Nuclear Fear

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

If the outpouring of words on a topic bears some proportionality to the depth of emotion of the writers, then nuclear energy has certainly touched many people deeply. The massive numbers of articles and books on nuclear matters bear eloquent witness to the concern that nuclear issues have raised. Seeing these mountains of material, a person might reasonably ask: Can anything new be said? Spencer Weart thinks so. Despite other works that have explored the cultural history of nuclear weapons, Weart believes that he can set this history into a new framework of universal psychological symbols predating nuclear energy’s discovery. In the twentieth century these symbols helped shape the social history of nuclear energy.

Weart’s training as a physicist and historian of science admirably prepared him for his task. Born in 1942, he grew up in Larchmont, New York. His studies in physics at Cornell University and the University of Colorado led to a doctorate in astrophysics; after postdoctoral work on a solar telescope at the California Institute of Technology, he went to the University of California at Berkeley to study the history of science. He serves as director of the Center for the History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics in New York City. His previous works include Scientists in Power (1979), a study of the origin of nuclear energy in France.

The main theme of Nuclear Fear: A History of Images is that many beliefs about nuclear energy rest not on facts but on a complex set of emotion-laden images. Weart initially discounted the idea that such images as mad scientists, death rays, and radioactive monsters could have much relevance for the serious study of nuclear issues, but fifteen years of research convinced him that his initial stance was wrong. Scientists, journalists, and politicians forged associations between nuclear energy and its images for their own purposes, and these associations in turn influenced nuclear policy by becoming intertwined with major social and psychological forces. In this way, nuclear imagery played a significant role in twentieth century history.

Those accustomed to approaching nuclear questions through the logical and observational methods of the sciences may encounter difficulties with Weart’s approach. Although he does not eschew evidence from the hard sciences, his methodology relies heavily on depth psychology, sociological studies, and literary analysis. The material on which he employs these methods includes motion pictures, artworks, comic strips, science-fiction novels, and military documents. He has even gone so far as to count numbers of articles on nuclear subjects in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature to show, for example, how optimism and anxiety about nuclear energy rose and fell during certain periods. In the course of his book Weart tries to explain how nuclear images influenced this optimism and anxiety, but because images can be ambiguous and because these associations can be formed by chance as well as by deliberation, the interrelationships that are central to his argument do not have the bite of scientific generalizations. Although criticisms can be brought against the soundness of his methods, his main point is convincing: Images generated by scientists did become popular among nonscientists, and these popular images shaped the context of debate and important decisions. To gain control over the pernicious influence of these images, it is important to understand their evolution throughout recent American history.

Weart’s sweeping story, which runs from the discovery of radioactivity at the end of the nineteenth century to the 1980’s debates over the Strategic Defense Initiative, is structured in five parts. The first, titled “Years of Fantasy,” covers the period from 1902 to 1938 and analyzes such images as the destroyed planet and the transforming ray. The second part, “Confronting Reality,” deals with the period from the discovery of fission in 1939 to the development of the first fusion bomb in 1952. “New Hopes and Horrors,” the third part, concerns the decade from 1953 to 1963 and the campaigns against nuclear tests that resulted in the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty. Part 4, “Suspect Technology,” covers the three decades from 1956 to 1986 and centers on the increasing public suspicion about nuclear weapons and reactors. “The Search for Renewal,” the final part, tries to explain how nuclear energy became symbolically entangled with images of personal and social destruction and rebirth.

According to Weart, these images of cosmic death and rebirth did not originate from experiences with atom bombs. Instead, this imagery can be traced back to a cluster of images centered on transmutation, the alchemist’s dream of changing lead into gold. Early in the twentieth century, the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung discovered that alchemical symbols could illuminate his theory of individuation, the process by which gifted individuals grow into psychic wholeness, but with the risk of psychic disintegration. In a similar way Weart analyzes how radiation became intertwined with popular images of magic rays that could both create and destroy life. In turn, this imagery influenced even sophisticated scientists. For example, Frederick Soddy, who with Ernest Rutherford discovered how radioactive elements changed into other elements, preached that the understanding of atomic energy would lead humanity either to Paradise or to Hell. Nuclear energy as a highly charged symbol for the transmutation of human destiny into utopia or apocalypse was promulgated as well by science-fiction writers. For example, H. G. Wells in his 1914 novel The World Set Free, which was dedicated to Soddy, showed that a radioactive chain reaction could lead to atom bombs, an amazing prevision of what was to come.

Marie Curie’s discovery of radium revealed the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of radioactivity as both an elixir of life and a deadly poison. Radium rays were used to treat cancer patients, many of them successfully, but these rays could themselves also cause cancer. In the 1930’s, however, the beneficent face of radioactivity was...

(The entire section is 2533 words.)