The above timeline of American atomic bomb tests, from a 1975 Scientific American article written by Herbert York and annotated by Alex Wellerstein, excellently communicates the huge difference in destructive power between fission and fusion bombs. Compare Mike, the first fusion bomb, to the hybrid approaches Item and George, which were stellar yields for their day.
Expressing the destructive power of a fusion bomb is a hard task. The average audience has no benchmark experiences with which to compare the yield of a bomb. Additionally, the challenge in telling the story of the fusion bomb is not only to show its hugeness, but to express the unprecedented nature of its size. Mike was an explosion without compare that shocked all involved.
Scientific American’s visualization is good, but my favorite entrant is the following passage from John McPhee’s examination of our nuclear history The Curve of Binding Energy in which he describes the Mike test:
Mike was placed in a building with metal siding which had been constructed for the purpose on an island called Elugelab, in the northern sector of the atoll. After Mike exploded, nothing whatever remained where the island had been but seawater. The island had disappeared from the earth. The yield of the Hiroshima bomb had been thirteen kilotons. The theoretical expectation for Mike was a few thousand kilotons—a few megatons. The fireball spread so far and fast that it terrified observers who had seen many tests before. The explosion, in the words of Ted Taylor, who was not there, “was so huge, so brutal—as if things had gone too far. When the heat reached the observers, it stayed and stayed, not for seconds but for minutes.” The yield of the bomb was ten megatons. It so unnerved Norris Bradbury, the Los Alamos director, that for a brief time he wondered if the people at Eniwetok should somehow try to conceal from their colleagues back in New Mexico the magnitude of what happened.
The scene of weathered nuclear observers, used to a few seconds of heat, holding the breath as the heat washed over them for minutes has always haunted me. At what point do you think they wondered if it would ever stop?
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