Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Putting the Genie Back in the Bottle

P1150441a (MK-17, the first gravity-dropped thermonuclear weapon)

You cannot un-discover knowledge, not easily; not without burning whatever version of the Alexandrian Library happens to be the repository of your culture’s knowledge base, and also not without destroying the culture itself.

P1150516a (Early laboratory physics experiment)

There are some arcane technologies, known within past human history, that have been lost to antiquity, that historians and archeologists have done their best to recreate, but with little or limited success, despite their best efforts and most sophisticated computerized tools. The over-confidence evident in our own era’s technical cleverness aside, there are many things which earlier eras knew that we’ve simply forgotten, perhaps lost forever. While I subscribe in large measure to Kevin Kelly’s theory of the Technium (a construct that supposes an all-encompassing, ever-expanding, self-aware sphere of human technology) there is the basic fact that civilizations depend upon their histories to survive, and that a civilization that has lost its heritage, language and culture - and technology - is doomed. Libraries and museums have served for millennia as repositories for a culture’s knowledge-base; destroy the library and you destroy the civilization.

P1150459a (Detail of Titan II I.C.B.M. engine nozzle)

Within the myriads of technical specialties evident today is a field of knowledge which in the 1940s went under the arcane term ”exploding metals”, whose research and development efforts were conducted through the labor of tens thousands of scientists and technicians, by various nations that would (not coincidentally) later form the core of the United Nations Security Counsel, across the span of thirty or more years time, to consume billions of billions of dollars of national treasure, the fruits of which, in large measure, today rest as rusting carcasses upon arcane museum grounds.

P1150394a (Mockup of the Trinity Gadget)

I am referring, of course, to the field of nuclear weapons, the end result of these various research and development efforts being that centerpiece of the Cold War, the nuclear arsenals of the super-power nations; who at best estimate still maintain their global stockpiles at nearly 10,000 warheads in various states of readiness even today, and who continue stockpile maintenance and minimal weapons development at a time when the world’s attention is no longer upon the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation by the super-power nations but rather upon regional conflicts in the Near East.

P1150493a (Titan II missile transporter)

I was born in Albuquerque in 1957, at the height of the Cold War and at a time when enormous thermonuclear weapons were being ignited within the atmosphere by the various super-power nations of the world. Albuquerque was at the center of this weapons research, and every local school-aged kid knew, through word-of-mouth, of the (supposedly) secret arsenal of H-bombs hidden under the mountain, just southeast of town. We were also reminded, the first Tuesday of each month, of the necessity to continue unabated further weapons research (and that put bread upon many of the local family dinner tables, ours included), through the periodic air-raid siren tests that would howl their eerie doomsday cry across town, else the imminent threat of annihilation by the evil communist Soviet empire come to fruition. Now, such fears seem to play out as theatrical melodrama, fueling the scripts of late-night B-grade cinema. But in 1957, and throughout much of the Cold War, such threats loomed all too real.

P1150409a (B-83 thermonuclear megaton-yield gravity bomb, still in active inventory)

Despite the thawing of the Cold War, the rise of nuclear-armed secondary states continues unabated today, despite much effort through international treaty and monitoring agencies to the contrary, and of whose exclusive Nuclear Club the super-power states wish no new members join, though they themselves have not found the political courage to walk the talk and themselves completely disarm. The world, it would seem, is still a dangerous place, too dangerous to beat all of our remaining swords back into plowshares.

P1150437a (MK-53 megaton-yield thermonuclear gravity bomb)

If wishful thinking mattered, it would be a simple matter of wishing the nuclear genie back into the bottle. If pigs could fly, it would be a simple matter of civilization losing all record of the science of nuclear physics and the knowledge gained of how matter and energy function, of how the world around us operates at its most fundamental level. But that is not who we are. As a species, we possess an insatiable appetite for knowledge (and also power, the fruit of the tree of knowledge), to see in ways that are only possible with our own eyes and our own brains, even if in such a search for knowledge (and power) it means that we might come close to destroying ourselves in the process.

P1150478a ("Peacekeeper" I.C.B.M.)

And so the fact remains that humankind will not soon forget how to fashion a nuclear explosive device, the size of a sofa or car, that can destroy a city, despite the best efforts of the Nuclear Club to keep such knowledge sequestered within the friendly confines of the Judeo-Christian, western-European, pro-American camp, even if it becomes an inconvenient fact of history, not deserving of ignorance, that the Russias and the Chinas and the North Koreas and the Indias and the Pakistans and (probably) the Israels of the world are anything but necessarily pro-U.S. in their national intent; nor is it deserving of ignorance that about a dozen other nations, despite having sworn by international treaty to the contrary, possess the technical capability to pursue a nuclear weapons program of their own, including Japan, Brazil, Germany, South Africa and Sweden. (Parenthetically, South Africa is the only nation known to have developed a nuclear weapons arsenal and completely disarmed itself entirely voluntarily, something the United States of America has yet to do.)

P1150474a (M.I.R.V. I.C.B.M. re-entry vehicles)

Yet, reality being stranger than fiction, it is no small irony to consider that, among the many bones and relics from earlier eras found in dusty museums, one could wander in off the street, across from that Mecca of consumer excess known as Costco, and find waiting for one’s perusal the bones and dusty relics of the Cold War, in a place known as the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, in Albuquerque.

P1150427a (B-52 engine nacelles)

I first visited the museum back in the mid-1970s, when it was called the National Atomic Museum and was located on the grounds of Kirtland Air Force Base, directly across the street from the military’s inter-service nuclear weapons school, when it's mission was focused more directly on the notion that the American people deserved, in return for their many years of faithful tax-paying, a history of the nuclear weapons that their government created to (ostensibly) keep them safe. Now, it’s been dumbed-down a bit, its focus more broadly based than the mere military application of nuclear energy that sounds, to the modern ear, so Doctor Strangelove-ish.

P1150465a (Birds have made their nest in the structure of a Titan II I.C.B.M.)

Yet the museum in its newest incarnation, having been moved off-base since 9/11, offers along with its fellow museums at Los Alamos and several other locations around the country a unique opportunity to view close-up some of the hardware of the Cold War that would otherwise remain mere abstract names and nomenclatures in history books.

P1150458a (Titan II first stage liquid-fueled engines)

One is reminded, as you saunter across the museum’s dirt-strewn outdoor display area, of the massive and immensely heavy payloads these early nuclear weapons represented, which required the parallel development of equally massive and powerful bombers and space rockets to deliver toward their intended targets on some other (most likely Asian) continent.

P1150507a (W80 thermonuclear warhead, still in active inventory)

One is also reminded by these museum displays of the rhetoric surrounding the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, and the historic fact that it required of the super-power nations the expenditure of decades of subsequent developmental effort after WWII, and billions of dollars, to miniaturize their first-generation weapons sufficiently to permit their deployment as tactical weapons upon virtually every military platform available.

P1150438a (MK-17 megaton-yield thermonuclear gravity bomb)

One is reminded by these museum displays that, in practical terms, an Iranian nuclear weapon equivalent to the WWII-era Fat Man is simply undeliverable as a practical modern weapon and represents little strategic threat to Israel, though we also know that much political hay would be (and is being) made over such a development by our leaders. Though Iran lacks a fleet of B-52-like bombers (although civilian airliners could serve appropriately enough as surrogate delivery platforms for a primitive, heavy nuke, but would also be too easy to fend off by conventional Israeli anti-air defense systems), and although 9,000-pound, WWII-era nuclear weapons require orbital space rocket capabilities to hoist more than a few hundred miles distance, such threats serve to keep the sheep in alarm and more importantly serve to guarantee the continued employment of the ever-expanding state security apparatus. Fear and the threat of war are, in blunt terms, big business.

P1150422a (B-29 nuclear delivery bomber)

The power of nuclear weapons have always resided in the threat of their eventual use more so than the power of their actual nuclear yield, to be held over the heads of a potential enemy as a threat of Doomsday rather than the actual fact of global suicide. Their political theatrics serve the Iranian (and North Korean) causes as much now as a bargaining ploy as it did our own selfish interests back in the era of the Cold War. Nuclear weapons, it would seem, are most powerful when employed as tools of state-sponsored terrorism, a fact we in America conveniently forget in our smug, post-9/11 righteousness, of which museums such as this serve us well as a reminder.

P1150496a (M.I.R.V. I.C.B.M. re-entry vehicle)

It is no small wonder that (so-called) civilian space flight (and ultimately the Apollo lunar missions themselves) could have happened at all without there first having been these ICBM rockets developed to hoist their massive H-bomb payloads half-way across the world; history proves once again that mankind’s grandest achievement is weaponry and the technology of warfare, another lesson museums such as this offer its patrons who are willing to get past the happy-fluffy, science-is-fun displays that are seemingly all too common in public science-based exhibits as of late (and which propagandize it's patrons with the promise of good, high-tech jobs in the future if you would but do well in school and study real hard).

P1150396a (The Cold War, from the American perspective)

Sometimes the lessons of history, that would do us well to not forget, are not comforting lessons of humankind’s finest achievements; and often we find in those same lessons more questions than answers. We could question whether nuclear weapons were at all an inevitable outcome of western scientific thought, or whether space exploration could have happened at all without having first ridden the coattails of military rocket development. We could question the billions and billions of spent dollars, representing the sweat and toil by millions of citizens over decades of time, as we gaze across the dry, dusty landscape at these rusting carcasses of now-obsolete missiles, aircraft and weapons, wondering for what good they were spent, wondering if they were at all necessary, wondering if they were more dangerous to possess than not; understanding the appeal of other regimes to now possess similar weapons of such concentrated power yet not knowing whether their goal is, like the doctrine of Mutually-Assured-Destruction, a mad quest for unlimited power or mere bargaining chip in some eventual global end-game.

P1150480a ("Peacekeeper" I.C.B.M.)

I wonder if the genie can ever be put back into the bottle, as I wander the displays and eventually leave it all behind as I shake the dust off my feet and return once again to my more mundane life. We lack, as a culture, one grand museum dedicated to the historic fact of the Cold War, which still simmers like some dormant volcano on the back burner, is still too immediately in our past event-horizon to warrant a grander view of, and of whose political tactics our current leaders seem all too eager to retain and employ in ever-creative methods of empire-building. In lieu of such a National Cold War Museum, this one will have to do instead, but any lessons learned will require a more careful introspection and deeper thought than that required of the typical reality-based T.V. show. The museum will wait for yet another return visit, to offer the possibility for more answers, along with a few more questions, because that is what all good museums do.

Post-Script: The complete set of images can be viewed in this Flickr slideshow.

(Text written in iWriter using the iPad 2, photos made with the Lumix G1.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

http://www.flickr.com/photos/31285363@N07/6980098257 shows the tail of a B-29 (or maybe a B-50) rather than the B-52 noted in the caption.

8:44 PM  
Blogger Joe V said...

Good catch, I'll correct the caption. Thanks for reading.

8:02 AM  

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