Nuclear Graphics

One of the most challenging aspects of nuclear politics today is the simultaneous invisibility of nuclear things and their ever-presentness. Radiation, of course, is invisible to human senses, but ...

One of the most challenging aspects of nuclear politics today is the simultaneous invisibility of nuclear things and their ever-presentness. Radiation, of course, is invisible to human senses, but nevertheless presents a constant challenge to health and safety at all nuclear sites. Similarly, while the atomic bomb is hidden behind elaborate systems of state secrecy, it is also constantly public, a minute-to-minute threat to everyday life as well as a timeworn political tool for psychologically managing populations both domestic and international. The “nuclear” cuts across scales of time—defining cross-generational fears—and place; its dangers are at once extremely local, involving specific cultures and ecologies, and also planetary, a threat to the species. Nuclear technologies establish a global order today that is both hyperactive and hidden.

A basic question emerges from this complexity: how should we represent the nuclear today? What mode of description would be adequate to the global nuclear infrastructures of war and energy, those involving not only covert politics and propaganda, but also contamination, illness, and death? This infrastructure remains invisible and naturalized until it undoes human relations in a flash, ruining environments and bodies, and revealing how interconnected people, economies, and ecologies actually are. Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island are names that immediately evoke nuclear danger, joining Hiroshima and Nagasaki as emblematic sites of nuclear crisis. However, we could extend this list exponentially by adding the accumulating risks at nuclear production and waste sites, nuclear power plants and weapons stockpiles, experimental test sites and environmental sacrifice zones around the world, which would render an image of planet earth as a glowing network of nuclear relations—each radiating at a specific frequency and temporality of danger. This network promises national security while also maintaining the possibility of global nuclear war and a variety of collective dangers that will radiate into a multi-millennial future. Now barely seventy-odd years into the nuclear age, how should—how can—we engage this spectacular imminence? What mode of representation, what kind of graphical interface, could render legible the ambitions, achievements, and desires behind a global security system that is also a multifaceted planetary danger?

Writing in the early 1980s, at a moment of acute Cold War nuclear crisis, French philosopher Jacques Derrida argued that nuclear war was “fabulously textual.” He meant that such an event so resists representation that all we can do is tell stories about it, proliferating images of future endings in an effort to manage the overwhelming force of nuclear terror. In doing so, however, he also declared that to write at all—to produce any cultural artifact—was a de facto act of anti-nuclear activism, assuming, as it did, the existence of a future reader. Creative production counts, then, as a political engagement of the most immediate sort in the nuclear age, as the artistic imagination informs both the capacity for mass destruction and the means of warding it off.

Even as specific nuclear fears drive international relations, we are also always in danger of forgetting the full scope of the nuclear.

Expanding the explicit nuclear archive is once again a particularly important political project, informing how we think about crisis and futures. All efforts to render  nuclear things visible allow a more serious consideration of a global infrastructure organized by secrecy, national competition, and terror that continues to colonize everyday life and foment crisis. Even as specific nuclear fears—from imagined WMDs to nuclear disaster sites—drive international relations, we are also always in danger of forgetting the full scope of the nuclear. The deep history of nuclear science hides in plain sight, woven into our major institutions, camouflaging the extraordinary labor and inventiveness that split the atom and transformed it into everyday technologies, and the political judgments that established the current nuclear order of things. A graphical engagement with nuclear history thus confronts the inherent invisibility of nuclear things at several levels—as forms of radiation, as objects embedded in state secrecy, and as technologies that carry so much destructive force that they are literally sublime, easily rendered unthinkable by their sheer complexity, physical power, and confrontation with death.

I raise this set of issues about the problems of scale and representation in considering nuclear things in order to engage two remarkable additions to the 21st- century nuclear archive, Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb and Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie; A Tale of Love and Fallout. Each strives for a new nuclear kind of imagery, merging picture and text, history and poetics. “Nuclear graphics” should, I think, offer a new vividness to this elusive object, a style of inscription that exceeds what is possible in narrative or visual form alone, one that strives not only to map but also to animate its object in new registers. In very different but often complementary ways these graphics pursue original visual and narrative strategies to render a retrospective take on the 20th-century as nuclear project, providing readers with a new vantage point on transformational technoscientific processes.

These texts do not explore the full range of nuclear experience—there is no treatment, for instance, of the tremendous impact of the global nuclear project on indigenous nations, or the way the bomb established a hierarchical, international nuclear order, or the proliferating local ecological and social effects of specific nuclear projects (involving energy, weapons, waste) around the world. Rather, these books explore foundational scientific achievements—the development of the first atomic bomb and the scientific career of Marie Curie—to frame the impact of the nuclear revolution on Euro-American modernity. Fetter-Vorm’s drawings compress time through visual composition, rendering scientific and historical precision as he depicts the Manhattan Project as the inauguration of a new American security state. Redniss’s highly inventive and eclectic art book illuminates the Curies’ discovery of radioactivity as nothing less than a nuclear romance, one that is as much about the invisible forces that connect people as those that organize matter.

Fetter-Vorm draws in black and white with a distinctive visual style, exaggerating the physical characteristics of individuals while offering strikingly original portraits of atomic processes. Historical characters (J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leslie Groves, Harry S. Truman, etc.) are thus legibly themselves and the flow of image and text strives for a detailed accounting of the Manhattan Project and its legacies. Each page is packed with historical detail, contextualizing the evolving scientific and engineering effort to build the first atomic bomb with frequent two-page layouts that take maximal advantage of the graphic form. Fetter-Vorm interrupts his historical narrative throughout to explore principles of atomic physics, providing extremely clear and graphically precise illustrations of atomic fission, as well as the first bomb designs. Consider, for example, his discussion of nuclear “criticality.” Using rows of dominos as an illustration, Fetter-Vorm shows the difference between a linear chain reaction (a fission of single atoms in sequence) and the criticality needed to create an explosion (an exponential growth in fission leading to a huge release of energy). These panels suggest that specific people and places as well as scientific knowledge are the keys to the atomic revolution; he details the shift in experimental modes from Fermi’s achievement of fission at the University of Chicago to the wartime work at Los Alamos linked to the factories needed to support the bomb.

Graphic form offers unique opportunities to collapse time and space in a layout, presenting complex historical and scientific information in a spectacular manner. The page layout allows for a distinct visual style as images overlap, slide sideways on the page, or pop out to grab the reader’s attention, within a precise economy of narrative. Fetter-Vorm plays with visual storytelling, bringing forward or back different views of the atomic bomb project—as science, history, and politics. Thus we have in a few short but gripping pages the discovery of radiation, the commitment of physicists to alert the White House to the possibility of a new kind of atomic weapon, and the establishment of a Manhattan Project that linked new industrial sites across the US in a huge and totally secret effort to make enough nuclear material to support several competing nuclear weapon designs.

Drawn with a haunting poetry, Fetter-Vorm’s tale unfolds across Oppenheimer’s increasingly fraught visage as his project achieves success.

For those well versed in the history of the Manhattan Project there are many enjoyable aspects to Fetter-Vorm’s visual and narrative approach. One of my favorites is a simple scene of physicists Niels Bohr and J. Robert Oppenheimer walking in the mountains around Los Alamos, discussing not the technological challenge of making an atomic bomb but rather the consequences of introducing the ultimate weapon into a world of competing interests. A worried Bohr contemplates a near future when many states have the bomb, and he challenges the secrecy attached to the Manhattan Project as fundamentally corrosive to both social relations and the possibility of peace. Bohr advocates an open international conversation about nuclear weapons with a view to creating a postwar political order devoted to eliminating the possibility of atomic warfare; the alternative, he claims, is an arms race he can already see coming. Standing on a cliff face overlooking northern New Mexico, confronting both a beautiful view and a treacherous precipice, Oppenheimer doubts Bohr’s trust in reason, questioning whether people can act for the greater good against their fears, even as he agrees that a new world is being made by Los Alamos scientists. Bohr replies he can take no other position, as the alternative to a rational effort to control the bomb was “too distressing” to consider. This two-page spread neatly compresses a discussion of the toxic effects of secrecy, the role of the atomic bomb in a world not yet made, and the basic problem of building a new international order that would not immediately destroy itself in a nuclear flash. At the same time it underscores the responsibility this generation of physicists felt for how their passionate commitment to understanding the principles of matter would be instrumentalized by non-scientists now well versed in—even conditioned by—total war.

The central focus of Fetter-Vorm’s graphic novel is the Trinity Test itself. Drawn with a haunting poetry, the tale unfolds across Oppenheimer’s increasingly fraught visage as his project achieves success. Fetter-Vorm’s multi-page illustration of the Trinity blast depicts the explosive charges surrounding the plutonium core of the device and then follows the process of an implosion-explosion sequence, as the spherical charges compress the plutonium atoms into super-criticality, creating a chain reaction that in a millionth of a second explodes with a force unprecedented in human history. Midway through the detonation he pauses his visual depiction of the explosion, offering a simple black page with a few lines:

In these fractions of a second, the atomic light was still pure. It was not yet a bomb. It was not yet a symbol of apocalypse. It was not yet a part of our world. In these fractions of a second, the atomic light was still as timeless and indifferent as the universe itself.

Here the ability to stop time—to present the first atomic explosion as a series of still images—offers graphic support for a philosophical consideration of what is not yet made on a black page. The page creates a moment of forced reflection, demanding a backward look at the revolutionary implications of a world that, after July 16, 1945, would be increasingly organized around the pursuit of nuclear power and the proliferating effects of nuclear fear.

Trinity is divided into two parts: the first presents the establishment of the Manhattan Project and the race to achieve the first atomic explosion; the second explores the after-effects of that experiment, including the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the end of World War II, and the start of the Cold War arms race. Fetter-Vorm is at his best in conveying the shocking disconnects between the scientific work at Los Alamos (the pleasures and pressures of building something new) and the prompt destruction of the Japanese cities. He presents a world made small by atomic power—a new everyday structured by nuclear fear and a new geopolitics organized around the bomb. His narrative underscores the enormous cost of the atomic bomb to everyday life—civil defense drills that would colonize Cold War psyches, the collective health effects of global nuclear testing—as well as the deep structures of international suspicion and distrust fomented by nuclear fear. He ends his graphic novel with a full-page layout that considers the long-term implications of the invisibility of radiation to human senses in a world with proliferating nuclear projects. Looking back at the New Mexico desert, where the bomb was developed more than a half century ago, he presents a padlocked canister of nuclear waste quietly leaking radiation (its invisible force made visible by Fetter-Vorm’s hand), a forgotten but still deadly remnant of the Trinity test. Yearning for a moment when nuclear energy was not yet a weapon, Fetter-Vorm concludes: “this atomic force is a force of nature—as innocent as an earthquake, as oblivious as the sun, it will outlast our dreams.” Thus he brilliantly drives home the dangerous potential of nuclear materials that last for hundreds of thousands of years, challenging human memory, science and statecraft by sheer longevity and obliviousness to human concerns. Ultimately, Fetter-Vorm’s work underscores the importance of the Trinity experiment as a revolutionary act of world-making, acknowledging its continuing claim, whether we like it or not, on a deep future.

In Radioactive, Lauren Redniss takes a very different approach to a nuclear graphic novel, homing in on the extraordinary scientific achievements and life of Marie Curie, who first discovered radioactivity in the late 19th-century and made many of the foundational discoveries that would enable nuclear industry in the 20th-century. Radioactive is an art book as much as a graphic novel, a highly innovative visual effort that is also high concept. Using a wide-ranging color palette, Redniss montages narrative, drawings, photographs, maps, documents, poetry, interview material, and quotations from journals and letters, in her depiction of the life, loves, and historical impact of Marie Curie. Although formally telling the story of Curie’s scientific work and operatic life course (of loves won and lost), Redniss’s real interest is in the power of invisible energy, which she renders as both a laboratory project as well as an allegory for social relations. She asks what keeps together not only matter but also human relationships. How do elements become luminous and what are the logics of physical attraction (atomic and romantic)? Her drawings strive not for realism but for a dream-state, pursuing a style reminiscent of Chagall or Klee in their imagination and wit.

Marie Curie’s life is a story of intellectual brilliance and firsts: an emigrant (from today’s Poland) to France she became the first woman PhD at the Sorbonne, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (in Physics with her husband Pierre Curie), then the first person to win a second Noble Prize (this time in Chemistry). She was the discoverer of radioactivity as well as the elements polonium and radium. Her life story abounds in delightful contrasts: Marie was a scientific celebrity and a person who inspired duels; involved in an international sex scandal and a champion of women’s rights by example; an indomitable intellect and success who never had the right to vote in France but ran a major national laboratory; a proponent of the medical potential of radiation therapies for cancer and someone who died from the long-term health effects of handling radioactive materials. Marie also enjoyed a fully collaborative relationship with her husband Pierre that was ahead of its time, and was a model for her daughter, Irène, who also worked collaboratively with her physicist husband (Frederic Joliet) on the properties of radioactivity and, with him, won a Nobel Prize.

Redniss pursues the poetics of radiation research. Consider how she depicts the early laboratory work of the Curies, presenting on a double-page a blue on dark blue drawing of Marie and Pierre at work, quoting from one of Marie’s letter that they were “in a preoccupation as complete as that of a dream.” Indeed, the Curies’ were a dream team, original thinkers that made pioneering breakthroughs on the invisible properties of things—heat, magnetism, and radiation—discoveries that would have far-reaching effects across the 20th-century. Redniss employs cyanotype printing to create many of the pages in Radioactive, an early photographic technique using sunlight to create a unique blue image, endowing her drawing with an ethereal quality. In an endnote, Redniss reveals that the cyanotype technique offers a “luminosity” that seemed harmonious with Marie Curie’s writing and research on the subject. Each page of Radioactive is unique: the blues of the cyanotypes give way to black-and-white line drawings and then, as the story moves from laboratory life to loves to sickness and death, compositions in red and orange. Redniss is fascinated by the “energies” structuring Marie Curie’s life—material, scientific, and social—and attends to attractions and repulsions as if the social world were also run by invisible forces too strong to overcome.

Unconstrained by chronological biographical narrative, Redniss jumps around in time to underscore the effects of the Curies’ research on everyday life, reveling in the unexpected associations: polonium, Marie’s first major discovery, Redniss tells us, is ultimately used as “a poison, as a neutralizer of static cling, and as a trigger on nuclear weapons (including the bomb dropped on Hiroshima).” One of Pierre’s major discoveries, known as the “Curie Point,” established a relationship between heat and magnetism and is used today, Redniss tells us, “in studying plate tectonics, treating hypothermia, measuring the caffeine in beverages, and understanding extraterrestrial magnetic fields.” Static cling, caffeine standards, hypothermia, extraterrestrial fields, atomic bombs—the only thing connecting these objects and processes is the Curies as an invisible force across the 20th-century.

In her hand, invisible energy is both a scientific discovery and the force that connects individuals, a binding power informing both matter and human relationships. She writes:

Electricity, radio, the telegraph, the X-ray, and now, radioactive—at the turn of the twentieth century a series of invisible forces were radically transforming daily life. These advances were dazzling and disorienting; for some, they blurred the boundary between science and magic. If invisible light could past through flesh and expose the human skeleton, was it so fantastical to believe in levitation, in telekinesis, in communication with the dead?

The optimism of science before the advent of the atomic bomb allows for a kind of breathtaking openness to the universe and to sheer possibility. Redniss, like Fetter-Vorm, occasionally interrupts her narrative to explain basic aspects of her subjects’ scientific work as well as atomic physics. But where Fetter-Vorm strives for a kind of scientific realism in his drawing, Redniss endows hers with a fantastical vision uniquely her own. Consider her drawing of fission, a whimsical use of color and form that is at odds with her discussions of the human costs of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the Chernobyl disaster. The Curies’ intellectual enthusiasm for unpacking the invisible forces of the universe is always tied in Redniss’s account to the application of those discoveries to health and war. Redniss emphasizes the radical disjuncture between the laboratory work and its real world applications at every stage—using not only visual techniques but also temporal jumpcuts in order to shock the reader from the pleasures of scientific discovery to the horrors of nuclear war, radiation injury, and nuclear accidents. One literally does not know what is coming from one page to the next, either in terms of visual style, context, or temporal frame. However, given the creativity and devotion to detail on each page, this is a delight—requiring one to slowly assess each page as an original piece of art, as a historical statement, as parable, and as part of the larger narrative project.

Redniss reports that the Curies kept radium, Marie’s major discovery, in their bedroom, and often on their persons, leading to chronic radiation exposure and lifelong health effects. The luminous quality of radium allowed instrument dials to be made that could be read in the dark, enabling a new industry that would soon reveal the health costs of radiation injury on a new scale. Redniss follows this story of nuclear catastrophe through the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, directly linking the Curies’ scientific discoveries to the large-scale industrial uses of nuclear science in the 20th century.

She also uses the emerging language of atomic physics—radioactivity, unstable elements, isolation, exposure—as metaphors for Marie Curie’s life, finding parallels between the destructive force of the atom and her tumultuous social life. For example, Pierre’s death in a traffic accident is linked not only to Three Mile Island but also to a discussion of Charles Perrow’s classic sociological work on how complex systems generate unexpected disasters. This movement back and forth between the literal and the metaphorical, the scientific and the critical-theoretical is the most radical aspect of the book; it suggests that material forces work in multiple dimensions and that people are under the sway of invisible, overpowering, and often destructive forces. By the end of her life, Marie Curie is both internationally known and witness to the early efforts of states to instrumentalize her scientific insights. Though she died in 1934, a decade before the Manhattan Project, she was familiar with war, and created a mobile X-ray cart for use on the front lines during World War I (which Redniss traces to contemporary cancer treatments), even as her own radiation sickness began to dominate her life. In one of her final, powerful images, Redniss offers a line drawing of damaged bodies under X-ray, underscoring the power of the invisible forces to both heal and kill. At the end, Redniss tells us that the Curies’ scientific notebooks are still radioactive to this day—which, given her investment in fact and allegory, should be read not only as a statement of contamination but also as a form of ongoing energy, a charged potential connecting the hand-written laboratory notes to the future.

Though Fetter-Vorm and Redniss take different visual and conceptual approaches to the nuclear age, both confront the dualism of nuclear energy as resource and threat. Both carry the heavy weight of war, accident, and mass injury even as they tell stories about individual achievements, intellectual breakthroughs, and the joyous enthusiasm of producing new knowledge. Put differently, their stories are retrospective assessments, considering the first acts of scientific discovery through the lens of decades of history and a world remade by nuclear power. With a set of new optics on the nuclear age, these books allow us to consider the nuclear revolution not only factually but also with graphical interfaces that provide new points of view of startling complexity. As contributions to the nuclear archive, these texts are exemplary, offering us the chance to think again with new images, perspectives, and sensibilities about science as a world-making process. It would be difficult to read Fetter-Vorm or Redniss and not see the massive scale of the nuclear revolution—its effects on state, environment, health, and security. Yet, both also succeed in maintaining a space for discovery, for the pleasure of scientific investigation and emerging knowledge. These nuclear graphics are ultimately cautionary tales and profoundly political texts, challenging each future generation of readers to pursue knowledge and discovery beyond war. icon