Nuclear Fear: A History of Images

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Of Americans' fears of a nuclear missile attack, Weart writes: ``The potential threat brought an actual attack of imagery, a renewed eruption of hallucinatory visions across the landscapes of the mind.'' In this discursive analysis, the author of Scientists in Power dabbles in psychology as he discusses multiple symbols and associations that supposedly pervade the public's thinking about nuclear weaponry. Weart examines the U.S. Air Force's mock bomber raids and PR kits designed to promote the ``fantasy'' that apocalypse can be controlled. His chronicle implicitly holds antinuclear activists and environmentalists to be as guilty as the nuclear industry in manipulating facts and images to play on our fears. Moving from the Manhattan Project to Doris Lessing's futuristic novels, he reduces ``atomic bomb anxiety'' to a complex of imagery centered on the polarity between authority figures and victims. (May)
Library Journal
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 development of the subject from ancient legends and horror stories, which long preceded the actuality of nuclear fission, up through the novels and movies of today. He includes descriptions of how governments have systematically attempted to shape public opinion, sometimes with results opposite to what was intended. Meticulously referenced and a worthwhile addition to most libraries. Harold D. Shane, Baruch Coll., CUNY
Boston Globe
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
Los Angeles Times
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.
Philadelphia Inquirer
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
Science
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
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674628359
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 5/10/1988
  • Pages: 552
  • Product dimensions: 6.74 (w) x 9.60 (h) x 1.57 (d)

Meet the Author

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

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Table of Contents

Preface

PART ONE: Years of Fantasy, 1902-1938

1.

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