Nuclear Fear: A History of Images

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Harvard University Press, 1988 - Science - 535 pages
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Our thinking is inhabited by images-images of sometimes curious and overwhelming power. The mushroom cloud, weird rays that can transform the flesh, the twilight world following a nuclear war, the white city of the future, the brilliant but mad scientist who plots to destroy the world-all these images and more relate to nuclear energy, but that is not their only common bond. Decades before the first atom bomb exploded, a web of symbols with surprising linkages was fully formed in the public mind. The strange kinship of these symbols can be traced back, not only to medieval symbolism, but still deeper into experiences common to all of us.

This is a disturbing book: it shows that much of what we believe about nuclear energy is not based on facts, but on a complex tangle of imagery suffused with emotions and rooted in the distant past. Nuclear Fear is the first work to explore all the symbolism attached to nuclear bombs, and to civilian nuclear energy as well, employing the powerful tools of history as well as findings from psychology, sociology, and even anthropology. The story runs from the turn of the century to the present day, following the scientists and journalists, the filmmakers and novelists, the officials and politicians of many nations who shaped the way people think about nuclear devices. The author, a historian who also holds a Ph.D. in physics, has been able to separate genuine scientific knowledge about nuclear energy and radiation from the luxuriant mythology that obscures them. In revealing the history of nuclear imagery, Weart conveys the hopeful message that once we understand how this imagery has secretly influenced history and our own thinking, we can move on to a clearer view of the choices that confront our civilization.

Table of Contents:


Part One: Years of Fantasy, 1902-1938

1. Radioactive Hopes
White Cities of the Future
Missionaries for Science
The Meaning of Transmutation
2. Radioactive Fears
Scientific Doomsdays
The Dangerous Scientist
Scientists and Weapons
Debating the Scientist's Role
3. Radium: Elixir or Poison?
The Elixir of Life
Rays of Life
Death Rays
Radium as Medicine and Poison
4. The Secret, the Master, and the Monster
Smashing Atoms
The Fearful Master
Monsters and Victims
Real Scientists
The Situation before Fission

Part Two: Confronting Reality, 1939-1952

5. Where Earth and Heaven Meet
Imaginary Bomb-Reactors
Real Reactors and Safety Questions
Planned Massacres
"The Second Coming"
6. The News from Hiroshima
Cliché Experts
Hiroshima Itself
Security through Control by Scientists?
Security through Control over Scientists?
7. National Defenses
Civil Defenses
Bombs as a Psychological Weapon
The Airmen

Part Three: New Hopes and Horrors, 1953-1963

8. Atoms for Peace
A Positive Alternative
Atomic Propaganda Abroad
Atomic Propaganda at Home
9. Good and Bad Atoms
Magical Atoms
Real Reactors
The Core of Mistrust
Tainted Authorities
10. The New Blasphemy
Bombs as a Violation of Nature
Radioactive Monsters
Blaming Authorities
11. Death Dust
Crusaders against Contamination
A Few Facts
Clean or Filthy Bombs?
12. The Imagination of Survival
Visions of the End
Survivors as Savages
The Victory of the Victim
The Great Thermonuclear Strategy Debate
The World as Hiroshima
13. The Politics of Survival
The Movement
Attacking the Warriors
Running for Shelter
Cuban Catharsis
Reasons for Silence

Part Four: Suspect Technology, 1956-1986

14. Fail/Safe
Unwanted Explosions: Bombs
Unwanted Explosions: Reactors
Advertising the Maximum Accident
15. Reactor Poisons and Promises
Pollution from Reactors
The Public Loses Interest
The Nuplex versus the China Syndrome
16. The Debate Explodes
The Fight against Antimissiles
Sounding the Radiation Alarm
Reactors: A Surrogate for Bombs?
Environmentalists Step In
17. Energy Choices
Alternative Energy Sources
Real Reactor Risks
"It's Political"
The Reactor Wars
18. Civilization or Liberation?
The Logic of Authority and Its Enemies
Nature versus Culture
Modes of Expression
The Public's Image of Nuclear Power
19. The War Fear Revival: An Unfinished Chapter

Part Five The Search for Renewal

20. The Modern Arcanum
Despair and Denial
Help from Heaven?
Objects in the Skies
Mushroom and Mandala
21. Artistic Transmutations
The Interior Holocaust
Rebirth from Despair
Toward the Four-Gated City

A Personal Note
Sources and Methodology

Reviews of this book:
Nuclear Fear is a rich, layered journey back through our 'atomic history' to the primal memories of monstrous mutants and mad scientists. It is a deeply serious book but written in an accessible style that reveals the culture in which this fear emerges only to be suppressed and emerge again.
--Ellen Goodman, Boston Globe

Reviews of this book:
A historical portrait of the quintessential modern nightmare...Weart shows in meticulous and fascinating detail how [the] ancient images of alchemy-fire, sexuality, Armageddon, gold, eternity and all the rest-immediately clustered around the new science of atomic physics...There is no question that the image of nuclear power reflects a complex and deeply disturbing portrait of what it means to be human.
--Stephan Salisbury, Philadelphia Inquirer

Reviews of this book:
A detailed, probing study of American hopes, dreams and insecurities in the twentieth-century. Weart has a poet's acumen for sensing human feelings ... Nuclear Fear remains captivating as history...and original as an anthropological study of how nuclear power, like alchemy in medieval times, offers a convenient symbol for deeply-rooted human feelings.
--Los Angeles Times

Reviews of this book:
Weart's tale boldly sweeps from the futuristic White City of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and the discovery of radioactivity in 1896 through Hiroshima and Star Wars... (An] admirable call for synthesis of art and science in a true transmutation that takes us beyond nuclear fear.
--H. Bruce Franklin, Science

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User Review  - DarthDeverell - LibraryThing

In Nuclear Fear: A History of Images, Spencer R. Weart draws upon the techniques of cultural history to examine popular perceptions of atomic and nuclear radiation from the late nineteenth through ... Read full review

Nuclear fear: a history of images

User Review  - Not Available - Book Verdict

People share many common beliefs about the danger and promise of nuclear power. Weart ( Scientists in Power ) shows us the historical and psychological roots of our ambivalent feelings. He traces the ... Read full review


Radioactive Hopes
White Cities of the Future 5 Missionaries for Science
Radioactive Fears

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About the author (1988)

Spencer R. Weart is Director Emeritus of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics.

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