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100 Suns

Hardcover: 208 pages
Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (October 21, 2003)
Language: English

Despite all the thousands of caricatures and artistic re-interpretations of the nuclear "mushroom cloud," photographs of the real thing are still intensely frightening and visually fascinating. The "thousand suns" referred to in the Bhagavad Gita, from which J. Robert Oppenheimer quoted when the first atomic bomb was detonated in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, are depicted here in 100 carefully selected photographs of the aboveground nuclear tests conducted by the United States in the Nevada and New Mexico deserts and over the Pacific Ocean. Culled by Light (Full Moon) from formerly classified documents held by the United States National Archives and Los Alamos National Laboratory, the photos, dating from 1942 to 1962, are awe-inspiring. Crisply printed on black glossy stock, each photo is printed full-page recto, with the facing verso page containing only the plate number, the name of the test ("Trinity"; "Mike"; "Wahoo"), the test date and the number of kilotons (or megatons) of energy released. Extensive notes on each photo and test are in the back, along with a bibliography. Many of the photos show only the blast, but some have people. One photograph, in particular ("019. Simon"), does not show an explosion: soldiers huddle in a trench, identifiable only by the blurred shapes of their helmets, with what looks like glowing debris raining upon them. The back caption notes: "In a moment the ground and air shockwaves will toss them like dolls, then fill their mouths with radioactive dust and also make it temporarily impossible to see." Ultimately, that particular test "scattered deadly fallout throughout southwest Utah" and "highly radioactive rain fell in Albany, New York the following day." Aboveground tests ended with the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty. Releasing worldwide with a first printing of 35,000, this book, some of whose colors are impossible to describe, will leave readers changed.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Scientific American
Text-free, portrait-large photographs--many in dramatic full color, mainly crimson and black by land, clouded skies by sea--are the hundred metaphorical suns promised. Rather more than half of them disclose the proverbial mushroom cloud, luminous or vapor-borne. Each one is a prompt, distant shot of an American nuclear weapon explosion, made during the years from 1945 to 1962, until the Limited Test Ban Treaty quelled both public witness and most fallout through burial underground. The meticulous compiler--photographer Michael Light, whose book Full Moon drew wide praise--ordered his portraits here for visual effect. A contextual look discloses much of weapon development amid the politics of unbridled state power. Since 1945, with the first test and the two calamitous attacks on Japanese cities, the explosive energy ranged from Little Feller I, a test of a midget atomic rocket suited for one-man launch, up to H-bomb Mike, shown in five striking views from 1952. Mike, the first large American thermonuclear device, raised the ante as measured in tons of TNT, from a 10-ton truckload to a fanciful TNT-laden boxcar train 2,000 miles long, rattling past at full speed during two nights and one day. Numbers do not convey everything. The image that most compels a viewer is one from 1946 itself, the first postwar year. The U.S. Navy felt the need for a demonstration of the new atomic threat against warships (no H-bombs as yet). The Bikini Atoll test was duly prepared in the summer of 1946. One fast daylight snapshot from the air shows something near human scale. Against the huge foamy tower of seawater thrown upward, a few tiny black splinters are dwarfed. The furious waters reached and ruined them. Are they kayaks? They were in fact among the largest battleships ever sent to sea, Japan's naval pride, anchored empty as targets. H-bomb tests are observed from 50 miles off; their images here are mostly colorful and complex layers of cloud formations out to the horizon. A few plates show witnesses, some of them troops set closer to the fireball than we would so casually plan today. The documentation is admirable. And Michael Light has put his own views briefly but clearly at the end of the book, recognizing that photographs tell only how things look: "When it's all we have, however, it's enough to help understanding. It exists. It happened. It is happening. May no further nuclear detonation photographs be made, ever."

Philip Morrison, emeritus professor of physics at M.I.T., wrote the book review column for this magazine for more than 30 years. He was a member of the Manhattan Project and a witness of the first test.


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