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The Evolution of Nuclear Fear, 1900-2010


for Members

The Evolution of Nuclear Fear, 1900-2010

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Ave, at 34th Street, Room 9206
The public's image of nuclear energy has been linked, ever since the discovery of radioactivity, with powerful myths. By the 1930s the public associated "atomic energy" with powerful and possibly mad scientists, weird monsters, medical miracles, death rays, planet-wide explosions, dreadful weapons, and cosmic secrets. After the bombing of Hiroshima these science-fiction images came into the cultural mainstream. Official attempts to divert fears with "Atoms for Peace" helped spur the growth of a civilian industry, but in the 1970s many turned their fears toward nuclear reactors and wastes. A new period of this atomic culture began in the late 1980s, when the end of the Cold War quelled fears of an apocalyptic nuclear war and the Chernobyl disaster halted both the expansion of nuclear industry and its passionate opposition. For the new generation, imagery of monsters and rays evoked not so much visceral anxiety as the ironic amusement of postmodern referencing. Yet the mythical themes in nuclear imagery persisted in media from popular movies to video games. Indeed terrorist threats and the proliferation of nuclear weapons in undemocratic nations strengthened one old complex of images, in which untrustworthy scientists merged with tyrants and criminals. All this widespread imagery, however irrational, had practical consequences in matters ranging from nuclear waste storage to national security policies.


Spencer Weart

American Institute of Technology

SPENCER R. WEART, originally trained as a physicist, is a noted historian specializing in the history of modern physics and geophysics. Until his retirement in 2009 he was Director of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics (AIP) in College Park, Maryland, USA, and he continues to be affiliated with the Center.