Built on Facts


Ok, ok, I admit there’s post-1900 classical that I really like. Copland and Gershwin in particular were mentioned by a number of people, and both are great. I made my first acquaintance with Copland when I was a little kid watching a NASA documentary, and in the background of some dramatic launch was his Fanfare for the Common Man. Gave me chills.

Now to the actual post:

I’m thankful for many, many things. One of them is having the next few days off from school. Now large parts of that time off are going to be spent studying, but that’s not a bad deal considering there will also be tremendous amounts of family-cooked food.

I hope you all have a great Thanksgiving, and I’ll be back here Friday (possibly Saturday). Until then, how about another picture of physics history?

This is the Joe-1 test at Semipalatinsk. It was the first Soviet nuclear weapons test, held in August of 1949. In fact, this gives us something else for which to be thankful: the cold war never saw them used in combat despite a number of very close calls. Here’s hoping it stays that way.



  1. #1 Miko
    November 26, 2008


    Thanks, fixed. -Matt

  2. #2 Asad
    November 26, 2008

    I always felt the Star Trek: Deep Space 9 theme song was strongly reminiscent of Fanfare for the Common Man (which really is a great composition).

  3. #3 KevinL
    November 26, 2008

    Are you thankful that only the soviet weapons never got used in anger? Because of course, nuclear bombs have been dropped (on civilian targets no less), and there’s an ongoing ugliness about the use of depleted uranium munitions in modern warfare (see http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/national/95178_du12.shtml as a random example)

    Perhaps just thankful they haven’t been used on some people…

  4. #4 Eric Lund
    November 26, 2008

    Kevin, Matt’s statement is true: Nuclear weapons have not been used in anger since 1945. There has been nuclear saber rattling on several occasions (not just the Cuban missile crisis), and several accidents involving nuclear weapons (luckily, none of these accidents resulted in detonation of the “physics package”). But after Nagasaki, nobody has used a nuclear weapon against an enemy. We can only hope it stays that way.

    Depleted uranium munitions is another matter. Yes, there are nasty aftereffects in theater, and perhaps in a future world depleted uranium may join mustard gas and the like on the list of forbidden weapons. But nuclear explosions are a large step beyond chemical agents.

  5. #5 Bob Sykes
    November 27, 2008

    It is well-established that the availability of nuclear weapons prevented a third world war in the fifties/sixties, but then two countries had effective control of all the devices, and both the USA and the USSR had rational leadership. Even so, we came very close.

    The future be different. Once Iran gets its nuclear arsenal, now certain, there will be a mad dash by many other countries all over the world to get theirs: Saudi Arabia, Dubai, UAE, Kuwait, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Libya (again), South Africa (again), Nigeria, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Poland, Japan, S. Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Australia, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil (again), Argentina (again), Chile, and others. It only takes money and will. Living in a dangerous neighbor will make the expense seem necessary.

    At least one of these countries will have lunatic leadership, so in the future regional nuclear wars are guaranteed. Enjoy.

    As to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, don’t forget that several cities in Germany and Japan had much higher death tolls due to fire bombing. Also, remember that the airmen who did the fire bombing, the leaders that ordered it and the British and American people were glad to do it. They thought the Germans and Japanese people deserved it. Our moral evaluation of deliberate killing of enemy civilians has undergone a sea change. Many countries still have the same attitudes to killing civilians we had in the 1940s. One bomb on NYC, and we will revert.

  6. #6 Uncle Al
    November 27, 2008

    Clever terrorism detonates a Soviet 1 kt field munition at 1111 Constitution Avenue, NW in Washington, DC. 3321 Power Inn Road, Sacramento, CA on the left Coast also works. Who would complain? Government would be devastated.

    Unlike Washingtons’s alphabet soup of incompetence, the enemy knows a single pair of bomb sneakers would cost its target $billions/year to posture detection. Have a defective C4 plastique butt plug IED be discovered and US air travel dwindles to nothing – the Ouroboros strategy.

  7. #7 Matt Springer
    November 28, 2008

    Despite the word “uranium” in depleted uranium subliminally suggesting a sort of nuclear warfare connotation, in fact it’s not the radioactivity that’s the problem. As a heavy metal, it’s toxic in much the same way lead and other heavy metals are toxic. The radioactivity is pretty close to irrelevant.

    Nasty stuff to be sure, but not a nastiness that’s a product of the nuclear age.

    Bob, I’m of the opinion that we’ll live to see regional nuclear war. Iran will get the bomb, other Middle Eastern states will rapidly develop their own out of self-preservation Now two superpowers staring each other down might act more or less rationally in a fairly simple if high-stakes game. But a dozen dysfunctional dictatorships run by low rent thugs and bug-eyed mullahs? Color me pessimistic.

  8. #8 Jarrett
    November 28, 2008

    Matt. You, in particular, should look up the John Adams opera, “Doctor Atomic,” about the Manhattan Project. There is great contemporary classical music, on this very topic.

  9. #9 Tim Gaede
    November 28, 2008

    I recall reading a section in the book, Our Final Hour by Martin Rees that offered the informed opinion that our cumulative odds of having experienced nuclear warfare after Nagasaki is about 50%.

    In prevention of nuclear war in 1962 and 1983, we have Vasili Arkhipov and Stanislav Petrov to thank.

  10. #10 CCPhysicist
    November 28, 2008

    Yeah, 1962 was a VERY VERY close call. In addition to that incident, the USAF under Gen Curtis LeMay did its best to taunt the Soviet air force into shooting at us by feinting at border incursions (or an actual one, according to some reports). More importantly, if Kennedy had followed the advice of the military and attacked the missile sites, we know know the Soviet officers on site had the authority to launch tactical nuclear weapons against Miami in response.

    VERY close.

    I don’t understand why Iran getting nuclear weapons would be all that different from Pakistan getting them, or Israel for that matter. And why would Mexico or S. Korea pursue nuclear weapons just because Iran got one?

    Right now, by the way, the chance of nuclear war between Pakistan and India is once again not zero. Odds are that such a war would likely remain “regional” and decrease the chance that Iran and others would view starting a new nuclear arms race as something resulting in a positive outcome, but its effects would be global.

  11. #11 Matt Springer
    December 1, 2008

    “I don’t understand why Iran getting nuclear weapons would be all that different from Pakistan getting them, or Israel for that matter. And why would Mexico or S. Korea pursue nuclear weapons just because Iran got one?”

    It’s both Iran’s specific leadership and their relationship with the rest of the region that worries me. Iran has always had an antagonistic relationship with the rest of the region, and I doubt Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and others would want to rely on Israel’s (or whoever else’s) nuclear umbrella for protection. Thus they’ll probably want their own native deterrents. Mexican standoffs rarely end well.

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