Questions and answers with Spencer Weart
June 14, 2012Published: June 14, 2012
By Jermey N. A. Matthews
Historian of science Spencer Weart received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Cornell University in 1963 and his PhD in physics and astrophysics from the University of Colorado Boulder in 1968. He then worked for three years at Caltech, where he was a fellow at the Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories. He changed his field in 1971 and enrolled in graduate studies in history of science at the University of California, Berkeley.
From 1974 until his retirement in 2009, Weart worked at the American Institute of Physics as director of the Center for History of Physics, which included the Niels Bohr Library and Archives. He oversaw the expansion of the center and library, including the establishment of the website, (http://www.aip.org/history ), with its numerous exhibits, catalogs, and oral history interviews available to students, scholars, and the public.
Weart has written and edited several books and articles on the history of nuclear energy and on global warming, including Nuclear Fear: A History of Images (Harvard University Press, 1988) and The Discovery of Global Warming (Harvard University Press, revised and expanded in 2008). His latest, The Rise of Nuclear Fear (Harvard University Press, 2012), is a revision of his 1988 tome. Physics Today recently caught up with him to discuss the book.
PT: What motivated you to update Nuclear Fear?
Weart: There have been another couple of decades of history, and it has been important history. Cold war terrors went away, replaced by anxieties about bombs in the hands of terrorists or [about] countries like Iran and North Korea. Nuclear fear certainly played a role in the [2003 US] invasion of Iraq. Plus, recent advances in neuroscience and social science have brought a much better understanding of how anxieties arise, spread, and act upon people. While the new work doesn’t make invalid my previous analysis, it adds depth and insight. Also note that this is more than an update: I wanted a less long and scholarly book, something more accessible to every reader, so there was a lot of cutting as well as additions.
PT: How do you define nuclear “images” in this book?
Weart: Images are things like the mushroom cloud, Godzilla, or the white cooling towers of nuclear reactors—pictures or concepts that carry multiple meanings. Most images that have associations with nuclear energy or nuclear weapons convey, along with their straightforward cognitive meaning, very deep historical and emotional resonances. For example, Godzilla and his numerous monstrous kin obviously stand in for atomic bombs—that was recognized from the start. But they also remind us of the old mad scientist’s monster, the golem, with its hidden message of the infantile destructive impulses that lurk within everyone ... and so back to bombs.
PT: How do you gauge public perception about nuclear energy now, comparing the perception to two or three decades ago, and what do you think should be done to counteract the negative impact of nuclear images?
Weart: Scholars have called the period since the late 1980s a “second nuclear age.” First, because the cold war no longer dominates our thinking, and second, because the stagnation of the nuclear industry after the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents quieted the passionate protests over expansion of the industry. The fears of nuclear energy went underground. The new generation had not experienced the gut-clenching anxieties of the generation that went through duck-and-cover bomb drills. Those born after 1980 may [have had their first encounter with] nuclear stories in satirical shows like The Simpsons, as tired clichés from their parents’ generation—something to make fun of. But underneath, the perceptions haven’t really changed. We see that in panicky responses to the Fukushima accident, and in movies and TV shows like 24 that feature nuclear terrorism, and in the [political] refusal to carry through any form of nuclear waste disposal. For the younger generation, there are also video games like Fallout that feature postapocalyptic landscapes infested by mutant monsters, all the old imagery, but more viscerally impressive than ever.
The negative imagery is deeply embedded; we can’t brush it away. So the first thing to do is to acknowledge people’s fears. I’ve tried to take the fears out into the open where they can be confronted at least a little more rationally. But anxiety won’t be argued away with logical displays of numbers, as some scientists imagine, because at the root of much of the anxiety lies a fundamental lack of trust of authorities. The only way to overcome [that mistrust] over the long run is for the authorities to become genuinely more trustworthy. The nuclear industry must be regulated extremely scrupulously, even if that means closing down antiquated reactors. Communities need to be involved with full consultation, due process, and transparency. And authorities need to be entirely frank about what they do and don’t know and what they can and can’t do. It’s no good to claim nuclear energy is 100% safe; the best that can be done is to compare its long-run safety with other industries.
PT: What projects are you currently pursuing in your post‑retirement career?
Weart: I’m writing and lecturing on global warming, and maintaining and updating my big scholarly website on the history of climate science (http://www.aip.org/history/climate ). Global warming is our great long-term problem. My main reason for concern about nuclear fear is that it impedes development of reactors as a relatively carbon-free energy source, which we desperately need.
PT: What book are you reading at the moment?
Weart: Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 (Orbit, 2012). The author assumes we are heading into a century of ecological catastrophe—I’m afraid he’s correct—and he tries to picture somewhat hopefully the civilization that will emerge. The physics is sketchy, but the characters and the story are good.