A-Bomb Dream #2 – 2004 review of “100 Suns” by Michael Light in Nthposition.com

A-Bomb Dream #2 – 2004 review of “100 Suns” by Michael Light in Nthposition.com

Nuclear angst was a staple for those who were old enough to be aware of the oft-trumpeted apocalyptic threat in the 1980s. In the 1990s it became a lot less real, and even the current revival of Coldish War between the USA and Russia has not, it seems, made the nuclear nightmare quite as vivid as it was. In the previous post I resurrected my review of Stephen Walker’s “Shockwave” about the Hiroshima bomb and the events leading up to it.All the undeniable technical and logistical brilliance ultimately came down to the dealing out of terrible deaths by the thousand. “100 Suns” was an even more vivid illustration of the reality of nuclear weapons. There is an absorbing gallery of the images at Michael Light’s Site

100 SUNS: MOTH/2 Kilotons/Nevada/1955


100 suns

by Seamus Sweeney

[ bookreviews ]

“Nagasaki destroyed by the magic of science is the nearest man has yet approached to the realization of dreams that even during the safe immobility of sleep are accustomed to develop into nightmares of anxiety.” – JG Ballard, The Terminal Beach


San Francisco photographer Michael Light has assembled 100 photographs of United States atmospheric nuclear tests in the Nevada desert and various atolls in the Pacific from 1945 to the relocation of such tests underground in 1962. Many of these images have been until recently classified. The title comes from Robert Oppenheimer’s quote from the Bhagavad Gita, on seeing the successful test of ‘Trinity’ in June 1945: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst forth at once in the sky, that would be like the splendour of the Mighty One… I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Oppenheimer could have evoked Yeats’ “a terrible beauty is born”, for “terrible beauty” is the term for these majestic images of barimaginable destructive power.

100 SUNS: TRINITY /21 Kilotons/New Mexico/1945

There’s something about the scale of the destruction wrought by nuclear weapons that beggars the imaginative faculty. The beauty of 100 Suns is a numbing one, image after image of gigantic explosions, of fierce red sunsets that promise apocalypse. The mushroom cloud was naturally co-opted by Andy Warhol for one of his silkscreen reproductions of mass-produced images of disaster, 1965’s ‘Atomic Bomb’. The images in 100 Suns resensitise; this is a glimpse into the inferno, the blood-red sunrises and sunsets of the Pacific tests teaser trailers for the last day of human life. We realise again what nuclear weapons mean.

The most incredible images are those in which human beings share the frame with the fireworks; the US military wanted to assess the ability of combat troops to carry out operations in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear strike – thus an initially banal image of helicopters flying towards the horizon takes on new significance once one realises that they are flying towards the debris cloud of a nuclear explosion. We see troops huddle in trenches, showered by sparks from the detonation of ‘Simon’ before “ground and air shockwaves will toss them like dolls, then fill their mouths with radioactive dust.” We see strange, almost bleached images of military brass viewing, clad in eerie protective goggles. Another image simply shows five GIs staring open-mouthed at the ‘Dog’ test – significantly the only named individuals to appear in the photos. Light’s selection manages the seemingly impossible – humanising the moment of nuclear detonation.

Most of the images were taken by the Air Force 1352nd Photographic Group based at Lookout Mountain Station, a secret Hollywood facility which utilised the latest photographic technology for the military. The scale of Lookout Mountain’s activity can be appreciated by the fact that 1946’s ‘Baker’ test at Bikini Atoll was filmed and photographed to such a degree that a world wide shortage of film stock ensued for a number of months.

The tests were given bland – ‘Stokes’, ‘Hood’, ‘Sequoia’ – or facetious – ‘Little Feller’ – names, (and why have military operations now been given names like ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, as opposed to the cryptic domestic objects and fauna of yesteryear?) almost comically at variance with the literally apocalyptic seriousness of the operation.

Light’s closing essay and concluding captions for each photo ain much fascinating, terrible information. Phrases like “an explosion greater than all those of World Wars I and II combined” recur with numbing frequency. In their dry way, with their litany of desert towns ravaged by tumours, islanders relocated and official deceit and denial at every turn, the captions illuminate the lunacy that surrounded the whole nuclear enterprise. The victims of nuclear testing – the town of St George, Utah; the still uninhabitable Bikini Atoll; the Japanese trawler Daigo Fukuryu Maru; John Wayne, Susan Hayward and other members of the cast and crew of The Conqueror – their fate is one which once (and now again?) seemed to threaten us all.

Of course, there would be a place for a Soviet and indeed Chinese 100 Suns, with their own catalogues of casualties and cover-ups. The publicity material for the book claims “one of the virtues of the book is its emphasis on data not on argument”, implying that this in a way a sober, “value-free” presentation of images. This is true up to a point; there are no rending images of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, Light’s essay is sober and powerful, and concludes with the fervent and (I would hope) incontestable invocation: “May no further nuclear detonation photographs be made, ever.” However, it can hardly be a coincidence that the chronology that concludes the book includes the accession of George W Bush, and that of no other President. Not when the chronology later observes, in its entry on the February 2002 publication of the Nuclear Posture Review, that “not since the first term of the Reagan Administration are nuclear weapons so emphasised in US defensive strategy”

And of course merely presenting these images, without any comment of any kind is a far from “value-free” act. This is the reality of nuclear testing. Light observes that the transfer of testing underground brought cultural invisibility and secrecy. “Photographs only tell us about the surface of things, about how things look. When it’s all we have, however, it’s enough to help understanding. It exists. It happened. It is happening.”

A-Bomb Dream #1 – review of Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima by Stephen Walker – 2005, Nthposition

My more recent Management Secrets of the Manhattan Project post in The Dabbler was inspired by reading Leslie Groves’ “Now It Can Be Told”, but it was this book that inspired me to read “Now it Can Be Told”



by Seamus Sweeney

[ bookreviews ]

In the foreword to Einstein’s Monsters, Martin Amis dilated on how terrible nuclear weapons made him feel. They made Martin Amis feel really bad. I guess most of us can empathise, but nuclear weapons made Martin Amis feel really, really bad. He wanted to vomit. You got the feeling he wanted to perform other bodily functions. If nuclear weapons were really, really bad, the thought of nuclear weapons was, perhaps surprisingly, rather worse. Amis quoted some, to be honest rather mild, examples of nuclear jargon and, metaphorically, turned to the reader his face a rictus of disgust, and said “look at that! Unimaginable. Unimaginable!” Martin seemed to be doing his best to preserve his moral purity by telling us how unimaginable nuclear weapons are. It’s a precursor of his style in Koba The Dread, from which one might imagine Stalin’s worst crime was destabilising the Amis-Hitchens axis.

As Peter Hennessy points out in his introduction to The Secret State, his scholarly study of the elaborate network of bunkers and security installations drawn up by Whitehall in response to the nuclear threat of the Cold War, the men and women who worked on this were not parodic Dr Strangelove figures, but ordinary enough human beings. When it comes to considering the existence of nuclear weapons, wringing our hands and saying how unimaginable it all is and how much we’d like to vomit won’t do.

Another trope often used discussing things nuclear – more particularly the Manhattan project – is to ply up the mythic aspect of it all. Robert Oppenheimer is cast as Faust, or Prometheus, with General Leslie Groves as Mephistopheles. This is the mode of James Thackara’s America’s Children, and it would seem of the forthcoming John Adam’s opera Dr Atomic. While artistically satisfying, and hinting at perennial themes about the hubris (and, one fears but hopes not, nemesis) of technical knowledge, this tends to obscure that the Manhattan project – and the subsequent use of the bomb as an instrument of war – was a gigantic technical problem that became an enormous moral and political one.

Stephen Walker focuses on three weeks from the Trinity Test on July 15 1945 up to the 24 hours following the dropping of “Little Boy” on Hiroshima. The wider political and moral issues are alluded to, and reading carefully, it is clear his sympathies are with those who opposed the bomb’s use, or felt it should be used as a demonstration. However, this is a work of straight reportage. I would hazard a guess that most of nthposition’s readership would be anti-nuclear and regard the development and use of the bomb as an unalloyed disaster, yet readers of every point of view will be swept along in the breathless narrative. Such issues as the enormous toll of the invasion of Okinawa, and the projected casualties of a Japanese invasion, are discussed, although readers will have to go to other sources to fully explore these topics.

From the Trinity test site to Hiroshima in the days before the bombing to Potsdam where Truman finally had the trump card over Stalin (who, via Klaus Fuchs, knew all about the bomb already) that allowed him to feel a world statesman at last to Tinian Island where the 509th Composite Group – who dropped the two bombs that killed perhaps a quarter of a million people and whose only wartime casualty was a military policeman who injured his hand disarming an old Japanese shell – were awaiting a mission that they had only been told would “win the war.” (only in flight were the crew of Enola Gay told they were “delivering” an atomic bomb) Walker’s story spans the globe and is yet strangely intimate. This is the story, ultimately, of a few men.

Lacking an index, and occasionally written in “journalistese” (the adjective “brilliant” is thrown around rather too liberally to describe the Manhattan project scientists, for instance. It may be true, but it isn’t all that helpful), the book nevertheless cracks on at an impressive pace. The Manhattan Project story is familiar, the story of how the bomb was actually dropped is less so. It exerts an equally terrible fascination. Like the documentary maker he is, Walker has an eye for the telling details.

For instance, those who like to see Robert Oppenheimer as a bruised spirit, manipulated by the Machiavellian General Groves, readying the bomb despite his best intentions, might be interested in a couple of cameos from Walker. Immediately after the success of the Trinity test, “his old friend Isidor Rabi watched him as he strode across the camp. Something in Oppenheimer’s bearing chilled his flesh. ‘I’ll never forget the way he walked,’ he said later. ‘It was like High Noon – I think it’s the best I could describe it – this kind of strut. He’d done it.’ Gone was the fragile self-doubt, replaced by something quite different: the intoxicating certainties of power.”

Later, after learning from Groves that – in the words of an announcer who, in fairness to him, had no idea what exactly he was announcing – that there had been a “successful combat drop” of one of Los Alamos’ “units” – Oppenheimer entered the lab’s weekly colloquium of scientists: “Edward Teller, the father of the future hydrogen bomb, recalled a colleague shouting out, ‘One down!’ Another scientist never forgot Oppenheimer’s behaviour as he mounted the stage: ‘He entered that meeting like a prizefighter.’ And like a prizefighter he clasped his hands together over his head in the classic boxer’s victory salute.”

These glimpses into Oppenheimer’s psyche are typical. There are lots of similar touches. In a way it serves as a starting point for further exploration. We read of Secretary of War Harry Stimson as he tried to push for a final diplomatic solution – but too gently, and too late. He did manage to restrain Groves’ enthusiasm for destroying Kyoto, the traditional Japanese capital. Stimson’s affection for the city stemmed from two visits he had made with his wife in the Thirties. While Groves thought that the destruction of the beautiful cultural centre would smash Japanese morale instantly, Stimson feared – or stated he feared, for who knows if this cultured man perhaps really feared being too easily able to visualise the destruction that would be wrought – that this would lead to even more suicidal defiance. Thus Kyoto was spared, to Hiroshima’s cost.

We read too of the men who made up the 509th Composite Group, of its driven, methodical commander Colonel Paul Tibbets, who didn’t mind what wildness the crack pilots in the Composite Group got up to, as long as they Seeing General Leslie Groves as Mephistopheles may overplay the mythic overtones a little, but he certainly had a preternatural genius for picking the perfect men for each job. Oppenheimer’s secretary later bluntly claimed that the married Groves “was almost certainly in love with Oppenheimer. She remembered Groves saying, ‘he has the bluest eyes you’ve ever seen, and they look right through you.'” Perhaps after all the Faust-and-Mephistopheles mythologising is done with, we could see the extraordinary relationship as something closer to Tristan and Isolde – an impossible love consummated only in oblivion.

The early chapters concentrate mainly on the Americans. As the book progresses, Walker introduces the stories of the citizens of Hiroshima. There’s Isao Wada, a volunteer in a suicide boat squadron which would on August 6 1945 act as life savers rather than destroyers. Wada, as enthusiastic and as brainwashed as any other Japanese before that date – he did volunteer for a suicide squadron after all – thought immediately on the bomb’s impact that “The boats were irrelevant now. It was obvious to Wada that the enemy who had done this were far beyond anything he and his fellow cadets could do. Their bombs were too big.” There are doctors and teenage schoolgirls (diverted to war work) and photographers and the whole panoply of human life. There is, inevitably, a sense in which their stories focuses on the details of their ordinary life, while the American stories are all military or scientific or political or a mix of all three.

This is not a “final word” on Hiroshima, on the Manhattan Project, on the history of atomic weaponry since. It is a fast-paced book, as exciting as a thriller, about three weeks that in every sense shook the world. We know what happens, but we keep reading. Like Moondust, Andrew Smith’s account of the moon landings, it restores the strangeness, the technical brilliance, “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing” – but in this case the result was apocalyptic destruction rather than a brief moment of inspiration. The statement that August 6 1945 changed the world forever is a cliché. This book forces the reader to realise the truth of that statement. Stephen Walker’s achievement of telling a barely believable story without hyperbole or excess mythologising deserves wide recognition and readership.


Nthposition review of The Invisible Century: Einstein, Freud and the Search for Hidden Universes, 2004

 One of the most memorable books I reviewed for nthposition. I have written before that time has modified some of my judgments, usually tempering enthusiasms a little. The years since have not, I think, changed the relative positions of Einstein and Freud all that much in the intellectual firmament. Here’s an article on their 1927 meeting from a Slovene website…


The invisible century

Richard Panek


by Seamus Sweeney

[ bookreviews ]

The first thing that surprised me about this book was that it existed at all. Richard Panek, who has been a science writer for the New York Times and Esquire, has written an exciting, fast-paced account of how Einstein and Freud, the two Jewish titans who would be expelled from the pure corpus of Aryan science by the Nazis, exploded our view of ourselves.

For while Einstein’s status as a demigod of science is unchallenged, despite some carping biographies and his refusal to accept the possibility that God might play dice, Freud is barely regarded as a scientist anymore. Einstein has become the archetype, the literal icon (what a pity that wonderful word icon is now so grossly overused, describing footballers and 10-day wonder pop singers) of 20th century science. The title of one of the many books written decrying Freud alone point to his loss of status, ‘Freudian Fraud’, epitomises many people’s feelings about Freudianism. At best a waste of time, at worst a sinister quasireligious pseudoscience – this is the widespread view of Freudianism.

Freud has been steadily attacked over the 66 years since his death. As his papers and correspondence have continued to be published, ethics questionable by the standards of any day and a cavalier dogmatism have become documented. As psychiatry and clinical psychology become more and more driven by the need to be “evidence-based” and the concomitant drive for efficiency, the long-term treatment that is psychodynamic psychotherapy is often derided as a timewasting “therapy for those with deep pockets”, the ‘YAWIS’ (young, attractive, wealthy, intelligent, successful)

Thus, to encounter a book which treats Einstein and Freud as equals is something of a surprise. Panek deals well with the many and varied criticisms of both. However, the general tone of the book is one of admiration. These men revealed the hidden universes of relativity and the unconscious, proving the truth uttered by Hamlet that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of your philosophy, Horatio.”

Panek begins with the one and only meeting between Freud and Einstein, during the New Year’s Holiday season of 1927. Freud was staying with one of his sons in Berlin, and Einstein called on him. As Panek writes, “Freud and Einstein shared a native language, German, but their respective professional vocabularies had long since diverged, to the point that they now seemed virtually irreconcilable.” Freud wrote to a friend afterwards that “he understands as much about psychology as I do about physics, so we had a very pleasant talk.”

This meeting is the starting point for six breathlessly exciting chapters. It is one of the best explications of Einstein’s thinking in a historical context that I have read. The story of the exhaustion of late-19th century physics is well-known; the apparent belief that all that could be known was known suffuses the physics of the day. The difficult, daydreaming Zurich patent clerk would change all that.

What is less well remembered is how deeply it was felt in neurology and psychiatry – from today’s perspective, disciplines nascent in extremis – that the end of psychology was in sight. With a good enough microscope, the brain would yield up its secrets as easily as the rest of the body had once anatomy began to proceed in a scientific manner. The French mathematician Pierre-Simon de Laplace wrote in the late 1700s that “an intelligence knowing, at a given instance of time, all forces acting in nature, as well as the momentary position of all things of which the universe consists, would be able to comprehend the motion of the largest bodies of the world. Nothing would be uncertain, both past and future would be present.” Laplace’s idea was taken up not just by physicists grappling with the mechanics of the “largest bodies of the world” but by the new psychologists also.

Panek traces the development of 19th century neurology, its splendid achievement in identifying so many neuroanatomical and indeed neurocellular structures, and its corresponding failure to achieve a Laplace-like understanding of the mind. The neuron was not the end of psychology. Freud, it is often forgotten, trained as a neurologist and always claimed a rigorously scientific worldview. Seeing himself as a researcher first and foremost, he was forced to take up lucrative clinical practice to support his wife and family. This practice would be the research that secured Freud’s fame – or infamy – forever. He began to explore the defence mechanisms of the people who came to consult him, their resistance to exploring certain topics or to express certain thoughts, and that very resistance became the stuff of what psychoanalysis would become.

Panek tells his story superbly. The chapters rattle by. Freud once wrote that the years of struggle, in retrospect, are the ones that fill a man’s heart most, and both of these parallels lives are dominated by the years of (relative) obscurity. This is perfectly proper in a book about the ideas of these two men rather than their lives, and makes a refreshing change from some scientific biographies that concentrate at great length on the later, public figure, and skimp over the early breakthroughs that made the subject worthy of attention in the first place.

Einstein’s relativity and Freud’s unconscious are revealed as the pivotal events in, not just science in the general sense, but in our own understanding of ourselves. Even if you are utterly dismissive of Freud and all psychoanalysis, or in the less likely circumstance that you are utterly dismissive of Einstein and all relativity, I urge you to continue your argument with this book.

Further notes on the cultural hegemony of television

I have blogged before  on television’s rise, rather than fall, in recent years, to become (seemingly) the dominant cultural force. I am always struck, when logging onto twitter, to see that the trending topics are dominated by television (#latelateshow, #ptinvestigates, #cblive) or sport (which is on television) So much for the decentralising, do-it-yourself culture that the internet was supposed to bring to us.

I was struck while reading this somewhat ho-hum Daily Telegraph story by this:

The issue will be debated in the House of Lords on Monday and Mr Purnell says peers must back a an amendment to force television service providers to give top billing to the corporation.

“If we don’t update the rules, we’re at serious risk of losing something very special about our British culture,” Mr Purnell argues.

“This isn’t about forcing people to watch public service programmes, or stopping anyone watching American shows we all love. It is about making sure you can find them easily”


The line “American shows we all love” is perhaps not one I should overinterpret, but I am going to do so anyway – surely it is indicative of a kind of flattening of cultural interests. I have never really seen the appeal of a certain kind of glossy, slick US TV show which flaunts a kind of superficial realism and knowingness, a kind of self-congratulatory “good writing”, a kind of moral superiority… and is expertly packaged to manufacture a kind of cult-like enthusiasm. The endless one-liners, the monocultural worldview (with a superficial emphasis on “diversity”), the remorseless sense of a corporate agenda wrapped up in superficially rebellious dress.

I know I have used the word “superficial” quite a lot there.

And I have given no actual specific examples.

To hell with it – let’s just say that if you talk about “American shows we all love”, include me out.

Yeats on Kipling: “I dislike his works so much that I feel sure it must have something to teach me”

A letter to the TLS:

Sir, – Jan Montefiore’s review of Alexander Bubb’s book on Kipling and Yeats (February 24) deserves a footnote. The Irish journalist Lionel Fleming, while on the staff of the Irish Times, met Yeats several times. On one occasion Yeats remarked: “It might surprise you to know what I am reading. It is Kipling. I dislike his works so much that I feel sure it must have something to teach me” (see Fleming’s Head or Harp, 1965).

University of Bamberg, 96045 Bamberg.

There’s also an interesting letter from Martin Scorsese responding to a review of “Silence” (at the same link)

“People who are not expecting to cry will cry.”

“People who are not expecting to cry will cry.”

I would not necessarily expected to have found an article on what will happen when Queen Elizabeth II dies as gripping as I did, but Sam Knight’s piece in the Guardian is a fascinating, and in ways disturbing read.


While Knight reveals some of the hitherto secret details – such as “London Bridge is down” as the code phrase to mark Elizabeth’s death – and discusses the immediate issues of Charles’ succession – the real interest of the piece is the psychological impact that the Queen’s death will have:

More overwhelming than any of this, though, there will be an almighty psychological reckoning for the kingdom that she leaves behind. The Queen is Britain’s last living link with our former greatness – the nation’s id, its problematic self-regard – which is still defined by our victory in the second world war. One leading historian, who like most people I interviewed for this article declined to be named, stressed that the farewell for this country’s longest-serving monarch will be magnificent. “Oh, she will get everything,” he said. “We were all told that the funeral of Churchill was the requiem for Britain as a great power. But actually it will really be over when she goes.”

Knight links this to Brexit, to the possibility (again) of Scottish independence. Elizabeth’s coronation, in ways, marked the beginning of television age in Britain, and her death and burial will no doubt be over-interpreted in ways, but Knight’s piece is compelling in its evocation of an inevitable event that will mark a more than symbolic watershed.

queen coinwarhol_2348861k

The most arresting line is at the end of this paragraph (though I do wonder how Brian Masters could possibly have come up with his estimate):

People will be touchy either way. After the death of George VI, in a society much more Christian and deferential than this one, a Mass Observation survey showed that people objected to the endless maudlin music, the forelock-tugging coverage. “Don’t they think of old folk, sick people, invalids?” one 60-year old woman asked. “It’s been terrible for them, all this gloom.” In a bar in Notting Hill, one drinker said, “He’s only shit and soil now like anyone else,” which started a fight. Social media will be a tinderbox. In 1972, the writer Brian Masters estimated that around a third of us have dreamed about the Queen – she stands for authority and our mothers. People who are not expecting to cry will cry.

No matter what one thinks of monarchy – or The Monarchy – this is one of those instances where I can only urge Read The Whole Thing. Knight writes that the life expectancy for a 91 year old is four and half years – but of course Elizabeth has very good maternal genes for longevity, and London Bridge is likely to have some years yet before falling.