi bridge, chosen for its distinctiveness (the bridge was shaped like a capital T). Due to crosswinds Little Boy missed it target by 800 feet to the southeast and exploded directly over the Shima Surgical Clinic. See this picture The 15th Army HQ was about 1200 yards NE.


The account I read said it exploded directly over the parade ground.

Perhaps the difference between a photo and eyewitnesses (I'm assuming).

YMMV, of course.

chickelit said...

Here's some awe-inspiring old footage of some early H-bomb detonations. When this video first came out, the soundtrack was White Zombie's "Real Solution No. 9" and I swear the guy timed the music and video montage for synergistic effect. The copyright people shut the video down for a while, but the maker redid it with the spacey background music (which kinda sucks). The whole story is in the comments. link

Cedarford said...

This was a test to address Canadian concerns about equipping both the Canadian AF and the USAF with nuclear tipped air to air missiles.
The missiles were nuke tipped because 55 years ago, we couldn't be sure conventional missiles aimed at armored Soviet intercontinental thermonuclear bombers would hit the target or if exploded in proximity cause adequate damage to stop the bomber from reaching Toronto, Boston, Kansas city.
The Canadians were understanding of the threat as part of the Early Warning and Response System....but had concerns about Canadians and Americans setting off nuke bombs above populated Canadian areas. They didn't quite believe SAC and the scientists saying that 2 kilotons, 2 miles up at Soviet bomber altitude...the actual explosion physics would not impact the ground even directly underneath - with heat, blast, or radiation.

To show the Canadians, the test involving the 5 senior US officers and the photographer was setup. The Canadians were convinced, and nuclear armed interceptors flown by the US AND!!! Canadian interceptors were deployed until the mid-60s, when the Canadians said the newer and more accurate conventional air to air missiles would take down even the most robustly built Soviet bomber.

We still deployed the nuke-tipped interceptor missiles in the US until the 70s, and kept ROE that allowed use over water or US-Canadian arctic wasteland.

Interestingly, while GW Bush never flew a nuke-armed mission in the F-102, they were nuke capable and pilots vetted for security and reliability, even in the Reserves....trained in their use over the Gulf waters. If the Soviets suddenly put nuke-armed bombers in Cuba as well as recon ones..(same Bear and Badger bomber). Many intercepts of Soviet bombers in the approaches to the Gulf, off Bermuda, and the East Coast happened in the Cold War.

Several dozen low-yield nuke missiles were kept in ready reserve for US Gulf coast defences up to the mid-70s when Detente finally prevailed.

Many of us vets new this little tidbit about Bush...when the 2004 election sometimes got into how John Kerry was all heroic in a responsible Swift boat position while GW Bush was in some useless, non-challenging Reserve position with no real military responsibilities.
But it was entirely possible in the Cold War that GW Bush could have shown up to duty and been dispatched to intercept and destroy a Soviet bomber or naval vessel if things had gotten bad. Even shown up to find a couple conventional missiles on his wings and one 2-5KT nuke one.
(For those in the know, Bush and much more so McCain were trained and served in the strategic military sphere, while Kerry was a reluctant gunboat skipper and Algore was a journalist accompanied by an assigned bodyguard while he was offbase in Vietnam, as a Senator's son.

Christy said...

When I was but a young lass I'd hear tales from men who were there about flying through the mushroom clouds collecting samples and taking readings, about putting two radiation sources on a desktop with a meter on one side, their eyes and nose glued to the tabletop edge on the other side, and using the eraser ends of pencils to push the sources closer together to watch what happened, about all manner of trying to get usable data. In hindsight they couldn't believe what they had done without protective gear, but at the time, not much consternation.

The stories, btw, came 30 or 40 years on from guys still working or retired from the nuclear/ weapons industry. Still alive and kicking.

Cedarford said...

Quaester, while right about the bomb physics, is incorrect about this, as dmoelling noted:

No. Bad physics makes bad opinions. If Fermi's reactor had gone rogue the stadium above would have been destroyed by the ensuing explosion and fire (That first reactor used graphite bricks as neutron moderators, which would have burned furiously......The real danger would have been the radioactive debris which could have been spread for miles around, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, and the likely end of Chicago as a habitable city.

Some bad physics to Quaestors good physics:

1. dmoelling notes that no real time existed to build up fission products in appreciable amount given the experiment and low power level. Indeed, after the test, the pile was let cool while the data was analyzed for weeks...then the pile was disassembled and moved by hand to trucks to take it away... "Chicago would be ended as a habitable city" is more like a line you would hear from someone dirt ignorant of nuke physics than Quaestor.
2. They had lots of contingencies past SCRAM...the basement was picked so what happened would stay in the basement and not drift over to the Law School...where who knows...lawsuit might have saved the Japs from the Bomb, but doomed half a million invading soldiers.
3. Besides the basement deep in barriers of concrete acting as containment and emergency criticality suppressors, they had fire suppression. They knew with the fuel fissionability level and heterogenous design that water was not a chain reaction moderator, but suppressor...and while graphite burns, it takes a lot to get the burning started..and it is readily quenched by water. So they had new sprinklers routed to the area, had fire hose backup.
(the main fear was not fire spreading, but carbon monoxide and other fire toxins released if the graphite anywhere in the pile ignited and was smouldering.)

chickelit said...

Radiation...yes, indeed...you hear the the most outrageous lies about it

BarryD said...

"Picture some Iranian officers jumping around in excitement and glee at their first successful nuclear test"

It's even more fun to picture them looking at their RADAR screens about 5 minutes later.

chickelit said...

Questioning Cedarford is like tickling a dragon's tail.

Harmless fun.

chickelit said...

I mean, when a dragon looks back at its tail, its called hindsight.

Icepick said...

You want a celebration after a bomb test? The Chinese do that best!

(Video from the great film "Trinity and Beyond....")

Original Mike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leland said...

Barry, I call it all science fiction and really I prefer the word Myth even better. I see very little difference in the development of Greek myths to explain the unknown and what people do today, yet call it science.

In terms of nuclear weapons, a personal interesting myth I remember being told in high school, a nuclear bomb made an area uninhabitable for thousands of year. Yeah, um, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still towns today. Even that revelation didn't shake the belief the purveyor had in the myth. Rather, they just made up other myths to explain how that could be.

Original Mike said...

I put very little effort into this, so hopefully my colleagues aren't watching, but I get a dose estimate of 0.6 Gy.

Though it's likely than none of them suffered ill effects, I withdraw my interest in volunteering.

Icepick said...

An interesting story to go with this one:

If You Are Hit By Two Atomic Bombs, Should You Have Kids?

Original Mike said...

"I remember being told in high school, a nuclear bomb made an area uninhabitable for thousands of year. Yeah, um, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still towns today."

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were air bursts, so the quantities of radioactive isotopes formed were small. Ground bursts, such as would occur if you're trying to take out missile silos, would be much dirtier.

Bill said...

Quaestor said "... That first reactor used graphite bricks as neutron moderators, which would have burned furiously. The Chernobyl unit also used graphite, btw".

I don't think so, actually. Graphite bricks aren't charcoal briquettes. They don't have much surface area, and have to be heated very hot to burn, which they were in Chernobyl but weren't in the Chicago Pile. Also, Chernobyl had water coolant (initially), which allowed the water shift reaction, converting C and H2O to CO, CO2, H and O -- a *very* flammable gas mixture.

Original Mike said...

Anybody who's interested in this stuff (like the first atomic pile in Chicago) will really enjoy "The making of the Atomic Bomb" by Richard Rhodes. Rhodes is very thorough. (Buy it through the Althouse portal, of course.)

chickelit said...

I second that recommendation, OM. Best book out there on the topic.

chickelit said...

@Original Mike: I started but never finished Rhodes' follow-up book "Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb" but I never finished it.

Rocketeer said...

I have read the history of WWI.

Really? The history of WWI? I'm very impressed.

Jackass.

The Drill SGT said...

Leland said...
I've always been interested in nuclear weapons, because my father, as an officer with SAC, watched one cookoff, though from a few miles horizontal from ground zero.


By cook-off, he means the HE wrapper either burned or had a sub-optimal detonation of the HE that would have shattered the bomb. It takes great engineering to achieve the required explosion.

PS: Russian bombs in some Badger would not go off in a close AA nuke explosion. Could they be close enough to fission, maybe, but they would not fusion, and that's where you get Mtons

PPS: Peter said...
Well, it's 1957 and the attitude at the time was that nuclear weapons were just another type of bomb, and infantry could learn to deal with it.


as a soldier, we did deal with it. I trained with downwind pattern planning and alert msgs. For more than a year, I was on 15 min recall to the HQ where we (2 man teams, always 2 man teams of trained officers or NCO's) pulled out code cards to verify msgs coming down from the NCA (whoever was still suriiving in the National Chain of Command). Safes with double locks, pistols, and brief cases chained to wrists. I owned target folders for ADMs and of course we also had attached Nuke capable Arty.

You know what? We thought nukes were pretty good, cause the Russians had to mass to attack, thus were good tragets, while their weren't enough of us to be worth the money :)

Also, not much better to ride out a low level nuke than a tank. It was the thought of Chem warfare and wearing full MOPP gear in a turret that was the unpleasant war.

PPPS: On the topic of training, We used to train with live Blister agent at the Chem course. Diluted 10-1, you'd have to take a pin, dip it in the agent and put it on your arm so you understood why you were training and then run the testing and decon steps. Nasty $hit...

Cedarford said...

Drill SGT - "You know what? We thought nukes were pretty good, cause the Russians had to mass to attack, thus were good tragets, while their weren't enough of us to be worth the money."

Most of us in the military thought nukes were pretty good because they saved us from major wars. They kept the Soviets and Chinese and their proxies in general check from direct attacks on NATO.

We were also happy that in hindsight, the Soviets crippled themselves with spending too much on a large conventional force....causing stagnation and decline of the Soviets.

Of course, these days America is in stagnation and decline. From too many entitlements with to few taxes to support them. Too many wars of adventure with no taxes to support them, just more debt to China. And from squandering our wealth on Chinastuff under free trade that enriches a few Americans at the top at a price of destrction of the middle class.

Now the Russians and Chinese are looking at America and laughing.

And Japanese tourists now like to visit Detroit and see the ruins of the manufacturing plants that helped defeat them.

Original Mike said...

@Chickelit: Me, too! I've started that book at least 3 times and can't get through it. The Atomic Bomb is full of interesting physics. OTOH, Dark Sun was about Soviet espionage (at least the part I got through.)

William said...

Prior to WWI all the sanest and wisest men said that it could never happen. The world was just too interdependent, the consequences would be too catastrophic for war to ever take place. There had been no global confrontation since Napoleon, and this showed that such a conflict could not happen. They were, of course, right about the consequences of war but wrong about its probababilities. The history of the world (I've read the abridged edition, rocketeer) indicates that if a trigger can be pulled, it will be pulled......The nuclear age has been very good to me. I'm sure that in my lifetime we would have had an all out war or two with someone were it not for nuclear inhibitions. But I'am also sure that most Germans--and for more than one or two generations--were net winners of Bismarck's militarism.....There's a good chance that I won't be around to see it, but I predict with absolute certainty that Nagasaki was not the last chapter written in the history of nuclear warfare.

Phil 3:14 said...

ahhh, simpler times.

Rusty said...

Original Mike said...
@Chickelit: Me, too! I've started that book at least 3 times and can't get through it. The Atomic Bomb is full of interesting physics. OTOH, Dark Sun was about Soviet espionage (at least the part I got through.)


Turns out the Rosenbergs were spies after all.

chickelit said...

Turns out the Rosenbergs were spies after all.

That wasn't the truth being bandied about by Madison Progressives in the late 1970s--I recall earnest discussions of their innocence--mostly fueled by Robert Meeropol. It was sad, given he was their son, but he finally admitted their complicity (in part).

dbp said...

I just came to realize this, but that air to air rocket is the same type my dad's squadron deployed.

He flew F101 Voodo fighter interceptors out of Geiger Field (Spokane International Airport) back when he was in the Washington ANG and those planes were equipped to carry the Genie air to air rocket.

Leland said...

dbp, my Dad, a wizzo, flew in F-101s as well, with the TANG 147th. The same unit as W, actually the F-101s replaced W's 102s and thus the reason W left early and finished in Alabama. But yes, the F-101s carried the AIR-2 Genie.

Fortunately, most alert scrambles were for drug smugglers flying planes in from Mexico.

Wally Kalbacken said...

What do their children and grandchildren look like?