Published Date: February 13, 2012



After a tsunami destroyed the cooling system at Japan’s Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, triggering a meltdown, protesters around the world challenged the use of nuclear power. Germany announced it would close its plants by 2022. Although the ills of fossil fuels are better understood than ever, the threat of climate change has never aroused the same visceral dread or swift action. Spencer Weart dissects this paradox, demonstrating that a powerful web of images surrounding nuclear energy holds us captive, allowing fear, rather than facts, to drive our thinking and public policy.

Building on his classic, Nuclear Fear, Weart follows nuclear imagery from its origins in the symbolism of medieval alchemy to its appearance in film and fiction. Long before nuclear fission was discovered, fantasies of the destroyed planet, the transforming ray, and the white city of the future took root in the popular imagination. At the turn of the twentieth century when limited facts about radioactivity became known, they produced a blurred picture upon which scientists and the public projected their hopes and fears. These fears were magnified during the Cold War, when mushroom clouds no longer needed to be imagined; they appeared on the evening news. Weart examines nuclear anxiety in sources as diverse as Alain Resnais’s film Hiroshima Mon Amour, Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, and the television show The Simpsons.

Recognizing how much we remain in thrall to these setpieces of the imagination, Weart hopes, will help us resist manipulation from both sides of the nuclear debate.

Author Information

Spencer R. Weart, born in 1942, received a B.A. in Physics at Cornell University in 1963 and a Ph.D. in Physics and Astrophysics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 1968. He then worked for three years at CalTech as a Fellow of the Mt. Wilson and Palomar Observatories, publishing papers in leading scientific journals. In 1971 Dr. Weart changed his field, enrolling as a graduate student in the History Department of the University of California, Berkeley. From 1974 to early 2009 he served as Director of the Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics, the oldest institution dedicated to preserving and making known the history of a scientific discipline.

Dr. Weart has written two children’s science books and wrote or co-edited seven other books, including Scientists in Power (a history of the rise of nuclear science, weapons, and reactors in France); Leo Szilard: His Version of the Facts (edited correspondence); a collection of essays on the history of solid-state physics; Nuclear Fear: A History of Images; and Never at War: Why Democracies Will Not Fight One Another. He also produces and edits an award-winning Website with historical exhibits. His most recent books are The Discovery of Global Warming (Harvard University Press, 2nd ed., 2008). The Rise of Nuclear Fear (Harvard University Press, 2012).

Dr. Weart has taught history of science courses at the Johns Hopkins University, the New School-Lang College, and Princeton University. He has served as Treasurer and Council member of the History of Science Society.

In 1971 he married Carole Ege; they have two grown children. His avocations include reading, travel and photography.


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