Thursday, July 1, 2010

Fireworks


In 1962, on the 9th of July, the US government tested a hydrogen bomb high above our atmosphere. 248 miles above Earth's surface, in fact. Starfish Prime, as it was known, was aimed at answering a few questions about the newly discovered Van Allen belts - trajectories of high energy charged particles that whip around our planet's magnetic field (it is at the poles, where the magnetic field concentrates charged particles from the solar wind, that we get the Aurora phenomena) - among other things. This test was one in a multitude of test explosions, above, on, and even below Earth's surface, conducted by both ourselves and the Russians - but this test was different. It changed things.

The 1.4 megaton explosion created an artificial expansion of the Van Allen belts, creating bands of charged particles, simultaneously glowing red, green (both oxygen) and blue (nitrogen) in the upper atmosphere. Across the Pacific (for hundreds of miles), a surreal light show (similar to the Aurora) graced the skies. It lasted nearly seven minutes. The resultant EMP knocked out electrical systems as far away as Oahu (roughly 800 miles distant). And yet people crowded onto rooftops, decks and verandas to see the spectacle. (All through the Cold War, in fact, people would travel to test sites to witness nuclear blasts; Las Vegas cashed in on much of the "atomic tourism" by designing specific packages to cater for those wishing to view tests at the Nevada test site.)

So this Fourth of July, when you sit in the park watching all of those rainbow-colored chemical explosions a few hundred feet above your head, remember the nuclear explosions conducted decades ago a hundred miles above your head. Celebrating our country's independence is no longer merely a matter of one small piece of history - it should be a memorial of all pieces of our country's history, the triumphant, the humbling, the dirty and the heroic. We didn't invent fireworks - the ancient Chinese did that - but we did invent the nuclear bomb.

2 comments:

  1. I was not aware of this test until yesterday. I am wondering on how many secrets that the government has. This has given me something to think about.

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  2. The interesting thing in this case is that the test - along with many others - was not secret at all. Information about the test was broadcast in advance. While part of the motivation for the tests was scientific, there was also a political motivation, and the overt nature of the tests allowed the US to posture against the Soviet Union in the battle for post-war dominance. True, the government has many secrets, but many of the nuclear bomb tests after the second World War aren't to be counted among them.

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